Uncovering Enslavement on the Main Emory Campus: Two Receipts from the Civil War Era

Mark Auslander is a historical anthropologist and former faculty member at Emory College and Oxford College.

Let us consider two receipts issued during the Civil War in the town of Decatur, Georgia. Both cast light on the structures and experiences of enslavement on the lands that would become, many decades later, parts of the main campus of Emory University.

Figure 1: W.J. Houston Scrapbook

The first document (Fig.1) is found in the Rose Library, in a scrapbook assembled and donated by the descendants of Dr. Washington Jackson Houston (10 October 1831-2 Feb 1911), a major land owner and entrepreneur in Decatur and Atlanta. The document reads:

1st Confed Cav Regt [regiment]

Near Decatur GA

July 18th ’64

Recvd of W. J. Houston

Two hundred and ninety bundles oats, forage fro horses of this Regt (regiment) while on picket

J.[W? or M?]. Irwin Capt (Captain?)

Co. G. 1st Confed Cav Regt

Kellys Cav Div ? (Division?)

The 1st Confederate Cavalry Regiment had been organized in Tennessee in April 1862.[1] After the Battle of Chickamauga, the 1st (also known as the 12th Cavalry Regiment) had been placed within the division of Confederate Brigadier General John Herbert Kelly, Army of the Tennessee, who had commanded units with distinction at Chickamauga (September 18–20, 1863) and  the Battle of Pickett’s Mill (May 27, 1864), both Confederate victories. General Kelly would die six weeks after the receipt was signed, on September 2, 1864, while participating in an effort in Franklin, Tennessee to cut off Union General Sherman’s supply lines during the final phase of the Atlanta campaign. As it happened, September 2 was the very day that Atlanta surrendered to General Sherman. 

In mid-July 1864, the First Cavalry Regiment was assigned to the outer defense of Atlanta during the prolonged struggle over the city that would play a determinant role in the ultimate outcome of the Civil War. The regiment would have been under the command of General Joseph Wheeler, its mission to harass advancing Union forces and provide intelligence and reconnaissance reports to the Confederate command.

Who was Captain J.W. Irwin?

Captain “J.W. Irwin” was James William Irwin (13 April 1835-12 February 1914), who grew up in Savannah, Hardin County, Tennessee, the son James and Nancy Sevier Irwin. He enlisted as a 2nd lieutenant on October 1, 1861, and served throughout the war, surrendering with his unit [2] in Gainesville, Alabama on May 4, 1865. He was paroled May 11 ,1865, and returned home. In 1870 is listed as a dry goods merchant back in Savannah. In 1868 he married Cornelia Broyle; the couple raised six children. Captain Irwin held prominent positions in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and local Masonic chapters. It is worth remarking that both Captain Irwin and Washington Jackson Houston, who had such a brief encounter on the eve of the Battle of Atlanta, both survived the war and would live well into the 20th century, dying within three years of one another, in 1914 and 1911 respectively.

Who was W.J. Houston?

Dr. Houston’s great great grandson Richard Houston Sams, who resides near the Emory campus, recalls family stories that during the Civil War, Washington Jackson Houston routinely traveled back and forth between his rural Decatur home and his home in Atlanta, where he oversaw railroad logistics for the Confederate war effort. (For this reason, he was excused from military service.)  As the war intensified and Atlanta became a likely target of Union military advances, he had arranged for his wife, daughters and enslaved people to be transferred out to the north Decatur area, which he anticipated, erroneously, would put them out of the line of fire. On 24 December 1863 he purchased a major tract of land north of present-day North Decatur Road, from his wife Amanda’s father Dr. Chapmon Powell, and settled his family and enslaved people there.[3]  

Sections of this property later became part of the Clairmont campus of Emory University and the Lullwater Preserve, as well as the Houston Mill House property named in Mr. Houston’s memory. Washington Jackson Houston acquired the cabin in which his in-laws the Powells had lived, known as the ‘medicine house’, and built his home around it. (The original medicine house cabin was later relocated to Stone Mountain park, where it remains on display.) It was at this location that Mr. Houston presumably received the receipt for his oats.

Although the parties to the receipt were unaware of the fact at the time, that week was to prove pivotal to the trajectory of the war. The day before, Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, relieved General Joseph Johnston of command for the defense of Atlanta, putting in his place General Hood. Sherman reportedly was pleased over the news, knowing Hood’s reputation for aggressiveness and impetuousness, which made it more likely that he would send troops beyond the sturdy defenses Johnson had overseen, meeting Sherman’s troops in open battle.

