Thursday, February 11, 2016

Running Away to the Confederate Army?

If you have been reading many posts here lately, you have probably noticed that I am currently captivated by newspaper notices and advertisements concerning slavery. These little bits of the past are sometimes so informative about life in the mid-nineteenth century that it is simply amazing.

For example, the above advertisement ran in the Richmond Daily Dispatch on July 23, 1861; just two days after the first major clash of arms at Manassas. In it E. H. Gill, General Superintendent for the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, sought to reclaim Abraham, who ran away in June from what was probably some fairly grueling labor. One can only imagine the difficult work of grading railroad beds and laying rails and ties.

Apparently the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad rented Abraham from a Captain John Buford, who lived in Bedford County, Virginia. Although the advertisement does not indicate why, Gill believed that Abraham was in Richmond or "at one of the volunteer encampments." Perhaps Gill thought that Abraham could avoid detection by heading for the bustling new capital city of the Confederacy where thousands of citizen soldiers were training and preparing to head for the battlefront, and where a black man could potentially attain a level of anonymity. If Abraham could pass himself off as a free man of color he could possibly hire himself to some officer as a body servant, which likely included less demanding work than the railroad demanded. Of course this is purely speculation, but Gill must have had some reason for predicting Abraham's whereabouts.

Abraham's owner John Buford shows up in the 1860 census as a thirty-five year old farmer who lived with his twenty-nine year old wife and their toddler son and infant daughter. He owned $17,460 in real estate and $30,000 in personal property. Buford's personal property included twenty slaves, whom lived in four slave dwellings. His slave force ranged in age from thirty-six years old to two months.

It is speculation again on my part, but perhaps Buford had a surplus of labor for his farming needs and thus the reason for Abraham's service to the railroad. Regardless of all the unknowns, advertisements such as this one give us a better idea of the economics of slavery, and the methods of agency incorporated by the enslaved, in mid-nineteenth century Virginia.  

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