Mining the Compensated Emancipation Petitions

In July 8, 1862, Charles Homiller, a master butcher who kept a shop in Washington's Centre Market, filed a petition with the District of Columbia's Board of Commissioners for the Emancipation of Slaves. Homiller, who lived in Georgetown, requested compensation for one dozen slaves who had received their freedom in April under the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act.1 One of them was Mary Ann Hawkins, a twenty-six-year-old slave whom Homiller had purchased when she was three or four years old. The petition described her as five feet tall, with a dark brown complexion and a "pleasant face." To emphasize her monetary value as a slave, Homiller characterized Hawkins as a "good, thorough house servant." Mary Ann Hawkins bore her first child, Virginia, when she was sixteen, and a son, George, six and a half years later. She named her third child, born in January 1860, Abraham Lincoln Hawkins. Hawkins's choice of this name was undoubtedly meant to honor the recently elected president who had labeled slavery a "monstrous injustice" and had vowed to do all that he could to hasten the institution's "ultimate extinction." At the moment of Abraham's birth, the president-elect was still in Springfield, Illinois, writing his inaugural address and planning his 1,600 mile journey to Washington DC. We can construe Mary Ann Hawkins's decision to name her son in his honor a poignant expression of her hope, if not her belief, that Lincoln's election meant eventual freedom for herself and her family.2

Eighteen months later, the Compensated Emancipation Act did indeed free the Hawkins family along with 3,200 other slaves in the District of Columbia. In his petition for compensation, Homiller described Abraham Lincoln Hawkins as one and a half years old, "healthy & sound," light brown in complexion, and two feet two inches in height, with a "pleasant face." Homiller's petition requested $8,350 (currently $192,000 in value) for his twelve former slaves. Ultimately, the emancipation commissioners awarded him $3,263 (39 percent of his request) in compensation, including $394 for Mary Ann Hawkins and $43 for Abraham. After receiving their freedom, they disappeared from the historical record. Reconstructing even this fragmentary story of their enslavement, their eventual emancipation, and even their very existence is possible only by mining the records produced by the Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862.3

Subsequent acts, including the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, and the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment on December 18, 1865, were uncompensated and therefore produced no official records documenting the lives, personal characteristics, enslavement, and release of the nearly four million slaves who lived outside of the District of Columbia. The Compensated Emancipation Act has justifiably gained renown as the "first emancipation" conferred by the U.S. government on any group of slaves, representing fewer than 1 percent of all the slaves in America. One of the overlooked and underappreciated historical legacies of the act is the archive of over 1,100 petitions that it generated. They allow us to reconstruct, in varying degrees of detail, the personal histories of the 3,200 individuals that it emancipated. The petitions contain thousands of embedded documents—oaths, wills, bills of sale, deeds, and depositions—that historians can combine with additional insights drawn from more familiar sources. The U.S. Census, city directories, manumission records, court documents, reminiscences, autobiographies, and contemporary narratives can flesh out what the petitions tell us to produce richly textured portraits of the slaves and slave owners who parted ways in April 1862. The petitions also support a collective reconstruction of slavery in the District of Columbia that can infuse new insights into our understanding of the racial, economic, social, and cultural foundations of the institution and, more poignantly, what it meant to be a slave, as well as to own slaves, in the nation's capital before and during the Civil War. Finally, the petitions lay bare, in unprecedented detail, the uplifting yet too often heartrending and harrowing process of emancipation that awarded freedom to the capital's three thousand slaves in 1862.

To facilitate their work, the emancipation commissioners printed blank forms that petitioners could purchase to provide the information required to assess the market value of the newly emancipated slaves. On the first page, owners provided the names and ages of their slaves and a personal description. Most of the petitions include the gender, complexion, and height of the slaves, as well as characterizations of their appearance, demeanor, intelligence, and physical condition. The second page required owners to indicate how they acquired their slaves, to estimate their current value, and to support that assessment by describing their occupational skills and their mental and physical abilities. The result is a trove of information, collected at a single point in time, about the entire population of slaves living within a single, significant southern community. Of course, the more subjective descriptions of the slaves were susceptible to intentional and unconscious distortion and bias, skewed by the racial assumptions of the slave owners who recorded them, as well as their self-interest in receiving the greatest possible compensation from the commissioners. Readers of the petitions should always keep in mind the historical circumstances under which the information they contain was recorded. Our hope is that visitors to Civil War Washington will explore and analyze this remarkably detailed and richly textured archive to reconstruct the contours of southern slavery in innovative ways that provide new and valuable insights into the lives of the slaves themselves, as well as the cultural mentality and racial attitudes of the slave owners.4

Conscientious readers will mine the petitions in search of the objective realities of enslavement that too often lay embedded within the slave owners' subjective impressions and callous generalizations. Fruitful areas of research include the physical and psychological toll of slavery upon its victims, the slaves' health and medical conditions, their family lives, their occupational roles, gender distinctions within slavery, survival strategies, the economic and legal dimensions of slavery as the Civil War approached and unfolded, the District of Columbia's hiring out system, and the slave owners' racial attitudes. Tracing the emancipated slaves to the U.S. Census of 1870 would provide an invaluable portrait of how they fared after achieving their freedom.

