The Escape and Revenge of Frank Wanzer

The Confederacy and Southern Cause are, of course, huge parts of Southern history. The battles where Southern men killed and died consume nearly the full focus of the subject. While many celebrate the bravery and actions on the battlefield and homefront alike, I’d like to highlight some forgotten heroes of Southern history – the escaped slaves, the abolitionists, the draft dodgers, the Unionists. Though they fought against the Confederate cause of slavery they were Southerners through and through. The same Southern blood ran through their veins, and the same affection, reverence and undying devotion to their own cause. It’s our duty, Southerners or not, to cultivate, perpetuate and even sanctify their memory and their place in Southern history.

From the founding of the United States, thousands of slaves emancipated themselves, fleeing to the free states of the North. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, most escaped slaves were forced to flee into Canada to obtain their freedom.

Though it was rare, from time to time, an escaped slave upon reaching the promised land, would turn around so that he or she might help others escape. Such was the case of Frank Wanzer.

Frank was born in Aldie, Loudoun County, Virginia in 1830. For twenty-five years, he was owned by Luther O. Sullivan, who he described as “the meanest man in Virginia.” Sullivan would mercilessly whip his slaves and had sold at least twenty-five of them away from their families. Four year prior, Sullivan had sold Frank’s mother, along with two of his siblings to an enslaver in Georgia.

Reward poster for Barny, Elizabeth and Emily.
Reward poster for Barny, Elizabeth and Emily.

Shortly before Frank Wanzer made his escape, he fell in love with a local slave named Emily Foster, 22, owned by Townsend McVee, a severe owner of twenty-five slaves. McVee also sold his slaves away from their families, though with less frequency than Sullivan. McVee’s wife “knew no mercy nor showed any favor.” 1William Still, Underground Railroad Records (1886) 124-129. This source is used, along with Gay’s, throughout.

In their escape, Frank and Emily were accompanied by a married couple named Barnaby and Mary Elizabeth Grisby, 26 and and 24, respectively. Mary was Emily’s sister, and was also owned by McVee. Barnaby was owned by a nearby farmer, William Rogers, who had himself at least a dozen slaves. It’s likely that Barnaby was only allowed to see his wife, Mary, on a weekly basis, as was the custom for many married slaves of two different masters. If they successfully escaped, they could not only live free, but live together. According to Barnaby, he “wanted to live by the sweat of his own brow.”

These two couples were joined by two other men, one of whom was owned by Charles W. Simpson of Fauquier County, Virginia. For reasons that will become clear, their names are unknown. 2Basic biographical information comes from scanned copies of Sydney Howard Gay’s “Record of Fugitives,” available here.

The Holiday Escape

On Christmas Eve, 1855, the half dozen slaves became fugitives. Ten days later, they arrived at a safe house on the Underground Railroad in Columbia, Pennsylvania. The party then passed through Philadelphia and New York City. Upon taking shelter in each of these cities, their stories were told and recorded by Underground Railroad operatives William Still and Sydney Howard Gay. Both of these reports remain, and we will rely exclusively upon both to tell their stories. As Still’s account is fuller, we’ll drawn mainly from that. 3The story related is taken from both William Still’s account as well as The Record of Fugitives by Sydney Howard Gay, available here. The pertinent pages are 34-36.

However it was formed, whomever came up with the idea, it was Frank Wanzer who was their leader. A year younger than Barnaby, still he was trusted as the man who could get them all to freedom.

They left their various masters early on Christmas Eve, 1855, procuring from one of them a team of horses and a fine carriage. The two couples rode in the carriage and the two single men rode upon horses, also stolen from one of the masters.

In this way, they made good time, covering upwards of 60 miles by the next day. They crossed the Potomac River at Edwards Ferry, the safest crossing along their path. The ferry was run (though not owned) by the Newman family, free blacks who made their living moving travelers across the river. Unknown to their white neighbors, however, was the fact that the Newmans had a fine reputation in the black community of secretly ferrying escaped slaves closer to freedom. 4Peter H. Michael, “Flight to Freedom”, available here as a PDF.

Lost and Discovered

But soon the fugitives found themselves lost somewhere near Mt. Airy, Maryland, along the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The rode upon which they traveled seemed not to be the road they needed. Seeing that there was a mill ahead, they decided to stop and ask for directions as coyly as possible.

The two single men dismounted and approached Hood’s Mill. Finding the miller, a man by the name of Mr. Dixon, they asked him for the road to Pennsylvania. Dixon grew immediately suspicious. Perhaps word of fugitive slaves had already bypassed the fleeing party – or perhaps he was simply a suspicious fellow. Either way, the miller implored the two not to go any farther.

Understanding they were now in extreme peril, the two men doubled back to Frank and the others in the carriage. Not knowing the way, they rode on, feeling that it was better to be free and lost than returned to Virginia as slaves.

As they passed the mill, Dixon ran out and tried to grab the reigns of the horses. One of the fugitives produced a pistol and that was enough to turn Mr. Dixon, now accompanied by a couple of his friends, into a very temporary abolitionist.

This change of heart lasted long enough for all six to make their escape. But before long, they discovered that they were being pursued by six white men and a boy, likely more of the miller’s friends. In minutes, they were surrounded.

Now stopped, their pursuers demanded that the fugitives prove to them that they were not slaves. Frank, however, insisted that “no gentleman would interfere with persons riding along civilly.”

Some conversation was had, a back and forth about slaves and rights, and it was now becoming clear that the law was not on the side of the fugitives. Thus far, only one pistol had been brandished, but now it was time to show strength.

