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Untold Stories: ‘Do You Want to Be Free?’ America’s Promise for a Former Slave
“I could not begin to express my new born hopes, for I felt like I was certain of my freedom now…‘Do you want to be free?’ inquired one [Union soldier]. ‘By all means!’ I answered. I did not know what else to say for I was dumb with joy and could only thank God and laugh.” —Former slave John Washington on the 1862 approach of the Union army to Fredericksburg, VA. Union soldiers helped Washington escape to freedom.
There are so many inspiring, beautiful stories about the great heroes of American history which are scarcely ever told. One happens on them accidentally—buried in a thick, out-of-print biography, in small print on a museum sign, casually and fleetingly mentioned in an obscure educational video. America cannot return to greatness in the future if we do not truly understand the greatness of our past. That is why I am writing an article series to tell a few of these little-known but moving or illustrative “untold stories” of American greatness. Other articles in this series have included how George Washington single-handedly ended dangerous infighting in the Revolutionary Army; how Union Col. Trimble saved black freemen from Confederate enslavers; Native American Indian soldiers who shaped America’s history; and the US Army Rangers and six heroes of D-Day. Today on the birthday of America—July 4—I will share the moving story of John Washington, a perfect reminder this Independence Day that America stands for freedom.
The day was April 18, 1862, Good Friday of that year. The Union army was approaching the town of Fredericksburg in the traitorous Confederate state of Virginia. The white residents of the town were angry, agitated, fearful. They locked themselves in their houses and bitterly mourned the approach of their fellow Americans whom they called their “enemies.” But for the black slaves of Fredericksburg, there was an entirely different feeling at the Union Army’s approach. On Good Friday of the year 33 AD a Divine Savior died and freed mankind from sin—and on Good Friday 1862, a group of black slaves beheld their personal material saviors, the men who could make them free from the bonds of slavery.
John M. Washington was a slave working at a hotel in Fredericksburg, though his wife, Annie Gordon Washington, was a freedwoman. They had married just that year, 1862, when the hope of freedom through Union agency awoke in John that Good Friday.
Washington, who reached freedom with the help of the Union Army, wrote of that momentous day how sharply the reactions of Fredericksburg residents were divided based on race, “Every store in town was closed. Every white man had run away or hid himself. Every white woman had shut themselves in doors. No one could be seen on the streets but the colored people, and every one of them seemed to be in the best of humors.”
While the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation would not be issued until September of that year 1862, and the official Emancipation Proclamation was issued Jan. 1, 1863, slaves were escaping to Union lines and being allowed to claim protection and/or freedom much earlier—even within the first year of the war. Certainly John Washington and his fellow slaves in Fredericksburg absolutely believed the coming of the Union army was the herald of their freedom.
There were white Virginians who understood that too. It is the reality underlying the pious-sounding mourning of Confederates claiming that the Union was confiscating their rights wherever the US Army went. “It is heart-sickening to think of having our beautiful valley, that we have so loved and admired, all overrun and desolated by our bitter enemies, whose sole object is to subjugate and plunder the south,” mourned Helen Struan Bernard about that April morning. “We feel that we are for the present a conquered people.”
Later that year, in December, some Union troops did indeed plunder goods from Fredericksburg when they arrived to find the town almost empty, the residents fled. In April 1862, however, the greatest thing the white residents had to fear from the Union army was the potential loss of their slaves. And since the Democrats (Confederates) had started the Civil War to preserve slavery when Republican Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election, that was a disturbing prospect.
But for John Washington and his fellow slaves, the Union Army’s approach filled them with hope and joy such as many had never expected to feel in their lives. Washington recalled what happened to him that day. “April 18, 1862, was Good Friday…and everything unusually quiet…until everybody was startled by several reports of Yankee cannon,” Washington wrote. “In less time than it takes me to write these lines, every White man was out of the house, [but] every Man Servant was out on the house top looking over the River at the Yankees, for their glistening bayonets could easily be seen.”1
They were coming! The soldiers who could make a free man of a slave! John Washington could not find the words to describe what he felt at that moment. “I could not begin to express my new born hopes, for I felt…like I was certain of my freedom now,” Washington wrote.
How different were the reactions of Washington and Bernard seeing the American flag! Helen Bernard called the Confederate rebel flag the “symbol of resistance to oppression,” and furiously complained that it was replaced by Union soldiers with the “now hated stars and stripes.” Democrats and traitors never really change, do they? Ironically, the Stars and Stripes were to Washington the symbol of resistance to oppression. Then as now, the “rights” Democrats demanded required robbing others of their rights. Bernard’s “resistance” included the oppression of slaves.
A video at the Fredericksburg Battlefield museum explains of Washington (emphasis added):
“That afternoon, John Washington, a slave who had spent most of his life in Fredericksburg, journeyed [with others] up the Rappahannock [River] to get a look at the Union Army on the other side of the river.
[John Washington:] Very soon one of a party of soldiers called out to us, ‘Do any of you want to come across?’ Everybody else said ‘No,’ but I hollered out: ‘Yes! I want to come over!’ After I had landed on the other side, a large crowd of the soldiers gathered around us and asked all kinds of questions.
One of them asked me if I was a slave. ‘Yes, I am sir,’ I replied, ‘a slave all my life.’ ‘Do you want to be free?’ inquired one. ‘By all means!’ I answered. I did not know what else to say for I was dumb with joy and could only thank God and laugh. This was my first night of my freedom.”
Helen Bernard saw the approach of “oppression.” John Washington saw the first night of his freedom. How we take for granted those freedoms and rights that the very prospect of possessing made John Washington “dumb with joy”! We are so used to rights and liberties that we forget how very, very few people in all of history have enjoyed the privileges accorded to citizens of the United States of America.
John Washington was hardly the only slave who ran to the Union army for aid. The museum of Fredericksburg Battlefield explains (emphasis mine):
“The arrival of the Union army in the spring of 1862 prompted one of the largest floods of refugees in American history—slaves seeking freedom within Union lines. That spring and summer as many as 10,000 slaves fled to freedom from Fredericksburg and surrounding counties, most of them crossing the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg.”
Some of those “contraband” remained to work for the Union army for rations and about 25 cents a day. It sounds precious little to us; but many of these men had never been paid for their labor before in their lives. Other slaves continued north on the hard road to freedom.
John Washington was among those former slaves. He lived a free man with his wife Annie in Washington, D.C. for almost 50 years following the Civil War, thus living to see the end of slavery in America and the passage of the 15th Amendment that made John and Annie full citizens and gave John the right to vote. John Washington wrote a memoir, Memorys of the Past, called a “classic of slave literature.” When John Washington looked back at the arrival of the Union army that April morning, he saw it as the dawn of a new life—a life where he could go from being a slave to being a free American citizen and an author.
That is the legacy of the United States of America. There have been many, too many Americans who have failed to live up to the ideals of our own founding documents—Americans like Helen Struan Bernard, who turned traitor to her country, siding with the Confederates (who committed horrific atrocities and war crimes quite openly and with Southern praise), and vilifing Union soldiers as her “bitter enemies.” But there were also Americans like John Washington and the Union soldiers who brought John to freedom.
Like the Union soldiers who welcomed and assisted John Washington, America has one question for men and women of all ages, races, and backgrounds: “Do you want to be free?” And to all who answer “By all means!” America responds, “Come, for all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Happy Independence Day!
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This transcription is based upon the above video from the Fredericksburg Battlefield museum. As written by Washington, the account included a few more words and some grammatical errors. For the sake of easy comprehension, I have used the video’s version.