Toward freedom: a narrative newly found

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.


Scott's Dam on the Rappahannock, where our unnamed slave crossed to freedom


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

The List

From John Hennessy:

It is both the most basic and the most complex and intriguing of historical documents: the list. Lists are sometimes surprisingly elusive, but hugely valuable. You’d think we’d have a list, for example, of all those men killed in the battles around Fredericksburg–after all, the most basic of honors to a fallen soldier is remembering his name. Until a few years ago we did not. Today, of the 15,000 men buried in the National Cemetery in Fredericksburg, more than 12,000 are unknown.

In and around Fredericksburg during the spring and summer of 1862, as many as 10,000 slaves passed into Union lines to freedom. While we know a fair amount about them collectively, we know almost nothing about them individually (except John Washington)–where they came from, where they ended up, the path taken by their lives in freedom, or, most basically, their names.  The folks who have created and now manage the Fredericksburg-Stafford Trail to Freedom project have taken it upon themselves to change that. They have undertaken an intriguing project to name as many of that summer’s slaves-seeking-freedom as they can, and they ask your help in doing it. Stafford historian Al Conner is leading the effort.

It’s a formidable challenge. Slaves, while in slavery, had no legal names, and rarely do we have anything more than a nickname, a trade, or a value to start with. But still, compiling what we do know will invariably lead us to pierce the veil of anonymity and silence for at least a few–to learn something of their lives, something of what form their uncertain journey into freedom ultimately took.

Here are some examples of what we do know, taken from the claims filed by Confederate citizens for reimbursement for lost “property”–human beings–in the National Archives. Continue reading

The Exchange Hotel: temporary home for escaped slaves

From John Hennessy:

The conventional wisdom in Fredericksburg is that the Exchange Hotel, at the corner of Caroline and Hanover Streets, was not built until after the Civil War.  Not so.  More than that, we have just discovered a piece of the building’s history that surely elevates this already notable place to the upper echelons of Fredericksburg’s wartime structures.

The Exchange Hotel, corner of Caroline and Hanover

Before the Civil War, the Exchange Hotel was owned by the irrepressible Peter Goolrick, who lived across the street (where Irish Eyes now is) and owned more properties in Fredericksburg than anyone else. The hotel burned in late 1857, apparently completely, and spectacularly so–the falling rubble actually did minor damage to Goolrick’s house across the way. Goolrick was, however, covered by insurance, and by 1859 or so, reconstruction began.  According to newspaper accounts, the re-built building was largely completed before the Civil War.  But, because of the war, the hotel did not open until 1868–hence the belief in its postwar construction date. The Exchange is perhaps the largest ante-bellum privately owned building in Fredericksburg .  When it reopened it was valued at $13,000, making it one of the most valuable buildings in town.

We have known nothing of the history of hotel during the war, until now.  The presence of the Union army stimulated the exodus of as many as 10,000 slaves from surrounding counties. Their destination: Fredericksburg, the Rappahannock, and eventually Aquia Landing and Washington DC. This exodus presented a major challenge to Union authorities. We have known that they used the Circuit Courthouse on Princess Anne Street. But here is something new. The Richmond Examiner of September 19, 1862, includes a fabulous account of the Union occupation of town that summer and this reference to the Exchange Hotel.

“The new Exchange hotel and the Court House were turned into negro quarters, and from five to fifteen hundred negroes were generally loitering around.  When they got too thick they were sent off, but continued accessions kept up the supply to the full capacity of the respective buildings.”

Next time you settle in for pesto nachos and a beer at J. Brian’s, ponder that previous use of the place.

A church divided over slavery, and Fredericksburg’s first house of worship for African Americans

From John Hennessy:

One of the great things about Fredericksburg’s history is that local stories often reflect vividly on the national experience.  More than most communities, our local history reverberates across a national landscape. The battles fought here are obvious examples, but so too are more subtle, obscure stories (all of which we’ll write about in the future): the activities in Fredericksburg of the American Colonization Society, the constant quest for the mainspring to economic success, the slave trade as practiced by Aler and Finnall, and the turmoil in the Methodist Church hereabouts. The experience of the Methodist Church here in the decades before the Civil War is a vivid reflection of a nation and community in upheaval.

The three Methodist Churches of Fredericksburg.

Two obscure facts about Methodists in Fredericksburg:

– At various times between 1841 and 1860, there were THREE Methodist congregations in Fredericksburg whose churches stood within a four-block area of town.

– The first exclusively black church in Fredericksburg (at least so far as I have been able to determine) was not the African Baptist Church on Sophia Street (today Shiloh Old Site), but a Methodist Church located at what is today 523 George Street.

