By the time the Civil War was over, both Stepney Brown and Julia Ann Mitchell had escaped Richmond. The ways in which they got out, however, demonstrate the radical differences between the status and privileges of the two.
In 1859, a man known to Julia Mitchell as her late father’s slave, Stepney Brown, ran away. Mitchell and her mother (also named Julia) likely lived on Franklin Street, in the heart of Richmond’s poshest neighborhood just up the hill from the James River wharfs.
Julia Mitchell’s uncle and the executor of her father’s estate, Samuel P. Mitchell, placed an ad in the newspaper, offering a reward for Stepney’s return.
Mitchell described Stepney, originally from Amelia County and aged about 45, as “a good looking man, but a little stooping and round shouldered.” He offered a reward of $50 if captured in Virginia, and $100 if captured out of state.
We do not know how he escaped, but it is likely that Stepney walked down to Shockoe Bottom, slipped aboard a ship with a friendly crew, and stowed away down the James River on a packet to Philadelphia.
Stepney next appeared in the offices of William Still, a major operator of the Underground Railroad, in Philadelphia. Now he was Stepney Brown, aged 35. The Mitchells hadn’t bothered to fuss over the details – like a surname – that made him human. Mr. Brown told Mr. Still that he had belonged to the elder Mrs. Mitchell, who was, “Decidedly stingy and unkind, although a member of St. Paul’s church.”
Brown sought his freedom because, “I believed that I had a right to be a free man.” However, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had made escaped slaves all over the free states fugitives anywhere in the country. Although he’d made it to Philadelphia, Mr. Brown still needed to leave the country to remain free.
Julia Ann Mitchell never had to worry about moving about the country as a fugitive. In fact, her position as a wealthy White woman afforded her the opportunity to cross borders with relative ease—even between two warring parties.
The Mitchell family hailed from Massachusetts, originally. They had spent the 1850s moving freely up and down the eastern seaboard, and at least once, to Europe, on shopping and visiting excursions. On one trip, Julia met Frederick Coggill, a wool importer in New York City, and fell in love with him.
But the Mitchells loved their home in Richmond, too, and the men of their northern-born family supported the Confederate States. Julia’s brother, Samuel Mitchell, enlisted in the army and gave his life at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill in 1862. Meanwhile, Julia Mitchell’s mother and uncle continued to buy and hire enslaved people up to the moment that she accompanied her daughter away from Richmond.
While we know why Stepney Brown fled—“I had a right to be a free man”—we don’t have an affirmative statement from the Mitchell family about their own choice to leave. But leaving made sense. By 1863, Richmond had begun to crack under the stress of the war. In March of that year, a protest over food shortages turned into a riot that busted storefronts within walking distance of the Mitchell house. The Richmond Dispatch dryly noted that “nearly every stranger has a father, brother, son, or friend now inhabiting that vast city of the dead,”—Richmond’s cemeteries.
The Mitchells reached for the Fred Coggill lifeline. Mother and daughter boarded a ship—with tickets and a comfortable cabin—and passed through military lines, following the same waterborne route as Stepney Brown had four years before. Julia Mitchell passed out of the Confederacy and into the arms of her fiancé awaiting at Norfolk. They married immediately
When Stepney Brown arrived in Canada, he learned to read and got a paying job. When the Mitchells arrived in New York they sat for photographs, finding relief in the latest fashion far from the dire shortages of Confederate Richmond. Julia looks happy with what is probably a new hat. Her mother looks as stingy as Stepney Brown remembered her.
After the war, the senior Julia Mitchell returned to Richmond to continue settling a still-disputed estate. Julia Coggill stayed in New York, travelled widely, and raised a large family.
Julia Mitchell’s story is often told as a romance—the things that love will overcome to be fulfilled. By digging deeper, however, and comparing her experience to other stories of leaving, Julia Mitchell’s tale reveals that the ability to move about, to love, or to be free, is often defined by who you are.
We do not know, at this time, if Stepney Brown ever returned to Richmond… or if he even wanted to or not.