The Story of Hagar Randall

The following is a first-hand account of the life of Hagar Randall (c. 1810-1895), an enslaved woman from Virginia. Not being able to read or write, she dictated her story while visiting the family of Frederick Newman Knapp in Plymouth, MA. The hand-written transcript is in the Drew Archival Library, along with a photograph of her daughters, Jerry and Dick Randall.

Dick (seated) and Jerry Randall, c. 1869.
Photographer: G. P. Critcherson, Worcester, MA.

My old mistress of all was Cockburn. I was born in Springfield, VA. My mother didn’t die til the time of the war. Where did she live? Oh, yes, Newport. Ann Powell was my new mistress.[1] I guess my mother was born in Springfield. My father belonged to the Masons. His name was Jackson. When I was 19 we moved. Nancy Cockburn had a friend just as Miss Perkins is to Miss Sally[2]– and that friend was Nancy Triplet. Nancy [Cockburn] set us all free when she died. Dr. Triplet and Bailey Tyler and Judge Dade broke the will. Tyler left Springfield on Saturday to go to Leesburg. He got as far as his farm, Shelter Farm, and started next A.M. Got one foot in the stirrup and fell back dead. Dade didn’t die till next fall. After the will was broke we all was gathered up and sent to Alexandria to Joe Bruin’s jail.[3] I wouldn’t like to describe it to you. It was more like hell than any other place. I stayed in Joe Bruin’s jail 8 weeks. Harry was not with us.[4] Seven children were with me – Mary Ellen, Dick, Jerry, Rachel and Peter, Artemis, Frances – she was the oldest child. Next oldest to Frances died and next oldest died. I raised seven, lost six. Seven were in jail. I was cooking for Joe Bruin all day. They wouldn’t let me out with the children, afraid I’d run away. I slept in jail every night. Dr. Powell bought me out of jail. Joe told me if I would go to Powell three children could go with me and he would keep the other two and wouldn’t separate them [Dick and Jerry]. I took Mary Ellen, Rachel and Peter. I had a very good life. I lived splendid but they took my children. 

When she sent Mary Ellen off the fat was in the fire. I told her [Mrs. Powell] I never would xxx her again as long as I lived. I used to go and sit and talk with her nights. If Dr. Powell had lived, Mary Ellen would not have been sent off. [she was sold for $900 and sent to sent to Louisiana]. She made as Mary was going to Fauquier to learn to cook. I used to dream and I always see her traveling. I made up my mind I’d ask Mrs. Powell so I went and said,  “What you done with Mary Ellen?” “Why didn’t you ask Mr. Taylor I guess he knows where she is.” Her son Llewellyn said “why didn’t you tell Aunt Hagar where Mary Ellen is?” “Well,” said Mrs. Powell, “Mary Ellen got to cussing and swearing.” Said I, “That’s one of Shackleford’s lies, you might as well as told us.” I knew it was a lie. “If you had sold Mary Ellen, why didn’t you tell me?” I’ve been to church and been to church to see if old Kingsford could preach anything why one woman should take another woman’s child. Do you think so you think I could take your child and sell it? She pulled her bonnet over her face and went out as if crying and I prayed to God Mary Ellen could die. I prayed Mrs. Powell might die. I told her everything right to her face for I wanted her to sell me.

Me and Tip would quarrel but me and Tip was first rate. When Tip was shut up I carried him things. He was a miserable bad boy but always my favorite, good to me. Mary went down south and stayed twelve years. 

You know when Fremont was running I knew who was running for President[5] I cared about freedom ever since I knew anything. I’ve heard talk about freedom ever since I can remember. Them that owned slaves they weren’t going to set and talk about freedom. My old master was abolitionist – Dr. Powell he didn’t believe in selling. I know by the club he belonged to. They’d all go together. There was always something dropping and you could pick it up. When Fremont wasn’t elected we was dreadful sorry. Mrs. Kitty Powell, Ann’s mother, would tell you anything. When old Abraham L was elected all was expected. I took for granted if the war came on we’d be free. The first gun that was fired I knew it – first gun on Fort Sumter. Little Fanny came and said, “Aunt Hagar the war’s begun, the war’s begun.” I was getting breakfast, I ran out and said, “Hush, it ain’t.” Every paper that came I tried to find out who was elected. Miss Ann went off and left not a soul but me. My children were sent off to Miss Emily. Harry and I lived in a little house and Miss Ann left everything in my care. 

