Slavery in the United States/Chapter 25

CHAPTER XXV.

In the month of June, 1830, as I was ploughing in my lot, three gentlemen rode up to my fence, and alighting from their horses, all came over the fence and approached me, when one of them told me he was the sheriff, and had a writ in his pocket, which commanded him to take me to Baltimore. I was not conscious of having done any thing injurious to any one; but yet felt a distrust of these men, who were all strangers to me. I told them I would go with them, if they would permit me to turn my oxen loose from the plough; but it was my intention to seek an opportunity of escaping to the house of a gentleman, who lived about a mile from me. This purpose I was not able to effect, for whilst I was taking the yoke from the oxen, one of the gentlemen came behind me, and knocked me down, with a heavy whip, that he carried in his hand.

When I recovered from the stunning effects of this blow, I found myself bound with my hands behind me, and strong cords closely wrapped about my arms. In this condition I was forced to set out immediately, for Balitmore, without speaking to my wife, or even entering my door. I expected that, on arriving at Baltimore, I should be taken before a judge for the purpose of being tried, but in this I was deceived. They led me to the city jail, and there shut me up, with several other black people, both men and women, who told me that they had lately been purchased by a trader from Georgia.

I now saw the extent of my misfortune, but could not learn who the persons were, who had seized me. In the evening however, one of the gentlemen, who had brought me from home, came into the jail with the jailer, and asked me if I knew him. On being answered in the negative, he told me that he knew me very well; and asked me if I did not recollect the time when he and his brother had whipped me, before my master’s door, in Georgia.

I now recognised the features of the younger of the two brothers of my mistress; but this man was so changed in his appearance, from the time when I had last seen him, that if he had not declared himself, I should never have known him. When I left Georgia, he was not more than twenty-one or two years of age, and had black, bushy hair. His hair was now thin and gray, and all his features were changed.

After lying in jail a little more than two weeks, strongly ironed, my fellow prisoners and I were one day chained together, handcuffed in pairs, and in this way driven about ten miles out of Baltimore, where we remained all night.

On the evening of the second day, we halted at Bladensburg, and were shut up in a small house, within full view of the very ground, where sixteen years before I had fought in the ranks of the army of the United States, in defence of the liberty and independence of that which I then regarded as my country. It seemed as if it had been but yesterday that I had seen the British columns, advancing across the bridge now before me, directing their fire against me, and my companions in arms.

The thought now struck me, that if I had deserted that day, and gone over to the enemies of the United States, how different would my situation at this moment have been. And this, thought I, is the reward of the part I bore in the dangers and fatigues of that disastrous battle.

On the next morning, we marched through Washington, and as we passed in front of the President’s house, I saw an old gentleman walking in the grounds, near the gate. ‘This man I was told was the President of the United States.

Within four weeks after we left Washington, I was in Milledgeville in Georgia, near which the man who had kidnapped me, resided. He took me home with him, and set me to work on his plantation; but I had now enjoyed liberty too long to submit quietly to the endurance of slavery. I had no sooner come here, than I began to devise ways of escaping again from the hands of my tyrants, and of making my way to the northern states.

The month of August was now approaching, which is a favourable season of the year to travel, on account of the abundance of food that is to be found in the corn fields and orchards; but I remembered the dreadful sufferings that I had endured in my former journey from the south, and determined, if possible, to devise some scheme of getting away, that would not subject me to such hardships.

After several weeks of consideration, I resolved to run away, go to some of the seaports, and endeavour to get a passage on board a vessel, bound to a northern city. With this view, I assumed the appearance of resignation and composure, under the new aspect of my fortune; and even went so far as to tell my new master that I lived more comfortably with him, in his cotton fields, than I had formerly done, on my own small farm in Maryland; though I believe my master did me the justice to give no credit to my assertions, on this subject.

From the moment I discovered in Maryland, that I had fallen into the hands of the brother of my former mistress, I gave up all hope of contesting his right to arrest me, with success, at law, as I supposed he had come with authority to reclaim me as the property of his sister; but after I had returned to Georgia, and had been at work some weeks on the plantation of my new master, I learned that he now claimed me as his own slave, and that he had reported he had purchased me in Baltimore. It was now clear to me that this man, having by some means learned the place of my residence, in Maryland, had kidnapped and now held me as his slave, without the colour of legal right; but complaint on my part was useless, and resistance vain.