The petitions invite both qualitative and quantitative assessments of the information that they contain. The age, gender, and height of the slaves, their requested and assessed values, family relationships, fertility patterns, occupational roles, and the strategies that owners employed to buy, sell, hire out, manumit, and will their slaves are all natural subjects for quantitative analysis. Linkage with the free population schedules of the U.S. Census will allow comparison of the District of Columbia's slave community with both the free African Americans and the whites living alongside them.

An apt choice for such a comparison is the slaves' occupational roles, which formed the foundation of the petitioners' claims for compensation. In both slavery and freedom, African Americans were restricted to generally menial yet economically vital occupational niches. The petitions offer copious details about the wide range of manual tasks that slaves performed. A cursory review indicates that females were relegated to the traditional "indoor" work, duties performed within the home or behind it in the euphemistically labeled "area." Described collectively as domestic labor, these tasks were an extension of the kinds of "women's work" that many of their mistresses would have otherwise performed. One primary task was creating and cleaning clothing for the household as seamstresses, sewers, washers, and ironers. They prepared and served food at mealtimes as cooks and waitresses. Maintaining the newly prescribed cleanliness of the Victorian home meant cleaning and scrubbing as chambermaids. They helped with pregnancy and childrearing as midwives and nurses. Owners distinguished between "family servants" and "body servants," who catered to the grooming and other personal needs of their mistresses. In the euphemistically labeled "area," female slaves performed the family's gardening and dairying chores. No one, not even a slave, could fill all of these roles, so they specialized in homes that employed a staff.5

Owners often characterized their servants as "house girls" or "house women" or simply "domestics," but sometimes enumerated their specific skills as "cook and washerwoman," "cooking, washing and ironing and plain sewing," "dining room servant and chambermaid," "pastry cook and laundress," "dairy maid," and so on. A relative few were described as "efficient in every branch of house work," "generally useful," or "knows all about housekeeping." The overburdened Sarah Dover, under five feet two inches in height, was valued as "a cook, washer, ironer, dining room servant, chambermaid, seamstress, and parlor servant." Accordingly, some female slaves could rise to positions of domestic importance and personal trust within white households. One master attested that two of his slaves, a mother-daughter team, "had charge and management of his house." Another who kept a domestic staff of ten called one of his slaves an "excellent cook" who "has charge of the keys and the whole management of his house." Owners, of course, grew dependent on their slaves, sometimes for everything. One older mistress, Ann Kelly, described her thirteen-year-old slave girl as "faithful and truth telling" and avowed that "she relies on Laura for domestic comforts and attendance in her infirm state of health." Indeed, Laura was her "only companion, attendant, and nurse both night and day." In an unusual gesture of appreciation, Kelly had arranged to set Laura free upon her death. Some slave women acquired skills that could serve them well in freedom, such as Louisa Forrest, who could "cut and make men's or women's clothing."6

Male slaves performed "indoor" work as cooks, waiters, or "dining room servants," gardeners, florists, or simply "a hand about the house," but also a wide range of "outdoor" pursuits, such as carriage drivers, cartmen, hostlers or horse tenders, and draymen, who delivered beer. Unlike females, however, they could practice a range of skilled crafts, especially if they were fortunate enough to be hired out. According to his owner, thirty-one-year-old Barney Clark was "capable of all kinds of work, especially as relates to saw mills and boats." Leander Prout was "a butcher by trade and a first-rate hand" who was capable of earning $30 a month when hired out. Dick Massy was "a good farm and garden hand and an excellent coachman and driver" as well as "a complete manager of horses and cattle." Carpenters, upholsterers, teamsters, drivers, nurserymen, ploughmen, farmhands, blacksmiths, painters, brick burners, and stable hands could work for wages—and potentially their own freedom—outside of their owners' homes. Like longtime domestic servants, hirees could earn positions of responsibility and trust. Sixty-year-old John Cessas became a farm manager described by his owner as "invaluable" and such "as is rarely found." Twenty-year-old Frank Diggs was a "good engineer" who ran a steam engine in a printer's shop. A cook and waiter, Adam Lee oversaw "the dining room in the most fashionable restaurant and eating saloon" in Washington. Skilled and experienced slaves possessed valuable although limited occupational abilities. Along with racism, their early training restricted them to largely manual occupations during their initial years of freedom.7

Examination of the U.S. Census facilitates comparison with Washington's free African American community (See the 1860 Census data for the First Ward). As slavery in the District of Columbia declined, white families increasingly took advantage of the burgeoning free black community as domestic laborers. During the half-century that preceded the Civil War, Washington's labor pool had gradually shifted from slaves to free workers. By 1860, one-eighth of the most prosperous families in the First Ward employed live-in servants, either white or black. The local Black Code regulated not only slaves but also free African Americans. Any found "living idle"—without employment—or simply "going at large" were subject to six months of unpaid service, their wages accruing to the county treasury. This law virtually required African Americans to enter into the service of whites in the absence of other opportunities. In the First Ward, one-sixth of employed African Americans were servants living with white families. (The growth of domestic service favored females, who represented 70 percent of black servants living in white homes.) Their three most common roles were house servant, which claimed half of them, cook, which occupied about one-fifth, and a smaller number of waiters. The remainder served their masters as coachmen, gardeners, nurses, bakers, laborers, and hostlers. Amid the deterioration of slavery in Washington, however, slaves remained the mainstay of servitude in the First Ward. Almost half of domestic servants were slaves, one-quarter free blacks, and about one-quarter whites, often immigrants. In freedom, Washington's African Americans remained a large, subservient class that remained under the rigid control of whites, even as slavery itself declined.8

