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.
James and Betsey Pemberton
James and Betsey Pemberton, were an enslaved couple who served as body servant and maid, respectively to the Davises. James Pemberton had been with the Davis family all his life, and he and Betsey came to Richmond from their Brierfield Plantation outside of Vicksburg, Mississippi at the beginning of the war.
James and Betsey had long been assumed by the Davises to be among the most loyal of the people they enslaved and they thought them incapable of betrayal. But by early 1864, life inside the executive mansion had darkened even further as the fortunes of the Confederacy began to fade. One night, these tensions erupted into an act of brutal violence which would compel James and Betsey Pemberton to risk their lives together and their safety in an attempt to seize their own freedom.
James Pemberton describes the events as follows in a February 6, 1864, article in the Anglo African, a Black owned abolitionist paper.
“Mrs. Davis is a very bad woman, and one night about 10 o’clock she called Mrs. Pemberton, who was then very ill, from her bed to get something out of a box…After much labor Mrs. P. managed to get up stairs, and told Mrs. Davis that she was unable to unscrew the box. For saying this, Jeff Davis, who was sitting before the fire, bounded from his seat, knocked her down, and then attempted to choke her.”
After weeks of continual harsh treatment following the incident, James and Betsey made their escape. Varina Davis recalled the night Jim and Betsey left in her memoir.
“One young woman, who was an object of much affectionate solicitude to me, followed her husband off, but systematically arranged her flight. She made a good fire in the nursery and came to warn me that the baby would be alone, as she was going out for a while. We never saw her afterward.”
James and Betsey fled in the night out of Richmond towards the United States Army’s position at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. Fort Monroe had become a destination for enslaved people seeking freedom due to the “Contrabands” policy of General Benjamin Butler, which used the Southern notion of people as property to liberate enslaved people who made it to United States lines on the grounds that they were seized Southern property. The couple arrived and were met by General Butler himself who interviewed James Pemberton.
“A table servant of Jeff. Davis has come within our lines. I have examined him and think him truthful and reliable, and his information of sufficient consequence to send him to you…The boy’s name is James Pemberton. I send by mail minutes of a hurried examination.”