By Wendy Swanson via Lincolnian
April 11, 2021
From a Carl Adams Article in the Lincoln Group Archives
A thumbnail sketch in a free newspaper called “The Shopper” started Lincoln Group member Carl Adams on a journey of discovery. The article referenced “the first slave freed by Abraham Lincoln in 1841.” That date obviously was well before the Civil War and the information contained in the article, in contrast to historians who say Lincoln “never freed a single slave.” Naturally, Carl saw the need for further investigation. And research he did!
Carl reports that he initially found little information on "a slave girl named Nance." That was how Mrs. Nance Legins-Costley (circa December 1813 - April 1892) was identified in the 1841 benchmark slavery case of Bailey v. Cromwell in Abraham Lincoln's first Supreme Court session. Carl's extensive research on Nance's struggles for freedom led to his publication NANCE: Trials of the First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln: A True Story of Mrs. Nance Legins-Costley.
As Carl tells the story, the year was 1836 and Nance was 22 and a first-time mother-to-be who learned her master was making plans to leave Illinois for the slave state of Texas. That master, Major Nathan Cromwell, was a gunsmith turned gun merchant. The Texas Revolution had begun and Cromwell learned of the potential for money-making opportunities arising from the conflict. A land speculator, he knew he could get land cheap, as little as ten cents an acre. He also wanted to supply weapons to the Texans so he packed a stream trunk full of guns.
Cromwell pressured a business partner, David Bailey, to take Nance into his store as a servant during his absence. He promised to return in one year to settle accounts and provide proof of his ownership of Nance. As fate would have it, Cromwell’s health failed during the trip, resulting in his passing. Nance considered Cromwell’s death as her emancipation and, while still on friendly terms with Bailey, she insisted she was no longer a slave and needed to be paid wages to support her baby. All concerned then realized this meant going back to court.
Nathan Cromwell had been a rich client of John Todd Stuart since 1828 when Stuart represented him in an earlier case of Cromwell v. (Sheriff) John Taylor over the lawful possession of Nance and her younger sister Dice in Springfield Circuit Court. The case split the sisters; Dice was awarded to John Taylor and Cromwell claimed Nance. Abraham Lincoln had been introduced to all parties.
Lincoln’s legal education required him to know and understand the supreme laws of the land including the U.S. as well as the Illinois State Constitution, the similarities and the differences of such as well as the first law of the county, (which applied to both federal and state), the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 with the article six provisions prohibiting “Neither slavery nor involuntary Servitude shall exist…” Staring at the core of the issue, Lincoln saw the simplest argument for the Supreme Court case of Bailey v Cromwell.
As the result of his research, Carl and Nance were recent inductees into African-American Hall of Fame in Peoria. An Undertaker’s Notebook from 1892 in Peoria, Illinois revealed the location of Mrs. Nance Legins-Costley’s grave, unknown for about 115 years. Unfortunately, the information found does not include a layout to pinpoint an exact plot site. Carl is also working with others to establish a memorial to Nance, her son and the lost graves of 48 Union Veterans of the Civil War.
Through further research, Carl learned that Nance’s son, William Henry Costley, who served during the Civil War as a member of the First Regiment, Illinois Colored Volunteers, witnessed the original Juneteenth celebration in Galveston, Texas. Building on that knowledge, Carl became an active member of the National Juneteenth Observation Foundation, serving on the education committee of that organization. Some of his work and interpretations have been presented to Congress as part of the initiative to establish “Juneteenth” as a national holiday and played a role in the declaration of Juneteenth as a holiday in Virginia.
As the result of Carl's writings, the foundation has expanded the significance of the June 19th date, beginning with June 19, 1862, the date Congress abolished slavery in the U.S. Territories and to include June 19, 1863, the date the War Department authorized the organization of the U.S. Colored Troops into the Army for Civil War service. Carl plans to attend Juneteenth celebrations in Galveston, Texas, this year.
As Carl’s story shows, one never knows where research will lead. We look forward to learning where the research trail leads him next.