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What does it mean to be free? Some might define freedom as having no obligations to a particular thing or person. A free person cannot be owned by anyone, or forced to do anything they do not want to do. However, in Patrick County, Virginia, amid the conclusion of the Civil War, freedom had an entirely different meaning.

The dispute in the chancery cause William A. Burwell vs. Adms. of Richard Pilson, 1871-011, concerns two slaves in Patrick County who were sold as part of the estate of the late Richard Pilson. The purchaser, William A. Burwell, used an estimated $2,800 secure bond to purchase enslaved individuals at a public auction in June 1865. The bond signified a promise to pay before the end of a 12-month period. Burwell’s transaction was not uncommon. Enslaved persons were often bought and sold as part of estates, even throughout the Civil War. However, the interesting part of this transaction was that the war was quickly coming to an end.

Illustrated London News, A Slave Auction in Virginia (February 16, 1861).

Courtesy of Emory University.

Confederate troops under General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Union forces in April 1865—two months before Burwell’s purchase. This surrender afforded enslaved men and women the right to freedom under President Lincoln’s historic Emancipation Proclamation and the document known as the “Alexandria Constitution,” which governed Virginia during the early years of military occupation. These actions had significant impact on the sale in Patrick County.

Constitution of the State of Virginia, and the ordinances adopted by the Convention which assembled at Alexandria, on the 13th day of February, 1864.

The collapse of the Confederate government meant that freedom was granted to to the individuals Pilson enslaved before Burwell purchased them; they should never have been put up for sale, and Burwell could not claim ownership of them.  After learning of Lincoln’s proclamation, Burwell submitted a plea to the Patrick County Circuit Court asking that he no longer be required to pay the bond. The Court’s response was not exactly what Burwell hoped for.

The Court referenced a statute in the Acts of Assembly which prevented the annulment of any contracts involving Confederate Treasury notes.  Despite the apparent unlawfulness of Burwell’s purchase of free people, he was required to pay a reduced fee of approximately $120 to $130. Additionally, court fees and a payment to the administrators of the Mr. Pilson’s estate were also affixed to Burwell’s debt. The chancery document notes that the debt was still unpaid.

The Patrick County chancery causes are currently undergoing digital reformatting. A portion of the collection, 1803-1902, has already been posted to the Chancery Records Index. The remaining materials through 1913 will be posted in the coming months.

Sherri Bagley

Local Records Archivist

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