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

The lower Caroline neighborhood fights against a slave jail

From John Hennessy (much of what follows is derived from in a short piece I did in the Journal of Fredericksburg History, published by HFFI):

The place is popularly and benignly known as the post-war home of Sue Chancellor, who, as a 14-year old, found herself and her family caught in the maelstrom of the Battle of Chancellorsville. After the war, she and her husband Vespasian Chancellor (her cousin—hence she experienced no change in her name with marriage) moved into 300 Caroline and lived there till her death in 1936.  For decades the home was widely known as the “Sue Chancellor House.”

Slaves waiting for sale.

But the house has an uncommon pedigree beyond Sue Chancellor’s residency there.  It has a brief, vivid connection to the slave trade.

In the 1830s, Mrs. Mary Berkeley Minor Blackford lived down the street with her husband William Matthews Blackford, at what is now 214 Caroline (Fredericksburg’s homes did not get fixed street addresses until the late 19th century).  Though the family would later contribute five sons to the Confederate cause, they were in fact social progressives, advocating education for slaves, colonization for freedmen and freewomen, and evincing discomfort with the institution, though they owned slaves themselves. For several years, Mrs. Blackford kept a journal, “Notes Illustrative of the Wrongs of Slavery.”  (Read an earlier post about Mary Minor Blackford here.)

In that undated journal, Blackford wrote that “there is within a few yards of our house…a tolerably large brick house owned by Judge Green,” noting that “the front and side of the building are on the street”—confirming that the house was on a corner lot. Continue reading

The Irony of John Washington’s Childhood Christmas

From John Hennessy:

Fredericksburg slave John Washington spent the first years of his life hired out (with his mother and siblings) to a farmer in Orange County. In his memoir, he remembered Christmases there.

At Christmas time the Slaves were furnished with their new cloths Hats or caps Boots and shoes.  From the oldest to the little children they would be summoned to the “Great House” as they called it (the owners) and each man and woman would receive their Christmas gifts namely Flour, Sugar, whiskey, Molases etc. according to the number in the family and they would go their cabins and for the next six days have a holiday and make thing lively with egg nogg, opossum, Rabbit coon and Everything of the kind.

On its face, this description bespeaks of good treatment, even happiness.  Indeed, at no point in Washington’s memoir does he describe physical abuse or rebellion. Frequently, fond memories tinge his narrative. In fact, when amidst war he was forced to leave Fredericksburg for the final time–the place where he was enslaved for most of his first 24 years of life–he admits that he cried.

John Washington, early 1870s.

It is an easy thing to shop John Washington’s memoir–or the historical record as it relates to slavery–and pluck out passages that would allow the uninquisitive to conclude that slavery wasn’t such a bad thing (people do that regularly.)  But to do that with Washington or slavery at large requires the complete ignorance of context:

– State law forbade John Washington from attending school, from learning to read and write.

– John Washington’s birth was not recorded. His marriage in 1862 was not recognized legally. And, had he died in slavery (he did not), his death would not have been recorded. In fact, it’s likely his name would not have appeared anywhere, except as it related to his value on the open market at the time of a change of ownership.

– Once married, he could not visit his wife without permission.

– Town law required him to move off the sidewalk when a white person approached.

– Had he  been emancipated, state law required him to leave the state of Virginia within one year (leaving behind family members in the process).

– Prior to 1855 (when the African Baptist Church came into being), John Washington was required to sit with all other slaves in the balconies. The floor of the church was reserved solely for white congregants.

– After 1831, gatherings of all African Americans (including at church) had to be supervised by a white man.

– Town law forbade John Washington from being on the street at night or on Sundays in order to “preserve the good order of the town.”

– When his grandmother committed some transgression in the 1820s, her owner was able to hire a man in town for $1.34 to whip her. The punishment of slaves helped support a small industry of trade and punishment entirely dependent upon the institution.

– From at least the 1820s on, the town had at least one man whose primary business was the buying and selling of human beings; the sale of slaves was a regular occurrence in Fredericksburg, with its attendant destruction of families and communities.

