A profound and ubiquitous image: slaves crossing the Rappahannock

From Hennessy (cross-posted at Fredericksburg Remembered):

The image is captioned, “Fugitive Negroes fording the Rappahannock (during Pope’s retreat).” It is perhaps the most widely used of all Civil War photographs, simply because there is little else like it. The image appears in dozens of exhibits and publications that treat the subject of slaves seeking freedom–including some in the Fredericksburg region–and over the course of the Sesquicentennial, will surely appear many more times. But what do we know about the image?  What does is show?  Where and when was it taken? And is it really relevant to portraying the exodus of slaves to or with the Union army in the summer of 1862? (You can download and explore the image yourself here.)

The image is part of a remarkable series of at least seven taken by photographer Timothy O’Sullivan on a frantic day for the Union army: August 19, 1862. That day, John Pope’s Army of Virginia was in full retreat, falling back from the Rapidan River through Culpeper County (on the left of this image) to a new line behind the Rappahannock River, in Fauquier County (to the right). The movement was rapid and large–55,000 or more men heading to the crossings of the Rappahannock River. The biggest and best of those was the bridge of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad across the Rappahannock at modern Remington (then Rappahannock Station). This picture was taken a few hundred yards downstream from that bridge, at a rarely used crossing called Cow Ford. The site is about 30 miles above Fredericksburg.

We know that at Fredericksburg, when the Union army abandoned the place twelve days after this image was taken, slaves saw the Yankees’ departure as their last chance for freedom, and flooded north with the Union army. This image suggests that something similar happened when the Federal army left Culpeper County on August 19, though I have no sense that the exodus on August 19 was anything close the scale of that at Fredericksburg. Still, this is an image that apparently captures a hugely significant act in progress: slaves emancipating themselves.

There is nothing in this image that raises doubt about its nature or origins (there can be no doubt it was taken when it where the caption claims), but under close scrutiny some interesting details–with consequent questions–emerge.

This image captures five African-Americans, four of them in the wagon. To women sit atop the conveyance, Under magnification, one, her bonnet concealing her face on this hot, sunny day, appears to be resting her chin in her hand. The other, facing away from the camera with her head wrapped in a turban, almost disappears amidst the stuff piled in the wagon (of that stuff we can unfortunately make out very little–perhaps the stave of a small barrel).  She seems unaware or disinterested that a  photograph is being taken.

Three males, presumably slaves, appear in the image. Most interesting of those is the young man, seemingly a boy, on the rather bony-looking horse at right. The boy is barefoot, riding bareback, wearing a what appears to be a military jacket.


Around and beyond the slaves are Union soldiers, some of them posing, some of them watering their horses–most of them unconcerned with either the slaves or the photographer in their midst.

Rarely published is a second image of this same scene, clearly taken within a few minutes of the more famous version. It, unfortunately, is marred by movement that renders the figures on the wagon blurry. Still, I include it here. The people have rearranged themselves. Most notably, the barefoot boy on horseback now sits sidesaddle on his horse just to the left of the wagon.

This second image is particularly useful for what it shows in the background: the entire expanse of the railroad bridge, the grist mill beyond, and even, under magnification, the dam just upstream from the mill. But that’s a topic for an altogether different post.

The most surprising thing about these images is the wagon itself: a huge Conestoga. Union soldier Benjamin Borton described the flood of slaves into Union-occupied Fredericksburg in different terms: “They came in singly, by twos, or in squads, sometimes on foot, or in an old car with a lank mule attached.”  But here we have slaves traveling with the 19th century equivalent to a semi, piled high with a volume of belongings that seems to exceed what a slave family might have possessed. No “lank mule” pulls this conveyance, but rather four oxen.

We can only speculate how or where the slaves got such an elaborate setup packed so full of stuff. Had their owners left before them, leaving the slaves to pick whatever they wished from the farm (including the wagon)? Are they hauling baggage or materiel for the army?  Is it possible the photograph shows free blacks carrying off their own possessions? (The caption for the image refers to “Fugitive negroes” fording the Rappahannock–no mention of slaves–though of course the term fugitive carries a strong implication).

At first I was struck by the presence of the wagon, until Noel Harrison produced this sketch of slaves in Culpeper going to freedom in November 1863. There’s another Conestoga.

Dated November 8, 1863,Culpeper County.

While there are certainly some interesting questions to be asked about the image, it seems to me fair to accept it for what it has always been presumed to be: a group of “fugitive negroes” (so said the photographer) seeking freedom and safety with the retreating Union army. Moreover, while the scene is not in Fredericksburg, it was taken at the same time the same thing was happening here, when the same Union army was abandoning the line of the Rappahannock. It was a scene repeated thousands of times that summer (though generally without the Conestoga wagon): slaves on a profound but uncertain journey into freedom, into a world that, in 1862, was hardly prepared to receive them. The scene captures not the posed and tidied up aftermath of emancipation, but rather freedom in progress, unpolished, uncertain. The scene’s raggedness reflects that, and adds to its power and value.

[A purely personal reflection:  when I did Return to Bull Run in the early 1990s, the thought of including these images or this part of the story in my narrative never occurred to me–something that amazes and disappoints me today. That I did not, but would now, reflects not just my personal evolution, but the changing lens through which we see our history.]

4 thoughts on “A profound and ubiquitous image: slaves crossing the Rappahannock

  1. Thanks for sharing the great detail you have on this image. The conestoga was typically used for moving freight and would have been common near thoroughfares such as the Valley Pike. I am not sure how prevalent they were on plantations. I wonder if this particular family came from farther away than a local plantation, perhaps from across the mountains. No way to know, but certainly fun to speculate.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your commentary on these photos.

    It was interesting see the top photo in my daughter’s 4th grade Virginia History textbook (yeah, that one).

  3. Years later I come across your blog and find it very interesting. Just yesterday I was looking for any photo that showed black people in Conestoga wagons going down the wilderness road and today I find these. Not the same place but still, happy to have found them.

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