Story of Slavery

John Washington – “Memorys” of a Slave

It’s rare to come across a first-hand slave account from an individual who lived through the emancipation. There are the famous ones, like Frederick Douglass. One that’s less known and more recently discovered belongs to a man who was born in Fredericksburg. He not only lived to see “the year of jubilee” but endured the Union occupation of the town in 1862.

John Washington was born May 20th, 1838 to an enslaved woman under the Thomas Ware Sr. household. At the age of two, John and his mother were hired out to a man named Richard L. Brown who lived 37 miles away from Fredericksburg in Orange County. Much of his childhood, prior to age ten, was reflected upon with fond memories. According to Washington’s memoires, he and the other slaves on the Brown estate were treated well.

johnwashingtonThough the identity of Washington’s father is unknown, it’s undeniable that the man was white and his mother was of lighter skin (likely mulatto) to make Washington come out “light haired” and was mistaken for being white enough to make it notable in his memoires. While within the Brown household, Washington often played with the other white children in and around the estate, including going to the fairs with them. He remembers buying candy and other goodies after church and enjoying his time with his four other siblings. It was here, however, that he witnessed his first injustice when a line of men and women were packed up and shipped out to be sold. The Browns were liquidating their estate and the Washington family would be the next to go.

They returned to Fredericksburg when Washington was ten years old. Their old mistress married Frank Taliaferro and boarded at what he calls the “Farmers Bank” on the corner of George and Princess Anne Street. They (his mother and siblings) lived in a house on Sophia Street on the river, and while his mother worked to earn a living for herself and her younger children who couldn’t work, he daily went to Mrs. Taliaferro to run errands and do her bidding. Washington resented this kind of work because he couldn’t go out and play with the children, and he was forced to attend Baptist service on Sundays within sight of his mistress.

Between eleven and twelve, Washington would have to suffer the worst experience as a young slave child. His mother and four siblings were being hired out again to some place even further away than before. They were sent to Staunton, Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley to work for a man named R.H. Phillips. It was from that day forward that he hated his position as a slave and vowed “If I ever got an opporteunity I would run away from these devilish Slave holders.”

Part of a way to fulfill this promise was to learn how to read and write. His mother had taught him some of the alphabet, and with the help of relatives and conscientious white people (like Reverend William J. Walker) he was able to pen his thoughts and read letters. While his memoires, “Memorys” is littered with misspelled words and cringe-worthy grammar, one can’t blame the writer. Slaves and even free black people of the time were forbidden from learning to read and write as a way to oppress them. Knowledge is power, and if they couldn’t obtain that knowledge through reading, then the white slave holders would forever have them under their thumbs. Even after the war and emancipation, some state governments barred free blacks from congregating for the sake of education, which they needed to become fully contributing members of this new society.

slaves-in-their-cabin-19161In the summer of 1852, at about age fourteen, a turn of luck (or ill luck) reunited Washington with his mother and siblings for a short time. He grew sick with what the doctor claimed was a “humor of the blood”. He underwent primitive treatments to help, but it was advised that he was sent to the country for a while to recover. Mrs. Taliaferro decided to send him to Staunton to Mr. Phillips, probably thinking that a visit with his family might be the trick to making him feel better. He traveled there by rail and stage and stayed with his family for about 3-4 months. While it was a joyous reunion, it was also a bittersweet separation again.

While he balked at religion in his early years because he was “forced” to go by his mistress, John Washington was uplifted during a revival in the “African Baptist” church in the spring of 1855. He committed his soul to Christ on May 25th, and then was baptized in the Rappahannock by Reverend William Broaddus on June 13th, 1856. It was in that same river that he would steal away with other slave boys and bathe or row a confiscated boat up river. Washington’s life and childhood revolved around this river, like many of the citizens of Fredericksburg.

In the autumn of that same year, Washington contracted typhoid fever and was debilitated by it for months. Mrs. Taliaferro and her son, William Ware (from her first husband who died before Washington was born) took care of him to the best of their ability.

