Charles Ball was born a slave around 1785 in Calvert County, Maryland. When he was four years old, his family was broken up by the sale of his mother. As a young man he was separated from his wife and children and sold to a slave trader. The journey described here occurred after that sale. Ball carefully observed his route and later used that knowledge to escape from a South Carolina cotton plantation and return to his family in Maryland. After his escape, Ball lived as a free man in Maryland and Washington, D.C. When his wife died, he remarried, established a new family, and farmed his own property near Baltimore. This period of happiness, however, did not last. Ball and his family were captured, separated, and dragged back into slavery. Although Ball managed to escape again, his family did not. He dictated this memoir while living in Philadelphia, free, but still fearful of recapture.
My master kept a store at a small village on the bank of the Patuxent river, called B—, although he resided at some distance on a farm. One morning he rose early, and ordered me to take a yoke of oxen and go to the village, to bring home a cart which was there, saying he would follow me. He arrived at the village soon after I did, and took his breakfast with his store-keeper. He then told me to come into the house and get my breakfast. Whilst I was eating in the kitchen, I observed him talking earnestly, but lowly, to a stranger near the kitchen door. I soon after went out, and hitched my oxen to the cart, and was about to drive off, when several men came round about me, and amongst them the stranger whom I had seen speaking with my master. This man came up to me, and, seizing me by the collar, shook me violently, saying I was his property, and must go with him to Georgia. At the sound of these words, the thoughts of my wife and children rushed across my mind, and my heart died away within me. I saw and knew that my case was hopeless, and that resistance was vain, as there were near twenty persons present, all of whom were ready to assist the man by whom I was kidnapped. I felt incapable of weeping or speaking, and in my despair I laughed loudly. My purchaser ordered me to cross my hands behind, which were quickly bound with a strong cord; and he then told me that we must set out that very day for the south. I asked if I could not be allowed to go to see my wife and children, or if this could not be permitted, if they might not have leave to come to see me; but was told that I would be able to get another wife in Georgia.
My new master, whose name I did not hear, took me that same day across the Patuxent, where I joined fifty-one other slaves, whom he had bought in Maryland. Thirty-two of these were men, and nineteen were women. The women were merely tied together with a rope, about the size of a bed cord, which was tied like a halter round the neck of each; but the men, of whom I was the stoutest and strongest, were very differently caparisoned. A strong iron collar was closely fitted by means of a padlock round each of our necks. A chain of iron, about a hundred feet in length, was passed through the hasp of each padlock, except at the two ends, where the hasps of the padlocks passed through a link of the chain. In addition to this, we were handcuffed in pairs, with iron staples and bolts, with a short chain, about a foot long, uniting the handcuffs and their wearers in pairs. In this manner we were chained alternately by the right and left hand; and the poor man, to whom I was thus ironed, wept like a[n] infant when the blacksmith, with his heavy hammer, fastened the ends of the bolts that kept the staples from slipping from our arms. For my own part, I felt indifferent to my fate. It appeared to me that the worst had come, that could come, and that no change of fortune could harm me.
After we were all chained and handcuffed together, we sat down upon the ground; and here reflecting upon the sad reverse of fortune that had so suddenly overtaken me, and the dreadful suffering which awaited me, I became weary of life, and bitterly execrated the day I was born. It seemed that I was destined by fate to drink the cup of sorrow to the very dregs, and that I should find no respite from misery but in the grave. I longed to die, and escape from the hands of my tormentors; but even the wretched privilege of destroying myself was denied me; for I could not shake off my chains, nor move a yard without the consent of my master. Reflecting in silence upon my forlorn condition, I at length concluded that as things could not become worse—and as the life of man is but a continued round of changes, they must, of necessity, take a turn in my favour at some future day. I found relief in this vague and indefinite hope, and when we received orders to go on board the scow, which was to transport us over the Patuxent, I marched down to the water with a firmness of purpose of which I did not believe myself capable, a few minutes before.
