One of the gems recently uncovered in the pension files of the 23rd United States Colored Troops (USCT) pertains to a family that lived on a plantation known to many in the local area. In the years prior to the Civil War, Hester and Abraham Tuckson were slaves owned by Dr. John R. Taylor of “Fall Hill,” located in Spotsylvania County along the bend of the Rappahannock River northwest of Fredericksburg. Abraham was one of many slaves from the Fredericksburg region who escaped to freedom during the war and enlisted in the Union Army. He was killed on July 30, 1864 at the Battle of the Crater outside Petersburg, Va. Hester remained at Fall Hill through the end of the war and began drawing a widow’s pension in 1873. Due to confusion over her first name, Hester’s claim was reexamined in 1902. At that time, depositions were provided by Hester, Dr. Taylor’s son, Robert Innes Taylor, Dr. Taylor’s brother-in-law, Frank Forbes, and Reverend George L. Dixon. The following information, gleaned from these depositions, provides both insights and clues for further investigation into the lives of these two former Spotsylvania slaves.
According to Hester, she and Abraham Tuckson were married at Fall Hill in December 1857. More than likely the marriage occurred around Christmas. The union was a slave marriage, which lacked any legal standing or protection, but the couple managed to remain together and raise a family before Abraham’s departure during the war. Hester and Abraham had four children together: a daughter Emma born May 1856 and prior to their marriage, another daughter Nancy born September 1858, and a third child who died. Their fourth child, Leonia was born in August 1862.
Early in the war, Abraham escaped from Fall Hill, leaving behind his wife and children. Exactly when he left the plantation is a little uncertain, as Hester’s claim does not correspond with that of either R. Innes Taylor or Frank Forbes. In her deposition, Hester states that Abraham ran away in 1862, while engaged in hauling commissary stores for the Confederate authorities. Documents in the files of Confederate Citizens and Business Firms, located at the National Archives, do show that during the period August 1861 through March 1862 Dr. Taylor hired out wagons and drivers to the Confederate Army encamped across the river in Stafford County. So, it is possible that Abraham made his way into Union lines at that time, although it would certainly have been difficult to pass through the Confederate held territory of northern Virginia. Dr. Taylor claimed compensation for losses of a mule and damage to wagons, but did not mention the loss of a driver. Innes Taylor and Frank Forbes, on the other hand, claim that Abraham made his escape when the Union army arrived opposite Fredericksburg in the spring of 1862. This seems much more likely as the time for Abrham’s departure.
Of the documents found in Hester’s pension file, the most intriguing is the deposition of Robert Innes Taylor, who was sixteen years old in 1862. What appears here is a direct transcription of Innes’s deposition:
“Age 56 years. Residence Fredericksburg Spottsylvania Co., Virginia. Occupation Farmer. I knew Hester or Esther Tuckson as a slave on my father’s place. My father’s name was Dr. John R. Taylor. I have known her all my life in fact. Ques. Do you know whether she was properly married to husband. Ans. Yes she was according to a slave marriage. Ques. You are positive as to the marriage? Ans. Yes sir. Ques. What was her husbands name? Ans. Abraham, and he was a bad rascal. Ques. Did they live together up until the time her husband enlisted? Ans. No sir. When the army came here in 1862 I think they got here in April of that year, or it might have been a little earlier, – they were stationed at first across the river and didn’t cross for ten or twelve days after they got here, and as soon as —– they reached the other side of the river Abraham with two other young negroes went across to the Federal troops – ran away. One day not long after I saw some one out by the lane and called to my father and told him that Abraham was coming up the lane.
Now his wife was laying in her cabin at the point of death at the time – was not expected to live from one day to another, and my father asked Abraham what he wanted. He said he was after his clothes and said he was going to get them. My father told him he could not go near the cabin and for him to get off the place. Abraham said he was going to get them and my father said he would see whether he would or not and with that he wheeled his horse and went to the house and got a double barreled gun and gave it to me and told me to shoot Abram if he went near the cabin. He then wheeled his horse and went down to the picket, right down the hill here with the intention of having the officer put Abraham under arrest but Abram got there by the time my father did and they with the picket all went to Patrick’s headquarters – where the National Bank is.
My father told his story – told the General what kind of a negro Abraham was and all about the condition his wife was in and then offered Abram to Patrick with a clean bill of sale if he would only keep him off the place, with the understanding that he never comes around again. The General turned him over to one of his officers to take across the river and told him if he was ever caught around again, he would be tied to an artillery wheel and cut to pieces. I have never seen Abraham from that day to this but heard that he was killed down near Petersburg during the war.
My brother Murray Taylor lives at San Simeon, San Luis Co. California, Her right name is Hester she stayed on my father’s place until sometime after the war. She had three children living when she left. They were born on my father’s place. No sir she was never married before she married Abraham, nor since either, not since to my knowledge.
I have understood your questions and my answers have been correct. I have heard you read this deposition over and it is properly recorded.
R. Innes Taylor”
Most intriguing is the confrontation between Dr. Taylor, Innes and Abraham. After having been gone for some time, Abraham returned to Fall Hill determined to retrieve what he felt was rightfully his. The confrontation displays Abraham’s determination to exert his independence and freedom from Dr. Taylor. Although Innes claims that Abraham’s return was to get his clothes, Hester’s deposition states that he was returning for her, which is more likely the case. That was the last time that Abraham attempted to contact Hester. Two years later, Abraham enlisted in the 23rd USCT. Probably the closest he got to Hester was during the 1864 Overland Campaign when Abraham’s regiment passed through Fredericksburg and was engaged in battle at the Alrich Farm on May 15, 1864. Two months later, Abraham was killed at the Battle of the Crater.
The 1870 census lists Hester, under the name Esther Vena, living with her children in the town of Fredericksburg. The census lists the head of household as a male named Rollo Vena. In the 1880 census, Hester again appears as living with this same man, along with both her children and his, but under the name Esther Tuckson and this time she is listed as the head of household. Although the census enumerator identifies them as husband and wife, Hester and the other deponents for her widow’s pension state that she never remarried after Abraham’s death.
Hester began receiving her widow’s pension in 1873. By the time of her death thirty years later, she was drawing $12 a month. On March 25, 1881, Hester bought a house and lot on Winchester Street in Fredericksburg. Purchased from Absalom McGee (note: brother of Ebenezer McGee), the property cost $660. She lived at this residence, working as a washerwoman, with members of her family until 1902, when she sold the property to Alpheus W. Embrey. Hester moved to Washington, D.C. where she died September 14, 1905.
There are inconsistencies in the story of the Tuckson family, as told by the deponents, but overall the informants provide us with a first-hand look at the lives of these former slaves. The pension file provides us with names of family members, which we might not otherwise find and an example of the difficulty former slaves had with confusion over legal names. Abraham’s confrontation with Dr. Taylor is an example of a former slave embracing his freedom and sense of independence. We also learn about a woman whose husband left to fight to maintain his freedom and secure hers, but she remained on the plantation and managed to keep the rest of her family together.
She ultimately gained enough financial success to purchase a house and lot in the town of Fredericksburg, where she continued to raise her family. It is likely that this information exists only in Hester’s pension file and shows just how important these documents can be. As has been said here before on this blog, when these types of stories can be tied to the surviving landscape, such as Fall Hill, it helps us to better understand a little of the local history.
To read full transcripts of the depositions, click here.
Fall Hill is a private residence and not open to the public.
Eric J. Mink