Bull Run Battle began about 10 o’clock, 6 or 7 soldiers came to see if I could give them a dinner. By and by we heard a cannon firing and they said they believed they was going to fight that day. I give them a dinner they day. I got all kinds of vegetables in the garden. I made two great big chicken pies – damson pies, damson tarts. Oh Lord I was afraid for the soldiers that night. A great storm came on and one poor fellow who had been sick couldn’t eat nothing but boiled eggs. Very nice men looked like fellows that had been raised at home. One said, “Aunty, they’re fighting up here and if we are ordered off you must follow us.” I was feeding people all the next day, a great big pot of coffee all the time on the stove. The first day I saw soldiers was when Col. Ellsworth was killed.[6]“If you have come to kill me, kill me right here.” I was sitting one day when I saw a lot of soldiers, they came right up and I said that. 

Miss Powell said she must sell Mary Ellen to give Bob his education and she wasn’t going to draw her money out of the bank to educate Bob.[7]

The house was a contraband camp. I liked the soldiers but I was always afraid of ‘em such a mass of men and I didn’t see no women. I’d like to see Charley Clough, he was a gentleman and never lost it soldiering. Just as I was born a colored lady and through all the traveling round I has always been a colored lady. 

Peter’s mistress carried him to Leesburg and he ran away and joined the Union soldiers. I told him to xx xx like the Lord directed me what to tell him. 

I went to see Lincoln after he was dead. I walked on muskets that day and laid my hand on his face and when he was reelected, I went up and sat in Lincoln’s chair. I sat in President’s seat that day.

Your kitchen Mrs. Knapp was the first place I went in after the war.

“Hagar’s gal’s come” Uncle Harry in Mrs. K’s door. Mary Ellen knowed she was sold from Alexandria. When she came from the south she inquired for me. She was gone two years then I got a letter, Fanny came and said there was a letter from Mary Ellen. After the war I knew nothing about her til she come to find me.

After leaving the Powell’s home in Alexandria, Hagar worked for the family of Rev. Frederick Newman Knapp in Washington, DC. Knapp was an administrator in the United States Sanitary Commission. Hagar’s daughter’s, Jerry and Dick Randall, made their way to Washington, DC just as Mary Ellen did. Their story is described more fully below in Gershom Bradford’s letter.

After the war, the Knapp family moved for a brief time to Sutton, MA. Jerry Randall remained with them. It was here that she married George Lyles, also a former slave and employee of the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

The Lyles’ home at 174 Court Street, Plymouth, MA

By 1870, George and Jerry Lyles had moved to Plymouth, MA and purchased a small house at 174 Court Street. Their home was not far from the Knapp’s newly established Knapp School for Boys. Although Hagar and Harry Randall remained in Washington, DC, once widowed, Hagar spent time in Plymouth as well. She is part of the Lyles household in the 1880 US Census.

The Lyles raised five children. Jerry died in 1902; George Lyles in 1922.

Letter from Gershom Bradford, III to Duxbury Town Historian Dorothy Wentworth, September 27, 1971

Quite in contrast with the foregoing is the recent death in Plymouth of my friend of 50 years, a fine Negro, James Chester Lyle. He was 90 and his mother was a slave! I remember her, Jerry Lyle…The Randall family was owned by a doctor in Alexandria, VA. The old doctor would never allow a slave to be sold, but he died and his wife, ambitious and in need of money steeled herself and sold off several of the children.[8] The father was a free man. My uncle, Rev. Frederick Knapp afterwards got the mother, Aunt Hagar Randall, to tell him the story as he wrote it down. I have it. There were two girls about eleven who were put on the Auction Block, but Bruin, the auctioneer, or broker, decided that he would take these girls himself. He sent one of them down on his farm in Fauquier County. There, as the Civil War was on, the girls would drive the horses and cattle into the swamps whenever either of the armies came near.

At wars end they went down to the RR track and burned matches for the night train, got aboard and reached their old home in Alexandria. Everything was changed; they walked aimlessly until a man stopped them.

“Ain’t you Hagar Randall’s girls?”

“Yes, where is she?”

