You accept my offer of sending Elizabeth there.
Thomas Montgomery, 1864
Lieutenant Montgomery’s mother had not been feeling well lately. In June 1864 he offered a solution. In the household that he left, which included his father and two younger brothers, Charles and James, the lone woman in the house, his mother, needed help with the chores. The lieutenant felt that his girl would be a considerable help. She was a good cook, laundress, and washerwoman “all together in one person” and the wife of one of his corporals, “a fine yellow gal,” an always preferable color of Negress, almost white and well formed; and she had always been “kind and good to me, and always very great and industrious,” and she made splendid pies, biscuits, and dumplings, and could make a plain dress in half a day. “She can also make a pants coat.” Montgomery’s mother was growing weak, and he knew she had more work to do than she could manage, so he proposed sending Lizzie to the family homestead in Le Sueur to live with his mother and work for her until he returned. “I know you want a girl badly and I have spoken to her on the subject and she is willing to go and live with you.” Her name wasElizabeth Estell.
“She ran away from her mistress in Missouri and has been with me ever since. She is not saucy or haughty, but is willing to be taught. I don’t like to spare her but it would be to your and her advantage, as she can do all of your work and you can teach her to read and make a woman of her. Her husband (so-called) is in my company, a corporal, one of my best men. They have no children to trouble her.”
In fact, she did have children who were somewhere in Missouri. Whether Montgomery knew this when he wrote this letter to his mother is unclear. It is plausible that as a regimental commander in the occupied but still unstable region of southern Louisiana, he had little time and interest in learning much about the personal life of his contraband servant girl, even though her husband was his corporal. On the other hand, as his subsequent letters suggested, Montgomery seemed disposed to convey a rosier view of the truth. Therefore, in persuading his mother, likely a bit concerned that Lizzie would be distracted from her labors on the farm if she had children whose welfare she could not know, Montgomery was quite intent to proving that Lizzie, free of all encumbrances, would best suit her needs. History does not record whether Lizzie knew of this exchange. In any event, it was Montgomery, and later his mother, who spoke for her, for she could neither read nor write. Her story says more about those who wrote about her.
Black people in Montgomery’s hierarchical world, in which he represented absolute protection and hope for a life of freedom, were a source of curiosity to be observed from afar. In an August 11, 1864, letter to his brother James, after watching the “unusually” emotive style of worship by his men, Montgomery wrote, “Preaching prayer meetings are frequented more among the Darkies, seeing they have a place to hold faith in.” He did not note how the threat of death heightened their sense of religious fervor, even while looking at the events that surrounded them. Sickness continued to ravage the troops. Even Montgomery got sick but recovered thanks to the medicine he received, which was not available to the troops. “Two of my men died this morning which leaves us now 62 men.” Soon officers would be dispatched to St. Louis to enlist new recruits.
* * * * *
To mother, August 16, 1864:
You accept my offer of sending Elizabeth there. This pleases me as it will be much better for her as it will be an immense help for you. Being a great help to me I am loth to let her go but I guess I will get along without her help better than you can. I will send her up as soon as a favorable opportunity presents itself. I would like to go up myself this fall and take her along but that is doubtful. If she could read and write I would not fear sending her alone, but somehow I fear that she may get lost or get into difficulty being alone. I can send her safely to St. Louis and from there she would have to make her own way but she thinks she can go and is very willing. I will find out about this in a few days.
Montgomery made arrangements for Colonel Alonzo Edgerton’s son, “a fine Christian man,” who promised to take her with him to Mantorville, where he lived. From there, he would place her on a stagecoach to Mankato and from there to St. Peter, where she would be met by Abner Tibbetts, who would “take care of her valise” while she waited for the connecting stagecoach to Le Sueur. Tibbetts was a family friend who also served as the federal agent of the St. Peter Land Office; he had given Montgomery and his father counsel on real estate investments. With the removal of the Dakota and Winnebago from their land in the southwestern counties of Minnesota in 1863, Tibbetts would also be responsible for handling bids for parcels once the land was opened to settlement the following year. It was in Tibbetts’s care that Montgomery entrusted the security of the valise.
Montgomery itemized the contents as follows: clothes, some writing paper and pens for the boys, a pair of gloves and a knife, a package of old letters, a box of seashells picked up on the coast of Texas and lost by some officer on the Red River, Louisiana, campaign. He gave her fifty dollars to pay her expenses; she could keep anything left over. “I trust,” writing to his mother, “[Lizzie] will find the way home without any difficulty and be a satisfaction to you. I hope you will all treat her well for she has been good to me in sickness and health. She will probably want clothes for cold weather. You will find her very willing to work at any housework. She relieves you of so much hard work, sewing and washing. I hope you will teach her to read.” When he hadn’t heard whether Lizzie arrived in Le Sueur, he wrote to his brother, “I suppose Lizzie is with you now. At least, I hope she is. I hope she pleases you although she is colored. Tell her everything is the same as when she left.” When she had not arrived by the end of September his worry changed to irritation with her, assuring his equally frustrated mother that he “would have some other person to do the rough work. Never fear the expenses. I expect to send some three or four dollars in a few days which will pay all expenses.”
