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.
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. Continue reading