By Bryce VanStavern
I once worked with an interpreter who told a visitor, “I can’t answer any question that begins, ‘Why did they’.” I chuckled at that, but he did go on to explain that sometimes we simply cannot understand motivation. In many cases, well meaning attempts to understand the “Why did they” question leads to some extraordinary and persistent myths.
As an interpreter in the White House of the Confederacy, I find myself contemplating the motivation of many of the players in our story. It is easy to understand the motivation of one man, William Jackson.
William Jackson was a hired slave in the house. Held in slavery by a Richmond man named George Jones, William Jackson was “hired” by the Davises as a coach driver. This arrangement was common in many southern cities. Jackson worked for the Davises, but Jones was paid for the use of his slave in a sort of “lease agreement.”
William Jackson didn’t care for this arrangement, and in April of 1862 became one of the five (that we know of) enslaved African-Americans to run away to the north from their service in the White House of the Confederacy. He made his way to Irvin McDowell’s command in Fredericksburg, and offered complete reports of things going on in Richmond, and matters he overheard being discussed during meetings in the White House of the Confederacy.
These intelligence reports from runaway slaves were called “Black Dispatches” by U.S. Army leaders, and were claimed by them to be their greatest source of intelligence during the war.
It is easy to understand the motivation of an enslaved person who decides to leave that life. Less easy to understand is Robert Brown. Robert Brown was held in slavery by Jefferson Davis and was one of the enslaved persons the Davises brought to Richmond from Mississippi.
Whereas William Jackson ran away from his life as a slave, Robert Brown chose to stay with the Davis family for many of the postwar years.
With the Davises when they were captured, Brown stayed with Mrs. Davis and the children, and escorted the Davis children to Montreal when Mrs. Davis decided to locate them there. Varina Davis would write of Brown to her husband, imprisoned at Fortress Monroe, “I cannot tell you what he has meant to me.”
After the death of Jefferson Davis, Robert Brown worked for Davis’ oldest daughter, Maggie, and her husband, Joel Addison Hayes. Brown continued working for the Hayes family until his death in the late 19th century.
And so we have two men, both enslaved. One frees himself at the first opportunity; the other chooses to spend most of his life with the family that held him in bondage.
“Why did he…”? We cannot know for sure, but in telling their stories we can show our visitors that history is complicated, sometimes messy, never inevitable.