Emancipation, Freedom, Life

From John Hennessy:

Washington, John.2493As we ponder and recognize the profound statement that was the Emancipation Proclamation–changing irretrievably the government’s relationship with slavery–it might be helpful to look at emancipation from the ground up.  And so, John Washington, a Fredericksburg slave.  We have written of John Washington before.

Washington wrote of the arrival of the Union army in April 1862. At the time he was working as a barkeeper in a busy hotel on Caroline Street.

April 18th 1862. Was “Good-Friday,” the Day was a mild pleasant one with the Sun Shining brightly, and every thing unusally quite, the Hotel was crowed with boarders who was Seated at breakfast A rumor had been circulated amoung them that the yankees was advancing. but nobody Seemed to beleive it, until every body Was Startled by Several reports of cannon. Then in an instant all Was Wild confusion as a calvaryman dashed into the Dining Room and said “the yankees is in Falmouth.” Every body Was on their feet at once, No-body finished but Some ran to their rooms to get a few things officers and soilders hurried to their Quarters every where was hurried words and hasty foot Steps.

 Mr Mazene Who had hurried to his room now came running back called me out in the Hall and thrust a roll of Bank notes in My hand and hurriedly told me to pay off all the Servants, and Shut up the house and take charge of every thing. (p.76) “If the yankees catch me they will kill me So I can’t Stay here,” “said he,” and was off at full spead like the wind. In less time than it takes me to write these lines, every White man was out the house. Every Man Servant was out on the house top looking over the River at the yankees for their glistening bayonats could eaziely be Seen I could not begin to express my new born hopes for I felt already like I Was certain of My freedom now.

After crossing into Union lines, he reflected on his new-found freedom.

A Most MEMORABLE night that was to me the Soilders assured me that I was now a free man ….They told me I could Soon get a Situation Waiting on Some of the officers. I had alread been offered one or two, and had determined to take one or the other as Soon as I could go over and get my cloths and Some $30.00 of My own. Before Morning I had began to fee(1) like I had truly escaped from the hands of the Slaves Master and with the help of God, I never would be a Slave no more. I felt for the first time in my life that I could now claim every cent that I Should work for  as My own. I began now to feel that life had a new Joy awaiting me. I might now go and come when I pleased So I wood remain With the army Until I got Enough Money to travel farther North. This was the FIRST NIGHT of My FREEDOM. It was good Friday indeed the Best Friday I had ever seen. Thank God — 

Enough said.

Fighting for Freedom

From John Hennessy:

I found this letter years ago at the New York State Library, and came across it again today–an incredibly eloquent statement about war, written on January 1, 1863–the day of Emancipation. It is from a letter by Horace T. Hanks of the 30th New York infantry, written from his unit’s camp in Stafford County.

Let us be thankful, on this the first day of 1863, that we have been permitted to live and act in this age, and in our limited sphere do our part towards hastining [sic] the coming of this boon to mankind which restor[e]s to every soul, Gods sacred birthright–freedom. I have to day more than ever before thought over the object and purpose of our being far away from the loved ones of home, and among strangers in a strange land….Why are we here? I believe if we are true to ourselves and the light we have, history will answer, ‘to restore the nation a unit, and in doing this God says we must distroy [sic] the cause of all our trouble, and purge the nation of its great sin. And though at times all seems dark and gloomy, and we find ourselves obliged to put up without even the necessaries of life, and with scanty fair [sic] besides still when I can look the whole thing calmly in the face, and realize the cause and the wished for results of the war, and when I remember that we should not live and die alone for this generation but must look to the good of future ages…I can but feel glad that I am here….”

“Is not the Negro a man?” A letter from Stafford, 1862

From John Hennessy (for a relevant earlier post, click here):

This image was first published in 1835, its refrain picked up by a Union soldier in 1862.

I continue to work through source material related to the 1862 exodus of slaves through Fredericksburg. One of the more interesting aspects of all this is gauging the response of Union soldiers to the appearance of slave in Union lines. While many are racist, few can muster themselves to oppose freedom when confronted by it in human form. More importantly, the presence of slaves prompted a good deal of reflection by soldiers on slaves and slavery, some of it eloquent, some of it colloquial, but all of it revealing. Here is a letter written by a soldier of the 20th New York State Militia just a few days after the Union army’s arrival on the banks of the Rappahannock. It is one of the most eloquent we have of a soldier–clearly predisposed to favoring emancipation–grappling with (and taking advantage of) this new an unexpected phenomenon. Written on April 29, 1862, it was published in the Kingston Argus on May 7. We don’t know the man’s full name. He merely signed the letter, “C.”

