1863: William T. Lewis to Peter Lewis

A young unidentified Black man (LOC)

The following letter was written by William T. Lewis (1839-Aft1865), the son of Peter Lewis (b. 1815) and Emeline E. Lewis (1817-1865), who grew up a free black man in Cayutaville—a small hamlet between Smith Valley and Catharine in the southeast corner of Hector Township in Schuyler county, New York. In the 1860 US Census, the Lewis family was enumerated in Odessa, William’s father in his mid-40’s and employed as a farm hand, and 21 year-old William the oldest of three children. According to the 1865 NY State Census, William’s father was born in New York City and his mother in Connecticut. William and siblings were born in Chemung county. The 1880 US Census informs us that William’s paternal grandmother was from the West Indies. The community that William’s parents lived in before and after the war was almost exclusively White.

Unfortunately I cannot find any record of William’s service during the war—if in fact he was drafted. He may not have been and William’s enrollment may have been an error as blacks were not considered citizens and therefore not subject to the draft. Hence the animosity borne against the black citizens of New York City and other urban centers that resulted in the draft riots of 1863. Some scholars have argued, however, that blacks were eligible because in the aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Second Confiscation Act, and Attorney General Bates’ opinion that free blacks were citizens and Dred Scott was not legally binding, Congress changed the definition of the militia from “free able-bodied white male citizens” to “Able-bodied male citizens.” There are reportedly few cases of blacks being called up by local draft boards under the act though.

We do know William lived beyond the war. He was enumerated in his parent’s home in July 1865, but I could not find him in census records beyond that date.

1863 Draft Registration, William T. Lewis identified as a 24 year-old “Col’d Laborer” who was “at work in Hector, Schuyler county, NY”

[Note: The following letter is from the personal collection of Richard Weiner and was transcribed and published on Spared & Shared by express consent.]


Addressed to Mr. Peter Lewis, Cayutaville, Schuyler county, New York

Jacksonville, Tompkins county, New York
Sunday, August 9, 1863

Dear parents,

It is with pleasure that I find myself by my desk addressing you with my pen. I am well & in good spirits. I must write you some of our victories of the last month. July 3rd the victory of Gettysburg, rebel loss in killed & wounded & prisoners 33,000. July 4, capture of Vicksburg with 31,000 prisoners, 220 guns & 70,000 small arms. July 4, victory of Helena, Arkansas, the rebels losing 2,700 killed, wounded & prisoners. July 6, defeat of Stuart by Buford at Hanover with loss of 1,000 prisoners. July 8, capture of Port Hudson 7,000 prisoners & numerous cannon & small arms & several other victories including in all 28 successful contests with a loss to the enemy of more than 300 guns & 80,000 prisoners. The Mississippi is open from its sources to the gulf. The rebels expelled from nearly all Tennessee & Mississippi—the territory subject to their military control reduced to the states of Alabama, Georgia, South & North Carolina, & a part of Virginia. That looks bully indeed.

I received my notice on Monday morning. I have to appear on or before the 2nd of September or just as I am a mind to. As I have plenty of paper & time, I will write you my notice. So here it is.

Lincoln’s General Order No. 233; A rebel soldier shall be executed for every Black soldier killed instead of being treated as a POW.

Notice. Any person drafted & notified may on or before the day fixed for his appearance before the Board of Enrollment, furnish an acceptable substitute to take his place in the draft or he may pay to the Collector of Internal Revenue of his Congressional District the sum of 300 dollars who will give him a duplicate receipt. He must take to the Board of Enrollment on or before the time for his appearance before said Board persons furnishing a substitute or paying the above sum of money shall be discharged from further liability under the draft. Any person failing to report in person or by substitute or to furnish receipt of payment will be treated as a deserter and arrested as such.

The President has issued a Proclamation [General Order] declaring that colored soldiers must be protected. If the rebels take them prisoners, they must treat them as such. I have come to the conclusion that I had better go to Dixie than to pay 300 dollars. The belief is now that there won’t be much fighting for they are about whipped & I shall go unless you think that I had better pay the money. I think it is best for me to go. I haven’t paper to explain all I should like to write so that I can get it by the first of next week. I shall be home a week before I go. — W. T. Lewis

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