Clifton Johnson (1865–1940)
From The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It
A century ago, for the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil War, Massachusetts travel writer Clifton Johnson interviewed fifty-four civilians about their wartime experiences and published their narratives as Battleground Adventures: The Stories of Dwellers on the Scenes of Conflict in Some of the Most Notable Battles of the Civil War.
One of his subjects was Joseph Lawson, identified by Johnson only as “The Colored Cooper,” who was present for the Battle of Fredericksburg, which occurred 150 years ago this week (December 11–15). At the battle, the Union forces, led by Ambrose Burnside, suffered a devastating defeat to the Confederate army commanded by Robert E. Lee. With a humor and dismay hardly diminished by his eighty-two years, Lawson’s recollections convey the terror and confusion of the conflict from the point of view of a free black man living in the town.
Johnson’s book also includes an interview with Fannie Dawson, a slave who lived through the same battle. Before the war, her brother and three sisters had been sold “down in Alabama”; the brother had been whipped to death by his new master for preaching: “the gen'leman that owned him did n’t want him to preach and would n’t have no meetin’s or preachin’ on the place at all.” Dawson recalled that when the North lost the battle she “couldn’t believe it” and yet confidently told her mistress, “I tell you’ we’re all goin’ to be a free people. You-all will be gittin’ yo’ pay sho’ for the you’ve been treating us pore black folks.” In response, “the white people stood there and laughed” at her.
Two weeks later, on January 1, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Note: Colonel [David] Lang (p. 665) was acting commander of the 8th Florida (Confederate) infantry.
Me and my wife was both free born. We could have gone away befo’ the battle, but we had a house hyar in Fredericksburg and four small chil’en, and I had work in town makin’ barrels. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!
This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.