1864 · Jacksonville, FL
"Every now & then it is proclaimed with great joy that Mr So & so, some northern nabob or speculator has purchased some rebel plantation & prepares to work the same. … It's of more consequence locally & nationally, thus the negro should buy & toil as he surely will on his acre of land, than that princely men in Illinois should have inserted his loose change in a southern plantation."
Connecticut native William H. Noble, writing to his wife, responds to rumors of the fountain of youth, vilifies northerner plantation renters who continued the Southern system as new feudal barons, and calls for the redistribution of plantations to former slaves to ensure national stability. Jacksonville, Florida, was occupied and then abandoned by the Union four times. The result was a broken, skeletal city at the Civil War's conclusion.
Noble reflects on how the African Americans' freedom will change Southern and national life, and that regardless of race, he believed human nature was the same. Further, the former slaves needed an interest in and responsibility for their own advancement. Presaging Booker T. Washington, he thinks developing industry more important than carpetbaggers coming south offering education. With a detailed sketch of headquarters in Jacksonville, including tents, stables, and the brigade flagstaff. [CIVIL WAR]. WILLIAM H. NOBLE.
Autograph Letter Signed, to his wife, [Jacksonville, Fla.], [April?] 8, 1864. 16 pp., 8 x 10 in., on 4 folding sheets stitched together.
"An artillery officer told me yesterday that there is a spot down the coast somewhere at which people never die. I am going to live down there. I want to see how this country I am helping to save and remake gets along and grows & flourishes in the coming years.
"The truth is there are but very few men as old as I really am in point of years in the army, and I have no doubt I look old to them. But I am not in point of the elements of youth & age & their manifestations more than half the years…. I think very likely however that the change in the Status of the negro will show that race to occupy the place now accorded to the Irish and push up the Irish girls a peg or two. That is just what the Irish did for the American help. When I was young there were no Irish field or house servitors. All were Yankeys....
Well the irish are dreadfully down on the negroes. American laborers used to be very hard on the Irish. But God works wonders in spite of mans blindness and I have no doubt in more ways than one he will do so with the Negro. But I see but very few contrabands. My Regiment has never yet penetrated into a virgin Ethiopian place. In fact wherever we have been the yanks have one time & another been before us and culled them out for soldiers or Sambo has taken his chance and gone north.
The fact is the quicker Sambo learns to take care of himself and is made so to do the better. But it wont by apprenticeing him to some one who only cares to get the most possible out of him. Forcing him to work for set wages to remain in a fixed place, & to toil for a man who buys of the government his industry is but a mockery of Freedom. Sambo has the same right & must be treated like any other human & not as if his skin hid under its somber hue a different nature, or a soul governed by different impulses passions & motives.
Who cares whether the world has cotton princes or not. Let the production run out if need be. Don't bother yourself about obtuse fancies on the negro question & his industry. Take no thought about large Estates going to waste & without culture. Have no anxiety but that human nature & niger nature will work out its own salvation if you give it a chance. Sambo wont work if you feed him a plumb pudding and send down a lot of infatuated people who should make little nigs. fully acquainted with general geography, the distribution of offices, universal History in 24 lessons...."(Additional excerpts below)
Jacksonville, Florida, suffered mightily as it changed hands several times during the Civil War. With the Union Navy blockading the port for most of the war, the army alternately occupied and abandoned the city, deeming its defense too costly and non-essential. Despite the blockade, the city remained a key Confederate supply point, becoming the "breadbasket" of the Confederacy and shipping large quantities of pork, beef, molasses, corn, potatoes, and other supplies to troops via rail. In an attempt to take the railroads, and stop the flow of foodstuffs and supplies, on February 7, 1864, Union soldiers occupied Jacksonville for a fourth time. Politically, Lincoln hoped to establish a Unionist government after cutting the Confederate supply lines. He even sent John Hay, one of his personal secretaries, as his representative. But Union troops suffered a devastating loss 45 miles away at the Battle of Olustee on February 20, and veteran soldiers on both sides remarked that they had never experienced such terrible fighting.
As the Union forces were still retreating, the 54th Massachusetts US Colored Troops (USCT) was ordered to march back to a broken-down train carrying wounded Union soldiers. When the USCT troops arrived, the men attached ropes to the engine and cars and manually pulled the train approximately three miles to camp, where horses then helped pull the train the ten miles back to Jacksonville.
Additional Excerpts (Full Transcript Available)
"…Just make up your mind that negro nature & human white nature are very near alike. Find out its appetites & fancies & give them play. The negro has toiled as the chattel & possession of some body who
owned him & his toil & the soil on which he lived. He has never known the manhood & the anchorage which comes of the ownership deep down & high as heaven of a little piece of Gods footstool.