“Contrabands” still come pouring in upon our camps, very many of them seeking and finding employment, and profession uniformly the utmost anxiety to escape from their impatiently-borne thraldom.  That strong attachment to “Massa” and “Misses”, which, I often heard it said at the North, would lead them to cling to their Southern homes and refuse freedom even if it were offered, I havn’t yet happened to see,–  With one voice they breathe longings for a Northern home, eager to turn their backs upon their masters forever, if they can only carry their families with them.  It is impossible to look upon these poor people, an abject, meek…as they seem, so anxious to emerge from their condition of involuntary servitude, into an atmosphere where they can breathe as freely as the white man does, without feeling one’s sympathies strongly enlisted.  One finds the question rising involuntarily, Is not the negro a man? Warmed with the same sun, hurt with the same weapons, having the same feelings, affections, aspirations that the white man has?  Why then should he be a slave to his fellow man?

But I have no room for speculations here, and will only add, that your correspondent, in common with many others in the regiment and surrounding ones has secured the services of a man Friday, who was coachman and man of all work, to a prominent secessionist farmer down the Rappahannock.  I find him a capital “help”–skilled and prepared to render almost any service required [line missing] and his “Massa” is a violent rebel, with two sons in the rebel army, I shall have no compunctions whatever in using the services of the “contraband” in promoting the interest of the Union cause, by promoting for the present those of one of its humblest supporters–and of giving him besides such “aid and comfort” in the matter of reaching the freedom that he craves, as shall not come in conflict with the sacred Constitution.


A slave reacts to Union defeat at Fredericksburg–strategizing for freedom

From John Hennessy:

This past week I came across a 1913 interview with a Fredericksburg-area slave. Her name was Fanny, and she was owned by Samuel Gordon and his wife Patsy Fitzhugh Gordon of Santee, just across the Spotsylvania line in Caroline County, about ten miles south of Fredericksburg. Gordon, the former owner of Kenmore, was a scion of Fredericksburg’s wealthiest families (he was worth nearly $200,000 in 1860). Fanny was one of at least 35 slaves he owned.  Despite a number of clues in her narrative–including her postwar residence in Fredericksburg–at this point I have been unable to follow Fanny into freedom. I will continue to work on identifying her.

[Update:  See the comments section for MUCH more on Fanny Lee.]

Santee in the 1930s. The house still stands.

Fanny’s passage on the nexus between the war, Union army, and freedom is interesting on several levels. Hers is the only explanation we have from an individual slave of why she chose not to run away when the Union army came–out of concern for her children and, more importantly, because of her ultimate confidence in Union victory and the end of slavery. It’s clear evidence of a clearly thought strategy, one based on optimism and some careful calculation. Her statement belies the image of the passive, unthinking, loyal slave, and it is an important addition to a small-but-growing chorus of slaves’ voices available to us. Continue reading

A monument to freedom in Fredericksburg?

From John Hennessy:

John Washington preparing to cross--a scene from the film Virginians Desolate, Virginians Free.

I have always been struck that the only memorial to emancipation and freedom in the Fredericksburg area is to a white man.  It is a small plaque at the home of Moncure Conway, the Southern abolitionist who riled Falmouth, Fredericksburg, and Virginia.  This is not to say Conway doesn’t merit such notice. But I do wonder if we have accorded proper credit and notice to the 10,000 or so slaves who acted with their feet months before the Emancipation Proclamation, crossing the Rappahannock to freedom at the rate of as many as 200 a day.

On Saturday, my colleague Steward Henderson and I conducted a tour for about 70 members of Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site), Shiloh (New Site), and Mount Zion Baptist Church–all of those congregations descendant from the original African Baptist Church on Sophia Street.  Much of the day focused on sites associated with John Washington, concluding at the site of his crossing to freedom in what is today Old Mill Park. It’s a powerful site and a powerful story.

During our conversation, the idea of a memorial to The Crossing at large (symbolized by John Washington) came up.  Should we as a community, black and white, pursue such a project?  Is a memorial an appropriate way to commemorate the event?  If so, where and how?

Emancipation and Freedom–the difference

From John Hennessy

At a scholarly distance the terms seem synonymous. But close up there was a significant difference.

Former slaves in Union lines, probably in Stafford County, early 1863.

This past week I have been working through source material related to the 1862 exodus of slaves through Fredericksburg into Stafford County–otherwise known in our household now as “the book.” The exodus is interesting and important on a number of levels, not the least of which is the reaction of Union soldiers to both slavery and freedom.  In April 1862, when the Union army pulled into Fredericksburg for the first time, the curiosity of soldiers toward slaves was matched only by the excitement of slaves at seeing soldiers. We may debate the causes and purposes of the Civil War in an abstract way, but there is no questioning that for the enslaved people in the Fredericksburg region (about half the population), the war was all about freedom–their freedom.

