VIRTUAL MUSEUM An online collection of Stafford history and artifacts

Former Slaves Capable of Economic Viability

After situating the former Conway slaves in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Moncure Conway traveled to Boston.   He had speaking engagements along the way and visits with abolitionist activists Samuel Gridley Howe (shown above) and Julia Ward Howe (author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”).

Description of Stafford, its people, and Confederates

This Union soldier from the 95th Regiment, N.Y.S.V., describes some of the people of Stafford as well as some of the terrible things he heard that North Carolina Confederate troops did while they were in the county.

AQUIA CREEK, VA, May 21 [1862].

Soldier Letter from Stafford

This letter is written by a German-American soldier who was serving in Stafford overlooking Fredericksburg.  His letter, written phonetically, shows what the common soldier went through during this First Federal Occupation.

May 15th, 1862, Virginia Staford Co., Camp Near Falmouth

Dear Cousan,

As i have a fue lasur [leisure] moments to write to let you no that i am well at presant and hope that these fue lines will find you and all the rest the same. 

Former Slaves Join Union Army

One of the Stafford slaves that escaped was Andrew Weaver, a slave of J. Horace Lacy of “Chatham.”  He escaped in spring/summer 1862 and was later a soldier in the 23rd U. S. Colored Troops (USCT) Infantry Regiment.

Freedom-Seeker Honor Roll

For years Norman Schools (current owner of the Moncure Conway House), John Hennessy (chief historian of the Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania National Park), and Al Conner (of the Stafford County Historical Society) have been gathering names of slaves who sought freedom.  The following list is constantly changing when new names are discovered.    

Path of Conway Slaves to Freedom

Georgetown, D.C. to

Baltimore, MD.  to

Pennsylvania to

Columbus, OH. to

Yellow Springs, OH.

The Gwinns

Conway brought this group of his father’s former slaves to Yellow Springs, Ohio, to settle in freedom.  Eliza and Dunmore Gwinn were the patriarchs of the group.  Eliza was mother of 19 children, 9 of whom she brought to Yellow Springs.  

Conway Slaves leave Falmouth

In May of 1862, after saving and securing the Conway House,  household-slaves Eliza and Dunmore Gwinn led a group of at least 42 former Conway slaves  north to freedom.  Some historians say that there may have been more freedom-seekers who joined the exodus and traveled north to Georgetown in D.C.,

Solomon Northrup in Stafford

Prior to the two “Trail to Freedom” exoduses during the Civil War, Stafford’s Aquia Landing witnessed other fugitive slaves attempting freedom.  This slide, and the next two, will talk about three famous “Seekers of Freedom.”  One of those was Solomon Northrup, the subject of the movie, “12 Years a Slave.”

Succeeding in Georgetown, D.C.

Immediately, the Gwinns and the rest of the former Conway slaves established two businesses, a laundry and a bakery in Georgetown.  By July, they were making a profit when Moncure Conway found them.  He then realized that African Americans, if free, could make a living for themselves.  

Conway Colony

The Conway former slaves did well  in Ohio.  Moncure Conway, despite his travels to Boston and the United Kingdom, constantly sent the colony money to help them out.  Other family names besides the Gwinns were Hempsteads, Morgans, and Taylors.

A slave saves the Conway House

When Union troops entered Falmouth and marched along the King’s Highway (today’s River Road) a shot was fired. Not knowing if it was from the house or from the grounds, the soldiers damaged the lock and broke down the door. Finding an empty house, they searched each room.

Letter by Charles Morton about Falmouth Skirmish

The following is a letter that was written by Charles Morton to his mother.  He tells her about the skirmish at Falmouth and the burial that took place at Union Church.

FALMOUTH, (opposite Fredericksburgh) Tuesday, April 22nd, 1862.

Dear Mother: I wrote a long letter a day or two ago to Father, giving him an account of our fight.

Died at Falmouth April 17-18, 1862

Lt. James Nelson Decker, Company D, 2nd New York Cavalry

Private  Patrick Devlin, Company M, 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry

Private John Heslin, Company L, 2nd New York Cavalry

Private Josiah Kiff, Company H, 2nd New York Cavalry

Private John Murphy, Company G, 2nd New York Cavalry

Private Thomas Norton, Company M, 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry

Private George Weller, Company H, 2nd New York Cavalry


Stars and Stripes

John Washington observed the continuing stream of other escaped slaves, dubbed “contrabands,” (based on liberal interpretation of orders allowing “contraband of war” to be “confiscated”) into the Stafford camps. He wrote, “Day after day the slaves came into camp and every where that the ‘Stars and Stripes’ waved they seemed to know freedom had dawned to the slave.”

12,000 escape to Freedom

Estimates were that 10,000 slaves escaped to freedom after they realized that Union forces were in Stafford. Later, Confederate newspapers said that 12,000 slaves had left their masters.  This greater number is probably more accurate, as Southerners considered slaves their property and were very much aware of their loss.

Escaping Slaves

Many slaves saw the arrival of the Union Army in Stafford, in April 1862, as a chance for freedom.  During the Union occupation that spring and summer, slaves from Fredericksburg, Stafford, Spotsylvania, and surrounding counties streamed into Union lines.  It was likely the largest single exodus of slaves in America up to that time.

Second Exodus

There were additional “freedom-seekers” or “escaping slaves” after January 1, 1863, the effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation.  This picture was taken in southern Stafford during this “Second Exodus.” There are no macro-numbers as in the first exodus, but there are anecdotal numbers of individual sightings such as, “50 former slaves passed by here.”

Model 1850 Foot Officer’s Sword

Many of the infantry and engineer officers carried this Model 1850 Foot Officer’s Sword. This was a fully-capable fighting weapon. This artifact was one of only 500 produced in an 1861 contract by the famed Ames Sword Company. Unusually, this lot was stamped by Federal inspectors and dated “U.S./J.H./1861”.

Model 1850 Field and Staff Officer’s Sword


This Model 1850 Field and Staff Officer’s Sword was the type carried in Stafford by some majors and higher in line and staff positions. This sword, although decorative, was a fully-capable fighting weapon preferred by senior officers at risk of actually engaging the enemy.  

May 1862

On May 2, 1862, a command-reconnaissance party under Brigadier General Rufus King, crossed the new canal-boat bridge and reconnoitered Fredericksburg. An infantry company swept the town, occupied a tobacco warehouse, and posted pickets after discovering no Confederate threat. Five days later, the entire 23rd New York Infantry moved into the town and established headquarters opposite the railroad depot.

Lincoln in Stafford and visits Fredericksburg

Once Union troops were in Fredericksburg, Lincoln came to Stafford.  On May 21st he visited commanders and troops at the Lacy House.  He went over the canal-boat bridge to Fredericksburg and was met by General Marsena Patrick who was commanding Union troops in town.  

7th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment

The 7th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment is shown here in Stafford overlooking the town of Fredericksburg.  Notice their Hardee hats.  They spent most of this First Federal Occupation as members of the “Iron Brigade.”

Federal Department of the Rappahannock

Below is a list of all the Union units that were in Stafford during the First Federal Occupation.  Major General Irvin McDowell (above)  commanded the Department of the Rappahannock.

Brig. Gen. Rufus King’s Division:

Brig. Gen. C. C. Augur’s (1st) Brigade: 22nd, 24th, 30th, 84th New York Infantry and 2nd U.S.

Lacy House Porch

During this First Federal (Union) occupation, Brigader Rufus King’s division was initially headquartered at Chatham, known then as the Lacy House.  King is standing on the bottom porch step, in the center with a white vest.  Lt. Colonel Judson Kilpatrick is on the right.