Preparing for his freedom from a very young age, John Washington used his advantages as a very light-skinned, urban slave, who had earned money and traveled. He had a job with responsibilities, he was often surrounded by relatives—both black and white—and he knew and loved the Rappahannock River. So, he was ready to take advantage of the opportunity the Union army presented him on April 18, 1862 and crossed the Rappahannock River to his freedom.
He was also literate and wrote the narrative of his life.
John Washington was born a slave on May 20, 1838 in Fredericksburg, Virginia. His mother was Sarah Tucker, a slave, and his father was a white man. His mother was described a “bright mulatto,” meaning that she had mixed blood as well. Because John had quite a lot of white blood, he described himself: “I see myself as a small light haired boy, (very often passing easily for a white boy).” Some people must have known who his father was because John came of age surrounded by “both white and black relatives.” Lighter-skinned slaves occasionally benefited from economic and social advantages, especially in cities and towns. As John was growing up, he would often leave church early to go to the riverfront to play with other boys—swimming and rowing boats.
John inherited a history of defiance and freedom from his mother and grandmother. His grandmother, Molly, was whipped for misbehaving; perhaps she had run away after her sister was sold. John’s mother, Sarah, ran away when John was three, but she returned.
Sarah knew how to read and write, which was uncommon for a slave. At the age of four, she taught John how to spell and kept him at his lessons for a couple of hours a night. Later she taught him to read. John’s white friends helped him read, too, and his uncle John helped him to write. John had to be careful because it was illegal to teach a slave to read and write.
John spent several of his childhood years on the Brown farm in Orange County. He had pleasant memories of playing with mostly white children, wading in the brooks and going to the circus. At ten, he moved back to Fredericksburg and lived as a servant to Mrs. Taliaferro. Back in the city, urban slavery gave him more freedom than rural slavery. Some Southern whites thought urban slavery corrupted slaves, attracting them to the “worst habits.” Free blacks said that they had merely “acquired town habits.”
In 18590, John’s mother and siblings were hired away, and that was when John promised himself that if he ever got the opportunity he would run away.
As John grew, he learned to hone his negotiation skills with his mistress and other whites. With both black and white relatives around him, John came of age as a slave—but with his eyes on a way out of slavery.
John was, on the surface, both black and white, both slave and free. He probably possessed a higher degree of freedom than he admits in his narrative. He entered stores, did financial transactions for his mistress, and he talked among his friends both black and white. As a member of Mrs. Taliaferro’s Baptist church, he would escape to the riverfront with his friends to swim and row any boat that they could find. However, before doing this he would hang around the church door and memorize the preacher’s text. John developed a great love for the river and boats, and in 1852 during one of these escapes he got a case of poison oak. He was sent to his mother in Staunton, Virginia so she could nurse him back to health.
As he grew older, John was restricted more for the fear that he would escape. However, he was allowed to go to church fairs and revivals. He was baptized in the Rappahannock River on June 13, 1856. He also met Annie Gordon, whom he would marry on January 3, 1862.
Washington’s literacy, his connection to free blacks, his work ethic, and his urban environment all contributed to his escape. Between 1859 and 1862, he was hired out several times, during which he learned skills and earned cash for himself. He worked at the Alexander and Gibbs tobacco factory in Fredericksburg, a tavern in Richmond, and finally the Shakespeare Hotel in Fredericksburg. The tobacco company helped him gain a sense of adult autonomy through work and measured labor. At the Shakespeare Hotel, he was a barkeeper and steward. He must have been a trusted employee, as the owners wanted him to go to North Carolina with one of them as the Yankees approached in April of 1862.
As the Union army moved in on April 18th, the owners of the hotel were preparing to leave town. They gave John “a roll of banknotes” to pay off all of the servants along with the keys to the hotel to put into a safe place. John admits these men treated him well, but he resolved not to go with them, although he made them believe that he would remain loyal. He also told Mrs. Taliaferro that he would join her on her flight to the countryside. He acted as if he feared the Union soldiers.
While the whites were in the streets of Fredericksburg moving southward, the blacks were looking over the river at the Yankees. After leaving the hotel, John, his cousin James Washington, and another free colored man walked to Ficklen’s Bridgewater Mill, then to the Rappahannock. There, they saw Union soldiers who asked them if they wanted to cross over. John shouted, “Yes, I want to come over.” And so John crossed.
Union officials asked John all manner of questions about the Confederate army. John was prepared, answering their questions and giving them a bunch of Southern newspapers he had stuffed into his pockets.
Most of the Union soldiers thought John was a white man and were astonished to learn that he was a “colored man and a slave all his life.” They asked if he wanted to be free, and he replied by all means. This was his first night of freedom, and it was Good Friday— indeed the best Friday he had ever seen. John declared himself a slave no more!
John would serve the Union army as a servant for Major General Rufus King for a period between April and August. He then moved to Washington, D.C.