Many Americans don’t realize that slaves played a role in the War of 1812. During the war, the British offered fugitive slaves a path to freedom–to settle in Canada or the East Indies. Or to fight in the war against American and their former slave masters. Some slaves were quite valuable in giving the British important information that helped them carry out their campaign of terror on Chesapeake Bay communities. This is an excerpt from my book, Madness: The War of 1812, in which I introduce a main character, Henry, as he witnesses his family sold off and broken up in an Alexandria slave market. As a fictional character, Henry ends up playing and unexpected, but important, role in the war.
Chapter 38: September 19, Alexandria, Virginia
Henry’s mother, Emma, hanged herself last night and now he was about to see his wife, Flora, and daughter, Mattie, 11, sold to a new master. Matthew, his 14-year-old son, had been sold separately just a few minutes earlier to a hassled farmer whose decision to shell out good money for a strapping young lad appeared to be his last desperate act to finally bring in a good tobacco harvest. The last he saw of Matthew was his departure, shackled behind a wagon that the farmer promptly turned south. He was headed deeper into slave country, making it all the more likely that Henry would never see him again. It had been a long time since Henry had seen Matthew cry, and he was trying mightily to hid it now, holding his head up as best he could with what little dignity that he was afforded. Flora’s tearful pleas to the auctioneer not to break up her family fell into silence before his snarled, “Shut up, nigger, or you’ll get the lash.” She knew the threat was empty because he would be devaluing the seller’s property; it would have been equally unwise to lash into submission one of the horses also to be sold that day in the same marketplace near the waterfront. Still, she fell into silence, having learned from a lifetime of futility as a black slave in America.
The handbills announcing the auction had gone out the day before throughout Alexandria, a northern Virginia town of some 5,000 souls (not counting the slaves, of course) advertising the “Sale of Negroes,” along with “mules hogs, farming & mining tools, wagons & carts.” Alexandria was a gateway from the Chesapeake into the slave-holding South, and as such, had become a center of the slave trade, along with other growing, southern ports such as Charleston and Savannah. Many men, women and children had passed through Alexandria’s slave pens and auction platforms, a few blocks up Duke Street from the wharfs fronting the Potomac River. Some of the young nation’s most renowned enunciators of the rights of man regularly dined and lodged in Alexandria while the new federal capital was being built some 20 miles up the Potomac. If their hypocrisy tweaked their consciences as they passed the lines of chained slaves being herded to the auction blocks, the Founding Fathers didn’t show it.
Henry’s family found themselves on the block after their master, Mrs. Harriett Lindsay, an Alexandria dowager whose late husband had been one of the town’s leading merchants, died from the ailments of age. She was a decent person who, while she didn’t understand all this nonsense about abolition (among other things, her husband had engaged in slave sales), nonetheless treated her slaves with kindness, civility and dignity. She would never have thought to split up Henry’s family, but she had left no children so now the family passed to her estate—distant deep south tobacco planters who had been financially strapped by the British blockade and who needed the capital that the slave family could bring on the auction block. It’s not that the distant cousins had anything against the family; they were, after all, assets, like a herd of cattle that could be converted into cash when the need arose. It hadn’t even occurred to Mrs. Lindsay that such a fate awaited Henry’s family and that she hadn’t provided for their freedom in her last will and testament would be a source of everlasting puzzlement and anger for Henry.
After all, it wouldn’t have been like freedom would mean poverty for the family, as was the fate of some freed slaves who were unable to connect with abolitionists in New England or Canada. Henry was a shoemaker, a good one at that, known throughout the city as a craftsman of the highest skill. Show Henry just a sketch of the latest European fashion in boots or shoes, it was widely said, and Henry could duplicate them flawlessly. In addition, Henry could read and calculate, skills that his owners gladly had taught them—to the disapprobation of the white gentry—because they added to Henry’s value as a craftsman who could requisition goods and fill orders. Henry’s value as a source of significant revenues had given him as much self-respect as a slave could have. Emma and Flora were house slaves, and well acquainted with the refinements of culture as practiced by well-to-do Southerners. Emma, Flora and Mattie (mothers and young children usually were sold together) would be a great asset to their new owners, if they were interested in cultivating the finer things.
Henry and his family, of course, saw this dark day of separation coming and had attempted as best they could to prepare for it. A written appeal by Henry to Mrs. Lindsay’s relatives had proved fruitless; it was ignored and that a slave had the audacity to write to a white person probably only worsened matters. They promised as often as they could—depending, of course, on the conditions of their servitude—to write one another and Henry had promised everyone that he someday would find and unite them, no matter what the cost. Even Henry had a hard time believing that he would ever keep such a promise.