– If John Washington ran away, not only would he have to contend with local slave patrols intent on preventing his escape, he would also have to circumvent the power of federal law, which likewise mandated his capture and return to bondage.

Slavery was more than the relationship between master and slave. Beyond the master stood the authority of government (national, state, and local), which imposed control, denied freedom, and ensured that slaves remained largely nameless and silent.

The great power of John Washington’s narrative is in its description of his struggle against the constant drumbeat of dehumanization. His is a constant quest for freedom within the bonds of slavery–for time and space, for choice and initiative. That he did not run away bespeaks not of happiness. That he did not rise in violent rebellion does not imply contentedness. Rather, his choice to endure slavery in anticipation of a brighter day was a reflection of the heaviness of the bonds that held him. His determination to wring what joy he could from life despite his condition is a testament to the human instinct (possessed by Washington in huge measure) to find joy and happiness wherever and whenever we can, no matter the circumstances.

Indeed, most slaves found joy where they could–with family, in song, in faith, or in slight bits of extra time or space to be more free. But to suggest, as many still do, that slaves who were occasionally happy were “happy” as slaves  is to betray a misunderstanding of both history and humanity. If you doubt that, read John Washington. He clearly loved life–and found joy wherever he could, including and perhaps especially at Christmastime.  But just as clearly he abhorred slavery. The distinction between the two is worth noting, both as historians and people of conscience.

Merry Christmas.

Slavery and secession in Fredericksburg–Marye’s views

From John Hennessy [Please note:  We’ll be going quiet for a few days over the holiday, but will pick up again in its aftermath. A good holiday to all–poke around in the old stuff while we are away.]:

In Fredericksburg, the question of Union or secession was clearly entangled with the issue of slavery.  While editorialists did indeed rail about a state’s rights and the “vexing power of the national government,” when they particularized their grievances, they usually pointed toward slavery as the lynchpin upon which the relationship between the government and the South turned.  Jesse White of the Weekly Advertiser–the most radical of the local newspapers–was typical:

The institution of slavery in Virginia, is indeed, a most important feature of her progess… [Such] is the parallelism between her prosperity and its utility, that there is no section of the country where political and social relations would be more sadly changed than Virginia by a change in present relations.

Even the rabidly Unionist editor James Hunnicutt, who fought secession long after it had taken place, embraced the justice and necessity of slavery.

Most telling is the fact that when Fredericksburgers selected a delegate to the secession convention, John L. Marye Sr., they selected a man who owned significant property, including fourteen slaves.  Nearly two months prior to the election, Marye wrote a letter, published in the local newspaper, that clearly laid out his views on secession and slavery (on the former he was moderate; on the issue of slavery, he was typical).

There is in the North a party of fanatics who are wrought up to phrenzy on the subject of slavery….They do not see that our earliest records refer to slavery as existing and no where treated it as a novelty. They do not see that Christ came upon earth to instruct us in our duty, and finding slavery established, not only did not condemn it, but, on the contrary, explained the relative duties of master and servant…. In all arable countries there were slaves, and slavery continued to exist while it was profitable. The gain of the slave is in doing as little as he can; the gain of the freeman is in doing as much as he can…. It would be well for all parties concerned if they would bear in mind that this question of slavery is a vital one in the South, and there is nothing in the history of the Southern States which would lead to the opinion that they would submit to interference on that subject…..If these good people are really disposed to befriend the slave, they will gain that end much more surely by not making it absolutely necessary for the master to draw tighter the chords of bondage.

This wonderfully concise, articulation of Marye’s views on slavery is, in its sentiments, unremarkable. There was little public dispute about the place of slavery in Southern or Fredericksburg society. The surviving editorials, letters, newspaper accounts, and testimony make clear that the debate in Fredericksburg as it related to secession hinged not on the existence or justice of slavery, but on its protection–and what its loss or limit at the hands of an intrusive Federal government implied for the future of the South. Would slavery be better protected inside or outside the Union?

