A Right Kind of Raid and Rescue
The raid this past week on the House of Representatives reminded me of one which occurred generations ago in the city in which I was raised. Unlike the raid on the House, “The Jerry Rescue” was a necessary and meaningful attack as it protected the right to freedom for all humankind.
Last spring, when Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd (and other officers stood by watching) and a white father and son shot a young African American man while he was jogging, I was writing vignettes for my manuscript pertaining to The Compromise of 1850, The Fugitive Slave Act and the case of Jerry.
While the anti-slavery Liberty Party was holding its New York State convention on October 1, 1851, a black man named William “Jerry” Henry, who had escaped slavery in Missouri via the Underground Railroad and made his way to Syracuse, New York where he lived and worked freely for eight years as a Cooper, was captured by Federal Marshalls at his place of work. Months before in May Secretary of State Daniel Webster (under President Fillmore’s administration), delivered a speech to the citizens of Syracuse – the city Webster referred to as “that laboratory of abolitionism, libel and treason.” Webster threatened federal agents would come down hard on any citizens if they tried to stop the return of runaway people as “property” to their “owners.” This threat did not sit well with most Syracuse citizens. In fact, it outraged them.
During those summer months between Ward’s speech and Jerry’s arrest, the Vigilance Committee made plans against possible raids. Charles Baldwin Sedgwick (my 3x great grandfather) and Reverend Samuel Joseph May (who assisted William Lloyd Garrison in founding the New England Abolition Society and the American Anti-Slavery Society), were members of the Committee, along with other ‘freedom fighters’ such as George Barnes and Jermain Loguen, a black man born into slavery and like Jerry, an escapee.
On October 1 Jerry was captured at his workplace, put in leg irons, and injured and bloodied after struggling with his captors (both federal authorities and local police) dragged by cart to the police station. Witnessing this event abhorred the citizens of Syracuse. Thousands rallied in front of the station where Samuel Ward – another runaway living freely – addressed the crowd:
“We are witnessing a sight as, I pray, we may never look upon again. A man in chains, in Syracuse! Not a felon, yet in chains! On trial is this man, not for life, but for liberty! Hear, though, what I say. Jerry will not be abandoned and is likely to be freed as a result of the hearing. Judge Charles Sedgwick and Mr. Charles Wheaton are meeting at this very moment to prepare a kidnapping complaint against Federal Agent Allen who came here to catch Jerry and take him away. Commissioner Sabine has ordered the case to be heard at 5:30 p.m. here at the station. But please heed this warning; County Sheriff Gardner has threatened to call out the National Guard if he has to.”
As this was occurring a group of twenty-five men made a plan of action during which Gerrit Smith ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerrit_Smith) stated: “It is not unlikely the Commissioner [Joseph Sabine, an abolitionist himself] will release Jerry but the moral effect of such an acquittal will be as nothing to a bold and forcible rescue. A forcible rescue will demonstrate the strength of public opinion against the possible legality of slavery and this Fugitive Slave Law in particular. It will honor Syracuse and be a powerful example everywhere.”
Reverend May agreed but on one condition. “We must act without hatred and violence. If anyone is to be injured in this fray, I hope it may be one of our own parties.” Jermain Loguen, however, responded: “If white men won’t fight, let fugitives and black men smite down marshals and commissioners – anybody who holds Jerry – and rescue him or perish.”
By 5:30 p.m. nearly three thousand bystanders stood outside the police station. Rocks were suddenly hurled at the building and a cry of “NOW!” sounded. Using clubs, iron bars and axes which had been stacked outside Wheaton’s Hardware Store, a group of men, some who had smeared burnt cork on their faces, rushed at the police station. Doors and windows were smashed. Gas jet lamps in the front office were hit out. Using a ten-foot beam the group smashed the front door crying, “Onondaga County is coming!” Inside, they discovered a deputy stood in the hallway. A rock was thrown at him and he fell to his knees. Within minutes the rescuers had forced their way in.
In a back room Marshal Fitch stood guard behind the door of the room in which Jerry was being held. The marshal stepped out and fired two shots at the mob. Someone raced at him and smashed his arms with a club, which sent him running to jump out a second story window, breaking his arm. A gang of white and black, armed men raced at several marshals. The group then grabbed Jerry and carried him out the front door. At the sight of Jerry a loud cheer went up from the crowd and Jerry was paraded through the streets to hurrahs everywhere.
Two weeks later, when Jerry was sent safely in Canada through the Underground Railroad and the white men who had broken into the jail and were subsequently arrested had been bailed out by Sedgwick and Smith, the Vigilance Committee mailed a package to President Fillmore in Washington, D.C. What did the box contain? The irons that federal marshals had placed on Jerry.
“When the people of Syracuse saw a man dragged through the streets, chained and held down in a cart by four or six others who were upon him; treated as if he were the worst of felons; and learned that it was only because he had assumed to be what God made him to be, a man, and not a slave—when this came to be known throughout the streets, there was a mighty throbbing of the public heart; an all but unanimous uprising against the outrage. There was no concert of action except that to which a common humanity impelled the people. Abhorrence of The Fugitive Slave Bill poured in burning words from every tongue. The very stones cried out,” Reverend Joseph May later told the Convention of Citizens of Onondaga County.
