James H. Foster: “I Wanted To Be Free”

In 1878, James H. Foster submitted a petition to the Southern Claims Commission, seeking to prove that he had been loyal to the Union cause during the Civil War and to receive compensation for his property taken by Union soldiers. The compiled and archived paperwork of his claim looks fairly typical, and he asked for $390 in compensation for lost property. Then, in the depositions and lengthy questioning process to establish the validity of the claim, a remarkable account starts to emerge with these words: “I sympathized with the Union cause all the time. I could not be any other way. I was a Slave and I wanted to be free….”

An enslaved man who lived in Shenandoah County, Virginia, and owned property during the war, whose personal property had been taken by Union soldiers, and who filed a claim 13 years after the end of the war? The Southern Claims Commission papers hold treasures of accounts, particularly of military and civilian interactions and this one seemed particularly compelling.

Forty-eight years old at the time of his claim and testimony, James H. Foster would have been in his early to mid thirties during the Civil War years. Enslaved by Isaac S. Bowman, Foster lived “at Mt. Pleasant. 2 miles from Strasburg during the whole period of the war.” His family lived near or with him and the testimonies do not state clearly if his wife and children were enslaved or free. There is one very cramped, handwritten note that may say his family was free and this would seem to better align with their testimonies and that his wife and son do not say they were enslaved. Another part of the testimony notes that one of his wife’s brothers may have been a soldier or at least somehow attached to “Millroy’s[sp] army,” raising additional questions. Attempts to locate Foster and his family in the 1860’s Slave Schedule (census of enslaved persons) has proved difficult. 

A shoemaker by trade Foster labored for “Mr Bowman during the day and was allowed to keep all he could earn by working of nights. He did a great deal of work for Dr. Charles J. Hite who was a near neighbor.” When Hite could not pay in ready money, Foster took a cow and a carriage and harness in return for his work. The cow became particularly useful to the family, and Mary Foster, James’s wife, said that she made 12 pounds of butter per week from the cow’s milk and cream. Though not specifically stated, it is presumable that she sold this butter to earn more income.

James H. Foster worked as a shoemaker while enslaved. (Photo from Pixabay Images)

James H. Foster owned other livestock, too. In the spring of 1864, he had six or eight hogs that he had been fattening, likely to sell later in the year. He had also acquired a horse, a sorrel color animal, standing about 16 hands tall, that was well trained as a working draft horse and listed as about 10 years of age. Foster specifically stated that his master allowed him to have the hogs, cow, carriage, harness, and horse, and that Foster had particular pens or storage places for his personal property.

The village of Strasburg nestles in the shadow of Massanutten Mountain in the Shenandoah Valley. Approximately 20 miles south of Winchester and located along the Valley Pike, Union troops and armies passed through this area many times during the war. Foster seems to have closely followed the war news and took an active role to assist blue-coated soldiers or Union loyalists whenever possible. 

By his own testimony, he “gave information to the Union Scouts several times about the rebel movements. I took three Union cavalrymen who were cut off from their command by the Guerilla Mosby through the hills to the valley road so they could get to their command; they having lost their horses.” His wife, Mary E. Foster, corroborated his account, adding: 

“I heard him talk a great many times about the war and the union. He was a real strong union man and was always glad when the Union army came there and when they gained the day. He always spoke in favor of the north and the union. 

“He did everything he could for union men and union soldiers. He would go of nights and show them the way when they were lost or got astray and would take horses and go with them and take them around rivers and through the woods to their camp. And I have many times left my own work[?] and have washed and cooked…for them many times and was glad to do it. I have many times shared with them the last food we had[?] in the house. We regarded them as our friends and wanted to help them. He used to help refugees and rebel deserters to get through to the north.”

One of the Union loyalists that Foster aided was William Woodard. A cooper by trade, Woodard (a white man) was in his 40s during the war years. He had known Foster since 1849 and described him as “a very industrious person.” Woodard confirmed Foster’s story that he had helped Union cavalry find their camp and sent information to the army. Personally, Woodard relied on the enslaved shoemaker:

“When I was driven from my house by the rebels and was obliged to stay much of my time in the mountain his house was one of the places where I used often to go of nights to get something to eat and to communicate with my family through him…. He was known as a Union man generally I think. He could not be otherwise and be true to himself.”

Woodard also revealed: “He [Foster] was threatened with his life for harboring me by three men living in Strasburg…. Some of them presented pistols at him and threatened his life if he did not tell where I was.” Foster did not tell the bullies, and he did not tell his wife about the incident since, when she was later questioned about it, she had no knowledge of the event. 