Within Washington's free population, occupational divisions between the races were glaring. Whites living in the First Ward practiced the entire range of pursuits, from U.S. senator, bank president, lawyer, physician, navy captain, and "gentleman" at the top of the occupational ladder to teamster, huckster, hostler, orange vendor, lamplighter, and laborer at the bottom, 233 different occupations. African Americans, however, were restricted to the menial end of the spectrum. Male household heads plied only 47 occupations and filled five economic niches in particular—laborer, waiter, hackman, wagoner, and porter. These five pursuits accounted for more than half of black employment in 1860. With the exception of ministering to the black community and teaching their children, professional and clerical roles were forbidden. Whites dominated the neighborhood's skilled crafts and retail sales. All of the ward's tailors, stonecutters, machinists, bricklayers, plasterers, engineers, bakers, confectioners, clerks, grocers, druggists, and merchants were white, as were at least nine-tenths of blacksmiths, butchers, painters, carpenters, and cabinetmakers. African Americans, including slaves, were sometimes employed as retail clerks to wait on other members of their own race. All of the ward's porters were blacks, as were all but two of the forty-eight cooks, all but one of the fifty-three waiters, and all but three of the nineteen washerwomen.9

In short, African Americans were restricted to similar occupational roles in both slavery and freedom. One-third of free black men were laborers, and four-fifths of black women were servants or cooks. In freedom, only three African Americans— two teachers and a minister—practiced occupations that were forbidden to slaves. Former slaves, of course, enjoyed their freedom but recoiled from the bitter reality of the exploitation that they experienced daily even as free men and women. "He had been a slave, and although liberty was sweet, yet he would say that he got along much better when he was a slave than he did now," one former slave admitted. "Then he had nothing to look for, now he had to look forward all the time to some day when he would not have a job." In 1860, 6 percent of the First Ward's black household heads were unemployed.10

The physical descriptions of the capital's slaves, even those provided by their owners, attest to the inhumane conditions under which they labored. The severe discipline imposed upon black servants, as well as the extraordinary power that whites held over them, was clear in the provision of the Black Code prohibiting their mistreatment. Masters were admonished to provide free servants with adequate meat, drink, housing, clothing, rest, and sleep. They were also prohibited from injuring them through overwork, excessive beating, and abuse, as well as punishment consisting of "above ten lashes for any one offense." Chillingly, as extreme as this punishment appears, the Black Code did not regulate the treatment of slaves at all and therefore subjected them to even more brutal abuse. Manual labor under exploitive conditions took a frightful toll on the District of Columbia's slaves.

Employment in unpaid manual labor subjected slaves to unusual physical hazards in kitchens, shops, and stables that produced a gruesome range of disabilities and infirmities. A frightful number of slaves, both men and women, bore scars that betokened the routine dangers of their labor, as well as the lack of legal restraints on their treatment and punishment. Scars abounded on their faces, shoulders, hands, and feet as the result of cuts and burns. Working outside and tending animals, men and boys suffered the worst afflictions, including lameness, missing limbs or fingers, and broken teeth.11

Women and girls suffered similar infirmities while working indoors. A wide variety of household accidents could abruptly claim fingers and eyes. Slave women bore the additional burden of childbirth and nursing and rearing their own children as well as those of their masters. Thirty-year-old Louisa Gantt had borne three children of her own, aged eight, six, and seven months. As her owner wrote either candidly or callously, "She is not of perfect health and has been reduced in flesh by nursing her infant and, probably by overwork, and her condition is not free from danger." The inevitable neglect of slave children while their parents worked maimed many of them for life. John Brooks was "lame in one hip from its dislocation in infancy or youth," and Sandy Diggs was "a little lame in his left foot and has had only one eye from the age of three or four."12

Owners clearly rued the impact of an injury on the aesthetic appearance of their slaves and ultimately its effect on their market value. When Lewis Dade suffered an injury, his owner lamented, "He had his hand burned about seven months ago, but whether it will leave a scar or not is not known." It is now impossible to assess how much of the scarring, lameness, and blindness arose not through accidents and overwork but through the kinds of punishments that the lack of legal protection and the abuse of complete control allowed masters to inflict. Not a single petitioner identified scars or other injuries as the result of punishment, which would indicate recalcitrance or defiance and thereby lower the value of a slave. As the former Washington slave Solomon Northrup attested, "Scars upon a slave's back were considered evidence of a rebellious or unruly spirit, and hurt his sale." Beyond doubt is whites' ruthless disregard for the hidden, emotional scars that they inflicted upon both slaves and free African Americans, as when Louisa Warren's owner reported that she was "subject at times to depression of spirits that, as a Physician, I consider as not of the least importance." The petitions support a comprehensive and richly detailed analysis of the horrendous physical toll that a life in bondage imposed upon the District of Columbia's entire slave community.13

