What follows are two separate interviews with former slave and Union veteran John Ogee. Both were conducted in 1937, when Mr. Ogee was 96 years old. Though both cover much the same territory, the second is more detailed. Having both presented together gives us a look into how former slaves communicated with white people asking about slavery and the war. Though he claims to have fought with Sherman’s army, it’s likely he was with it as a laborer. 1Tracking down Mr. Ogee’s service records has been impossible – for me anyway. There are secondary sources that claim he fought with the 3rd Louisiana Native Guards, but he is not listed on the roster. Another second source has him as a laborer, which seems more accurate.
In both interviews, many of the sentences and descriptions are repeated word for word. Upon reading the second interview, you almost get the feeling that Mr. Ogee has told these stories many times before.
‘I remembers When I’s in the Army’
“John Ogee, 96 years old, was born in Morgan City, La., in 1841, the property of Alfred Williams. John ran away to join the Union Army and served three years, He recalls Sherman’s march through Georgia and South Carolina and the siege of Vicksburg. He came to Jefferson County in 1870. and has lived there since.” – Introduction written by the interviewer.
I was born near Morgan City, Louisiana in a old log cabin with a dirt floor, one big room was all, sir. My mother and father and four children lived in that room. The marster, he live in a big, old house near us. I remember it was a big house and my mother done the cleaning and work for them, I just played round when I’s growing and the first work I done, they start me to plowing.
I haven’t got recollection like I used to, but I remembers when I’s in the army. Long about ’63 I go to the army and there was four of us who run away from home, me and my father and another man named Emanuel Young and another man, but I disremember his name now. The Yankees come about a mile from us and they took every ear or corn, killed every head of stock and thirteen hogs and about fifteen beefs, and feed their teams and themselves. They pay the old lady in Confederate money, but it weren’t long before that was no money at all.
When we think of all that good food the Yankees done got, we just up and join up with them. We figured we get lots to eat and the rest we just didn’t figure. When they left we left. My father got killed from an ambush, in Mississippi – I think it was Jackson . We went to Mississippi, then to South Carolina. I went through Georgia and South Carolina with Sherman’s army. The first battle lasts two days and nights and they was about 800 men killed, near’s I can remember. Some of them you could find the head and not the body. That was the battle of Vicksburg. After the battle it took three days to bury them what got killed and they had eight mile throw big furrows back this way, and put them in and cover them up. In that town was a well about 75 or 80 feet deep and they put 19 dead bodies in that well and fill her up.
After the war we went through to Atlanta, in Georgia and stay about three weeks. Finally we come back to Mississippi when surrender come. The nigger troops was mix with the others but they wasn’t no nigger officers.
After the war I come home and the old marster he didn’t fuss at me about going to war and for long time I work on the old plantation for wages. I remember then the Klu Klux come and when that happen I come to Texas.
They never did get me but some they got and killed. I knowed several men they whipped pretty bad. I knew Narcisse Young, they tell him they was coming. He hid in the woods, in the trees and he open fire and killed seven of them.
There was a colored man with them and after they goes, he comes back and asks can he get them dead bodies. Narcisse let him and then Narcisse left and goes to New Orleans.
I thinks it great to be with the Yankees, but I wishes I hadn’t after I got there. When you see 1,000 guns point at you I knows you wishes you’d stayed in the woods.
The way they did was put 100 men in front and they shoot and fall down, and then 100 men behind get up and shoot over them and that the way they goes forward. There wasn’t no going back, because them men behind you would shoot you. I saw them fighting close enough to knock one another with a bayonet.
I didn’t see no breech loaders guns, they was all muskets, muzzle loaders. And they shoot a ball about big as your finger, that you calls a minnie-ball.
I come to Taylor’s Bayou in ’70 and rode stock long time for Mister Arceneaux and Mister Moise Broussard and farms some to. Then I comes to Beaumont when I’s too old to work no more, and lives with one my girls.
While it’s not clear who had conducted the first interview with Mr. Ogee, the second was undertaken by a woman. Perhaps for this reason, he is willing to part with more details.
