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    Description

    George McKee of the 11th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Letter Describing the Plight of Black Soldiers and the Black Population in the South. Four pages of a bifolium, 7.75" x 9.75", Yazoo City; March 3, 1864. The letter is unsigned, but intact, as McKee was interrupted by a call to battle. He writes in the left margin of the last page: "mem. The battle of Yazoo City prevented the finishing of this letter."

    A poignant letter in which McKee explores his growing empathy toward the colored soldiers he serves with and his disillusionment with the institution of slavery. It reads:

    "It is longer than the usual time between this letter and the former one but I know you will excuse it when I tell you that for the last four days, we have been constantly skirmishing and this afternoon is the first lull in the storm, since we landed here in the afternoon of Feb. 28th. I brought my regiment from the boats to this present position (in the fort) on the double quick, getting possession of the long vacant works only a few moments before the Texas brigade under General Ross. The Rebel advance guard were in the outer work, but were easily driven out. Our negro cavalry were severely handled by them as they tried to harass their retreat. As I stood by the trench, during the burial of the slain negroes, and I gazed on their stalwart forms and swarthy brows, I could not help wondering if the glorious flame of patriotism and liberty had ever been kindled in their hearts and had they been acting in obedience to its soul-stirring impulses. Or was it but the effort of the beast under the burden, as thoughtless as heedless as animals? Have they noble aspirations for the future of their race? And will any such aspirations be realized? It may jar your Southern feelings Allie my dear, but I tell you I hope so, I believe so. I cannot believe that this terrible evil of human slavery was meant to endure through all time. And if it must come to an end, why not now, as well as, yes, better than at some future time. Can anyone who believes in the ceaseless progress of humanity and civilization, also believe that for the African race alone there is no brighter future to strive for, that for them there is no bow of promise to cheer them onward and upward? Demagogues and fanatics, and interested parties, may prate as they will about slavery being right, a divine institution, and all that, but the human heart instinctively revolts at the idea that ages and ages may pass away and still the African be naught but the toiling barbarized, serf of today. But slavery is doomed even if some unlooked-for event it should escape present destruction, the first against it has gone forth. As the famous Roman orator concluded every speech with the sentence 'Carthage est delenda,' 'Carthage must be destroyed,' so has every latter day act of the civilized world declared that slavery shall die. For the present race of slaves, I know that the long sought for freedom is no previous boon, and the fanatics of Massachusetts can here learn a lesson as well as those of South Caroline.

    May God pity and aid the freedmen of the South. I sometimes think they have only changed masters, and so far it has undoubtedly been a poor exchange. I have seen them perish in scores, of neglect; they are not treated with positing unkindness; they are simply neglected. And as a race, they are suffering terribly in the transition state. But I suppose it must be so. The remedy is terrible, but so is the disease. It seems a law of nature that individual suffering must in some measure be the price of public good. The ways of art and science and religion are marked by the graves of those who have perished in pioneering the route. But history always overlooks that as it deals in generalities and results. Does anyone doubt that the emancipation of the Serfs of Russia is not attended with suffering, great and manifold, but does anyone hear of it. And when Moses led the children of Israel out of bondage, he left but a very slight record of the hardships and privations. Think of the cases of family and individual suffering, of the weary and foot-sore, of the helpless old and young, and the fever-stricken. All this must have been, yet we have but the glorious record of a 'nation delivered out of the hand of the spoiler.' Will the parable hold good throughout. Of all the race of Israel who were delivered from bondage, one only entered into the 'promised land.' I can almost believe that the cases are so similar, and that the present generation of slaves will be entirely swept away, before any practical, tangible good results is arrived at.

    X X X X I have engaged for several hours in driving the Rebs away from my picket line and now come back to finish my letter. The only results of this little affair are that the Texas boys captured the knapsack belonging to a picket post which they drove in, and also carried away an iron pot just borrowed of Judge Nye, full of boiling chickens. By the way, the other day, we had an exciting little fight in Judge Nye's place, and among his negro cabins (it is just in front of my fort) and you should have seen the style in which I carried, - that's very near the word - his pretty niece to a place of safety. I grieve to say I entirely forgot Mrs. Nye. I am afraid she won't forget it. Miss Pauline is a good Union girl and, as a matter of duty I had to look after her. Part of our business here is to protect the Union inhabitants. But I shall not try to make you jealous of Miss Pauline. She is a good pleasant, pretty girl but the affair was far more laughable than romantic, I assure you. I did not fly with her to some narrow pass that I could defend single-handed against a host, as novels tell about. Nothing of the kind. I simply put her into an old cistern, and went back to my men."

    Originally from Joliet, Illinois, McKee settled in Vicksburg, Mississippi after the Civil War. He served as a member of the State constitutional convention in 1868, and serve as U.S. Representative for three terms beginning in 1869. He was a key member of the Republican party, instrumental in the election of black statesmen.

    Condition: Letter has light toning around edges, with some areas of soiling throughout. Usual letter folds; letter has become separated along most of the center fold, with some small tears along the top edge.


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