The telegraph announces the death of William Fuller, of Needham, a private in the 18th regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers. The tidings afflicted me much. I knew that he joined the army from deliberate convictions of duty, and with the belief that it was to be a war for freedom; and I earnestly desired that he should live to see the glorious result he anticipated. He was an ardent republican, and worked zealously for Fremont in the campaign of ’56. He was a working man, and the enslavement of working men excited generous indignation in his breast. He was among the first three years’ men that joined the army. Late in September, 1861, when he had been some time in Virginia, he wrote to me: “I enlisted purely from principle; to do what I could to save the free institutions of the country. We are hard at work, making intrenchments and cutting roads through the woods to Munson’s Hill. We have to endure many privations and hardships; but these I will not dwell upon. I am willing to sacrifice the comforts of home, and even life itself, if the desired end can be accomplished by this war.”
A month later, he wrote: “Before I came here, I was often told that I should not think so badly of slavery, if I had been in the Slave States. but I must say I have not yet seen any beauty in the system. When I do, I will inform you. While on picket duty, I often meet with slaves, and have opportunities of conversing with them. I said to one, who came into camp the other day, ‘How have you been treated Robert?’ ‘Pretty well, sar.’ ‘Have you been well fed and clothed?’ ‘Pretty well, till dis year. Massa hab no money to spare dis year.’ ‘Were you contented?’ ‘No, sar.’ “You say you were pretty well treated, and pretty well supplied with food and clothes; why wasn’t you contented then?’ ‘Cause I wanted to be free, sar.’ ‘But what could you do to support yourself and your wife and children, if you were all free?’ His face brightened, and you could see his eyes sparkle, as he replied, ‘I’d hire a little hut, and hab a little garden, and keep a pig and a cow, and I’d work out by the day, and save money. I could save money. I’ve laid up eight dollars this summer; but if I couldn’t lay up a cent, I should like to be free. I should feel better.’ ‘Can you read and write?’ ‘No, sar. But massa’s mighty fraid to have us touch a paper; they say Massa Lincoln is going to free all the slaves.’ ‘Where did you hear that?’ ‘We used to hear massa say so, last fall, before Massa Lincoln was President.’ ‘Did you ever hear of John Brown?’ ‘Yes, indeed, sar. There was great times down here when he come to Harper’s Ferry. The folks was all skeered to death. They went from all round here to see him hung.’ ‘Do you think he was a good man?’ ‘Yes, sar, a mighty fine man.’
“All the slaves I have met with talk in much the same way. I could fill pages with similar conversations. It is a false notion that slaves are contented if they are not beaten, and have enough to eat. Liberty is just as sweet to them as it is to us. I can say, from the bottom of my heart, may we never come to any terms with the rebels till this blot of slavery is wiped out. I, for one, would be willing to stay here ten years, and endure any amount of hardship, if at the end I could see America truly free. If the war could only accomplish this object, it seems as if I could say, ‘Now let they servant depart in peace.'”
At the close of November, 1861, he wrote: “I have been watching the tide of public opinion, and I rejoice to see that the sentiments of Sumner, Wilson, and Fremont are fast gaining ground. Emancipation! Blessed word! I have prayed for it; I came here to fight for it; I am ready to die for it. When I first came here, they said I was as bad as a secessionist; and when I indorsed all Charles Sumner said at Worcester, they told me if I had such views I ought to have staid at home. But I stood my ground firmly, and spoke the honest convictions of my heart; for I know that Mr. Sumner is right, and that the right will conquer at last. I have sometimes feared it might not be in my day; but I now feel that the tide is setting strongly in the right direction. A great change has been wrought within a few months. I feel a stronger interest in the subject than ever, since I have seen the poor slaves and talked with them. No one that inquires of them can have a doubt that they are longing for their freedom. I know that they are expecting us to free them, and are ready at a word to help us. We have the power to do it; why do we delay? The day will come when the Stars and Stripes will wave over a country truly free; that it may come soon, is the earnest prayer of a poor soldier.”
