Opinion

The horrors ‘12 Years a Slave’ couldn’t tell

What a Civil War soldier’€™s diary tells us about Solomon Northup’s ordeal

January 18, 2014 7:45AM ET
Northrup
An illustration of Solomon Northup from his memoir, “Twelve Years a Slave,” published in 1855.

Solomon Northup’s story, which has been studied by historians for decades, now has a second life in American popular culture, thanks to director Steve McQueen’s extraordinary movie “12 Years a Slave.” The film — nominated for nine Oscars, including best picture and best director — brings Northup’s remarkable 1853 memoir to life with searing portrayals of torture and survival. It has revived curiosity about Northup’s life and renewed debate over how to depict the pain of the past and the present. Does McQueen’s movie go too far with violence?

An answer may be found in the diary of a Union soldier named John Burrud. Ten years after Northup was rescued from slavery in Louisiana, Burrud marched through the neighborhood where Northup had been held captive by the brutal cotton planter Edwin Epps. The soldier knew the story and recognized where he was. “Resumed our march 4 o Clock AM followed Bayou Beauf down,” he scribbled in his little leather-bound pocket diary on May 18, 1863. “I think this is the place that Solomon Northup operated.”

I stumbled across Burrud’s diary just before Christmas in the reading room of the gorgeous Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., which is a long way from Avoyelles Parish, La., or Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where Northup lived. I had no idea when I opened it that Burrud’s diary would shed any light on Northup’s story and its legacies. In fact, I had been looking for something entirely different. History is full of surprises.

Burrud’s diary adds a new layer to this history. Aware of Northup’s celebrity, Burrud followed in his footsteps. He spoke with people who had worked alongside him, the people Northup left behind when he was rescued 10 years earlier. They confirmed Northup’s story, yet what Burrud saw and heard convinced him that Northup’s memoir did not tell the whole truth, because the whole truth of slavery’s horror could not be told.

The most beautiful country

Burrud was born in England in 1828. His family migrated to the United States when he was a young boy and settled in upstate New York about 200 miles from where Northup lived. Even though Northup’s rescue from slavery was widely reported in local newspapers, it still seems remarkable that Burrud was so familiar with Northup’s case. It is clear that he had read Northup’s memoir, which sold 30,000 copies in the 1850s, and the story stayed with him.

When the Civil War broke out, Burrud organized a company in Marion, N.Y., and became a captain in the 160th Regiment, New York Infantry. The 160th went off to Louisiana at the end of 1862 and fought in Gen. Nathaniel Banks’ raids into the Teche country in western Louisiana, a land of rich cotton and sugar plantations. Burrud thought it was “the most beautiful country I ever saw,” and he credited the slaves who had worked to turn “the wilderness into beautiful plantations.”

Banks was an inept general, and his 1863 campaign was a debacle from a military point of view, but Burrud and his fellow soldiers were authorized by the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves they found in Confederate territory, and they freed thousands. Some of them, Burrud discovered, knew Northup. 

The changing of Solomon Northup’s name was not just an attempt to conceal his identity as a free person. It was part of the vicious assault on that very identity.

On May 20 Burrud came across the Epps place. “I am stroleing over the plantation came across an old slave he said he was well acquainted with Solomon Northup and danced after his fiddleing a great many times” he wrote. “I am now in a sugar house where there are 2 other slaves that knew him well.”

He continued, “The slaves all tell a straight forward tale of Soloman about his being kidnapt from the North and how 2 men came and took him away ... I have been on Epps plantation to day wher Soloman toyled and sufferd in his last days of bondage I found many slaves that knew him and was present when he was taken away from Epps.”

One detail of the story that Burrud heard on the plantation jumps out of the diary: “He went by different names here ... They say he went by the name of Platt ... They said his master would whip him if he told his propper name which was Northup they named him Platt.” Burrud’s interlocutors called attention to the fact that they had known Northup as Platt. Either they stressed this piece of information or it made such an impression on the soldier that he repeated it several times in his diary.

Names were a battleground between slaves and masters. Many Africans’ names were changed by traders on the Atlantic slave ships. Owners often named their slaves’ newborn children, while slave parents gave them different ones. The slave trader Theophilus Freeman first called Northup “Platt” on board the Orleans, and Northup bore that improper name like a brand during his 12 years of slavery.

The changing of Northup’s name was not just an attempt to conceal his identity as a free person. It was part of the vicious assault on that very identity. Today we worry about identity theft, but Northup faced something worse: an attempt to erase his entire past and whip a new, degraded self into him.

Epps, too, had another name, the one the slaves called him behind his back. As Burrud jotted in his diary, Epps “has the name of being a cruel master.”

A cruel master

Like McQueen’s movie, Burrud’s diary homes in on Epps’ violence. Not only did the slaves call Epps a tyrant, but they told Burrud that Northup “was cruelly used by Epps.” Perhaps it’s not surprising that slaves would tell a Union officer that their master was cruel. They may have been taking advantage of Burrud’s curiosity about Northup to obtain his sympathy and protection. But Burrud saw enough with his own eyes to believe them.

His entry for May 21 condemned the savagery that made a slave of Northup and 4 million other men, women and children in the American South.

“I took the opportunity to investigate this abominable sistem of slavery ... I have examend their instruments of torture the stocks whip and paddle and strap,” Burrud wrote. “Solomans book is true to the letter only it dos not portray the system as bad as it is it is not in the power of man to do it.” In other words, slavery was even worse than what Northup had written in his memoir. It defied description.

That insight did not prevent Burrud from trying to portray the tools and scenes of torture — of slaves being collared, shackled and chained — that he witnessed. “I have seen these poor cretures come out of the woods with a heavy ring around their neck an one around their ankle and a heavy chain from one ring to the other some chaned up to stumps this was as the rebs expressed it to keep them from running away with the damd Yankes.”

Was Patsey one of them? I don’t know. In the penultimate scene of the movie, Patsey, the expert cotton picker and victim of Epps’ lust, collapses as the horse-drawn wagon that came to Northup’s rescue pulls away. Her anguish shatters the joy and relief that accompanies Northup’s escape. Burrud’s diary does not solve the mystery of what became of Patsey, but it does remind us that 10 years after Northup’s rescue, the Union army would intrude upon Epps’ twisted world and smash it all to pieces.

Adam Rothman is an associate professor of history at Georgetown University. He is the author of "Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South" (Harvard University Press, 2005).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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