In 1859, age twenty-one, John Washington was learning his first trade as an enslaved person. Up to now, he had been working inside the Taliaferro household, but could now work outside the estate with tradesmen and manufacturers. In 1859, he worked for William W. Heart, who had him doing manual farm and garden labor like driving horses, tending cows, etc.

In 1860, he was hired out to Mr. Alexander and Gibbs at a tobacco manufacturer. What extra they did above their assigned task to twist the ropes of prepared tobacco, they were paid directly for, which gave them a taste of autonomy. Though he would work close to ten hours a day, nearly every day, Washington does comment that his time there was the closest thing to freedom he had experienced since he was a boy.

December of 1860 and the threat of secession from the Union caused the tobacco manufacturer to close down until further notice. A big change would come for Washington in January of 1861 where he was hired out to an eating saloon in Richmond. The owners were cruel to their servants and made a habit of whipping them, either themselves or sending them to the slave jail where they were beaten there. This wasn’t uncommon practice in the bigger slave holding states. Towns like Fredericksburg, too, had slave jails where the same was done.

Slave Auction Block – Fredericksburg

Fort Sumter was fired upon in April of that year and thus began the Civil War. Before and after Bull Run/Manassas, Washington remarks how slaves ran to the safety of Union lines so they could thus escape north. For a many who looked for every opportunity to run away, he paid close attention to the newspapers for word of who was winning. The slaveholding south or the abolitionist north.

Washington was given fare and passage to return to Fredericksburg and picked up work with the “Shakespeare House” as a steward and part-time barkeep. He worked in the dining saloon of this inn and earned a good deal of money, around $37 a week, plus extra. The proprietors that had hired him where officers in the 30th Virginia. March and April were a whirlwind of change. It started with rumors that the town would be evacuated due to the Union’s encroachment from across the river.

It was said that the inn would have to be shut down and Washington was told that he would have to go to North Carolina or the Yankees would send him to Cuba or cut off his hands. He didn’t believe this, of course, and knew that he was told these things to inspire fear of the Federal army. In reality, he had seen the Confederate army abuse the slaves of Fredericksburg enough that he knew who to run to. So, he made plans to hide and once the time was right, he’d do as he saw other slaves do and make a run for freedom.

This is April 18th, in his own words (forgive the grammar, spelling, etc since it is taken directly from his memoirs):

“April 18th 1862, Was “Good Friday,” the Day was a mild pleasant one with the Sun shining brightly and every thing unusually quite[sic]. The Hotel was crowded with boarders who was Seated at breakfast a rumor had been circulated among them that the Yankees Was advancing, but nobody Seemed to believe it, until Every body Was Startled by Several reports of cannon. Thin in an instant all Was Wild confusion as a cavalry Man dashed into the Dining Room and Said “The Yankees is in Falmouth.” Every body was on their feet at once, No-body finished but Some ran to their rooms to get a few things, Officers and Soldiers hurried to their Quarters Every Where Was hurried Words and hasty foot Steps. Mr Mazene Who had hurried to his room now came running back called me out in the Hall and thrust a roll of Bank notes in my hand and hurriedly told me to pay off all the Servants and Shut up the house and take charge of every thing. “If the Yankees catch Me they will kill me So I can’t Stay here.” Said he. And was off at full speed like the Wind. In less time than it takes to Write these lines, every White Man was out the house. Every Man Servant was out on the house top looking over the River at the Yankees for their glistening bayonets could easily be Seen I could not begin to Express My New born hopes for I felt already like I ewas certain of my freedom now.”

wartime-fredericksburg_0The two bridges over the Rappahannock were burned and the Yankees were encroaching upon the town. To the last, Washington stays (relatively) loyal to his employer.

“As Soon as I had Seen all the things put to rights at the hotel, and the Doors closed and Shutters put up, I call all the Servants in the Bar-Room and treated them all around plentifull. And after drinking “the Yankees healths,” I paid each one according to Orders. I told them they could go just Where they pleased but be Sure the Yankees have no trubble finding them.”