July 18 was also the day before Union troops, in the 23rd Armored Cavalry of the Army of the Ohio, commanded by John M. Schofield, crossed the Peachtree Creek and set up a command post, which served as temporary headquarters for General William T. Sherman. The headquarters was the subject of an illustration published the following month in Harper’s Weekly, by the celebrated northern artist and war correspondent Theodore R. Davis (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. James O. Powell’s house, as Sherman’s Headquarters

These events were commemorated by a plaque along Clairmont Road, placed in 1954 by the Georgia Historical Commission, no longer standing:

West of this point 75 ft., was the ante-bellum residence of James Oliver Powell (1826-1873), Sherman’s headquarters, July 19, 1864.

Sherman traveled with Schofield’s 23d A.C. from the Chattahoochee River at Power’s Fy. July 17, & arrived here July 19.

The house was used as a temporary hospital while the 23d A.C. was in this vicinity. Cox’s (3d) div. moved to the Paden plantation (Emory University); Hascall’s (2d) div., together with Dodge’s 16th A.C. occupied Decatur after a spirited conflict with the defenders of the town – a detachment of Wheeler’s cavalry (CS).

The nearby Hardman Primitive Baptist church (located besides the present-day Clifton School at Clairmont) was used as a field hospital for wounded Union soldiers. When the Union army made ready to depart, they burned the structure, presumably as a sanitation measure, likely due to the large number of limbs that had reportedly been amputated within it by Union Army surgeons  Two days later, Sherman’s army would fight the Battle of Peachtree Creek, and then face Confederate defenders in the climactic Battle of Atlanta of July 22, commemorated in the Cyclorama at the Atlanta History Center.

On July 19th, as they set up temporary headquarters at the Powell place, these Union troops would certainly have informed the enslaved people on the Houston and adjacent plantations that under the terms of Emancipation Proclamation they were legally free. Many previously enslaved African Americans would choose to follow Sherman’s troops four months later on his March to the Sea across Georgia.

The fall of Atlanta in early September 1864 would strike an enormous blow to the Confederate effort and virtually guaranteed Abraham Lincoln’s reelection in the November 1864 election, dashing Confederate hopes that the Federal leadership would ever sue for peace.  It also helped doom the eventual fall of the slavery system on which the Confederacy was anchored.

Identifying Enslaved Persons

Who precisely were the enslaved people on the Houston plantation who must have produced, among other things, the two hundred and ninety bundles of oats for the Confederate horses, referenced in the receipt? The 1860 slave schedule lists Dr. Houston as owning only two slaves at his Atlanta residence, a girl age 10 and a women age 50. It seems likely that when he purchased hundreds of acres of land from Chapmon Powell, he must have bought a number of enslaved people as well.  (Chapmon Powell had owned 16 slaves in 1850, and six slaves in 1860.)

The identities of these enslaved people are hinted at by the fact that six years later, when the 1870 census was enumerated, the W. J. Houston household  (Dwelling #120), included an African American woman named Ophelia Powell, age 22, born around 1848, employed as a domestic servant. She appears to be the adult child of the African American couple Irvin Powell (b. 1828) and Ursilla Powell who in 1870 lived with five children, twelve households away from the white Houstons in Decatur (Dwelling # 132). It seems likely that at least some members of this African American Powell family had been owned by W.J. Houston during the Civil War period. It may be that Ophelia is a match for the unnamed ten year old child listed in the 1860 slave schedule as property of W.J. Houston in Atlanta, and had been with the white Houston family for an extended period, even while most of her family was owned by the white Powell family in Decatur. (In his 1857 will, Chapmon Powell indicated his desire to bequeath a girl child slave to his daughter Amanda, the wife of Washington Jackson Houston; he may have given or sold other slaves to Dr. Houston during the Civil War period.)

Washington Jackson Houston must have been confident he would be compensated in full for the costs of the 290 bundles of oats from the Confederacy at some point; it appears this never happened, since, as his descendant Richard Houston Sams notes, the receipt remained in the family possession until it was donated to Emory Special Collections. The Confederate military after all was occupied with the defense of Atlanta, and evacuated the city on September 1, 1864, so there was never an opportunity for Mr. Houston to redeem his receipt. The document remained among the Houston family descendants until Richard Houston Sams generously donated it to Emory’s Special Collections, as part of the W.J. Houston Scrapbook some years ago.