One of the least documented dimensions of American slavery and race relations is the impact that variations in complexion exerted in shaping the lives and fates of African Americans. The petitions, which prompted owners to characterize their slaves' complexions, can make a significant contribution to our understanding of the era's prevailing racial distinctions. As the debate over slavery raged in antebellum America, distinctions of color were growing more provocative. During the colonial period, southerners had accepted racial mixing as inevitable, and planters tended to favor mixed race slaves, some of whom were their own children. Traditionally, southern whites had courted mixed race African Americans, cultivating them as allies in their efforts to control the black community, both slave and free. In the mid-nineteenth century, however, with slaves becoming ever "whiter" through "amalgamation," as racial mixing was known, southerners began decrying sexual unions between the races—and the resulting mixed parentage of children—as a threat to the "purity" of the white race. Once tolerant of racial mixing with slaves, whites began to disparage the process, especially when it took place within a growing free black population that they could not control.14

Blurring the distinction between white and black and slave and free, racial mixing threatened to undermine the institution of slavery. The U.S. Census began measuring racial mixing in America in 1850, designating two classes of African Americans. "Black" signified full-blooded African ancestry. "Mulatto," a racially degrading term of Spanish origin meaning "little mule," likened mixed race African Americans to the sterile hybrid offspring of female horses and male donkeys. Most owners considered darker-skinned slaves more physically robust, and one common rule of thumb specified that "the blacker the stronger." Owners therefore preferred "blacks" for the most taxing fieldwork and consigned "mulatto" men to skilled crafts and women to domestic service. Some slaves, however, were viewed as simply "too white to keep." Following Maryland law, the District of Columbia's Black Code prohibited clergymen and magistrates from officiating at the marriage of interracial couples and punished the parents of interracial children with a seven-year term of servitude. The Black Code even prohibited free "mulatto" women from bearing any children at all, even with black men, subject to the same penalty, to prevent them from perpetuating the racial mixing. The fundamental assumption held that degrees of color were measurable and signified inequalities in vigor, intelligence, and character.15

The stark division that whites recognized between full-blooded African Americans and those of mixed racial heritage contributed substantially to the slaves' ultimate fate. More blacks remained in slavery, while mixed race African Americans found it easier to gain their freedom. More likely to be hired out, they reaped the indirect benefits of the "rental" system that allowed them to earn wages that they could apply to self-purchase. Lighter-skinned fugitive slaves more readily elicited the aid of sympathetic whites. Many northern reformers, including some abolitionists, welcomed racial mixing in the belief that mixed race African Americans were intellectually superior to blacks, elevated in moral character, and more attractive in appearance. They therefore considered amalgamation beneficial as a contribution to the improvement of the African American community. Antislavery advocates, such as Henry Ward Beecher, targeted mixed race slaves for liberation. After analyzing the census data, the superintendent of the U.S. Census, Joseph C. G. Kennedy, confirmed "the supposition of more mulattoes than blacks having escaped or been manumitted from slavery." Once free, they were often singled out for education and employment as teachers and therefore as role models. As a result, the mixed race members acquired a slightly elevated status and greater social privileges.16

According to the 1860 census, "mulattoes" represented more than one-third of Washington's free African Americans but only one-quarter of its slaves. The predominance of blacks among the First Ward's slaves reflected slave owners' increasing preference for full-blooded African Americans. Tellingly, the slaves who were hired out were 25 percent more likely to be of mixed racial ancestry, confirming the widely held preference of white families for mixed race servants in their homes and their greater market value as hirees. The First Ward's mixed race African Americans likely reflected the routine practice of sexual union between owners and their female slaves in Maryland and Virginia, where half of them were born. Just under one-fifth of the ward's slaves were of mixed racial ancestry. The relatively privileged position of mixed race African Americans supported an exaggerated economic success relative to free blacks. In the First Ward, they owned more than twice as much real property on average in 1860.17

On his first day in the White House, Lincoln received an abrupt introduction to the distinctions in color. Lincoln's personal valet, William H. Johnson, had accompanied the family on their journey from Springfield to Washington. Lincoln planned to employ Johnson in the White House, "attending to his wardrobe, shaving him and acting as a handy man and private messenger for the family," folklorist John E. Washington, who knew some of the Lincolns' White House servants, related eighty years later. Members of the household staff, however, "so fearful that they would lose their jobs, instantly began to make trouble for any newcomer." In this instance, they rejected Johnson because of his appearance. "In his case there was almost an open rebellion, not only for the regular reasons, but also because of a social distinction," Washington explained. "Johnson's color was very dark and White House servants were always light."18

According to the prevailing racial ideology, darker African Americans would have been more "fitted" to physical labor than domestic service. Although one contemporary described Johnson as "a likely mulatto," there is no telling where the White House staff might have placed him along the full spectrum of Washington's subtle hues. (After the Civil War, African Americans in Washington adopted a "paper bag test," in which the color of a brown grocery bag marked the division between "light enough" and "too dark.") According to John Washington, upon his arrival Johnson "was mistreated in such a way that it became necessary for the President to look elsewhere for employment for him." Reluctant to challenge the capital's entrenched racial hierarchy, which had become self-enforcing within the community itself over decades of elaboration, Lincoln deferred to the White House staff's "color talk." He put Johnson to work keeping the fire in the furnace room in the basement of the White House, out of sight, at a salary of $50 per month.19

