There is a story recorded in Journalist Carl S. Cannon’s book “On This Date” about a Union soldier during the Civil War who experienced a change of heart and action. Circumstance forced him to change his thinking and behavior.
All of us have these moments. We see a story in the newspaper or on television that moves us in some way. We watch a documentary or a movie based on actual events and it gets us to thinking about our own actions and our own lives. Sometimes, being exposed to someone else’s story provides us an opportunity at redemption, at making life better for others.
Many Union men volunteered for the Civil War out of a deep desire for social change. For example, a member of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers, Elisha Hunt Rhodes, said, “I thank God that I have the opportunity of serving my country, freeing the slaves and restoring the union.” Rhodes served respectfully for the duration of the war and attended many reunions afterwards.
Other Union men viewed their service as a way to restore the union but were uncomfortable with fighting a war about slavery. At the beginning of the war, the federal government was not sure how to handle slaves escaping from the South to freedom in the North. Some soldiers saw this as a problem. Would the federal government follow the Fugitive Slave Laws and return them to their Southern masters? Would slaves immediately be free if they reached Union lines?
As early as 1861, slaves around Richmond, Virginia, began trekking across land and water to reach Fort Monroe, a federal fort near Norfolk. The Union Army quickly labeled these individuals contraband, or illegal property that the government may seize. They then helped carry supplies and dig fortifications to help the war effort. As the Peninsula Campaign intensified around Richmond in 1861-1862, more slaves sought the protection of the fort.
Soldiers like Maj. Hiram Underwood of the 2nd Michigan Infantry, fighting around Richmond in 1862, did not like the situation. According to Cannon, assisting in the fight against slavery was never a main goal for him. His war was about preserving the union. Other soldiers in Underwood’s unit commented about how unkind he was towards escaping slaves and the people who supported them. A young enlisted man by the name of Charles B. Hayden wrote, “Major Underwood has always been very bitter on the abolitionists.”
Yet, there was a moment in early 1862 that changed Underwood’s mind. Seeing slaves trying to escape across a body of water to get to the fort, he stepped into water waist deep and assisted them across the river. Hayden recorded the moment in his journal, “Tonight, he (Underwood) worked more than three hours in water up to his waist to help twenty contrabands across the river and on their way to paradise at Fort Monroe. He said they looked so frightened that he had to help them.”
I’ve been thinking about Underwood recently. What caused him to step into the water to help 20 human beings, to rescue 20 souls from myriad dangers? While Underwood said it was the look on the people’s faces, there also had to be a deeper desire to do something higher, to help other human beings caught in perilous situations, to be a part of something larger — and maybe atone for some prior thinking on his part.
Still, it was a moment. The same moment all of us experience when our beliefs and our passions collide with an extreme question or an area of need. Underwood forgot himself and turned his attention toward rescue and help. In helping to eventually lead others to freedom, Underwood freed himself from some bigotry and prejudice. There is no question the hours in the river affected him deeply.
His actions, and the actions of many others, helped save the lives of at least half a million former enslaved people and other Black freedmen who sought protection behind Union lines. Eventually, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery. Of course, there was more work to do, but people who had never known freedom now had a chance at it.
Brent Tomberlin is a social studies instructor at South Caldwell High School and Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org