Emma had tried her best to keep alive the family’s spirits and spoke only of positive things, especially of the day that they all would cross the Jordan and be reunited in freedom and thanksgiving on the other side. At one point, she let escape the sentiment that she could not go on, having been sold and separated from her own parents and siblings before. After being sold several times over, she had landed at the Lindsay’s household, where she had met her husband Jurisiah and borne their children. “I don’t know, children,” she had said recently, “I just find it so hard to go on. I know the Lord awaits me on the other side, and when that day comes, it will be liberty day.” The realty of the uprooting defeated whatever optimism she could muster and the night before the auction, she twisted her clothing into a rope—there being no blanket in the cell—and hanged herself. The sound of her twisting and gagging awoke Flora too late to save her, but the daughter-in-law’s screams brought the cell-keeper who cut her down and tossed her naked body out on the ground in the filthy courtyard just outside the line of cells. It was more than Flora could bear, especially on the eve of her and her family’s sale to strangers. Flora briefly wished that she could follow her mother-in-law into the Promised Land, but she knew that would leave her own children with the same heartbreak she now suffered. Perhaps, Flora thought, sometime after I’m sold and I am no longer in their lives, I’ll find my own river crossing into heaven.
Emma’s body was gone, to where no one knew for sure, when Flora and Mattie were finally led out of the cell at daybreak. Flora imagined, correctly so, that Emma had been thrown into some pit without even the minimal kinds of bereavements and prayers that the slaves were allowed to give their kin. It also fell to Flora to confirm to Henry that it was his mother that caused last night’s ruckus and that she had passed at her own hand. To her surprise, she correctly detected in Henry some relief, flowing from the knowledge that her suffering on this earth had ended. Perhaps, from on high, Henry thought, she could intercede with the Lord to help remove this boulder from our backs.
All the slaves were led to the well, where they were stripped and washed themselves of the urine, rat dung and other unidentifiable foulness on the cell floor. They had been forced to sleep on that rancid concoction because there was not even a bare plank bed to accommodate the fitful occupants on their last night before entering a new and equally terrifying phase of their lives. The cells were so unimaginably filthy the rot had to be shoveled out—by the slaves themselves, of course—only in those rare instances when they had become so mired in the sludge that the operator of the auction house feared that the dengue, yellow fever or other tropical disease brought in by the imported slaves would ravage the value of their human herd. Yes, the cells continued to be occupied by new arrivals from Africa, even though the United States, following other European nations, banned the slave trade in 1808 and imposed severe, but rarely enforced penalties on anyone smuggling in the human contraband. By some means, fresh imports repeatedly showed up in the Alexandria slave cells, and it was just so the night before the Henry family auction. Henry himself shared a cell with a half-dozen such pitiful persons, and he, despite his skin color and African features, was just as foreign to them as they were to him. Henry was what was called country born, meaning born in America, as were his parents, so the passed-down memories of their lineages in Africa had already begun to fade. Like so many millions who had been enslaved in the constant and lucrative battles between the African tribes, none could really say where in Africa they had come from. They knew that they had been driven toward the setting sun until arriving at the great sea where they encountered the horrific dungeons and ships of the white slavers, who rarely, for reasons and safety and health, ventured in to the continent’s interior. Instead, they engaged in lucrative trade with the slave’s indigenous captors, who gladly turned over their human goods for dearly desired manufactured goods, such as knives and other implements. Henry had tried to talk to his fellow captives but quickly gave up because of the vast differences in language, demeanor and clothing, or rather the near lack of it. Henry and the others cowered in different corners, afraid of or revolted by the unknown.
In the bright sunlight the next morning, Henry watched and listened while the auctioneer described Matthew’s fine points. “Here is a fine, young boy, fit for immediate service of the most laborious or domestic kind. Observe his muscle tone and skin condition, which speak of his prior good treatment and his submissiveness to good order. His past masters kept the finest household in Alexandria, and he certainly knows his place. Speak, boy, to show your refinement to these gentlemen.”
Matthew didn’t know what to say, and his hesitancy drew a quick reproach in the form of a blow from the auctioneer’s riding crop applied skillfully behind his knee joint with just enough force to be painful, but not so much as to leave a welt.
“Your name, boy. What is your name?”
