A profound and ubiquitous image: slaves crossing the Rappahannock

From Hennessy (cross posted at Mysteries and Conundrums–in case some of you don’t get over there on a regular basis).  For an additional post related to this image, click here.

The image is captioned, “Fugitive Negroes fording the Rappahannock (during Pope’s retreat).” It is perhaps the most widely used of all Civil War photographs,simply because there is simply nothing else like it. The image appears in dozens of exhibits and publications that treat the subject of slaves seeking freedom–including some in the Fredericksburg region–and over the course of the Sesquicentennial, will surely appear many more times. But what do we know about the image?  What does is show?  Where and when was it taken? And is it really relevant to portraying the exodus of slaves to or with the Union army in the summer of 1862? (You can download and explore the image yourself here.)

The image is part of a remarkable series of at least seven taken by photographer Timothy O’Sullivan on a frantic day for the Union army: August 19, 1862. That day, John Pope’s Army of Virginia was in full retreat, falling back from the Rapidan River through Culpeper County (on the left of this image) to a new line behind the Rappahannock River, in Fauquier County (to the right). The movement was rapid and large–55,000 or more men heading to the crossings of the Rappahannock River. The biggest and best of those was the bridge of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad across the Rappahannock at modern Remington (then Rappahannock Station). This picture was taken a few hundred yards downstream from that bridge, at a rarely used crossing called Cow Ford. The site is about 30 miles above Fredericksburg.

We know that at Fredericksburg, when the Union army abandoned the place twelve days after this image was taken, slaves saw the Yankees’ departure as their last chance for freedom, and flooded north with the Union army. This image suggests that something similar happened when the Federal army left Culpeper County on August 19, though I have no sense that the exodus on August 19 was anything close the scale of that at Fredericksburg. Still, this is an image that apparently captures a hugely significant act in progress: slaves emancipating themselves.

There is nothing in this image that raises doubt about its nature or origins (there can be no doubt it was taken when it where the caption claims), but under close scrutiny some interesting details–with consequent questions–emerge.

This image captures five African-Americans, four of them in the wagon. To women sit atop the conveyance, Under magnification, one, her bonnet concealing her face on this hot, sunny day, appears to be resting her chin in her hand. The other, facing away from the camera with her head wrapped in a turban, almost disappears amidst the stuff piled in the wagon (of that stuff we can unfortunately make out very little–perhaps the stave of a small barrel).  She seems unaware or disinterested that a  photograph is being taken.

Three males, presumably slaves, appear in the image. Most interesting of those is the young man, seemingly a boy, on the rather bony-looking horse at right. The boy is barefoot, riding bareback, wearing a what appears to be a military jacket.

Around and beyond the slaves are Union soldiers, some of them posing, some of them watering their horses–most of them unconcerned with either the slaves or the photographer in their midst.

Rarely published is a second image of this same scene, clearly taken within a few minutes of the more famous version. It, unfortunately, is marred by movement that renders the figures on the wagon blurry. Still, I include it here. The people have rearranged themselves. Most notably, the barefoot boy on horseback now sits sidesaddle on his horse just to the left of the wagon.

This second image is particularly useful for what it shows in the background: the entire expanse of the railroad bridge, Martin’s grist mill beyond, and even, under magnification, the dam just upstream from the mill. But that’s a topic for an altogether different post.

The most surprising thing about these images is the wagon itself: a huge Conestoga. Union soldier Benjamin Borton described the flood of slaves into Union-occupied Fredericksburg in different terms: “They came in singly, by twos, or in squads, sometimes on foot, or in an old car with a lank mule attached.”  But here we have slaves traveling with the 19th century equivalent to a semi, piled high with a volume of belongings that seems to exceed what a slave family might have possessed. No “lank mule” pulls this conveyance, but rather four oxen.