Three days after entering the White House, Lincoln wrote a letter of reference for Johnson, addressed "To Whom It May Concern," in hopes that he could find him another position somewhere in Washington. "William Johnson, a colored boy, and bearer of this, has been with me about twelve months," Lincoln attested, "and has been, so far, as I believe, honest, faithful, sober, industrious, and handy as a servant." As Washington put it, "Openings were difficult to find but President Lincoln felt that since he had brought to Washington this Negro who had loyally served him and his family, it was absolutely necessary that Johnson be found work." After more than a week passed with no results, Lincoln penned a personal letter to his new secretary of the navy, Gideon Welles, making a direct request for help. The Navy Department was renowned—or notorious—for enlisting African Americans as sailors at sea and laborers ashore. "The bearer (William) is a servant who has been with me for some time & in whom I have confidence as to his integrity and faithfulness," Lincoln told Welles. "He wishes to enter your service. The difference of color between him & the other servants is the cause of our separation. If you can give him employment you will confer a favour on Yours truly A. Lincoln."20

Nine months later, Lincoln was still trying to secure an honorable situation for Johnson somewhere beyond the White House. After writing another reference letter with no result, he then contacted the Treasury Department, which sat next door. "You remember kindly asking me, some time ago, whether I really desired you to find a place for William Johnson, a colored boy who came from Illinois with me," Lincoln wrote Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase in November. "If you can find him the place I shall really be obliged." Chase, who was busily turning the Treasury Department into an enclave of abolitionism within the wartime bureaucracy, did oblige. The next day, he appointed Johnson as a messenger in the Treasury Department with a $600 annual salary, the highest rank available to African Americans in the federal government.21

As William Johnson's—and Abraham Lincoln's—experience attests, distinctions in complexion, while utterly subjective, seemed very real and gravely important to both the whites and blacks who were ensnared within the racial hierarchy of the capital's traditional slave society. Along with other southerners, slave owners' aversion and therefore sensitivity to racial mixing heightened during the 1850s, and they grew remarkably attuned to the skin color and other racial attributes of the slaves that they bought, sold, and hired. Although not specificically required to stipulate their slaves' skin color, most of the 966 slave owners who filed petitions under the Compensated Emancipation Act did so. As a result, the petitions record the "color," as adjudged by their owners, of each of the more than three thousand slaves who gained their freedom in 1862. Rejecting the Census Bureau's official division of African Americans into only two categories, "blacks" and "mulattoes," the petitioners provided fifty-nine distinct designations of skin color and tone, ranging along a remarkably precise spectrum from "black" at one extreme to "nearly white" at the other.

Table 1. Designations of skin color found in the petitions

black black or brown yellow or copper
quite black dark brown dark mulatto or copper
very dark color, nearly black plum dark mulatto
nearly black olive brown rather dark mulatto
very dark black dark mahogany very bright mulatto
very black mahogany very bright
second shade of black color brown bright mulatto
third shade of black color light brown a shade or two darker than a full mulatto
not very black dark chestnut mulatto
light black bright chestnut light mulatto
quite dark chestnut very light mulatto
very dark light chestnut dark yellow
dark color, not jet black chestnut or deep copper bright yellow
dark dark brown or copper yellow
dark, but not very dark dark copper light yellow
not very dark bright copper tolerably light
between black and yello copper light
dark brown color but not black light copper very light
dark brown, mainly black rather light or copper colored nearly white
dark brown or black yellow copper

The remarkable and now horrifying precision of these meticulous distinctions, undoubtedly gleaned from the bills of sale that documented slave ownership, suggests that the labels had acquired a commonplace currency in the region long before the legal obligation to provide them arose. The petitioners were seeking the highest possible compensation for surrendering their slaves, which was based on their market value, so they had a financial incentive to adopt the kind of language, a jargon all its own, that the slave traders of Baltimore and New Orleans would be sure to understand.22

William Johnson's dilemma—and therefore Lincoln's—was navigating, as an outsider, such an unfamiliar maelstrom of racial prejudices and invidious distinctions, which had developed piecemeal through personal interactions and slave sales across the city's seventy-year history. Neither man had encountered such a dizzying variety of racially charged divisions in Springfield, which included only 203 African Americans and no slaves. Their first day in the White House introduced the two men to the routine "color talk" that represented a crucial survival skill within an African American community ensnared in the middle ground that lay between slavery and freedom. Evidence gleaned from the emancipation petitions can provide important insights into the origins, impact, and rhetorical— and real—power of the subtle racial distinctions that divided whites and blacks and indeed the African American community itself during the Civil War era.23

Under the supplemental act approved by Congress in July 1862, 166 slaves filed their own petitions to request emancipation. These "self-petitions" are distinctive in allowing the slaves to present their own case for emancipation and provide supporting evidence on their own behalf, including the testimony of corroborating witnesses. The primary avenue to freedom for slaves who filed their own petitions was evidence that they had lived in the District of Columbia on April 16, the day that the Compensated Emancipation Act became law, with their owners' knowledge and consent. Largely illiterate, the slaves were represented by white lawyers, notably George E. H. Day, who specialized in challenging the Fugitive Slave Law by defending runaways. Most of the slaves originated in Maryland and Virginia and claimed that they had lived in the capital for at least a year but sometimes as long as a quarter century. Jane Butler, for example, claimed residence "from her early childhood" and Fatima Milton "for a long time." Men often stipulated that they had been continuously employed in the District. In every instance, the supporting testimony, provided by both whites and blacks and sometimes slaves, was vital. George Robertson, for example, received the support of a white police officer, who testified that he had worked in a livery stable and driven a cart in his neighborhood for the previous fifteen years. Robertson's owner had returned to Virginia in April 1861, raising suspicions of disloyalty. The witness claimed that he had "never missed him" in Washington and that he was present on April 16. Several petitioners claimed a temporary absence on the day that Lincoln signed the act but received their freedom anyway. Fifty-five-year-old Alice Addison, for example, left Washington with her two daughters and three grandchildren three days before passage of the bill "because they feared they would be colonized in Africa." After spending five months with her father, a slave in Maryland, the cautious Addison decided to bring her family back to Washington to receive their freedom under the supplemental act.24

