Why would a Morgan County freeman have petitioned to become a slave in the early days of the Civil War? It's a mystery that has puzzled historians, but the disturbing answer recently was discovered.
Morgan County Archivist John Allison, while researching an agent who worked with the Freedman’s Bureau in Decatur during Reconstruction, found a letter regarding Reuben Patterson.
Patterson, who was born a freeman of color named Pleasant Martin, gives details in the 1866 letter about why he petitioned the Morgan County probate court in 1861 to put him into slavery.
“There have been a lot of stories written and told, but none answer why a man would give up his freedom to become a slave,” Allison said.
The letter he found is included in Freedman's Bureau records that were recently placed online. According to the document, Martin, who changed his name in 1861, said he was “whipped" and threatened to be lynched by some “frightened slave owners” who thought he knew about “a conspiracy.”
Patterson denied knowing about any conspiracy, but to save his life, he agreed to give up his status as a freeman and become the slave of Josiah Patterson.
The Morgan County Archives has probate records about Patterson’s petition, but no mention is made of the threats against Patterson or the whipping.
“Priceless” is how author and historian Peggy Towns describes the letter Allison found.
She wrote about Patterson in her 2012 book about black soldiers from north Alabama who served in the Civil War. Like so many other people, Towns was aware of him surrendering his status as a freeman, but she always thought there was more to the story.
She suspected Patterson may have given up his freedom because Alabama passed laws making it illegal for free people of color to “fraternize” with slaves. The punishment for violating the law was “39 lashes,” which could be carried out by the slave owner, an overseer, officer or member of any patrol company.
Towns said she mentioned Patterson in a speech she gave Monday at the University of North Alabama.
“I didn’t know about this document at the time,” she said. “This is incredible and solves the mystery.”
Allison was researching A. Worley Patterson, a Decatur resident, slave owner and agent with the Freedmen’s Bureau, when he found the record. The U.S. government established the bureau in 1865 to aid former slaves in the South during Reconstruction.
While helping former slaves adjust to life after the Civil War, federal agents recorded some of their stories and forwarded them to federal authorities for investigation. That is what happened in the Patterson case.
A.W. Patterson requested that the event, which happened at the old Somerville Courthouse when Somerville was the county seat, be “legally investigated.”
Allison has not found documents to suggest there was an investigation, but Reuben Patterson’s life after the Civil War is well documented because he moved to Florence and became one of the town’s best-known citizens.
According to several historical accounts, he served as the body servant of his owner during the Civil War. His mother — Aunt Julia Patterson — also followed the 5th Alabama Cavalry into battle. She died in 1906 and was “estimated to be 100,” according to a story in the Florence Times.
Patterson, who was severely bow-legged, married Abbeville “Abbie" Thornton of Colbert County in 1870. The couple did not have children, and Patterson operated a shoe-polishing business in downtown Florence. He also worked as a cook at the Muscle Shoals canal for almost 25 years.
He maintained his relationship with former Confederate soldiers after the war and attended many of their reunions. Patterson died May 12, 1928, and was in an unmarked grave until 1999 when an effort led by the Florence Historical Board installed a marker recognizing him as a private in the 5th Alabama Cavalry.
Towns and Allison said there is more to learn about Patterson. For example, they want to know how he became a freeman of color.
“There also seems to be another story to tell," Allison said.