Of course Union soldiers brought the full range of political and social perspectives to their first collision with slaves and slavery.  Virtually all by modern standards were racist in their views. Even the most liberal voices in the army convey a paternalism that smacks of white supremacy. Many others held and conveyed attitudes that would today seem nothing short of vile.

Some modern commentators assert that since Northerners were racist, it therefore follows that they could not be willing emancipators (we hear this a good deal at the park).  That is simply not so. No matter their political views, it became very clear very quickly to soldiers that they were indeed emancipators, though generally they saw that role as outside their job description.

It is a certainty of history that early in the war many soldiers opposed emancipation as a political and war policy. The soldiers’ objection to emancipation as policy was rooted partly in racist ideaology, but also in theory and speculation: emancipation would alienate Southerners, rendering the war harder and eventual reconciliation more difficult.

But the experience and writings of soldiers here shows vividly that soldiers could not and did not oppose the reality of human freedom when confronted by it.  While there are certainly examples elsewhere of slaves being dispatched back to owners, the sheer size of the exodus in Fredericksburg rendered that a virtual impossibility (slaves were coming in from up to 60 miles away). Beyond that, among these men who witnessed this exodus, I have not found a single account asserting the wrongness of freedom. Here is a quote from Oliver McAllaster of the 35th New York, whose letters include some of the most objectionable racist diatribes I have seen–a man who clearly opposed emancipation as a policy (the original of this letter is held by the Library of Virginia and is now on display in the Fredericksburg Area Museum’s Letters and Diaries exhibit). But he could not object to freedom in reality, when confronted by it. In fact, he conveys a tone of admiration for the slaves’ tenacity.

It would astonish you if you should see the number of Negroes a running around our and all the other camps in this vacinity.  I would hardly believe there could be the number in Slavery in the whole of Virginia.  They come across the river nights in Boats to get away from their masters.  I saw a couple to day who came some fourteen miles from here last night in the rain.  They took a couple of their Masters Horses and rode in and then sold them for five Dollars a piece.  And nice Horses they were too.  The slave holders will not have one twentieth part of their Slaves left if this army should stay here for weeks and every appearance is now that we shall stay here that length of time.

It emerges clearly from these many letters that to the soldiers among the occupying force in Fredericksburg, there were subtle differences in the meanings of the words emancipation, abolition, and freedom. Soldiers invariably refer to emancipation as a policy–one with which they often disagreed. Abolition was almost always used pejoratively in reference to perceived Northern extremists who espoused emancipation. But freedom was reality, and even the harshest anti-emancipators in the Union army had a hard time not embracing it when in its presence. Moreover they came quickly and clearly to see their own role in making freedom happen.

A remarkable document…additions to The List…and a program alert

By John Hennessy:

The program:  Thursday, February 10, at 7 p.m., at the England Run Branch of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library.  I’ll present The Crossing: Slaves, Stafford, and the Great 1862 Exodus to Freedom. 

One of the unexpected benefits of doing Fredericksburg Remembered and Mysteries and Conundrums is that they have occasionally prompted readers to pass along interesting and important material. Last week I received an email from Patrick Sullivan of South Carolina, who is a descendant of Absolom and Nancy Row of Greenfield Plantation in Spotsylvania (the site is now consumed by the lake and subdivision at Fawn Lake, off Route 621–you can read a nice article on Greenfield here). Pat has spent years accumulating material on his family–some from archives, some from other family members, some from his own collection–and has generously passed along some intensely interesting items.

Nancy Row, wartime mistress of Greenfield Plantation. She authored the affidavit, below. Courtesy Patrick Sullivan.

His collection constitutes a vivid look into one family’s relationship with slavery. He has the proceedings of an inquest into a murder of one slave by another; he has documents relating to Absolom Row’s (died 1855) involvement with slave patrols in Spotsylvania County; he has ads for runaway slaves, newspaper advertisements and articles, ledger books, postwar labor contracts with former slaves, and a variety of other material. He has graciously permitted me to use them as I work on the book, and to share some of the material here. In 1860, Nancy Row owned 24 slaves. 

Given our recent posts about the 1862 slave exodus, perhaps the most immediately interesting piece Pat sent along was this, a statement of slaves lost by Nancy Row in the summer of 1862. It includes the names of 20 slaves: Continue reading

Choices: Fredericksburg and the American Colonization Society

From John Hennessy:

To assist in the regeneration of one continent and the amelioration of another, are the noble ends before us.

– Report of the Fredericksburg Auxiliary, American Colonization Society, 1834

We like our history in contrasting bundles–Democrats and Republicans, secessionists or unionists, white and black, pro-slavery and anti-slavery, and so on.  But rarely are things so simple.