After he left the hotel, Washington goes to check on his mistress, Mrs. Taliaferro, to ensure that she was all right, then dropped off the keys to the hotel with Mrs. Mazene, the proprietor’s wife. He met up with a free, colored cousin of his, James Washington, and managed to hitch a ride over to the opposite side of the Rappahannock. Though the Union army hadn’t officially occupied Fredericksburg just yet, it was being watched closely.

Once in the Federal camp, he was barraged with questions about the “Rebs” and Washington provided them with Secesh newspapers. Many didn’t quite believe that he was a slave, given his fair complexion and light hair. His cousin and friends that crossed with him returned over later that day, but Washington carried on into Falmouth with an escort of soldiers and stayed the night there.

“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. I might not go and come when I please So I would remain With the army until I got Enough Monday to travel North. This was the first night of my freedom. It was a good Friday indeed the Best Friday I had ever Seen. Thank God.”

Sketch of Phillips House, Fredericksburg

However, his freedom didn’t start quite yet. As a freeman, he was hired to cook for Major General Rufus King at the Phillips House. Some weeks later, Washington then served as a guide and informant for the Union army occupying Fredericksburg. He went with soldiers to the post office and pointed out which homes harbored ardent pro-Confederate sympathizers, who were then arrested and sent to northern Union prisons. After this, General King set up headquarters in none other than the very house Washington had known since boyhood. Mrs. Taliaferro had left, as she had been preparing to do when Washington came to check on her, leaving the house vulnerable.

Late in May, Washington traveled with General King out west. Washington lived like a soldier in the Union army, eating the rations that were given (hardtack, coffee, salted pork), dodging bullets, sleeping in camp, avoiding guerilla raids, and marching on foot down countless roads. After some time, he was even given a horse to ride along with the rest of General King’s staff.

In August of 1862, Washington was given passage to the Union capitol, where he hoped to get permission to go into Fredericksburg one last time to see his wife, Annie. This was a risky move on his part, as he says in his memoires to have a $300 bounty on his head for being a traitor to the Confederacy and a spy for the Union army – as he was. His wife, being shunned by her family after their marriage – which he doesn’t even talk about in his memoires much to my disappointment – and without an elderly woman’s escort, can’t leave with her husband to flee north while she had the chance.

When the Federals were pulling out of Falmouth toward the end of August, Washington too had to make a speedy escape before the Confederates reoccupied Fredericksburg. With very little, he crossed the Rappahannock and felt the earth shake as the bridge he had just crossed was blown up again to prevent the Federal army from being followed.

A family photo taken between 1913 and 1918, in Cohasset. From left: Annie Washington, John Washington, their son James (standing), and his wife, Catherine

He snuck aboard a steamer that was to cross the Potomac and land in Washington City, since his old passes from General King were no longer accepted by the guard. In the Union capitol, he was able to find a place to board and worked bottling liquor. This is where his memoires end, but we know a little more about Washington’s fate.

Annie did join him and gave birth to their first-born son, William. Along with bottling liquor, Washington worked as a painter and his wife as a dress maker. They would go on to have four more sons, James, John, Charles, and Benjamin. By the turn of the century, their eldest had moved to Massachusetts and earned a living as a shipper in a shoe store in Boston. Their youngest, a teacher, took care of his parents in their elderly age. John Washington died in 1918 at the age of eighty in Boston. Annie outlived him and continued to stay with William and his wife, Louise, with their children.

It’s hard to say how Washington and his family endured the Reconstruction era. Since his memoires cut off just as he was beginning his new life in Maryland, we can only guess and theorize based on any other experience historians can dig up. But, as stated before, it’s hard to find a slave narrative, as many black citizens before and after the war couldn’t read and write. It turns out that the oppression of the slaves not only limited their knowledge back then, but it limits our knowledge now. Just one of the many remaining echoes of the American Civil War.


Washington, John, edited and annotated by Crandall Shifflett, “John Washington’s Civil War: A Slave Narrative”, Louisiana State University Press, 2008

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s