Meanwhile, the mortality rate within his unit grew because of illness. “The men continue to die off. I have lost 18 during the last two months.” By mid-September, Montgomery expressed frustration with his troops for falling ill, an apparent reflection, he thought, of poor character, and one that threatened to undermine his command:
The frightful ravages of death in this brigade are appalling. In our regimental hospital, only three or four rods from my tent, five men died yesterday, the day before, five, and the day before 3, only thirteen in three days. These men die at a considerable rate. They will be walking along and fall down dead in the morning in or at their tents or at the sinks. They have no tenacity of life whatsoever.
He reported that the mortality in the New Orleans Hospital was dreadful and that two companies were constantly at work digging graves. There was no talk of recruiting more men. Montgomery worried that the unit would soon have no men left. There was talk of sending them farther South into the Louisiana swampland for the good health of the men.
As weeks passed with constant drilling and guard duty, Montgomery’s attention to detail earned him more attention from his superiors. By October 1864, ten months after mustering into the USCT as an officer, Montgomery was promoted to captain. In a letter to his father he expressed satisfaction in his achievement and with himself, relieved that the regimental enlistments remained high enough to warrant the promotion. “Well since I left home I have endeavored to do the best I could. So as to advance my temporal and spiritual interests and have no reasons to complain of the result of my efforts to God’s Blessing, however, I owe all. From an enlisted man in the ranks I have advanced to the highest position in a company. This under God I owe to my own individual efforts.” It is evident that he was concerned the decline of able-bodied men in his regiment might impair his chance at promotion. “I was fortunate also in being mustered in as captain when I was. I would not have succeeded a month later. I am afraid that there is not enough to warrant such promotion. We are under 500 men in all present. My company is reduced to 50. The scurvy is very prevalent in my Brigade. More than half of the men have it. If not soon recruited I presume we will be consolidate.”
Finally, the strain of facing the mounting death rate among his men got to him. The men he was selected to lead, the men he had elected to lead, had, in his view, let him down, as well as the Union’s crusade for freedom. “One thing is clear. Missouri negroes cannot stand the climate. Much of the mortality no doubt arises from the change of food and manner of living, and the lack of vitality characteristic of whites.” But it wasn’t just an issue of the frail constitution of the men; it seemed, in Montgomery’s view, to be a general lack of character that made them subject to illness. “It would appear that they can die when they please.” He continued:
They make no effort to live when taken sick. They give in at once. Not a day passes but one or more funeral escorts leave this regiment. I have come to the conclusion that the present race of black men will not be of any account to the next generation.
He felt that some of his men were so indifferent they could as easily have returned to Missouri and to the rule of their old masters, “with no higher object apparently than to see their wives and children.” Apparently, missing one’s family was exclusively a trait of the black recruit. Montgomery was generous toward white officers who wanted at that time to leave the service. “Our chaplain’s resignation was accepted and he is going home. He is well-pleased to get away. I would like to go home too but I can’t afford to go on one-half pay.”
Many soldiers in the Sixty-Fifth died not only in battle but from the horrific conditions at the Benton Barracks. In October 1864, less than a year after the first recruits entered Benton Barracks, a medical board convened. Its findings showed that more than a third of those enlisted had died of various undiagnosed diseases. Others expired due to poor sanitary conditions, as well as lack of proper food and the means to prepare it. One hundred soldiers, thinly clad, with no shoes and hats, died during their first two months of duty at Benton Barracks, beginning December 1863. Two hundred soldiers were recommended for immediate medical discharge. Black regiments were most often bivouacked near swampy or poorly drained areas of the camp. The condition and treatment of these troops were a direct result of the racism and discrimination that was prevalent throughout the army.
* * * * *
Elizabeth Estell, after setting out for Le Sueur in late August, finally arrived sometime in early October. Had it been Montgomery traveling home, it would have taken him a week. So why did it take Lizzie so long to make the same trip? Montgomery chose not to raise the question. It was more important that she had finally arrived. His patience may have been propped up by what other similar-intended officers had experienced. While working with freed slaves the brothers Ben and Daniel Densmore realized that they could send some to their hometown of Red Wing, where they would work as servants. Ben specifically received word from neighbors that they could use contraband to help them on their farms. The trouble of “delivery,” as Ben would later record, was the distance the contraband would have to travel to the Minnesota farm: “they are not the most reliable people in the world—they are apt to be trifling.”
