Solomon Northup, who was lured away from Saratoga Springs and into slavery before the Civil War, wrote a book, Twelve Years a Slave, following his fortuitous rescue in 1853.
Some of his post-slavery life can be tracked via property records, court documents, and newspaper stories. Thus, it is known that he purchased a home for his family in Glens Falls, that he undertook a lecture tour throughout the Northeast, and was involved in the apprehension and trial of the two men who had kidnapped him.
There is a period, in the late 1850s, when Northup’s activities and whereabouts are unknown, due to a lack of evidence. Around 1861, he was in Vermont, working on the Underground Railroad with an antislavery minister, and also with another former slave, named Tabbs Gross. This information comes from letters written years later by the minister’s son, who also mentioned that Northup had visited his father after the Emancipation Proclamation.
But, from 1863 on, Northup’s life is again a mystery. After 1855, various census data show that his wife, Anne, lived with one of her daughters and son-in-law–but Northup is not listed in these households. The New York State Census for 1865 identifies his wife as a married woman (and as having been married only once), and in 1875 lists her as a widow. So Northup may have died sometime between 1865 and 1875, though census data is not always correct.
So what might Northup have been doing during these two periods? For the most part, there is not conclusive evidence, but there are hints suggesting certain possible scenarios.
Some newspaper reports in the late 1850s suggest he went through some tough times. Following the publication of his book in the summer of 1853, he had traveled to various cities in New York and New England, giving lectures. But in 1855, a few newspapers warned the public that Northup and a band of actors had left several towns without paying their bills. Late in 1856, an account in a Vermont newspaper told how a presentation by Northup and probably these same actors had ended badly, with a display of drunkenness and even a fight. In a town in Ontario, Canada the following summer, an angry mob kept Northup from completing a planned lecture. Even his friend and rescuer, Henry B. Northup, was quoted in a newspaper in 1858 as saying that Northup had taken to drink and possibly had been kidnapped into slavery for a second time.
But if Northup was in Vermont in the early 1860s, then he evidently had not been take back to the South in the 1850s. And if he was indeed involved with the Underground Railroad at that time, might his involvement have begun earlier? There are some clues. In 1854, a newspaper in Syracuse, New York, noted that Northup was “generous and pitiful [sic] to his fugitive brethren; that he gives of his substance to those who have fled from slavery…” And, years later, when Northup’s daughter-in-law got together with her sister, they recalled the days when Northup and Harriet Tubman helped fugitives make their way through central New York State.
So one possibility is that, in the late 1850s, Northup was active in the Underground Railroad, perhaps keeping a low profile. Assisting fugitives was a violation of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, though its enforcement in New York was close to non-existent, so in reality secrecy wasn’t essential.
During this period, there is a hint that Northup may also have been engaged in agricultural pursuits.
In 1858, a Wisconsin sheep farmer reported in several agricultural publications that he had bred his stock from a ram obtained from a “Solomon Northup” in Vermont. Other evidence of a Vermont farmer by that name is lacking. That is a bit unusual, since farmers are somewhat tied to their land and generally are easy to track in census records. So perhaps this Solomon Northup had not been a long-time resident, and had happened to have been missed by a census-taker in Vermont in 1860.
It would not be too much of a stretch to think that Northup had returned to a pastoral occupation. In his book, recalling the time he’d spent working a farm in Washington County, Northup wrote that he and his wife were then “leading a happy and prosperous life.” He also says that: “Well, indeed, would it have been for us had we remained on the farm at Kingsbury…” Even as a slave, Northup’s attention was drawn to agriculture: his book is rife with observations of planting methodology in Louisiana.
And, of course, the Wisconsin farmer’s statements place Northup in Vermont, where strong evidence has him helping fugitives in the early 1860s. At the beginning of the Civil War, the Underground Railroad was still in operation. The need for it greatly diminished after the summer of 1862 when Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act. Among the provisions of that law was one saying that “no slave escaping into any State, Territory, or the District of Columbia, from any other State, shall be delivered up, or in any way impeded or hindered of his liberty…” if the slave’s owner was a supporter of the rebellion, which was surely true of most slaveholders in the Confederate States. So, except for slaves who had run away from owners loyal to the Union – mainly those in the border states – the Fugitive Slave Law was no longer in effect, and the need for a system for getting fugitives to Canda was diminished.
Those who have read his book know that Northup was a bold and adventurous man. He was not opposed to taking risks, usually ones that were carefully calculated. Assuming that his life had not been completely taken over by whatever drinking problem he may or may not have had, it is hard to imagine him sitting around quietly in the North, reading about the war in newspapers. The thrilling business of assisting fugitives was no longer available to him, so did he turn to another activity – one connected in some way to the war?
