Wednesday, November 13, 2013

George Washington Fields' Great Escape From Slavery

From The New York Times Disunion, "No More a Slave," by Kevin M. Clermont, on 25 October 2013 -- Most people who study the Civil War are familiar with the classic autobiographical narratives, written by such luminaries as Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. But there are countless other unpublished works, written by lesser-known men and women who successfully navigated the treacherous path from slavery to freedom. One of these, “Come On, Children: The Autobiography of George Washington Fields, Born a Slave in Hanover County, Virginia,” recently rediscovered in museum archives in Hampton, Va., is a particularly stirring and valuable account of a slave’s path to freedom.

Fields was born into slavery in 1854. But he won his freedom when, in 1863, his mother, Martha Ann Fields, led a small group in an escape to Hampton, which by then was under Union control. As a young freedman, Fields worked to support his family, and pursued an education at the storied Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. He next headed north and eventually found employment as a butler to the New York governor, Alonzo Cornell, the son of the founder of Cornell University, who encouraged Fields to enroll in the law department at his namesake institution. In 1890 Fields became Cornell’s first African-American graduate. He then went home to Hampton where — though blinded in 1896 — he became a leading attorney in the region before his death in 1932.

Fields’ autobiography is a remarkable document. It recounts his journey from bondage to freedom to success through a blend of humor and wisdom, grounded in a set of values he inherited from his strong-willed and deeply religious mother, qualities she demonstrated during the escape.

The plantation where the Fields family was enslaved was in Hanover County, a hot spot of military activity throughout the war. On one side was Richmond, the capital that the Confederacy simply had to retain. On another side, on a spit of land opposite Hampton, sat Fortress Monroe, which had never fallen from Union hands. In July 1863, a small battle broke out near the plantation, and Fields’s mother saw her chance to flee, along with him and five of his siblings. They followed the retreating Union soldiers, only to discover that to protect their retreat the soldiers had burned the sole bridge across the Pamunkey River, which separated Confederate-held Hanover County from Union-held King William County. Fields described the moment:
Here we stood on the brink of the river and still in the rebels’ territory. What could we do? What should we do? All eyes were upon mother, who seemed for a while somewhat bewildered. She had a brother who was a slave to a man named Wickham, who owned a farm four miles away and several bloodhounds. He was head man on the farm and had charge of these, and how to get to her brother without arousing the hounds was the question. She had visited him often during the day by traveling the main county road, but she dared not take this way for fear that she might encounter the Rebel pickets. Suddenly being, so it seemed, prompted by a certain premonition, she picked up the iron pot, placed it on her head and said, ‘Come on, children,’ and leaving the road entered the thickets and led the way, parting the bushes and the high weeds as she traveled alongside the open fields.
All that night we wended our way through thorns and briars, with our feet and hands torn and bleeding. Occasionally we could hear what seemed to us to be a large snake darting through the leaves and dried grass. The whippoorwill and the large gray owl seemed delighted to accompany us from the start to the end of our journey. She with her song, and he with his whoo-whoo. On our way we came to a stream, which made up from the main river, around the head of which we had to travel, and back to the river which was our only guide to the farm where my uncle lived.

By 3 a.m. Martha Ann Fields had led them to their uncle’s hut. Once the bloodhounds were calmed, she had to get her family across the Pamunkey River. Fields wrote:
Uncle John had a boat which he had dug out of a large tree, the bottom of which he had flattened. This he used as a kind of ferryboat to cross the river into King William. The boat could only carry two persons at a time. Mother inquired of uncle if he could put us across. He answered in a rather doubtful way he thought he could. ‘Come on,’ said he, and we followed down to the brink of the river, where we could hear the water madly dashing over the falls it had made for itself by piling up trees and other debris, which had become stationary permanently; then the gurgling deadly roar as it pursued its course brought to us another period of dread and terror. Uncle John left us for a moment and went down the steep muddy incline to the river to see if his boat was there, for he had often lost it, it having before been frequently torn from its mooring by the force of the rushing waters.
He on his return said, ‘She is all right, Martha Ann, and I guess I will take you over first.’
‘No,’ said mother, ‘I want you to carry all of my folks over first.’
Madison Lewis, who was paying court to one of my sisters and who subsequently married her, was the first to cross, but because of the steep incline and the slippery condition of the bank of the river, he had a terrible time reaching the level land, which he succeeded in doing by pulling himself up from first one tree or shrub to another. Uncle John, for fear the children could not do this, got a spade and dug clay and dirt steps in the bank so that we had little difficulty in reaching the level. One by one we were carried over, Uncle John instructing each to hold on to the young trees and bushes as we ascended. Next to the last came George W. Fields, or Cock Robin as he was called at his slavery home, with his little sister Catherine in his arms. As we came to the shore, uncle tied the boat to a tree and then, getting out, drew it near and got us both out and carried us to the level. All were over now but mother and, oh, how anxious we were until we saw her come climbing up the steps, catching hold of first one tree and another until she was on the level with us all. Then Uncle John brought from the boat the oblong iron pot.
He and mother talked, and suddenly he said, ‘Hush, Martha Ann, I think I hear a horn blow, and look over yonder, there is a big light in the sky, and dar is where dem Yankees is.’
‘Yes,’ said mother, ‘I hear that horn now, too. Well, John, I am going to see if I can find the Yankees, for they is certainly in King William and so are we.’

In a torrential downpour, she led the group to a Yankee division’s encampment. Things briefly looked up, until a rebel troop movement sent soldiers and escapees fleeing to the main army at White House on the York River. The soldiers then put the escapees on barges that took them to safety. Fields recalled:

As we journeyed down the river, someone raised the following hymn, in which all joined:
Oh freedom, oh freedom / Oh freedom, oh freedom / over me, over me / And before I would be a slave / I would be buried in my grave / And before I would be a slave / I WOULD be buried in my grave / And go home to my Lord and be free
Martha Ann and her children arrived at Fortress Monroe as freed people, rather than with the “contraband” status of blacks who had arrived there in 1861 and 1862, because Hanover County was now one of the Virginia counties under the coverage of the Emancipation Proclamation. Coming just after the contrabands, they still arrived in time to participate in the turbulent remaking of Hampton, where Southern slaves, free blacks, Union military and Northern missionaries had embarked on their first large-scale encounter. They were free people setting out to build what they hoped would be a new, freer world for themselves and their children.  (source: The New York Times)

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