Dr. Edwin C. Bidwell — Case of the Kidnapped Northrop [Northup]

Received Nov. 26, 1898, from Dr. E. C. Bidwell

Dr. Edwin C. Bidwell, Surgeon (Image courtesy of Lyon Camp #10, (Vineland, NJ) Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.)

Dr. Edwin C. Bidwell, Surgeon (Image courtesy of Lyon Camp #10, (Vineland, NJ) Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.)

Some few years before the War of the Rebellion a small volume was published entitled I think “Twelve Years in Slavery” [Twelve Years a Slave]. The story as I recall it was of a colored citizen of New York state, free of course, who being employed on a coasting vessel, or perhaps by some other means, unexpectedly found himself on the wrong side of Mason Dixon’s line, claimed and held and sold as a slave. Of course his assertion that he was a freeman went for nothing there, as against the word of any white man who chose to claim him as his property. His color was prima facie evidence against him, and practically conclusive. Probably, his assertion of his rights was regarded as a trait of bad character in a chattel, liable to make trouble in the border slave states, and supplied his successive owners with a special motive for his transfer to a more Southern latitude. It seems that by repeated sales he at length reached the Parish Avoyelles on the Red River, La., where he worked some years on the plantation of one Epes [Epps]. In the twelfth year, he contrived in some way to get word of his predicament to his native place in New York. There a lawyer of the same surname, Northrop, took up the case. Providing himself with the proper and necessary documents he went on to the place designated, found the man, took him before the Parish Court, proved his identity and brought him home. It does not appear that his last owner, Epes, had any part in the kidnapping, or any knowledge of it, but the loss, of course, fell upon him.

On our way up the Red River, some of our men who had seen the Northrop Narrative and remembered it, discovered the Epes’ plantation and, as it happened to us to camp one night very near it, they improved the opportunity to talk with some of the slaves then on the place, who remembered Northrop very well, and I think they talked with the proprietor also. One of the hospital attendants pointed out the place to me next morning.

On the retreat of our army from Alexandria a few weeks later, it was the duty of the Cavalry Division to which I then belonged, to cover the rear. On the morning when we reached Marksville, county seat of Avoyelles where the main body of the army had camped the night before, I chanced to meet an elderly man who said he was the clerk of the court. I think his name was Rickart. He said that Gen. Banks, on going into camp the evening before, had put him and several other prominent citizens under arrest, and after questioning them sharply concerning the movements of the confederate forces, of which they knew absolutely nothing, had detained them under guard till morning. When on being released, he stepped out of the tent and looked on the camp spread out over the shallow valley lying just west of the town, said he “It seemed to me that there was a million of men!”  Apparently he was quite sober. Anyhow he offered me nothing more intoxicating than cold water.

Recalling to mind the kidnapping case, I asked Clerk Rickart about it. He said he was clerk of the court then, as now; that the papers all passed through his hands; that he had seen the book and that it was quite correct as to all matters of fact, and perfectly fair in all respects. In short, he had no criticism to offer. For Madame Stowe, however, he had quite other sentiments. About the time our conversation had reached this point the command had passed on, and as I did not deem it wise to linger far behind with only an orderly for my support, bidding the affable old gentleman good-bye, I also pushed on.

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