What’s in a Name?


Depiction of the role of the Freedman’s Bureau, Harper’s Weekly, July 25, 1868.

Depiction of the role of the Freedman’s Bureau, Harper’s Weekly, July 25, 1868.

From Russ Smith:

A commonly held belief, one that has been challenged recently, is that newly freed slaves, having no surnames of their own, adopted the surnames of their final master. One explanation given in the classroom and elsewhere is that “Carter’s William” easily became “William Carter.” luckily, there are now some local records easily accessible on-line to test whether slaves in one area actually did adopt their final master’s name.

On March 19, 1866 Col. Orlando Brown, the assistant commissioner in Virginia of what is commonly called the Freedman’s Bureau, ordered that a register be created of the names of freedmen “cohabitating together as man and wife.” The register contains not only the surnames of each individual, but also the names of the former masters of each. There are some 1,756 freedmen’s names (if I counted correctly.)

The results of reviewing the names in the register were revealing. Not only did freedmen not usually take the name of their former master, they almost never did. Of the 1,756 names reviewed, only 27 or 1.5% are the same as the final master. If some of the matches are only coincidental, that lowers the number further yet.

This raises the question that, if the names didn’t come from the final master, where did they come from? A great number of the freemen’s names are the same as those of local white residents. Did the freemen choose these names when they became free or are these surnames that they carried before freedom came? Although official records seem to have only recognized one name for slaves, did they actually have first and last names? This practice is not unknown and may have been more common than we assume. Only further research will tell.

Note: The volume relating to Caroline County survives in the archives of the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center. That part of the register relating to couples is entitled: Register of Colored Persons of Caroline County, State of Virginia, cohabitating together and husband and wife on 27th February, 1866. A transcription of the register is available on the University of Mary Washington’s Department of Historic Preservation’s excellent website.

The Spotsylvania Court wrestles with the reality of emancipation


From John Hennessy:

Few places more vividly demonstrate the impact of emancipation on a region’s ability to support the Confederate war effort than Spotsylvania. One suspects that the effect in Spotsylvania was precisely what Lincoln hoped it would be when he pondered the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862.

Slaves coming in.

Slaves coming in.

While  this day we celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation and the freedom it conveyed, during the war local authorities saw things rather differently. The exodus of slaves from Spotsylvania County had a devastating effect on the local economy–a fact made clear by the records of he County Court.

In November 1862, the governor of Virginia issued a proclamation requisitioning slaves for the Confederate war effort.  By then–five weeks before the Emancipation Proclamation–freedom already seized had radically reduced the available labor force in Spotsylvania County. The County Court (the modern equivalent to the Board of Supervisors), sought exemption from the requisition.

Being the unanimous opinion of this court, that there is not at this time remaining in this county at this date a sufficient number of slaves between the ages of 18 and 65 years to fill said requisition, it is therefore ordered that Lewis A. Boggs, Esq, the presiding justice of this court be requisitioned and authorized to proceed at once to Richmond and confer with the governor upon that subject, and apprise him of the condition of this county in regard to slave labor and explain to him fully the grounds upon which the above opinion of the court is founded. *

The court later declared that “The public enemy have carried off two thirds of the available blacks labor of the county,” and that by 1864 half of the county’s lands were no longer in cultivation.

In 1864 the court reported that despite the efforts of  “an intelligent and energetic agent of this court to procure the necessary food for the soldiers’ families and in the indigent poor of this county, it has been found that it cannot be procured either in this our the adjoining counties, it is simply because the food does not exist in this region of country—as an illustration of the pressing need, it may be cited that the fact in one of the magisterial districts of this county there are forty families of soldiers now in the Confederate service dependent on the aid of the court for food, and that there is not food enough now under the control of the county agent to feed these families for one month and that in two other magisterial districts the supply is still scantier. Real destitution and distress exists in this county even among that part of its people who are not indigent but who have not the necessary supply of  [food] to feed them.**

Amidst the chaos that attended emancipation, some slaves remained. We know only a few of their stories. Hester Tuckson of Fall Hill clearly stayed because of her own precarious health and the presence of two small children. Eric Mink uncovered Hester’s story here.

Fanny Lee of Santee in Caroline County made a clear calculation to wait for freedom, rather than to go looking for it herself, with all the attendant risks. Her decision resided in her confidence in the Union army’s ability to gain ultimate victory. I wrote about Fanny’s decision over at Fredericksburg Remembered.  

*  Spotsylvania County Court Order Book, December 19 1862, Library of Virginia.

** Spotsylvania County Court Order Book, April 4, 1864, Library of Virginia.  Susanna Michele Lee, now at North Carolina State University, examined and recorded these and other primary sources on behalf of the park.