Extra motivation for him to get involved may have come from the fact that two members of his family were fighting. His son, Alonzo, enlisted in a regiment of the United States Colored Troops and served in South Carolina. Also, the step-son of his daughter Margaret served in the famous Massachusetts 54th, was wounded in the attempt on Battery Wagner, and died as a prisoner of the Confederates.
In Northup’s book, he is never bashful about his capabilities, and in one passage he touts his leadership abilities. Sometimes slaves he knew in Louisiana contemplated insurrections against their owners, and Northup wrote that: “More than once I have joined in serious consultation, when the subject has been discussed, and there have been times when a word from me would have placed hundreds of my fellow-bondsmen in an attitude of defiance.” Realizing that any attempts at rebellion would almost certainly fail, he always counseled against them.
But his organizational skills, powers of observation, and an understanding of plantation life would have come in handy in a situation where he was cooperating with Union troops in the South. In particular, he knew the lay of the land in central Louisiana, was familiar with some of the residents, and knew how to act like a slave, all of which would have been helpful to someone working as a scout or a spy.
Cases of African Americans providing assistance to soldiers from the North have been documented. Harriet Tubman, who was awarded a government pension for her work as a scout, is certainly the most well-known example, but there were others. A number of blacks are discussed in the book Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War, by Donald E. Markle. In his book, Markle notes that Frederick Douglass said in 1862 that blacks “have been the best guides to the army and pilots to the Navy.” Markle observes that the African American contribution to the Union Army’s efforts “has not received the recognition that it is due,” partly due to “the fact that there are very few written records of the Black spy that have survived… or at least have come to light to the researcher.”
If Northup’s desire to help Union troops were not sufficient motivation for him to return to Louisiana, there is also his friendship – perhaps even affection – toward Patsey, one of the other slaves on the Epps plantation. Northup extols her abilities in his book, and sympathizes with her mistreatment due to her master’s sexual interest in her. At the moment of his departure from the Epps plantation, as his rescue was underway, he told of a very emotional parting with Patsey:
“On my way back toward the carriage, Patsey ran from behind a cabin and threw her arms about my neck. ‘Oh! Platt,’ she cried, tears streaming down her face, ‘you’re goin’ to be free — you’re goin’ way off yonder where we’ll neber see ye any more. You’ve saved me a good many whipping, Platt; I’m glad you’re goin’ to be free — but oh! de Lord, de Lord! what’ll become of me?’”
This is all conjecture, of course, informed as it may be. The groundwork can be laid for Northup having had a desire to be involved in the war, and for his potential usefulness to the cause. But it is not proof that he actually was involved.
One slight bit of evidence came to this writer’s attention some months ago. The evidence is flawed (and not just in a small way). But despite its problems, there is some reason to believe that there could be some truth behind it.
The evidence appears in an article printed in the Syracuse Post Standard, on Nov. 30, 1947. In a recurring column called “Just Around the Corner, ” written under the name Bertrande., the writer recounts a story he heard as a boy from his uncle Noel. Uncle Noel had been a Union Army officer during the Civil War, and related to his young nephew how General Grant might not have won the war, had it not been for him and “a darky by the name of Solomon Northrop.” Uncle Noel explained that Northrop [the spelling used in the article] “had been a slave down south fer twenty year before th’ war. He finally run away an’ got up north an’ wuz livin’ near Albany when th’ war broke out. He jined up with us an fit through th’whole fracas. Smart feller, he wuz – well eddicated, too. Somehow, when he was just a young feller, he’d learned how to read an’ write, an’ from then on he studied everything he could lay his hands onto.
Me an’ him allus got along fine, bein’ what you might call kindred spirits. After the war he went back to Albany an’ rit a book called, Twenty Years A Slave – an’ made a good thing out of it.” Noel then told how, in the spring of 1865as the northern troops waited near Richmond, Virginia, expecting news of a Confederate surrender, he and Northup took a walk around the camp. They saw Grant came out of his tent and stand beneath a pine tree. Northup suddenly rushed up, having spotted something in the tree. Noel looked up saw the glint of a gun barrel in the moonlight. and immediately pushed Grant to the ground. Then, two shots rang out – one from Northup’s rifle, and one from up in the boughs of the tree. Northup’s bullet brought down the sniper, and the sniper’s bullet hit Noel in the leg – but missed the general. As guards from the camp carried away the sharpshooter’s body, Grant thanked the two men who had saved his life.
The tale is far from factual. Such an attempt on Grant’s life would likely have been recorded in the history books, if it were true. As Bertrande recorded the telling of the story, Noel’s wife interrupted him from time to time, trying to limit his embellishments. “Don’t go to fillin’ that youg-un’s mind with such hi-faluting yarns,” she warned. “…. Stick to th’ facts.”