His memory is foggy, of course, and it’s possible that in the first interview, he simply didn’t recall some details that came to his mind in the second.
‘The Old Boss Man Left the House’ – Ogee Runs Away to War
“A patriarch whose general appearance is reminiscent of some quaint old Biblical character is John Ogee, 96 years of age; a tall, black man with startlingly white wool on head and chin, and only one eye. An almost constant smile reveals clean, even teeth, all of his own original set. Despite his years the venerable ex-slave is active, ‘puttering’ in the garden and doing handy jobs around the house to eke out his simple livelihood.
“John was born in Morgan City, Louisiana, in 1841, the property of Alred Williams whom he terms ‘a real good marster.’ In spite of such eulogies John was a runaway during the Civil War and served three years in the Federal army. Among his most vivid recollections are experience during Sherman’s historic march through Georgia and South Carolina; and the siege of Vicksburg. The old man came to Jefferson county in 1870 while fleeing from activities of the Ku Klux Klan, and since that time has been employed by many of the pioneer families of the vicinity, the Arceneaux , Broussards , Levys and others.” – Introduction written by the second interviewer.
The first work I done, they start me to plowing. I was about a ten or twelve year old boy then; they plowed with oxen. I just played around when I was growing up.
Well, the marster, he lived in a big old box house near us. I can remember about five room, but lots has slipped my memory. I haven’t got recollection like I used to.
Well, they had a house servant that done the cooking and cleaning up. Now that was my mother who done that. I never found any nigger before the war that could read. They was preaching to the slaves. It was Catholic. I was born and raised Catholic. They was traveling priests.
Long about ’63, I go to the army. I don’t remember how old I was but there was four of us men who run away from home. Me and my father, and another man by the name of Emanuel Young, and another man I disremember his name now. That was about the middle of October, near as I can remember.
The Yankees came about a mile from there. They stayed there three days. Well, we just got the crop when the Yankees come there. They took every ear of corn, killed every head of stock, killed thirteen hogs and about fifteen beefs. They just took it and fed their teams and fed themselves. They payed the old lady for it in Confederate money, but it weren’t long before there was no money at all.
When we think of all that good food that them Yankees done got, we just up and joined up with them. We figured we get lots to eat and the rest we just didn’t figure.
When the Yankees left, we go too. I stayed away two years and eight months. My father got killed during the war. It was on a Thursday morning. Nobody know how it was. They didn’t see nobody shoot him because it was an ambush. The bullet go in here and come out about there. Wait a minute, I call the name of the place. It was in Mississippi, but I can’t think of it just now. It can’t come to my remembrance, yes. Now I think it was Jackson.
That was in ’63 that I went in the army. When the war first start, we didn’t know anything about it. Now there was something else. The only way we knew there was something – the old boss man left the house and stayed out in the woods about three weeks. Then he was captured out there in the woods. They brought him in to the house and he had to go to the war.
They got the overseer in his place. A colored woman there, she killed the overseer. She just wouldn’t work for nothing. She killed him dead and buried him. She had a piece of iron about two feet long. She busted his skull. They never did nothing to her till after the big boss come back from the war. They tried to make her go back and work and she wouldn’t. She beat the boss man up and put him in bed for six months. But she got killed.
When I went with the army, I went to Mississippi, then we went to South Carolina. I went through Georgia and South Carolina with Sherman’s army.
Well, you see, the first battle I go into lasted two days and nights. There was about 800 men killed, near as I can remember. Some of them you could find the head but couldn’t find no body. Then sometimes you could find the body, and not the head. That was the battle of Vicksburg. After the battle, it took three days to bury them what got killed. They had eight mule to throw big furrows back this way, and put them in and cover them up. They didn’t bury them like they does now.
In the same town was a well about 75 or 80 feet deep. They put 19 dead bodies in that well and filled her up. Near as I can remember, it was night when we marched through Vicksburg, and I couldn’t see much of it. After the war, when we went through South Carolina, we come back to Atlanta, Georgia, and stayed there three weeks. Then there was another place we stayed. I couldn’t think of the name of it now. Then we stopped at Montgomery, and was there two days. We come back to Mississippi and then went to Florida. There was no actual fighting in Florida.
