The "great man" version of American history teaches that Lincoln freed the slaves, but scholars have long debated the 16th president's role in emancipation. As evidence in that debate, consider this passage from the recently discovered autobiography of John Washington, born in bondage in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1838. With the Civil War raging and Union forces advancing on his hometown, he was told that he would be relocated to North Carolina to serve an officer in the Confederate Army.
"I began to fear that the object in sending me down there, was to be done to get me out of the reach of the Yankees. and I secretly resolved not to go But I made them believe I was most anxious to go. In fact I made them believe I was tereblely afred of the Yankees, any way. My Master was well satisfied at my appearant disposition and told me I was quite Right, for if the Yankees were to catch me they would send me to Cuba or cut my hands off or otherwise maltreat me. I of course pretended to beleive all they said but knew they were lieing all the while."
In April 1862, months before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, Washington escaped across the Rappahannock River to Union lines -- in essence, freeing himself. A decade later, Washington, one of the rare slaves who had learned to read and write as a child, recorded his path to freedom in a manuscript he titled "Memorys of the Past."
His story, along with that of Wallace Turnage, another slave who escaped during the Civil War, is presented in David W. Blight's remarkable new book, A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation. By coincidence, Blight, the director of Yale University's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, was asked to examine both narratives in 2003; each had been preserved by descendants for generations. When he read them together, he writes, "I realized with a thrill of discovery that what we possessed were two extraordinary, unpublished, and probably unmediated narratives about one of the most revolutionary transitions in American history. If the lives of these two men could be verified, we would have two original ways of seeing how American slaves achieved freedom in the Civil War."
Scholars and casual readers alike are fortunate that these writings ended up in Blight's hands. He was able not only to verify the men's lives, but, using a wealth of genealogical records, to reconstruct them in exceptional detail (both narratives conclude shortly after freedom is achieved). The first half of the book is written by the historian, who pieces together the biographies of Washington and Turnage and provides illuminating context on slavery, the Civil War, and emancipation; the second half of the book presents each narrative in its original form. The two halves cohere beautifully. Blight writes with authority and grace, whether describing the details of the men's experiences or, as in this passage, making more sweeping statements to convey their significance: "Their stories are both unique and representative," he writes. "They remind us that history is unpredictable, anguished, and hidden, but also sometimes patterned, triumphant, and visible in the quiet and turbulent corners of the lives of real people."
Blight's erudition never detracts from the drama of the narratives. For instance, after succinctly summarizing the political battles between Lincoln and Congress over slavery, he makes this elegant transition: "Uninformed but not unaffected by policy debates, Turnage did not wait for events." The historian also has a knack for the well-placed literary reference to create vivid impressions of the times the two men lived in, quoting works by Faulkner, Whitman, and Ellison, among others.
The first section prepares readers well for the raw and gripping narratives that follow. Washington, the son of a white slaveholder he never met, describes a childhood that was relatively happy until his mother and siblings were hired out to another family, leaving him alone to serve his mistress. "Then and there my hatred was kindled secretly against my oppressors, and I promised myself If ever I got an opportunity I would run away from these devilish slave holders," he writes. The chaos of war provided him that chance; after crossing the river to freedom, he accepted a job cooking for Union officers, who were at first astonished to learn that the light-skinned Washington was a slave.
Turnage, also the son of a white man, was born in North Carolina and sold to an Alabama plantation owner at age 13. As a plantation slave, he had a more harrowing experience than Washington. After clashing with a brutal overseer, he made his first escape attempt. Several more escapes followed, each ending in his capture and return, until his frustrated owner sold him to a slaveholder in Mobile. It was there, at age 17, that he launched his fifth and final escape, in August 1864. Like Washington, Turnage crossed a river toward Union forces, who took him in and hired him as a cook. "I Now dreaded the gun, and handcuffs and pistols no more. Nor the blewing of horns and the running of hounds; nor the threats of death from the rebel's authority. I could now speak my opinion to men of all grades and colors, and no one to question my right to speak," he writes of his deliverance.
So where does Blight position himself in the scholarly debate on emancipation? The evenhanded historian concludes, "To the perennial question -- who freed the slaves, Lincoln or blacks themselves?--the Turnage and Washington stories answer conclusively that it was both." The author gives Lincoln his due while neither sugarcoating his flaws nor discounting the will of slaves themselves in finding their way to freedom. "Emancipation in America was a revolution from the bottom up that required power and authority from the top down to give it public gravity and make it secure," he writes.
