Emmanuel Dabney over at Interpretive Challenges has a particularly interesting post relevant to the June 29 edition of Civil War Emancipation entitled “Why the Slaves Fled.” My June 29 post made the point that it was not only the prospect of freedom that led the slaves to flee to Union lines but also to escape the physical punishments all too common in American slavery. Dabney, in Interpretive Challenges, mentions another horrible reality of chattel bondage that encouraged slaves to make a desperate bid for freedom when the Union army approached–the forced separation of families that occurred under slavery.
Dabney’s post features a 1854 letter from the Kinsey Collection of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. The letter was written by a Virginia woman, Amanda Crawford, to Dickinson and Hill, a major slave trading firm based in the state capital of Richmond. In the letter, Crawford offered up for sale her chambermaid, Frances. Crawford needed the sale proceeds to pay for the horses and a stable she had recently established on her husband’s place near Charlottesville. The cruel twist of the letter was that Amanda Crawford dispatched an unknowing Frances to Richmond ostensibly on an errand, ignorant that the purpose of the journey was her own sale. Crawford confessed in the letter, “I could not tell her; I own all her family, and the leave taking would be so distressing that I could not.”
The morality of Amanda Crawford’s actions aside, her letter is powerful testimony of the slave families’ strong ties and that their owners were aware of them. Yet while Frances’ story is tragic, the greater tragedy was such stories were all too common in the American South before the Civil War. With the closing of legal U.S. participation in the international slave trade in 1808, a flourishing yet calamitous internal slave trade developed, primarily shifting slaves from Upper South slave states associated with the declining tobacco economy, such as Virginia and Maryland, to the rapidly expanding cotton states of the Lower South. About a million slaves crossed state lines between 1800 and 1860, sometimes taken by planters moving their operations west, but most sent piecemeal to the Deep South by slave traders.
In my research on African-American veterans in Civil War pension files I came across many other heart-rending tales of families ripped apart by the internal slave trade. For example, Louis Jourdan, a former black soldier living in New Orleans testified in 1915, as follows.
I was born in Washington Co., Md. near Boonsborough, I was only a few miles from Hagerstown too. I was born the slave of Ed Butler My father was George Jourdan and my mother was Millie Jourdan, both were slaves of Butler. There were ten children of us in all, the whole family was sold to the slave traders about five years before I enlisted in the army and were brought here, no that is wrong only three were brought here to New Orleans, viz. my brothers, Nelson Jourdan, John Jourdan and myself, we were sold to Dr. Martin whose plantation was about a mile below Paicourtville, Assumption Parish, La. My age was given as 18 when I was sold, John’s age was given as 19, and Nelson’s as 20 past.
While legal format of Louis Jourdan’s deposition does not capture the anguish of the internal slave trade as well as Amanda Crawford’s letter, the simple fact of such a large family ripped apart by sale is horrific enough. Sometimes these families were reunited in freedom, but too often they were not. But the prospect of separation from home and loved ones was a powerful motive for slaves to flee during the Civil War when the opportunity arose. If they could reach Union lines, they need not fear ever again having their families torn asunder by the peculiar institution.
Stories like Amanda Crawford’s Frances and Louis Jourdan should give pause to presidential contenders before they sign political documents making the absurd and obscene claims that the black family was somehow better off under slavery.
Source for the Louis Jourdan quote: Deposition of Louis Jourdan, May 27, 1915, Civil Pension File of Louis Jourdan, 77th USCI and 10th USCHA, Record Group 15, Records of the Veterans’ Administration, National Archives, Washington, D.C. The transcript of which can be found in Elizabeth Regosin and Donald R. Shaffer, Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files, (New York: NYU Press, 2008), 166-68.