Freedmen's Bureau Records: Nelson Irwin to [John M.
Schofield], October 8, 1866
Nelson Irwin writes a very poignant and wrenching letter to General Schofield, the head of the Potomac Military District, pleading for justice and protection for blacks. He refers to an upcoming trial in Staunton and claims that blacks live under a "reign of terror". Irwin asks Schofield to use military power to intervene on the side of the law, writing, "We gave to the rich white man our best years, our strength, our youth, our sweat, and now that we are free, we get in return meanness, tyranny and injustice." Judging from the papertrail, this letter was passed all the way to Orlando Brown.
Oct. 8th 1866
Living within your military department, I am forced to appeal to you in my own behalf. My case and cause are those of thousands and just as I am effected they will be effected also. There is a deep laid organization here that governs and controls every thing by might in defiance of truth and justice. On any, even the least pretense a black man is taken up and imprisoned. His color is his condemnation, and every lawless act committed he is accused of. At present my brethern are living in a reign of terror and many of them are locked up in Stauton Gaol.
An act of theft has been committed here by one or two black men and lo! four are taken up and all of us are accused. Some of us had to fly, who were and are as innocent of the crime as you are. The Freedmen's bureau is ineffective, laughed at and despised. On the first Monday of November these men are to be tried, and in view of their case we cannot expect justice unless the strong arm of military protection is reached out to us. We gave to the rich white man our best years, our strength, our youth, our sweat, and now that we are free, we get in return meaness, tyranny and injustice.
And now General, instruct the officers of Bureau and let them insist on justice. Some of our men are in a state of perpetual terror. If you turn your back on us, who can we appeal to. If we have commited a violation of law let us be judged impartially by the laws, but let us not be condemned with out a cause. From this depth of degredation we look to you, and in the name of suffering humanity, I trust I do not write in vain.
The name of those imprisoned are Reuben Hill, James Burgy, Joe Wilson is out as State evidence, and mind you a black man's oath before the war would not be believed and now they would degrade him to be a liar. General we only ask for justice. See that we will have it and all will be yet well. There is no accusation against me and there never was. I am black but in my heart there is not stain of infamy.
I am General
Your very humble Srvt
The Commanding Gen'l, Richmond Va