Therein lies a story or two. Continue reading

Shots Fired in Anger in Stafford County…During the Revolutionary War

from: Harrison 

In the course of exploring Aquia Landing and vicinity through various blog posts, let’s pause in one of the periods predating the steamboats and railroad.  The typical visitor to the public beach there who gazes across Aquia Creek to Brent’s Point in Stafford County is probably unaware they are looking at the tip of a peninsula that hosted the Fredericksburg area’s only known Revolutionary War fighting between organized units. 

The shooting part of the Revolution came to Stafford in July 1776, 15 months after Virginia’s Royal Governor, John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, declared his colony in rebellion and a year after he moved the seat of his “government” to a British fleet that would raid up and down the Chesapeake and its tributaries.  That these operations included an amphibious attack on the Widewater peninsula—dramatic and much commented-on at the time—has recently begun to reenter common knowledge locally, thanks to the posting of primary accounts on Robert Heges VIIII’s Encyclopedia of Dumfries, Virginia website, around 1997, and the publishing of other primary accounts, together with extended narratives of the Widewater episode, in works such as Jerrilynn Eby’s They Called Stafford Home:  The Development of Stafford County, Virginia from 1600 Until 1865 (1997) and Donald G. Shomette’s Maritime Alexandria: the Rise and Fall of an American Entrepôt (2003). 

Widewater peninsula at center-right, between Aquia Creek, diagonal center, and Potomac River, far edge. The British landed along the northernmost third of the Potomac shoreline.

Widewater peninsula at center-right, between Aquia Creek (diagonal center) and Potomac River (far edge). The British landed along the northernmost third of the Potomac shoreline, not far south of where the line of the modern railroad begins curving inland. Site of the Civil War-era railroad terminus at Aquia Landing is the small, white-edged peninsula jutting up from lower right corner.

The following contemporary description, perhaps penned by an officer in the Virginia State Navy and recently made available online by an archive in Illinois, provides an overview of the amphibious operation of 1776.  It began with four British warships sailing past on the Potomac on July 22, and continued the next day, when at least one of the four, the 44-gun, two decker HMS Roebuck, returned to dispatch landing craft to William Brent’s Richland.  Richland, centered around what was described as an “elegant brick house,” was situated on the Widewater peninsula roughly three-quarters of the way up (northwest along) its Potomac shoreline.  Brent owned land in Prince William County as well as in Stafford, and was captain of the Prince William militia:

Continue reading

The Dilemma of “Contrabands” in Stafford County–a vivid case

From John Hennessy:

In mid-1862, the Union army struggled with the appearance of thousands of slaves flooding into Union lines at Fredericksburg and in Stafford County. Not only did these former slaves present a logistical challenge, they also challenged the intellectual mettle of the soldiers receiving them–many, if not most, of whom had little interest in emancipation. The legal status of these freedom-sleeking slaves was, before the passage of the Second Confiscation Act on July 16, 1862, ambiguous. Federal law proffered them no protection, and nor did Federal policy offer commanders in the field much guidance. And so they struggled along–going with the flow of contrabands, so to speak, until challenged.

Contrabands near Yorktown in May 1862. There are no known images of contrabands in the Union camps at Stafford that spring and summer.

A revealing challenge took place in June of 1862, when a Maryland slaveowner wrote to Colonel George H. Biddle of the 95th New York, then overseeing operations at Aquia Landing. Thomas Miller of Nanjemoy protested that one of his slaves had run off to Aquia to join his family, which had already taken refuge there. Biddle’s response clearly reflected both discomfort and ambivalence.  He told Miller, “If the man is here and desires to return to you, or if you should come here, and, without threats or violence, induce him to return, I will neither offer nor suffer any resistance. My duty here is simply to enforce the Constitution and laws, as construed by the early fathers, and in obedience to my superior officers.”

Biddle’s letter provoked a furious response from slaveowner Miller–one that faithfully reflects many of the pressures that helped shape Lincoln’s sometimes cautious rhetoric with respect to emancipation and the border states.  He derided Biddle’s claim that  he was “simply here to enforce the Constitution and laws” by pointing out, “In this State [Maryland] the receiving or employing runaway negroes is called harboring, and is a penal offence. I have yet to learn that the statutes of Maryland are violative of the Constitution. There is no man in Maryland more loyal than I, or who has encountered more odium for defending the Government, My loyalty here has been regarded as of the most ultra kind, in proof of which I can refer to every prominent Union man in the State….”

