Crossing the Rappahannock

This is one of those events that makes me wish that I still lived and taught in Virginia.  My Civil War class would be front and center at this event.  On September 22 a recreation of an 1862 slave crossing of the Rappahannock will take place at Cow’s Ford near Tin Pot Run.  The famous photograph by Timothy O’Sullivan of slaves fording the river in that area on August 19, 1862 will serve as inspiration for the reenactment.

It’s nice to have a visual window into the crossing of slaves to freedom.  [See John Hennessy's thoughtful analysis of the image at Mysteries and Conundrums and here] We have so few, but it does mean that the individuals in this photograph must somehow reflect our assumptions about what took place or what we hoped took place on the river.  More importantly, we run the risk of reducing the slavery to freedom narrative to one moment.  It’s one of the reasons I highly recommend Jim Downs’s new book, Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction.  Downs’s study reminds us that the steps toward freedom and beyond were fraught with challenges.

That a reenactment of the crossing is taking place at all is just another indication of how far our memory of the war has evolved.  It’s also interesting to see the language of “self emancipation” being used in the online flier for this event – a reference that comes right out of the recent academic debate concerning the proper interpretation of emancipation.  I hope the event gets the coverage it deserves and I do hope that people will take part to mark the event.

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