From John Hennessy:
Slaves resisted bondage, and their owners resisted freedom, sometimes in interesting ways.
Here are three short letters written by Fredericksburg residents in September 1862–just after the end of the Union occupation and while 19 local residents were still being held as “hostages” in Old Capitol Prison in Washington (they’d been arrested by Union authorities over the summer in retaliation for the Confederate arrest of several Unionists in the Fredericksburg region). The letters were destined for those hostages. The citizens sent the package north with a “colored boy,” who reached Washington on September 20, when he was intercepted by Union pickets commanded by General John C. Robinson. General Robinson forwarded the notes with the endorsement, “The colored boy, carriage & two horses, which I send you, were stopped by our picket line today. The accompanying papers were found in the boy’s possession. I send the whole to you for examination.”
What makes these letters especially interesting is that they are intended to woo back to Fredericksburg slaves who had escaped into Union lines that summer–accomplishing by suasion what the law could no longer compel. The idea, apparently, was that upon the hostages’ release (which came a few days later), they might find the slaves in the city (or find someone who could) and convince them to return to their owners.
The three letter-writers were both prominent and closely connected. Henrietta Fitzhugh owned Boscobel Farm (we published her claim for the loss of slaves different from those listed here in a previous post). Lawyer William A. Little owned a farm adjacent to Boscobel and a home on Princess Anne Street in town. His next door neighbor on Princess Anne Street was the third writer, attorney John L. Marye, Jr., the son of John Marye of Brompton and future Lieutenant Governor of Virginia.
The letters are a clear indication that times were changing fast in Virginia in later summer 1862. Gone are illusions that the fugitive slave law might work on slaveowners’ behalf. Instead, Fitzhugh, Little, and Marye were reduced to mere argument. Those arguments reveal a simplistic vision of human existence that seems amazing in retrospect, but that was unremarkable at the time: all that mattered was kind and proper physical treatment (still a common argument in defense of American slavery–“we treated our slaves well,” to quote a person on a tour a few years back). Presuming that the writers had some hope of their arguments succeeding, it would seem that the psychological lure of freedom (imperfect though freedom certainly was) did not loom as a major obstacle to their persuasive efforts.
Each of the pleas is preceded by a list of slaves lost and thought to be in Washington D.C. in September 1862. The lists are particularly useful and revealing, often including last names (a rarity) and details about their physical appearance or occupations. Marye’s letter seeks the return of an entire family. I include the full text of the letters after the jump, below.
Here are the efforts to coax free people back into slavery:
Mrs. Fitzhugh wrote: If any one will find Said Slaves in Washington & inform them that if they desire to return to their Home at Said Farm, they may do so & will receive the same treatment to which they have always been used there, & will not be sold or punished for their desertion-a liberal reward will be paid for Said Servants on their return –
From Little: A liberal reward will be given for to any one who will inform said negroes that they may return to this house and will be treated as heretofore & not sold or punished & will facilitate or [ill] their return so that I can get them again.
From Marye: If Lucy Ann & the children, after trying their new mode of life, desire to return to my home and my service, this is to tell them that they will much the same treatment in all respects, which they have had throughout their lives.
We will add 32 names to The List. The full text of the letters follows.