In any event, Montgomery was pleased to hear that Lizzie had finally arrived at his Le Sueur home: “The best news to me was that Lizzie has arrived safely with you—and she seemed to be in good spirits.” She had apparently gone through the money he gave her. His mother wanted to withhold the cost for the trip from her wages, which had yet to be determined; but Montgomery decided against this, not wanting to do anything that would upset Lizzie. “I have made no bargain as to her wages. The expense of sending her up was considerable and would go a long way in paying her wages [but] don’t calculate in that way. The intention is that she will remain with you.” This seemed to have pleased Lizzie, who sang his praises. “I am afraid Lizzie blows too much about me and I was well pleased with her day’s work that you mentioned.”
The exotic appearance of this “yellow gal” from faraway Missouri soon became the source of curiosity and the uncomfortable ever-present stares from the Montgomerys’ Le Sueur neighbors, most of whom had probably never seen an African American before, the very embodiment for which the Great War was now being waged, the reason why their fathers, sons, and brothers were fighting and dying; but he suggested to his mother what she could do to help Lizzie through the disorienting process of transition into her new life in Minnesota. “I suppose you receive many visits to see Lizzie and I hope she will not be lonely. Give her a chance to ride horseback and send her the enclosed letter from William, her husband.” Now, all seemed at peace with him: “We drill a little every day. I have plenty of time to read and write. . . . I am taking an interest in learning my boys to read. I now have just for a company of 42 men. The other company has much less.
Within the week, he learned that Lizzie wanted to return to Missouri. He insisted that all that could be done should be done to persuade her to stay. But then it began to outrage him that she could be so ungrateful. He did not consider that homesickness or discomfort was a sufficient reason for wanting to leave Minnesota. If she had a better reason for wanting to leave, he would let her do so, though he would insist on keeping her valise and other articles that she had taken to Minnesota. “Tell her she will make me feel bad if she leaves you now after all my expense and trouble for her present and future good. Tell her I say she is a hundred times better off than here or elsewhere. Try to divert her mind. Let her ride on horseback or anything till this wears off.” In leaving, she would be casting herself among strangers. But she was not his slave, nor was he her master. “She promised me to stay with you till I returned at least. I want her to be contented and to fulfill her promises to me but if she is bound to leave, I would let her go. Perhaps she is best judge of her own feelings.” He finally resigned himself to the peculiar trait of her race: “Privately I would say if Lizzie is determined to leave, or she has left you, it may be better now than later. One thing I observe, a large portion of the race of negroes don’t appreciate efforts for their future elevation and good.” He nonetheless wished her well but closed by reiterating the point: “I would be sorry if she leaves you now. It would not be treating me fair.”
In the midst of war and mounting deaths in the regiment owing to disease, Montgomery instead remained agitated over the prospect of Lizzie’s leaving the farm. In the letter he wrote to his mother the next day, he passionately recounted the reasons why Lizzie was better off in Minnesota; she obviously did not know what was good for her. It was, he wrote, for her own good that he insisted on her going to Minnesota, even though she had wanted to return in Missouri. Besides, he explained, there was no reason for her to return to the unit. All the women servants had left.
At the heart of his frustration was that she was upsetting his “plan.” “It is my profound belief that she would suit you if she would be contented not to be so homesick as it were. She must remember that she is no longer a slave, but if she attempts to leave Minnesota, ten chances to one she will be kidnapped and returned to slavery or be arrested by the rebel government and put on some plantation. It is irresponsible for her to go back to St. Louis, or even to leave [Minnesota].” As if to seal the deal that she was to stay put, he added that no money was forthcoming: “We are not yet paid and consequently William can’t send her money, yet.”
Twelve days later, on November 8, Abraham Lincoln was overwhelmingly reelected to the presidency. To his brother, Montgomery rhapsodized poetic: “The news of the election is such as we had reason to expect. Lincoln is reelected! God bless him. This is glorious news to Union-loving people and very bad news for Copperheads and rebels. May the country be saved entirely, Slavery entirely abolished, and peace and union perpetuated in the Land. For this we endure hardship, toil, and privation so the country is saved and the Union preserved even at the cost of my poor life.” Elsewhere in the letter, he mentioned the surplus clothing he was able to send them. “They will be worth a great deal to you.”
