Thursday, September 28, 2017

Slavery in Northern Virginia

Interior of Slave Pen in Alexandria, Virginia

The vast majority of male slaves worked as farmhands.  Others worked as laborers, waiters, blacksmiths, drivers and servants at inns.  Although the free labor of the slave was the most obvious economic benefit to the owner, slaves were also a liquid asset.  The selling or hiring out of excess slaves to the labor hungry cotton plantations of the Deep South was a source of revenue for many slaveholders in Virginia.  A slave woman was commonly esteemed less for her laboring qualities, and most for those qualities which gave her value as a broodmare.  In 1857, a Richmond newspaper price list quoted the price of a “number one man…extra (fine)” at $1,450 - $1,550.  “Good” at $1,200 - $1,250.  Women sold for twenty percent less.

     To appreciate the hold that slavery had on the sense of economic well-being of both the slave owning and the general populations, it is important to recognize the economic pervasiveness of slavery in Virginia.  In 1860 Virginia had the largest number of slaves of any state in the Union. One out of every three white families in what is modern day Virginia owned slaves, making it similar to such Deep South states as Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia.     A slave worth $1,800 in 1860 would have a current value of some $49,000, the price of a new luxury car.   So, even a modest slave owner would have a large economic stake in perpetuating the institution.

       Even a cursory examination of the writings of the time suggests that slavery led many slave owners not to empathize with the humanity of slaves.   The Alexandria Gazette of January 2, 1850, for example, put reward notices for a runaway slave named Wallace aged twenty one and a missing black horse aged seven years side by side, as though these notices belonged in the same category.

     Non-slave owners, without the motive of economic self-interest blinding them, could recognize the inherent problem of slavery in Virginia.  The Benevolent Society of Alexandria for Ameliorating and Improving the Condition of the People of Color, for example, published a statement stating,

     “These enormous cruelties cannot be practiced among us, without producing a sensible effect upon the morale of the community: for the temptation to participate in so lucrative a traffic, though stained with human blood, is too great to be withstood by all; and even many of those who do not directly participate in it, become so accustomed to its repulsive features, that they cease to discourage it in others.”

A quick look at women doctors and medicine in the Civil War for the general reader. Technologically, the American Civil War was the first “modern” war, but medically it still had its roots in the Middle Ages. In both the North and the South, thousands of women served as nurses to help wounded and suffering soldiers and civilians. A few women served as doctors, a remarkable feat in an era when sex discrimination prevented women from pursuing medical education, and those few who did were often obstructed by their male colleagues at every turn.

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