A lot of folks haven’t heard of Harriet Jacobs, and that’s just wrong — they should hear about her. Born into slavery, Harriet escaped from her so-called “master” and hid in her free grandmother’s house, in a tiny space only 9 feet long, 7 feet wide, and 3 feet tall. Her grandmother’s house was under constant surveillance after Harriet’s escape, and Harriet seldom was able to leave that tiny space — so there she stayed, for seven full years.
She suffered health problems for the rest of her life due to her years of living in the cramped room. Harriet later said, “It is painful for me, in many ways, to recall the dreary years I passed in bondage. I would gladly forget them if I could.”
Harriet finally got a chance to escape to the north, a perilous journey, where she found employment. Harriet wrote a book about her experiences: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, under the name of Linda Blair. This has been the only known example of a slave narrative written by a woman. “I want to add my testimony to that of abler pens to convince the people of the Free States what slavery really is,” Harriet wrote. “Only by experience can any one realize how deep, and dark, and foul is that pit of abominations.”
When I came across Harriet’s story, I very much wanted to write about her, but most of her personal history — which takes in a lot — happened before the Civil War. My book was supposed to be about people during the Civil War. So what was Harriet doing then?
Online sources tended to focus on her life up to the time of the war, but mentioned that she was doing relief work in Alexandria, Virginia. There you can find an amazing story that is all but ignored.
When Harriet went to the city in late 1862, the situation was dire.
As slaves escaped from the south, they fled north. Alexandria, Virginia, which was occupied by Union troops, was considered Union territory, and fugitives who fled here would not be returned to their traitorious “masters” in the south.
But often slaves fled with little more than the clothes on their backs. Old men and women, children, and babies were among these refugees. Once they reached freedom, many had nowhere else to go — no jobs, no families, no place to live — with winter coming on, and temperatures falling fast.
“Very many have died from destitution. It is impossible to reach them all,” Harriet wrote. The Union barracks, called Duff’s Green Row, was crowded with people, many of whom had measles, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and typhoid. There was little medicine and no medical staff at the barracks to comfort the sick and dying, though as many as ten people died every day. Harriet wrote. “I did not meet kindly, sympathizing people, trying to soothe the last agonies of death. Those tearful eyes often looked up to me with the language, ‘Is this freedom?’”
She found people “packed together in the most miserable quarters, dying without the commonest necessities of life.” Some former slaves lived in an old foundry that hardly had a roof. “The sick lay on boards on the ground floor; some, through the kindness of the soldiers, have an old blanket. I did not hear a complaint among them. They said it was much better than it had been.”
Imagine living in a roofless old building in the middle of winter, sick and maybe with a blanket — and saying you’d prefer this to your former life.
Every day, Harriet would check to see how many had died over the last 24 hours. One morning, when looking at the bodies ready for burial, she “saw lying there five children. By the side of them lay a young man. He escaped, was taken back to Virginia, whipped nearly to death, escaped again the next night, dragged his body to Washington, and died, literally cut to pieces.” The master’s rope was still wrapped around the man’s ankles; she cut off that hateful thing. “I could not see that put into the grave with him,” she said.
She grieved for the refugees, because none, not even the little children, would receive the dignity of the burial rites that even the poorest dead were given. “There they lie, in the filthy rags they wore from the plantation. Nobody seems to give it a thought.”
Harriet went among families with smallpox, walked among the dying, helped mothers in childbirth, found clothes for the people who needed them. Her work was best exemplified in the teachings from the Sermon on the Mount:
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”