It was now December and Minnesota was frozen in winter, a time of the year that probably gave Lizzie pause in wanting to leave the farm. Montgomery was pleased to hear that she was making the best of the situation, and he made certain to include positive reports about Lizzie’s husband, Will. “Tell her that I will give Will the lock of hair and he was glad to hear from her and send her his love. Tell her that he is now the best boy in Company B. He is always glad to hear from her and hopes she will take good care of herself.”
Throughout the month Montgomery underscored his pleasure with Lizzie in staying at the farm by reminding her that Will was also pleased with her decision: “Will was delighted to hear from her and of her doing well.” Montgomery imagined how tranquil his home was, as the family sat around near the blazing fire. “There is mother on the right of the table with her knitting and a book open before her. . . . There is Lizzie looking wondrously wise and sewing with all her might, now and then stopping to ask a question about her lesson. She is on the left of the table. Father is absent on business of a public character. Alexander in the background is now making some fancy sketches on his slate, and then again biting his lip or scratching his head. . . . Yourself [James] has just come in from town,” “Oh,” he often concluded, “how I miss being there with you all.”
In January, he must have surprised his mother when he stated that after the war, he did not want to return to a life of farming; rather he wanted a life of learning, one of breeding. “I used to like farming very much but my mind has another bent now. Much as I have been educated, I feel the lack of education very much and I believe if I returned safely from the army, I would go to college or high school and store my mind with useful knowledge. When I look at the poor darkies, I think I know something; but when so much lies before me to be learned, I confess I feel ignorant.”
“Breeding” had become important to the captain even before he enlisted in the army. It had prompted him to invest in land. During the previous August, he indulged in stereotype as he wrote about Dr. Charles Eliot, whom he had met in Missouri. The good doctor, though a graduate of the Iowa Medical University, “would make you laugh to hear of his uncouth manner and gestures and peculiarities. He dresses very rough, wears old shoes, sticks his fingers up his large nose and hitches up his britches. When I saw him I thought he was a common old Irishman, as he looks and accents his words much like one.” Despite his education, Eliot displayed the absence of refinement normally associated with a man of his professional status, an Irishman from whom the Irish-born Montgomery dearly wished to distance himself. His captaincy made him an officer. Education would make him a gentleman. He closed by wishing Lizzie well. “She is ten times better than she would be here. William her husband is well and is always glad to hear of herwelfare.”
Montgomery’s mother had never been exposed to African Americans, so Lizzie must have been quite a curiosity for her. Stories Lizzie shared about her life and marriage may have been so foreign to Mrs. Montgomery that the facts probably invited more questions that “proper” people may have felt too inhibited to raise, questions like the nature of her marriage to William. What Lizzie conveyed about the sacred institution within the prism of slavery may have prompted Mrs. Montgomery to wonder whether the holy union between her servant and her servant’s husband was in fact legitimate.
Montgomery seemed to handle the delicate matter in a roundabout manner, by first reminding his mother how fortunate she was to have Lizzie. “You have much need of help. I think Elizabeth is learning fast. She will yet learn to write a letter perhaps.” Then he reported that his men had just been paid. “The Darkies are having a regular jollification since pay-day. Poor boys, they are much in need of money. Some throw their money away while others save it all.” Then he got to the hedged point. “You talked of getting certificates concerning Lizzie’s marriage. I may attend to it but I don’t think it is necessary. [William] is willing [to legally marry her]. . . . They are man and wife in the eyes of the law and are married as nearly all their race is: common consent of both parties as long as they agree. There is genuine affection between some, and others if too long separated will marry again, anyway.” What he meant was that enslaved people could not legally marry in any slaveholding state. Laws considered them property and commodities, not legal persons who could enter into contracts, and marriage was very much a legal contract. This meant that until 1865, when slavery ended in the country, slaves—indeed, the vast number of African Americans—could not legally marry. Nonetheless, many enslaved people entered into relationships that they treated like marriage; they considered themselves husbands and wives even though they knew their unions were not protected by state law. Perhaps assuming it necessary to vouch for William’s character, Montgomery later wrote, “He is now a corporal with a hope of soon being sergeant, all this for good behavior and attention to duty. He is well. So are Lizzie’s friends. All send love and tell her that Mary left here last week for St. Louis.” It seemed that Lizzie’s friends had not left the camp as Montgomery had previously claimed in a desperate effort to discourage her from wanting to return to the unit. But since she seemed happy in her new Minnesota home, all, for now, was well with her.
* * * * *
I am anxious to do all I can for them but I will not involve myself in any trouble.
