1866: Nellie (Riegel) Nickerson to Sarah Gertrude (Riegel) Groff

This letter was datelined from Bayou Sara, Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, in mid-February 1866 and written by Nellie (Riegel) Nickerson—the 19 year-old wife of Azor Howitt Nickerson (1837-1910). Nellie was the daughter of John Riegel (1818-18xx) and Susan Adams Ingol. Nellie’s sister, to whom she addressed her letter, was Sarah Gertrude (Riegel) Groff (b. 1844), the wife of Johnson R. Groff of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately for Nellie, her marriage to Azor was brief—she died of spotted fever at Fort Boise, Idaho, only 14 months later.

There is no surviving image of Nellie that I have found but here is a young woman about her age wearing apparel that dates to about 1866.

But what was Nellie’s husband doing in Bayou Sara, Louisiana, in February 1866? A Washington Post article researched and written by William Horne informs us that Azor was there as an agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau tasked with protecting the interests of the former slaves who were being hired to work for wages on the sugar and cotton plantations. Protecting their interests meant providing them assistance in the way of food, shelter, medical aid, schools and legal assistance. Indeed, the Freedmen’s Bureau Louisiana Field Office list of personnel gives “A. H. Nickerson” as “Agent and Asst. Subassistant Commissioner” from January 1865 to May 1866. Nellie’s letter was written in the winter time when the risk of disease was relatively low but apparently during the previous summer of 1865, a small pox epidemic erupted in the area, hitting the black communities particularly hard where, clustered in cramped quarters, the disease spread rapidly unchecked. Allegedly Nickerson colluded with the white planters to keep the infected blacks out of the village (where he was living with his wife), which essentially “condemned them to almost certain death.” Later, Nickerson accused the mayor of attempting to spread the disease, even by going so far as to infect him with it, by sending diseased blacks to his office hoping to run both him and the Bureau out of the parish and thereby maintain elements of hierarchy reminiscent of slavery. [See “In the hands of racist officials…” by William Horne]

Nickerson had a long a controversial post-war career best summarized on the Arlington National Cemetery website that highlights events captured in a book entitled, “The Tarnished Saber: Major Azor Nickerson, USA, His Life and Times” by Angelo D. Juarez.

[Note: This letter is from the private collection of Richard Weiner and is published on Spared & Shared by express consent.]


Bayou Sara, Louisiana
February 18, 1866

Dear Gertie,

We received Grandma’s letter on the 13th. Last night it rained hard, and thundered all night, and has been raining fast all day. The streets are full of water and a few minutes ago, I saw a man rowing a boat before his house. Azor had a letter from a lawyer by the name of Smith, friend of his, who asked him if he had not received his appointment in the Regular Army and told him that Mr. Welker had certainly informed him—Smith, and others, that Azor had been appointed. If he has, he has not received any notice of it. I thought I would tell you about it, but please say nothing outside of the family until we are sure of it. 1

Mrs. Judge Riley called upon me on Tuesday. On Thursday Azor went to the country an while he was gone, a house across the street took fire and as it was a very windy day, and the houses are almost all old and built entirely of wood, we were dreadfully frightened. and began to pack our things. I had almost all our things packed when they told us there was no more danger—the fire was out. They have no engine and the men got onto the roof of the house and those below passed buckets of water to them, and in that way, put it out. Mrs. Leak was very much frightened for the town has been burned two or three times—one or twice by fires and once by Porter’s fleet. 2

Monday, February 19th. Indeed, Gertie, I hardly know what to write. I have nothing new to tell you. We want to see you all very much and I want to see little Minnie so much.

I have received but one call since we have been here and that, as I told you before, was from Mrs. Riley. I suppose they don’t call on us because we are “Yankees” but I have not been lonesome at all since we came to Mr. Leake’s. 3 Mrs. Leake is very pleasant and Azor is in the house almost all the time and gives me a good deal of copying to do, and when he is not here, I try to keep as busy as possible.

Today has been very pleasant and the streets were tolerably dry, so I went out to take a walk. I had not gone a square from the house when I met a woman. Just as she passed me, she turned round and said, almost in my face, “I though she was a Yankee!” I was surprised for I had never seen the woman before but I suppose she knew who I was, however. I took no notice of her but walked on as if she had not said anything.

Richie Leake just came in to see if her mother’s scissors were in my room. I found them among my work. Azor told Richie to tell her mother she must not leave things laying around when I am about as I have a habit of picking things up.

How do “Kitty” and “Mac” behave now? Have they improved any? We have only heard from home twice and this is the 10th or 11th letter we have written. Those we have received were written on small sized letter paper. I think it is my turn to complain now. How are Mollie and Barbara and all the girls? Is Aunt Kate’s baby living? How are Annie and Minnie and Sade and Will and all? Do write good long letters and tell everything.

Love to all and a dozen kisses for Minnie. If Azor has time, he will add a line. Goodnight dear ones all. Yours, — Nellie Nickerson

To Mrs. J. R. Groff, Mechanicsburg, Cumberland county, Pennsylvania

Dear Gertie, I haven’t time to add a line. With much love, your affectionate brother, — A. H. Nickerson

1 President Andrew Johnson approved the nomination of 2nd Lt. Azor H. Nickerson to 1st Lt. in the 14th Regiment of Infantry, Regular Army on 23 February 1866. Azor was a captain in the Veteran Reserve Corp at the time he was discharged from the army but apparently was being reinstated in the post war regular service at a lower rank.

2 On 10 August 1862, the US Gunboat Essex shelled the town while a small landing party set it ablaze. All the buildings within two blocks of the river were destroyed. More destruction occurred in the months to follow, virtually leveling the town and no doubt accelerating the resident’s hatred for Yankees.

3 Mrs. Leake was Elizabeth Henrix Pollard who married Richard Marcellus Leake in 1848 in Missouri. Their daughter “Richie” was born in 1854. After Nickerson and his wife left Bayou Sara in the spring of 1866, Richard M. Leake served in the same role as Nickerson for September-October 1866 until he was shot and killed during a labor dispute with William Reynolds—the Irish blacksmith and carriage maker in Bayou Sara.

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