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Loss of “A First Rate Boy”

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

This is the last of the series drawn from the letters of James Griffin, a Colonel in the Confederate Army. If you have not read the previous posts, check out the third one which leads to this:

On May21, 1862, James Griffin wrote, “My Darling I have a piece of bad news to write you—I fear I have lost Abram. He left me while I was at Yorktown, and I haven’t heard a word from him since. It is very singular and I cant account for it. He has been a good boy and a faithful one to me most of the time, since I have been in service. And only gave me cause of complaint a few times after he commenced to cater for our Mess, which was the 12th of April—I gave him money and made him buy provisions for us. He seemed to like it well at first. But grew tired before long, as provisions became scarcer. I had to scold him on two or three occasions, and once while at Ashland gave him a light flogging which was the only time I had struck him since he left home—He left me on the 28th of April. He went out as usual to buy provisions, and got a pass to cross the York river, and he saw negros coming from over there, with poultry and such things as could not be bought where we were. This is the last I heard of him—I think he was decoyed off by some one, after he left—for I offered him a $20.00 bill that morning, but he declined, saying he had as much money as he would need for that day—I have never informed you of this before, because, I have always believed he would turn up again—and indeed I think so still—but he may not. I am sorry he was such a fool—I’ll bet he will always be sorry for it. I have been pretty hard up lately for a servant—for since he has been gone, Ned has had the Measles, another singular fact—and he isn’t well of them yet.”

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The words of this Southern “gentleman and officer” provide insight into divisions that tore the country apart and led to a war in which nearly 700,000 men died. The effect on the lives of their wives and children—at a time when many women lacked education and were poorly prepared to support themselves-- goes unrecorded.

From the writing of James Griffin, it’s clear he considers himself a good person. What view of slavery do we see in this owner of sixty-one people? He never uses the word “slave” but speaks of his servants and identifies each one by a first name. He gives Abram responsibility for buying and preparing food for the seven officers and speaks well of him. However, after a few days Abram falls short. Poor menu? Bad preparation? We don’t know, but it results in a “light flogging.”

This reveals the true relationship. Maybe Abram had felt respected and trusted. With that stripped away, when he saw the opportunity, he escaped to freedom.

* * *

Like the brief quotations from A Gentleman and an Officer, my book, Hardtack and Heartbreak: A Family in the Civil War, is built around letters. However, there the similarity ends. Hardtack and Heartbreak is much more than a chronicle of letters.

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