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Hundreds flock to Culpeper County spot where slaves crossed to freedom to celebrate 150th anniversary of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation
About 20 of those in attendance made the river crossing.
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BY CLINT SCHEMMER
Cow Ford has an everyday name.
But it is an extraordinary place.
This weekend, hundreds of people--coming from near and far--testified with their presence to its significance in American history.
They came to honor the enslaved African-Americans who risked all to cross the Rappahannock River there during the Civil War, fleeing to freedom behind Union lines.
And with words, song and deed, they celebrated President Lincoln's issuing the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, 150 years ago to the day.
The spot, the watery border between Culpeper and Fauquier counties, was "the end of the Underground Railroad" for those who dared to wade the ford near Rappahannock Station in 1862, said Dianne Swann-Wright, director of African-American and Special Programs at Monticello.
As keynote speaker of the "Crossing the Rappahannock: A Pilgrimage to Freedom" event, Swann-Wright marveled at the guts it took to leave the lives and places they'd known for a hugely uncertain future. She marveled at a wartime description of how one party of African-Americans--their oxcart stalled, the "angry rattle" of musket fire nearby--sent their children running across the ford ahead of them to the Fauquier side, held by the Union army.
Those children were "their most precious possession," Swann-Wright said. And their parents were sending them off to a fate of which all could only guess. Bounty hunters, after all, roamed the disputed and ever-changing border between Union and Confederate territory, ready to seize slaves and return them to their owners.
John Hennessy, chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Miltary Park, said that moment was one where people chose what sort of future they might have: enslaved, or free. So, too, did Lincoln change the course of the nation a century and a half earlier.
Hennessy shared the account of Col. Theodore Gates of the 20th New York State Militia, whose unit crossed here on the morning of Aug. 20, 1862.
In the regiment's history, Gates wrote:
"One party of them approached the ford a few rods below the bridge, where the water was two or three feet deep, with an ox-team drawing a wagon, filled with their worldly goods, and on top of these were three wenches, and a perfect swarm of ebony children."