What Can Unknown No Longer Tell Us about War and Freedom?
Recently, we began exploring how the manuscripts in our database might be useful to educators and researchers. Each of the collections described below is filled with fragments that illuminate the past and help piece together a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Civil War and Emancipation era.
What must life have been like in a worn-torn environment? Documents in Unknown No Longer: A Database of Virginia Slave Names provide glimpses into the Civil War and Emancipation era. “Letters cannot contain the various incidents hourly transpiring in our vicinity” William Barrett Sydnor of Meadow Farm in Hanover County wrote to his brother, Thomas White Sydnor, in Nottoway County following the Seven Days Battles in 1862. Although some of the people are listed as “unknown,” Sydnor did record the names of several enslaved people who left with the Union army.
How did children, separated from family and all they’d ever known, survive and make their way in a world with even more uncertainty than they had known before? John Armistead Selden of Charles City County recorded the names of several enslaved people on his Westover Plantation who escaped when Union forces were in the vicinity. One of those who escaped was twelve-year-old Judy. She sought freedom even before the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued in September 1862.
The account book of Richard Eppes, a plantation owner in Prince George County, includes names and family relationships recorded both during and after the war. Many of the enslaved people on this plantation had first and last names which can be traced to families living in the area and beyond today. Eppes’s meticulous account records and financial transactions provide details of the transition from a plantation economy to a wage-earning one.
Much attention has been devoted to memory and war in recent scholarship. The recollections of Elizabeth Gordon Rennolds of Spotsylvania County and Fredericksburg, from 1860 to 1863 recall an idyllic time before the war began. Her description of farm life, only three miles from Fredericksburg, includes descriptions of her seamstress, Silvia, and her colorful turbans, the store room with various types of cloth, and of the visits that Elizabeth’s mother and the governess made to the slave quarters to read the Bible.
Even as the war raged on, business continued. Edward Lane wrote to Jane (Collins) Lane about hiring out Emeline in 1864. Emeline, like many other enslaved men and women during the war, was able to gain a bit more mobility and thus find avenues of escape. But did she escape? The records don’t tell us, but what we do learn is that enslaved people continued to make money for their owners.
Bonds were written documents promising payment of a loan or other financial obligation within a specified period of time. This 1864 bond to J. M. Burton for the hire of Joe illuminates the practice of hiring out slaves for work in Confederate munitions factories, in this instance, the Tredegar Iron Factory.
Likewise, insurance policies—written contracts providing a guarantee of compensation for specified loss, damage, illness, or death in return for payment of a premium—highlight the values placed on enslaved people who worked in hazardous conditions within the Confederacy. These insurance policies for Stephen and Alfred, both enslaved men, cover their service in 1864 as impressed labor at the Clover Hill Coal Company in Chesterfield County.
Benjamin Temple recorded the names of seventy-eight enslaved people who lived and labored at his Locust Grove Plantation in Middlesex County. Written around 1865, the two-page list is entitled “List of Negroes belonging to Benj[ami]n Temple and taken by the Yankees.” Might those leaving the plantation, however, chose to leave? We don’t know, but what we do know is that these bondspeople, whom Temple had purchased at some point, represented a lost investment for the owner. The document raises additional questions: what became of those who left? Where did they go? How did they make their way in a war-torn world, where instability and uncertainly surrounded them? Could Temple possibly recoup his loss?
These documents and many more in Unknown No Longer illuminate the Civil War and Emancipation era from the ground level and also beg further interrogation. Please take the time to study them and let us know what you learn. We welcome your comments.
Dr. Lauranett Lee is the curator of African American History at the Virginia Historical Society.