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Ellen Barnes McGinnis
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A Question of Loyalty


For many years, the lives of free and enslaved Black workers inside the executive mansion of the Confederacy were presented through the lens of the Lost Cause narrative. This heavily biased and inaccurate interpretation of the American Civil War deliberately downplays the evils of slavery and often promotes falsehoods in its depiction of the relationships between slave owners and the people they held in bondage. 


Within a Lost Cause telling of history, free and enslaved individuals– who remained with the Davis family through the end of the war or who remained in contact or in the employment of the Davis family after the fall of the Confederacy– are often held up as examples of good and loyal servants to the Southern cause. This recollection relies heavily on narratives promoted by the Davis family and of other White Southerners, favoring their words over the words and experiences of enslaved individuals themselves when telling their own stories.


Ellen Barnes McGinnis


Ellen Barnes McGinnis was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1839 or 1842. She was a mother and wife. 


Ellen was enslaved by Peter W. Grubbs, reportedly a druggist in the city of Richmond. On January 2, 1864, she was hired out or leased to the Davis family. Ellen became Varina Davis’ maid and a nurse to the Davises’ infant daughter, Winnie.


Shortly after Ellen’s arrival in the Davis household, Ellen’s husband Charles Barnes, escaped slavery in Richmond and made his way to Fort Monroe, a federal outpost in Hampton, Virginia. At Fort Monroe, Charles became a free man and took up work at the fort supporting the Union cause.


Ellen remained with the Davis family through the last fifteen months of the Confederacy, which she recalled as a time of hard and plain living. By late March of 1865, as U.S. forces closed in around the Confederate capital, Ellen was forced to accompany Varina Davis and the Davis children as they fled south from the city, leaving Ellen’s daughter Mary Ann behind in Richmond. In an April 7, 1865, letter to Jefferson Davis, Varina Davis wrote that Ellen was very much “exercised” about leaving her child behind.


Ellen was with the Davis family on May 10, 1865, when they were finally captured by Federal forces outside of Irwinville, Georgia. Ellen was taken with the Davises to Fort Monroe where she was reunited with her husband Charles Barnes. In Varina Davis’ recollection she claims that Ellen was forced to leave by her husband rather than accompany Mrs. Davis on her journey down South, but in her own account given to a New York Times reporter present at the fort that day, Ellen says something much different:


“Oh, no, Sir, I never want to go South again as a slave -- I would rather be free, much rather. Mrs. Davis was good to me, but I don't want to be her slave, for all that."


Following the death of Charles Barnes, in 1866, Ellen briefly reunited with the Davis family, where she met and wed Frederick McGinnis, a formerly enslaved man, whom Varina Davis had hired. Ellen and Frederick accompanied the Davis family to Montreal, Canada, where they stayed with them briefly before returning to the United States to settle in Baltimore. The McGinnises raised their family in Baltimore, reunited with Ellen’s daughter Mary Ann, as well as Frederick’s son Julius, and their daughter Emma Elizabeth.

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