After the war, Washington settled in Washington, D.C., eventually reuniting with his wife, mother, and other relatives. He raised his family in the nation's capital, where he worked as a house painter and was active in his church; he died in 1918. Turnage's postbellum life, like his experience in slavery, was more tumultuous than Washington's. He settled first in New York City and then in Jersey City, struggling to support his family. He was widowed twice, and only three of his seven children lived to adulthood; he died in 1916.
"We do not know precisely why Turnage and Washington wrote their narratives," Blight notes. Indeed, much will forever remain unknown about these men. But it is extraordinary to learn as much as we have nearly 150 years after their escapes. For this, Blight deserves ample credit, and A Slave No More deserves a place alongside classic narratives by Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Booker T. Washington in the literature of emancipation. --Barbara Spindel
Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York, Newsweek.com, Details, and Spin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.
Read an Excerpt
The Rappahannock River
Day after day the slaves came into camps and everywhere the “Stars and Stripes” waved they seemed to know freedom had dawned to the slave.
—John Washington, 1873, remembering August 1862
John M. Washington was born a slave on May 20, 1838, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Washington begins his narrative with the wry comment that he “never had the pleasure of knowing” his mother’s owner, Thomas R. Ware, Sr., who died before John was born. And he supposes “It might have been a doubtful pleasure.” So far as can be determined, Washington also never knew his father, though we can assume he was white. As an autobiographer reconstructing his own youthful identity, Washington says revealingly: “I see myself a small light haired boy (very often passing easily for a white boy).”1
With these words Washington recollects the complicated story of so many American slaves—mixed racial heritage. The offspring of sexual unions between black women and their white male owners or pursuers suffered a legacy of confusion, shame, and abuse, but they also occasionally benefited from economic and social advantages, especially in towns and cities. Washington was one of more than 400,000 out of four million American slaves by 1860 who were officially categorized as “mulatto” or other terminology to distinguish a person of some white parentage. From 1830 to the Civil War, the state of Virginia especially had gone to great effort, although unsuccessfully in practical terms, to legally establish a color line marking who was white and who was not.2 White friends, and perhaps relatives, aided John’s education and opportunities early in his life. But in Fredericksburg and elsewhere, due to his mother’s status and color, he was considered a chattel slave until the war came.
Exactly who Washington’s father was, and how John got his middle initial and last name, have been impossible to trace. A John M. Washington, a distant cousin of President George Washington, lived in Fredericksburg, went to West Point in the 1810s, became an artillery officer, and died in a shipwreck in 1853. But no evidence exists for his patrimony of John. Ware had four sons by 1838, ages twenty-six, twenty-four, twenty, and eighteen. Any of them could have been Washington’s father, although only the two younger ones, John and William, seem to have been residents of Fredericksburg at the time.3
Washington’s story is much clearer on his mother’s side. Women determined, protected, and supported John’s life chances. His maternal grandmother was a slave named Molly who was born in the late 1790s and owned by Thomas Ware. Molly, called “my Negro woman,” is acknowledged for her “faithful service” in Ware’s 1820 will, in which he bequeathed her and her children (valued at $600) to his wife, Catherine (who would eventually be John’s owner). By 1825 Ware’s estate inventory lists Molly and four children; John’s mother, Sarah, was the oldest at age eight. Molly would have another four children by the 1830s. In June of 1829 this strong-willed mother misbehaved (perhaps running away) in such a manner that Catherine Ware arranged with a punishment house to execute a “warrant against Molly and for whipping her by contract $1.34.”4 Perhaps Molly’s defiance was sparked because her sister, Alice, had just been sold away for $350.
We can only imagine the sorrow and scars in Molly’s psyche, a woman whose life was spent nursing white children as well as her own and serving the extended Ware family. But she would live to join her grandson on their flight to freedom in 1862. She died a free woman near her daughter, grandson, and great grandchildren. Whether she departed as a sad or a joyful matriarch, John Washington does not tell us. His silence about Molly may reflect that he was telling only his own heroic story, which did not allow for his grandmother’s saga, but it could also represent a part of his family history he was not prepared to expose.
