Freedom along the Potomac River

Jim, or James Lawson, escaped his enslavement in December 1861 onboard the Freeborn, a Union vessel patrolling the Potomac River, commanded by Lieutenant Samuel Magaw. Almost instantaneously Lawson became a scout and a spy for the United States military by furnishing Magaw with intelligence regarding Confederate positions and movements along the Potomac River and Confederate positions along the interior of Northern Virginia. Lawson’s actions exposed a transitionary moment in United States history from slavery to freedman, a moment in which millions of African Americans facilitated during the American Civil War. 

Taking Lawson’s information seriously, Magaw wanted more and the lieutenant dispatched his new agent on another scouting mission into Virginia. This time a Union vessel landed Lawson below Mt. Vernon and ordered him to scout further inland and tour Confederate fortifications. According to an account printed in a Vermont newspaper, Lawson accomplished his task. With little information derived from the newspaper, we must make educated assumptions as to how Lawson gained intelligence on Confederate positions. Throughout the Civil War and especially on the outset, enslaved African Americans were either hired out – the owners of hired-out slaves received monetary compensation for use of enslaved workers on Confederate projects – or impressed – forcibly taken by the Confederate government – for construction on military works. We can surmise that Lawson portrayed an enslaved worker and gained open access to Confederate held areas. Eventually Lawson was discovered. We can only guess as to how, but Lawson’s deceit may have only worked momentarily or Lawson was discovered as an intruder. I say this because the Daily Green Mountain Freeman reported that Lawson encountered “fire of picket guards and posted sentries,” but returned safely to the shore with Magaw’s requested information. A successful first mission ensured a future place for Lawson in military operations. As a result, he found a path towards freedom amid the American Civil War as an intelligence agent for the Union army along the Potomac River.

“Union Battery at Budd’s Ferry.” This is the scene of a Union position opposite Quantico, Virginia. The Union position here was located in Maryland and soldiers watched Confederate movement along the opposite shore. James Lewis traversed this area as both an enslaved male and Union intelligence gatherer. Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress.

Lawsons’s next recorded mission was closer to the heart. With his wife and four children still held in bondage, Lawson wanted an opportunity in January 1862 to rescue his family. Pushing aside multiple warnings of capture, Lawson landed in Virginia and returned the following day accompanied by his wife and children. Success allowed this family an opportunity to live in Maryland behind Union lines at Liverpool Point as freed people. In two months of service, from enslavement at Hempstead, Virginia, to service in the Union army, Lawson carved out a space for freedom he had never known previously.

The freedman’s life in Maryland is unrecorded, to my knowledge, but in March the Union army again needed intelligence on Confederate movements in Virginia. On March 14, 1862, General Joseph Hooker sent a dispatch to Brigadier General S. Williams stating that: 

“One of my negro spies reports that he went to the Rappahannock; saw large bodies of troops yesterday below Fredericksburg, on the Caroline [County] side of the river. Troops, he says, are concentrating there in good numbers. Entrenchments are being thrown up on the racecourse – a place, it is said, artillery commands the approach for a great distance; vicinity a level plain. The bridges about Fredericksburg are standing. The rebels expect a great battle there. The prominent citizens there have their goods packed, ready for a move. This can be relied on.”

This spy may have been James Lawson and most importantly Hooker stated that he can be relied on. In an era where education and intelligence of enslaved African Americans was questioned regularly, this simple statement issued confidence, support, and most importantly, an air of humanity to humans previously treated as savage brutes. The information proved so valuable that two days later, Union officers ordered preparations for another scouting mission of Confederate positions in Virginia. Orders to General Daniel Sickles – commanding a brigade in Winfield Hancock’s Division – asked the general to use “an excellent guide, a negro, whose house is in the vicinity” to conduct the scouting mission. On Thursday, March 20, 1862, Sickles called upon Lawson and ordered him to “obtain information on the enemy’s movements.”

Sickles – “Jim, I want you to go over to Virginia to-night and find out what forces they have at Aquia Creek and Fredericksburg. If you want any men to accompany you, pick them out.

Jim – “I know two men that would like to go.

Sickles – “Well, get them and be back as soon as possible.” 

Jim went to the contraband camp and enlisted two “very intelligent looking darkeys.”

Sickles – “Are you all ready?”

Jim and the other two – “All ready, sir.”

Sickles – “Well, here Jim, you take my pistol, and if you are successful, I will give you one hundred dollars.”

It is unclear an exact date of this scouting mission but it most likely occurred either on March 26 or March 27 based on Hooker’s report of March 28. James and his two companions boarded the Satellite from Maryland and took a gig that dropped the men below Confederate batteries on Potomac Creek. The three men had twenty-four hours to obtain Union intelligence and return for a rendezvous with the Union vessels. On the following morning, Captain Foster, in command of the Satellite, noted a rebel picket guard nearby and to their left, hidden in some woods, waited Lawson and his two companions. Foster ordered the rebel pickets fired upon which allowed Lawson and the others to safely escape. Aboard the Satellite, the three men – one of which did not start the mission with the group – informed Foster of Confederate positions and the death of Cornelius, one of Lawson’s original companions, who was shot by a Confederate picket.

“He had been challenged by a picket when some distance in advance of Jim, and the negro, instead of answering the summons, fired the contents of Sickles’ revolver at the picket. It was an unfortunate occurrence, for at that time the entire picket guard rushed out of a small house near the spot, and fired the contents of their muskets at Jim’s companion, killing him instantly.”

In a position of solidarity and compassion for Lawson and the others, Foster ordered the Satellite to fire two shells at the barn where a rebel picket hid. One shell tore through the barn killing four rebels and seven horses. “Why, Jim,” Foster began, “I’ve avenged the death of poor Cornelius.” This scouting message not only confirmed previous reports of enemy retreat towards Fredericksburg, but illuminated a path towards freedom for enslaved people of Northern Virginia.

Drawing of the Satellite, 1861. Photo Courtesy of The Library of Congress.

Lawson almost disappears from history as later naval and military missions along the Potomac did not mention a James or Jim Lawson. One article, from Richmond, may have indicated a mission that included Lawson. The Richmond Daily Dispatchreported that a Jim Lawson, “the late body servant of Col. John Tayloe,” raided the house of one Mrs. Jones around March 31, 1862. This may be the same Lawson because he was accompanied by “a number of other negroes,” he was “dressed in a uniform, with a sword by his side, and is addressed by his companions as ‘Captain Lawson.’” The paper also stated that Lawson “is a Captain in General Hooker’s Army.” The evidence is compelling about a connection between the two Lawson’s but without further evidence it is hard to fully confirm a relation. I would like to think it is the same Lawson for if the person reported in Richmond papers is the same reported in Northern papers and official Union military documents, it shows the evolution of one enslaved American from a state of endless oppression to a state of freedom. His actions in escaping slavery, serving the Union army and navy, and finding freedom is just one story among thousands as a Union force marched south from Washington, D. C. towards Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1862.


Library of Congress, Chronicling America’s Past

              The Daily Green Mountain Freeman

              The Daily Dispatch

U.S. War Department. The War of the Rebellion: Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.129 vols. Washington D.C.: 1880-1901.