Seizing Their Own Freedom
By 1862, as the realities and hardships of war grew around the city of Richmond and United States Army lines moved closer to the Confederate capital, enslaved individuals within the Davis household began to take opportunities to seize their own freedom.
Henry Mosely, was an enslaved man who was hired out by Robert Ford Esq. to work as a butler in the executive mansion for the Davis Family in late 1863. Henry was described as a “tall stoutly-built” man with a “soft voice, rather slim in volume for so large a man.”
For years little evidence existed about Henry other than a pass written in Jefferson Davis’ hand which read:
Pass Henry to Apothecary’s store and back to Presdt’s House—
Nov. 10, 1863
In early 1864, after only a few months of his being in the house, Henry escaped enslavement from within the Davis household just weeks after the departure of the Pembertons. Henry’s departure received a good deal of attention as it coincided with the outbreak of a fire within the basement of the executive mansion. Whether this fire was a result of arson or coincidence is unknown, but some, even in the Davis family’s inner circle, suspected sabotage.
The Southern press speculated about outside influences coming to bear on Henry and others who escaped enslavement at the executive mansion, as in this article from the Richmond Examiner dated January 21, 1864:
“Between the hours of ten and eleven o’clock on Tuesday night a most diabolical attempt was made by an incendiary to destroy the house of President Davis. At the time mentioned, the attention of some members of the President’s family having been attracted by a smell of smoke, which seemed to proceed from the basement, instant alarm was given and a search made, which disclosed the fact that the premises were on fire in the east basement room, which was used as a wood and coal house. A large quantity of shaving…placed by the incendiary against a pile of wood, were in blaze, and, but for the timely discovery, would soon have communicated to the wood and resulted in the destruction of the building and perhaps a loss of life. The fire was soon extinguished, when it appeared that an entrance into the house had been effected through the wood house window, and that the miscreants, before applying the torch, had broken into the storeroom, also in the basement, and stolen a large quantity of butter, lard, and other groceries. Had this attempt to burn the building have been made an hour or two later in the night, there is every probability that it would have been successful.
No clue has been obtained as to who were the perpetrators of this robbery and outrage; but the general impression among citizens is that it was the work of some of the five or six hundred Yankee prisoners who have been turned loose in the city. We, however, think it quite as likely that the President’s house servants know something of the matter.”
Henry’s fate after this incident remained unknown for many years, but a recently uncovered article in the abolitionist periodical, the Anglo-African, indicates that Henry not only successfully escaped to freedom, but he may have been reunited with the Pembertons.