The Civil War Experiences of Nancy Brewer, A Free Woman of Color
By Victoria Bynum
One of the women who will make a brief appearance in my book-in-progress, Southern Communities at War, is Nancy Brewer of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In 1871, fifty-year-old Nancy applied to the Southern Claims Commission for compensation for wartime damages caused by the Union Army (#11545). Specifically, she testified that soldiers under the command of Gen’l S. D. Hopkins had in April 1865 seized a horse worth $100, forty lbs of bacon worth $10, and 1000 feet of lumber worth $20, from her farm.
Nancy Brewer’s claim was one of many submitted under the act passed by Congress in March 1871 allowing for “Claims of Loyal Citizens for Supplies furnished during the Rebellion.” Hers caught my eye because she was both black and a woman. I opened her folder not so much to learn what she believed the government owed her, but to glean whatever insights I could into what Nancy Brewer’s life was like in slaveholding and Civil War Chapel Hill.
Given that Nancy was claiming loss of property, I was not surprised to learn that she had been a free woman even before the Civil War. Although she could not sign her own name, Nancy had also been a prosperous free woman. Two years before the war, she explained, she had bought a lot and a house in Chapel Hill for $400. She had also purchased her future husband, Green Brewer, out of slavery in order that they might live as a married couple.
These are the sorts of personal family histories that we might never know about without the existence of records that address totally unrelated issues that happen to involve African Americans. Nancy’s deposition further reveals the complexities of life for people who opposed the Confederacy, yet suffered depredations committed by Yankee soldiers. According to Nancy, her late husband, Green, had belonged to the Union League, and they had always sympathized with the Union cause because it was “God’s will for the colored race to be free.” But during the last months of the war, as Union Army encampments surrounded Chapel Hill, the Brewers’ pro-Union views did not protect their property. Soldiers had taken the Brewers’ horse despite her protest that without it they could not make a crop.
Testifying on Nancy’s behalf was another African-American woman, Nelly Stroud, a washer woman who now lived with her. Nelly admitted that the Brewers had not shared their political views with her while the war was raging. “It would not do for colored people to talk here,” she explained, “a still tongue made a wise head.” But Nelly had little good to say about Union soldiers either. During the war, she washed and cooked for them, but feared them at the same time. They threatened to “show me the devil” if General Johnson did not surrender, Nelly told Commission agents. When asked why they would make such a threat, she responded that “I just believe the Devil made them do it.”
Thomas M. Kirkland, a white merchant, also testified on behalf of Nancy Brewer. Kirkland claimed to have known Nancy’s husband, Green, for about ten years, though he quickly explained that he had not been on “intimate” terms with him during the war because Green was a black man. In typical paternalistic fashion, he characterized him as “sober & upright,” and generalized that almost all blacks were loyal to the U.S. Government during the Civil War.
Nancy Brewer’s claim was approved by the Commission. This final comment from a Claims Commission officer appears on her file, giving us further valuable information about the experiences of this African American couple of the Civil War Era South:
The claimant is a colored woman & a widow—her husband having died since the war. He was formerly a slave, but she had bought him & he belonged to her!—or rather was freed during the war—. He was a rather superior colored man. After the war, Governor [William] Holden appointed him a magistrate—Loyalty proven.