With the removal of the Dakota and the Winnebago from Minnesota in 1863, the federal government claimed their now-vacated land and prepared to open it for purchase. By June 1865, the government was poised to begin the process for receiving bids. The St. Peter Land Office would administer the work that officially was to begin that summer. The land agent—more officially known as the register of public lands for the General Land Office at St. Peter, and a presidential appointee—was Abner Tibbetts. One month earlier, he had inquired whether Montgomery’s troops would be interested in staking their claims in rich Minnesota farmland. It was an extraordinary gesture, considering that there were loud voices in the region of Minnesota that were hostile to black migration. Talk of changing the state constitution to include black suffrage had set the spark to the fuse, and Tibbetts would have known about this. Still, he made the offer.
Tibbetts had known the Montgomery family for some time through, initially, previous land dealings, but their relationship had deepened over the years. Curious about the war effort and what he had learned from Montgomery about the sights he had seen, as well as the blacks he commanded, Tibbetts visited his friend in St. Louis in early 1864. That firsthand exposure left in him a lasting impression of the nobility of Montgomery’s men, ex-slaves, the type whom many questioned could be counted on in battle, who had nevertheless rushed forward to take up arms against their former masters and defend the nation, if need be, at the cost of their own lives. Not even Tibbetts was making this sacrifice. Perhaps he at least could contribute to the cause in some small measure. The idea may have come to him later in August when, as a favor to Montgomery, he sat with Lizzie Estell in St. Peter as they waited for her stage on the final leg to Cleveland Township.
Though there is no record of what transpired between them, one may surmise that they conversed with proper restraint, a curious Minnesotan in his first conversation with a black woman, a so-called contraband with light-colored skin, who now huddled within her borrowed coat against all the unfamiliarity around her and the chill of Minnesota’s autumnal air: she embodied what the war was truly about. Reading about Confederate atrocities in the South, it was hard to imagine a South where black people like Elizabeth and her husband, William, could ever securely live in freedom. She struck him as a person of high character and industry, married to a man of equal carriage, deserving of a homestead where she could live at once as a wife and mother in a unified family under the same roof on the free and richly fertile farm soil of Minnesota. Clearly, Tibbetts concluded, their best opportunity for a bright future resided up north and in Minnesota, the state that was the first to respond to Lincoln’s call to arms when the war broke out. He could offer Montgomery’s men the opportunity to acquire the soon-to-be available and soon-to-be purchased land parcels on the Dakota and Winnebago reservations. This would be his contribution to the cause for freedom, giving Montgomery’s troops the opportunity that white men of privilege, many of whom had not fought in the war, always had: the advantage of bidding early.
Montgomery responded that his men were interested. “I spoke to the men about it and they seemed to be gratified that any person had taken such an interest in their future welfare.” He had “no doubt that he could form a good colony but the men,” as well as himself, wanted to know “on what conditions we are to base our actions.” For their benefit, Montgomery wanted more information. Will the land be timber or prairie? High or rolling or wet or marshy? Good soil or sandy or poor soil? Will it be convenient to market or to the Minnesota River? To timber if prairie, and can wood and good water be found easily? About how far and in what direction from St. Peter? Will the land be safely held for the men till after the war, free from taxes, in case they should die or be killed while in the army. They, “of course,” wanted to know about the climate. “The object of asking these questions is to make my own action secure and furnish the men a guarantee that there is no deception”:
All my men are without houses and are desirous of procuring them and they could each bring their friends along. Some are tradesmen. All of them I have no doubt would make good industrious citizens. I don’t want to have them misled or disappointed. If your answers will be satisfactory and you will guarantee a good selection as I have no doubt you will, I will hasten to send you the names and money. I think they will be quite willing to go to Minnesota. One of them said, “We will go anywhere to get away from the secesh.” The plan is a good one and I like it well and it will induce them no doubt to be saving of their money.
But despite his support he expressed one condition. If there was resistance to the plan, he would let the idea drop. “I am anxious to do all I can for [the men] but I will not involve myself in any trouble.” It seemed that there was “trouble” with the plan for a black colony, though Montgomery never confirmed this in subsequent letters. In fact, he mentioned nothing more about the scheme. It was as if the overture had never existed.
He changed the topic. The unit had received new recruits the day before. They were from Wisconsin, and most could read and write. One was “perfectly white”; another was from Winona, Minnesota, and a number of them had friends in his unit. One apparently knew Montgomery’s corporal, William, and told him that Lizzie’s two children “were well and well taken care of and at the same place as where she left them.” In persuading his mother to receive Lizzie as a helper, he had earlier assured her that Lizzie had “no children to trouble her.” This was now the first time he mentioned that she indeed did, a fact quite plausibly he may have known from two persons he trusted—his cook, whom he had sent to work for his mother, and his cook’s husband, William, Montgomery’s corporal. He seemed unaware of yet one more reason why Lizzie might have wanted to return south.
