A piece of history for sale
Letter offers a look at the life of a black Civil War soldier
Tuesday, March 05, 2013 10:00 AM
Sgt. Morgan W. Carter, a black Civil War soldier from Madison, made it difficult for local historians eager to piece together his story.
This letter written by Sgt. Morgan W. Carter of Madison will be sold at auction later this month. It is the only known letter written by a black soldier during the Civil War. The text in this rare reproduction of the letter is difficult to read, but the flag and insignia of Carter’s regiment, the 28th U.S. Colored Infantry, is visible at the top.
That was until a letter penned by Carter recently surfaced in New York City after spending decades in a private collection.
Morgan W. Carter, the son of John Carter, a prosperous Madison grocer and conductor on the Underground Railroad, wrote the letter in December 1864. In the letter, he described the Battle of the Crater during the Siege of Petersburg and his desire to see freedom for all slaves.
The document will be sold on March 21 through Swann Auction Galleries in New York as part of its special Printed & Manuscript African Americana Sale.
It is estimated to sell between $6,000 and $8,000.
The letter doesn't just have local ties, it's also the only known letter in existence written by a black soldier that details an important battle in the Civil War, historians say. Carter mentions being injured twice.
"To have a letter from a black solider with this content is just unbelievable," said Wyatt Houston Day, African American specialist at Swann. "It's very desirable because African Americans saw the war in a very different light than the white soldiers."
Carter addressed the letter to "Charles" and writes about "being trampled under the white man's heal for years." He continues by saying, "now we have a choice to elevate our selfs and our race and what little I can toward it I will do so most willingly. If I should die before I receive the benefit of it I will have the consolation of nowing that the generations to come will receive the blessing of it. And I think it the duty of all the men of our race to do what they can."
Carter even makes a reference to "Uncle Abe," noting the celebrations that took place in his hometown upon President Abraham Lincoln's re-election.
The excerpts from the letter were provided in an email from Swann, and the misspellings are from the original document.
The siege which Carter describes was actually a series of battles fought in Richmond and Petersburg, Va., that lasted from June 1864 to March 1865.
According to the 1859 Madison Business Directory, which names Carter and his family, the young soldier would have been either 19 or 20 in late 1864.
Day said the letter was sent from was City Point, Va., a few days after the Battle of the Crater and written on stationery that includes the flag and insignia of Carter's regiment, the 28th U.S. Colored Infantry.
The envelope, which matches the stationery, was blank, and searches have come up empty for the "Charles" addressed in the letter, Day said.
The note, which is still quite legible, was in a private collection for 50 years before it was obtained by the gallery. Day would not name the former owner, but considered the piece to be in good condition.
Carter's letter is "vocal and eloquent," Day noted, adding that it is filled with "patriotic and race pride that is palpable."
Morgan W. Carter was mustered out of the military in Corpus Christi, Texas - he served from February 1864 to November 1865 - and he later returned back to Madison. He appears in the 1870 U.S. Census, and is listed as 25 years old.
But after the Census entry, his paper trail fades.
Jan Vetrhus, a Madison resident and researcher, said local historians are not aware of photos, birth or death records or mentions of Morgan Carter in local publications.
However, his father, John Carter, is a much different story.
John Carter was one of the most prominent black men in Madison at the time, having been heavily involved in the abolitionist and Underground Railroad movement and a board member of Eleutherian College, Vetrhus said.
He stayed in Madison until his death at age 64 on May 13, 1878. His obituary was featured in The Madison Courier.
Vetrhus said court and business directory documents reveal that John Carter raised several children, many of whom thrived in business and education.
A son, John Jr., became a teacher and later a principal at a black school in Cairo, Ill., while daughter, Maria, owned acompany on Mulberry Street. Another daughter, Fanny, taught at the all-black West Street School, the building that later was City Hall.
"They must have been a remarkable family, because they all became leaders," Vetrhus said.
The family lived in downtown Madison, and the elder John Carter owned a grocery store located at what is now Second and Jefferson streets, according to the Madison Business Directory. The Madison Courier reported in December 1863 - one year before Morgan W. Carter would pen the letter from the front - that John Carter's grocery store served as the recruitment location for young black soldiers.
His son would answer the call two months later.
Vetrhus has been involved with a local group that is attempting to landmark where each Madison Civil War soldier - black or white - lived in the city. Morgan W. Carter had always struck a special chord, but he always been somewhat evasive.
Now there is another goal: Bringing the document back to Madison.
Because of the local prominence of Morgan W. Carter's father and his siblings, the letter already holds a special attachment to the community, Vetrhus said. But it also could help fill a void in Madison's history.
"The letter is beautiful, and we really want to get it here," she said.