In January, 1862, he wrote: “The other day in going out to the line of our pickets, which is near to the rebels, I passed by a house where a fine-looking colored lad, of seventeen, was holding a horse. He told me his master was in the rebel army. He had taken all his money away with him; but his mistress, who was a Union woman, made heaps of money by selling victuals to the United States soldiers, cooked by his mother, who was one of her slaves. He said that his mistress had a pass to go to the line of our pickets whenever she liked, and that she wanted to take him with her, to work for a man near our outposts. I advised him not to go, lest it should prove a trap. When I passed the house a fort-night later, I saw the same lad chopping wood, with a book peeping from his pocket. I asked him what he did with it. He said he wanted very much to lean to read, and that a little boy of six years was teaching him. What a picture it would make–that poor slave learning his letters of a little child six years old! I wish I were an artist, that I might paint it. In the course of our short conversation, the lad told me he had found out why his mistress wanted him to go to our outposts to work for a man. She and her husband had agreed upon a meeting near the lines, and he wanted to take this young slave to work for the rebel army. So much for this woman’s pretended Union sentiments! The trouble is, too much confidence is place in the loyal professions of these people. I am not surprised that you are sometimes despondent concerning the prospects of the country. I am also. O, what a chance is offered us to make this a really free country–a fitting home for the oppressed of all nations! Will this glorious opportunity be lost? If so, who will be accountable? It surely will not be the poor soldiers, who, at their country’s call, have left home and families–all that was near and dear to them. I have taken some pains to find out the sentiments of those around me, and, almost to a man, they say we can never have permanent peace till slavery is abolished. Here are two hundred thousand men ready to go forth, at the word, to victory or death, and I believe they are generally desirous to see, Freedom to All, inscribed upon their banners. I will not believe that the glorious opportunity is to slip by us. Surely God will not permit it. He hears the prayers of the poor slaves, and of those who have been working and praying for them for years. I still pray on, and hope on. I want to do much; but how can I do more than I am doing? I must perform my duty, and wait for the wheels of Government to move. They seem to move so slowly, that I long to put my shoulder to the wheels and push them along.
“From appearances, I judge we shall have a battle soon. When the time for action comes I shall try to do my duty, God helping me. I have written my views to you fully, that if it should be my lot to fall in battle, you may know with what feelings I go into the conflict. the extermination of slavery, and freedom for all, through the whole length and breadth of the land, is the idea that nerves my arm. May God give me strength! May victory be ours! And through our efforts may the millions now in bondage be able to proclaim to the world. ‘Once we were Slaves, but now we are all Free Men!'”
The expected battle was indefinitely postponed, as we all know; and the soldiers waited patiently for the slow wheels to move. The last of July, 1862, six months later, after the seven days’ battle before Richmond, followed by a retreat of the United States army, Mr. Fuller wrote: “We have been so hurried that I have had no time to collect my thoughts until now. I was at Savage’s Station on Saturday, after the fight at Gaines’ Mill. All day I assisted in the care of the wounded, some two thousand in number. May I never see such dreadful sights again! and to think they had to be left to the mercy of the rebels! O, it was too painful! But they were all patient–not a murmur or complaint. What a ‘lesson it taught me’!
“Now we have a little rest; and as I sit near the banks of James River, my mind is busy with reflections concerning the last five months. I need not speak of the great sacrifices of life and property, of the recent bloody battles and the defeat of our army: you know it all. The thought ever present to my mind is, What have we accomplished by all our toil, and hardship, suffering, and death? Is freedom any nearer at hand? Is the nation even so strong as it was five months ago? What are our prospects for the future? The men are disheartened. It must be confessed that something is wrong somewhere. Who is responsible for this defeat? The people ought to know. The poor soldiers ought to know. Let the truth be made known!
“It is my firm conviction that if President Lincoln had proclaimed emancipation at the beginning of the war, the end would be much nearer than it now is, and there would have been far less expenditure of blood and treasure. Emancipation is a strong word, but it must come to that before we can have peace. I know I am not competent to advise the President; but these are my honest convictions, confirmed day by day, the more I see of this accursed system of slavery, which is the cause of all our trouble. I am teaching some slaves in our camp; that it, they were slaves, but I pray to God they may never be so again.”
The next I heard from Mr. Fuller was that he was wounded in the last battle at Bull Run. In answer to my inquiries, he informed me, by another hand, that he had been badly wounded in the shoulder, but was doing well. He added, “My consolation is, that I have done what I could”
A week afterwards, they told he was dead. I thought of him as I last saw him, a healthy, young man, full of life and hope. He had few advantages for education in his youth, but his remarks evinced good intelligence and a generous heart. He left a wife and young children and went into the army, not from the mere contagion of public excitement, but from conviction of duty, after deliberate reflection.
He was “only a private;” his name is unknown to fame; but I honor his memory, as a brave man, a true patriot, and, better still, a friend to the whole human race, of all nations and colors. It fills my soul with sadness to think of the last words he wrote to me: “Something is wrong, somewhere. The poor soldiers ought to know.”
Alas, thousands of poor, weary soldiers have doubtless gazed on the rivers and hills of Virginia, while they asked themselves, despondingly, “What has been accomplished by all our privations, toils, and sufferings?” Thousands of brave young souls have b..passed away with heroic patience, saying, “My consolation is, that I have done what I could.” L. MARIA CHILD.
Originally posted 2008-07-06 12:59:44.