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Fording the Rappahannock

  • African Americans Fording the Rappahannock, Photograph, August 1862
This photograph shows fugitive African Americans crossing the Rappahannock River during General Pope's retreat in August 1862.
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African Americans Fording the Rappahannock, Photograph, August 1862

During the United States Civil War, many enslaved African Americans sought opportunities to gain their freedom wherever they could. This quest for freedom often led them to seek out the camps of the Union army whenever the U.S. Army was in the area. Such was the case during the Second Battle of Manassas, fought in August 1862 in Prince William County. General Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson outmaneuvered Union forces under the control of General John Pope, forcing Pope's troops to retreat across the Rappahannock River.

This photograph, “Fugitive African Americans fording the Rappahannock,” depicts a group of African Americans actively engaged in seeking freedom for themselves by following the Union army. Since the beginning of the war, the camps of the Union forces had been inundated with African Americans seeking freedom. On May 27, 1861, General Benjamin F. Butler, the commander of the Union army in the Virginia and North Carolina during the Civil War, issued a decree that his troops would not follow the Fugitive Slave Act, and instead all slaves who fled to Union lines would be treated as “contraband of war” and would therefore not be returned to the Confederacy. Congress validated Butler's decree on August 6, 1861, creating the First Confiscation Act, which prohibited Union military officers from returning runaway or captured slaves who had been used in the Confederate war effort to their masters.

Lincoln was initially unsure and cautious about emancipating the slaves. On several occasions Lincoln made it clear that his primary intention was to save the Union, regardless of the outcome as it related to slavery. Lincoln rescinded emancipation orders that were given by two Union generals (John C. Frémont and David Hunter, in September 1861 and May 1862, respectively), preferring to reserve the power to emancipate as his own as commander-in-chief. Throughout 1862 Lincoln took several steps that indicated a total Emancipation was likely in the future. Enacted on July 17, 1862, the Second Confiscation Act, however, emancipated all slaves coming under Union military jurisdiction who were owned by Confederate masters. This explains the presence of slave refugees in the middle of a Union retreat. The safety and freedom of the refugee slaves was dependent on their proximity to the Union army.

This photograph was taken by Timothy H. O'Sullivan, who at the time worked as an apprentice to Mathew Brady. O'Sullivan left Brady to photograph American Civil War battlefields on his own, but soon joined the studio of Alexander Gardner. In 1866, Gardner included forty-four of O'Sullivan's pictures in the first published collection of Civil War photographs, Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the War.

After the war, O'Sullivan obtained a position as a photographer in the first governmental survey of the American West, the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel. In 1874 he returned to Washington, D.C., to make prints for the Army Corps of Engineers. He was later made the chief photographer for the United States Treasury in 1880, but died of tuberculosis in January 1882 at about the age of forty-one.

For Educators


1. Why were these African Americans travelling with the Union army?

2. Who was leading the Union and Confederate armies in the Second Battle of Manassas?

Further Discussion

1. Why did Lincoln wait to issue the Emancipation Proclamation? Did he accomplish his goals?

2. What do you imagine the African Americans shown in this image experienced both before and after this photograph was taken?


Library of Congress Bibliographic Information-Rappahannock Photograph

Suggested Reading

Vorenberg, Michael. Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.