On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee of the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Montgomery rejoiced at the news. “We have had the official announcement of the surrender of Lee with his entire army into the hands of Grant on terms proposed by the other. It is glorious.” Five days later, on April 14, President Abraham Lincoln was shot. “With feelings of utter sadness I refer to another subject—that all but absorbing topic of the day, the horrible assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the Sec’t. of State William Seward and others.” In fact, in a botched attempt by one of Booth’s coconspirators, Seward was severely wounded at his home but was not killed.
My heart grieves at every mention of the atrocious deed. I never endured such sad and mournful feelings as I did during the 24 hours succeeding the mournful intelligence. The noble honest pure patriotic and magnanimous Lincoln is no more. He has fallen in his manhood at the height of his excellence and devotion for the country’s best interest. Our great and good President has been cut down in his glory and that by the devilish assassin’s bullet without any cause or provocation. Freedom has lost a champion: the oppressed, their truest friend.
Presidential appointee Abner Tibbetts tendered his resignation the day Lincoln died, April 15, and returned to his home in Lake City.
* * * * *
When young folks grow up, and leave the home of their childhood they are so engrossed with so many strange objects and see so much that is new that they nine cases out of ten forget all about home.
May brought a new sort of trouble for Captain Montgomery when he learned that his teenage brother Alexander had run away from home. Though he could understand why any young man might feel restless, “gone to seek abroad those advantages [and] privileges that he was denied at home,” the captain nonetheless was perturbed to learn that his brother could be so “reprehensible.” Alex, insisted his oldest brother, had responsibilities to the family to stay and help work the farm. Yet, he said, he was “not prepared to judge.” As for himself, Montgomery, who was “used to the city or public life,” was “fully aware that farming in the woods of Minnesota furnishes few inducements to a mind bent on the acquisition of knowledge,” declaring that he himself did not want to return to the farm. “My choice today would be to go to college to further my education as yet only commenced. I feel my disadvantages very much at times. It is a sad thing to grow up in ignorance while so much remains to be known. Such a person should live in the backwoods all their days.”
With the realization that two of her three sons might not be coming back to her, Mrs. Montgomery grew quiet, or she was at least nonresponsive to the added blow of the captain’s plan, which for him was the logical progression of a young gentleman in training. Left behind was her husband, who seemed always away from home, investing in land deals, and James, the son who seemed to be the only man left to share the hard labors of farming with their increasingly “restless” servant, Lizzie. What exactly could Mrs. Montgomery say to her oldest son who was serving their nation that now needed him more in the aftermath of the killing of their president? Finally, on May 31, the captain prompted her to respond to his plan with other news: “When you write next, our regiment will probably be consolidated. William Estell is with us and is doing well.” He then asked what he really wanted to say: “What do you say to me leaving the service and going to college?”
* * * * *
Dear Brother James, June 4:
This being the twenty-fourth anniversary of my birthday I seat myself to write you a few lines. My health today is good and I hope it will continue. . . . I have been unwell for the past month, my bowels have been deranged, but I feel now as if I was entirely well. I was not very sick [nor] was I confined to my bed but was quite weak. I am now improving fast. God be all praised.
The captain later ruminated on his near future in the army if his unit was to be consolidated with another regiment. Compensation was a key factor to his desire to remain in uniform. “The War Department will decide who [of the officers] go and who stay, at least as it is said. Most of our officers wish to go home. I choose to stay some time longer, unless I am refused a leave of absence when I will ask to be mustered out. My pay is good. An officer who is mustered out honorably with his command receives 3-months additional pay proper being for me $1800. We also receive one-day pay for 20-miles travel from his place of muster in. These are inducements.” He also wanted Lizzie to know that he was being well taken care of. “[Servant] Henry Hershey does all our cooking, washing, and cleaning up and does it scientifically to[o]. He is an active boy full of fun all the time amusing us with his drollery. He has only one eye but he is death on Rebels.”
