Mrs. Fairfax: An African-American woman leader in the Civil War

Headquarters Fifth Army Corps, Harrison's Landing, James River, Va. for posting

The Library of Congress (LOC) image of Union General Fitz-John Porter and his staff at the Fifth Army Corps HQ, Harrison’s Landing, James River, Va. (1862 or 1863) stood out to me while researching images of Black men and women in Union camps during the War of the Rebellion. At first glance the eye goes to the impressive looking officers impeccably dressed, but the highlight of the image in my opinion is the woman standing off to the side.

The person who received the photo, presumably Gen. Porter, identified most of those who posed for the image, including the African-American woman. She is identified as “Mrs. Fairfax, chief cook and bottle washer”. Who was Mrs. Fairfax and what is her story? Unfortunately her story, like many of those who labored behind the scenes, is lost to history. Could she have been enslaved in Virginia and liberated herself and before being hired by Gen. Porter as his chief cook? She may have even been from Fairfax, VA and taken the name for herself or even the name of her former owner. I have found one free woman of color named Jane Fairfax who was employed as a house keeper in Berkeley, Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1860. In the census taken in 1860 Jane Fairfax is listed as 22 years old born in 1838 and there were two little girls with the same last name staying at the hotel where she was listed. There were a few other free women of color with the same last name living in Virginia in 1860 however they were way too old to be the Mrs. Fairfax pictured. Is Jane Fairfax the same Mrs. Fairfax? There is a good chance that Jane Fairfax is the one in the photo.

When Gen. George B. McClellan commanded the Army of the Potomac Gen. Porter was one of the few generals McClellan liked and trusted and they became close friends. Like McClellan, Porter was a Democrat and did not favor abolition. In the early days of the war more conservative officers like McClellan ordered that enslaved people coming into Union lines must me returned to their owners. Porter being close to McClellan would have not harbored African-Americans who had emancipated themselves, rather he would have hired freed people to serve him in camp. It was not until the implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 that officers like Porter and McClellan would be forced to allow self-emancipated African-Americans into Union lines.

Mrs. Fairfax must have been quite significant to the general and his staff, not just to be in the photo but to receive mention and be called “Mrs.” She was not just the cook but the “chief cook” indicating that she had some authority within the cooking realm, well as much authority as an African-American woman could have during the 19th Century.  It is well-known that Black men served as cooks and servants in military camps both north and south but the role of women in these camps is rarely discussed. Mrs. Fairfax helps shed some light on the important role African-American women played in the Civil War and the fight for freedom.

I am always amazed how so much history can be captured and unpacked in one simple image. Giving credence to the old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Unfortunately if the narrative is not know or stated, this photograph and many like it are lost to history, and Mrs. Fairfax and other African-Americans remain in the shadows. My intent as MAG the Historian is to help uncover and give voice to those who have been silenced throughout history.

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