The Story of Jeff: A Personal Reminiscence
By the Surgeon – Dr. E. C. Bidwell, 1885
Immediately on our arrival at New Orleans in May, 1862, at the request of the Surgeon who was then Acting Medical Director of the Department, I assisted him in opening the St. James Hotel on Magazine Street as a Hospital. For a few weeks until its more thorough organization as a General Hospital was effected, I had in it a ward for the sick of the 31st, attending to them myself, and had my own quarters in the building, the entire regiment being then on duty in the City or near it, but not all in one camp.
I suppose nobody thought then that the end of negro slavery was to be one of the certain results of the war, but many of the slaves of New Orleans looked upon the advent of our Army as opening to them personally a way of escape from their bondage. With this object in view, a bright mulatto came to me and offered his services as a body servant. The understanding was, of course, that whenever I should leave the land of slavery, he should go with me and thus secure his freedom. He described himself as a “three thousand dollar nigger” owned by a lawyer named Lothrop, to whom he paid forty dollars a month for his time. This money and much more, he earned at his trade as a barber, of which he claimed to be a master. I found him an accomplished body-servant and took him into my service. His name was Jefferson Williams.
Jeff had not been with me many days till one evening his quondam owner, Mr. Lothrop, called upon me, claiming, I think, to come by direction of General Butler, to demand of me the return of his fugitive slave. He brought with him another gentleman, whose name I do not remember, who endeavored to assist his friend by argument and persuasion addressed to me. There did seem to be some hardship to Mr.Lothrop in the case as stated by him, and the accuracy of the statement was admitted by Jeff himself. This was that he had bought Jeff from his former owners at Jeff’s own request and upon his voluntary promise to pay as above stated, and that he had not as yet been reimbursed for his outlay. But I could not see that this matter of bad faith, if bad faith it could be called on the part of a slave to his owner, imposed any duty upon me in the premises, and as he produced no evidence of authority that I was bound to recognize, I declined to surrender my servant to his demand. I learned afterwards from General Butler that he did indeed advise Lothrop to come to me, and that he had suggested to him to offer me a less valuable servant in place of this high-priced one. A suggestion of which he said nothing to me.
Soon after this call as I was taking my eye opener of cafe noir one morning, one of the hospital attendants came rushing into my room with the announcement that Jeff had been carried off. It appeared that after bringing me my coffee he had gone out for the early morning air and was sitting on the steps of the French Consulate directly opposite the St. James when two City policemen pounced upon him and carried him off bodily. Some other servants saw the seizure and while one brought the word to me another had the good sense to follow the abducting party to see where they went. Soon the word came back that they had taken the captive to Foster’s slave-pen, a well-known place, in those days. With a guide to show me the way, I started at once for Foster’s. As I approached the place, I saw Jeff swinging his hat from a third-story window. I found Mr. Foster, a frowsy and corpulent old fellow in his dingy little office in the corner of a large building that looked something like what it was, viz – a jail. He declined to recognize my claim upon the “boy”, admitting that he was there, but having nothing more to say. Thereupon, I reported the case at headquarters. By General Butler’s direction, I took a sergeant from the headquarters guard with instructions to bring the “boy,” or Mr. Foster himself, before him.
On reaching the slave-pen the second time, I was informed that Jeff was no longer there — he had been removed in my brief absence. Therefore, Mr. Foster was obliged to waddle down to the Custom House as best he could under the escort of an armed soldier of U.S.A. After getting what information he could out of him, which was not much, the General dismissed him with a reprimand and a warning to keep clear of transactions of that kind in the future. There the matter rested for the time.
Some two weeks later, more or less, Jeff appeared again at the St. James dressed in a sailor suit of Uncle Sam’s blue, and the story he told was this. That I was scarcely out of sight from the slave-pen when he was manacled, hustled into a closed carriage and driven rapidly several miles out of the City. He was taken to a sugar house where in an upper room he was chained to the floor and left alone. On the second or third night, if I do not misremember, he had managed to get himself free from the floor, but not from the irons upon his ankles, which therefore he had to carry with him. Escaping from the sugar house and striking out pretty much at random, at no great distance he found himself on the bank of the river. He skirted along the bank till he found a small boat in which with only a bit of board for an oar he pushed out upon the Mississippi. Of course, he was carried rapidly downstream. Fortunately for him, one of our gunboats was at anchor in the stream below his point of embarkation. Upon approaching the ship, he saw its lights, he shouted for help and happily succeeded in attracting the attention of those on board. A boat was put off promptly and picked him up. He was kept on board till a few days later the gunboat returned to the City.
Later, lawyer Lothrop was arrested and tried in the Provost Court presided over by Judge Bell for the offense of kidnapping a servant, convicted, and sentenced to two years in the Parish Prison under an old statute of the State of Louisiana — a penalty which the Judge said he thought unduly severe, but such was the law. An instance of a law made to do exactly the opposite of what it was intended to do. I suspect however that Mr. Lothrop served his sentence in the Parish Prison only constructively.
Such, in brief, is the true story of Jeff Williams and his kidnapping, a part of which is told in the modest and veracious chronicle entitled “Butler in New Orleans.” I permitted J.W. to leave me not long after these events, and I understood that he afterwards found employment in the personal service of General Butler, himself.