Slave girl’s words resonate in 21st Century
“He did what married people do. I am but a child.”
— Jenny Green, 1864
Little is known about Jenny Green. There are no photographs of her. If she married and had children, history didn’t well record it.
What we do know, thanks to the writings of Yale University associate professor Crystal N. Feimster, is that Jenny was a “colored” slave girl who did something remarkable in the summer of 1864 — something that cries out for recognition more than 150 years later as a torrent of high-profile sexual assault allegations pours into public view.
Jenny slipped her plantation bonds early that summer, seeking and finding refuge at a Union Army outpost in Richmond, Virginia. There, in ostensible safety, after enduring a childhood of unimaginable degradation, at a moment that should have been marked by inexpressible joy, Jenny was raped by a Union officer named Lt. Andrew J. Smith of the 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry.
It was hardly an isolated attack.
Southern women, white and black, were frequent targets of sexual assault by Union soldiers during the war, so much so that President Abraham Lincoln felt compelled to issue General Order No. 100, aka the Lieber Code of 1863, declaring, among other things, “ . . . all rape, wounding, maiming, or killing of such inhabitants [of occupied territories], are prohibited under the penalty of death.”
Jenny Green, who couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13 years old at the time, took Lincoln up on his new decree. The former slave, almost certainly unable to read or write, filed charges against a white Union military officer, and, before an all-male tribunal testified that Smith, “Threw me on the floor, pulled up my dress; he held my hands with one hand, held part of himself with the other hand and went into me. It hurt. He did what married people do. I am but a child.”
The jury believed her. Smith was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor, lucky to escape death, Union Gen. Benjamin Butler noted at the time.
There is no Norman Rockwell painting of Jenny Green in court that day. One wishes there were — a painting as powerful as Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live” or “Freedom of Speech.”
It would speak to the simplest of truths, once uttered by a brave runaway slave girl, and now being spoken by so many of her American descendants: “I was wronged, and that is not right.”
William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.