One night William Estell came to the captain’s tent to tell him “something to write to Lizzie.” He had been “in feeble health for some time” though he thought he was getting better. But the main point of the letter he wanted the captain to write was that he wanted her to be “a good girl and remain there [until] he comes out of service after her. He would rather she would stay there than to leave.” The time was remarkably convenient, especially as it related to Lizzie’s recent murmurings about leaving the farm. Her restlessness seemed to have abated for the time being. The Minnesota winter had a way of dampening wanderlust. Brother Alex’s sudden departure was a sign of the times. And now that Lizzie was sounding off, it meant that his mother would have no one to help around the farm, which would create a burden on the oldest son. His sense of duty would have compelled him to return to the farm. Montgomery’s letters would increasingly reflect one who understood the loneliness his mother feared and now anticipated. It became critical to him that Lizzie should stay on the family farm, not, as he would write, that it was what he wanted, but what her husband William wanted, especially in his weakened state. It was a message he was prepared to make to his corporal’s wife in person. “You say that Lizzie is getting restless and is anxious to leave[.] If she has not kept her promise to me I will shortly be up there perhaps and see her for it. . . . She should be well-paid for staying with you, but if she is headstrong and disobedient, I would not keep her if I could better myself.” He had to concede, however, that laborers like Lizzie could make more money elsewhere: “She has lived with you longer than I expected [especially] for one who has been around with the army. Women have made as high as $25 per month, cooking the mess, washing and sewing.”
But he also wanted his mother to buck up, conveying, for the first time in any letter he had before written, edgy displeasure and impatience with her. “There is something mysterious in consequence of getting that letter which I cannot fully comprehend. You are doubtless greatly perplexed in these times. So many things as here are written on your mind.” Then, softening his tone he wrote, “I can faintly imagine how you feel now being so secluded and lonely since Bro. Alex left, but you must strive to bear up under the dispensation of Providence and to put your trust in the One Almighty to save all, who noticed even the fall of a sparrow. May God uphold you in His Grace to the end. I know you must feel grieved but perhaps it is all for the best. I will try to visit you as soon as possible and then we can talk more freely on the subject.” He added, “I suppose I could leave the army if I would try but as it pays very well I don’t care to go on the farm. It is not my intention however, to remain in too long.” His own health had been bad: “I am troubled this summer, much as I was last, with diseases of the bowels which has reduced me in flesh coincidentally. I do not suffer any, however, but would like cool weather to come again.”
Two weeks later both mother and oldest son were in better spirits. “I was glad to hear that inspite [sic] of our case of anxiety for Bro. Alex your health was so good that you could ride out and that your spirits were not as despondent. I suppose that you are well pleased to hear from your dear sisters in Ireland.” One of his aunt’s sons, his cousin Thomas Morrow, had like Alex suddenly left home. “It is a little strange that [they] don’t hear from Cousin Thomas Morrow. But it is much the way of the world. When young folks grow up, and leave the home of their childhood they are so engrossed with so many strange objects and see so much that is new that they nine cases out of ten forget all about home. If they have been well brought up, they will sometimes think seriously of their loved ones far away. It is my experience that were it not for writing so frequently, I would seldom think of home being so much engaged with my everyday affairs.” Turning his focus on his wayward brother: “I feel sorry for Bro. Alex very often. I think it strange that he don’t write to either of us. He will surely be brought to a sense of pain it inflicts over you and ought to relieve your anxiety by writing. May God take care of him.”
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Later in June 1865, Montgomery got a leave of absence to return to Le Sueur. No record exists of what transpired while he was at home. By mid-September he had taken a circuitous route in return to his regiment, by way of Faribault, Red Wing (where he visited Hamline University and met with Reverend J. Brooks, president, who gave him a catalog), Madison, Wisconsin, where he searched for brother “Sandy” (Alex), Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis, and Cairo, Illinois. By the time he reached his regiment, now in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he found major changes.
In the fall of 1865, Montgomery’s Sixty-Seventh Regiment was consolidated into the Sixty-Fifth Regiment because of the considerable number of deaths due to disease. In the Sixty-Fifth, in particular, 749 enlisted men and 6 officers died to cholera and smallpox. Black regiments posted along the lower Mississippi River valley encountered similar problems. Whether stationed in Louisiana, Arkansas, or St. Louis (Benton Barracks), the mortality rate was alarmingly high. One company in the Sixtieth lost more than a quarter of its men to sickness. Another unit, within six days after arriving at its post in Arkansas, lost 65 percent of its men. Black troops were not only far more likely to contract smallpox while in service, but they also were more likely to die from it. The Union army required vaccinations of its troops but the vaccine used—sometimes taken from men who were sick from other diseases—often led to severe complications. “However I am thankful for things as they are and am willing to conform to circumstances as ordered for me and accept changes as they occur.”
He wanted Lizzie to know that William was now in the Sixtieth Regiment, Company A, though he remained sick for a good while and was in Post Hospital. “For wont [sic] of time I have not yet seen him but will soon and write again.” However, William Estell’s name does not appear on the roster of Company A, Sixtieth Regiment, also known as the First Regiment Iowa Volunteer Infantry—African Descent. On October 15, 1865, the regiment mustered out at Devalls Bluff, Arkansas, and was discharged on November 2. In fact, subsequent letters from Montgomery indicate that Estell never left the hospital, suggesting that he was too ill to travel.
