“Interview with Cornelius Garner” (Unknown, May 18, 1937)

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Cornelius Garner, a man born into slavery, tells two interviewers from the Virginia Writers Project about his life. A proud veteran who fought for the Union during the American Civil War (1861–1865), he discusses the role of Black people in the military on both sides of the conflict. Other topics of discussion include his work caring for horses and the Underground Railroad. The editors of Weevils in the Wheat inserted comments in this transcription. Their bracketed comments have been included below. This interview, along with other Virginia Writers Project interviews, offer a composite portrait of interviewees’ self-styled personal stories. Interviewers’ interests, lived experiences, and editing choices, as well as their social relations and expectations shaped their relationship and conversation with the interviewees. Although the interviews aren’t unmediated autobiographies, they are no less authentic and are just as fruitful a source for reconstructing historical experience.



Cornelius Garner (b. 1846)

841 Wide St., Norfolk, Va.

Interviewer: Emmy Wilson and Claude W. Anderson

Date of Interview: Unknown

Source: Pencil copy, Lewis Papers

Well, yas, I was treated tolerably fair juring slavery times and my marster was John A. Murber. I fut in de Civil War too. Enlisted in de United States Volunteers Regiment 38, Company B, and I’se 91 year ole—bo’n February 11, 1846.

Ole marse John was not as severe and mean wid his slaves as some of de tother marsters.

No, you ain’t had no time fer merry-making. By dat I mean gitin’ together and time off from wuk.

Somehow dou [though?] massa sorta took a liking to me. I guess it was ‘cause I always hung ‘round kinda handy and didn’t mind wukin’.

Massa always laked his ho’sses looking fine and kept looking good. Seeing dat massa laked dis, I made hit my business to keep dem ho’sses looking spic and span. Massa, seeing dat I was inrested in his ho’sses and stables, he kept me sorta close ‘round de house—hitching up, feedin’, curring, and holding his ho’sses fer him and missus.

I didn’t have to wuk hard in de fields much—jes now and den. Sundays, when company would come to de house, I had charge of de ho’sses and carriages—sorta lake boys who keer fer cards now. I’d hold de ho’se while all white folks got in de buggies den open de gate and shut hit.

Marse gave us plenty to eat. He always sed, “Niggers can’t do much wuk wid an empty belly.” Coase, I being ‘round de house most ob de time, ole missus was always giving me some vituals.

My marster was pretty well thought of in de whole place; even de patterrollers ‘spected him. We won’t bothered by de patterrollers so much ‘cause massa tol’ dem ‘twon’t no need of watching and peeping at us ‘cause we was right good niggers and didn’t have no cause to run away. They kinda kept one eye shut and one open at us jest de same in case we did start acting funny.

Evenings after we finished wuk we’d walk up to de store ‘bout a mile er little mo’ up de road from us and listen to de ole white folks talk, and tell a few jokes ‘mongst usselves. Sundays we could go to church if we wanted to. Some few went but de biggest part of us jes stayed ‘round de house and slept and talked.

De churches what we went to serve God was ‘Pisipal, Catholick, Presberteriens, de same as marster’s church only we was off to usselves in a little log cabin way in de woods.

De preaching us got ‘twon’t nothing much. Dat ole white preacher jest was telling us slaves to be good to our marsters. We ain’t keer’d a bit ‘bout dat stuff he was telling us ‘cause we wanted to sing, pray, and serve God in our own way. You see, ‘legion needs a little motion—specially if you gwine feel de spirret.

Dat was no ‘temps fer slave uprisin’ in our kimunity fore freedom as I kin ‘member.

Now fer de underground railroads—you say you want to know ‘bout dat? Oh, yas dat was a few slaves who ‘scaped by de help of northern white folks. Dey would fust cross de Ohio River fo’ dey was caught up wid. Den de most of ‘em would leave late part of de night—hiding in de day ‘til dey got ‘cross in de free country or caught and brought back to deir owners.

Some of de ole tunes we use to sing is:

            Am I a soldier of de cross, a follower of de lamb,

            And shall I fear to own His cause er blush to speak His name?

Sang dat in long meter—you know dat don’t you? “Rocks of Ages”—we sung dat too.

            Rock of ages clap fer me,

            Let me hide myself in three.

We won’t ‘lowed to read and write. Dar won’t no schools you know, in dem days like ‘tis now and no matter how we yearned fer knowing how to read and write we had no way on earth of doing so.

