CULPEPER (VA) STAR-EXPONENT APRIL 11, 2010
Unlocking history in ‘Freeing Charles’
Photo by Vincent Vala
RETRACING CHARLES’ STEPS: Cole’s Hill in eastern Culpeper County was the family home of Blucher Hansbrough, who owned his half-brother Charles Nalle. Nalle escaped from the vast plantation in 1858 and, joined by another slave, pushed north to D.C., Philadelphia and finally New York. His tale is retold in great detail in the new book “Freeing Charles” by Scott Christianson.
By Allison Brophy Champion
Published: April 11, 2010
“Freeing Charles” unlocks the story of an escaped slave from Culpeper County, shedding light on a vast landscape of veiled American history and one man’s dramatic struggle to live freely with his family.
Artfully written, painstakingly researched and lovingly given by author Scott Christianson of New York State, the 240-page book, published in February, is not just new source material, it’s a riveting journey of domestic and academic exploration north and south of the Mason Dixon line.
The story begins on a pastoral plantation in Stevensburg, a farming village east of the town of Culpeper, at a time when slavery was a way of life supported by most churches in Culpeper, Christianson writes.
“Freeing Charles” reaches fever pitch some 450 miles away in industrial Troy, N.Y., on the eve of the Civil War. Amazingly, the great abolitionist and slave liberator Harriet Tubman played a vital role in freeing the book’s central character, Charles Nalle, born 1821 into slavery in Stevensburg.
“His story conveys a sense of how terribly difficult and complicated it was to free a slave from bondage before the Great Emancipation,” Christianson writes.
Charles was first owned by his white father, Peter Hansbrough, one of the wealthiest and best-known landowners in the area; the family home was on Cole’s Hill. Peter, in fact, was known to have fathered several children with his slave Lucy. (In 2006, the Star-Exponent delved deeper into such master-slave unions as well as Charles’ story in the three-party series, “Half brother, fully enslaved.”)
But for most of his life in Culpeper, starting in 1831, Nalle was owned by his half-brother Blucher Hansbrough, the youngest child of Peter and his wife, Frances Anne. A wealthy planter like his father, Blucher was known for his fancy clothes and penchant for parties and women.
As is common, Christianson notes in the book, there are gaping holes in the early life and record of Nalle. No birth certificate exists for him, nor do any images or photos. The author, in his nearly 20 years of research for the story, was also unable to find any photos of the Hansbroughs.
In one of many interviews he would later give to the newspapers in Troy, N.Y., Nalle described his half-brother as “a sporting man who kept racehorses, went to all the cockfights in that region and always kept a barrel of whiskey on draught in the house.”
Charles, a light-skinned slave often mistaken as white, and Blucher, a free man of upper class, were blood relatives, adding another psychological layer Christianson exposes in “Freeing Charles.”
According to Nalle, Blucher did not raise a hand to his slaves. And as Christianson reports, the slave served as his brother’s coachman and in that capacity got to accompany Blucher to many social events. It was one of the more regarded jobs a slave could have, and yet Charles was still a slave.
“Just because a slave enjoyed a relatively privileged position didn’t mean he was contented being a slave,” Christianson writes. “‘It’s bad to belong to folks dat own you soul an’ body,’ one former slave would explain.”
The geography and slavery of Stevensburg and Cole’s Hill receives plenty of attention in “Freeing Charles,” as does the larger slave trade in Virginia, which was centered in Richmond. It’s eye-opening stuff, especially the sections on blacks being corralled into pens where the conditions were less than dismal.
“Traders called Virginia the ‘nursery of slavery’ because slave breeding and marketing were so productive there,” Christianson writes.
In spite of what must have been an intimate relationship with his half-brother — Blucher and Charles basically grew up together and were only four years apart — Hansbrough attempted to sell Nalle at auction in Richmond in 1847.