We were soon on the south side of the river, and taking up our line of march, we travelled about five miles that evening, and stopped for the night at one of those miserable public houses, so frequent in the lower parts of Maryland and Virginia, called “ordinaries.”
Our master ordered a pot of mush to be made for our supper; after despatching which, we all lay down on the naked floor to sleep in our handcuffs and chains. The women, my fellow-slaves, lay on one side of the room; and the men who were chained with me, occupied the other. I slept but little this night, which I passed in thinking of my wife and little children, whom I could not hope ever to see again. I also thought of my grandfather, and of the long nights I had passed with him, listening to his narratives of the scenes through which he had passed in Africa. I at length fell asleep, but was distressed by painful dreams. My wife and children appeared to be weeping and lamenting my calamity; and beseeching and imploring my master on their knees, not to carry me away from them. My little boy came and begged me not to go and leave him, and endeavoured, as I thought, with his little hands to break the fetters that bound me. I awoke in agony and cursed my existence. I could not pray, for the measure of my woes seemed to be full, and I felt as if there was no mercy in heaven, nor compassion on earth, for a man who was born a slave. Day at length came, and with the dawn, we resumed our journey towards the Potomac. As we passed along the road, I saw the slaves at work in the corn and tobacco-fields. I knew they toiled hard and lacked food but they were not, like me, dragged in chains from their wives, children, and friends. Compared with me, they were the happiest of mortals. I almost envied them their blessed lot.
Before night we crossed the Potomac, at Hoe’s Ferry, and bade farewell to Maryland. At night we stopped at the house of a poor gentleman, at least he appeared to wish my master to consider him a gentleman; and he had no difficulty in establishing his claim to poverty. He lived at the side of the road, in a framed house, which had never been plastered within—the weather-boards being the only wall. He had about fifty acres of land enclosed by a fence, the remains of a farm which had once covered two or three hundred acres; but the cedar bushes had encroached upon all sides, until the cultivation had been confined to its present limits. The land was the very picture of sterility, and there was neither barn nor stable on the place. The owner was ragged, and his wife and children were in a similar plight. It was with difficulty that we obtained a bushel of corn, which our master ordered us to parch at a fire made in the yard, and to eat for our supper. Even this miserable family possessed two slaves, half-starved, half-naked wretches, whose appearance bespoke them familiar with hunger, and victims of the lash; but yet there was one pang which they had not known,—they had not been chained and driven from their parents, or children, into hopeless exile.
We left this place early in the morning, and directed our course toward the south-west; our master riding beside us, and hastening our march, sometimes by words of encouragement, and sometimes by threats of punishment. The women took their place in the rear of our line. We halted about nine o’clock for breakfast, and received as much cornbread as we could eat, together with a plate of broiled herrings, and about three pounds of pork amongst us. Before we left this place, I was removed from near the middle of the chain, and placed at the front end of it; so that I now became the leader of the file, and held this post of honour until our irons were taken from us, near the town of Columbia in South Carolina. We continued our route this day along the high road between the Potomac and Rappahannock: and I several times saw each of those rivers before night. Our master gave us no dinner to day, but we halted a short time before sundown, and got as much corn mush, and sour milk, as we could eat for supper. It was now the beginning of the month of May, and the weather, in the fine climate of Virginia, was very mild and pleasant; so that our master was not obliged to provide us with fire at night.