I was again reduced to the condition of a common field slave, on a cotton plantation in Georgia, and compelled to subsist on the very scanty and coarse food, allowed to the southern slaves. I had been absent from Georgia, almost twenty years, and in that period, great changes had doubtlessly taken place in the face of the country, as well as in the condition of human society.

I had never been in Milledgeville, until I was brought there by the man who had kidnapped me in Maryland; and I was now a slave among entire strangers, and had no friend to give me the consolation of kind words, such as I had formerly received from my master in Morgan county. The plantation on which I was now a slave, had formerly belonged to the father of my mistress; and some of my fellow-slaves had been well acquainted with her, in her youth. From these people I learned, that after the death of my master, and my flight from Georgia, my mistress had become the wife of a second husband, who had removed with her to the state of Louisiana, more than fifteen years ago.

After ascertaining these facts, which proved beyond all doubt that my present master had no right whatsoever to me, in either law or justice, I determined, that before encountering the dangers and sufferings, that must necessarily attend my second flight from Georgia, I would attempt to claim the protection of the laws of the country, and try to get myself discharged from the unjust slavery in which I was now held. For this purpose, I went to Milledgeville, one Sunday, and inquired for a lawyer, of a black man whom I met in the street. This person told me that his master was a lawyer, and went with me to his house.

The lawyer, after talking to me some time, told me that my master was his client, and that he therefore could not undertake my cause; but referred me to a young gentleman, who he said would do my business for me. Accordingly to this young man I went, and after relating my whole story to him, he told me that he believed he could not do any thing for me, as I had no witnesses to prove my freedom.

I rejoined, that it seemed hard that I must be compelled to prove myself a freeman: and that it would appear more consonant to reason, that my master should prove me to be a slave. He, however, assured me that this was not the law of Georgia, where every man of colour was presumed to be a slave, until he could prove that he was free. He then told me that if I expected him to talk to me, I must give him a fee; whereupon I gave him all the money I had been able to procure, since my arrival in the country, which was two dollars and seventy-five cents.

When I offered him this money, the lawyer tossed his head, and said such a trifle was not worth accepting; but nevertheless he took it, and then asked me if I could get some more money before the next Sunday. That if I could get another dollar, he would issue a writ and have me brought before the court; but if he succeeded in getting me set free, I must engage to serve him a year. To these conditions I agreed, and signed a paper which the lawyer wrote, and which was signed by two persons as witnesses.

The brother of my pretended master, was yet living in this neighbourhood, and the lawyer advised me to have him brought forward, as a witness, to prove that I was not the slave of my present pretended owner.

On the Wednesday following my visit to Milledgeville, the sheriff came to my master's plantation, and took me from the field to the house, telling me as I walked beside him, that he had a writ which commanded him to take me to Milledgeville. Instead, however, of obeying the command of his writ, when we arrived at the house, he took a bond of my master that he would produce me at the court-house on the next day, Friday, and then rode away, leaving me at the mercy of my kidnapper.

Since I had been on this plantation, I had never been whipped, although all the other slaves, of whom there were more than fifty, were frequently flogged without any apparent cause. I had all along attributed my exemption from the lash to the fears of my master. He knew I had formerly run away from his sister, on account of her cruelty, and his own savage conduct to me; and I believed that he was still apprehensive that a repetition of his former barbarity might produce the same effect that it had done twenty years before.

His evil passions were like fire covered with ashes, concealed, not extinguished. He now found that I was determined to try to regain my liberty at all events, and the sheriff was no sooner gone, than the overseer was sent for, to come from the field, and I was tied up and whipped, with the long lashed negro whip, until I fainted, and was carried in a state of insensibility, to my lodgings in the quarter. It was night when I recovered my understanding, sufficiently to be aware of my true situation. I now found that my wounds had been oiled, and that I was wrapped in a piece of clean linen cloth; but for several days I was unable to leave my bed. When Friday came, I was not taken to Milledgeville, and afterwards learned that my master reported to the court, that I had been taken ill, and was not able to leave the house. The judge asked no questions as to the cause of my illness.

At the end of two weeks, I was taken to Milledgeville, and carried before a judge, who first asked a few questions of my master, as to the length of time that he had owned me, and the place where he had purchased me. He stated in my presence that he had purchased me, with several others, at public auction, in the city of Baltimore, and had paid five hundred and ten dollars for me. I was not permitted to speak to the court, much less to contradict this falsehood in the manner it deserved.