A substantial minority of owners contested their slaves' claims to freedom, and the board denied 22 of the 166 petitions. Matilda Blany's owner had hired her out in Washington for nine years before moving to Maryland and leaving her behind, according to two witnesses, one of them African American. Her owner, however, claimed that Blaney was a fugitive and that she had made an effort to locate her, without success, before passage of the emancipation act. The commissioners accepted the owner's claim and denied Blaney's petition. Caroline Noland, a Maryland slave owner who was notorious for besieging Union army camps in pursuit of her runaway slaves, managed to reclaim Elizabeth Johnson. Two black witnesses testified that Johnson was a longtime resident of Washington. William Brown attested that "I have known Eliza for last 6 years. Near neighbor of mine. Was here on 16 April. Was not out of this city." Johnson's niece, Maria Stevenson, herself one of Noland's slaves, told the commissioners, "I have been living in District 16 years & Eliza came here before I did." In the absence of any testimony that Noland had consented to Johnson's residence in the capital, however, the commissioners denied her petition. Stevenson, in contrast, established her own right to freedom with the help of her aunt's testimony.25

The board granted freedom to the five-member Beckett family after testimony indicated that they had lived in the capital for more than three years. After their owner claimed that they were fugitives, the commissioners reheard the Becketts' petition. In a 2–1 decision, they voted to sustain the family's freedom on the grounds that "their alleged legal owner has made no legal effort to reclaim them." In deference to the owner's challenge, however, they recommended compensation for the loss of her slaves. At the opposite extreme, thirty-three-year-old Washington Childs received support from his Virginia owner, presenting a solicitous letter that wished him "good health." Childs had lived in Washington for five years with permission to hire himself out as a hack driver and send his wages to his owner as payment for his freedom. Because Childs still owed $60, the owner asked him to send a supply of "good sugar & sacks of coffee and 2 bolts of cotton & pound of best tea that is if you can." He ended his forlorn attempt to wring some last-minute value out of Childs with the plea that "I know you can't think hard of this if you knew my circumstance & you will be at liberty for life. Your friend, Thos. A. Withers." Notwithstanding the plaintive request, the commissioners awarded Childs his freedom without compensating Withers.26

Slaves rarely cited the disloyalty of their owners, which was difficult to document. Before approving a petition on those grounds, the commissioners required evidence of an "overt act of aid and comfort" to the Confederacy. Leah Upsher claimed freedom because her owner had left Washington in August 1862 and "at last account was in Richmond." Without convincing evidence of disloyalty, however, the board denied her petition. Eliza Ann Blair had arrived in Washington two months after passage of the emancipation act but claimed that her Virginia owner was a "Rebel." The board denied her petition for lack of evidence of overt disloyalty. Philip Meredith, however, successfully petitioned for his own emancipation as one of Robert E. Lee's slaves. The thirty-year-old Meredith was already living as a free man in Washington with Lee's consent. Working as a waiter, he had built a family that included his wife, Lidia, and eight children, all of whom were born in the capital. Represented by antislavery lawyer George Day, he claimed that he had lived in Washington for twenty-five years with Lee's knowledge and indeed blessing. Testifying on his behalf was Lee's former legal agent, James Eveleth, a white clerk in the city who attested that he knew Meredith "perfectly well and have for 30 years as servant of Robert E Lee formerly of U.S. Army now in Rebel service." Not only was Meredith's owner openly disloyal but he sanctioned his residence in the capital. "He has been here for years with masters knowledge—When Gen Lee went south he left servant in District," according to Eveleth, who claimed "frequent conversations with Gen Lee in which Gen Lee expressed regret that he owned servant. Wished he was free." Accepting Eveleth's testimony, the commissioners granted Meredith a freedom certificate.27

Beyond the historical insights that systematic mining of the compensated emancipation petitions will undoubtedly generate, the personal stories of 3,200 slaves are embedded in the documents, waiting to be discovered, elaborated, and told. One of the most remarkable personal stories belongs to Philip Reid, who worked for the government completing the new iron dome on the U.S. Capitol. When originally constructed, the Capitol was crowned by a flat, wooden, copper-sheathed dome—reviled as a "mustard pot"—that had begun rotting and leaking rain into the ornate Rotunda below. In 1853, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis appointed Capt. Montgomery Meigs, a superb engineer, to complete the Capitol building, adding expansive marble wings for the two houses and raising the lofty dome— one hundred feet taller than the old one—that would loom over Washington for the next century and a half. Meigs solved the crucial challenge—how to raise a 300-foot-high dome over the floor of the Rotunda—by erecting a wooden tower in the center from which a winch lifted the iron arches piece by piece to be bolted into place. The only conflict arose over the design of the bronze statue that would cap the dome. Meigs proposed a 19.5-foot statue, Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace, which depicted Lady Liberty wearing the classical Roman "liberty cap" that designated a freed slave. Appalled by the design, Davis dismissed the idea of an emancipated slave standing atop the capitol of what he considered a slave-owning republic, telling Meigs that the liberty cap "is the sign of a freedman and that we were always free, not freedmen, not slaves just released." Believing that the liberty cap was "inappropriate to a people who were born free and would not be enslaved," the Davis substituted a Roman military helmet in its place.28

