A group of University of Nebraska-Lincoln professors is archiving the 19th-century petitions that, as a result of legislation enacted 150 years ago Monday, allowed slave owners in Washington, D.C., to receive government compensation for freeing their slaves.
The team has transcribed and put 200 petitions on a UNL website exploring the Civil War’s impact on the nation’s capital. They hope to have the other 800 or so on the site by next summer.
A part from the petitions and court documents, official records of U.S. slaves are virtually nonexistent, said Ken Winkle, a UNL history professor who is part of the project. Owners worried that providing slaves’ names on census reports would humanize what they considered property.
Civil War Washington examines the U.S. national capital from multiple perspectives as a case study of social, political, cultural, and medical/scientific transitions provoked or accelerated by the Civil War. The project draws on the methods of many fields—literary studies, history, geography, computer-aided mapping—to create a digital resource that chronicles the war’s impact on the city. Troops, fugitive slaves, bureaucrats, prostitutes, actors, authors, doctors, and laborers were among those drawn to the capital by a sense of duty, desperation, or adventure. Drawing on material ranging from census records to literary texts and from forgotten individuals to the famous (such as Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman) we examine how Washington changed from a sleepy Southern town to the symbolic center of the Union and nation.
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