They were told that she was with a Knapp family in Washington (just back of the present Smithsonian Institute is now). They made their way over, were united with their mother and some of the children. There was not room in the house so they built a shanty in the back yard. To the Knapps they were known as the Contrabands.[9]

Mr. Knapp, after he had closed up his business with the Sanitary Commission, was called to Yonkers, Sutton and then to Plymouth in the 1870s. They brought one or both of those girls, Dick and Jerry – Dick being a girl. I never knew what became of Dick. Rachel, another sister, became the cook for friends of Mamie’s family. She spent most of her life with the Bonds.

In “The Home” of the Sanitary Commission, a convalescent hospital for soldiers preparing to go home, Aunt Charlotte, in her last service, was the matron.[10] Her right hand man, a Negro named George Lyle. He was devoted to her. In time, he made his way to Plymouth and later married Jerry [Randall]. When George came to Aunt Charlotte’s funeral at the Old house, I was standing by him when he tied his horse to a tree. He said that this was one of his saddest days. Jerry cooked dinner at the Knapp’s when General Grant visited Plymouth at the initiative of Mr. Knapp, who had him many times in the war.

“Chester,” her son, always was ready to help when we or the Knapps were in need of his services. Once in about 1921 I had an old car that needed repair. Chester and I worked on it all day. At five it was running. I asked him what I owed him. He hesitated saying, “I hate to take money from a Bradford or a Knapp.” When I felt badly on one trip North and not feeling like driving back, the Knapps got hold of Chester and he drove us down. So you will understand why I sent flowers to Plymouth.

Aunt Hagar’s story is deep in pathos. She showed no hate towards her mistress’ actions, not ranting against her. In fact, at times she seemed to feel sorry for her. It is a moving story…

1. Ann Maria (Powell) Powell (1800-1885), born in Leesburg, VA to Cuthbert Powell and Catherine Simms. She grew up on a grand estate called Llangollen. In 1820, she married her first cousin. Dr. William Leven Powell (1797-1853). He was a physician, a graduate of the Medical College at the University of Pennsylvania.

2. Sarah Perkins was a long-time family friend to the Knapps. She often lived and traveled with them..

3. Joseph Bruin’s Slave Jail was a two-story brick building located in Alexandria, VA.

4. Harry Randall, Hagar’s husband and the father of her children. According to some, he was born a free man. However, in a deposition taken during the Civil War regarding a stolen horse, Hagar explained that she and Harry were married according to the “custom of colored people in Virginia who were slaves. His master gave him permission to visit me and my master consented.” Together they had 13 children. Harry Randall appears in the 1870 US Census with Hagar, born c. 1790 in Virginia.

5. The John C. Fremont presidential campaign was in 1856. He was the first Republican candidate.

6. Elmer E. Ellsworth (1837-1861) was the first Union officer to die in the Civil War. He was killed while removing the Confederate flag from the Marshall House Inn in Alexandria, VA. 

7. Dr. Robert Conrad Powell (1838-1890). Began college at the University of Pennsylvania , but left when the Civil War began.  After the war was a graduate of the Medical Dept of the University of Baltimore, 1869.

8. The narrative of Hagar Randall says that she and three of her children (Mary Ellen, Rachel and Peter) were sold to Dr. Powell after the death of her original owner, Nancy Cockburn. Dick and Jerry were sold away from her at Joseph Bruin’s Slave Auction house. Two other children, Artemis and Frances, died at Bruin’s.

9. Contrabands was a term used to describe escaped slaves during the Civil War. 

10. Charlotte Bradford (1813-1893). Born in Duxbury to Capt. Gershom Bradford and Sally Hickling. Her life as a nurse is highlighted in her home, DRHS’ Bradford House Museum, 981 Tremont Street, Duxbury, MA. See also previous posts in this blog.

The Civil War Homefront

Charlotte Bradford (1813-1890)

Carolyn Ravenscroft, Archivist

Although the battles during the Civil War raged in the South, the thoughts of every Northerner were never far from the front.  Any first-hand account of the war was eagerly repeated to family and friends through visits and correspondence.  During the late summer of 1861 Duxbury native Charlotte Bradford shared information she had gathered about the recent battle at Bull Run with her sister, Maria, then living in Yellow Springs, Ohio with her husband, Claudius.  Charlotte wrote her sister of Dr. Josiah Bartlett’s experience assisting the wounded (Bartlett was a doctor and the husband of the Bradford’s cousin Martha).  She also described the travails of a family friend, Frank Frothingham, who had fought in the battle with the 5th Massachusetts.  Interspersed with the gruesome details of the war, were more homely accounts of day to day activities in Duxbury, such as “working for the soldiers” in the Methodist Vestry and entertaining house guests.