He warmed to his point:  “I am informed…that if I come over and can induce this negro to return with me he will see there is no interference. I am not willing to consult this negro at all in a matter of this sort. He is my property, my money paid for him, and if the Government requires a regiment of soldiers to stand between me and my just rights, I can only say I must submit — I am but an individual. It is not the value of the property that so much concerns me; it is the principle it involves.–Are we of the border States to be taxed to furnish rations to our own negroes. If officers in the army can’t catch slaves for their lawful owners, how is it they can catch them for themselves or for the Government?”

These are precisely the sort of sentiments that inspired Lincoln to limit the reach of the Emancipation Proclamation to only those areas then (as of January 1, 1863) unoccupied and in rebellion. A vivid example from our own back yard, and yet another instance of why our history hereabouts tells us so much that is important about the nation.

The letters of Biddle and Miller were published in the Richmond Daily Dispatch of August 16, 1862, as evidence of disarray of the Union administration in Stafford and the inconsistencies in Union policy (inconsistencies that would be remedied by the Second Confiscation Act and, eventually, the Emancipation Proclamation).

Waysides at Chatham

From John Hennessy:

1978. That’s when the most recent exhibits were installed at Chatham, just three years after the NPS acquired the place from John Lee Pratt. But this week, that’s changing. New wayside exhibits are going in–exhibits that interpret the landscape, slavery, and give visitors something of an overview.  Here are some images from the work ongoing.

New exhibits near the parking lot.

At no time prior to 1860 was the white population likely more than 20% of the whole at Chatham. Several of the new exhibits interpret Chatham's majority population.

Two new exhibits interpret what is likely the most famous view in the Fredericksburg region--from Chatham looking into Fredericksburg.

Interpreting what was historically Chatham's back side, now its front.

The display of pontoon boats and two exhibits overlook the site of the December 11, 1862, pontoon crossing by Union soldiers.

Slave revolt at Chatham

From John Hennessy, (for more on the slave landscape at Chatham see Eric Mink’s posts on Mysteries and Conundrums here and here):

The laundry at Chatham, once the domain of Chatham's slaves.

The laundry at Chatham, once the domain of Chatham’s slaves.

The park’s superintendent, Russ Smith, recently found this vivid letter and affidavit at the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center (which has become truly an important repository over the last many years). It, more than anything else we have ever seen, explains the origins and nature of the slave revolt at Chatham on January 2, 1805.  By way of context, Chatham was still owned at the time by its builder, William Fitzhugh, but he had removed his residence to Alexandria, leaving supervision of Chatham’s slaves to a new overseer named Starke. Starke had managed to antagonize at least a part of the resident slaves at Chatham, and after the holidays some rose in a spontaneous act of defiance that resulted in death and confusion. One slave died in the battle that followed, and a white man was mortally injured.

The affidavit included here was sent by a local Falmouth Resident, William Richards, to Governor John Page, seeking clemency for one of the slaves implicated (and sentenced to hang) in the rebellion–a man named Robin. Robin was likely well-known to his owner Fitzhugh as a determined soul; in a 1797 letter Fitzhugh recorded that he “had him whip’d and continue to do whenever he comes” to Chatham (Robin was then likely being employed at Eagle’s Nest, another of Fitzhugh’s plantations in King George County.  The request for clemency ultimately worked. Robin was spared, though he was likely deported to the Caribbean.

The Chatham slave revolt is one of the few uprisings recorded in the Fredericksburg area, and the only one I know of that resulted in death to either the slaves or their white controllers.

The document is ripe for extensive analysis…and indeed we will take a look at it in increasing detail over time. But here it is, unimproved.  Our thanks to Russ Smith for turning this up. Continue reading

The Slave’s Voice Emerges, Part II: Trail to Freedom

From John Hennessy, NPS, on behalf of the Crossing Committee (for an earlier post about John Washington and the emergence of a voice for Fredericksburg’s slaves, click here):
Note:  The event is at 10 a.m. on Saturday June 19 at Historic Port of Falmouth Park (better known as Falmouth Beach, on River Road)

From the "Journey of a Slave"

The only memorial to emancipation in the Fredericksburg region is a marker at the home of a white man, Moncure Conway of Falmouth, acknowledging his undeniable impact on the march toward freedom for America’s slaves.  No memorial and few interpretive markers acknowledge the acts of the most important of all emancipators in the Fredericksburg region: the slaves themselves.

