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Freeing Charles: The Struggle to Free a Slave on the Eve of the Civil War

Freeing Charles: The Struggle to Free a Slave on the Eve of the Civil War

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by Scott Christianson

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Freeing Charles recounts the life and epic rescue of captured fugitive slave Charles Nalle of Culpeper, Virginia, who was forcibly liberated by Harriet Tubman and others in Troy, New York, on April 27, 1860. Scott Christianson follows Nalle from his enslavement by the Hansborough family in Virginia through his escape by the Underground Railroad and his


Freeing Charles recounts the life and epic rescue of captured fugitive slave Charles Nalle of Culpeper, Virginia, who was forcibly liberated by Harriet Tubman and others in Troy, New York, on April 27, 1860. Scott Christianson follows Nalle from his enslavement by the Hansborough family in Virginia through his escape by the Underground Railroad and his experiences in the North on the eve of the Civil War. This engaging narrative represents the first in-depth historical study of this crucial incident, one of the fiercest anti-slavery riots after Harpers Ferry. Christianson also presents a richly detailed look at slavery culture in antebellum Virginia and probes the deepest political and psychological aspects of this epic tale. His account underscores fundamental questions about racial inequality, the rule of law, civil disobedience, and violent resistance to slavery in the antebellum North and South.  As seen in New York Times and on C-Span’s Book TV.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

 "Christianson explores the complications of the law, and he captures the drama of Nalle’s escape and attempted recapture and the complexities of citizens willing to defy the law for a higher principle."—Booklist

 "A thoughtful biography."—The Journal of Southern History

"This is a welcome volume and should stimulate researchers to unearth other important, though seemingly minor, events that preceded the nation's bloody civil war."—The Journal of African American History

"What is more courageous, militancy or a middle-class life? Fleeing for freedom or remaining loyal to a family? It is one of the virtues of [this] book that [it] raise[s] such questions without insisting on an answer."—The Wall Street Journal

"A master storyteller, Christianson has a novelist's eye for picturing the places, events, and forgotten people who figured in his narrative. . . . A significant addition to the story of the coming of the Civil War."—Civil War Book Review

Product Details

University of Illinois Press
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New Black Studies Series
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The Struggle to Free a Slave on the Eve of the Civil War
By Scott Christianson

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2010 Scott Christianson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07688-6

Chapter One


Like most other slaves, Charles would never know exactly when he had come into this world-a slave didn't receive any birth certificate or celebrate his birthday-but indications are he was probably born about 1821. Slave mothers in that neck of Virginia weren't permitted to divulge who had fathered their children, and it's unlikely his mother Lucy would have told him. Nevertheless, many slaves grew up to have a pretty good idea, although they had to be careful not to let on what they knew. Sometimes the physical resemblances were too obvious to ignore: in Charles's case, his exceptionally light complexion and long facial features may have offered a clue.

Today the scant surviving records furnish little information about his origins and early life, offering almost as much factual confusion as they do documentation. Deed books suggest the circumstances were extremely complicated. The origins of his mother-to-be, Lucy, remain obscure, but she was apparently born into slavery about 1794 or so. In September 1805 she was described as a "mulatto girl" of unspecified age when Charles C. Allen of Culpeper mortgaged her along with "one sorrel horse one sorrel mare two feather beds and furniture [and] one cow," to William G. Allen of Orange County for $200. The courthouse paper trail offers another possible clue: in February 1819, with William Allen being gravely ill, his wife Elizabeth entered into an indenture for a small parcel of land in Stevensburg that previously had been owned by William Banks; and on March 6, 1819, this transaction was certified by the acting justice of the peace, Peter Hansbrough of nearby Cole's Hill, indicating that Hansbrough was in Lucy's vicinity at about that time, though exactly how they came together remains unsubstantiated. One way a white man of means could keep the knowledge of his intercourse with a slave from becoming obvious was to travel about the countryside utilizing taverns and slave women who belonged to others. It may have been in such a place that Charles was conceived, although again his mother would never discuss such a thing. As one historian has observed, for many whites "[t]he image of Jezebel excused miscegenation, the sexual exploitation of black women, and the mulatto population," but today, that view has changed.

Two years later when the Allen estate couldn't meet his debts, Allen's beleaguered wife agreed to unload some of their slaves at a sheriff's sale. Among those put on the block were "one Negro woman aged about twenty-seven by name Lucy and her four children: Harriet, Henry, Maria and an infant child" (Charles), as well as Poll and Bob. At the auction, Peter Hansbrough successfully bid $875 for "Lucy a yellow woman about thirty years of age and her four children ... together with their increase together," and Poll and Bob went to George Slaughter Thom.

