Why Did the Slave Beat His Master?

On March 22, 1861, the New York Times reprinted for its readers a story from Virginia that had appeared three days before in the Petersburgh Express. The story related an account of a slave in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, who had beaten his owner unconscious. It read:

Mr. SUTHERLAND was out on his plantation superintending the clearing of a patch of new ground, and directed NED, a robust fellow, to lift a log to a pile of burning brush. The negro replied that he would not do it, which Mr. SUTHERLAND interpreted to mean that the negro did not feel able to lift the log, and stooped to do so himself. While stooping, NED seized a big stick, and striking his master a powerful blow over the back, felled him to the earth. He then repeated his blows until the stick was broken in many pieces, and Mr. SUTHERLAND lay apparently lifeless. Thinking he had accomplished his purpose, he started off, and had proceeded about fifty yards when he saw his master attempt to rise. Seizing another stick, he returned, and striking Mr. SUTHERLAND another severe blow across the face, mashed his nose flat to the face, and then continued to beat him across the arms, breast and legs, until the flesh was pummeled to the consistency of jelly. Some small negroes were present when the beating commenced, but they were mere children, and dreaded the ferocity of NED as though he had been a tiger, and were therefore prevented from offering assistance. As soon as they could get to the house the intelligence was communicated to some of the neighbors, and all turned out en masse to hunt us the fiend, some three or four going to the assistance of Mr SUTHERLAND, and conveying him to his residence. Upon reaching the house he manifested indications of returning consciousness, and at last accounts, Sunday, was alive, though in a very precarious condition.

The search of the neighbors for NED proved unavailing, but the account of the outrage reached this city, and on Sunday night Mr. GEORGE ALSOP, who knew the scoundrel, succeeded in arresting him at the depot of the South-Side Railroad in this city, and lodged him in jail. He will be transferred to the County of Dinwiddle for trial.

While Ned was not the first slave to attack his owner and the article provides no insight into why Ned committed such a desperate act, the timing is interesting. Just as some bold slaves sought escape at outposts like Sumter and Pickens in March 1861, perhaps Ned felt the time was ripe to turn the tables on his owner. Certainly, Ned’s actions might have had nothing to do with crisis atmosphere in Virginia in Spring 1861. But with slaveholders in Virginia on edge (see Civil War Emancipation for February 26, 2011) no doubt the mood also affected their slaves.

Civil War Emancipation invites the thoughts of its readers on this incident.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/1861/03/22/news/a-virginian-beaten-by-his-own-slave.html

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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