The Civil War Experiences of Nancy Brewer, A Free Woman of Color

By Victoria Bynum
Renegade South

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.

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8 Responses to “The Civil War Experiences of Nancy Brewer, A Free Woman of Color”

  1. Hey,
    My name is Nancy Brewer, and I am in concord, nc. I am a civil war reenactor and story teller. I am writting a book on live during the civil war based on my own families history and stories and data that I have collected. The sotry is fiction but based on true history. I would love to know more about your nancy brewer.

    would love to know more,
    my website: http://www.mrsbrewerandfriends.com

    thanks,
    nancy
    980-622-5177
    concord, NC

  2. renegadesouth Says:

    Hi Nancy,

    Sounds like you have put together quite an interesting project! Thanks for your interest in the Civil War Nancy Brewer of Chapel Hill. I have conducted some research on her on Ancestry.com, but haven’t found much. The main problem is that I don’t know her maiden name, and it appears that she did not use Green Brewer’s surname until after he was freed (during the war) and they were able legally to marry. It also appears that she may have died shortly after filing her claim, because I haven’t yet found her in any censuses after the war, either. (We know she was alive in 1870, yet I haven’t found her in that census either). I did, however, find a Green Brewer in later censuses who likely was Green Brewer’s, and maybe Nancy’s, son.

    I think what I will eventually do is plow through the 1860 microfilm census for neighborhoods in and around Chapel Hill and see what I might piece together on a free woman of color named Nancy, who should have been listed as slaveholder (that slave being her husband Green) in 1860.

    Thanks for your interest; I will post any new information that I find.

    Vikki
    Renegade South
    http://www.renegadesouth.wordpress.com

  3. Sherree Tannen Says:

    Hi Vikki!

    This is a brilliant account of a brilliant woman who bucked all odds against her and led a successful life. It is absolutely fascinating. What nerve it must have taken for Nancy Brewer to buy the freedom of the man who would become her husband. This woman sounds like the women who lived in the black community in my area, and with whom I had the privilege to come of age, as I told you in an earlier comment. I recognize this woman. Truly, your research is needed and appreciated. There is an Indigenous saying that says that a nation is not defeated until the hearts of its women are on the ground. There is not one black woman that I knew growing up in the South–or white woman either–who approached anything remotely resembling “defeated”. This is such a refreshing account. Thank you.

    • Sherree,
      thank you so much for your response to Nancy Brewer’s story. Ever since I discovered the value of court records as a way of recovering buried history, back when I was still a college undergraduate, I have been fascinated with this sort of research. I have had the story of Nancy Brewer–and many other “ordinary” people, in my files for over twenty-five years. I used to wish there were some way (in addition to writing books) to let others, who may come from similar historical roots, know about this rich history that preceded us. It’s so gratifying when someone like you takes the time to comment; otherwise, I just have faith that posting these stories is of great value to someone out there.

  4. Green Brewer was also a member of the Chapel Hill Town Council in 1869-70. I have been researching Reconstruction era black elected officials in Orange County off and on for a long time and Green Brewer was always the one that I couldn’t find much information on, so these records are a fantastic find. Thanks for posting them. Could I ask permission to repost your entire blog post (above) over on my blog (with links and attribution, of course)?
    Either way, thanks for the great post. -Mark Chilton

    • renegadesouth Says:

      Mark,

      I am delighted to learn this about Green Brewer; thanks! Certainly you may report my essay on Nancy Brewer.

      Best,
      Vikki

  5. So that we have all this connected, here’s a link to my crossposting:

    http://piedmontwanderings.blogspot.com/2011/05/xpost-civil-war-experiences-of-nancy.html

    And here is more information on all three African Americans who served on the Chapel Hill Town Council in the 19th century:

    http://piedmontwanderings.blogspot.com/2009/03/thomas-kirby-freedoms-lawmaker.html

  6. One more thing: Nelly Stroud, who was Ms. Brewe’s supporting witness, was a very important figure in 19th century Chapel Hill. She was just 21 when she gave this evidence and had not yet married Rev. Toney Strayhorn.

    Here’s their story:

    http://chapelhillpreservation.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/humantoo.pdf

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