The following story was not recorded in a private diary nor publicized in a local newspaper; rather, it was forgotten in an obscure collection of civil court records at the Chester County Archives. Many people would simply choose to overlook these files, dismissing them as boring and lifeless, dry legal proceedings with little value. Archivists, however, who work with these records know the remarkable value they have in illuminating the lives of the forgotten.
The story you are about to read concerns Henrietta Cummings, a black domestic servant, and Charles Cassidy, an enslaved man who escaped to Pennsylvania. They both lived, worked, and loved in the mid-nineteenth century but their social status left them little time to commit their personal thoughts and feelings to paper. Because of Henrietta’s determination to honor the wishes of her betrothed, a single document was left behind to tell their story.
Born on February 22, 1841, Henrietta Cummings was the fifth of ten children born to Jeremiah and Margaret Nickers Cummings. The Cummings family was part of West Chester’s growing African American community of the mid-nineteenth century. According to the 1850 federal census, 344 blacks or mulattos called West Chester home, but only twenty-six families owned their own property. (1) The majority of black families, the Cummings included, leased their property. Although it is unknown exactly where Henrietta and her family lived, they likely resided in the east ward of the borough. Later, this area became known as Georgetown, a neighborhood where many of West Chester’s black families resided.
By 1860, Henrietta Cummings lived and worked in the affluent John W. Babb household. During this period, a growing middle class increasingly hired part-time servants. In response, members of the exclusive upper class, like the Babbs, relied more and more on domestics like Cummings to “show off” their wealth. (2) Babb was one of the wealthiest men in the borough, and in 1860, the value of his real and personal estate was estimated to be $62,400, a considerable sum for the period. He employed a number of servants to manage the daily functions of his busy household.
1850 Federal Census for the Borough of West Chester.
In January 1863, Cummings met twenty-eight-year-old Charles Cassidy of Haverford Township. Cassidy was formerly enslaved in Jefferson County, Virginia but escaped north when the Civil War broke out. Thanks to local involvement in the abolitionist movement, its proximity to the slaveholding South, and its relatively large African American community, Southeastern Pennsylvania became a haven for freedom seekers like Cassidy.
January 1863 was undoubtedly a transformative month for Cassidy. Not only did he meet Cummings, the love of his life, but President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This Proclamation transformed the Civil War from a fight to preserve the Union into an unequivocal all-out war against slavery. Black men like Cassidy were surely inspired by this new Proclamation. If successful, the Union Army could potentially free a race from human bondage.
After the Proclamation was signed, famed orator and committed abolitionist Frederick Douglass toured the country recruiting black men for the Union Army. Speaking at Camp William Penn on July 6, 1863, Douglass remarked, "Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship." Camp William Penn was located just north of the City of Philadelphia, and it was the first and largest training camp for African American soldiers. Douglass was invited to speak to the 3rd United State Colored Troops (USCT), the first regiment trained at Camp William Penn. “The fortunes of the whole race for generations to come are bound up in [your] success or failure…You are a spectacle for men and angels.” (3) Eight days later on July 14th, Douglass visited West Chester and delivered a similar speech on the steps of Horticultural Hall (now part of the Chester County Historical Society). It is impossible to know whether Cassidy was in attendance, but he was likely inspired by a patriotic spirit.
1863 broadside recruiting men to enlist in the Union Army. Accessed from Wikimedia Commons.
Throughout 1863, Cassidy courted Cummings and the two developed an intimate relationship—all while Cassidy regularly heard inspirational calls to join the fight for black emancipation. On December 21, 1863, Cassidy enlisted in Company E of the 25th USCT. In January 1864, before leaving for training camp, Cassidy proposed to Cummings. In their final meeting, Cassidy entrusted his new fiancée with his enlistment bounty of $250 which he said was hers to keep if he did not return.
Nearly three decades after being born into slavery, Cassidy was wearing the Union Blue and thinking of his future wife as he marched off to war in January 1864. The 25th USCT organized and trained at Camp William Penn before sailing to New Orleans in late February. The regiment arrived in New Orleans during the Red River Campaign, but it was quickly determined that the new recruits were too inexperienced for combat. Instead, Cassidy and the rest of the 25th USCT relocated to Barrancas, Florida where they guarded Pensacola Bay at Fort Pickens. These Pennsylvania recruits were not prepared for the humidity and extreme heat of Florida’s southern coast, and many became sick with dysentery, scurvy, and other illnesses. On September 17, 1864, Private Charles Cassidy died of consumption at Fort Pickens. He never returned from the war and never returned to Henrietta.
Less than a year after her engagement, Cummings was alone with her memories of Cassidy and the bounty he left in her keeping. In early November 1864, Cummings visited Charles H. Pennypacker’s West Chester law office. She showed him the bounty owed to Cassidy by the Delaware County Commissioners and inquired how she might collect the money. As a lawyer, Pennypacker surely realized the legal challenges facing Cummings. Cassidy died without a will or any heirs, and because the couple never married, Cummings essentially had no legal claim on his estate.
Despite all this, Pennypacker still made an effort to assist Cummings with her claim and even testified on her behalf when the case was heard by the State Deputy Escheator. Escheaters were the officials who settled disputes over unowned property. In testimony provided before the proceedings, Cummings reported that she “knew [Cassidy] a year before he went away... He did not leave a will. I was engaged to be married to him…I knew him intimately.” She argued that Cassidy wanted her to inherit his property if he died during the war. “He visited me frequently before January 1864…He frequently talked to me about his relations. He always said he had no relatives nor kindred alive.” She continued: “He had no property but the certificate for two hundred and fifty dollars and the note for twenty-six dollars. These he left with me. Never saw or knew any person who claimed any relationship or kindred to him. Never heard any person say that he had any heirs or kindred living. He had been a slave.” Despite her honest account, the State of Pennsylvania escheated Cassidy’s property because the couple was not legally married.
Henrietta's written testimony in her 1865 escheat case. Part of the Miscellaneous Common Pleas Collection at the Chester County Archives. Access an enlarged version here.
Although heartbreaking, the story of Henrietta Cummings and Charles Cassidy was not unique. Nearly 700,000 Civil War soldiers never returned home and forced loved ones to accept a new void created by their absence. Cummings and Cassidy fell in love at a time when most African Americans, both free and enslaved, were denied their basic humanity both before the law and their fellow citizens. The young black couple agreed to sacrifice their affection for a greater good, and perhaps Cummings took some solace in knowing that Cassidy’s sacrifice played a part, however small, in furthering the country’s slow march towards racial equality. Cummings eventually married Jerry M. Brown, a local West Chester man who served in Company A of the 32nd USCT. The couple moved to Attleboro, Massachusetts where Cummings died on April 5, 1879 of consumption—the same illness that took the life of her first love.
1) Douglas R. Harper, West Chester to 1865: That Elegant & Notorious Place, (West Chester, PA: Chester County Historical Society, 1999), 622.
2) Faye E. Dudden, Serving Women: Household Service in Nineteenth-Century America. (Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press, 1983).
3) Frederick Douglass, "Should the Negro Enlist in the Union Army?" 6 July 1863, National Hall, Philadelphia, published by Douglass' Monthly, August 1863.