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Freeing Charles

Freeing Charles: The Struggle to Free a Slave on the Eve of the Civil War

Scott Christianson
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Freeing Charles
    Book Description:

    Freeing Charles recounts the life and epic rescue of captured fugitive slave Charles Nalle of Culpeper, Virginia, who was forcibly liberated by Harriet Tubman and others in Troy, New York, on April 27, 1860. Scott Christianson follows Nalle from his enslavement by the Hansborough family in Virginia through his escape by the Underground Railroad and his experiences in the North on the eve of the Civil War. This engaging narrative represents the first in-depth historical study of this crucial incident, one of the fiercest anti-slavery riots after Harpers Ferry. Christianson also presents a richly detailed look at slavery culture in antebellum Virginia and probes the deepest political and psychological aspects of this epic tale. His account underscores fundamental questions about racial inequality, the rule of law, civil disobedience, and violent resistance to slavery in the antebellum North and South.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09084-4
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    (pp. 1-6)

    On August 9, 1932, several elderly African Americans stood at the corner of State and Second streets in downtown Troy, in upstate New York, eyeing the side of a stately old brick office building where a bronze plaque proclaimed:






    Their distinguished host, Garnet Douglass Baltimore, proudly described the epic struggle to liberate the captured runaway slave that had begun at that spot more than seventy-two years earlier, calling it “the greatest event that ever has happened in...

  5. 1 GENESIS
    (pp. 7-13)

    Like most other slaves, Charles would never know exactly when he had come into this world—a slave didn’t receive any birth certificate or celebrate his birthday—but indications are he was probably born about 1821. Slave mothers in that neck of Virginia weren’t permitted to divulge who had fathered their children, and it’s unlikely his mother Lucy would have told him.¹ Nevertheless, many slaves grew up to have a pretty good idea, although they had to be careful not to let on what they knew. Sometimes the physical resemblances were too obvious to ignore: in Charles’s case, his exceptionally...

    (pp. 14-22)

    In October 1847 an event occurred that would transform Charles’s life and permanently alter his relationship with Blucher. Because Charles later regarded the incident and its aftermath as so important, and also because the episode reveals so much about the nature of slavery, it warrants being examined in some detail.

    The landscape that he and his community of masters and slaves inhabited was situated in rural Stevensburg, in Culpeper County, Virginia. For miles around in every direction, onlookers could see on the horizon a distinct mound, resembling a recumbent body, rising two hundred feet above the gently sloping fields and...

    (pp. 23-33)

    Although Charles’s orbit was limited to a small and sparsely populated geographical area that was governed by slavery’s rigid constraints, by the 1850s his changing world was full of paradoxes and complexities that complicated many traditional notions of omnipotent and despotic masters and hapless, subservient slaves. His wife and children resided in relative comfort at Berry Hill, which many considered the grandest place in the area and maybe one of the finest homes in Virginia. From the Fredericksburg Plank Road, visitors entered through a large gate that ushered them onto the five-thousand-acre estate, following a wide lane bordered with lilacs...

    (pp. 34-43)

    In May 1855 the world of Kitty and Charles became unmoored due to the death of Colonel Thom.¹ A master’s death prompted apprehension and dread among his slaves because it meant that the departed person’s debts to society finally would have to be paid—something that could prove ruinous in a culture kept afloat by unpaid debts. Society required that after this debt had been extracted, the deceased person’s remaining property, including any land, houses, furnishings, animals, and slaves, would be distributed among the heirs.² Colonel Thom had left eight of them, scattered far and wide, and each was supposed...

    (pp. 44-51)

    Once Charles had decided to flee, he needed to connect with someone in a position to help him get safely away to freedom. Even in the Upper South, that was no small task.

    By that time in the late 1850s, the term “Underground Railroad” or “Underground Railway” had been used for several years in northern newspapers, plays, and books such asUncle Tom’s Cabin(1852), to describe a cadre of intrepid individuals who participated in a conspiratorial network that tried to help fugitive slaves escape from bondage.¹ Popular images in Harriet Stowe’s novel and elsewhere fostered the impression of the...

  10. 6 THE ESCAPE
    (pp. 52-58)

    Upon reaching Washington with their bona fide travel passes, Charles and Jim were supposed to meet with their wives, under the watchful eyes of the local authorities and some of their masters’ relatives. But they somehow gave their custodians the slip and vanished. To protect their wives, they would have had to conceal any proof that the women had acted as accomplices, for if there was any evidence that either of them had abetted their escape, she would find herself in serious trouble. As it was, Kitty at least was already highly vulnerable.

    Operating from the nation’s highest-visibility political stage,...

    (pp. 59-65)

    The long journey to Philadelphia always posed its hardships and worries. The discomfort they felt from being tossed on the waves while confined in the hold was bad enough, but they also had to fear getting caught. Many fugitives experienced twinges of guilt for having escaped. The three of them and the crew were all committing a crime. In Charles’s case, it wasn’t that he had simply absented himself for a few days to hide out in the woods, or that he was out of place. He had crossed a big line, one that separated a mere wayward servant or...

  12. 8 FARMED OUT
    (pp. 66-72)

    After their long journey from Philadelphia, Charles, Jim, and Perry set foot in Albany, located about four hundred and fifty miles north of Culpeper and midway between New York City and the Canadian border. The Albany office of the Underground Railroad was situated near roads that headed west to Utica, Syracuse, Auburn, Rochester, Buffalo, and Canada West, and rough passages that extended north to North Elba, Vermont, and Montreal. The station stood about a mile uphill from where the Hudson River connected with the Erie Canal. “Clinton’s Ditch” had made Albany the nation’s biggest importer of lumber, and this provided...

