Toward freedom: a narrative newly found

From John Hennessy (apologies for the silence of late; I am back from nearly two weeks of travel):

They are among the most prized of all primary sources: the slave narrative. Of the millions of people who toiled in slavery across America’s expanse and history, narratives from only about 200 of them have found their way into print. Fredericksburg is fortunate to have two narratives produced by slaves who toiled here, and who ultimately found freedom from slavery here: John Washington and Noah Davis (we’ll post on Noah Davis soon–the circumstances that begot his narrative were unusual, his story vivid–but in the meantime you can find a copy of his book here).  Only one, Washington’s, reveals to us the frantic quest for freedom that accompanied the arrival of the Union army here in the spring and summer of 1862–until now.


Scott's Dam on the Rappahannock, where our unnamed slave crossed to freedom


As evidenced by this blog and the steady stream of new material over at Mysteries and Conundrums, we constantly receive, find, or learn new things (the quality and quantity of these things on the blogs even amazes me, and I’m in the middle of it every day).  Most recently I found issues of the Washington National Republican for 1862–issues that include regular reporting from Fredericksburg during the spring/summer Union occupation. There’s much in there interesting and good, but by far the most valuable item to emerge appeared in the September 22, 1862 issue, page 1, column 1.  It is the transcribed narrative of an unnamed slave who, as the Union army pulled out of Fredericksburg in late August and early September, fled from his workplace in Richmond and made his way to the Rappahannock in a quest for freedom. There is much important in the narrative. It documents the exodus of a slave from nearly 60 miles away; it vividly portrays both the dangers and the help the unnamed slave encountered along the way; and perhaps most importantly, it gives us a terrific look at the rather inhospitable greeting most slaves likely received upon their arrival in Washington.

You can read the entire narrative here. But here are the most relevant sections, with annotations added in bold italic for clarity and images for amusement. Note the observation at the end that “some colored people hate the Union people just as their master’s do.”  Interesting stuff. Much work remains to be done on this narrative, but here it is in relatively raw and unexplained form.

A Contraband’s Story:  His Escape from Richmond and Things as he Left Them

We have had an hour’s talk with a man of color from Richmond, whose narrative is worth repeating. It is substantially as follows.

I am in my thirty-fifth year.  I have been a slave all my life till this moment.  Nearly twelve years ago I was sent southward as far as Richmond, where I was hired out, and where I remained a dining-room servant in a private family all the time.

On the 30th of last month, (August,) all the troops had been sent from Richmond to help Jackson on the Shenandoah.; or rather, to help Stewart….I thought it a good time to try to get North, and on Saturday evening, August 30th, five of us started for Fredericksburg, sixty-two miles distant. We made what way we could that night, and through the heavy rain of Sunday; but a river stopped us on Sunday evening. We turned into the woods and slept as best we could. In the morning three of our party seemed to give up, and I and another left them, and they probably went back. We went a mile up the stream, where we found a little boat. We crossed the stream and kept on our way through the woods, avoiding houses as much as possible.  Sometimes we saw children in the fields, but we met with no one to molest us. At night we took the railroad, the bridges having been all destroyed, and the cars taken South. It was hard travelling by day and night. We had many streams to cross and much trouble in crossing them. We soon became hungry, having brought but little food, and that having been spoiled by the rain on Sunday. On Monday [September 1] morning we say the Chesterfield depot [certainly not Chesterfield; more likely Guinea Station or Milford Station], and, of course, tried to keep from being seen by the people there.  At 3 p.m. on Tuesday we spoke to some colored men at work in a field, and stayed near them till dusk, when they brought us food, our first morsel since Sunday. They told us that the white men had gone to Fredericksburg, fifteen miles off, to recover their slaves, now that the Southern army had gone up there.  Two of these people walked with us a couple of miles and put us on the right track. I gave one of them a Confederate five dollar note, at which he seemed to be very much pleased.


Smithfield, just a few yards from the Rappahannock, were the unnamed slave vainly searched for a boat.


We went quite up to the Fredericksburg depot that night, but learned that the rebel cavalry was there, driving all the colored people South. We fell back a couple of miles to Bernard’s [either Arthur Bernard’s Mannsfield or his brother Alfred Bernard’s The Bend, neither of which survive], for I had formerly lived in the neighborhood. We stayed there all Wednesday, and obtained food. At night we walked five miles, to Pratt’s [Smithfield, which could only be five miles from Bernard’s by a most circuitous route–it is in fact only a mile or so away], but found no boat. We slept for a while on the hillside on Welford’s farm, and then walked ten miles, to Banks’s dam, where we crawled over the Rapidan [actually Scott’s dam is a few yards above Banks Ford on the Rappahannock]; but here we were soon alarmed at seeing fresh footprints. We left Falmouth to the right, keeping in the woods; and on Thursday evening [September 4] to the Union pickets at Brooks’ station, between Fredericksburg and Aquia Creek. The soldiers gave us some supper and then sent us to


Banks Ford today. The remnants of the dam apparently used by our unnamed slave are still plainly visible.


Aquia creek, where we went aboard a steamboat, and at 5 a.m., on Friday, September 5th, we found ourselves at Washington. I had some Confederate money, which was no longer of any use to me. My companion had some silver money, which served us both until we found employment. I called to see a colored acquaintance at a house on Sixth street, in Washington; but the gentlemen of the house told me he wanted no runaway niggers about his premises; and I of course intruded there no more. A dry-goods merchant, on Pennsylvania avenue, took an interest in me, and told me that I and all such people would be sorry for it if we didn’t go straight back to our masters and stay with them. But I don’t see it that way.

The white people at Richmond make many colored people believe that “The Yanks” sell in Cuba all the slaves they can get, to pay the expenses of the war; and some colored people hate the Union people just as their masters do.  But it is easy to undeceive them.

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