A former slave vouches for the Unionism of his former owner

Posted on July 9, 2012 by


Seeing what I do in discussions among folks regarding Civil War era studies, there can be extreme views regarding slavery.

Some lean hard in one direction, talking about how the cruelties of slavery were all fabrications, or very rare.

Some lean hard in another direction and talk about the cruelties of slavery, and that, no matter the case, they could be found in every instance with slaveholding.

I find both positions very curious, and, to be frank… such views either reflect ignorance, or an inability to see beyond something personal within themselves, that serves as the drive to tell a very unbending/static history. Examples of both cruelty and kindness, on the part of slaveholders, are certainly there, in history, but that’s not to say that one is more truthful than the other. Both are part of the story of slavery.

There are also various things that challenge one side or the other… historic details can be stubborn things, I suppose.

How, for example, could it be possible that a former slave… after having been freed… would ever wish to testify on behalf of a former owner?

Even more curious for some is the fact that the former slaveholder could have been a Unionist. How is it possible that one could be a Unionist AND a slaveholder? This is something that isn’t new to me, as I’ve mentioned this sort of thing in other posts, as in the situation with Otto Nesbitt, of Clear Spring, Maryland.

Recently, while digging through Southern Claims Commission applications, I encountered yet another situation where we not only have a Unionist owning a slave, but also where the former slave spoke out, on behalf of his former owner’s loyalty to the Union.

Other than what appears in the testimony, I don’t know a great deal about Henry Mitchell. Based on his age at the time of his deposition, he would have been 13 years old when the war opened, and 17 by the time it ended.

So, here we have… Henry Mitchell… testifying on behalf of his former owner, seven years after the conclusion of the war and the 13th Amendment…

Henry Mitchell, colored, witness to prove loyalty of the heirs of William Crow, deceased, being duly sworn by the Commissioners, deposes and says: (direct examination being waived).

I am about 24 years old and during the war lived with and was owned by William Crow, deceased. I knew Mary A. Crow & Albina S. Coyle. They were daughters of Wm. Crow. He has no other children. I saw them every day during the war. I heard them talk about the war and its causes, and they were strong for the Union and against the Rebellion. William Crow, deceased, was a strong Union man, and his family was the same. I knew Mary A. Crow and Albina S. Coyle to send things to the hospitals when the U.S. troops were encamped near. They fed both parties when the soldiers came along. I do not know anything they did which would have prevented them from establishing their loyalty to the Confederate government if that cause had succeeded.

The witness was here examined by the Commissioner, as to the taking of property, direct examination being waived.

I saw Item No. 1 – two horses – Item No. 4, eight hundred pounds of Pork – and item No. 5 – seventeen hundred pounds of Tobacco – taken from William Crow. The two horses charged as item No. 1, were taken at Harpers Ferry by Gen. Patterson’s army in the first year of the war. Mr. Crow’s team, with two horses, was sent to Harpers Ferry to remove a widow lady & while in the town the horses and harness were taken by the troops. Mr. Crow went to Harpers Ferry to get his horses back, but failed. One was a bay horse, seven or eight years old, and was worth $250. The other was a Roan mare, six years old, and was worth $250. The harness were wagon harness in good condition, and were worth $20.

I saw two horses charged as item No. 3 were taken by Col. Geary in the fall of the year, but I do not remember what year it was. An officer came with some cavalry men and took the horses out of the stable. He said they needed the horses and he was obliged to take them. He did not say anything about paying for them. They led them away. I do not know the officer’s name or rank. It was in the day time. Mr. Crow was present and asked… [a portion of the testimony appears to be absent].

One was a bay mare, four years old, and was worth $300. Mr. Crow had a short time before paid that for her. The other was a Brown horse, about nine years old, and was worth $150. The one was in very fine condition, but the other was not in such good condition.

I saw the soldiers belonging to General Sheridan’s army in the year 1863 [I’m sure he meant 1864] take and kill four large hogs belonging to Mr. Crow. They were taken in front of the house and killed here by the soldiers. There were no officers with them. It was on Sunday in the day time. Mr. Crow did not see them killed, but went as soon as he heard it, and tried to have the killing of his hogs stopped or get pay for them. The hogs would have averaged 200 pounds each net. The soldiers killed the hogs while they were passing along the road.

I was present and saw a large quantity of Tobacco taken from the claimant, in the fall of the year in which Gen. Imboden captured the 9th Maryland Regiment at Charlestown, W.Va. The Tobacco was taken by the 1st New York Cavalry. It was in boxes in his house. He had bought it to sell. It was distributed among the troops. I did not hear anything said about paying for it. Mr. Crow complained about, and Col. Boyd, 1st New York Cav. Said it should be returned. There were sixteen or seventeen boxes of it, but I do not know what amount each box contained.

Further deponent saith not.

Henry Mitchell

Was Henry Mitchell repaying the kindness of his former owner, or was he repaying the kindness he experienced from William Crow’s daughters? Was he obligated under circumstances about which we are unaware, based on what little is available? He could have refused, you know? Or, could he have? Was it simply that he was available, and known as one who could definitely vouch for Crow’s loyalty to the Union? We may never know the answeres regarding the relationship between this former slave and his former owner, but… for what it’s worth… this is what we have.


* John M. Coyle filed on behalf of the Crow family, as executor, and therefore, the application is under his name. Incidentally, the claim was approved… the argument for Crow’s loyalty to the Union having been sufficiently made.

* William Crow resided near Harpers Ferry during the war, and Crow’s executor filed from Jefferson County, West Virginia, therefore the file is found in those applications made from Jefferson County.