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

You may read Part I here.

It was not uncommon for the Confederate military to impress free men of color to serve as laborers on fortifications, in their hospitals as stewards and nurses, in their camps caring for horses and equipment and cooking, or serving as teamsters driving wagons hauling supplies. Free man Benjamin Dabney, who lived in neighboring Dinwiddie County, explained in his claim with the Southern Claims Commission that “I was impressed into the Rebel service several times during the war.” One stint, in 1862, and apparently part of the Second Manassas Campaign, Dabney was told he was to serve for 60 days, but “it was a year before I was discharged—I drove an army wagon.” In addition, he noted, “several times after, I was compelled to work on the fortifications.” Benjamin Dabney said that all of his brothers were impressed into Confederate service at one time or another.

“The Supply Train,” sketched by Edwin Forbes. Employed and impressed Black teamsters served vital roles for the Union and Confederate armies. (Library of Congress)

Benjamin Dabney’s brother, Robert, also filed a separate claim and explained that he was impressed in 1861 as a teamster. His 30-day employment period turned into six months, so he ran away. When he got home a “Rebel officer came for me, I refused to go with him—He drew his pistol.” Telling the officer that he could go ahead and shoot, Dabney explained that his family was starving and he was in bad health and would not go.

Told to get a doctor’s certificate, Dabney did so and “was not molested again until the end of the war” when he was forced to help Confederate engineers by carrying a measuring rod, probably laying out earthwork lines. He fled the work after about a week “carrying with me 5 brothers & two other young men all of whom had been pressed into the service.”

Philip Sewell Jr. explained that “when the union prisoners came [to Petersburg], whenever I would get a chance, I would give them bread or anything I could. We also helped them escape whenever we could; we ran both colored and white men through.” Confederates often kept Federal prisoners of war captured during the extended fighting around Petersburg in temporary places that were not secure like tobacco warehouses, fields, and even on an island in the shallow Appomattox River before moving them on to Richmond, Danville, Salisbury, or other more permanent prisoner camps locations. Escapes were frequent.

Philip Jr.’s statement received corroboration from Henry Tatum, a white former Petersburg resident, who provided testimony for the Sewells. He had known the father and son for 14 years and understood them to be good Union men. “I could rely on [trust] their family during that time, and some others in Petersburg, but there were not many we could rely upon.”

Tatum included that as Unionists they had to be careful. “Many colored people while they were not rebels at heart, were owned by rebels, and if they learned anything about us they would take the news to [their enslavers],” Tatum stated. He explained “I was a union man. I did not remain in Petersburg during the whole war. I was engaged in running parties through the lines, white and black—all I could get across, several at a time. I had three routes.” Tatum said that “the Sewells and I belonged to a political organization [in Petersburg]” and that he avoided Confederate conscription by “buying certificates of disability by physicians” until he made his way in 1863 to Federal-occupied Norfolk, then to New York City, and finally to Washington, D.C. before coming back to Petersburg after its Confederate evacuation.

According to testimony in the Sewells’ claim file, they belonged to a small Unionist “political organization” in Petersburg that helped citizens and escaped soldiers get to Federal lines. (Library of Congress)

Philip Jr. went on to state how their property became confiscated: “About a week before the fall of Petersburg, I went down in the country and tried to get through the lines to City Point. I was told that the Confederates had determined to put every able bodied man, black or white into the army, and I wished to escape.” Taking a roundabout way down into North Carolina after not being able to get through the lines at City Point, the Sewells eventually headed back north to Petersburg “by the way of the Jerusalem Plank Road.”

By that point, Petersburg may have been in Federal hands. Stopped by the 2nd Pennsylvania cavalrymen, “they took charge of me and my father and brought us up to within about two or three miles of Petersburg. . . .” Apparently the cavalrymen thought Sewell Sr. was a “white man, and they sent him to town under guard.” However, Philip Jr.’s wife and some family friends cleared up the situation and “they let us out.” Asked to make out a list of items the soldiers took and state their worth, they did so.

An April 12, 1865 letter in the file from Maj. Seneca R. Cowles, 10th New York Heavy Artillery, who was serving in the provost marshal’s office, says that “Phil. Sewell is authorized to take [back] his four horses and two mules and two wagons wherever they may be on evidence that they are his property.” Not finding their property, the Sewells apparently continued to petition for its return. In another letter from Maj. Cowles, this one dated May 8, 1865, he writes a lieutenant: “If you can give this old man a wagon of some kind or one that he can repair so as to make him a kind of wagon do so for I am told he is a very worthy old man, Do what you can.”

The reason the Sewells were not able to find their wagons comes by way of yet more testimony. James M. Hill, a Black man who apparently worked as a servant/waiter for Col. William W. Sanders of the 2nd Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiment, explained what happened to the Sewells’ confiscated property. Hill said that he was present “when this property was taken.” He noticed that the Sewells “had some very good horses, and the soldiers took them for pack horses. They carried some of their property on the mules to Appomattox C. H. and some of them died on the way on account of having too heavy loads, our regiment went up there. They packed all the cooking things and all the baggage.”

In its final ruling, the Southern Claims Commission disallowed $567.70 of the Sewells’ claim, recommending that they only be paid $797.00, about 60 percent of their total claim. Apparently no interest payment came with it despite the process taking several years to receive part compensation.

This document show the itemized list of the Sewells’ claim request and what the Southern Claims Commission ultimately paid them. (Fold3.com)

The Sewells’ Southern Claims Commission file serves as important evidence. Their statements and those of others who knew them tell of a father and son’s desire for freedom, the ability to make their own choices, and earn wages for their labor based on their skills and initiative. These records also show their commitment to the United States and fellow Unionists by risking imprisonment, or possibly death, by helping citizens and soldiers make their way to Federal lines. Finally, by seeking reimbursement for their confiscated property they exercised their rights as free men in their rapidly changing world.



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 – Benjamin Dabney, via Fold3.com, accessed on May 5, 2024.

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

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