When the surrender came I was in Mississippi. I was in Montgomery. The nigger troops was mixed with the others. There was no nigger officers.
When I was in the army I had a uniform, gun, and bed just like the other soldiers. When the southerners captured niggers what was fighting for the Yankees, they put them in prison; they never sent them back to their owners though.
I been in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. After the war I come home to see my mother and the folks. I was glad to see them and the white folks too. And they was glad to see me.
They talked to me about going away to the war, and asked all about what we done, but the old marster he never did fuss about it. For long time I worked on the old plantation for wages.
I remember about then the Ku Klux come. When that began to happen, I left home and come to Texas. No ma’am, they never got after me, but some they got after and some they killed. I know several men they whipped pretty bad.
I know there was a man by the name of Narcisse Young. They notified him they was coming. He sent his wife off to her father and he stayed there. When they came there, they surrounded the house, but he wasn’t in the house, he was in the woods, he was in the trees, and he opened fire and killed seven of them.
There was a colored man with them. When the rest went off, the colored man, he come back and asked Narcisse can he get those dead bodies. Narcisse told him, “yes, take them away from here right now,” and then left and went to New Orleans.
I thought it was something great to be free and that’s why I went with the Yankees, but sometimes I wish I hadn’t. When you see 1,000 guns point at you and you don’t know what time you’re going to fall — I think I stay in the woods if I was young enough to go to war again.
The way they did – put a hundred men in front and they shoot and fall down, and then a hundred men behind get up and shoot over them and that’s the way they go forward. There was no going back, because them men behind you would shoot you.
I seen them fighting close enough together to know one another with a bayonet and stick it clear through them. I didn’t see no breech loader guns. They was all muskets, muzzle loaders. They shoot a ball about as big as your finger. That was called a minnie-ball. They sing when they come through the air. They had cannons which was on wagons. I seen a lot of men with no head on them, they fall right on your shoulder. That war wasn’t no fun.
I got a sister living what got all my papers from the army, but I never got nothing from them yet. When I come to Taylor’s Bayou about ’70, I was riding stock for a long time for Mister Arceneaux and Mister Moise Broussard. We farmed some too. Then I come to Beaumont to live with one of my girls.
Well, that’s the whole story as I can recollect. I got to go men that old rackety screen at Miss Levy’s before the skeeters come.
When first transcribed in the 1930s, both interviewers did so in imposed ‘negro’ dialect. The second interviewer’s use of it renders Mr. Ogee’s words nearly unreadable.
Take this, for example:
“I been in No’th Ca’lina, Sou’ Ca’lina an’ Virginia. After d’ war I come home t’ see my mudder an’ d’ folks. I was glad t’ see ’em an’ d’ w’ite folks too, an’ dey was glad t’ see me. Dey talk t’ me ’bout goin’ ‘way t’ d’ war, an’ ax all ’bout w’at we done, but d’ ol’ marster he never didn’ fuss ’bout it. Fo’ long time I wuk on’ d’ ol’ plantation fo’ wages. I ‘member ’bout den d’ Klu Klux come. W’en dat begin t’ happen, I lef’ home an’ come t’ Texas.”
It’s tempting to say that such imposed dialect captures the true voice of the former slave. This might be true to some extent, but that the first interviewer transcribed it with much less use of dialect, we have no actual idea what his “true voice” might have been.
In many cases, the imposed dialect was amplified to make the old black people seem like the racial stereotypes of the late 1930s.
Nevertheless, if you like, you can read the unedited transcriptions here.
For more information on my own process for handling slave narratives, see this.
References [ + ]
|1.||⇡||Tracking down Mr. Ogee’s service records has been impossible – for me anyway. There are secondary sources that claim he fought with the 3rd Louisiana Native Guards, but he is not listed on the roster. Another second source has him as a laborer, which seems more accurate.|