Sunday, May 5, 2019

Pleased at the Prospect?

Yesterday, while browsing through 1864 issues of the Richmond Daily Dispatch, in search of stories about Union prisoners during the Petersburg Campaign, I happened across the above short article.

One has to take its claim with a healthy dose of skepticism. It states that three slaves: Reuben, Ben, and Nelson, were "recaptured" from Union troops. This notice appeared in the August 24, 1864 edition, and explains that they were recovered "from the Yankees on the north side of the James river," Their capture likely happened during the fighting or its aftermath at Second Deep Bottom, which occurred at roughly that time.

The little story doesn't tell us how they ended up in the Union army's hands in the first place. Were they scooped up and impressed as the Northerners went through King William County, or did they run away from their owners when an opportunity appeared to abscond to freedom?

The author claims that, "They seem much pleased at the prospect of again being placed under the fostering care and protection of their owners." A dubious statement at best. What did he think slaves would say or act like if they were caught by their previous owners. They were probably going to do anything possible to regain any favor they had lost from running away. Slave owners and pro-slavery advocates, however, didn't take the time to consider the perspective of the enslaved.

More likely was the case that I came across a few days ago while reading The Looming Civil War: How Nineteenth Century Americans Imagined the Future by Jason Phillips. On page 159, he writes: "In the spring of 1863, John Washington found freedom in Falmouth, Virginia, when cannon fire disrupted breakfast at the hotel where he worked. A Confederate cavalryman dashed into the room and reported the Yankees were coming. 'In less time than it takes me to Write these lines, every White Man was out the house,' Washington recalled. He and a group of African Americans went to the riverside, where they heard Union marching bands playing on the opposite bank. Union guards spotted them and crossed the river in a boat. When soldiers asked them about the whereabouts of the rebel army, Washington presented them with Confederate newspapers. 'I told them I was most happy to See them all that I had been looking for them for a long time.' The soldiers assured him that he was free and could find work in their camp serving some of their officers. That night Washington realized he 'had truly Escaped from the hands of the Slaves Masters and With the help of God, I never Would be a Slave no more.' He anticipated claiming every dollar earned by his labor and felt that 'Life had a new joy awaiting me.'"

Perhaps, Reuben, Ben, and Nelson were all actually rescued from Union army impressment, and perhaps there were truly glad to be reunited with their former masters. If so, their case was certainly in the minority. Far more were the situations like that of John Washington. Regardless, this little story provides an intriguing perspective of how Southerners viewed the paternalistic relationship between the enslaved and their owners.

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