The man who wrote the column was a man named Bertrande H. Snell, who had been employed as a telegrapher for the New York Cetnral Railroad, and also for the Western Union office in Syracuse. His column appeared in the Post Standard in the late 1940s, and often featured his Uncle Noel and his stories. His uncle was actually Noel A. Gardner, who for a while held a minor judgeship, and spent his life in central New York.
In a column published on March 31, 1946, Snell informed that his uncle “was a man who had, in his life, seen many sights and played many parts.” He had traveled around the world, gone west during the 1849 Gold Rush, and was a lieutenant during the Civil War. He was “a man of erudition–reading and talking with ease and fluency, German, French and Spanish…” Snell described himself as “one who walks ever hand-in-hand with veracity…” In various columns, though, he suggested the same was not true of Noel. In a poetic tribute to Uncle Noel, printed on July 27, 1947, Snell noted that: “He could tell tall tales of the long-ago….” (One such tale concerned a sea serpent in Oneida Lake.)
Though Uncle Noel often touted his service during the Civil War (he often participated in Decoration Day/Memorial Day celebrations in Cleveland, New York), his military pension file at the National Archives tells a different story. Though he was, indeed, a Second Lieutenant, in Company K of the New York 110th Infantry Regiment, his service was brief. He enlisted in August 1862, but soon became ill with diarrhea and typhoid fever and was sent to a private hospital near Baltimore. He resigned his commission in October 1862. He was not in Richmond at the end of the war: an affidavit he submitted in reference to another veteran shows that he was in New York in 1864 and 1865. The trouble he had with his leg – sometimes mentioned by Snell – was not from a minie ball, but perhaps a symptom of the rheumatism referenced in his pension file.
So Noel Gardner’s story of his and Northup’s having saved Grant’s life obviously cannot be taken seriously. It seems clear he sometimes embellished, or even fabricated, some of his tales. But what might have motivated him to toss in Northup’s name? It could well be that he had at some point read Twelve Years a Slave, and added Northup to his story because it was a Civil War-era African American he was aware of. It’s possible that the Northup reference came from Bertrande Snell himself, though the various columns where he wrote of his uncle seem to show he did his best to relate the stories as they had been told to him.
But there is another potential source of Uncle Noel’s mention of Northup. During the war, his regiment, the 110th, was sent to New Orleans late in 1862, and was stationed in central Louisiana the following spring. In fact, they were in the same area where Northup spent most of his time in servitude. In its issue of June 13, 1863, the Mexico Independent published a letter from Captain Henry C. Devendorf, written at Alexandria, Louisiana on May 11, 1863. Devendorf served in Company D of the 110th. In his letter he includes some remarkable information. While scavenging for supplies, he encountered a slave named Bob, and asked him “Who do you live with?” When Bob said it was Master Epps, Solomon Northup immediately came to Devendorf’s mind, and he inquired if Bob had known a slave named Platt (the name which Northup had been given as a slave). “‘Oh! golly, yes, master,’ said he. ‘He raised me. I guess I does know him.’”
Bob visited the soldiers in camp, and it became clear that he was the “veritable Bob of Solomon Northrup celebrity, and Massa Epes [sic] the same master, and we were then on his plantation, the same that Solomon had worked on so many years.” The soldiers could not convince Bob to leave with them, because he wanted to remain to look after his mother.
Devendorf also wrote that “I found on inquiry among the negroes about that Platt was a very popular darkey among them; also that his story was true. Patsy went away with our army last week, so she is at last far from the caprices of her jealous mistress.” Devendorf does not mention having met Northup himself, but might other members of the regiment have known something about Northup having helped guide Union troops through the region? Had Uncle Noel heard stories from soldiers from his old unit, which inspired him to incorporate Northup into his tale of saving Grant near Richmond? Or perhaps he had learned merely of soldiers’ contact with slaves from the Epps plantation, and decided to gratuitously insert Northup into one of his yarns.
The evidence is admittedly very weak, but participation in the war would account for the lack of information on Northup’s whereabouts after 1863. If Northup had indeed in some way been involved in the war – in Louisiana or some other southern state – there are easily one-hundred different ways he may have met his demise, in some manner that was not recorded. And, given the lack of documentation of much of the covert assistance African Americans provided during the war (as Markle observed), Northup’s role in the war – if he had any – may never come to light.
Illustrations: A young Harriet Tubman, who served as a spy and scout during the Civil War (courtesy Library of Congress) and a newspaper clipping from the Uncle Noel column.