Posted by: The staff | November 8, 2010

When narrative and image merge? More on the ubiquitous fugitive slave image


From John Hennessy:

While it’s not always important, it is unfailingly interesting when a newly found historical narrative confirms or elaborates on the content of a familiar historic image, or when an image emerges that gives vision to a long-known narrative. Recall, if you will, our post on the images of slaves crossing the Rappahannock River at Tinpot Ford (above), just downstream from Rappahannock Bridge on August 19, 1862.

One of the park’s fine interns, Edward Alexander, sent along an item today that he turned up while digging through some Union regimentals. It is from Theodore Gates’s The Ulster Guard in the War of the Rebellion, page 241. The 20th New York State Militia crossed at Rappahannock Bridge and Tinpot Ford on the morning of the following day, August 20, and Colonel Gates offers witness to the passage of fugitive slaves across Tinpot Ford. While Gates and his regiment crossed the day after the photograph was taken, it’s hard not to imagine that Gates might have been describing the very family that appears in the O’Sullivan photograph (see the earlier post for details from that image). The details are uncannily similar in many respects.

A great many negroes accompanied the Union army in its retreat, and some of them manifested the most extravagant and ludicrous joy when they got across the river.  One party of them approached the ford a few rods below the bridge, where the water was two or three feet deep, with an ox-team drawing a wagon, filled with their worldly goods, and on top of these were three wenches, and a perfect swarm of ebony children.

When they reached the bank of the river the oxen refused to go down into the water, and whipping and coaxing were of no avail. The black figures kept their places, waiting the better mood of their cattle.  But suddenly the angry rattle of musketry in the woods near by, suggested, even to their obtuse intellects, that they should not stand upon the order of their going, but go at once.  Quick as thought those black mother siezed [sic] their youngest children, and, followed by the others sprung to the ground, looking, in their descent, like fragments of night, dropping from the sky, and dashed through the water.

As they ascended the opposite bank, the matron of the party clasped her hands, and, looking up to heaven, exclaimed: ‘Bress de Lord–we’se on dis side ob Jo’don!'”

While some of the details differ from those in the image, and though he likely  refers to another family in passage, Gates’s account adds a measure of humanity (and drama) to the passage of slaves at Tinpot Ford.

Our thanks to Edward Alexander for bringing this account to our attention.

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Responses

  1. Wow. What a superb find. What an astonishingly descriptive account as well: “like fragments of night…”

  2. What a wonderful find! Looking at the photograph I can almost imagine the day when reading the description by Colonel Gates. Thank you Edward for your research that adds life to the photograph.


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