The brother of my master was then called as a witness, by my lawyer; but the witness refused to be sworn or examined, on account of his interest in me, as his slave. In support of his refusal, he produced a bill of sale from my master to himself, for an equal, undivided half part of the slave Charles. This bill of sale was dated several weeks previous to the time of trial, and gave rise to an argument between the opposing lawyers, that continued until the court adjourned in the evening.

On the next morning I was again brought into court, and the judge now delivered his opinion, which was that the witness could not be compelled to give evidence in a cause to which he was really, though not nominally, a party.

The court then proceeded to give judgment in the cause now before it, and declared that the law was well settled in Georgia, that every negro was presumed to be a slave, until he proved his freedom by the clearest evidence. That where a negro was found in the custody or keeping of a white man, the law declared that white man to be his master, without any evidence on the subject. But the case before the court, was exceedingly plain and free from all doubt or difficulty. Here the master has brought this slave into the state of Georgia, as his property, has held him as a slave ever since, and still holds him as a slave. The title of the master in this case, is the best title that a man can have to any property, and the order of the court is that the slave Charles be returned to the custody of his master.

I was immediately ordered to return home, and from this time until I left the plantation, my life was a continual torment to me. The overseer often came up to me in the field, and gave me several lashes with his long whip, over my naked back, through mere wantonness; and I was often compelled, after I had done my day's work in the field, to cut wood, or perform some other labour at the house, until long after dark. My sufferings were too great to be borne long by any human creature; and to a man who had once tasted the sweets of liberty, they were doubly tormenting.

There was nothing in the form of danger that could intimidate me, if the road on which I had to encounter it, led me to freedom. That season of the year, most favourable to my escape from bondage, had at length arrived. The corn in the fields was so far grown, as to be fit for roasting; the peaches were beginning to ripen, and the sweet potatoes were large enough to be eaten; but notwithstanding all this, the difficulties that surrounded me were greater than can easily be imagined by any one who has never been a slave in the lower country of Georgia.

In the first place I was almost naked, having no other clothes than a ragged shirt of tow cloth, and a pair of old trousers of the same material, with an old woollen jacket that I had brought with me from home. In addition to this, I was closely watched every evening, until I had finished the labour assigned me, and then I was locked up in a small cabin by myself for the night.

This cabin was really a prison, and had been built for the purpose of confining such of the slaves of this estate, as were tried in the evening, and sentenced to be whipped in the morning. It was built of strong oak logs, hewn square, and dovetailed together at the corners. It had no window in it; but as the logs did not fit very close together, there was never any want of air in this jail, in which I had been locked up every night since my trial before the court.

On Sundays I was permitted to go to work in the fields, with the other people who worked on that day, if I chose so to do; but at this time I was put under the charge of an old African negro, who was instructed to give immediate information, if I attempted to leave the field. To escape on Sunday was impossible, and there seemed to be no hope of getting out of my sleeping room, the floor of which was made of strong pine plank.

Fortune at length did for me that which I had not been able to accomplish, by the greatest efforts, for myself. The lock that was on the door of my nightly prison, was a large stock lock, and had been clumsily fitted on the door, so that the end of the lock pressed against the door-case, and made it difficult to shut the door even in dry weather. When the weather was damp, and the wood was swollen with moisture, it was not easy to close the door at all.

Late in the month of September, the weather became cloudy, and much rain fell. The clouds continued to obscure the heavens for four or five days. One evening, when I was ordered to my house, as it was called, the overseer followed me without a light, although it was very dark. When I was in the house, he pushed the door after me, with all his strength. The violence of the effort caused the door to pass within the case at the top, for one or two feet, and this held it so fast that he could not again pull it open.

Supposing in the extreme darkness, that the door was shut, he turned the key; and the bolt of the lock passing on the outside of the staple intended to receive it, completely deceived him. He then withdrew the key, and went away. Soon after he was gone, I went to the door, and feeling with my hands, ascertained that it was not shut. An opportunity now presented itself for me to escape from my prisonhouse, with a prospect of being able to be so far from my master's residence before morning, that none could soon overtake me, even should the course of my flight be ascertained. Waiting quietly, until every one about the quarter had ceased to be heard, I applied one of my feet to the door, and giving it a strong push, forced it open.

