During the Civil War it was difficult for free people of color to remain inconspicuous in their everyday lives. William Breedlove was a free African American and a trained blacksmith who operated a ferry service across the Rappahannock River in the 1860s. In November 1863, at the height of the Civil War, Breedlove transported another African American man across the Rappahannock. Breedlove was under the impression that the other man had a pass authorizing him to travel, but in fact he was a runaway slave. Breedlove and his employee, another free black named William Chandler, were both arrested and convicted on charges of helping a slave escape. The sentence was that both men were to be sold into slavery.
The prosecuting attorney, James M. Matthews, recommended clemency, believing that the two men did not know that their passenger was a runaway slave. Other dignitaries also spoke out on Breedlove's behalf, including Lieutenant Governor Robert Latané Montague. They described Breedlove as an honest and industrious blacksmith who was a valuable member of the community and a man of good character. On December 19, 1863, Governor John Letcher pardoned Breedlove, and about a month later Governor William Smith pardoned Chandler on January 29, 1864.
Breedlove's case was not a typical one. Recent scholarship on life for free African Americans in the South during the antebellum era suggests that the laws regulating the lives and behaviors of free African Americans toughened as the nineteenth century progressed, particularly after incidents like Nat Turner's Rebellion and John Brown's Raid. While these laws became more restrictive, the enforcement of the laws, however, sometimes remained relaxed. Things became more difficult for free Africans Americans after the Civil War began because they also faced the risk of being forced into labor gangs to help the Confederate forces. In this case, a well-known and respectable free black man escaped the rigorous severity of the law.
1. How did William Breedlove make a living?
2. Why were Breedlove and Chandler arrested and convicted? What was the sentence for their “crime”?
1. What is significant about this petition? What does it tell us about the racial climate in Virginia in 1863?
2. Do you think that the attitude exhibited by Montague and Matthews was typical of Virginians during the Civil War? Why or why not?
“Breedlove, William.” In Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Edited by Sara B. Bearss et al., 2:212–213. Richmond: Library of Virginia (2001).
Berlin, Ira. Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. New York: Pantheon Books, 1974.
Ely, Melvin Patrick. Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s through the Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.