Notation Concerning Pardon for William Breedlove

William Breedlove (ca. 1820–1871)

William Breedlove served as a delegate to the Convention of 1867–1868. The free-born Breedlove owned real estate and worked as a blacksmith before the American Civil War (1861–1865). He also operated a ferry across the Rappahannock River on which he transported an escaped slave in 1863. The Essex County court convicted him for the action, but local dignitaries successfully lobbied Governor John Letcher for Breedlove's clemency. After the war he won election to a convention called to rewrite the state's constitution. Representing the district of Essex and Middlesex counties, he served inconspicuously and voted consistently with the Radical Republican majority. Breedlove later served as an Essex County justice of the peace, sat on the Tappahannock town council, and was the town's postmaster until shortly before his death in 1871. MORE...

 

Breedlove was born sometime around 1820 in Essex County, the son of James Davis, a white man, and Polly Breedlove, a free African American. Little is known of Breedlove's early life. The 1850 census identifies him as a blacksmith and literate. With his wife, Susan Breedlove, the daughter of Cordelia Drake, he resided in the Tappahannock household of Henry Adams, next to the blacksmith shop of the elderly James Lewis, from whom Breedlove may have learned his trade. When Susan Breedlove died of typhoid fever in December 1857, they had at least two sons and one daughter, of whom only George W. Breedlove survived to adulthood. On December 9, 1858, Breedlove married Eliza Ann Davis, the daughter of a black man and a white woman and therefore also free. They had at least two sons and two daughters.

By 1860 Breedlove had accumulated real estate worth $1,500 and personal property worth $250. He may also have begun operating a ferry service across the Rappahannock River by then. Free people of color usually lived inconspicuously, but during the Civil War that became difficult. They faced the threat of being impressed to labor on Confederate fortifications and might also receive nearly irresistible appeals for help from slaves attempting to escape behind the lines of the United States Army. On November 2, 1863, Breedlove and another free black named William Chandler, his employee at the ferry, transported an African American man across the river under the impression that he had a pass authorizing him to travel, when in fact the man was attempting to escape from slavery. Breedlove and Chambers were arrested and on November 16, 1863, convicted in Essex County of assisting in a slave's escape. The penalty prescribed by law was that both convicted men be "sold into absolute slavery."

The prosecuting attorney and some of the justices of the peace who convicted them recommended gubernatorial clemency, believing that Breedlove and Chandler had not known that the man was a slave. Other local dignitaries, including Lieutenant Governor Robert Latané Montague, also wrote in Breedlove's behalf and described him as an honest and industrious blacksmith, a man of good character, and a valuable member of the community. Governor John Letcher pardoned Breedlove on December 19, 1863, and Governor William "Extra Billy" Smith pardoned Chandler on January 29, 1864.

These legal travails may have sparked Breedlove's postwar political activism. On October 1, 1867, the local agent of the Freedmen's Bureau reported that blacks in Tappahannock were holding meetings to select a candidate for the state constitutional convention. They settled on William Breedlove, and their counterparts in neighboring Middlesex County, the other county in the electoral district, agreed. In the balloting on October 22, Breedlove received votes from only three white men, but black voters outnumbered white voters in both counties, and he easily defeated the white candidate, William G. Jeffries. Brigadier General John McAllister Schofield, then the military commander of Virginia under Congressional Reconstruction, observed that Breedlove lacked formal education but was "honest and intelligent." During the constitutional convention Breedlove sat on the Committee on Taxation and Finance. He served inconspicuously and voted consistently with the Radical majority.

On July 19, 1869, the military commander in Essex County appointed Breedlove one of six new justices of the peace for the county. Breedlove also served on the town council of Tappahannock, and his appointment on March 3, 1870, as postmaster there outraged many local whites. He stepped down as postmaster on March 13, 1871, possibly because of failing health. Breedlove died of "Brain Fever" near Tappahannock three months later, on June 15, 1871, survived by his wife and four children, the youngest less than a year old. Several of his children acquired property in Tappahannock, and George W. Breedlove served as a constable for a time, carrying on for another generation the respectable and constructive reputation that William Breedlove had fashioned before the war.

Time Line

  • ca. 1820 - William Breedlove is born in Essex County, the son of James Davis, a white man, and Polly Breedlove, a free African American.
  • 1850 - The census identifies William Breedlove as residing in the Tappahannock household of Henry Adams. He is literate and works as a blacksmith.
  • December 1857 - Susan Breedlove, wife of William Breedlove, dies of typhoid fever.
  • December 9, 1858 - William Breedlove marries his second wife, Eliza Ann Davis, the daughter of a black man and a white woman and therefore also free.
  • 1860 - By this date William Breedlove has accumulated real estate worth $1,500 and personal property worth $250.
  • December 19, 1863 - Governor John Letcher pardons William Breedlove, who was convicted for assisting in a slave's escape.
  • January 29, 1864 - Governor William "Extra Billy" Smith pardons William Chandler, who was convicted for assisting in a slave's escape.
  • December 3, 1867–April 17, 1868 - William Breedlove, a representative from Tappahannock and Middlesex counties to the constitutional convention, serves on the Committee on Taxation and Finance.
  • July 19, 1869 - The military commander in Essex County appoints William Breedlove one of six new justices of the peace for the county.
  • March 3, 1870 - William Breedlove is appointed postmaster of Tappahannock County, a move that outrages many local whites.
  • June 15, 1871 - William Breedlove dies of "Brain Fever" near Tappahannock.
Further Reading
Kneebone, John T. "Breedlove, William." In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 2, edited by Sara B. Bearss, et al., 212–213. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001.
Lowe, Richard G. Republicans and Reconstruction in Virginia, 1856–70. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991.
Lowe, Richard G. "Virginia's Reconstruction Convention: General Schofield Rates the Delegates." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 80, no. 3 (July 1972): 341–360.
Slaughter, James B. Settlers, Southerners, Americans: The History of Essex County, Virginia, 1608–1984. [Tappahannock]: Essex County Board of Supervisors, 1985.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Kneebone, J. T., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. William Breedlove (ca. 1820–1871). (2014, June 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Breedlove_William_ca_1820-1871.

  • MLA Citation:

    Kneebone, John T. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "William Breedlove (ca. 1820–1871)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 12 Jun. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: May 13, 2013 | Last modified: June 12, 2014


Contributed by John T. Kneebone and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. John T. Kneebone is associate professor and chair of the history department at Virginia Commonwealth University.