This is the story of a St. Charles County slave that risked his life to “do the right thing” and has been famously immortalized in the Emancipation Memorial, also known as the Freedman’s Memorial and sometimes referred to as the “Lincoln Memorial”, a monument in Washington, D.C..
Born in Virginia, in 1816, Archer Alexander was a mulatto son of Salley, a slave on Reid’s farm. When he was six years old, he leaves the Reid farm and moves to the Smith farm with his mother. The next year, Mr. Smith died, and his widow marries David Farrell, and Salley becomes the property of Ferrell in Widow Smith’s dowry. Salley also gets married, as is slave custom, by jumping the broom, with Aleck Alexander. With that, Archer is indentured to the Alexander family. A few years later, in 1828 or 9, the Alexander family moves to Missouri, but soon returns to Virginia, and he is sold to the Ferrell family. Buying and selling of property continues, and Archer first is sold to Louis Yosti, then to Richard Pitman, son of David Pitman, in St. Charles County.
He had been sold because when he was young, he was considered “too uppity” and was sold as punishment. This separates him from his own family forever. When asked at the end of his life if he still remembered his mother, Archer replied, “Yes, sir, I remembers her like yesterday. Seems like I never forgets her, nohow. ‘Specially when trouble comes, and I’ve had a heap of that” Here, at the Pitman farm Archer meets Louisa, and they raise 10 children.
In February of 1863, Archer becomes one of America’s heroes, when he informs the Union Troops in St. Charles County that the Railroad bridge has been tampered with and undermined so that it will collapse as soon as a train passes. With this bold action, Alexander ran under the cover of darkness, five miles to inform the Union troops. Krekel’s “Dutch”- so called because they were German emigrants – oversaw guarding the Peruque Creek bridge, just west of O’Fallon. Archer Alexander is suspected of having alerted and of somehow betraying this information when the bridge did not collapse! Knowing that he was in mortal danger, Archer manages to escape and flee to St. Louis.
“Under the best of circumstances, the best condition of slavery was worse than the worst condition of freedom—I doubt if a man or woman could be found who would exchange freedom, such as it is, for the old relation under the best master that ever lived” He thinks to himself, “Go for your freedom, ef you dies for it”. Archer Alexander.
Slave-catchers captured Archer and took him to a boarding house to spend the night before being taken to a new master in the South, as punishment for his actions. Instead of settling for a continued life of slavery, Alexander miraculously climbed out of a high window and avoids a ravenous dog long enough to slip away from his pursuers. His desire for freedom allows him to reach St. Louis and secure his freedom.
Archer’s son Thomas had escaped and joined the U.S. Colored Troops, recruited under German immigrant George Senden, on Main Street in St. Charles. He would later die “in action” during the Civil War. Disease which took a huge toll on soldiers, especially the Colored Troops because of the conditions that they lived under. Archer was grieved but proud saying “I couldn’t do it myself,” “but I thank the Lord my boy did it.”
In St. Louis, Archer meets Abigail Adams Eliot in a butcher shop. She’s the wife of a Unitarian minister named William Greenleaf Eliot. Eliot hires Archer to be his gardener. When he discovers Alexander’s story, the minister obtained an order of protection for Archer and attempts to purchase his freedom. Eliot helps Archer write a letter so that Archer can buy his freedom, because in 1847, Missouri’s laws had made it illegal to teach a slave to read or write. Eliot goes to Judge Barton Bates and offers him $600 for Archer Alexander.
Soon, however, slave catchers again attempted to abduct Alexander from the Eliot property- where he is under an order of protection. Three men, slave catchers came to the property and threatened Alexander’s life with pistols and daggers, cruelly beat him with clubs, knocked him down, stamped upon and handcuffed him, dragged him to a wagon and carried him to jail.
Eliot arranges to have Archer’s captors arrested on a military arrest warrant because what they had done was illegal, as Alexander was still under the Order of Protection. The slave-catchers, upon learning of their impending arrests, hastily flee St. Louis without Alexander. Eliot has negotiated for Alexander’s release and Alexander is freed once again when Captain Dwight issues orders for the Jail to do so.
Eliot is able then to obtain a full order of protection. But the political situation remains volatile. Though President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, it did not apply to slave-holding border states. In Missouri, the “peculiar institution” stood until January 11,1865, when Missouri’s Constitutional Convention under the leadership of Arnold Krekel, signed it.
When he’d recuperated sufficiently to travel, Alexander went by steamboat to Alton, Illinois, a free state. There he worked as a farmhand, saved his wages and waited. Six months later, Alexander returned to Eliot and deposited $120 in the Provident Savings Bank. It was a large sum as over the same period, a Union private would only have earned $78 at best.
He then sent word to Louisa, whose freedom he hoped to purchase. He wrote a letter to her owner. “My dear husband,” Louisa wrote back. “I received your letter yesterday, and lost no time in asking Mr. Jim if he would sell me, and what he would take for me. He flew at me, and said I would never get free only at the point of the [bayonet], and there was no use in my ever speaking to him any more about it. I don’t see how I can ever get away except you get soldiers to take me from the house, as he is watching me night and day.”
Eliot read Alexander the letter. He worried that Louisa, having sought to leave, might now be endangered. “Her life wasn’t safe if they got mad at her.” But Alexander had a back-up plan: Wary of writing again, Alexander arranges for his wife and as many children as possible to escape. William Eliot, sensing slavery’s imminent demise, cautioned Archer that the few months of freedom might not be worth the risks of flight.
On a moonlit night, Louisa and Nellie, the couple’s young daughter, climbed into an ox-drawn cart and hid beneath the corn shucks. A horseman soon rode by. He grilled the farmer: “Have you seen Louisa and Nellie?” “Yes, I saw them at the crossing, as I came along, standing, and looking scared-like, as if they were waiting for somebody,” the farmer coolly replied. “But I have not seen them since.” Mother and daughter arrived at Eliot’s before dawn. Alexander paid the German farmer $20. Soon they were reunited with two more daughters.
After the war finally ended, Eliza began to yearn for her former belongings. She went to her former master to retrieve them, and suddenly took ill. She died within two days. Her belongings were sent to St. Louis to Archer. Archer eventually remarried to a slave who also knew how to speak German.
President Abraham Lincoln and a freed African-American slave are depicted in a statue commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation in Washington D.C., with the photo of the slave based on Archer Alexander. About 1870, Eliot arranged for Alexander to be photographed. Eliot mailed the images to Italy, where artist Thomas Ball was sculpting a monument to Lincoln and emancipation. The funding for the memorial started when a woman in Virginia, Charlotte Scott, donated the first $5 she earned as a free woman for a monument honoring Lincoln’s proclamation. That started a fundraising effort among newly freed people that raised $16,242 — enough to build a memorial. The statue now sits in Washington‘s Lincoln Park and depicts Lincoln standing above a kneeling freed man holding broken chains.
Originally the slave was to be wearing a Union Cap and thanking Lincoln. The statue has been criticized as paternalistic, reflecting views of its time. Still, it remains significant as one of the first monuments to Lincoln funded entirely by formerly enslaved people. The freed man has the face of Archer Alexander. Neither Eliot nor Alexander attended the monument’s dedication in April 1876, and Alexander never saw the memorial for himself. Alexander died December 7, 1880 and, according to Eliot’s account, “his last words were a prayer of thanksgiving that he died in freedom.”
Watch O’Fallon Matters story on Archer Alexander https://youtu.be/4FfKhZRj7E0
The author used Crossroads by Steve Ehlmann, The Story of Archer Alexander by William G. Eliot, and The Rattling of the Chains by Errol D. Alexander for this article.