Virginia slaves, c. 1862
Shifting military fortunes had significance for emancipation during the American Civil War. Although Union forces tended to occupy more and more Confederate territory over the course of the conflict, at times the Confederates rolled back the Union tide, especially in the volatile Eastern theater. For example, in early September 1862, after the Union disaster at Second Bull Run, the Confederates pushed federal forces out of Virginia and invaded Maryland, hoping a battlefield victory on Union soil would force the Lincoln administration to sue for peace, securing southern independence.
Caught up in the federal retreat from Virginia were thousands of slaves who had effectively become free as the Union Army had campaigned and occupied parts of northern Virginia in the first year and a half of the war. One such place was Stafford County, Virginia, about 45 miles directly south of Washington, D.C. Much of Stafford County, including its principal city, Fredericksburg, had come under occupation in Spring 1862, when Confederate forces there, anticipating Gen. McClellan’s campaign against Richmond had moved to more defensible positions south of the Rappahannock River.
The Confederate retreat brought many Stafford County slaves under the Union Army’s protection, and thousands went to work for them as laborers. Yet their liberation threatened to prove short-lived, when in the wake of the Union defeat at Second Bull Run in late August 1862, Union forces in Stafford County were obliged to retreat north. It speaks volumes of their desire to remain ex-slaves that thousands of African Americans joined the exodus of Union forces across Aquia Creek in the direction of Washington, D.C.
Their story became the subject of an article in the New York Times, published on September 7, 1862 (from a letter dated about a week earlier). It read:
Gen. BURNSIDE has been occupied, during the last three days, in putting himself in condition to meet any emergency that may arise at this place. He has disposed of his surplus baggage and commissary stores, placing them out of reach of any descent of a force in this direction, and leaving him free to dispute the advance of the rebel army. The movement has been very deliberate, and the sympathizers with rebellion seem at a loss how to interpret it. The usual picket guard keep their position in advance of the town, watching all its approaches. The Provost Guard patrol the town night and day; and on the opposite bank of the river siege guns and field artillery open their brazen throats in this direction, as if ready to belch destruction upon the devoted place. Secesh have watched every movement with the greatest interest, and naturally interpret it as indicating the evacuation of the town by the Union troops.
Nothing could be further from his purpose. They have, however, grown more bold and defiant in their behavior, and have evidently been preparing for some important change in their favor. They hourly hear the most extravagant reports of the success of the Confederate Army at the westward, and act as if they believed all they hear. All the Sutlers have sold out their stock and crossed the river. The public houses, such as the “Shakespeare” and “Burnside House,” have been suddenly closed. The few boarding-houses have been relieved of their guests, and their occupation is gone. On the part of the rebels there is a looking-for of judgment and fiery indignatton, which shall doom the adverse Yankees “right soon.”
The colored people yesterday morning became excited by fears that Stonewall was coming, and were on the qui vive. Many of them have shown too zealously their friendship for Union officers and Union soldiers, and they know what their fate will be if they are trapped. The result is that there is now going on, or rather going off, a grand skedaddle of the whole colored population from the town. I estimated, by former values in the Richmond slave-market, two hundred thousand dollars worth of this “property” have taken to itself legs and run away. “Git up in de mornin’ airly,” was the favorite chorus to-day. All night preparations were going on in the garrets and back kitchens. Beds and clothing were hurriedly tied up in bundles, and old trunks, plethoric with valued articles, were packed for the start. At daybreak the exodus began, and out of every gate and alley-way sallied groups of men, women and children, carrying bundles, trunks and boxes, and bending their steps towards the railroad station. By 7 o’clock A.M., the railroad depot was thronged by these children of Ham. The first train went full, and before the last whistle of the locomotive had died away on the other side of Jordan, as many more had congregated to be taken off. The large quantity of “traps,” which were brought by many of them, were found to occupy too much valuable space, and they had to be left behind. Every person who applied to the Provost-Marshal for a pass was accommodated, and no questions were asked.
All these people have been within our lines for months past, and many of them have been faithfully and most loyally serving the army in some useful capacity. Of course, they are entitled, by every argument of justice and reason, to say nothing of the acts of Congress and the President, to follow the army of the Union, and enjoy its protection. It is not a very grievous spectacle to witness the madness and dismay manifested by the Secessionists, as they look on and see this army of their “most trusted and faithful servants” going off. They have let no opportunity pass of heaping insult upon the Union soldiers, who have quietly, and in the most orderly manner, occupied their town, and to express the belief that we should soon all be driven out by the valorous Southern army. This morning they have risen from their quiet slumbers to have their astonished vision greeted by the skedaddle, not of the Union soldiers, but of an army of their household servants and working hands. There was many a late breakfast, or a cold one, depend upon it, in Fredericksburgh this morning.
During the afternoon some cavalry men or infantry soldiers on picket outside of the town, saw a big dust on the road toward Richmond, and “fell back” instanter, bringing report that a large force was advancing on the place. In an incredible short space of time a long sable procession appeared upon the streets leading to the wire bridge. They carried mule loads of beds, trunks and boxes upon their heads and shoulders, and so thronged the bridge that I found it almost impossible to crowd by with my horse on my way to the town. In the course of half an hour, two or three hundred additional pilgrims passed over this one bridge. They also poured over the railroad and pontoon bridge below, until it seemed that the town would indeed be wholly depopulated. This exodus continued until near sundown; the people, leading large groups of very small children or carrying them in their arms, went to the railroad depot, or encamped in the open fields for the night. It is, indeed, a painful incident of this war to see so many of these defenceless people exiling themselves and children from their homes, to go they know not whither, in order to escape the dreaded fate of falling into the hands of the rebel soldiers.
Compared with the colored people whom I have seen in North Carolina and elsewhere, they are, upon the average, a very superior class. Many of them have been small tradespeople, by which means they have earned comfortable livings. Some free persons had amassed small properties, and lived in comparative comfort. Should these people, numbering nearly a thousand persons, be sent to Washington, I would bespeak a kindly reception for them on the part of Mr. POMEROY, the Commissioner of Emigration. Gen. BURNSIDE will hold this town as long as it is possible to do so — depend upon it — and will not yield the position without a severe struggle in which the town itself may suffer. I trust it may be spared. E.S.