Under the Ulysses S. Grant administration, the federal government set up the Southern Claims Commission as a way of reimbursing Unionists who lived in the South during the Civil War.
They had to be loyal, of course, and had to have had supplies taken from them by the United States Army. Over 22,000 claims were made, and just over 7,000 were approved.
In some cases, free black people not only submitted claims, but were also awarded compensation – though nearly a decade removed from the war.
Nancy Johnson was such a case. Her story, told in her own words, gives a glimpse into what life was like in central Georgia in the 1860s. Along with all of the homes in the area, the Johnson place was hit by a Yankee raiding party. They took most of what the couple owned.
Despite this, she and her husband, Bosom, gave shelter to a Union soldier escaping Southern prisons – even after they recognized him as being part of the raiding party. She also admits to giving food and shelter to white Confederate soldiers who were deserting the Southern armies. “They were opposed to the war and didn’t own slaves and said they would die rather than fight.”
What follows is her own testimony to the Southern Claims Commission, given on March 22, 1873. Due to the nature of the interview, Mrs. Johnson jumped around in time. For this post, I’ve decided to place the narrative in chronological order. 1No words were changed, except a few for clarification and spelling. The full transcript can be read here.
Introductions and Slavery
My name is Nancy Johnson. I was born in Georgia. I was a slave and became free when the army came here . My master was David Baggs. 2I’ve been unable to track down David Baggs. It doesn’t appear to be David Johnson Baggs or David S. Baggs – but there were many Baggs in this area of Georgia. I live in Canoochie Creek. The claimant is my husband [Bosom]. He was a good Union man during the war. He liked to have lost his life by standing up for the Union party. He was threatened heavy.
I was served mighty mean before the Yankees came here. I was nearly frostbitten. My old Missus [Mrs. Baggs] made me weave to make clothes for the [Confederate] soldiers till 12 o’clock at night and I was so tired and my own clothes I had to spin over night. She never gave me so much as a bonnet.
Colored people when they would work always had something for themselves, after working for their masters. I most forgot whether he [her husband] paid cash or swapped cows [for a mare, later taken by the Yankees]. He worked & earned money, after he had done his masters work.
He bought a sow and raised his own pork & that is the way he got this. He did his tasks & after that he worked for himself & he got some money & bought the hogs and then they increased. He worked Sundays too; and that was for ourselves. He always was a hardworking man.
The Yankee Raid
They [Union soldiers] said that they didn’t believe what I had belonged to me and I told them that I would swear that it belonged to me. I had tried to hide things. They found our meat, it was hid under the house, and they took a crop of rice. They took it out and I had some cloth under the house too, and the dishes, and two fine bed-quilts. They took them out.
These were all my own labor and night-labor. They took the bolt of cloth under the house and the next morning they came back with it made into pantaloons. They were started and naked almost. It was January and cold. They were on their way from Savannah. They took all my husband’s clothes, except what he had on his back.
I should think there were thousands of them. I could not count them. They were about a day and a night. There were present my family, myself and husband, and this man Jack Walker. He is way out in Tattnall County, and we can’t get him here.
When they took this property, the army was encamped. Some got there before the camps were up. Some was hung up in the house. Some people told us that if we let some hang up they wouldn’t touch the rest, but they did, they were close by. They commenced taking when they first came. They stayed there two nights. I heard a heap of shooting, but I don’t think that they killed anybody.
There were what we called officers there. I don’t know whether they ordered the property taken. I put a pot on and made a pie and they took it to carry out to the head men. I went back where the officers camped and got my own that I cooked it in back again. They must have ordered them or else they could not have gone so far and they right there.
They said that they stood in need of them. They said that we ought not to care what they took for we would get it all back again; that they were obliged to have something to eat. They were mighty fine looking men.
They took the mare out of the stable. They bridled and carried her off; I think they jumped right on her back. They took the bacon under the house. The corn was taken out of the crib, and the rice and the lard. Some of the chickens they shot, and some they run down. They shot the hogs.
They took it by hand. The camp was close by my house. They carried it to their camps. They had lots of wagons there. They took it to eat, bless you! I saw them eating it right there in my house. They were nearly starved.
