For some Union soldiers, their exposure to southern slavery profoundly altered their views on the institution, even before President Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862.
One such soldier, John P. Jones, wrote to his wife of his increasing sympathy for abolitionism after seeing the inhumanity with which slaves could be treated. He rejoiced that military policy no longer forced soldiers to return escaped slaves, which had made him feel like a “slave catcher.”
A page from his letter, sent from Medon, Tenn., and dated August 24, 1862, is a featured item in the Library’s “The Civil War in America” exhibition, opening Nov. 12. The letter has never before been seen by the public.
I am getting to be more and more of an abolitionist. I believe that this accursed institution must go down. We can never have a permanent peace as long … as this curse stains our otherwise fair insignia. The ruler of nations can never prosper these United States until it blots slavery from existence. He can no longer wink at such atrocities. This must be the grand, the final issue. I hope the powers that be will soon see it and act accordingly. It may be that we have not suffered enough yet, that the bones of a few more thousands of soldiers must bleach in the dismal swamps of the south, that a few more homes must be desolated, that suffering and desolation be more widely sown throughout the land, but come it must, postpone it as we may.
Thank God a few bright spots are luring up in the distant horizon, small it is true. But they will expand and grow brighter. We are to guard rebel property no more, and fugitives are no longer to be returned when they come within our lines. Thank God the American Soldier is no longer to be used as a slave catcher, no longer to drive helpless women around at the point of the bayonet, and be obliged to obey orders that makes him almost ashamed of being an American Soldier.”
Jones goes on to tell his “dear wife” of trips he’s made to the country since arriving in Tennessee.
The country looks wretched and forlorn. The soil is not very good, but it might be improved a great deal by good cultivation. But the people seem to have no idea of doing anything as it should be, their farming implements look as they were invented some four years before the flood. I have seen some of the most wretched looking families, some of the most abject scenes of poverty that I ever beheld.”
The identity of John P. Jones hasn’t been positively confirmed. There is a possibility that he is John P. Jones of the 45th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. According to historian Michelle Krowl of the Library’s Manuscript Division, the 45th Illinois did have a John P. Jones who enlisted in October 1861, and it also had a sergeant named Crittenden, who is mentioned in the letter. However, the description that accompanied the Library’s document suggested he was Capt. John P. Jones of Missouri, whose identity Library curators have been unable to confirm.
Jones closes his letter to his wife just as vehemently as he began:
Slavery is not only a curse to the nation but also a curse to the states, to the very plantations where it is in vogue, a curse to the owners themselves and some I have found candid enough to acknowledge it, were slavery abolished, free labor and Yankee enterprise encouraged, how soon would the south become more as the prosperous north.”