The Original, Unpublished Recommendation President Abraham Lincoln Used to Secure the Position of Chaplain to the Newly Freed Slaves

He acts the day the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg ends, as wounded Union soldiers and “contrabands” flood into Washington .

The chaplain felt a calling and would work mostly without pay, selflessly donating his time and labor to the freedmen, and Lincoln’s note makes it clear he wants him employed

Over 40,000 escaped slaves sought refuge and freedom in Washington, D.C. after the passage of the D.C. Emancipation Act in April 1862,...

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The Original, Unpublished Recommendation President Abraham Lincoln Used to Secure the Position of Chaplain to the Newly Freed Slaves

He acts the day the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg ends, as wounded Union soldiers and “contrabands” flood into Washington .

The chaplain felt a calling and would work mostly without pay, selflessly donating his time and labor to the freedmen, and Lincoln’s note makes it clear he wants him employed

Over 40,000 escaped slaves sought refuge and freedom in Washington, D.C. after the passage of the D.C. Emancipation Act in April 1862, which freed all enslaved persons in the District of Columbia.  In addition, as the Union Army advanced on southern strongholds, thousands of slaves in their path made their way across Union lines to freedom, becoming what was known as “contraband.”  The increasing numbers of contraband coming into Washington created a dilemma for the Federal Government and the Union Army responsible for both the protection of the capital and the pursuit of victory over the Confederates.  How would these African-American men, women, and children find food, shelter, and medical care?  In an effort to meet this challenge, in late spring of 1862 the Union Army established a camp and hospital to serve them. It became a safe haven for these former slaves and a center of government sponsored contraband relief efforts in Washington. The Contraband Camp and Hospital were constructed as one-story frame buildings and tented structures built by the Union Army to serve as temporary housing and hospital wards for black civilians and soldiers.  Separate wards for men and women were established as well as separate tented wards for smallpox patients. In addition to the hospital wards, there was a stable, commissary, dead house (morgue), ice room, kitchen, laundry, dispensary, and living quarters. Within the camp thousands of contraband found refuge and medical care, and by the end of 1863, they had processed over 15,000 individuals and had 685 residents. The hospital hired nurses primarily from within the population of fugitive slaves and employed the largest number of black surgeons among U.S. military hospitals. In fact, the Contraband Hospital was one of the few medical facilities in Washington to treat African-Americans and broke the color barrier when it appointed Alexander T. Augusta surgeon-in-charge in May 1863.

Rev. Isaac Cross was an minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church of New Jersey, with a history of working for relief of impoverished African-Americans. After the Civil War got underway, and wounded Union soldiers and masses of freedmen packed Washington, Cross decided to play an active role in serving their spiritual needs.

In November 1862 Cross obtained a letter from the Newark Conference of his church stating that he was “qualified, in their judgment, to receive the appointment of chaplain in the service of the United States.” This commendation was signed over a dozen officials and pastors in the church, a chaplain in the Hospital Department in New Jersey, H. J. Johnson, the colonel of the 8th N.J. Regiment, and by a major general in the New Jersey militia. Cross also had a certification dated December 1, 1862, from his Conference that he was a minister “in good and regular standing”, and moreover “His Christian and ministerial deportment are such as to commend him to the confidence of the Federal authorities…”

Cross brought these to President Lincoln in person on December 15, 1862, just as the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg was winding up, and wounded soldiers were beginning to stream into the hospitals in and around Washington. To show Lincoln’s state of mind at the time, just three days later Lincoln would tell a friend, “We are now on the brink of destruction.” Lincoln heard Cross express his desire to minister to those in the hospitals, specifically naming the Ebenezer Church and Odd Fellows Hall Hospitals in Washington.

Autograph Note Signed as President, Washington, December 15, 1862, setting in motion the appointment of Cross that would culminate in his service as chaplain to the Contraband Camp and Hospital. “Surgeon General, Please say whether there is a vacant chaplaincy in or about this city, to which I could appoint Rev. Mr. Cross, the bearer. A. Lincoln.”

Cross did not receive the appointment at that time, but the story of this card was not done.  He kept it, and used it to secure his position.  Here is how.  In May 1863, on his own volition, and without an appointment or compensation, Cross came to work at the Contraband Camp and Hospital, commencing, as he wrote, “my labors for the freed people.” One of the Hospital’s surgeons, William Powell, who was also one of just 13 African-American surgeons in the Union Army during the entire war, wrote that Cross’s “labors among the freedmen have been efficient & successful”. Finally, on October 5, 1863, by authority granted by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Cross was officially appointed “Chaplain to the Contraband Camp” in Washington, with a salary of $50 per month to be paid out of monies collected by the Provost Marshal for licenses to fish in the Potomac River, and he was to also receive one ration per day. The appointment was by command of General John H. Martindale, who served as Military Governor of Washington from November 1862 to May 1864.  Cross presented this very card to Martingale as proof that of the President’s personal endorsement. It was an amazing journey for this historical document.  This remained in Cross’s family for many years as a treasured possession.

The Contraband Camp survived for just a few months after Cross’s appointment, being disbanded in December 1863. At first it was thought that the hospital in the camp would also be closed, and Cross’s hard-won appointment was cancelled and his salary stopped. But the hospital was not closed, it stayed open, and as before provided medical care to black civilians and soldiers. Cross refused to leave and continued to serve, though without pay or food allowance, remaining at his own expense. He even provided solace at other hospitals that lacked a chaplain. He did this, as he wrote, because “There are a many sick among the freed people… who require religious attention, as they need and now receive medical attention.” Cross petitioned the War Department to reinstate his appointment on August 8, 1864, and the commendations he filed with the request show the high regard in which he was held. James J. Ferree, Commandant of the Contraband Camp, wrote that Cross “…notwithstanding the stoppage of his pay has continued to perform the duties of chaplain…The testimonies of his ability and faithfulness are abundant.” Reinstatement would be “simple justice” to him. His fellow churchmen, in a joint letter, wrote that Cross “has donated much time and labor in the service of the contrabands…and has contributed to promote their religious interests”. The National Freedmen’s Relief Associations resolved “That we recommend to the Secretary of War to continue to Rev. Mr. Cross the salary ($50) as chaplain to the hospital…” But by that time in 1864, the Contraband Hospital had moved and was now known as the Freedmen’s Hospital, and there were new people in charge. So despite his selflessness, Cross’s application was rejected by a Lt. Col. Greene, who wrote that “the appointment of a chaplain is not necessary”, as others were performing religious services for the freedmen “gratuitously”. The Lincoln Papers in the Library of Congress contain a file setting out Cross’s service, petition and commendations.

After the war, no longer under the control of the U.S. Army, the Freedmen’s Hospital became an official part of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The hospital continued to serve as a medical facility for the African-American community in Washington, eventually moving to the site of Howard University in 1868 and becoming the teaching hospital for its newly formed medical department.

As for Cross, who received only two months pay for all his Civil War service, his 1884 obituary states that he “acted for a number of years as chaplain to the Freedmen’s Hospital”, and while continuing his work with black people, also ministered to the Washington City Almshouse and United States Insane Asylum.

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