Sarah Tucker, John’s mother, was likely born in January 1817. Who the men fathering all these children were remains a researcher’s mystery. Sarah probably also had a white father; she is described in various documents as being “bright mulatto” and short in height.5 Ware did not own any men who could have been either Sarah’s or John’s father. When Sarah gave birth to John in 1838, she was a twenty-one-year-old who had somehow learned to read and write, a less unusual accomplishment for urban slaves in small households than for plantation slaves.
In 1832, when Sarah was a teenager, Catherine Ware married Francis Whitaker Taliaferro, a plantation and slave owner with four grown children. The Taliaferros had their own slaves and hired others when they needed extra hands, as was the common practice; in 1836 Mr. Taliaferro advertised for “ten able-bodied men for the remainder of the year,” offering twelve dollars per month to their owners. The Taliaferros also hired out their own slaves on occasion, including Sarah. With John in tow, Sarah was hired out in 1840 to a farm thirty-seven miles west of Fredericksburg, owned by Richard L. Brown of Orange County.6
Washington yearningly describes his eight years in the countryside in the idyllic opening section of his narrative. His mother must have worked as a house slave because he played “mostly with white children.” He spent summers “wading the brooks” and climbing ridges from which he could see the “Blue Ridge Mountains” and a “moss covered wheel . . . throwing the water off in beautiful showers” at a mill on the Rapidan River. Among these pleasant memories is his going to a circus at Orange Court House, where he got lost from his family, and his attending services with his mother at the “Mount Pisgah” Baptist church, a large structure “with gallerys around for colored people to sit in.” John loved the “tall pines” that surrounded the church and remembers the “cakes, candy and fruits” sold under the great trees on Sundays. He relished his recollections of “corn shuckings,” a “hog killing,” and a joyous Christmas celebration. He also remembered his mother teaching him the child’s bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep,” and the “Lord’s Prayer.” And perhaps most important, by the time he was eight, Sarah had taught him the alphabet.7
Equipped with literacy, if not with good spelling or grammar, Washington brilliantly uses all of these images of nature as backdrop for his descent into the hell of slavery. He employs natural beauty as a metaphor for freedom and a reminder of the terror of bondage, knowing that the glories of nature can both inspire the soul and mock human sadness. He worries at one point that his “minute events” would not “interest” his reader, and then he quickly moves his story forward.
These early years were both easy and painful for Washington to remember. He likely had no memory, though, of his mother’s attempt to run away when he was only three. On February 19, 1841, Thomas R. Ware, Jr., advertised in a Fredericksburg newspaper for a “negro woman sarah.” She is described as “about 20 years of age, a bright Mulatto, and rather under the common size.” Clearly she had fled some distance and for some length of time, because the notice offered a twenty-dollar reward if Sarah was captured “more than 20 miles from this place.”8 No evidence survives to indicate how and when Sarah was captured or why she fled. Perhaps she simply took flight from the pressures of daily life for a while. Perhaps she was a young, disgruntled woman “lying out,” as the saying went, absconding to the woods or another farm to be with her lover. But she was surely a woman of unusual intelligence and resourcefulness if she managed to escape and remain on her own for a period of time.
A recent study of runaway slaves in the antebellum South found that slaveholders’ advertisements often described a slave as “proud, artful, cunning . . . shrewd” or “very smart.” Historians Loren Schweninger and John Hope Franklin conclude that the typical runaway exhibited “self-confidence, self-assurance, self-possession . . . self-reliance.” It was rare for women to run away, especially those with small children. In the database produced by Schweninger and Franklin, based on extant runaway advertisements in five Southern states, 81 percent of all runaways were male. Of the 195 Virginia runaways from 1838 to 1860, of which Sarah would be one, only seventeen (9 percent) were female.9
Sarah likely never told her son the story of her flight, although he eventually might have learned of it from others. That Washington had a mother who herself had been a runaway provided a deep layer of silent inheritance, embedded in his spirit if not in his memory. No doubt, both John’s mother and grandmother kept parts of their own physical, emotional, and sexual stories to themselves. Perhaps their experience with white men and with rearing children in the desperately insecure world of slavery left them much like Harriet Jacobs, the author of one of the most important slave narratives. “The secrets of slavery are concealed,” wrote Jacobs, “like those of the Inquisition. My master was, to my knowledge, the father of eleven slaves. But did the mothers dare tell who was the father of their children? Did other slaves dare to allude to it, except in whispers among themselves? No indeed!”10
Copyright © 2007 by David W. Blight
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