“That day, however, bidders were scarce,” Christianson writes. “Charles would later recall that after their inspection, the traders said they wouldn’t take him because his legs were ‘so white;’ besides someone added, he was a ‘saucy-looking nigger’ and ‘had too much fire in his eye.’ Clearly his light-complexioned appearance made them too uncomfortable — he looked too much like a white man. Once again, his color provided him with an advantage.”
Charles was not sold, and on the following day Blucher came by and took him back to Stevensburg, promising he’d never again offer Charles for sale.
“But things would never be the same after that ordeal of 1847. Whatever trust Charles had for Blucher Hansbrough had been greatly diminished.”
Three years later, Charles would marry Kitty, a slave on a neighboring plantation, and the stakes for freedom would get even higher. Freed upon her master’s death in 1855, Kitty was forced to leave Culpeper and Virginia — emancipated slaves could not remain in the commonwealth. By that time, the couple had four daughters and another child — a son — on the way. She boarded a train at Brandy Station and headed to her new life in Washington, D.C.
Separated from his family and fearing he might be sold, as Blucher, increasingly in debt, struggled to hold on to the farm, Charles planned his escape. To his credit, Blucher granted his half-brother a pass to visit Kitty in D.C., where she had taken seriously ill. Another Stevensburg-area slave, Jim Banks, accompanied Charles and the two eventually reached the Washington office of the Underground Railroad, a vast network of places and people, north and south, who helped slaves to freedom.
Per the escape plan detailed in Christianson’s book, the two fled D.C. via the docks in Georgetown, boarding a boat bound for Philadelphia.
“To their good fortune, on the morning of Oct. 18, the Potomac River around Washington became enveloped in a thick fog that rendered the safe passage of steamboats and other river craft extremely hazardous,” Christianson writes. “Such a turn in the weather could have proved fortuitous, for it might have delayed any pursuers.”
Reaching Philly, Charles hurried to the Anti-Slavery Office on Fifth Street, where he was interviewed by William Still, whom Christianson calls the foremost chronicler of the Underground Railroad. Still later wrote that “Charles bore strong testimony in favor of his master, Blooker W. Hansborough, a farmer,” saying Charles called his half-brother, “a first-rate man to his servants.”
From Philadelphia, Nalle made his way to Albany, N.Y., Sand Lake and then on to Troy. He and Kitty and the children remained separated.
Around the same time, abolitionist John Brown staged his failed raid at Harper’s Ferry, for which he was hanged. Christianson said Charles would very likely have been in Troy when they returned Brown’s body there. Securing a job as a coachman for a rich industrialist in Troy, Charles aligned himself with the local black community and UGRR network.
His newfound freedom was in jeopardy by 1860, however, when Charles was betrayed by a local lawyer to Blucher, who rallied up Culpeper slave catchers to retrieve his property, his brother.
Arrested and placed in jail, Charles would attract quite a crowd that day in Troy, the subsequent fight for his freedom a story of great resilience and determination.
“Freeing Charles” begs to be made for the big screen — and to think that Tubman cared enough about a single slave from Culpeper to risk all for his liberation. “They could see her fight her way to his side, throw her arms around him and hold onto this clothes refusing to let go.”
“Ultimately, freeing Charles would not prove to be an easy task: not for his family and friends, not for the Underground Railroad, not for the mob, and least of all not for himself,” Christianson writes.
“The struggle to liberate a single slave … would put many of the contestants, of the American society itself, to a defining test, just as would later happen on the bloody battlefields of the Civil War.”
Charles Nalle, as a free man, never talked about the violent struggle for his life. Yet his is an important story not told oft enough.
“It is not enough to have liberated Charles,” Christianson concludes. “We must also liberate history and memory. Traces of the hidden past lie all around us and inside of us. Delve closely and you can find them.”
Want to read it?
Author Scott Christianson’s “Freeing Charles,” the dramatic story of an escaped Culpeper County slave, can be purchased at barnesandnoble.com, amazon.com and other online outlets.