Freedom comes to Appomattox Manor
By Sarah Steele Wilson, Newsroom Editor
Jan 8, 2013, 15:41
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Emmanuel Dabney said that the enslaved men and women who escaped from Appomattox Manor and other plantations across the South played a criticial role in pushing Lincoln toward freeing them.
Just 150 years and 11 days ago, on Dec. 31, 1862, it was still legal for one person in this country to own another. In fact, approximately four million human beings were considered to be property. They could be bought and sold and made to work without pay. That changed forever on the first day of 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
During a special event on Saturday commemorating the 150th Anniversary of that watershed document, Park Service interpreter Emmanuel Dabney said that the slaves who fled from Appomattox Manor and hundreds of other plantations across the southern states during the Civil War were unwittingly creating a situation that pushed Lincoln to realize that emancipation had become a necessity.
“They’re part of that larger effort of pushing Lincoln off of that fence, that border between trying to keep a union with slavery and making something different without it,” Dabney said.
By August, 1862, there were 5,000 escaped slaves camped at Berkeley plantation. Thousands more were at Fort Monroe, in Hampton Roads. They were fleeing behind Union lines, seeking sanctuary with the Union Army and Navy. Amongst those thousands were 106 escapees from the plantation of Dr. Richard Eppes at City Point.
“That creates a huge group of people that the Lincoln Administration now has to deal with, whether they want to or not,” Dabney explained. “They’ve attached themselves to this Army and to this Navy.”
In the summer of 1862, while Union General George McClellan was leading the Army towards Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign, the Union Navy was patrolling the waters of the James. The famous Union iron clad ship the Monitor shelled City Point 11 times that summer.
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Park Service interpreter Robert Webster guide Pam and Keith Cannady on a special tour of the seldom seen upstairs rooms at Appomattox Manor on Saturday afternoon.
“When they are not busy bombarding City Point, we know especially from the U.S.S. Monitor’s paymaster, that slaves, at night, are swimming and rowing row boats and skiffs out to the river trying to get on that ship.”
The first Eppes slave to escape was Robert Moody, who Eppes had taken with him as a servant while he served in the Confederate cavalry. When Eppes returned to his home in City Point to restore order after a series of clandestine night time meetings between slaves led some to believe they were plotting an uprising, which led to a state investigation, Robert took advantage of his absence and fled, most likely seeking refuge at Fort Monroe.
Recently, park service staff discovered records that show that three of Eppes’s slaves, David Henderson and his sons William and John, enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served aboard the U.S.S. Brandywine.
“It was the same ship that took the Marquis de Lafayette back from America to France on his last tour here...,” Dabney said of the Brandywine. “Now, we have former slaves working on this ship, which I’m sure would have pleased the Marquis De Lafayette, who was a very outspoken opponent of slavery in America.”
Another escapee from City Point was Edward Bland, who seems to have also enlisted in the Navy.
“This is a problem for the Lincoln Administration,” Dabney said. “...In the summer of 1862, he’s really starting to think about emancipation, more and more. And he’s seen proof and evidence that the enslaved population in this region of Virginia think and believe that this was is going to free them.”
Lincoln began writing the proclamation that summer, waiting for a Union victory on the battlefield to release it. When that came at the battle of Antietam, which remains the bloodiest single day in American military history, Lincoln released a preliminary proclamation.
It contained talk of colonization and compensation and made no mention of the idea of emancipated African Americans serving as soldiers or sailors in the military.
The final version, issued on Jan. 1, 1863 omitted references to colonization and compensation and authorized African American military service.
“...I think that that is the most important part of the Emancipation Proclamation, when Lincoln, in the bottom section of it, says that he will use able bodied black men to serve in the United States Armies and Navies,” Dabney said.
By the end of the war, 180,000 black troops would serve. The United States Colored Troops, as they were called at the time, played a large role in the fighting around Petersburg, including at the Battle of the Crater.
Amongst the 150,000 USCTs who were born in bondage was Richard Slaughter, an Eppes slave who lied about his age to enlist in the Union Army, a decision which brought him back to the area for the Siege of Petersburg.
“When he came back here in 1864, he was now Private Richard Slaughter and not the water carrier to the field hands,” Dabney said. “He had a gun, which blacks could not possess in pre-war Virginia.”
On April 3, 1865, Slaughter marched through Richmond after the Confederate capital fell.
“Slaughter, who before the war, couldn’t go from one side of this river to the other without a pass or the approval of Richard Eppes, will end up, in his military service, all the way down at the Rio Grande River in Texas,” Dabney said.
Slaughter and the other slaves who ran away from Appomattox Manor were escaping from mixed circumstances. While Eppes occasionally rewarded some of his slaves with small gifts of money and seemingly respected some of them, especially his gardener Madison Ruffin, at times, he enforced harsh discipline.
“Eppes noted that he personally whipped slaves with ‘violent exertion’ until he exhausted himself and had to come home and rest because he was tired,” Dabney said. “He did not think about children as young as five that he whipped and how they felt or great grandparents in their 70s and how they felt. Men, women and children, field hands, domestic servants and skilled laborers.”
After the war, several of Eppes’s former slaves, most notably Ruffin and his wife Harriet and several of their children, returned to the plantation where they worked for wages for the rest of their lives.
William and Sadie Gee were visiting Appomattox Manor on Saturday on a search for ancestors of Sadie’s who might have lived in the area. They were pleased to discover that their visit coincided with a special look at the Emancipation Proclamation and surprised to discover what a big role City Point played in the war.
“I learned an awful lot,” William Gee said. “I simply wasn’t aware of all that had transpired here and how important City Point was, and this area was, to the outcome of the Civil War. This is all new to me.”
Keith and Pam Cannaday, from Norfolk, learned about City Point from the Steven Spielberg film shot in the area.
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Robert Webster points at land across the Appomattox River that was once owned by the Eppes family while guiding Pam and Keith Cannady on a special Saturday tour.
“We saw the Lincoln movie about a month or so ago and just didn’t realize how important City Point was in the whole course of the war,” Keith Cannady said.
The couple had seen the state marketing initiative the Lincoln Movie Trail and decided to follow it for a day.
Hopewell resident Dudley Gee, no relation to William and Sadie Gee, enjoyed a tour of the usually off-limits upstairs and basement of the house offered in the afternoon by interpreter Robert Webster.