Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Treatment of African American Female Escaped Slaves During the Civil War at the Nation's Capitol

Secrets of the prison-house--a cell in the female department of the Washington jail / from a sketch made on the spot by our special artist, Mr. Lumley.

Persecution Of Negroes In The Capitol – Astounding Revelations

As reported in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspapers, "Persecution Of Negroes In The Capitol: Astounding Revelations," 28 December 1861 --  Under the heading of “Secrets of the Prison House,” we last week alluded to the revelations which have recently been made in Washington of the confinement of negroes. In the city, for no other cause than their color, under the authority of municipal laws derogatory of the spirit of the age. In violation of the precepts of Christianity, and preeminently disgraceful to the fame of the National Capitol. The matter, as we have said, was brought before Congress by Senator Wilson and referred to the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia with instructions to make it a subject of inquiry, and to report what legislation is necessary to remedy the abuse.
General McClellan

 In the interval, Mr. Seward has issued an order to General McClellan's to arrest all persons who my attempt to imprison negroes on the ground of their being fugitives. It seems that a law has existed for many years in the District of Columbia authorizing the constable and police magistrates to arrest and confine negroes, fugitives from labor, or unable to produce free papers. Under this law they have lately arrested and confined considerable members without any investigation and without using any efforts to have justice done. Some of the victims were no doubt runaway slaves, others slaves of secessionists, living in the adjoining counties of Virginia and Maryland; others free colored men of the North, who came to Washington in company with the three months regiments, in the capacit of servants to the officers, and while visiting the cit upon necessary errand, were taken into custody. Others inhabitants of Washington, living peaceably at home, without any intention of departing, who were captured,. In some cases merely from a spirit of malice or tyranny, locked up in the city prison.

The motive alleged for the capture of these negroes is a desire to have them kept in prison for a certain space of time – we think a year-- and then have them sold for the purpose of paying their costs. While we think it hardly possible that a motive so base could actuate men occupying responsible positions, and administering justice, yet the evidence in the case, collected by Mr. Detective Allen, and reported by him to Provost Marshal Porter, seems to prove the fact. In his report this officer draws a fearful picture of the sufferings of the poor captives. He says:

A woman being held in a Washington, D.C., prison. (Library of Congress)

“I find ?? in the city jail in this city, is the midst of filth, vermin and contagious diseases on a cold stone floor many without shoes nearly all without sufficient clothing, heating or fire and all ?? ?? half-starving conditions, 60 cored persons, male and female, confused because – in the language of their ? – they were ? Of being runaways and ?? ?? had ?? addressed that they were not runaways.”

Our Artist in Washington has visited the city prison, and has drawn the revolting scenes there presented before him with photographic accuracy. His pictures, which we this week present, speak with a powerful although silent truth and rhetoric and will contribute their share towards rousing the people against the abuse practiced in their name, in the capitol of the nation. Although this kind of evidence is not necessary to establish the truthfulness of the engravings published in this paper, yet we take pleasure in pre-
Secrets of the prison-house--a cell in the female department of the Washington jail

Click here to watch Emancipation and War: Life Inside the Civil War's Contraband Camps on C-Span.


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  3. Sometimes we forget the human costs of a costly war. The military causalities always seem to get the historic attention, yet too many black and poor white women and children are forgotten in our collective historic memories.

    This story is just sad. :(

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