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Historic flight to freedom remembered in Remington

About 250 people stood in near silence on the river bank, watching the progress of 14 African-Americans and three whites wading the waters of the Rappahannock River.

A choir of a dozen or so sang spirituals.

"I never thought I'd see something like this," said Mike Dinkins of Culpeper.

"This" is the Crossing of the Rappahannock: A Pilgrimage to Freedom, held near Remington Saturday.

The event remembered and re-enacted Aug. 19, 1862, when African-American slaves fled from Culpeper County plantations across the river at Cow's Ford to Fauquier County and the hoped-for protection of retreating Union soldiers.

There is anecdotal evidence that dozens, perhaps hundreds of slaves raced to freedom 150 years ago, said John Hennessy, chief historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

An Irish immigrant, Timothy O'Sullivan, took a photo of four adults and one teenager making their way through the water, crossing with oxen pulling a cart packed high. Their names are lost to history.

As the last of the Yankee soldiers and escaped slaves withdrew into Fauquier County, slaves in Culpeper County sent two dozen of their children running after them in a desperate hope that their most prized possessions, their young ones, would be cared for, said historian Clark B. Hall in his address to the crowd.

"The Union Army was not conceived as an army of emancipation," Hennessy said. In fact, many soldiers rejected the idea.

Even so, that is what they became, and the escaping slaves caused the soldiers to question their beliefs about slavery, said Hennessy.

Many thought the institution was benign; however, they learned that if slaves could take their families with them, they would try to free themselves.

According to Hall, the 184-mile long Rappahannock River is the most important river in the Civil War, flowing equidistant between the two capitals, Washington D.C. and Richmond.

Confederates and Union soldiers traveled back and forth over the Rappahannock many times.

"Whoever crossed that river was in for a fight," Hall said.

The Second Manassas, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg campaigns began at the Rappahannock. Confederates fell back to the river after defeat at Gettysburg and after holding off Union forces at the Battle of Antietam.

"It was like some giant gravitational pull for the Confederates," Hall said.

Small wonder that a female slave re-enactor associated the river with freedom.

"Bless the Lord. We're on this side of the Jordan now," Hennessy  exclaimed after crossing the river.

Led by 65-year-old Ethel Bolden, with Howard Lambert's supportive hand under her elbow, the re-enactors made their way upstream to where the slaves likely entered the river, and then back down again to face the assembly.

The river widens after it passes a small set of rapids beneath the Norfolk and Southern Railroad bridge in Remington. The shallow water runs over a bed of soft sand.

As the re-enactors waded through water that came up to knees, men somberly read the names of about 110 black Union soldiers from Culpeper County.

Approximately 170 men from Fauquier County served in the U.S. Colored Troops, said Karen White from the Afro-American Historical Association.

Eugene Triplett came with his wife Theresa Triplett. His ancestors were in Fauquier and Culpeper counties in the 1860s; the river crossing was part of his family's history.

Phoebe Kilby witnessed the re-enactment, as well. Her forebears owned slaves in Rappahannock County. Her great-grandfather joined the Confederate Army the first chance he got.

Kilby is part of Coming to the Table, a group that strives for racial reconciliation.

"History is only good when it does something for the future," said Elizabeth Freeman.

Zann Nelson, co-chair of the planning committee, said of the river crossing, "I think it speaks to a lot of people.

"They see it as a unifying event, as shared history," he said.

As they stood shoulder to shoulder at the river's edge, black and white hands joined and reached over their heads for the sky.

Dianne Swann-Wright read the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that President Abraham Lincoln signed 150 years ago on Sept. 22, 1862. Swann-Wright directs African-American and special programs at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation

 Lambert was co-chair of the planning committee. In the process of preparing for the event, he's walked along the riverbank many times and imagined what the slaves were feeling and thinking.

He thought of the uncertainty – they didn't know where they would end up.

"They had faith in things hoped for and unseen," Lambert said.
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