- The “Pearl”: A Failed Slave Escape on the Potomac
For several years now I have been looking for a succinct way to convey to students how slave resistance helped cause the Civil War. Josephine Pacheco's book succeeds in doing this better than anything I have read. Although the book does not explicitly comment on the literature of the coming of the Civil War, and it is solely confined to analyzing the little-known escape of seventy-six slaves down the Potomac on the Pearl in April 1848, Pacheco wonderfully and convincingly illustrates how the decisions of ordinary slaves to resist helped rupture the political fabric of the nation. The book moves with ease between a careful analysis of the escape attempt and an analysis of the political repercussions of the story. Along the way Pacheco demonstrates that slaves who tried to escape on the Pearl from Washington, D.C., should be added to the great train of events leading toward civil war. She shows how ordinary slaves helped polarize Congress as well as ordinary white citizens in the North and South. Pacheco's tale is masterfully told and would be a vivid addition to lecture notes or could be assigned to students at either the undergraduate or graduate level.
At the heart of this elegant book is a gripping account of the escape attempt on the Pearl that ended with the recapture of the runaway slaves, a story that has [End Page 69] never been fully unraveled. The plot involved interracial collaboration between white abolitionists and Washington's slave community. White Northerners Daniel Drayton and Edward Sayres were the two watermen who steered the Pearl toward freedom, but Pacheco convincingly demonstrates that these men were part of a broader conspiracy that extended to William Chaplin of Washington, an agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Charles Dexter Cleveland of Philadelphia, who helped provide the ship, and Garret Smith, who helped finance Chaplin's Washington efforts. Pacheco did not uncover much evidence of how the slaves planned for the escape, but there is still considerable drama in her rich portrayal of an escape that might have succeeded if not for bad weather that stalled the Pearl.
The remaining chapters of the book explore how Southern and Northern attitudes hardened as a result of the escape. Proslavery citizens of Washington, angry about the influx of abolitionists in Washington, took to the streets and vandalized the building that housed the abolitionist National Era. They also threatened to lynch Drayton and Sayres from their jail cells. At the same time, abolitionist passions were fanned in the North when it was reported that Henry Slacer, Methodist chaplain of the Senate, was seen at the train station at Capitol Hill shaking the hand of a prominent slave trader, who was in the midst of transporting recaptured Pearl slaves for sale in the South. Northern abolitionists used this example to point out the hypocrisy of Methodism, a denomination that had antislavery origins in the eighteenth century but increasingly supported slavery in the nineteenth century. The abolitionist cause was further bolstered by the publicity surrounding the six slave siblings in the Edmundson family who escaped on the Pearl. Their plight was made known by their free black brother, who made contact with Joshua Giddings, an abolitionist congressman, who subsequently helped organize a campaign to buy two of his sisters, Mary and Emily, from one of the many slave traders who quickly moved in to prey on the misfortune of the runaways. These articulate, reputedly beautiful young women became abolitionist celebrities and helped preserve the memory of the Pearl among Northerners for years. The rest of the book suggests how the incident was on the minds of politicians as they crafted the Compromise of 1850. Southern lawmakers, reminded of the perils of border-state slaveholding by the Pearl incident, fought for and received a tougher fugitive slave law. Northern politicians, remembering how the Pearl slaves were sold in the South from District of Columbia slave pens, achieved an...