From this time, to the end of our journey southward, we all slept, promiscuously, men and women, on the floors of such houses as we chanced to stop at. We had no clothes except those we wore, and a few blankets; the larger portion of our gang being in rags at the time we crossed the Potomac. Two of the women were pregnant; the one far advanced—and she already complained of inability to keep pace with our march; but her complaints were disregarded. We crossed the Rappahannock at Port Royal, and afterwards passed through the village of Bowling Green; a place with which I became better acquainted in after times; but which now presented the quiet so common to all the small towns in Virginia, and indeed in all the southern states. Time did not reconcile me to my chains, but it made me familiar with them; and in a few days the horrible sensations attendant upon my cruel separation from my wife and children, in some measure subsided; and I began to reflect upon my present hopeless and desperate situation, with some degree of calmness; hoping that I might be able to devise some means of escaping from the hands of my new master, who seemed to place particular value on me, as I could perceive from his conversation with such persons as we happened to meet at our resting places. I heard him tell a tavern-keeper where we halted, that if he had me in Georgia, he could get five hundred dollars for me; but he had bought me for his brother, and he believed he would not sell me; but in this he afterwards changed his opinion. I examined every part of our long chain, to see if there might not be some place in it at which it could be severed; but found it so completely secured, that with any means in my power, its separation was impossible. From this time I endeavoured to beguile my sorrows, by examining the state of the country through which we were travelling, and observing the condition of my fellow-slaves, on the plantations along the high-road upon which we sojourned.
We all had as much corn bread as we could eat. This was procured by our owner at the small dram shops, or ordinaries, at which we usually tarried all night. In addition to this, we generally received a salt herring though not every day. On Sunday, our master bought as much bacon, as, when divided amongst us, gave about a quarter of a pound to each person in our gang.
In Calvert county, where I was born, the practice amongst slave-holders, was to allow each slave one peck of corn weekly, which was measured out every Monday morning; at the same time each one receiving seven salt herrings. This formed the week’s provision, and the master who did not give it, was called a hard master, whilst those who allowed their people any thing more, were deemed kind and indulgent. It often happened, that the stock of salt herrings laid up by a master in the spring, was not sufficient to enable him to continue this rate of distribution through the year; and when the fish failed, nothing more than the corn was dealt out. On the other hand, some planters, who had large stocks of cattle; and many cows, kept the sour milk, after all the cream had been skimmed from it, and made a daily distribution of this amongst the working slaves. Some who had large apple orchards, gave their slaves a pint of cider each per day, through the autumn. It sometimes happened, too, in the lower counties of Maryland, that there was an allowance of pork, made to the slaves one day in each week; though on some estates this did not take place more than once in a month. This allowance of meat was disposed of in such a manner as to permit each slave to get a slice; very often amounting to half a pound. The slaves were also permitted to work for themselves at night, and on Sunday. If they chose to fish, they had the privilege of selling whatever they caught. Some expert fishermen caught and sold as many fish and oysters, as enabled them to buy coffee, sugar, and other luxuries for their wives, besides keeping themselves and their families in Sunday clothes; for, the masters in Maryland only allowed the men one wool hat, one pair of shoes, two shirts, two pair of trousers—one pair of tow cloth, and one of woollen—and one woollen jacket in the year. The women were furnished in proportion. All other clothes they had to provide for themselves. Children not able to work in the field, were not provided with clothes at all, by their masters. It is, however, honourable to the Maryland slave-holders, that they never permit women to go naked in the fields, or about the house; and if the men are industrious and employ themselves well on Sundays and holydays, they can always keep themselves in comfortable clothes.
In Virginia, it appeared to me that the slaves were more rigorously treated than they were in my native place. It is easy to tell a man of colour who is poorly fed, from one who is well supplied with food, by his personal appearance. A half-starved negro is a miserable looking creature. His skin becomes dry, and appears to be sprinkled over with whitish husks, or scales; the glossiness of his face vanishes, his hair loses its colour, becomes dry, and when stricken with a rod, the dust flies from it. These signs of bad treatment I perceived to be very common in Virginia; many young girls who would have been beautiful, if they had been allowed enough to eat, had lost all their prettiness through mere starvation; their fine glossy hair had become of a reddish colour, and stood out round their heads like long brown wool.
Our master at first expressed a determination to pass through the city of Richmond; but for some reason, which he did not make known to us, he changed his mind, and drove us up the country, crossing the Matepony, North Anna and South Anna rivers. For several days we traversed a region, which had been deserted by the occupants—being no longer worth culture—and immense thickets of young red cedars, now occupied the fields, in digging of which, thousands of wretched slaves had worn out their lives in the service of merciless masters.
