Beyond Freedom's Reach: A Kidnapping in the Twilight of Slavery
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Born into slavery in rural Louisiana, Rose Herera was bought and sold several times before being purchased by the De Hart family of New Orleans. Still a slave, she married and had children, who also became the property of the De Harts. But after Union forces captured New Orleans in 1862 during the American Civil War, Herera’s owners fled to Havana, taking three of her small children with them. Beyond Freedom’s Reach is the true story of one woman’s quest to rescue her children from bondage.
In a gripping, meticulously researched account, Adam Rothman lays bare the mayhem of emancipation during and after the Civil War. Just how far the rights of freed slaves extended was unclear to black and white people alike, and so when Mary De Hart returned to New Orleans in 1865 to visit friends, she was surprised to find herself taken into custody as a kidnapper. The case of Rose Herera’s abducted children made its way through New Orleans’ courts, igniting a custody battle that revealed the prospects and limits of justice during Reconstruction.
Rose Herera’s perseverance brought her children’s plight to the attention of members of the U.S. Senate and State Department, who turned a domestic conflict into an international scandal. Beyond Freedom’s Reach is an unforgettable human drama and a poignant reflection on the tangled politics of slavery and the hazards faced by so many Americans on the hard road to freedom.
and Alexander.)13 Then there was Ellen, “about 43 years old, an excellent cook, washer and ironer; has sometimes a sl ight rheumatism in her hip; a ver y good a nd f aithf ul servant, and her children—Frances, about 22 years old, a No. 1 lady’s maid, seamstress, hair dresser and washer and ironer. Fielding, about 16 years old, drives a buggy handy, and a good house boy and good with horses.”14 These are unusual. Surprisingly f ew ads e xplicitly proffered domestic slaves as faithful or loyal. Far
Masters and Become Slaves for Life, which allowed free people of color to voluntarily opt into slavery under a ma ster of their own choosing. The historian Judith Kelleher Schafer has found seventeen cases of f ree people of color in New Orleans availing themselves of the law, mostly, it appears, to avoid being deported.80 Proslavery advocates milked cases of self-enslavement for propaganda, but nobody could fail to notice that most free people of color preferred to be free, or that the gate only
probably hoped the Federals offered something better than a reign of terror. Rose Herera, too, must have been aware of her owner’s activities and the prospect of war. She did not need her husband to keep her in the loop. Slaves were neither blind nor deaf to the tumult in the city. They watched the parades and presentations of flags. They read the newspapers or gleaned the information secondhand. They saw the young men march off to wage a distant war to keep them from tasting freedom. The
Herera and her now three children—Ernest (6), Marie (4), and Josephine (20 months)—to his wife’s aunt, Carmelite Roland, who lived with the De Harts. A widow, Roland paid $900 f or the four slaves, $400 cash and the remainder to be paid in two installments of $250 plus interest, to be paid at six and twelve months.66 If legitimate, the sale was either an act of folly or an act of faith. Although substantially less than the $1,500 De Hart had paid Mercer less than two years earlier, $900 would
sympathizers). Black people could hardly expect justice from that quarter.86 Ten days before he was assassinated, President Lincoln sent General Nathaniel Banks back to Louisiana to replace Stephen Hurlbut, who had resigned as commander of the Department of the Gulf. Banks arrived in New Orleans on April 20.87 Deciding on the De Hart case was not his highest priority. More urgent was the task of keeping Governor Wells from handing Louisiana back to the rebels, while at the same time remaining in