In future blog entries we will learn more of Charlotte Bradford as she heads off for Washington, DC to begin her career as a Civil War nurse.  The following, however, is a letter written months before she considered leaving for the South.

Duxbury, Aug. 18, [1861]

Dear Maria,

I intended to have written you long before now but we have had so much company and so much to do, and I have been so tired, that I had no chance to do it.  The middle of July Lizzie Ripley and Sarah E[llison] came down.  Lizzie spent a week.  Her mother [Sarah Alden Ripley] was coming the next week, but I had a lame knee and had to put off their visit.  The most of that week and the next we went to the Methodist vestry to work for the soldiers.  The 1st of August E[lizabeth] and I went to Abington.  There was very fine speaking there, but the seats in the ground were so wet that we came home most awfully tired…Ezra Ripley[i] has gone to Fortress Monroe. He is lieutenant of one of the companies.  How unfortunate our troops should have been beaten twice.  I am afraid it will not be quite so easy for the North to conquer as they have boasted.  Josiah [Bartlett] took a trip to Washington and was present at the Bull Run fight and assisted in dressing the wounds at the hospital at Centreville.  Frank Frothingham[ii] is here.  He was in the battle in the Mass. 5th Regiment.  They had nothing to eat from Saturday night till Monday noon.  They marched 8 miles in the morning into the battle, then 45 miles or more Sunday night and Monday morning, arrived in Washington wet through in a drenching rain, and Monday night 45 of them slept in a kitchen with a brick floor and only 2 windows which had to be kept shut on account of their being so wet with no change of clothing.  It must have been dreadful. In the morning an acquaintance found Frank in a high fever and took him to a friend’s house where he was cared for.

Mother sends her love to you and Claudius and says she wants to see you very much.  Give my love to Claudius.

Your affectionate sister,


This article originally appeared on the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society’s Duxbury in the Civil War blog.

[i] Ezra Ripley was the son of the noted Transcendentalist and Bradford cousin, Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley. The Ripleys lived in the Old Manse in Concord, MA.  Ezra Ripley enlisted as a 1st Lieutenant on 24 July 1861 at the age of 35 in Company B, 29th Massachusetts Infantry.  He died of disease on July 28, 1863 in Vicksburg, MS.

[ii] Frank Frothingham was from Charlestown, MA. He enlisted, at the age of 23, in the 5th Massachusetts, Company K for 30 days from May 1, 1861 until July 31, 1861.  He then served with Company A, 33rd Infantry Regiment as a Lieutenant and with Company I, 3rd Massachusetts Calvalry as a Captain.  He was mustered out of the Army on June 5, 1865.

Charles M. Smith of the 11th Massachusetts

Centreville, Va. Stone church

Carolyn Ravenscroft, Archivist

This blog post originally appreared on the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society’s Duxbury in the Civil War blog.  It is such a great letter, I thought I would share it here as well.

July 21st marked 150th anniversary of the 1st Battle of Bull Run (also known as the First Manassas). On the field that day, in the ranks of the 11th Massachusetts Infantry, commonly called the Boston Volunteers, was a carpenter’s son from Charlestown named Charles M. Smith. “Charlie” enlisted on June 13, 1861 shortly after Abraham Lincoln made his plea for troops. Two days after Bull Run Charlie sat down next to a wounded comrade and dutifully recounted all that he experienced in a letter to his mother so she “would not feel worried.” The following is hair raising letter Mrs. Harriet Smith received:
July 23 [1861]

Shooters Hill, V.A.

