Sketching the Emancipation of Jefferson Davis' Slaves

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
May 10 2013 11:30 AM

Sketching the Emancipation of Jefferson Davis' Slaves

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In this field sketch, artist Frederick B. Schell, working for New York’s Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, documented a group of recently-freed slaves arriving in the Union camp at Vicksburg. This relatively common event was made uncommon by the name of the enslaved people’s former owner: Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

While engaged in the 47-day siege of the Mississippi city, federal soldiers visited Davis’ plantation, Brierfield, about twenty miles away. There, they assisted 137 of Davis’ slaves in escaping to freedom.

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The sketch is one of fifty items from the New-York Historical Society’s collections that appear in the new book The Civil War in 50 Objects. The book’s author Harold Holzer writes that Jefferson Davis had repeatedly advocated slavery, not only as a “right” of white people living in the South, but also as a natural and humane practice that could provide “inferior” black people with the paternal protection of their betters.

Because of this very public point of view, a sketch of Davis’ slaves arriving in the Union camp was doubly significant: it was proof that the Union soldiers’ enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation had reached even to Davis’ domain, and it was evidence that his slaves wanted nothing to do with him.

The Illustrated’s editors, in the text that accompanied the published engraving made from this sketch, mused that the scene “seemed in itself the doom of slavery.”

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Frederick B. Schell, "Arrival at Chickasaw Bayou of Jefferson Davis' Negroes from His Plantation on the Mississippi Below Vicksburg, Mississippi," ca. 1863. Graphite on beige paper. New-York Historical Society, purchase of James B. Wilbur Fund.

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.