The exodus begins: John Washington’s greatest journey

From John Hennessy:

[First, a prelude:  In light of the topic of this post, a couple of reminders about this weekend’s To Freedom event.  Join us on Saturday night at 6:30 for “Bearing the Stones,” a community procession down

Bearing of Stones, 6:30 Saturday.

Sophia Street from Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) to the middle crossing site below city dock, where hundreds, perhaps thousands of slaves crossed in 1862. Then, at 7:30, we will present “10,000 Lights to Freedom,” an interpretive program of music, the words of those who were there, readings, and of course, the illumination of 10,000 lights on the Stafford shore.  For more information on the weekend, click here.

Also, on Sunday at 1:30, I will be tracing a tour along the Trail to Freedom, from the Rappahannock to Aquia Landing–including the site of John Washington’s crossing, described below. This program is being sponsored by Eastern National. There is a fee ($20, to help with the bus), and the tour will last three hours.  You can reserve a seat by calling 540 654-5543.

On Saturday on the hour from 11 till 3, we will be doing walking tours, “A Slave’s World and Beyond,” which includes many sites associated with John Washington.  Meet at Market Square.  These are free, presented by myself, Steward Henderson, and Donald Pfanz of the park staff.]

* * * * * * * *

Chances are, if you have spent much time here or on Fredericksburg Remembered, you have heard a bit about John Washington (see here). Washington was a slave who spent most of his life in bondage in Fredericksburg, and seven years after the war wrote a truly compelling memoir of his experience.  His is an important voice–one of two complete memoirs from a Fredericksburg slave, and by far the best.

Of all the moments narrated in Washington’s remembrance, by far the most vivid–for him and for us his readers–is his passage across the Rappahannock to freedom in April 1862. Washington crossed just hours after the arrival of the Union army at Falmouth; indeed, he may have been the first to do so, the first of more than 10,000 to follow. Because his is one of just two accounts from a slave’s hand that narrates this passage (see the other here), his assumes immense historical significance. He conveys to us what must have been the sentiments of thousands of others.

Washington began his day that Good Friday tending bar at the Shakespeare House hotel on Caroline Street, where today’s Soup and Taco stands (with the best tortilla soup in town).  With the arrival of the Union army (we wrote of Washington’s perception of that here), and while white residents rushed to flee or hide, Washington took to the streets.

The Farmer's Bank building--home of John Washington's owner.He stopped first at his owner’s residence in the Farmer’s Bank building on Princess Anne Street.  Washington is the classic example of a slave who humored those in authority, always taking care that they thought him willing and compliant. In his final act as a slave, he did so again. When he walked in the front door of the bank, his owner, Catherine Taliaffero, was busy packing to head to the country.   “Child,” she said to this 24-year-old man, “you better come and go out in the country With me So as to keep away from the yankees.” Washington replied, “Yes madam,” but asserted that he needed to return the keys to the hotel to the hotelier’s wife. “I will come right back directly,” he said, and then walked out the door never to return as a slave.

From the National Bank building Washington proceeded to the river, likely up to what we know today as the upper crossing site, at the base of Hawke Street.  There he stood by and witnessed the negotiations between the mayor, council, and Union authorities that led to the peaceful surrender of Fredericksburg.

The upper crossing, likely where John Washington witnessed the negotiations that led tot he surrender of Fredericksburg.

After that little piece of history, the town constables “ordered the negroes home” said Washington.  Washington, his cousin James, and an unidentified free black man left and headed in the direction of home, but had no intention of going there.  Instead, by a “circuitous route,” the three left town heading north, up Caroline Street, past the Woolen Mill, toward Falmouth, intent on listening to “the great number of “Bands” then playing those Tuching tunes, ‘the Star Spangled Banner,’ ‘Red White and Blue,’ &c.”

John Washington’s crossing site, from the Falmouth side. Bridgewater (Ficklen’s) Mill is at right.

The three continued north to “just before we got to ‘Ficklin’s Mill,'” and then walked down to the river.  Ficklen’s Mill was the Bridgewater Mill, whose ruins still are still visible in Fredericksburg’s Old Mill Park, just below the Falmouth Bridge.  From there, Washington recorded, he could see “The long line of Sentnels on the other Side doing duty colose to the Waters Edge.”

The site of John Washington’s crossing, from the ruins of Bridgewater Mill in Old Mill Park.

Washington does not tell us if when he left Fredericksburg that day he planned to cross to Union lines–his description of what follows sounds serendipitous. But he did record one thing that suggests forethought: he stuffed his pockets with southern newspapers. With his pockets bulging, he and his friends headed to the riverbank.

Washington was taken across near this spot, landing on the beach at Falmouth. That’s Moncure Conway’s house in the left background.

Very Soon one of a party of Soilders, in a boat call out to the crowd Standing arround me do any of you want to come over.  Every body “Said no.” I hallowed out, “Yes, I Want to come over,” “All right – Bully for you” was the response. and, they was soon over to Our Side. I greeted them gladly and Stepped into their Boat. as Soon as James, saw my determernation to go, he joined me and the other young man who had come along with us. After we had landed on the other Side, a large crowd of the Soilders off duty, gathered around Us and asked all kinds of questions in reference to the Whereabouts of the “Rebels” I had Stuffed My pockets full of rebel newspapers and, I distributed them around as far as they would go greatly to the delight of the men, and by this act Won their good opinions right away.  I told them I was most happy to see them all that I had been looking for them for a long time. 

Washington was so light-skinned that the Union soldiers did not recognize him as a black man, a slave. When questioned, Washington told them he’d been a slave all his life.  “Do you want to be free?” one asked.

“By all means,” said Washington.  He later remembered, “I did not know What to Say for I Was dumb With Joy and could only thank God and Laugh.”

Here is a short film we have made of Washington’s crossing, to be used in our new exhibit at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center, premiering next year.

His cousin James and the other man recrossed the river back to Fredericksburg that afternoon, but Washington remained, determined to stay until that evening. He went up the hill to the Union camp above Falmouth and spent time with men of the 21st New York.  He apparently did not intend to stay permanently, for that night he returned to the river intent on recrossing to Fredericksburg. But by then Union pickets had closed the river. Washington spent that night in Falmouth in the home of a free black woman he knew named Eliza Butler.  Butler lived in a small house (worth just $100) on the west side of what is today Route 1 just north of the vaunted and choked Falmouth intersection.

Fredericksburg from Falmouth just below the site of Washington’s crossing.

Washington’s first night of freedom, unplanned though it was, changed his life.

A Most MEMORABLE night that was to me the Soilders assured me that I was now a free man and had nothing to do but to Stay…. They told me I could Soon get a Situation Waiting on Some of the officers. I had already been offered one or two, and had determined to take one or the other as Soon as I could go over and get my cloths and Some $30.00 of My own.

 Before Morning I had began to feel like I had truly escaped from the hands of the Slaves Master and with the help of God, I never would be a Slave no more. I felt for the first time in my life that I could now claim every cent that I Should work for as My own. I began now to feel that life had a new Joy awaiting me.  

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