The prevention and treatment of disease were as important as combat operations in the campaigns along the Mississippi River during the Civil War. Throughout the Vicksburg campaign, many more soldiers were disabled by disease than by combat injuries. While this held true for both sides, a greater proportion of the Union army was healthier than the opposing Confederate troops. In the last two years of the war, however, the North tried to occupy the Confederate states along the Mississippi valley. The failure to accomplish this goal was largely due to the deteriorating health of the Union army.
Doctors did not understand that mosquitoes spread disease and, in particular, yellow fever. Once an infected mosquito bit a person, the onset of the disease began within a few days. The patient suffered head and body aches, along with high fever and nausea; damage to the liver resulted in the yellowing of the skin and eyes. More than half of victims of yellow fever died within a few days; those who survived gained immunity against the disease. There were many severe epidemics throughout the Civil War. The disease was common in the swamps within the Mississippi valley, where Montgomery’s unit was now encamped. Even senior officers were infected. “The Colonel has been sick for a few days but is getting well.”
Seven days later Montgomery reported that as long as the weather was dry, “the officers were in good health but when wet weather set in, nearly every one was taken down sick. I have had no chills or fever since last Sunday. My stomach now is only a nervous weakness.” But he also acknowledged that the officers had not fully recovered. “For the last two dress parades the Company officers were the 9th and 10th Captains and only one line officer was present beside the Adjutant. This shows how we are reduced by sickness. The Major and Adjutant are both sick now.” William had been “feeble” “nearly all summer” and “he looked quite thin.” But, in a hopeful note to Lizzie, Montgomery wrote, “He is not confined to bed. He is out every day and sent his love to her.” Montgomery reported that William regretted not writing more frequently: “He says it is difficult to get anyone to write for him.” William also wanted to know whether the forty dollars he had sent to Lizzie by Captain Whitford ever arrived.
It was not unusual that enlisted men would hand over their wages and savings to trusted officers of their units, for it seemed that the officers would survive them all. It had seemed that the health of officers tended to fare better and because of the privilege of rank, the officers had relative freedom of movement. There was always a chance they might venture near a distant loved one and convey personal regard just as a lifeline would do. And as their officers—indeed, white men who chose to lead them into battle to win their own freedom—they were imbued with a special, in some units, reverential status. But under the cloak of an officer and the veneer of “gentleman,” the man within was ultimately a man with flaws. In the midst of the greatest crusade there was always the opportunity of personal benefit.
By mid-October William Estell was still in the Post Hospital, but he was “improving rapidly.” As to Lizzie’s restlessness, Montgomery wanted her to know that “William is uneasy to hear from Elizabeth and sends his love to her. Give my regards to her to be a good faithful girl and learn to read.”
In Minnesota, voters were being asked to elect a new governor, and Montgomery was a Marshall man though he was ambiguous on the companion question that would be posed: whether the state constitution should extend the right to vote to black men. “I am anxious to hear the decision of the election this fall. I hope [William] Marshall is elected but I think it will be a close run on account of the point at issue—negro suffrage.”
Montgomery had a special interest in William R. Marshall, his old commander in the Seventh Volunteers. The lieutenant colonel had done well since they fought the Dakota together in 1862, and in November 1863, Marshall was promoted to colonel. He fought valiantly in the Battle of Nashville, where he took command of Colonel Sylvester Hill’s brigade after Hill was killed on the first day of the battle. He continued in brigade command when transferred to Mobile, Alabama, to take part in the Battle of Fort Blakely. Colonel Marshall was brevetted brigadier general of volunteers on March 13, 1865.
In 1865 the Missouri-born war hero was elected governor of Minnesota and would serve for two terms. In 1865, however, despite his support for black suffrage, the question failed statewide by a vote of 14,651 to 12,138; Marshall defeated Democrat Henry Rice, 17,318 to 13,842. Montgomery’s skepticism of the success of black suffrage was well founded, for he understood his community’s views on race and knew Marshall’s support might undercut his candidacy. In 1865 black suffrage and Marshall both fell short in Le Sueur County: Marshall lost, 422 to 729, and the black suffrage amendment lost, 224 to 839. Montgomery did not state his position on the issue of whether black men should have the right to vote.
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Montgomery could never forget that he and the unit were in danger. “There is now and then some shooting between us and the Rebel citizens. They don’t like us any too well. Doctor Moore, of our Regiment on duty at Clinton with the Seventh Kentucky, was shot through the head by a Rebel.” During these months, the Union army was able, though barely, to enforce the law. “The murderer and his accomplices are safely in a cell of the Penitentiary here in irons, awaiting trial.”