Chile I’se ninety one years ole and thank God I have pretty good use of myself and I lake to talk things wide you young folks, as well as talk politics and de Bible. My home is 841 Wide Street, Norfolk, Virginia wid my third wife. Pretty good ole man to wear out two wives but de third one, ha, ha, may wear me out. No—wid all dem wives I ain’t had no chillum. Dat’s funny? Well my boy ‘twon’t no fault of mine ‘cause I did what God tole me. “Wuk and multiply,” ha, ha. I wuked but ‘twon’t no multiplying after de wuk.

Civil War

Now I’se gwine tell you all ‘bout de war. After de defeat of de Confederates in de Battle of Bull Run to de Union, Lincoln den issued a proclamation fer 75,000 volunteers. But dey said, “No blacks need apply.” Dar was gra’ prejudice in de North ‘ginst de Negroes enlisting to fight for his freedom and de President approved hit.

De Confederates were already forming nigger companies fer de defence of Richmond and building fortifications. Dey didn’t call ‘em soldiers, but dey was doin’ soldier’s wuk [this sentence added in different pencil, between lines]. De third and fo’th regiments of Georgia showed one nigger company as dey passed through Augusta on de way to Virginia.

Free niggers enlisted on de Confederate side at New Orleans and Memphis. Dey were lightly spoken of by de southern papers. But de North seemed to think still dat to put de nigger in de Union blue would disgrace that uniform.

General Hunter, Phelps, and a few tothers dat was in zition [position] to see how loyal, brave, and anxious to fight fer deir freedom and willing to make invaluable auxiliaries de Negro was, and also being use to de climate, decided and asked permission fer enticting [enlisting?] de Negro in de Union Army.

General Phelps was opposed by General B.F. Butler on de question of Negro enlisting, dat he was forced to resign his office and return to Vermont.

De sentiment of de northern army seemed to have a leaning towards admitting de right of de souf’ to hold slaves. ‘Cause one commander, McCellan, said, if he thought dat he was fiting to free de slaves dat he would sheath he sword. He do soon failed in dis campaign and was forced to resign.  

Through de proposal of a bill by Mr. Stevens  in Congress, authorizing de President to raise and ‘quip 150,000 soldiers of African descent and public sentiment through newspaper discussions, Mr. Lincoln very soon changed his mind and wid Congress consented to enlist Negroes in ‘fence of de Union.

De right to fight fer what dey thought would eventually end in deir freedom was hailed wid shouts of joy where ever de news reached de Negroes.

When I heard de news dat niggers was enlisting in de United States Army I den ‘listed in de United [copy ends here].

Second Interview (May 18, 1937)

Good mornin’. How are you all? I don’ feel so well myself, but anything de Lord does is alright wid me. You jes put yo trus’ in de Lord an’ ev’ything will be fine. I’se glad to tell you anything I can. What you wan’s to know. Cose you know I was a slave. Did I fight in de war? Well if I hadn’ you wouldn’ be sittin’ dere writin’ today. Les’ start a de beginnin’.

I wus bo’n in Saint Mary’s county, Maryland, February 11, 1846. My father’s boss bought me an’ my mother when I was a baby in my mother’s arms. Dey had nineteen head o’ chillum, an’ dey was married by a white preacher. My father’s marser was ole George Baines; my mother’s, Jack Cox. Mother was hired out  as a nurse an’ cook. Father was a butcher. He hired himself out to himself. In other words, he bought his time.

De white people was very good. Dey treated me fine. We had to go to chu’ch. Wouldn’ allow you to stay home on a Sunday. We wen’ to a white chu’ch an’ lissen’ to a white preacher. During de week, dey would let you have private prayer meetings in yo’ house. Dey didn’t whup you much. Mos’ o’ dat was done down souf. Dere bigges’ punishment was to tell you, “I’ll sell you down souf to Georgia.” Dat wus wersen a lickin’. Ole marse had a constable whip my father in 1861. Father did somepin an’ ole marse was ‘fraid o’ him himself ‘cause paw was so stron’; so he called in de constable to whup him. Marser’s name was Lewis Milburn, father’s Remulus Garner.

