Within the National Archives collection is a ledger on which the title “Register of Colored Nurses Under Contract” is inscribed. Inside, scrawled across the top of two consecutive pages, are the words “Flag of Truce Boat from Fort Monroe, Va”. Three men are listed below this header, one being James Sample. Unfortunately, not much is known of James Sample, except that his contract to work on the Flag of Truce boat began on March 18, 1864.
We can, however, describe what James Sample might have witnessed as a nurse aboard a Flag of Truce boat. Flag of Truce boats were used primarily between the 17th and 19th centuries, and according to international law, were to be used for humanitarian purposes in times of war. During the Civil War, the Union and Confederacy conscripted steamships to sail under a white flag and fulfill a variety of tasks, including carrying messages and exchanging prisoners between the two combatants.
In 1864, the sidewheel steamer New York is often referenced as docking at Fort Monroe. The New York sailed along the James River, between Aiken’s Landing and Fort Monroe, exchanging Union and Confederate prisoners of war as well as mail. Other steamships mentioned as sailing under a flag of truce from Fort Monroe include the Virginia War steamer, Empire, and the U.S. Steamer, Louisiana.
Contract nurses serving on Flag of Truce boats would have witnessed the exchange of prisoners subject to extreme mistreatment, including malnutrition, exposure to the elements, and disease. According to an 1864 inquiry of the treatment of prisoners of war by the United States Sanitary Commission, men “at each trip [of the Flag of Truce boat], were stretched on cots, sick with every form of disease which could have been induced by confinement, exposure, and bad food. A number were dying; several died before the boat landed…Many were naked…Their bodies were encrusted with dirt, and infested with vermin…” Contract nurses, such as James Sample, would have been working around the clock in hopes of keeping these men alive during the trip to Fort Monroe and finally the hospitals of Annapolis and Baltimore. As a Black man, it is possible that James Sample would have experienced additional discrimination while trying to provide medical assistance to white soldiers; however, it is also possible that Sample’s position on the ship was so pivotal and people so grateful, that his race played little role in these interactions.
When asked to give her statement for the Board of Inquiry organized by the Sanitary Commission, Dorothea Dix remarked that men arriving in Baltimore off the Flag of Truce boat had been “reduced to the lowest extremity through want of food…The minds showed the weakness of the body.” Dix, who had served as the Superintendent of Army Nurses for the Union and championed mental health reform, makes a point of referencing the soldiers’ mental state. Not only was James Sample caring for people suffering from severe physical illness, but also those who had experienced devastating psychological trauma.
Research on James Sample’s life has hit several roadblocks. Several James Samples appear in connection to Fort Monroe during this time, including a James Sample, who enlists in the 2nd U.S. Colored Cavalry and dies of disease on April 10, 1864 in Portsmouth, Va., and another James Sample, who appears in the Freedmen’s Bureau records of Norfolk, Va. in 1865. The first, we can reason is not the same man, as his muster rolls do not indicate he was ever detailed to a Flag of Truce boat; however, could the nurse, James Sample, possibly be a son? Any documentation located on these various men simply does not provide enough information for us to conclude that any of these James Samples are one and the same.
Because of the nature of systemic racism, documentation of Black Americans, especially at this time in history, is incomplete. Records were not created, or were not prioritized in a way that ensured their preservation – or in some cases have not been prioritized and sit unprocessed and forgotten in repositories to this day. This makes it difficult for our staff – who only learned about Sample’s work from this ledger – to document Sample’s full story, but that does not mean it isn’t important. His efforts to care for prisoners of war on this Flag of Truce boat were significant, regardless of how long his contract lasted. If anyone would like to share more information regarding James Sample’s life, we’d be honored to learn from you and update this history.
Fort Monroe Authority. “James Sample.” Illuminating Shadows, April 18, 2023. [access date]. [URL].