He longs for this purchase next after the freedom for himself & his household. Till he has this he does not feel himself fastened any where but still a moveable whom the whim of the white man may tote about. But once let him have his little fast anchored piece of mother Earth, and you will find him planting therein his faith not only in being free, but in the reality of that freedom which has no seeming substance for him but in calling a little piece of land his own & the home of him & his. When he has got the time he will toil to get that which he also covets, the beasts to help his tillage. The negro saves, they are found to get & keep money. At Hilton Head they have more cash than any body else. Let him plant it in a home...."
"What are you keeping these immense plantations leased out to farmers, to whom you have the impudence & effrontery to lease freed men, whom you would fasten to the soil. The terrible horror is manifested lest Estates should go uncultivated. Every now & then it is proclaimed with great joy that Mr So & so, some northern nabob or speculator has purchased some rebel plantation & prepares to work the same. You had proclaimed a more welcome fact if you could tell me that you had cut up our Rebel hosts plantations & that his chattels had bought it in pieces, with cash or with the right of prescription which they proposed to make secure & perfect by their toil & its products. It's of more consequence locally & nationally, thus the negro should buy & toil as he surely will on his acre of land, than that princely men in Illinois should have inserted his loose change in a southern plantation. As an item of national health as an element of Public currency, the latter has to my mind much the less significance. Give me the divided & subdivided proprietorship of the soil as the best element of national strength and the surest index of national happiness & prosperity. The small proprietors of the lands make no rebellions, they are looking for no exclusive privileges. They have no schemes to enhance the importance & consequence of a big landed aristocracy.
"Then cut up their big possessions. Parcel out the sugar & the cotton land into small proprietorships. Let the poor white man or the poor negro have the chance. If they cannot pay to day let them have the chance to earn their living & the money to do so at a more convenient season. Confiscate every rebel Estate down to a certain amount to be reserved for him & his family Declare forfeited the possesses of every one who cant prove his loyalty, especially of all who have aided and abetted the Rebellion, turning only a small proportional account for the innocent of his own household. Render no man but a willful arrant rebel in arms homeless. But open up his rich possessions to the part of the white & the negro in such limited quantities, as the [population?] & the desire to purchase seem to demand
"The Ethiopian will then see in the ownership of the soil his interest in the government & the reality of freedom which without this is only in airy theory & which this makes solid and practical.
"You need not trouble yourself then about what to do with the freedmen. They will take care of themselves, exceptions there will be. Poor miserable lazy wretches there will be, wearing both white & black skins. These can be taken care of by wise laws if found necessary.
"But enough if you will watch you will find among wise men, there is a great deal of tomfoolery & very little common sense when you try to render their wisdom practical. Genl [George Henry] Gordon told me he had known of all men, first class legislators & lawyers come out & utterly break down in the care of a Regiment. They were old dogs & could not learn new tricks. They had a great deal of uncommon but a very little common sense...."
William H. Noble (1813-1894) was born in Connecticut and graduated from Yale University with a law degree in 1836. He established a practice in Bridgeport and helped the city secure its charter. He served as state's attorney in the late 1840s, and when his father died, he entered into an agreement with P. T. Barnum to develop land in East Bridgeport that Noble had inherited. A conservative Democrat but strong Unionist, Noble obtained a commission as colonel of the 17th Connecticut Infantry on July 23, 1862. He led his regiment in the Battle of Chancellorsville, where his horse was killed under him, and he was severely wounded. Before completely recuperating at Bridgeport, Noble rejoined his regiment and led it at the Battle of Gettysburg and later in the sieges of Fort Wagner and Fort Sumter. In February 1864, the regiment transferred to Jacksonville, Florida, where Noble served as commander of the first brigade of Adelbert Ames's division. On December 24, 1864, Noble was captured while traveling between Jacksonville and St. Augustine, Florida, and sent to the prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville, Georgia, where he was the highest ranking officer. Exchanged early in 1865, he returned to the service before mustering out in July 1865. After the war, General Ulysses S. Grant brevetted Noble as a brigadier general. Returning to his law practice, Noble lived in Bridgeport until his death. In 1870, his family had an African American domestic servant named Anthony Seymour (b. 1835), who was born in South Carolina and had likely been a slave.
Harriet J. Brooks Noble (1818-1901) was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She married William H. Noble in October 1839. They had five children, born between 1840 and 1859.
Fine. (Inventory #: 23878)