Friday, October 29, 2010

Encounters with Slavery in Northern Virginia, Fall 1861

While researching the Union Army camps around present-day McLean, I have come across various accounts of slavery in the region.  During the mid-19th century, large-scale slave holding became unprofitable in Fairfax County due to the economic downturn.  Instead, families who owned large farms and small plantations began to use free labor alongside a smaller number of slaves.  I have not yet researched the 1860 Census returns for Langley and Lewinsville, but the 1860 Census data for Fairfax give us an idea of the extent of slavery in the county.  Out of a total population of 11,834, there were 3,116 slaves and 8,046 whites.  In addition, the county was home to 672 freed blacks.  Nearby Alexandria became the center of one of the largest slave-trading businesses in the United States, as Virginians sold off slaves for use on large cotton plantations of the Deep South.

Price, Birch & Co., Slave Dealers, Duke Street, Alexandria, Virginia.  When the Union Army occupied Alexandria in 1861, they took over this business and converted the building into a prison and home for contraband blacks.  (Library of Congress)

The Northerners who entered Virginia in the fall of 1861 were struck by the vestiges of slavery that existed not far across the river from the nation's capital.  In October 1861, a correspondent from the New York Times visited a homestead that had served as General "Baldy" Smith's headquarters.  He wrote of one slave who became free simply by virtue of abandonment:
But at the little old house there is nothing living to be seen. Even the cornstalks in the garden, the vines on the walls, and the shrubbery in the front, are dressed in the livery of death. . . .  Oh! yes, there is one living thing. Hale and hearty, too, he is -- and he is living all over. It is one of the institutions of the country -- indeed, it is "the institution." He sits on the broken porch, and looks as if he was luxuriating on the desolation around him. He don't know, just now, where he belongs, or to whom. His master is "off there somewhere," and he "tinks he's a fightin." But he does know that for once he is free to go and come anywhere within the lines, and that he gets enough to eat without having "berry much to do." 

Wartime photo of a slave family (Library of Congress)

Samuel Lascomb from Co. C, 7th Pennsylvania Reserves was based in Camp Pierpont around Langley.  On an excursion to Prospect Hill in October 1861, he encountered slave life first-hand.  He described the scene in a letter to the editor of the Lebanon [Penna.] Courier:
While out to Prospect Hill yesterday I embraced the opportunity offered to examine the miserable huts which the wealthy planters of Old Virginia furnish to their much-loved servants. To the left of the hill are three low hovels constructed on bogs and mud. There is no manner by which light is left into the building except by a hole in the wall, over which there is a shudder made of a trap door. The interior of the building is about as well furnished as such buildings are, viz: a chair which showed as though it once had an oak plated seat in it. I don’t know but the inmates of that house can say with the poet: “I love it, I love it, and who shall dare to chide me for loving that Old Arm Chair.” Then there are one or two large boxes, a rude table constructed of boards which had never come into close contact to a Jack-plane; a gourd serves the place of a dipper. A stove is an article altogether foreign to such an institution as a negro shanty, and a monstrous fire-place topped out with a chimney at the end of the house, serves the purpose of both warming, ventilating and lighting the house, while for bedding a heap of corn husks in the corner is the only thing upon which the weary slave can rest his aching bones after a hard day’s work. The inmates of the house were an old lady, who could not tell me how old she was, yet she knew she had a son that was born last spring 82 years ago! The son with his wife live with her in the same hut, and the son who is an old man already, told me that he could still do a respectable day’s work, yet they are happy and contented, for “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.” As a proof of their ignorance allow me to state that when my comrade (a member of the 11th Pennsylvania Reg’t) offered to pay the young woman for two cups of coffee which we had bought and drank there, and he having offered her a dime and a half, she refused the half dime saying that she “knew what a ten-cent piece was, but she didn’t know what de oder was,” and that he “couldn’t fool her, he must give her two pennies yet;” thus absolutely refusing fifteen cents because she did not know of what denomination the smaller piece was. (Letter courtesy of the Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps Historical Society.)
The war had turned the slaves' familiar world upside down.  Even a simple monetary transaction was alien to the family at Prospect Hill.  Now a Union force occupied the region, and some slaves, like the one at Smith's former headquarters, were coming to the realization they could find freedom within the Union lines. The Northerners had likely read much about slavery; now they were personally meeting its victims and witnessing its effects.  In the fall of '61, Northern Virginia must have seemed like another planet to slave, soldier, and war correspondent alike.

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