The world was now all before me, but the darkness was so profound, as to obscure from my vision the largest objects, even a house, at the distance of a few yards. But dark as it was, necessity compelled me to leave the plantation without delay, and knowing only the great road that led to Milledgeville, amongst the various roads of this country, I set off at a brisk walk on this public highway, assured that no one could apprehend me in so dark a night.

It was only about seven miles to Milledgeville, and when I reached that town several lights were burning in the windows of the houses; but keeping on directly through the village, I neither saw nor heard any person in it, and after gaining the open country, my first care was to find some secure place where shelter could be found for the next day; but no appearance of thick woods was to be seen for several miles, and two or three hours must have elapsed before a forest of sufficient magnitude was found to answer my purposes.

It was perhaps three o'clock in the morning, when I took refuge in a thick and dismal swamp that lay on the right hand of the road, intending to remain here until daylight, and then look out for a secret place to conceal myself in, during the day. Hitherto, although the night was so extremely dark, it had not rained any, but soon after my halt in the swamp, the rain began to fall in floods, rather than in showers, which made me as wet as if I had swum a river.

Daylight at length appeared, but brought with it very little mitigation of my sufferings; for the swamp, in which my hiding-place was, lay in the midst of a well-peopled country, and was surrounded, on all sides, by cotton and corn fields, so close to me, that the open spaces of the cleared land could be seen from my position. It was dangerous to move, lest some one should see me; and painful to remain without food, when hunger was consuming me.

My resting place, in the swamp, was within view of the road; and, soon after sunrise, although it continued to rain fast, numerous horsemen were seen passing along the road by the way that had led me to the swamp. There was little doubt on my mind, that these people were in search of me, and the sequel proved that my surmises were well founded. It rained throughout this day, and the fear of being apprehended by those who came in pursuit of me, confined me to the swamp, until after dark the following evening, when I ventured to leave the thicket, and return to the high road, the bearing of which it was impossible for me to ascertain, on account of the dense clouds that obscured the heavens. All that could be done in my situation, was to take care not to follow that end of the road which had led me to the swamp. Turning my back once more upon Milledgeville, and walking at a quick pace, every effort was made to remove myself, as far as possible this night, from the scene of suffering, for which that swamp will be always memorable in my mind.

The rain had ceased to fall at the going down of the sun; and the darkness of this second night, was not so great as that of the first had been. This circumstance was regarded by me, as a happy presage of the final success that awaited my undertaking. Events proved that I was no prophet; for the dim light of this night, was the cause of the dreaful misfortune that awaited me.

In a former part of this volume, the reader is made acquainted with the deep interest that is taken by all the planters, far and wide, around the plantation from which a slave has escaped, by running away. Twenty years had wrought no change in favour of the fugitive; nor had the feuds and dissen sions, that agitate and distract the communities of white men, produced any relaxation in the friendship that they profess to feel, and really do feel, for each other, on a question of so much importance to them all.

More than twenty miles of road had been left behind me this night; and it must have been two or three o'clock in the morning, when, as I was passing a part of the road that led through a dense pine grove, where the trees on either side grew close to the wheel tracks, five or six men suddenly rushed upon me, from both sides of the road, and with loud cries of “Kill him! kill him!” accompanied with oaths and opprobrious language, seized me, dragged me to the ground, and bound me fast with a long cord, which was wrapped round my arms and body, so as to confine my hands below my hips.

In this condition, I was driven, or rather dragged, about two miles to a kind of tavern or public house, that stood by the side of the road; where my captors were joined, soon after daylight, by at least twenty of their companions, who had been out all night waiting and watching for me, on the other roads of this part of the country. Those who had taken me were loudly applauded by their fellows; and the whole party passed the morning in drinking, singing songs, and playing cards, at this house. At breakfast time, they gave me a large cake of corn bread, and some sour milk, for breakfast.

About ten o'clock in the morning, my master arrived at the tavern, in company with two or three other gentlemen, all strangers to me. My master, when he came into my presence, looked at me, and said, "Well, Charles, you had bad luck in running away this time;" and immediately asked aloud, what any person would give for me. One man, who was slightly intoxicated, said he would give four hundred dollars for me. Other bids followed, until my price was soon up to five hundred and eighty dollars, for which I was stricken off, by my master himself, to a gentleman, who immediately gave his note for me, and took charge of me as his property.