The value of one’s self

From John Hennessy (with thanks to the Fredericksburg Area Museum for providing us with this copy of the letter):

Click to enlarge

Though only a few words, and though at first blush entirely common, this is a remarkable document. It is from the collections of the Fredericksburg Area Museum–in fact it is on display in their present exhibit, “These Old Walls.”  It consists of an exchange between a 24-year-old Stafford County Doctor Augustine S. Mason and Fredericksburg’s dominant slave trader before the Civil War, George Aler (whom we have written about here).  Mason was an 1855 graduate of the University of Virginia Medical School and had been married just six weeks before he wrote this note. He would soon be a surgeon in the Confederate army. In the note he expresses his intent to sell an enslaved man named Thomas to Duff Green of Falmouth, but before doing so wants to know what Thomas is worth, and so he goes to the man who would know–Aler.

What makes this document compelling and ironic is this: Thomas himself carries it to Aler, and presumably returns the answer, which declares him to be worth “no more than 500 dollars.” Aler also asserts that there would likely be few persons willing to buy Thomas “in his present condition.”

We do not know what afflicted Thomas, and we cannot know if Thomas knew the nature of the message he carried between Mason and Aler (odds are Thomas could not read). We do not know either if the sale was ever consummated (it probably was, because the 1860 slaves census shows Mason owned five enslaved people, none of them an adult male). But we can grasp the essentials of the moment: a man subjected himself to and carried to his owner a stark assessment of the value of his own self to the white-dominated world in which he lived. 

Falmouth Dec. 30th 1858

Dear Sir-

I have agreed to let D Green Scott have the bearer Thomas but what would you value him at today.

Respectfully   A.S. Mason

Frdg Dec 30th 1??

Dear Sir-

I think in his condition he is not worth more than 500 dollars. 

It is almost impossible to come at the true value in the market as very few persons would by him in his present condition.

Respectfully   George Aler




The chasm

By John Hennessy. (This post originally published in 2012, but is worth revisiting.]

Not long ago I did a program in Spotsylvania County on the 1862 exodus to freedom in the Fredericksburg area, something we have written about a good deal. The event was at the new John J. Wright Museum in Spotsylvania County, a great exhibition dedicated to the history of African-Americans in Spotsylvania. We had a good crowd–60-70 people, about half Black, half white.

The program was fine enough, but what occurred afterwards dropped jaws all around. I can’t explain how it happened, but the Q&A turned into a public forum on the place of the Civil War in our culture, and specifically how African-Americans view the War and slavery. It was as open an exchange about history among people with different backgrounds as I have ever seen. If we could bottle it and repeat it a thousands times, we’d make a difference in the world…

There were harsh, honest words. One man in particular declared that he viewed everything associated with the Confederacy as “toxic.” Another suggested that the Civil War has been and is simply a popular vehicle for helping to maintain white supremacy in America. Others pitched in–politely and productively, though often intensely–and through the room swirled a current of feeling that everyone who was there will remember the rest of their lives.

It wasn’t that everyone agreed; it was that everyone understood from whence other opinions came.

In public history we deal with lots of contrasting ideas and interpretations, for the Civil War was clearly the most complex event in our nation’s history. But every once in a while, from the swirl emerges some clarity–and so it was for me on this day.

I have written fairly extensively about the distinction between personal motivation and national purpose, and how we as a nation have, when it comes to the Civil War, often merged the two.

As these people spoke that day in Spotsylvania (the majority of the speakers African Americans), the source of the chasm that exists between how African-Americans view the war (mostly as it relates to popular culture and politics) and how many white Southerners see it emerged. Virtually every person in that room who rose to speak saw the Confederacy purely in terms of its national purpose–most prominently, its avowed intent (embodied in its constitution) to perpetuate a white supremacist nation that sustained slavery.

Many white Americans–with their intensely personal connection to the war and the Confederacy–speak of the war in terms of the personal motivation of participants (sometimes imperfectly understood), often their ancestors. To those Americans the war is defined not by national purpose, but by personal motivation.

And therein lies the great American chasm as it relates to the Civil War.

To many people in attendance, efforts to deny or redefine the national purpose of the Confederacy in order to reflect more positively on an ancestor or the South is simply offensive, and so the war evokes no connection or inspiration, only hostility.

Continue reading

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.

Slavery and motherhood for the mistress

From John Hennessy:

Betty Herndon Maury

I have always been struck by this short passage from the diary of Betty Herndon Maury, Matthew Fontaine Maury’s daughter.  She wrote it on September 6, 1861, a few weeks after the departure (for what cause she does not say) of the family’s house slave, Rebecca, leaving Betty and other members of the household to tend things formerly taken care of by slaves, including parenting  

Made Nanny Belle a rag baby last night. She is more delighted with it than with the finest wax doll. It is the first time that I ever took the time or trouble to devote an hour solely to her amusement.

Nanny Belle was five years old.

Carolyn Carpenter has edited, expanded, and had published Betty Herndon Maury’s diary, as part of the most recent issue of the CVBT Journal. You can find it for sale here.  It is one of the best.

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

“Degradation worse than death”–Lee responds to the Emancipation Proclamation?

From Hennessy and Harrison:

The following appears in a letter from Robert E. Lee to James Seddon, January 10, 1863, urging a concerted effort to increase the size of Confederate armies in the face of the intensifying Union war effort.*  In it, Lee appears to offer commentary on the recently issued Emancipation Proclamation, whose consequences he characterizes darkly and vividly.  Indeed, he seems to use the Proclamation as an argument for redoubled recruiting and a renewed Confederate effort.

In view of the vast increase of the forces of the enemy, of the savage and brutal policy he has proclaimed, which leaves us no alternative but success or degradation worse than death, if we would save the honor of our families from pollution, our social system from destruction, let every effort be made, every means be employed, to fill and maintain the ranks of our armies, until God, in his mercy, shall bless us with the establishment of our independence. I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant, R. E. Lee, General.


* O.R. Vol. 21, page 1086. The editors of the ORs incorrectly presumed that this passage refered to a series of orders issued in western Virginia the previous November by Union General Robert H. Milroy, commanding local citizens to pay for the damage done by Confederate raiders.  Clearly, however, the narrow scope of Milroy’s orders (which related solely to the district in which he operated, and which were later repudiated by the federal government) does not comport with the broad commentary offered here by Lee.  Moreover, the Official Records clearly show that on January 10, Lee was still in the process of investigating the nature of Milroy’s orders to confirm they had indeed been issued.

While the January 10 letter to Seddon Lee quoted here does not mention the Emancipation Proclamation by name, it seems apparent that his language refers to it.

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