This property all belonged to me and my husband. None of it belonged to Mr. Baggs. I swore to the men so, but they wouldn’t believe I could have such things. My girl had a changeable silk dress and they took them all. It didn’t look like a Yankee person would be so mean. But they said if they didn’t take them the whites here would & they did take some of my things from their camps after they left.
I told one of the officers that we would starve, and they said no, that we would “get it back again, come and go along with us.”
Losing Her Children
But I wouldn’t go because the old man [David Baggs, her now-former master] had my youngest child hid away in Tattnall County. He took her away because she knew where the gold was hid and he didn’t want her to tell.
My boy was sent out to the swamp to watch the wagons of provisions, and the soldiers took the wagons and boy, and I never saw him anymore. He was 14 years old. I could have got the child back, but I was afraid my master would kill him. He said that he would, and I knew that he would or else make his children do it. He made his sons kill two men, big tall men like you. The Lord forgive them for the way they have treated me.
The child could not help them from taking the horse. He said that Henry (my boy) hallooed for the sake of having the Yankees find him, but the Yankees asked him where he was going and he didn’t know they were soldiers, and he told them that he was going to Master’s mules.
For the Remainder of the War
There was a Yankee prisoner that got away and came to our house at night. We kept him hid in my house a whole day. He sat in my room. White people didn’t visit our house then. My husband slipped him over to a man named Joel Hodges and he conveyed him off so that he got home. I saw the man at the time of the raid and knew him. He said that he tried to keep them from burning my house but he couldn’t keep them from taking everything we had. I was sorry for them though a heap. 3To be clear, Nancy recognized and helped the same escaped prisoner who was with the raiding party that stole from her.
The white people came hunting this man that we kept over night. My old master sent one of his own grandsons and he said if he found it [the prisoner] that they must put my husband to death. And I had to tel la story to save [his] life.
My old master would have had him killed. He was bitter. This was my master David Baggs. I told him that I had seen nothing of him. I did this to save my husband’s life.
Some of the rebel soldiers deserted and came to our house and we fed them. They were opposed to the war and didn’t own slaves and said they would die rather than fight.
Those who were poor white people, who didn’t own slaves were some of them Union people. I befriended them because they were on our side. I didn’t know that he [her husband] ever did anything more for the Union; we were way back in the country, but his hear was right and so was mine.
After the War
I had to work hard for the rebels until the very last day when they took us. The old man [David Baggs, her master] came to me then and said if you won’t go away and will work for us we will work for you. I told him if the other colored people were going to be free that I wanted to be.
I went away and then came back and my old Missus asked me if I came back to behave myself and do her work and I told her no, that I came to do my own work.
I went to my own house and in the morning my old master came to me and asked me if I wouldn’t go and milk the cows. I told him that my Missus had driven me off. “Well,” said he, “you go and do it.” Then my Mistress came out again and asked me if I came back to work for her like a “nigger.” I told her no, that I was free and she said “be off then,” and called me a “stinking bitch.”
I afterwards wove 40 yards of dress good for her that she promised to pay me for. But she never paid me a cent for it. I have asked her for it several times. I have been hard up to live, but thank God, I am spared yet. I quit, then only did a few jobs for her, but she never did anything for me except give me a meal of victuals, you see I was hard up then, I was well to do before the war.
The SCC believed the testimony of Mrs. Johnson. “According to other documents in the file, Boson Johnson, Nancy Johnson’s husband, had submitted a claim for $514.50 as compensation for the following property taken by Union soldiers: 1 mare, 625 pounds bacon, 60 pounds lard, 12 bushels corn, 8 bushels rice, 7 meat hogs, 11 stock hogs, and 25 chickens. He was awarded $155.”
In today’s money, that would still only be around $3,000. The amount they requested would today be valued at around $10,000.
References [ + ]
|1.||⇡||No words were changed, except a few for clarification and spelling. The full transcript can be read here.|
|2.||⇡||I’ve been unable to track down David Baggs. It doesn’t appear to be David Johnson Baggs or David S. Baggs – but there were many Baggs in this area of Georgia.|
|3.||⇡||To be clear, Nancy recognized and helped the same escaped prisoner who was with the raiding party that stole from her.|