In May of 1862, Lt. Col. James Edelin applied to the District of Columbia for compensation for the emancipation of his slave, Mary Brooks. In the spring of 1862 in Washington, this event was not unusual. Over nine hundred petitions were filed with the federal government by former slaveholders seeking financial reimbursement for the value of slaves they were required to free with the passage of the Compensated Emancipation Act. Despite the fact that most of the petitions were largely comprised of pre-printed forms, filled out with the necessary details, and their language is often repetitive and legal in nature, the specific details provided in each can raise intriguing questions.
According to the petition Edelin filed, he purchased Mary Brooks in 1843, from the estate of Alfred Johnson. He did so at the request of Brooks’s parents, “in order to save her from being sold to the South.” Brooks was 14 at the time, and according to the petition, she served Edelin as his “House Servant” until her emancipation at age 33.
At this point, we don’t know more about Mary Brooks or her parents, but her situation, as presented in the petition, highlights disconcerting realities about slavery in the United States. The petition seeks to present Edelin in a benevolent light, by stressing his saving Brooks from life in the South, but if he was truly benevolent, why didn’t Edelin free Mary Brooks to save her? What was the relationship of Edelin to Brooks’s parents? Why was keeping Brooks in bondage in the city of Washington considered saving her? Did her parents plea to have her released? Was freedom something beyond even imagination? Or did they plea in ways that are not documented in this form, recorded nearly twenty years after her initial sale, since doing so would cast Edelin not as a benefactor but as an opportunistic slave owner?
Further study and analysis may provide insight into Brooks’s situation. Many more excerpts of the snippets of slave life will be uncovered as Civil War Washington continues to transcribe and encode the petitions for payment for manumitted slaves within Washington, DC.