Marye’s status as a slave owner and his views on slavery were base requirements for his election, and were in themselves not decisive in his lopsided victory (his opponent, William S. Barton, also owned slaves). Rather it was Marye’s conservative views on secession–his argument that the South’s rights and institutions would best be served by remaining in the Union–that garnered him his 2-1 margin in votes. Given the rhetoric of the time, it’s hard to imagine the town selecting someone to make that argument who was not invested in the institution most at risk.


From John Hennessy:

As we look back on the history of our community and nation, we are fond of saying that people are a “product of their times,” and of course they are. But in the realm of public history that statement is often used to imply a simplicity that wasn’t real.  It implies that the pressures of society and peers left no choice but to conform, or indeed that there was no choice to be had at all. The result is a public history that is reduced to simplicities, that’s monolithic, with little room for discussion of the motivations or decisions of participants –as if everyone was simply swept forward by an unseen force that rendered individuals powerless to resist.

Union troops loot lower Caroline Street

We see this idea applied most rigorously to those subjects that make us most uncomfortable. In the Fredericksburg region, the looting of the town by Union soldiers is often seen in such simplistic terms. The existence and sustenance of slavery is another. But in fact, these topics (and many others we’ll discuss over the months) were a complex tangle of individual choices, knowingly made within a community (or army) that was acutely aware of the moral dilemmas that faced them. In making individual decisions on how to respond in such circumstances, some rationalized their way to what we would today label an immoral course. Most, though, were apathetic, and were indeed swept along by that unseen hand of history and collective morality or immorality.  And a few recognized the choices that faced them and had the will to see the issues clearly and to decide accordingly.

Recognizing the range of personal choices in turn recognizes the richness, complexity, and dimension in our history. More than that, the rhythms of history demonstrate clearly from whence human progress emerges: from those who recognized and confronted the moral and practical dilemmas at hand.

Mary Berkeley Minor Blackford, resident of lower Caroline

Fredericksburg includes its fair share from all three categories (we’ll call them the rationalizers, the apathetic, and the confronters). We’re going to undertake an occasional series on here that looks at some of the dilemmas that faced this community (or in the case of the Union army, the community’s occupiers), with an emphasis on how people reacted to some of the great issues of the times–and what those decisions tell us about some of the broader themes of history.  Which brings us to the subject of the day. Continue reading

Context matters: the contrasting narratives of John Washington and Noah Davis, Fredericksburg slaves (with a Patton connection)

From John Hennessy:

Both begin with the identical words:  “I was born a slave.” Both narrate a life within slavery and a lifelong quest for freedom.  Both were urban slaves, working in homes or small businesses or industry.  But in most other respects, the narratives of John Washington and Noah Davis could not be more different. The differences command of those who read them special care. They demonstrate vividly why context matters.

Only a couple hundred slave narratives have ever been published, and so Fredericksburg is fortunate to have two produced by men who spent a most of their lives as slaves in the town.  You are likely most familiar with John Washington’s narrative, published in 2007 by David Blight as A Slave no More (read more about Washington’s memoir here). Washington wrote in 1873, seven years after the war, and in his retrospective recounts his life in slavery and his quest for freedom in vivid terms. His narrative is filled with antagonists, most notable his mistress, Catherine Taliaferro. In Washington’s narrative, Taliaferro, her neighbors, the community, and its institutions are the limiters of his freedom. They are, rightly so, Washington’s foils in his struggle for time, space, literacy, joy, and family.  Writing privately from his new home in Washington DC ten years after emancipation, John Washington could afford to offend. His memoir is frank, sometimes stark, though rarely angry or vengeful. 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

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.) Continue reading

Resisting freedom in an interesting way–and adding 32 names to The List

From John Hennessy:

Slaves resisted bondage, and their owners resisted freedom, sometimes in interesting ways.

The home of William Little on Princess Anne Street. From here Libby McCaw and her two daughters and Nancy Smallwood and her five children escaped to Union lines and eventually to Washington DC.

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.

John L. Marye Jr., later mayor of Fredericksburg and lieutenant governor of Virginia, sought the return of Lucy Ann Washington and her six children.

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.

Continue reading