In May 1864, Union General Franz Sigel advanced south in the Shenandoah Valley. While his army halted near Strasburg, Foster’s hogs fell victim to hungry soldiers. He estimated that the six or eight pigs weighed about 150 pounds each. “They were butchered on the place and the meat carried to the camp about 2 miles distance. The hogs were skinned, but cut up in pieces and carried off by the soldiers, each man[?] taking what he pleased.” Later, Mary Foster and their son, James, testified that they saw the butchering, and that the family asked the soldiers not to take the hogs since their family was poor and they depended on their livestock for part of their livelihood.

Colorized woodcut of a Union soldier chasing a pig; artwork created during the Overland Campaign.

By mid-October 1864, three corps of Union soldiers settled in the vicinity of Cedar Creek, just north of Strasburg and near where the Fosters lived. Shortly before the battle of Cedar Creek (fought October 19), Union cavalrymen took Foster’s sorrel draft horse. “One [soldier]…had a bridle and said his horse had given out and he wanted mine….” Young James who would have been about eight or nine years old in 1864 remembered, “They were some time in catching the horse and I was watching them while doing it and saw them take the carriage and harness also. It was only across the creek and I could see plainly.” 

On October 20, the day after the battle of Cedar Creek, Foster lost his cow to hungry soldiers of the VIII Corps. “She was butchered on the place…used for food by the soldiers. She was fat and in splendid order for beef. I saw her butchered, the meat cut in pieces and the whole carried away except the head and hide.” 

During one of these October encounters, Foster asked the Union soldiers for payment. A soldier told him “if I would go with him to Gen Sheridan[‘]s headquarters with him he would see that I got paid. I did not go because just at that time the troops began firing on each other….” The firing was probably not the battle of Cedar Creek and mostly likely a small skirmish before or after.

Foster did not offer further testimony about other interactions with Union soldiers post-Cedar Creek battle, and he did not leave Isaac Bowman even though he was freed by the continual presence of Union troops and later in December 1865 by the passing of the 13th Amendment. Foster declared that he stayed at the Bowmans’ for about two years after the end of the war and then relocated his family to Washington D.C. 

Cover page for the testimonies in Foster’s claim.

In the nation’s capital, Foster found employment as a “laborer” at the “Navy’s Department in the Bureau of Equipment and Recruiting.” His family lived at 313 A Street in the District of Columbia. A note added to the file of claim paperwork stated that Foster was “highly respectable and conscientious” and that there should be “no doubt about [his] loyalty or his ownership of the property.” 

Foster asked for $390 for his butchered livestock, conscripted horse, and missing carriage and harness. In the end, he received $270. Through making his claim, Foster told part of his story. His wife and one of his children also gave their testimonies, along with a white Unionist neighbor. The depositions for the Southern Claims Commission leave areas of questions about some of the details unrelated to the property claim, but this primary source record still leaves the traces of a remarkable story.

As an enslaved man, James H. Foster was keenly aware of the importance of the Union cause and the promise of freedom. His actions to assist Union soldiers and loyalists suggests that he was not passive about the war and not content to continue to be enslaved. Foster actively took on missions and actions that endangered his life. Threatened at gunpoint by at least three named citizens of Strasburg for information about the whereabouts of a loyalist, what would have happened if those same Confederate sympathizers had known that an enslaved man rescued lost cavalrymen and passed information to Union armies? 

An account about an enslaved man’s active pursuit of freedom through secretly helping Union soldiers comes through his testimony. The loss of property became a gain for history, as thirteen years after the war, James H. Foster provided proof of his loyalty and details about when soldiers took his possessions, thereby leaving a short record of his life and desire to be free.

Notes and Sources:

I first saw reference to Foster’s account through Nancy B. Stewart’s research and book entitled Writings Concerning Our History which I viewed in the local history collection at New Market Public Library in Shenandoah County, Virginia. Intrigued by the essay in her collection, I found the original claim file through Ancestry.com and started reading.

All quotations and details about James H. Foster, his family, and William Woodard in this blog post are taken from:

U.S., Southern Claims Commission, Allowed Claims 1871-1880. Roll 40, Target 13: Shenandoah County, Virginia – James H. Foster. Accessed through National Archives and Records Administration with partnership of Ancestry.com

Other sources referenced:

1860 Slave Schedule

Jonathan A. Noyalas, Slavery and Freedom in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2021).

Andrew Ward, The Slaves’ War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008).

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