“We Helped Them Escape Whenever We Could”: Southern Claims Commission Records Reveal a Free Black Petersburg Family’s Civil War Experience, Part I

On July 11, 1866, Petersburg, Virginia’s Philip Sewell Sr. and his son, Philip Sewell Jr., filed a request with the Freedmen’s Bureau for the reimbursement of property taken from them by Pennsylvania cavalrymen in April 1865. The confiscated items included four horses, two mules, two wagons, two saddles, gear and harness, six blankets, and a significant amount of foodstuffs. The father and son estimated the total value of their loss as $1,364.70, a significant sum in 1865. Philip Sewell Sr. made his mark on the document, while his son signed his name.

This document by Bvt. Maj. T. Frank Crandon, who served as the superintendent of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Petersburg, began the process of reimbursing the Sewells. (Fold3.com)

On the surface, the Sewells’ effort to recoup their lost property was like so many others included in the more than 22,000 claims that would eventually make their way to the Southern Claims Commission by white southern Unionists and free and formerly enslaved Black men and women seeking reimbursement for confiscated or damaged personal property. But the personal information contained within the Sewells’ claim file gives us an important glimpse into the lives and experiences of this free Black Petersburg family just before and during the Civil War.

Among the papers in the Sewells’ Southern Claims Commission file, there are affidavits that were required to help provide evidence for their claim. In one such statement, Philip Sewell Sr. gave some intriguing details about his background. He explained that “I was a slave up to a short time before the war; during the war I was free.” A “Mr. Martin of Petersburg” had previously enslaved Sewell. This was probably Petersburg resident Robert A. Martin, who enslaved 22 individuals in 1860.

However, Sewell bought himself for $650.00 “about four or five years before the war.” To do so he explained that he “had some money in my hands, and I was dealing in furs.” Like many enslaved people in Petersburg, Sewell may have been hired out and allowed to keep some of his earnings. If so, he may have also completed “overwork,” labor beyond that stipulated in his hiring agreement, which the laborer often got to keep. From his remarks, he was also likely supplementing his income by trapping small animals like raccoons, fox, mink, muskrats, and others on the side and selling their pelts.

Once he gained his freedom, Sewell was apparently quite the entrepreneur, as he explained that he also bought the freedom of his daughter and son-in-law. Sewell appears in the 1860 census for Petersburg. He is listed as being 60 years old, of mixed race, owning $1200.00 in real estate and $100.00 in personal property. He was born in North Carolina.  Unfortunately, the census taker did not fill out the space for Philips’s occupation. Included in his household was his Virginia-born wife Phillis (60 years old); son Philip (28 years old and born in North Carolina); two women who were apparently his daughters, Jannet and Lucy (23 and 26 years old respectively, both born in Virginia); and perhaps Philip Jr’s daughter, Lizzy (9 years old, also born in Virginia).

The Sewell family appears in the 1860 census for Petersburg. Philip Sewell Sr. owned $1200.00 in real estate. That amount, when combined with the fact that he had purchased his own freedom, that of his daughter and son-in-law and also helped his son free himself just a few short years before this shows his entrepreneurial skills and work ethic. (Ancestry.com)

When the war broke out, Sewell ended up impressed into Confederate service. “I was pressed by the white people—they said I must go, and I went down there [Norfolk] to wait on General [Benjamin] Huger. I said I did not want to go as I had men under me, but I had to go. I had to superintend the cookery affairs,” Sewell explained.

He was probably concerned about leaving his family and losing income, as he could make more money working in Petersburg than in cooking in a Confederate camp. After about a month in that role Sewell came back to Petersburg and received another supervisory cooking assignment at Jamestown that lasted five weeks. Upon returning to Petersburg, Sewell and his son “bought a team. We had an old horse there, and we got a wagon, and made all we could by running it.” Census records show that a number of free Black men in Petersburg made their living as draymen or cartmen, hauling goods and belongings for commission merchant businesses and travelers.

Sewell was careful to note in his statement that he “was never employed by the Confederate government, and never took any oath of allegiance to them.” He said that those who employed him “paid me for my services –whatever they thought was right.” At another point in his statement, Sewell expressed his continued allegiance to the United States: “I was always in favor of the union, because I expected my children and grandchildren would be free. I believed the rebels would be whipped.” As evidence for his support for the Union cause, Sewell explained that during the war he “helped some union men get away during the war. They got into my wagon, and I got them out into the country—white and black both. They were trying to get through the lines.” Were these “union men” Unionist civilians or Federal prisoners?  It appears from later evidence in the claim file that the Sewells assisted both.

Petersburg’s streets, like Bollingbrook, shown here, were familiar scenes to the Sewells and their hauling business. (Library of Congress)

The Sewells filed their claim jointly, as their father and son partnership shared their possessions. As such, Philip Jr. also provided a statement that included additional details on his life and their experiences. He explained that he was enslaved until he was 25 years old and that his father helped him purchase his freedom. During the war Philip Jr. “ran teams on the street” in Petersburg “until they came after me, and then I had to keep out of the way all I could, and my father and myself went into partnership then, aiding people in getting away sometimes.”

You may read Part II here.


1860 Census, Dinwiddie County, Virginia; via Ancestry.com, accessed on May 5, 2024.

1860 Census, Petersburg, Virginia; via Ancestry.com, accessed on May 5, 2024.

Ira Berlin. Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. New York: Random House, 1974.

Jamie Amada Martinez. Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

Warren Eugene Milteer. Beyond Slavery’s Shadow: Free People of Color in the South. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2021.

Southern Claims Commission Approved Virginia – Dinwiddie County – Philip Sewell, via Fold3.com, accessed on May 5, 2024

5 Responses to “We Helped Them Escape Whenever We Could”: Southern Claims Commission Records Reveal a Free Black Petersburg Family’s Civil War Experience, Part I

  1. Thanks for this post, Tim. The Southern Claims Commission records are an incredible and underutilized resource. If one wished to dive even deeper, the records of the U.S. Court of Claims, which adjudicated disputes concerning the commission, can also be a gold mine of information, especially about Black Americans, enslaved and free, who made their own claims and testified in others. Combined with the Freedman’s Bureau and Freedman’s Bank records, they provide scarce primary source data that is so often absent in Black history. I encourage anyone with an interest in Black history and Southern Unionism in the Civil War period to consult these sources as there are many interesting stories waiting to be told.

    1. David, You are correct. The SCC records are a true treasure. We’re fortunate that some have been digitized.

  2. Pingback: Emerging Civil War
  3. These “microanalyses” of the lives of individual enslaved people help illuminate the ways in which they sought freedom and, in the case of the Sewells, aided others seeking freedom. This post includes reference to the experience of a formerly enslaved Black man who, as a freeman, was conscripted into a non-combat role in the Confederate Army. Thank you, Tim Talbott, for your post and the original sources consulted.

    1. Thank you for the kind words. Sources like these provide pieces of the puzzle and an understanding this period in history that would otherwise be missing or less complete.

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