One of the challenges of understanding the history of emancipation during the American Civil War is documenting the perspective of the slaves. The vast majority (probably over 90 percent) were not literate, and even when they were it was extremely rare that their writings survived. Yet the Civil War also brought slaves into contact with government authorities to an unprecedented extent, giving scholars a window into what they were thinking and feeling in the letters, reports, legal proceedings, and other governmental sources. Of course, most such documents come from federal sources and the historical community is indebted to the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland for bringing them to light.
Yet the words of slaves can come from state sources as well. A good example is the trial transcript of a man named Sam, the slave of John H. Winckler, who lived in Mecklenburg County, Virginia. On May 21, 1861, a local court convicted Sam of the crime to “plot and conspire to rebel and make insurrection.” Sam evidently had made some highly intemperate remarks for an African American ever to utter in the presence of white people in the 19th-century South, but with the slave insurrection scare in the South in the weeks after the attack on Fort Sumter, positively inflammatory.
The trial transcript reads:
The following are copies of the depositions of the witnesses examined, taken down in
Court and filed, viz: Robert A Adams being sworn testifies that on a Sunday in April 1861 at the residence of Sally Adams in this County, he heard the prisoner Sam, speak as follows— Sam said that I suppose we will all be free pretty soon, I replied that I did not know. Oh yes, he said, from what I can find out, Old Lincoln is coming down the Mississippi river and will free every thing as he goes, and I think if we be pretty keen we will get our freedom too, that he heard that four or five hundred negroes in South Carolina had volunteered their services to go to fight for the South, and he said if he had his way with them he would cut all their heads off, and he said that if his master were to tell him that he had to go to fight for the South that he would not go, and that if he had to fight it would be a different way to that, that most of the white folks thought he was a fool, but that he had as much sense as most of the white folks and had as good leaders. Mrs Adams told him that he had better hush talking, and he replied that if they prosecuted him, they could not prosecute all that were left behind, that he knew there were no negroes in his district that would join the South—that if he could get his wife and children free at Tom Jones’ he would be satisfied, he also said that if he could see every southern man’s head cut off, he would not put his hand near to save their lives, he also asked me if I would fight against the north, and I asked him what was that to him and he muttered out some words as he walked off, which words I did not understand, in all of this conversation the prisoner spoke as if he was in earnest, he did not appear to be at all under the influence of ardent Spirits.
William D Adams being sworn testifies that on a Sunday in April 1861 at the residence of
Sally Adams he heard the prisoner Sam speak as follows. I asked him if his Master (Mr
Winckler) would make any tobacco this year, and he said yes, even if he could get only a cent a pound for it, and he added, but thank God we will all be free after a while, for old Lincoln is going to free us all and he hoped he would make haste and do it, for he meant to get his freedom as quickly as he could. Mrs Adams told him that he had better hush talking such talk as that, and he replied that what he said then he could say again and that what was in his head was in it, he also said other things which I do not now remember, there was no person present at this conversation except the prisoner, Sally Adams and myself, the prisoner spoke as if he were in earnest, and I do not think from his appearance and conversation that he had taken a drink of ardent Spirits that morning.
John Adams being sworn testifies that in February 1861 he heard the prisoner Sam speak
as follows, he said that he wished they would make haste and get through the war, that he might have his freedom, that there was some likelihood that he would get his freedom.
Sam’s remarks reveal once again of the hopes raised among the slaves in the South by Lincoln’s inaugural. While most wisely remained silent and prudently did not yet act, the ill-considered words of Sam, like the slaves who attempted to flee to Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens in March 1861, offer a window into what people in the slave community were thinking and feeling around the time of the war’s outbreak and their clear desire for freedom.
The words of the slave named Sam were preserved because after his conviction the case came under review by Virginia’s governor, John Lechter, who commuted the slave’s sentence from being sold south to being sent to do military labor for the Confederacy. Consequently, the trial records can be found in Governor Lechter’s papers. Civil War Emancipation plans to feature sources that document the words of the slaves whenever possible over the course of the sesquicentennial, as their thoughts and feelings are essential in understanding this momentous event in American History.
Source: Transcription of trial record in the case of the Commonwealth v. Sam (a slave), Mecklenburg County, May 21, 1861, Executive Papers of Governor John Letcher, Pardons, May 1861, Acc. 36787, State Government Records Collection, Record Group 3, Library of Virginia at http://www.virginiamemory.com/online_classroom/union_or_secession/doc/letcher_1861_may_21.