Sedgwick and Smith went on to represent Jerry’s rescuers, in trials lasting over a two-year period. Later that decade, Sedgwick was elected as a New York State representative, where he served two elected terms and was the first person to give a speech (titled The Act of Southern Aggression) on the House floor (1860) denouncing slavery. Sedgwick was known for his “no compromises, no concessions” stand on the slavery issue and because the Southern states refused to concede he believed the only way to end the institution of slavery was war. Refusing to leave Washington “until every slave is free,” my 3x great grandfather was in the House the day slavery was abolished on January 31, 1865.
I am proud that I was raised in a city where generations before citizens showed support and human decency for a man they regarded as their fellow human being. I imagine that the men who served on Syracuse’s Vigilance Committee would agree with the peaceful protests that took place in 2020 (not the destruction of property). In reading and transcribing the letters Charles Sedgwick wrote during the turbulent years leading up to the Civil War and in those he served in his two terms in Congress, I believe his advice to today would be to “keep hammering;” for us to write to city, state, and national representatives to express our thoughts and most importantly take action in our own lives and places of work to make things better for all people.
JUNE 10, 1864
The course of Congress on the Negro pay bill is wholly inexplicable – There is not a decently fair man in Congress who does not admit that they should be paid the same as white soldiers – It is just honest & politic – it is absolutely essential to the further vigorous prosecution of the war and yet collectively – in these corporate capacity Congress acts like the devil about this- But the time is coming! I don’t know but all this neglect and delay and quarreling is wholesome – In the end I am sure it will bring about this great negro equality – equal rights for Jonathan – vote with him – go to schoolwith him – preach to him and go to Congress. He can get votes enough – Half a dozen such men as Fred Douglass in Congress (if you could find half a dozen such more white or black; would greatly improve the body and show that we believe what we have been preaching so long – I go now for the largest liberty.
Charles Baldwin Sedgwick
I have your letter to father Abraham. Gov. Andrews letter – resolutions – letter to Twitchell – Keep hammering – it is the only way – in the end it will be efficient – a half loyal Marylander told me yesterday that he didn’t consider any body a Yankee but a Massachusetts man! You have you… the port of honor and it becomes you to work. I am doing what I can to make myself as thoroughly hated as a genuine Yankee- Love to all the babies from Nell down. Your affectionate husband, Charles
We had another glorious day yesterday – On Mr. Sumner’s motion Ino v Rock a colored Citizen of Boston was admitted to practice in the Supreme Court of the U.S. Reverdy Johnson in arguing the Dred Scott case said if the Court decided he was a Citizen they would yet see colored men admitted to practice in the Court and perhaps sitting upon the Bench. Well who can say nay? The first part of his fear is realized sooner than anybody had any reason to believe it could be- the other part may be sooner than we can now believe – I think we are very near the time when we can afford to make peace – I suppose Mr. Seward and the Rebel Commissioner Shepherd & Hunter and how diarguing the terms of peace on a vessel in Hampton Roads. So at least a little bird hear whispered me. I shall hail it with the greatest joy with the greatest joy of slavery is nally and truly killed as I believe it is. I feel quite sure that three quarters of the states will approve the amendment to the Constitution and end the Iniquity and then peace will be most welcome.
I can say for myself that nothing but emancipation is worth carrying on war for and that secured and assured they may arrange all other terms as they please. I fear that may be put in possible jeopardy by too speedy a peace: slite the fear is so weak as scarcely to cloud my conviction that slavery cannot survive this war – a conviction which I have had from the outset.
Washington 30 (31) Jany, 1865
Tuesday eve 9
My Dear Dora [Sedgwick’s wife Deborah Gannett Sedgwick] –
This has been a most glorious day. The Constitutional amendment abolishing slavery passed the House at 4 o’clock this afternoon by a vote of 119 to 56. A majority of 7. All this you have doubtless learned long before this (8 p.m.) by the telegraph, and we expect to hear by tomorrow evening that several states have already ratified it. I hope New York or Missouri may be first and Massachusetts next but fear she may get the start of the others.
It was a most exciting scene in the House. The galleries were crammed early in the day. Nell got a place early in the Diplomatic Gallery and sat out the session with distinguished gentleman many of whom were filled with anxiety as to the result. I noticed among others Mr. Jno Jay and Chief Justice Chase. It was very doubtful from the preliminary votes how the main question was to be decided although I have felt great confidence for several days that it was to carry. Finally as the vote was taken it was impossible to suppress applause upon the floor and in the galleries as one after another doubtful voice pronounced in favor of the measure and it began to be apparent that Justice and Liberty were to be established as the fundamental laws of this great nation.
When the result was declared from the Chair it was — (can not transcribe word) impossible to restrain the enthusiasm – It burst forth in shouts or cheers and waving of handkerchiefs, tossing of hats in the air – everybody rose to their feet and hardier cheers never were given – There was no use in trying to suppress it and in the midst the House adjourned. I saw Wm. H. Channing rushing around like a madman – some one proposed to sing John Brown & if one had begun it all would have joined in the swelling chorus. It has been what the Romans would call the whitest of white days. I tried to write while the House was in progress but although I exhibited no excitement I could not write – it was just impossible. No man or woman who has had the least influence in producing this most auspicious result has lived in vain. I never hoped to see this day, during the many long and unpromising years of the past, until the madness of this Rebellion proved that the hour of destruction of the infernal system was appointed of God and since then I have never doubted – I cannot write more – the children (Nell and Mrs. Eliot) are going to the P.M. Generals reception, and in the morning Nell goes North. Your loving husband, C.B. Sedgwick