As the Civil War approached, even the casting of the Statue of Freedom became a sectional issue. Northerners wanted it cast in a Massachusetts foundry, but southerners championed Clark Mills, a renowned sculptor of public monuments from South Carolina. At the insistence of the southern congressional delegation, the assignment went to the talented Mills. With the outbreak of war, a reporter reported, "There is a queer superstition that the dome is never to be finished, and that the coming crash of the Republic will leave the Capitol in the hands of those who will tear it down." Despite wartime objections to the expense, Lincoln insisted that the work continue. As he told Gen. John Eaton, "The finishing of the Capitol would be a symbol to the nation of the preservation of the Union. If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on." At his urging, Congress provided additional funding.29

Mills brought one of his slaves, forty-two-year-old Philip Reid, whom he described as "not prepossessing in appearance, but smart in mind, a good workman in a foundry," from South Carolina to perform the labor. The final casting required the disassembly of the plaster model into its five pieces, which Mills was unable to accomplish. After Mills gave up in frustration, Reid devised an ingenious method for gradually applying tension to the plaster to separate the pieces just enough to allow disassembly. Mills and Reid completed the casting on November 19, 1863, the day that Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. When a crane swung Freedom into place at the apex of the dome on December 2, a former slave shouted, "Three cheers for the Goddess of Liberty!" The immense crowd watching from below complied with enthusiasm. In an unusual recognition of his expertise, the government paid Reid for his work, in addition to the commission that went to Mills. In his request for compensation for Reid under the emancipation act, Mills stated that he had bought him in South Carolina for $1,200 "because of his evident talent for the foundry business." Asking $1,500 for Reid, Mills received $350. In freedom, Reid was able to set up a shop of his own in Washington.30

The compensated emancipation petitions contain 3,200 additional stories, few as imposing as Reid's, but all of them important to our understanding of slavery, race, and freedom in the District of Columbia and still waiting to be told.


This essay was first published in Civil War Washington: History, Place, and Digital Scholarship, ed. Susan C. Lawrence (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015). It is reproduced with permission and has been revised and updated for publication here, as described in "Civil War Washington: The City and the Site." The copyright to this essay is held by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska, and Civil War Washington's Creative Commons license does not apply to it.

