Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Negro Man Who Gives His Name as Henry

I stumbled across the above advertisement several months ago as I was browsing through issues of the Abingdon Virginian newspaper published during the Civil War. This particular notice appeared in the May 15, 1863, edition.

As happened so often during the war an enslaved individual was captured and held in a jail. And, as was often the case, the jailer was required to post a notification for the owner to come retrieve their property and pay for lodging expenses. The distraction of the war provided unprecedented opportunities for enslaved individuals to stake their claim to freedom, and many took advantage of those opportunities.

William W. Barker, the jailer of Washington County, located in the far southwest corner of the Old Dominion, stated that this particular man had been incarcerated on May 10. The captured man (being the only possible source for information) stated his name was Henry and said "he belongs to Dr. Edward Jones of Tuskeege [sic], Ala[bama]."

A quick search on of the 1860 and 1850 censuses did not turn up a Dr. Edward Jones in Tuskegee or Macon County, Alabama. Now, that does not mean that such a man did not exist. He could have moved there after the 1860 census was taken or perhaps the census taker missed him. But, it is just as likely that Henry made up an owner's name and provided it to the jailer so that he would not be claimed immediately.  

Another common feature of these advertisements is a provided physical description. Henry was described as "black" and stood five feet five or six inches tall. The jailer believed Henry to be 26 or 27 years old. And although Henry was clearly of manhood years, Barker referred to him as a "boy." Henry's distinguishing marks were a scar on his left eye and "some scars on his back." It doesn't take much inferential work to surmise that Henry was probably whipped at sometime by whoever previously owned him.

Barker ended with the typical language of capture ads for the owner to come claim the slave, prove ownership or "he will be dealt with as the law directs." The laws of the various slave states stipulated a duration to hold these individuals if their owners did not come claim them; then they could be sold. For example, in Kentucky, the original law was to hold the slave six months before they could be offered for sale, however, during the war the jails were so full of runaway slaves that the state legislature shorted the term of incarceration to one month before advertising them for sale.

I do not know what happened to Henry, if that indeed was his name. I am speculating here, but he probably was not claimed and ended up being sold to the highest local bidder. Henry likely worked in some capacity until the end of the Civil War, or perhaps he ran away again and made his way to Union lines. We will likely never know. However, we do know that his individual, who ever he was, decided to make an effort at freedom, something that he certainly knew would be risky, but apparently worth the possible severe repercussions.

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