In some places these cedar thickets, as they are called, continued for three or four miles together, without a house to enliven the scene, and with scarcely an original forest tree to give variety to the landscape. One day, in the midst of a wilderness of cedars, we came in view of a stately and venerable looking brick edifice, which, on nearer inspection, I discovered to be a church. On approaching it, our driver ordered us to halt, and dismounting from his horse, tied him to a young cedar tree, and sat himself down upon a flat tomb-stone, near the west end of the church, ordering us, at the same time, to sit down among the grass and rest ourselves. The grave yard in which we were now encamped, occupied about two acres of ground, which was surrounded by a square brick wall, much dilapidated, and in many places broken down nearly to the ground. The gates were decayed and gone, but the gate-ways were yet distinct. The whole enclosure was thickly strewed with graves, many of which were surmounted by beautiful marble slabs; others were designated by plain head and foot stones; whilst far the larger number only betrayed the resting places of their sleeping tenant, by the simple mounds of clay, which still maintained their elevation above the level of the surrounding earth. From the appearance of this burial place, I suppose no one had been interred there for thirty years. Several hollies, planted by the hands of friendship, grew amongst the hillocks, and numerous flowering shrubs and bushes, now in bloom, gave fragrance to the air of the place. The cedars which covered the surrounding plain, with a forest impervious to the eye, had respected this lonely dwelling of the dead, and not one was to be seen within the walls.
Though it was now the meridian of day in spring, the stillness of midnight pervaded the environs of this deserted and forsaken temple; the pulpit, pews, and gallery of which were still standing, as I could perceive through the broken door-way, and maintained a freshness and newness of appearance, little according with the time-worn aspect of the exterior scenery.
It was manifest that this earthly dwelling of the Most High, now so desolate and ruinous, was once the resort of a congregation of people, gay, fashionable, and proud; who had disappeared from the land, leaving only this fallen edifice, and these grassy tombs, as the mementos of their existence. They had passed away, even as did the wandering red men, who roamed through the lofty oak forests which once shaded the ground where we now lay. As I sat musing upon the desolation that surrounded me, my mind turned to the cause which had converted a former rich and populous country, into the solitude of a deserted wilderness.
The ground over which we had travelled, since we crossed the Potomac, had generally been a strong reddish clay, with an admixture of sand, and was of the same quality with the soil of the counties of Chester, Montgomery, and Bucks, in Pennsylvania. It had originally been highly fertile and productive, and had it been properly treated, would doubtlessly have continued to yield abundant and prolific crops; but the gentlemen who became the early proprietors of this fine region, supplied themselves with slaves from Africa, cleared large plantations of many thousands of acres—cultivated tobacco—and became suddenly wealthy; built spacious houses and numerous churches, such as this; but, regardless of their true interest, they valued their lands less than their slaves, exhausted the kindly soil by unremitting crops of tobacco, declined in their circumstances, and finally grew poor, upon the very fields that had formerly made their possessors rich; abandoned one portion after another, as not worth planting any longer, and, pinched by necessity, at last sold their slaves to Georgian planters, to procure a subsistence; and when all was gone, took refuge in the wilds of Kentucky, again to act the same melancholy drama, leaving their native land to desolation and poverty. The churches then followed the fate of their builders. The revolutionary war deprived the parsons of their legal support, and they fled from the altar which no longer maintained them. Virginia has become poor by the folly and wickedness of slavery, and dearly has she paid for the anguish and sufferings she has inflicted upon our injured, degraded, and fallen race.
Source: Charles Ball, Slavery in the United States. A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, a Black Man, Who Lived Forty Years in Maryland, South Carolina and Georgia, as a Slave Under Various Maters, and was One Year in the Navy with Commodore Barney, During the Late War (New York: John S. Taylor, 1837), 35–48.