  1. For a discussion of the background and passage of the Compensated Emancipation Act, see "Emancipation in the District of Columbia." [back]
  2. Records of the Board of Commissioners for the Emancipation of Slaves in the District of Columbia, 1861–1863, National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 217.6.5, Records of the General Accounting Office, Petition No. 857; "Emancipation in the District of Columbia," 38th Cong., 1st sess., House Ex. Doc. No. 42, 66; U.S. Manuscript Census, Free Population Schedule, Georgetown DC, 1860; Boyd's Washington and Georgetown Directory, 1860 (Washington: Taylor and Maury, 1860), 88; Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 2:255, 453. [back]
  3. Records of the Board of Commissioners, Petition No. 857; "Emancipation in the District of Columbia," 66. [back]
  4. The requirement that the slaves appear before the commission in person to be examined and assessed by a slave trader—imposing one last, horrific humiliation upon the newly freed slaves—may well have provided a significant constraint on excessive exaggeration or misrepresentation. According to their final report, "At the threshold of their labors the commissioners were impressed with the importance of having full information as to the value of slaves, independently of that to be derived from the claimants and their witnesses"; "Emancipation in the District of Columbia," 2. [back]
  5. Richard L. Bushman and Claudia Bushman, "The Early History of Cleanliness in America," Journal of American History 74 (March 1988): 1213–38. [back]
  6. Records of the Board of Commissioners, Petition No. 101, 408, 759. [back]
  7. Records of the Board of Commissioners, Petition No. 408, 704, 744, 872, 893, 948. [back]
  8. U.S. Manuscript Census, Free Population Schedule, Washington DC, 1860; Worthington Garrettson Snethen, The Black Code of the District of Columbia, in Force Sept. 1st, 1848 (New York: American and Foreign Antislavery Society, 1848), 9, 19, 29–30. The average real property of white families with slaves was $17,376, of white families with live-in servants $9,602, and of white families with no domestic staff $2,531. The census data for the First Ward are available for download on the Data page. [back]
  9. U.S. Manuscript Census, Free Population Schedule, Washington DC, 1860. [back]
  10. U.S. Manuscript Census, Free Population Schedule, Washington DC, 1860; Washington Evening Star, April 28, 1862. [back]
  11. Snethen, Black Code of the District of Columbia, 9, 19, 29–30. [back]
  12. Records of the Board of Commissioners, Petition No. 122, 422, 657, 680. [back]
  13. Records of the Board of Commissioners, Petition No. 657, 868; Snethen, Black Code of the District of Columbia, 9; Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 145. [back]
  14. Joel Williamson, New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States (New York: Free Press, 1980), 35, 53, 63, 65, 67, 71, 75. [back]
  15. Snethen, Black Code of the District of Columbia, 10; Joseph C. G. Kennedy, Population of the United States in 1860 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1864), xi; Margo J. Anderson, The American Census: A Social History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 41, 60, 69; Johnson, Soul by Soul, 139, 154, 156. [back]
  16. Kennedy, Population of the United States in 1860, xi; Stanley Harrold, Subversives: Antislavery Community in Washington, 1828–1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003), 193. [back]
  17. U.S. Manuscript Census of Population, Free Population Schedules and Slave Population Schedules, 1860; Kennedy, Population of the United States in 1860, 588. Mixed race African Americans owned an average of $486 in real property as compared with $236 among full-blooded blacks. Still, mixed race families were only one-eighth as wealthy as the typical white family, which owned $4,173 in real property. [back]
  18. John E. Washington, They Knew Lincoln (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1942), 127–28. [back]
  19. Washington, They Knew Lincoln, 127–28; Michael Burlingame, Lincoln: A Life (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 2:24; James Cornelius, "William H. Johnson, Citizen", as archived in the Internet Archive Wayback Machine; Audrey Elisa Kerr, "Two Black Washingtons: The Role of Complexion in the Oral History of District of Columbia Residents," PhD diss., University of Maryland, College Park, 1998, 84–85. [back]
  20. Collected Works 4:277, 288; Washington, They Knew Lincoln, 127–28. [back]
  21. Collected Works 4:474; 5:33, 446–47; 6:69; Register of Officers and Agents, Civil, Military, and Naval, in the Service of the United States (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1862), 15; Washington, They Knew Lincoln, 128; Cornelius, "William H. Johnson, Citizen"; Harrold, Subversives, 228; Steven J. Ramold, Slaves, Sailors, Citizens: African Americans in the Union Navy (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002), 6–24; Ira Berlin, Steven F. Miller, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland, eds., The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Upper South, series 1, vol. 2 of Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 245. [back]
  22. Records of the Board of Commissioners; Johnson, Soul by Soul, 135–61. According to Steven Deyle, Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), "Not only did many owners adopt the attitudes and language of the professional dealers, they also became just as skillful at marketing their slaves."[back]
  23. Kennedy, Population of the United States in 1860, 99. [back]
  24. U.S. Statutes at Large, XII, 37th Cong., 2nd sess., chap. clv, 538– 39; Records of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Relating to Slaves, 1851–1863, Records of District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21, National Archives and Records Administration, October 3, 6, 1862, January 7, 1863; WNR, November 16, 1863. The supplemental petitions are not numbered but are generally filed sequentially by surname or date. [back]
  25. Records of the Board of Commissioners, September 26, 27, 1862, January 7, 1863; "Emancipation in the District of Columbia," 10, 73. [back]
  26. Records of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Relating to Slaves, 1851–1863, July 21, 29, 1862, August 2, October 3, 1862; Records of the Board of Commissioners, July 26, 1862; "Emancipation in the District of Columbia," 73. [back]
  27. Meredith appeared in the 1860 U.S. Census as a "free inhabitant"; U.S. Manuscript Census, Free Population Schedule, Washington DC, 1860; Records of the Board of Commissioners, August 2, 15, September 16, 1862; Records of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Relating to Slaves, 1851–1863, June 30, 1862; "Emancipation in the District of Columbia," 5; Boyd's Directory of Washington & Georgetown, 1860, 113; Hutchinson's Washington and Georgetown Directory, 1863 (Washington: Hutchinson and Brother, 1863), 146. [back]
  28. Records of the Board of Commissioners, Petition No. 741; U.S. Manuscript Census, Population Schedule, Washington DC, 1870; Guy Gugliotta, Freedom's Cap: The United States Capitol and the Coming of the Civil War (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012), 3, 6–7, 140, 383; Jesse J. Holland, Black Men Built the Capitol: Discovering African American History in and around Washington, D.C. (Guilford: Globe Pequot Press, 2007), 5; David W. Miller, Second Only to Grant: Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs (Shippensburg: White Mane Books, 2000), 33; Kathryn Allamong Jacob, Testament to Union: Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 30–31. [back]
  29. Records of the Board of Commissioners, Petition No. 741; Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln's Time, ed. Herbert Mitgang (New York: Collier Books, 1962), 21; John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln, and the Freedmen: Reminiscences of the Civil War (New York: Longmans, Green, 1907), 89; Holland, Black Men Built the Capitol, 6–9. [back]
  30. Records of the Board of Commissioners, Petition No. 741; U.S. Manuscript Census, Free Population Schedule, Georgetown DC, 1860; Boyd's Directory of Washington & Georgetown, 1867 (Washington: Hudson Taylor Book Store, 1867), 471; William O. Stoddard, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Reports of Lincoln's Secretary, ed. Michael Burlingame (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 79; Russell F. Weigley, Quartermaster General of the Union Army: A Biography of M. C. Meigs (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959), 157–58; Miller, Second Only to Grant, 46; Gugliotta, Freedom's Cap, 357–58, 393; Holland, Black Men Built the Capitol, 6–9; Jacob, Testament to Union, 9, 155–56. [back]