Crossing the Rappahannock: A Pilgrimage to Freedom

Posted on: October 15th, 2012 by Rob Nieweg

Crossing the Rappahannock, September 2012.

It is a privilege to witness grassroots preservation in action, discovering nearly forgotten historic places and raising public awareness of almost-lost chapters of our shared heritage. On Saturday, September 22, 2012, I joined some 300 people along the banks of the Rappahannock River near Remington, Virginia, to commemorate the extraordinary courage of the enslaved women, children, and men who freed themselves from bondage during the Civil War.

The public event was hosted by the new African American Heritage Alliance and co-sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Between 1861 and 1865, more than 500,000 enslaved people liberated themselves and, thereby, influenced the wartime public debate about slavery and hastened the formal Emancipation Proclamation.

They did not wait to be freed; instead, these self-emancipators risked their lives to liberate themselves. Unfortunately, little has been written about the Civil War-era freedom seekers, and most Americans are unaware of this part of our heritage. And, too little has been done to preserve and interpret historic places associated with emancipation. That is beginning to change, and the National Trust is doing its part.

Preservation magazine’s May-June 2011 issue covered Fort Monroe and other historic places that are beginning to be recognized for their associations with the end of slavery. In May 2011 the National Trust convened 75 experts at President Lincoln’s Cottage to discuss ways in which emancipation sites can be interpreted to tell the unvarnished truths of this chapter of American history.

Crossing the Rappahannock, August 1862.

Cow’s Ford near Tin Pot Run on Virginia’s Rappahannock River is one of those historic places along the road to freedom whose meaning for American heritage merits our attention. One hundred and fifty years ago, on August 19, 1862, a group of five fugitive slaves was photographed crossing the river and entering Union Army lines in Culpeper County, where they would have found freedom and relative safety.

The 1862 photograph is a rare and evocative record of enslaved people escaping to freedom -- one of many millions of acts of resistance against the injustices of slavery. As historian John Hennessey has written:

“The men, women, and children who crossed the river -- people whose names were not recorded, whose lives have rarely been honored -- helped force a wayward nation onto a path that permitted greatness. It was the slaves themselves who by simple acts helped unleash a heroic struggle for liberty and equality that has overspread the world, enriched the life of every single American, and continues still.”

The 1862 image is well-known to Civil War scholars. Until very recently, however, no one realized that the historic photograph had been taken at Cow’s Ford or, importantly, that the riverside landscape of the historic ford itself survives today unchanged since the war.

The public commemoration on September 22 -- the first ever on this hallowed ground -- was organized by Howard Lambert and Zann Nelson, co-founders of the African American Heritage Alliance, and was convened on the original historic site with the gracious permission of the private property owner. After remarks by historians Clark Hall, John Hennessy, and Dianne Swann-Wright, and with the strains of traditional gospel hymns echoing across the Rappahannock, a group of people entered the river to retrace the footsteps of the fugitive slaves.

It was an honor for me to participate in the river walk. Next year, the African American Heritage Alliance hopes to repeat and expand the Rappahannock River celebration on August 17, 2013 (tentative). In the meantime, I encourage you to visit Arlington National Cemetery where almost 4,000 self-emancipators lie buried. (More than four million people visit Arlington Cemetery each year. How many know about the Cemetery’s connection to the Civil War-era freedom movement?)

When you visit Section 27, one of the oldest parts of Arlington National Cemetery, you’ll note that there is a regrettable lack of public interpretation offered by the cemetery, generally, and virtually nothing said to explain why thousands of civilian women, men, and children -- freedmen and contrabands -- rest there. Someday, perhaps, Arlington National Cemetery will recognize the sacrifices and struggles of the Civil War-era freedom seekers buried in Section 27.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Rob Nieweg

Rob Nieweg

Rob Nieweg is a Field Director & Attorney for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He leads the National Trust’s Washington Field Office, which works to save historic resources in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. He has worked as a preservation advocate since 1989.

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