Virginian Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the first president of Liberia, 1847

Fredericksburg was a slave town. In 1860, one-third of its population was enslaved. The domestic slave trade here was a significant industry–local newspapers routinely carried ads for the sale of slaves (we have written extensively about this here, here, here and elsewhere). Slave jails dotted the landscape, and slave coffles were a common sight in town. Town council passed laws in support of slavery and slaveowners. Slavery was a constant in the landscape, clearly part of Fredericksburg’s fabric.

But it does not follow that Fredericksburg was monolithic when it came to the issue of slavery. White residents did not always abide what we presume was conventional wisdom–the bland acceptance of slavery.  They did not always conform to our traditional understanding of Fredericksburg as a “slave society.” Rather Fredericksburgers were acutely aware of the intellectual and moral dilemma slavery presented, and each was well aware of the choices available to them in pre-war Virginia. Most chose to embrace slavery. Others acted on their instincts to ameliorate or mitigate the impact of slavery, both on slaves and on Fredericksburg society. (I have, incidentally, found little evidence of Fredericksburgers standing up to actively oppose slavery. Abolitionists were a rare, perhaps extinct presence.)

The major vehicle for those whose moral compasses compelled them to take action to improve the condition of slaves (without ending slavery) in Fredericksburg was the American Colonization Society. Continue reading

Fundraising for freedom: Chatham slave Ellen Mitchell buys herself (and her family)

From John Hennessy (The story of Ellen Mitchell was first discovered several years ago by then-park-intern Jim Broomall, now on the faculty at Virginia Tech.  Since Jim’s work, we have continued to add details to the story. What is presented here is a combination of Jim’s seminal work and that later research):

Something uncommon happened in Fredericksburg in the spring of 1859–something noted across the nation.

Ellen Mitchell, 27, was literate and, clearly, resourceful.  Born of a slave mother and a white father, “she has a brunette complexion, but her features bear no resemblance to those of colored persons,” a reporter wrote.  Her five children, ages 2-12 (Virginia, Horace, Josephine, John, and Martha) were “white,” conceived of a white father who, the Times reported, “has now deserted her, gone to California.”

Chatham in 1863, just four years after Ellen Mitchells departure.

At least through the 1850s (if not her entire life) she was owned by prosperous widow Hannah Coalter, the mistress of Chatham. When Hannah Coalter died in 1857, she sought to manumit her 92 slaves–in a fashion. She stipulated in her will that they could choose to immigrate Liberia or “any other free state or country in which they elect to live.”  If they chose to remain in Virginia, Coalter permitted them to select their preferred owner from “among my relations.”

Those “relations”–the heirs to the estate–challenged the will in court, seeking to overturn Coalter’s attempted emancipation by arguing that because slaves were property and not citizens, they had no legal ability to make decisions on freedom, bondage, or place of residence. The Virginia Supreme Appeals Court agreed (it was a significant decision in the pre-war evolution of law as it related to slavery).  The slaves of Hannah Coulter, including Ellen Mitchell, her 58-year-old mother Amelie Keating, and her “five white children” would not go free.

The new owner of Chatham, J. Horace Lacy, acquired most of the slaves from the Coalter estate–and so Ellen and her family would remain at Chatham, at least so it seemed. Ellen soon learned of Lacy’s plan to send slaves south to work on his plantation, “Boscobel,” near Monroe, Louisiana. The New York Times later reported that Ellen “peremptorily refused” to go and “Lacy, fearing the consequences, determined to sell her and her children.”

The laundry at Chatham. It seems likely that Ellen Mitchell, a lundress, worked in this building.

J. Horace Lacy was no newcomer to slavery, and certainly he had faced down defiance or resistance many times over. Exactly why he might have “feared the consequences” of keeping Mitchell and her children in his ownership is not clear (it seems unlikely a mother with five children would be a serious threat to run away or inflict violence). But, obviously, Ellen Mitchell had some leverage in this negotiation–indicative of the growing bargaining power of slaves as the institution sped toward its dissolution. In any event, Lacy decided to sell. Ellen Mitchell’s friends (we do not know whether they were black or white, or both) apparently advocated  that the young mother and children be sold to Fredericksburg slave trader George Aler (see here for more about Aler).

Perhaps Lacy sold Ellen Mitchell with conditions, or perhaps what happened next was at Aler’s discretion (though we do not know him for his enlightened thinking), but in late 1858 he agreed to allow Ellen Mitchell to fundraise for freedom–hers and her children’s. The deal:  if she could raise $1,000 and deliver it to Aler within three months, she could would thereby purchase her family’s freedom. He gave her permission, “simply on her word of honor,” to travel to the North to seek the funds.

Her journey began in March 1859, the clock ticking toward a March 30 deadline.  Continue reading