Dear Mother and all,
We are again at Shooter’s Hill, we started from here a week ago at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and marched till 3 o’clock the next morning and then started at sunrise and marched till sunset where we camped overnight and took some prisoners. All the houses are empty and some of them we set on fire. If we get hungry we kill hens, ducks and cattle and pigs and every thing we want to eat. We started the next morning with the intentions of cutting off the retreat [of] a rebel regiment which started from Fairfax but we was 2 hours to late. They burnt bridges and cut down big trees to stop us all they could but we pushed on as far as Centerville. There was about 8 regiments in all that went with us but when we got to Centerville there was 20 or 30 other regiments encamped there. We stopped here two days then we started for Manassas where we fought an awfull battle. Men that have been in other battles say that it was the most murderous battle they ever saw for so short a time. It only lasted 6 hours. I haven’t heard how many men we had to take the place, some say there was 40,000 but there wasn’t one half took part in it. The battle twas either sold or it was a great blunder. They had over 100,000 men and had batteries in the woods and batteries that reached 1 ½ miles. They heard we were coming and was reinforced 30,000 the very day we got there. I will give you a little description of it but I suppose you will read about it in the papers. When we got within about 1 mile of the place we heard cannon and saw the smoke they then made us urn double quick to the field where we threw off every thing that encumbered us. The shells were flying every direction and the first man I saw killed was one of our own Company. A shell struck within six feet of us killing one and knocking down two or three more. A piece tore my pants a little and that was all. We was ordered on to the hill where I saw sights that was enough to make a man grow mad. There was men laying dead and wounded and the artillery men had been killed and the horses were all dead piled together by the Cannon. The bullets were flying thick. The enemy wasn’t more than a stones throw from us. The glorious eleventh gave one fire and fell back leaving behind them many dead and wounded. A ball struck my gun but that was nothing. We loaded again but that was the last fire we gave together for the other regiments that went up after us got cut to pieces so they broke, breaking us and everything was confusion. Some of our captains got killed. Then there was so much noise we could not hear our Colonels and every man was for himself. I went again on the hill and fired but the bullets and grape fell so thick we fell back again leaving hundreds behind. Besides a lot of Ellsworth Zouves lost 3 or 400 of their men. I went down into the woods with about 100 others where we could fire into them without their seeing us and here I came the nearest to getting killed. There was some of us went deep into the woods. I saw a company of men in there and thought they were our men but when they see us they fired into us and the way the leaves and splinters flew off o the trees it made me think of home. I rushed out of the woods and our Cavelry were coming down the hill to charge into them but they had hardly got into the woods when I should think a whole regiment fired upon them. They turned their horses and fled and there was as many as 30 horses came out without a rider. I jumped into a little hole to keep clear of the bullets and there was 4 or 5 soldiers in there. I asked them some questions but I found they was all dead. Every one was leaving for the hill. I went up there where I shot about a dozen shots when I see they was retreating. I was one of the very last ones. When our Cavelry rode by us on the gallop told us to run for some woods ahead as quick as we could for their Cavelry was coming. I looked back and saw the dust and only saw about 20 behind me when I threw away my grub bag and gun and run for life if I ever did. They did not follow but a little ways and went back. I picked up another gun that was loaded and discharged it at them. Every body was going towards Centreville on a run. There was men wounded on the way crying for help but every man seemed to look out for himself. All the houses and barns were filled with the wounded but we had to leave them and I suppose they were all killed. There was 12 of our company missing this morning. The Cavelry charged on our rear when we got about 2 miles off taking some prisoners. They also fired shells into us when we got within 4 miles of Centreville killing only a few. One of them struck a rail fence about 10 feet from me and wounding 2 or 3. I was very lucky during the whole of the battle. There was men each side of me got shot dead while I wouldn’t get touched. There was hundreds of men walked to the camp at Centreville that were badly wounded about the head and body. There was only 2 of our Company that was wounded that came here with us the rest we had to leave. One is now sitting in front of me, a ball passed right into his mouth and out of his cheek taking several teeth with it. We shall stay here until we get a big enough force to take the place. Nearly all their whole army are there and you can’t see them but when you go up to fire they can pour right into us. I thought I would write to you so you would not feel worried. They told me today that we could not have any letters go but if you get this you write quick and let me know so I can write more. I don’t feel much like writing today. Give my love to all the folks. I have received two letters from you and want to get some more but good bye till I get home.

Charles M. Smith was mustered out of the 11th Massachusetts, Company I on June 24, 1864 and promptly reenlisted six month later in the 1st Massachusetts Calvary Battalion. He finally left the Army for good at the end of the War in June, 1865. Charlie settled in Humbolt, Kansas where he married and raised a family. The Drew Archival Library of Duxbury Rural & Historical Society has 8 of his Civil War Letters all of which are as well written and detail laden as the above.

Photo above: Civil War photographs, 1861-1865 / compiled by Hirst D. Milhollen and Donald H. Mugridge, Washington, D.C. : Library of Congress, 1977. No. 0001