From the looks of things, the six white men were lightly armed. But when all six fugitives – even the women – drew pistols and knives, one of the whites pointed his rifle at Frank’s fiance, Emily, threatening to shoot her.

“Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!” she cried, pistol in one hand and long knife in the other.

Another of the white men drew both his pistols. This added weight to the side of the whites, but did not quite even the odds. With this, the pursuers backed down, allowing the six fugitives to continue on.

Engraving made for Still’s 1886 book.
Engraving made for Still’s 1886 book.

Two Down

While they were still in full sight of their new white acquaintances, Frank and the rest decided that the carriage was more of an impediment than anything else. They had between the six of them four horses. The couples would each ride one, and the single men would remain on their own. With the carriage left in the middle of the road, they galloped with all the speed the horses could muster.

Once again emboldened, the six white men (and a boy), rejoined the chase. Each on their own horse, the small posse soon drew near the fugitives.

In a dash, the fugitives split into two groups, a couple and single man a piece. One group remained on the road, while the other took to the woods. Just as quickly, the couple returned from the woods and the remaining single man on the road joined his friend. For some unfathomable reason, the entire white posse chased after the two single men.

Alone again, the two couples moved silently into the woods, creeping along until nightfall, with no sight of the white men. They did, however, hear gunfire. As it happened, one of the single men was shot in the small of the back. The other was apprehended a short time later.

Unable to help their captured friends, they waited until a few hours after nightfall and took to the road. Trying to remain silent, they were heard passing along the road by residents in a nearby house. Heads out the window turned to guns from the porch and a cry to halt. A shot or two was fired, but in the dark, nobody was hit.

Through the night, they road, dismounting only at dawn. With this stop, they turned their horses around, and with a smart slap sent them with empty saddles back south, hoping the beasts would return to Virginia in their place.

From here, they traveled on foot. With short days and cold winter nights, they risked their lives for a quieter journey.

Though they met with no human interruption, the weather now turned on them. Unable to travel through the snow, one night they made camp in the woods. The men laid their bodied upon their loves’ feet, in the hope that their warmth would keep away the freezing. Unfortunately, this effort was in vain – all suffered from frostbite, one of the men, probably Barnaby, was affected the most.

Map detailing the places and approximate dates of their travel.
Map detailing the places and approximate dates of their travel.

The Promised Land

Once across the Mason-Dixon and into Pennsylvania, the traveling was much safer. They arrived without incident in Columbia, along the Susquehanna River. There, they stayed with William Whipper, a black businessman who operated an Underground Railroad station as well as owned an actual railroad. In his cars, he would ship local goods as well as fugitive slaves east to Philadelphia. Within a few days, they were before the black abolitionist William Sill, and a few days more in New York with Sydney Howard Gay. 5Michael.

In New York, they were taken care of by the Vigilance Committee, an organization set up specifically to help fugitive slaves find safe housing and move on to Canada. Frank’s wife, Emily, had taken ill, but once treated and on the mend, they went to Syracuse.

William Still
William Still

New York City in the 1850s was no place for a runaway slave. Though thousands were funneled through the port, few felt that it was safe enough to remain. Many of the city’s authorities had Southern sympathies and had few scruples when it came to the black community, free or slave. 6For more on this, read Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom (W.W. Norton & Co., 2015).

Syracuse, on the other hand, was a city where the Underground Railroad hardly had to be underground at all. Many operatives worked openly, some even publishing their exploits in the newspaper.

It was in Syracuse that Frank and Emily were wed. They wished more than anything to be legally married at one of the local Underground Railroad stations, and were obliged. The Rev. Jermain W. Loguen, director of that city’s railroad, officiated the ceremony.

Though Syracuse was open, it was not ultimately safe. Because of the laws in the United States, even in a free state, they were not free. From Syracuse, they went to Toronto, Canada, and at once were free citizens.

Before the month of January, 1856 was out, the women were sewing and the men were chopping wood, earning now by the sweat of their own brows.

The Risk and Return

All, of course, found freedom to their liking. But in the back of Frank’s mind, he understood that though he was free, he could do more. Without telling a single soul, except perhaps his wife, he made up his mind to return.

Returning to Virginia for any reason brought with it the near-certainty that he would be returned to bondage. Slave catchers were adept at tracking down their quarries in far off states, a return to the scene of his escape was more than risky, it was nearly reckless.

Sydney Gay
Sydney Gay

During his several months of freedom, he had raised $22 and managed to procure three pistols. With this and little more, he boarded a train in Toronto and took it to Columbia, Pennsylvania, likely staying in the house where he found help not long before.

For the journey into the South, Frank knew he must go on foot. The closer he drew to Virginia, the more often he traveled only at night. He stuck to the woods, avoiding houses and buildings of any kind.

It was through his daring that he was able to deliver his own sister and her husband, as well as a dear friend, to freedom. By August 18th, they were in Philadelphia. The day after, they were in New York. From there, it was Syracuse and Canada. Frank’s sister and her husband moved to Hamilton, Ontario, where they remained the rest of their lives. 7Michael.

As for Frank and Emily, after settling down in Canada, they had a few daughters, but sadly none of them survived into adulthood. The couple lived the rest of their lives in relative obscurity, but left a long and lasting legacy, a tribute to the antebellum desire for freedom. 8From a previous marriage in which his first wife died, Frank had two other daughters. They grew up in Virginia, but moved to New Jersey in the 1890s. One of the daughters, Marietta, had twenty children. More can be read in Michael’s article, linked above.

escape A page from Gay’s handwritten journal.
A page from Gay’s handwritten journal.

References   [ + ]

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.