We can only speculate how or where the slaves got such an elaborate setup packed so full of stuff. Had their owners left before them, leaving the slaves to pick whatever they wished from the farm (including the wagon)? Are they hauling baggage or materiel for the army?  Is it possible the photograph shows free blacks carrying off their own possessions? (The caption for the image refers to “Fugitive negroes” fording the Rappahannock–no mention of slaves–though of course the term fugitive carries a strong implication).

At first I was struck by the presence of the wagon, until Noel Harrison produced this sketch of slaves in Culpeper going to freedom in November 1863. There’s another Conestoga.

Dated November 8, 1863,Culpeper County.

While there are certainly some interesting questions to be asked about the image, it seems to me fair to accept it for what it has always been presumed to be: a group of “fugitive negroes” (so said the photographer) seeking freedom and safety with the retreating Union army. Moreover, while the scene is not in Fredericksburg, it was taken at the same time the same thing was happening here, when the same Union army was abandoning the line of the Rappahannock. It was a scene repeated thousands of times that summer (though generally without the Conestoga wagon): slaves on a profound but uncertain journey into freedom, into a world that, in 1862, was hardly prepared to receive them. The scene captures not the posed and tidied up aftermath of emancipation, but rather freedom in progress, unpolished, uncertain. The scene’s raggedness reflects that, and adds to its power and value.

[A purely personal reflection:  when I did Return to Bull Run in the early 1990s, the thought of including these images or this part of the story in my narrative never occurred to me–something that amazes and disappoints me today. That I did not, but would now, reflects not just my personal evolution, but the changing lens through which we see our history.]

11 thoughts on “A profound and ubiquitous image: slaves crossing the Rappahannock

  1. A fascinating example of how even the most familiar Civil war photographs can yield up wonderful new secrets. But one correction: the slaves pictured here are not “emancipating” themselves. They are merely transforming themselves into fugitives, or “contrabands.” Legally, they remain slaves, and will be liable to recapture and re-enslavement, as chattel property, until the Emancipation Proclamation changes their legal status to free people on January 1, 1863. This is why the Proclamation remains the central document of emancipation. We should not kid ourselves into thinking that any negotiated end to the Civil war in 1862 (not to mention foreign intervention to compel negotiations) would not have opened demands by Southerners for the rendition of fugitives. These slaves might have achieved de facto freedom, but nothing would protect them from rendition but the de jure freedom of the Proclamation.

  2. Thanks Allen. You are quite right. My point was, of course, is that these slaves are playing an active role in their personal quest for freedom. But as you say, they could not by themselves transform their legal status. Thanks for the reminder…and thanks too for all your groundbreaking work on Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. John Hennessy

  3. Amazing, these pictures were taken @ my farm on the Rappahannock, this is just amazing, any info on the Dam, bridge, and mill? I placed these in a DHR conservation easement in 2008, they were purchased by my Father in the 70’s from VEPCO, who was in possession.

    • Bob: Thanks for writing. I have another post ready on the series of images of the bridge and dam, which I will put on Mysteries and Conundrums next week. Thanks for preserving your land in perpetuity. A great gift to us all. John H.

  4. was just googling slave and mule images for pictures and happened upon this image of the slaves crossing the Rappahannock river and was so impressed. One of the first things I thouht was how did they get that wagon. I imagined they may have stold it and hid it in the woods one day until they made their escape the same
    night. Anyway I enjoyed it. Am a history buff and history major at University of Southern Mississippi in Long Beach Mississippi. Thank you Paula Vaughn

  5. On September 22, the African American Heritage Alliance along with a growing cadre of co-sponsors and collaborators will be hosting a dual 150th commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation and the August crossing of the Rappahannock by fugitive slaves. The event will be at/near the location shown in these photos. Myself and 3 other volunteers from Manassas NBP will be attending as a few of the Union soldiers seen in the pictures above. The event will be at 7567 Sumerduck Road, Remington Virginia.

  6. Thank you! This matches closely to the stories my father told me about our ancestors’ flight from slavery to freedom. The Noon family escaped slavery in Culpeper county, and settled in Royalton, PA.

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