Liberation Day in Charlottesville

On March 3, 1865, an enslaved woman named Jane set off from her home—the Sunnyside property on which the University of Virginia law and business schools now sit—and watched the Union Army march into Charlottesville. Following this arrival of the Union troops, Jane liberated herself from slavery. [1]

At Sunnyside, Jane labored as a cook. In 1865, she was in her mid-30s or early-40s and had been enslaved by the Duke family since 1859. That year, Jane had been put up for sale on the green by Court Square, the city’s site for slave auctions. Facing imminent sale to traders, Jane advocated for herself there on the green and convinced R.T.W. Duke Sr. to purchase her bondage for $1000.[2]

Jane was a skilled cook. In 1863, the Duke family moved to Sunnyside at a moment of severe wartime food scarcities. Jane “deftly” concocted stews, hash, and soups that winter from the weekly ration of beefshead.

On March 3, 1865, as the Union army under General George Armstrong Custer marched into Charlottesville, Jane ran towards the music of the Union band when it drifted across to Sunnyside.[3] She was joined by two other enslaved people from Sunnyside, including ten-year-old Caesar, as well as eleven-year-old R.T.W. Duke Jr. The group made their way up and over UVA’s modern-day intramural and softball fields. Onward towards the “martial music,” they eventually perched themselves on a hill behind the property of Andrew Brown, likely the current site of the John Paul Jones Arena or the hill above Lambeth Field.[4]

Map of Charlottesville
Map of Albemarle County, 1875, Library of Congress. Showing location of Sunnyside, the Brown property, the University of Virginia, and the route of the Union Army into Charlottesville. Digital copy available: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g3883a.la001200

From her post, Jane saw the long line of Union cavalry—column after column—march into town from Ivy Road and up toward Carr’s Hill. The group watched in silence. R.T.W. Duke Jr. recalled feeling “horror & rage” at the “great blue snake.”[5] He imagined the rest of his observation party, all enslaved, watched in similar awe. For them, though, the feelings were likely quite different, even if complicated. No direct account of their reaction remains.

Shortly thereafter, Jane liberated herself from slavery and the Duke family. She was the first of the enslaved community to leave Sunnyside. Jane had departed the Dukes by the time R.T.W. Duke Sr., a Colonel in the Confederate Army, returned home after Appomattox. She may have left Charlottesville more immediately as part of the large group of free African Americans that followed the Union army out of town on March 6, 1865. In that train, according to one Union cavalry soldier, Jane would have joined other free African Americans “old and young, male and female, trudging through mud and water, animated with the thought of freedom.”[6]

As a free woman, Jane turned her cooking skills into a livelihood. In the postwar period, the Duke family heard news that Jane was living in New Jersey and working as a cook at an impressive salary.[7]

Our location on North Grounds, in the hills of the former Sunnyside property, was the setting for Jane’s bondage, as well as her liberation. Both required fortitude. Today, Charlottesville observes Liberation and Freedom Day on the 155th anniversary of the Union Army’s arrival in the city and the beginning of the liberation of the Charlottesville’s enslaved community. We honor Jane on this day.

 

Notes:

This post builds on Amalia Garcia-Pretelt’s summer 2019 research into Sunnyside and the enslaved community there.

[1] The University of Virginia purchased the Sunnyside property from the Duke family 1963. The Sunnyside house still stands and is owned by UVA. For information on Jane, this post draws on the Recollections journal of R.T.W. Duke Jr., a boy in the Duke family that enslaved Jane at Sunnyside. Duke penned his Recollections beginning in 1899 (cited hereafter as Recollections, Volume: page). For Jane running to see the Union Army, see Recollections, 1:214. Elizabeth Varon has recently written on Duke Jr.’s ideas of slavery and the “lost cause” narrative. Elizabeth Varon, “UVA and the History of Race: The Lost Cause Through Judge Duke’s Eyes,” UVA Today, September 4, 2019. https://news.virginia.edu/content/uva-and-history-race-lost-cause-through-judge-dukes-eyes

[2] Jane was likely the thirty-one-year-old mulatto woman associated with R.T.W. Duke Sr. in the 1860 federal Slave Schedule. For the Court Square episode, see Recollections, 1:20. R.T.W. Duke Jr. provided his remembrances of the enslaved community in the Duke household in Recollections, 1:17-27.

[3] R.T.W. Duke Jr. recalled this date as March 9, 1865 in his journal, but the correct date is March 3, 1865. Recollections, 1:214. For an account of the Union army’s arrival in Charlottesville, see Brendan Wolfe, “The Union Army Occupation of Charlottesville (1865),” Encyclopedia Virginia, October 28, 2019, https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Union_Occupation_of_Charlottesville_1865#start_entry.

[4] Recollections, 1:214. Andrew Brown owned the property adjacent to Sunnyside, and his “Rugby Hall” home still exists at 908 Cottage Lane, just off modern-day Rugby Road. Historic Charlottesville Tour Book (Charlottesville, VA: Albemarle County Historical Society, Inc., 2002), 81, https://www.jmrl.org/ebooks/Historic%20Charlottesville%20Tour%20Bo.PDF.

[5] Recollections, 1:141.

[6] Frederic Denison, Sabres and Spurs: The First Regiment Rhode Island Cavalry in the Civil War, 1861–1865 (Central Falls, Rhode Island: The First Rhode Island Cavalry Veteran Association, 1876), 441–444, available at Encyclopedia Virginia: https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/_quot_Sheridan_apos_s_Raid_quot_an_excerpt_from_Sabres_and_Spurs_by_Frederic_Denison_1876. Recollections, 1:20.

[7] Recollections, 1:20.

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Randi Flaherty

Randi Flaherty is the Special Collections Librarian at the Arthur J. Morris Law Library. She is an early American historian with a focus on foreign maritime commerce in the early American republic.

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