A Virginia slave in pursuit of freedom

Posted on June 3, 2010 by


I just finished reading something about John M. Washington, a slave who spent some time in Staunton, Virginia in the mid-1850s. To me, finding any account of a slave, for any amount of time in the Valley, is refreshing as it adds new dimensions to an understanding of what life was like here. Regretfully, I don’t have easy access to his memoir (Memorys of the Past) to learn more about his time in the Valley, but I did see that it is included in a book by David Blight, A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including their Own Narratives of Emancipation. So, this is certainly on the “to purchase” list. What I was able to find this evening were some of the details about his efforts to gain freedom in the midst of the Civil War. The following is from the Encyclopedia of Virginia: Refugees During the Civil War

Hired out in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Washington heard rumors of slaves using the war as a means to freedom. In his 1872 memoir, Memorys of the Past, he wrote that by late in 1861 it had “become a well known fact that slaves was daily making their Escape into the union lines.”

Washington kept abreast of war news and plotted to place himself closer to, or in the path of, the Army of the Potomac. Washington’s employer in Richmond allowed him to travel home to Fredericksburg in December 1861 and expected him back after the Christmas holiday. Once in Fredericksburg, Washington hired himself out as a steward and bartender, and his employer planned to take him farther into the Confederate interior. “I made them believe I was most anxious to go,” Washington wrote. “In fact I made them believe that I was tereblely afred of the Yankees, any way. My Master was well satisfied at my appearant disposition and told me I was quite Right, for if the Yankees were to catch me they would send me to Cuba or cut my hands off or otherwise maltreat me. I of course pretended to beleive all they said but knew they were lieing all the while.”

Washington secretly resolved to remain in Fredericksburg until his employer prepared to leave, then conceal himself and await the arrival of the Union army. Washington’s calculations paid off when Union troops arrived in April 1862. After serving as an army guide, he eventually found freedom in Washington, D.C.

Now I’m perfectly aware that this is but one account from one slave and does not necessarily reflect the thoughts of all those held in bondage, but I find the portion that I placed in bold, above, quite interesting. It’s not the first time I’ve seen this sort of clever deception. I know it would be impossible to know, but it leaves me wondering just how many slaves gave their owners that same impression… and, perhaps more importantly, how many of those who are touted as “Black Confederates” in brave defense of the Southland were engaged in the same deceptive practice. Like I said, we may never know the answer, but, BUT… this is one of those things that we must consider when thinking about what it “meant” to be a slave in the service of the Confederacy.