In contrast, Mr. Houston’s neighbor Thomas Noteman Paden, just up the road (living at what is now the intersection of North Decatur and Springdale Roads in Druid Hills) was clearly reimbursed twice for providing the Confederate army with fodder earlier during that fateful summer. On June 9. 1864 he sold 1,750 pounds of fodder for $87.50. July 15, three days before the transfer of oats from W. J Houston to the 1st Confederate Cavalry, he sold 7,500 pounds of fodder for $300.00, and was clearly paid. [4]

A Receipt for Lucy

As it happens, Thomas Noteman Paden is referenced in a very different kind of receipt (Fig. 3), which dates to a few weeks before the official start of the Civil War. This document, preserved at the Kenan Research Center, Atlanta History Center, reads as follows:

“Georgia, DeKalb County.  Received of my father James Paden a negro girl by name Lucy about seven years old of dark complexion and valued by Daniel Johnson and Robert Medlock at six hundred dollars, as part of his estate this 25th day of March 1861. Witness my hand and seal Thomas N Paden. Robert Medlock”[5]

Fig. 3: Receipt for enslaved girl, Lucy.

James Paden (c. 1792-1864), who gave seven year old Lucy to his son, was a Judge of the Inferior Court in DeKalb County, who owned a 700 acre plantation adjacent to the Powell and Houston properties. His lands occupied the lands that now house the core campus of Emory University and the Druid Hills Golf Club. His house was located at the northwest corner of what is now Clifton and North Decatur Roads. In 1860, he is recorded as owning twenty enslaved people. One of these was an enslaved female, age seven, who was presumably Lucy.

Lucy’s parents, Jerry and Grace, were enslaved by Judge Paden, as were her brothers Jerry (Jr.) and Sandy, and sisters Rose Anna and Sarah. Sarah had been transferred some years earlier, as a provisional gift, to Judge Paden’s daughter Caroline Lettice Paden Chandler, wife of W.B. Chandler; she was taken with the Chandlers to their home in Fannin County, Texas, about 700 miles away from Decatur.  (In his will, written in 1859, Judge Paden finalized this gift, formally bequeathing Sarah to Caroline.)[6]

Now, in March 1861, Lucy too was being separated from her parents and siblings. Thomas Paden’s plantation was about a mile west of Judge Paden’s house, a little south, as noted, of the intersection of present day Decatur and Springfield roads, in the modern day Druid Hills neighborhood. She presumably was able to see her family from time to time, but the move must have been traumatic for the little girl and her loved ones.

Why did Judge Paden choose to transfer young Lucy to his eldest son Thomas on this day? The  late days of March 1861 were ones of enormous national tension as the fate of besieged Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor remained uncertain and war loomed on the horizon. Open warfare  would not officially begin until the morning of April 12, when Confederate batteries open fire upon Fort Sumter, but throughout March pro-Confederate fervor ran high in Georgia and plans were already being made for military mobilization. Perhaps the Judge anticipated that his son would soon enter into Confederate military service and wanted to provide Thomas’ wife Nancy Caroline Guess Paden (1819-1904) with household help during Thomas’ upcoming absence. Or it may be that the timing of the transfer was coincidental; many people in Georgia after all, did not anticipate that the North would fight to preserve the Union.[7]

In any event, a little more three years later, the day after W.J. Houston received the receipt for the oats was a momentous one for the enslaved people on the Paden plantations. General Jacob Dolson Cox, whose third division was part of Schonfield’s advancing armored cavalry, occupied Judge Paden’s house as his temporary headquarters on the evening of July 19. Union soldiers camped that night in what is now the CVS Parking Lot in Emory Village. It seems likely that Union officers would have informed the enslaved people on the Paden plantations that under the terms of the Emancipation Proclamation they were now legally free.

True freedom, however, would be delayed for many months. After Judge Paden’s death in December 1864, his property was divided among his heirs in January 1865; in the eyes of the DeKalb County Court, slavery was still fully operational.  A dozen enslaved people were distributed, tearing apart several families, including Lucy’s relatives. Lucy, now owned by Thomas N. Paden, was not herself redistributed, but her parents Jerry and Grace were sent about seventy miles northwest of Atlanta to be enslaved by Judge Paden’s daughter Elizabeth Paden Strange. Lucy, then around ten years old, must have feared she would never see her mother again.

However, within five years, the family was reunited. The 1870 census records the following household living in Atlanta:

Jerry Paten age 63  (b. 1807, born in Virginia), farm laborer

Grace Paten, age 60 (b .1810 in South Carolina)

Jerry Paten   24  (b. 1846)

Rosanna Paten.  23 (b. 1847)

Lucy Paten,  16  (b. 1854), attending school

Sandy Paten,  12  (b. 1858 ),  attending school

William Daniels, age 23 (b.  1847)

Aaron Williams, age 22 (b. 1848)

I am not sure if William and Aaron, residing in the Paten household, were kin to the Patens. Ammi Williams, a major Atlanta-Decatur property owner, owned a plantation immediately north of the Padens (on the grounds that now include the Emory north campus and the Centers for Disease Control) on which were enslaved a number of people. It is possible that Aaron came off of that property.