That will change this weekend when Stafford County, the City of Fredericksburg, and the National Park Service unveil the first interpretive markers on the new Trail to Freedom, which will track the passage of 10,000 slaves across the Rappahannock River into Stafford County (and Union lines) during the spring and summer of 1862.  The location of these two exhibits–one in Old Mill Park on the Fredericksburg side of the river and one at Historic Port of Falmouth Park (Falmouth Beach) on the Stafford side–is no mere happenstance. They mark the crossing site of Fredericksburg slave John Washington who, on April 18, 1862, was among the very first of the 10,000 who dared to seize freedom themselves.  The exhibits and the trail are the product of the regional Sesquicentennial Committee and its Crossing workgroup, which organized funding and put together the exhibits.

The site of John Washington's crossing, taken from the Falmouth side of the river. Bridgewater Mill is at right.

John Washington, early 1870s.

That this story is being told is due in large part to the emergence of John Washington’s narrative, “Memorys of the Past.”  Before this narrative emerged in the 1990s, we had only statistics and the voices of Union soldiers who witnessed the passage.  But now we know exactly what the moment meant to one of those slaves: “Life had a new joy awaiting me,” he wrote.

The site of John Washington's crossing, Old Mill Park, Fredericksburg. The ruins of Bridgewater Mill are in the foreground.

We also know almost precisely where John Washington went across the river–he crossed a few yards below the Bridgewater Mill, the ruins of which are still visible in Fredericksburgs’ Old Mill Park.  This weekend’s ceremony, which will feature a reading of John Washington’s narrative of the moment by the indomitable Dominic Green, will take place on the Stafford side–at Falmouth Beach off River Road, where, that April 18 day, Washington was welcomed and surrounded by Union soldiers, curious about news from Fredericksburg and his life in slavery.  One of them asked, “Do you want to be free?”  Washington responded, “By all means.”

This blog is not really for plugging programs going on in the community. But this program is a bit different.  I have always felt that the combination of a place, the words of one who was there, and the work of the mind’s eye makes for an experience rarely surpassed.  All the elements will be there this weekend.  But more than that, this expression toward our history is historic in its own right, as the words of the slave are being heard.

“The Journey of a Slave” Anticipates Interpretation of 2010

From Harrison, NPS:

Sometime during or shortly after the Civil War, a Northern publisher issued a remarkable set of chromolithographed cards, somewhat in the style of cigarette cards.  Those numbered at least a dozen and bore the collective designation, “The Journey of a Slave.”  The publisher also gave the illustrations individual titles and numbers.  The following copy of the Journey of a Slave series now resides at the Library of Congress, which tentatively attributes the work to Philadelphia artist James F. Queen:

Journey of a Slave is a remarkable piece of public history and art.

For one, it clearly reflects a commercial undertaking and shows that, for at least some entrepreneurs, slavery was a story to be publicized rather than forgotten or suppressed.  True, the illustrations may have been aimed at or found their strongest market among African American consumers in the North, but the subject of slavery was certainly in this case publicized thorough a mass-produced, dynamic (even lurid, given the blood spurts in “The Lash,” “Make Way for Liberty,” and “Victory”), easily accessible product.         

While the series is generalized geographically and not set specifically in the Fredericksburg area—as attested by the prominence of cotton cultivation in the first illustration—the long story of Fredericksburg’s presentation of its slave block, or “slave rock,” provides a local, similar example of the early publicizing of slavery in a commercialized or semi-commercialized manner…after the Civil War, in the case of the slave block.  Whether specific to the Fredericksburg area or not, such efforts provide a useful counterweight to the emphasis, in a number of today’s memory studies of the war and its causes, on amnesia over slavery and the black experience.  “Memory” is not invariably about forgetting, among people of all backgrounds.

Another notable aspect of the Journey of a Slave series is its anticipation of the efforts of the Fredericksburg community and Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park to tell the story of slavery and freedom.  The illustration series is of course a product of the mid-nineteenth century, not the late-twentieth and its focus on African American agency, initiative, and independence.  Until the closing moments of “Glory,” for example, the soldier and former slave, Trip, played by Denzel Washington, has little use for the flag, in contrast to the “Stand Up a Man” illustration in the Journey of A Slave.  Nevertheless, the central character in the Journey of a Slave does take control of his life dramatically, in the course of transitioning from slave to freedman to soldier.  Overall, the series reflects facets that would a century or more later become central to Park Service historical interpretation:  work, family formation, suffering, resilience, resistance, freedom, military service, sacrifice, and commemoration.

Noel G. Harrison

[Editor: For an example of how some of the components of “Journey of a Slave” are finding expression hereabouts, check out a new posting by Noel over at Mysteries and Conundrums on the efforts to document and describe the first clash of African American troops in Virginia north of the James River.  It happened in our midst.]