“It is Matthew, the same as the Savior’s apostle,” Matthew replied.
“Aye, and surely you’ll be writing a gospel, just like your namesake,” the auctioneer said to the amusement of the crowd of planters, overseers, buyers and others of the motley audience that had gathered in front of the elevated auction platform.
“Gentlemen, what I am bid for this prime field hand or refined house nigger? He could be both, you know. The boy’s talents are interchangeable, making his value all that much greater. He has an entire productive life ahead of him and he’ll only grow stronger. Not to mention his potential for blue ribbon studding. I tell you, not often does such valuable property pass through here. You had better take advantage of this rare opportunity before it is too late. Fifty dollars? You, sir?” The aggressive bidding confirmed Matthew’s value before the auctioneer closed it at the eye-popping price of $1,235.
As painful as it was to watch his son being sold, it was infinitely worse to see his wife and daughter being dealt to the highest bidder. The auction of women often was little more than a peep show for “gentlemen” who had no intention of bidding but just dropped in off Duke Street for the entertainment.
“Come now, gentlemen, do I have to show you the fine wares of these two specimens to get you to unlatch your purses? Not until the bidding gets to where it should be, I’ll tell you. These two come from the same fine household of the young nigger we just sold to that lucky man over there. Millie—what’s your name?—Flora?—such an elegant name for this rose petal. She is country born and regular bred, skilled in the art of French cooking and various refinements, if that’s how you choose to use her, if you catch my meaning. Firm breasts, as you see,” cupping them from behind, “and not drooping as most after childbirth. Gentlemen, you will find no finer piece of poon tang in the Old Dominion. Fine for breeding; as you can see, she has some years left in her,” he said as he lifted the bottom of Flora’s tattered shift with his riding crop to above her stomach, exposing her dark triangular patch below to the lecherous crowd.
“This nigress comes with a bonus, as you can see: This here is Mattie, whose ripening will arrive in a few years. Hard to resist already, isn’t she gentlemen?” he said as from behind he unexpectedly jerked her shift over her head before she knew what was happening. Too late, she tried to cover herself with her hands as Flora moved to block her from the sight of the cruel rabble. Instinctively, Henry started toward the platform, rage in his eyes, and just as quickly he was struck down by the butt of a musket and his legs pulled out from under him by the shackles. He managed to adjust his fall to take the blow on his shoulder, rather than falling full on his face, a fact that the auctioneer welcomed because it would have diminished his value immeasurably to stand on the auction block with a broken nose and bloodied face. The auctioneer quickly drew attention away from ruckus by drawing attention to Mattie’s prepubescent budding nipples and her near hairless mound below. “Gentlemen, this is a purchase that you can’t pass up. What am I bid?
The bidding was furious for the exceptional pair, and to Henry, Flora and Mattie, seemed to be a lifetime. When the affair was finally gaveled to a close, the winning bid was a staggering $2,100. It was from a planter whose lust urgently played across his face. In the banter between the auctioneer, the bidders and the crowd, Henry managed to discern that the gargoyle hailed from the Piedmont Lowlands, just west of the Blue Ridge mountain range somewhere in Virginia. Henry filed this piece of information away, for he was planning to escape, no matter who became his new master, because he meant to find his family, at any cost.
Henry also brought an impressive price because of his shoemaking skills, although the auctioneer intentionally didn’t mention this slave’s ability to read, definitely a negative to most slaveholders. They read, then they get uppity, you know. Henry was purchased by a merchant who was setting up an emporium of goods and services; it was a sure financial bet because his place of business was assured of growth—the nation’s capital in Washington D.C.
Henry’s spirits dived because he was heading in the opposite direction of his family, making their rescue all the more difficult. Yet, he wasn’t so downcast, because he was no farther away from Tangiers Island. A low-lying tract in the middle of Chesapeake Bay, the British had taken it over as a staging area for more than 1,000 troops and—Henry knew this—a place of refuge for escaped slaves. Admiral Cockburn had issued handbills, which were widely distributed throughout the bay area, even though they were considered seditious, promising slaves freedom. Join us, the handbills said, and we will give you transport to Canada or the East Indies, where you will enjoy the liberties of free men! Almost as an afterthought, the handbills invited slaves to join the fight against their oppressive, former masters by fighting in the war under the Union Jack.
It would, Henry believed, be the first step to freedom and somehow reuniting his family. It would take careful planning, skill and perhaps even greater amounts of luck, he calculated as he was led away in chains toward Washington.