The new master Peter Hansbrough (born in 1769) was one of the region's wealthiest and best-known residents, a planter aristocrat whose ancestors had first come over from England in 1639. His vast land holdings spread over several counties. In 1812, he purchased the immense tract near Stevensburg called Cole's Hill, where he became "Peter of Cole's Hill," a grandee who would continue to wear knee britches and a powdered wig in the fashion of the eighteenth century until the day he died. Many people in those parts would never forget the sight of him approaching in his elegant coach with four handsomely attired outriders, and he was widely known as an avid gambler and foxhunter, a connoisseur of wine and whiskey, and a carouser, although white Culpeper society regarded him as a thoroughly respectable gentleman. His wife, Frances Anne Hooe, a daughter of William Hooe of "Pine Hill" in King George County, apparently endured her husband's frequent disappearances with silent resignation as she bore him nine children. They were not the only ones he sired.

Hansbrough's world sported such playful place names as Wicked Bottom, Devil's Jump, and Brandy Station, but it was not without its hazards and scrapes. At that time, for instance, Peter Hansbrough and George Thom were neighbors, vestrymen in the same church, fellow Masons, and partners in innumerable business ventures and card games. Thom had also married Hansbrough's daughter, Ellen. But their relationship had become strained over Hansbrough's chronic debts. Thom claimed Hansbrough had promised to let him have a parcel of twelve of his Negroes, but after Hansbrough failed to deliver all of them-and with nineteenth-century Virginia planter society being very litigious-Thom commenced litigation. Hansbrough ultimately won the case, but the matter continued to engender hard feelings between some of the Thoms and Hansbroughs for several years to come.

It is unclear how Peter Hansbrough's wife acted toward young Charles or his mother Lucy. The presence of a so-called "bastard" slave child who was light in color and may have appeared to bear a physical resemblance to a white woman's husband often prompted feelings of jealousy or resentment on the wife's part, just as it could generate powerful emotions among the master's other white children. After Charles was born, his mother would continue to spend many more years performing many chores about the Hansbrough household, yet there is no record about how she was treated or whether she had a slave mate, though she later issued at least one more child. It's unknown whether Peter Hansbrough treated her as a concubine, or if he exhibited any sense of parental responsibility for their child Charles or any of his other mulatto progeny.

Charles's childhood as well remains uncharted. Growing up there at that time he may have heard other servants talking about what had happened to one of the Hansbrough's former slaves, named Sharper, years earlier, for Sharper's story was the kind of account that old folks passed down over the generations. (It is also preserved in court records.) An African slave from back in the days just before the American Revolution, Sharper had been kidnapped from somewhere in West Africa and sold into bondage, ending up enslaved in those parts by an earlier Peter Hansbrough. One day somebody told Hansbrough that Sharper was trying to obtain poison from an ancient slave conjurer, so Hansbrough went to a justice of the peace to have Sharper arrested. The judge ordered Sharper held in jail until they could examine him at the next quarter sessions. But snowstorms and bitter cold delayed the trial and the case kept getting put off, causing Sharper to suffer terrible frostbite. At last the old conjurer was found to be demented, resulting in the charges being dropped for lack of evidence. But by the time they got around to opening Sharper's cell, his condition was so bad that his gangrened feet literally snapped off. Upon Sharper's death, in 1773 Hansbrough petitioned the court for this "loss of his valuable property." This time the wheels of justice turned faster and the court promptly granted his request, awarding him full value. Sharper's fate and others like it reminded slaves that whether it was back in colonial days or under the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States, the legal system went to considerable lengths to preserve and protect slave owners' rights even as it denied any rights to slaves.


Excerpted from FREEING CHARLES by Scott Christianson Copyright © 2010 by Scott Christianson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Scott Christianson is the author of With Liberty for Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America and many other works. He lives in New York state.

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Freeing Charles: The Struggle to Free a Slave on the Eve of the Civil War 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had pre-ordered this book and was fortunate to obtain it the first week it was out. I read it in two sittings and couldn't put it down. First of all, it is a rigorous, yet accessible work of history that is wonderfully written and richly narrative - quite a rare combination. His penetrating prose took me into the world of a Virginia slave who escaped north on the Underground Railroad, only to be betrayed and condemned by the legal system to be retuned to bondage. This alone would have made a good story. But the author marshalls historical evidence to provide a gripping account of Charles Nalle's rescue. The author also presents new information about John Brown and Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad, ante-bellum slavery, and the pre-war battle over slavery. All of the human dimensions of this amazing story are explored with sensitivity and understanding. In the hands of such a skilled writer this proves to be a one of the most memorable works of American history I have come across for some time. We need more dedicated historians to uncover the history of the oppressed and the fight for justice. I recommend it most highly!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago