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Self Emancipation

Seeking Freedom During the Civil War: Elisabeth, Nancy & Rosalie

Right: Lowering the Louisiana State Flag after the Union takes New Orleans, April 29, 1862. Union occupation lead to increasing resistance by enslaved people against their bondage, who were additionally encouraged as word spread through 1862 that the Union was not enforcing fugitive slave laws.

a group of people in an old photo of a crowd

When New Orleans was taken by the Union early on in the Civil War, its new status as Union occupied territory encouraged many enslaved people to see opportunity in the change in power. Leaving their places of bondage, they sought freedom in cities, contraband camps, or even working on other plantations, an act often referred to as self-emancipation.

Some of these determined men and women were owned by the Roman family. Letters from 1863 between Celina Roman in New Orleans and her son, Henri Roman at Oak Alley give valuable insight into the chaos and uncertainty of the time as well as the increasing frustration of slaveowners as “their property” increasingly resisted control. Celina wrote to Henri on January 3:

“I have no news of your [Henri’s] servants, Zabeth and Nancy, and for the rest, I am looking for them and if they are found they will be caged up right fast. I have three of them in prison [in New Orleans] for now. This costs $36 a month and when we find a way to send them back to the country and I beg you to put them to work in the fields and lock them up in the evenings and on Sundays… Send me your news often and let me know if your Negroes return to you. The first of January there were rumors in the streets that the blacks would no longer serve their masters.”

The young women in the letter who had fled the plantation had both been enslaved to the Romans their entire life. Elisabeth, or “Zabeth” as she was called by the Romans, was seventeen at the time of her disappearance, and Nancy was not much older at eighteen. Elisabeth worked in the plantation ‘Big House’ along with her father, Deterville and mother, MeanaNancy’s mother, Emelia, was a field slave, but it is very possible that Nancy had been assigned to the mansion, as Celina refers to both girls as “your servants”, a general term used to distinguish house slaves from field slaves. It is puzzling to wonder if the two planned their escape, told their parents, or just simply fled. Clearly, both Henri and Celina thought it probable that the two set out for New Orleans, but we do not know for sure. Regardless, neither Elisabeth nor Nancy appear in any documents later than this letter, offering the hope that perhaps the two were successful.

Only a few days later, another young woman was the focus of Celina’s fury, this time the freedom seeker was one of her slaves in New Orleans. She wrote to Henri on January 7:

“…if my dunce of a Rosalie goes to the plantation to put her to work in the fields and punish her well for me. Saturday she tricked me. I can’t write what she did. After having been discovered, she sent her trunk to the country on Sunday… this evening she decamped, taking the rest of her clothing. It seems that she said she would go to the country.”

Unlike Elisabeth and Nancy—for whom Celina was searching in the city—Rosalie was presumed to have run away to the plantation. Whether her announcement was real or meant as a diversion, we don’t know, but would have been a reasonable path to take considering her family was still working there. She packed her trunk and she arranged for its transport ahead of herself. Not only would she draw less attention and questions traveling separately from her trunk (enslaved persons were regularly sent between plantations and the city), it would have required that she have proper travel papers. She not only had a plan, but a thorough knowledge of how to execute that plan successfully.

In the continuing chaos of the Civil War, enslaved women did live and work at area contraband camps, and others looked for work in the city. Still others were, as Celina saw fit, jailed. However, whatever the outcome, it is important to know that in January, 1863, Elisabeth, Nancy and Rosalie, enslaved at Oak Alley or to the Roman family, did not wait for bureaucracy to negotiate or ensure their independence, they self-emancipated.

Works Cited: 

  • Letter from Celina Pilie Roman to her son Henri Roman, Tulane University, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, LaRC 179 Roman Family Papers

Contributed by Charlotte Brooks