Life must have been challenging for the newly freed Paten family in the 1870s, as they negotiated the sharecropping system, the end of Reconstruction, and the mounting strictures and disenfranchisements of the segregation era. Yet we know that Lucy and Sandy were pursuing their education, and were together once more with their loved ones, facing the uncertain future together.

What’s in a Receipt?

Pondering these two brief documents, it is worth reflecting on what precisely is involved in a receipt. It is formally a minimal contract, ratifying a commodity-based transaction between buyer and seller, or giver and receiver, as property moves from one party to another. Yet, as we have seen, receipts can evoke a good deal more than that, including traces of lives lived in the relative shadows, whose full existence is not fully recognized by the legally authorized figures who receive and relinquish property in the recorded transaction.

Karl Marx long ago noted insightfully that property is not so much a relationship between a person and an object as it is a relationship between people through objects. Those people, whose labor makes possible the transferred objects, may not even be mentioned in the legal record; the enslaved individuals who plowed the fields, harvested the oats, and who perhaps were ordered to feed and tend to the horses, are nowhere noted in the July 1864 receipt. While Lucy is notated in the 1861 receipt, and her appraised value of six hundred dollars is recorded, her personhood is emphatically not acknowledged in the document. She is legally only chattel, a token of value to be transacted at the whim of her owners. Her value of course was bound up in her reproductive potential; the appraisers must have anticipated that she would give birth to many future enslaved children, who would in turn increase the wealth of Thomas Paden.

And yet, behind the receipts are the lives of so many people who performed uncompensated labor on behalf of their white masters, including the families of Irwin and Priscilla Powell, and Jerry and Grace Paten, who would see their families torn apart during the slavery era, and then struggle to preserve their families’ integrity against all odds.

Finally, we might give some thought to the horses themselves, being fed the oats that day, July 18, 1864, during a brief interim between hostilities. We do not know how many horses carried the cavalrymen of Company C of the 1st Georgia Regiment, but we can assume many of them did not survive the coming rifle and artillery fire, as General Wheeler’s regiments tried in vain to slow Sherman’s progress towards Atlanta. For some presumably, those oats were their final meal, as they and their equine brethren on both sides of the conflict were sacrificed in the bloody maw of war. From that violent conflict, to be sure, would emerge the liberation of four million souls, and, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, “a new birth of freedom.” Yet, as we honor the lives of the formerly enslaved Powells and Patens in freedom, and celebrate all those who built new worlds in the aftermath of Emancipation, we should also allow these two receipts to stand as quiet memorials to all those, human and non-human alike, who did not live to see the war’s conclusion in April 1865.

Acknowledgements: This research was made possible by support from the Ginger Smith University Archives Fund for the Travel Award from the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University. I am grateful to the staff at the Rose; the DeKalb County Historical Society; the Probate and Real Estate divisions of the DeKalb County, Georgia Courthouse; the Georgia State Archives, Georgia Division of Archives and History; and the Kenan Research Center (Atlanta History Center) for their assistance and guidance. Special thanks to Gordon Jones, Curator of Civil War History, Atlanta History Center, Ginger Hicks Smith, Emory University archivist emerita, John Bence, Emory University archivist, and Rev. Dr. Avis Williams.


 For further reading on the 1864 Atlanta Campaign, the Battle of Atlanta, and the work of memory, please see:

Daniel Pollack.  Spectacles of American Nationalism: The Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama Painting and The Birth of a Nation. Southern Spaces. July 19, 2021


 [1] Wright, Marcus Joseph, Tennessee in the War, 1861-1865; lists of military organizations and officers from Tennessee in both the Confederate and Union armies; general staff officers of the provisional army of Tennessee, appointed by Governor Isham G. Harris, (Williamsbridge, New York City, A. Lee Publishing Company, 1908)

[2] A brief regimental history records a Captain “J.U. Irwin,” with the First Cavalry, slightly misidentifying the officer who signed the receipt. Tennesseans in the Civil War, Vol 1. 1964. Civil War Centennial Commission of Tennessee

[3] DeKalb County Deeds;  Richard Houston Sams (personal communication).

[4] Confederate Papers Relating to Citizens or Business Firms, 1861-65, National Archives. I am grateful to Gordon Jones of the Atlanta History Center for calling these transactions to my attention.

[5] United Daughters of the Confederacy Collection. MSS 765.  Kenan Research Center, Atlanta History Center

[6] A copy of James Paden’s will is in the Asa Griggs Candler collections, MSS 001, Rose Library, Emory University.

[7] Thomas N. Paden was appointed 2nd Lieutenant in the 1st Company, DeKalb County, Georgia Militia on March 21, 1864, as the Atlanta Campaign loomed. (United Daughters of the Confederacy Collection, MSS 765. Kenan Research Center, Atlanta History Center.).