I started to work when I was ten years ole. You git up wid de sun an’ gene’ally finish feedin’ ‘bout seven ‘clock. Den you go in de fiel an’ work ‘till sun down. We raised ‘baccer, co’n, wheat, and oats. My fust job was runnin’ crows out o’ co’n field. Later dey put me to plowin’. You git yo’ food by ‘llowance. You git so many pounds o’ meat, an’ a peck o’ meal. A good eatin’ meal consist o’ fish or fried meat, ‘lasses an’ bread. You always got a plenty to eat. Dey give you clothes for each season an’ you had good leather shoes. Yessuh. Never heard o’ wooden shoes ‘till I came to Norfolk. If yo’ health wus bad, dey give you flannel for winter wear an’ we never worked any longer dah noon on satady. Den de res’ o’ de time was yo’ own. Our homes were good. Dey didn’ leak. De floor was dirt an’ we slept on straw beds. However ef you saved yo’ chicken feathers, you could have a feather bed after a while.

Dey had frolics in dem days but I couldn’ go. De Christians had dere ‘fairs on one farm an’ de sinners had dere frolics on ‘nother farm. Mother was a Christian an’ so was I. Nowadays you can’ tell one from t’other. Christians an’ sinners all go to de same things.

I come to Norfolk in 1864. I was eighteen on a Friday February 11, and ‘listed on a Monday following in Donaldville. I fit in de battle o’ Deep Bottom on de James River wid de ole 38th regiment. We had colored sojers an’ white officers. We licked de ‘federate good an’ made ‘em treat [retreat] up to a Place called Chaff’s farm. Never will I fergit dat battle. It come on a Thursday, Sept. 29, 1864. Friday, October 7, 1864 Lee charged us seven times, tryin’ to break our line an’ git out. All he did was slaughtered his a’my. Monday, April 5, 1865, Grant made his las’ charge on Lee. It were de Petersbu’g ‘sault. De whole line charged ev’ywhere, an’ Lee flew. Our regiment was de fust into Richmond an’ we was de fust to plant our colors on de capitol. All de Union sojers black er white ‘ceived de same treatment den. We was guardin’ Richmond when Lee surrendered. Grant had Lee all bottled up. Lee couldn’ go back, he couldn’ go forward, an’ he couldn’ go sideways. Grant gave him five minutes to surrender. He surrendered too. Den Grant tol’ dem rebels to go home an’ for to ketch a rebel general whut was still fightin’. We got down dere an’ chased him on over into Mexico. Den I come home er back to Virginny an’ left de a’my in 1867.

My mother an’ father was down heah at a place called Taylor’s farm. De lower part o’ No’folk had plenty o’ houses on it den, but up heah wasn’ much mo’ den a hawg path. De fust school was Nicholson Street School. Dey had white teachers f’om Norf. School was held in an ole buildin’. Dey had dat school an’ two er three other schools heah den. Dat was while I was still in de a’my. Dere was an auction block down on de co’ner o’ White and Water Street where dey useta sell slaves e’ry New Yeah’s Day. Dat day, New Yeah’s Day, should be kept by all de colored people. Dat is de day o’ freedom. An’ dey ought to ‘member Frederick Douglass too. Frederick Douglass tol’ Abe Lincun, “Give de black man guns an’ let him fight.” Abe Lincun say, “Ef I give him gun, when he come to battle, he run.” Frederick Douglass say, “Try him an’ you’ll win de war.” Abe said, “Alright, I try him.”

Every general ‘fused de nigger troops but one. Dat general was General Butler. He say, I’ll take dem.” After dey fight dere fust battle, ev’y general wan’ ‘em. Dey won de war for de white man. Yessuh.

De only Ku Klux I ever bumped into was a passel o’ young Baltimore Doctors tryin’ to ketch me one night an’ take me to de medicine college to ‘periment on me. I seed dem a layin’ fer me an’ I run back into de house. Dey had a plaster all ready for to slap on my mouf. Yessuh.

Source: Negro in Virginia, published version, p. 203

Boys git to cuttin’ up on Sundays an’ ‘sturbin’ Marsa and Missus an’ dey comp’ny. Finally ole Marsa come clumpin’ down to de quarters. Pick out de fam’ly dat got de mos’ chillun an’ say, “Fo’ God, nigger, I’m goin’ to sell all dem chillun o’ your’n lessen you keep ‘em quiet.” Dat threat was worsen prospects of a lickin’. Ev’ybody sho’ keep quiet arter dat.

APA Citation:
Garner, Cornelius, Anderson, Claude & Wilson, Emmy. “Interview with Cornelius Garner” (Unknown, May 18, 1937). (2021, April 28). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Garner, Cornelius, Claude Anderson, and Emmy Wilson. "“Interview with Cornelius Garner” (Unknown, May 18, 1937)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (28 Apr. 2021). Web. 19 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, August 18
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