Every February ECW does a series of posts about African Americans and the Civil War. There are many from which to choose, but I have made it my mission, as it were, to find those who are not as well known as, say, Frederick Douglass. This first offering is a story verified in several places about a slave who was forced by the Confederate army holding the fort at Vicksburg to work underground, digging a mine emplacement. Readers, meet Abraham.
June 26, 1863—
“This isn’t looking good.” Confederate Major Samuel Lockett, Chief Engineer of the Confederate Army, made his assessment concerning the geological mess made by Union Captain Andrew Hickenlooper in his attempt to dislodge the Third Louisiana Redan. “I’d use that 500-pound, black powder thunder keg. It’ll loosen that soil until it’s like sand.”The day before, June 25, Union engineers had exploded a massive mine under the Redan, creating a crater into which Federal troops poured. Hand-to-hand fighting ensued, but the breach of the Rebel line was not permanent.
What Major Lockett did not know was that Union sappers had dug much further under the Vicksburg fortifications than he expected. His thunder keg went off with a tremendously loud “bang,” but did little damage, although it was more than the Rebel hand grenades and rolling shells had done so far.Not that the Confederate sharpshooters were not doing their jobs; the Union men facing the fort made a game out of placing a kepi on the tip of a ramrod and raising it tentatively above the trenches. Bets were made on the number of times the cap would be hit within a given time.
It was decided that the Confederates would sink a countermine in an attempt to thwart the Union efforts to dig beneath the fort and blow up the southern works. Rather than risk the lives of white southerners, eight black slaves who accompanied Pemberton’s forces were pressed into service to place the mine. They were under the command of a white corporal, and one of those slaves was known as “Abraham.” The slaves, including Abraham, dutifully entered the Confederate tunnels, becoming the unwitting victims of the second Vicksburg Mine.
July 1, 1863—
From the crater left by the first explosion on June 25, Union miners worked at digging a new mine site. On July 1, this second mine, packed with 1,800 pounds of black powder, was detonated by the Federals. This attack caught the Confederate slaves within their own tunnel and killed seven of them instantly. Abraham, however, was blown into the air and landed behind Union lines. According to one Yankee who witnessed the event, “One Negro was thrown 150 feet, lighting on his head and shoulders, scarcely hurting him.”
Apparently, the Yankee quoted above was correct in his assessment of damage done to the man, as Abraham was helped to his feet, bruised but otherwise unscathed by the explosion. One of the blue-clad men asked him how high he thought he had gone. Abraham replied, slightly stunned, “About three miles!” Abraham became an instant celebrity—some would say he was “trending.” The enterprising, if insensitive, Union soldiers who rescued him put up a tent and installed Abraham, wearing his slave rags which had further deteriorated due to the bomb blast. For the remaining few days of the Vicksburg Campaign, the men charged their fellow soldiers a few cents admission to see the slave who was literally “blowed to Freedom.”He recovered from his ordeal, got new clothes, and remained with the Union troops, eventually becoming a cook on General James McPherson’s staff.
I hope this anecdote does not sound tone deaf. I have touched it for over a year, and have not been able to find out any more about Abraham than what I have indicated above. I wish I could have written that Union soldiers were sensitive caregivers to this formerly enslaved person, but they were not. I hope that, after his time as a cook for McPherson, he went further North and found a better life for himself than what he had in Vicksburg, but I have no indication at all of his future. My only reason for the inclusion of this story is that the war was made up of a great many stories, and we should not forget them whenever possible. When I first read about Abraham, I found him memorable. I share this with our readers in hopes that they will do so as well.
Smithsonian Magazine and information from Smithsonian in the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D. C.