  13. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
    (pp. 73-77)

    Then Charles received the first communiqué about what had happened to the others since his escape. Upon hearing its sketchy but brutal contents, he learned that two weeks after his escape, Kitty was arrested in Washington on charges of living there as an emancipated colored person contrary to law. Thrust into jail despite her poor health, she could have died but for the active intervention of a “white man” who also paid the $20 fine to gain her release. Thankfully, she and the children had managed to obtain refuge in Columbia, Pennsylvania.¹ A detailed report wasn’t forthcoming at that moment....

  15. 10 METEORS
    (pp. 78-87)

    Early in the morning of August 11, 1859, the heavens unleashed a freakish explosion over Sand Lake. “About seven o’clock in the morning,” one observer wrote, “while the sky was perfectly cloudless, while hardly a breath of air was stirring, while not a single indication prevailed of a natural commotion of any sort whatever, there was a terrific, shocking, detonating report, accompanied apparently by two sharp echoes.” The force of the concussion was so great that houses were shaken and persons walking along the road could feel the ground vibrate underneath them. Men dropped their tools and craned their necks...

  16. 11 HOOKING UP
    (pp. 88-95)

    Conducting correspondence through the U.S. mails was difficult and dangerous for a fugitive slave, even more so in the hysterical months following Harpers Ferry. Anything put down on paper could prove incriminating if it fell into the wrong hands, so any fugitive or fugitive’s correspondent had to be especially careful not to inadvertently divulge any secrets. Letters often had to be sent through intermediaries and sometimes rely on multiple postings to throw the slave catchers off track. Even in calmer times, it was an unwieldy and time-consuming way to communicate.¹

    As soon as he was able, Charles set out to...

  17. 12 CAUGHT
    (pp. 96-103)

    Five months after Brown’s hanging, Harpers Ferry continued to fan the flames between the abolitionist movement and the slave power, thereby putting more pressure on the federal government to crack down on the Underground Railroad and other radical abolitionists.

    On April 3, 1860, federal marshals forced their way into the Concord, Massachusetts, home of Franklin B. Sanborn, the young transcendentalist schoolmaster who had been identified as one of the Secret Six that had aided John Brown, and they attempted to arrest him on behalf of the U.S. Senate. Sanborn’s sister and neighbors helped him ward them off until the police...

  18. 13 BUSTING OUT
    (pp. 104-114)

    Meanwhile, one of Gilbert’s sons, thinking it strange that Charles had not returned from his errand, went next door from Holeur’s to the house on Division Street where the servant boarded to see if anyone there knew what had happened.¹ Charles’s landlord and chief protector, William Henry, sensing that something was wrong, promptly left his grocery store and headed out to investigate.² The grocer quickly saw the empty carriage and other signs that led him to suspect what was wrong. After checking the jail and finding no trace of Nalle, and getting reports from bystanders who reported seeing a prisoner...

  19. 14 RESCUE
    (pp. 115-122)

    The distance across the Hudson River looked to be merely about two hundred yards, but it might have seemed that Charles was crossing the Jordan. To his back, his assailants and saviors continued to mark his progress with muffled curses and cheers, while in the front he looked west into the four o’clock sun and saw the approaching outline of West Troy, with its belching smokestacks and warehouses, while to the south the center of town beckoned, where maybe he could reach the canal and Jim Banks’s place and hopefully friends who would help him get away from his pursuers....

  20. 15 AFTERMATH
    (pp. 123-126)

    Right after the exciting events of April 27, 1860, as she was still recovering from her injuries sustained in the rescue, the black woman the slaves called “Moses” had continued on her way to Boston as planned to attend a series of meetings on abolitionism and women’s rights.¹ In the wake of her latest exploits in Troy, the movement spread the word about how her “intrepidity” in the face of danger had saved the day. “She acted like a heroine,” said theWeekly Anglo-African.² Another story in theAnti-Slavery Standardobserved: “In this rescue, a colored woman was prominent, very...

    (pp. 127-132)

    Less than a year after the Troy rescue, and four months after South Carolina’s secession, the real deadly fighting began. Soon, normally quiet little Culpeper found itself in the path of hurtling armies. Its environs became the scene of several bloody battles, among them Kelly’s Ford, Brandy Station, and Cedar Mountain. The area would change hands countless times before the fighting ended, serving as a bivouac of commanders from Robert E. Lee, J. E. B. Stuart, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Richard S. Ewell, to George G. Meade, John Pope, and Ulysses S. Grant, along with tens of thousands of troops...

  22. 17 MOVING ON
    (pp. 133-136)

    During most of the Civil War, Charles and his family continued to live in Troy, away from the carnage and upheaval of their ancestral land. Winna Ann and Lewis Burrell moved there to be with them.¹ In 1863 Charles took new work as a porter for a local druggist, A. B. Knowlson, sometimes accompanied by his six-year-old son, John.²

    That summer, however, the Nalles and other black residents of Troy experienced a riot of a different kind than the one that had liberated Charles. It occurred after the simultaneous occurrence of three events set off a violent reaction among many...

    (pp. 137-152)

    In 1993, I took my first research trip down to Culpeper, hoping to find some trace of Charles Nalle, the slave. Culpeper is a charming town of about 10,000 residents that recently was voted “one of the ten best small towns in America.” Before my initial arrival archaeologists had come upon more than two thousand dinosaur tracks dating back 208 million years, and other imprints of its not-so-distant past were also remarkably intact, prompting me to realize the place still contained a lot of history under one’s feet.¹ When Captain John Smith had mapped the place in 1608, he encountered...

    (pp. 153-156)
  25. NOTES
    (pp. 157-204)
  26. INDEX
    (pp. 205-214)
  27. Back Matter
    (pp. 215-216)