Charles Ball: Quick Facts
Birth Name: Charles Ball
Birth Date: Exact Date is currently unknown. Believed to be sometime in 1780.
Birth Place: Calvert County, Maryland
Date of Death: Unknown
Place of Death: Unknown
Occupation(s): Slave; Cook; Sailor
Spouse(s): Judah (Married in 1800; Died in 1816); Lucy (Married in 1816)
Military Service: 1798-1800 (United States Navy) and 1813-1815 (Aboard Commodore Joshua Barney’s Chesapeake Bay Flotilla)
Mother: Unknown; Separated from his mother at the age of four.
Siblings: Unknown; Separated from his siblings at the age of four.
Quick Facts About Charles Ball
Quick Fact #1: Charles Ball was born into slavery in Calvert County, Maryland in 1780. At the age of four, Ball was separated from his mother and siblings (1785) after the death of their owner resulted in the sale of his tobacco plantation and dispersal of slaves. Ball was sold to a man by the name of Jack Cox, who was a small-scale farmer with only a few other slaves. Ball later described Cox as a man who treated him with a degree of humanity. However, this arrangement proved short-lived as Cox unexpectedly died when Ball was only twelve years of age.
Quick Fact #2: Following the death of Cox, Ball was sold again; this time to an owner who treated Ball very harshly. Under his new owner, Ball struggled daily to survive as he was given little food and scant clothing. During the winter months, Ball and his fellow slaves stayed in a constant state of hunger and cold. Ball caught a slight break from his cruel master, however, when he was hired out to the United States Navy in 1800. Upon arriving at the Washington Navy Yard, Ball served as a cook aboard the USS Congress. Navy life proved much better for Ball during his short span in the Navy, as it provided him with decent meals, living quarters, and a little bit of spending money. It was also around this time (1805) that Ball was permitted to marry a girl by the name of Judah, who was also a slaved owned by a local man known only as Mr. Symmes. Ball’s wife served as a chambermaid for Symmes’s wife, a life that provided decent food and relatively good clothing.
Quick Fact #3: After spending several years in the Navy, Ball famously met a free black man from Philadelphia while at port. After talking with the man, Ball and his newfound friend devised a plan to escape north. The plan to rescue Charles, however, quickly ended in failure as Ball’s master returned to reclaim and sell him to a farmer in South Carolina.
Quick Fact #4: Ball was enslaved for nearly seven years in South Carolina, while his wife and children remained in Maryland. On multiple occasions, Ball described in his memoirs that the separation caused him great distress, as he often contemplated the possibility of suicide. After several attempts, Ball eventually escaped from his cruel master in South Carolina for some time, only to be recaptured again. In September 1806, however, Ball was given to a new owner in Georgia, who, in turn, rented Ball out to a local slaveholder of a nearby plantation. Although Ball developed a close relationship with his new master, he was greatly despised by his master’s wife who cruelly beat Ball for the slightest infractions. After the death of his master, the beatings only intensified, prompting Ball to formulate an escape plan. Travelling by night to avoid locals, Ball set out in 1809 for the north.
Quick Facts Continued...
Quick Fact #5: After escaping from in Georgia, Ball managed to successfully evade southern authorities all the way back to Pennsylvania, before finally reaching his former home in Maryland in 1810. Upon being reunited with his family once again, Ball returned to Pennsylvania shortly after, where he later enlisted in the United States Navy during the War of 1812. Serving in Commodore Joshua Barney’s “Chesapeake Bay Flotilla,” Ball participated in the “Battle of Bladensburg” on 24 August 1814 (a major defeat for the Americans). After the war, Ball returned home to his family.
Quick Fact #6: Although Ball’s wife Judah died in 1816, Charles remarried a second time to a woman named Lucy. With his new wife, Charles was able to purchase a small farm from money he had earned during his time in the Navy and lived a relatively peaceful life for approximately fourteen more years. In 1830, however, Ball was tracked down by his former slaveowner in Georgia, and was returned where he endured several more years of pain and suffering.
Quick Fact #7: Determined to escape from captivity one final time, Ball managed to escape from his Georgia master and returned to Pennsylvania. However, the return home was bitter sweet for Ball, as he quickly discovered that his wife and children had been sold to slaveholders in the South during his absence. The news of his family was overwhelming to Charles, as his last hopes for a normal life were suddenly gone. Broken and dispirited, Ball entered a stage of great depression. It was around this same period that Charles first came into contact with a white lawyer named Isaac Fisher. Fisher, who was sympathetic to Ball’s tumultuous life, helped Charles to write an autobiography entitled The Life and Adventures of Charles Ball (1837) to call attention to the horrors of slavery. Shortly after, he published his famous work, Fifty Years in Chains (1839). Following its publication, however, Ball began a pedantic life as he greatly feared being recaptured and entering a life of slavery again. His fear was quite legitimate as he was still legally a slave with no rights. As a result, historians remain uncertain as to when he died or where Charles Ball retreated to during his final years.
“I had at times serious thoughts of suicide so great was my anguish. If I could have got a rope, I should have hanged myself at Lancaster. The thought of my wife and children I had been torn from in Maryland, and the dreadful undefined future which was before me, came near driving me mad.”— Charles Ball
Quotes by Charles Ball
Quote #1: “Time did not reconcile me to my chains.”
Quote #2: “I had at times serious thoughts of suicide so great was my anguish. If I could have got a rope, I should have hanged myself at Lancaster. The thought of my wife and children I had been torn from in Maryland, and the dreadful undefined future which was before me, came near driving me mad.”
Quote #3: “For the last few years, I have resided about fifty miles from Philadelphia, where I expect to pass the evening of my life, in working hard for my subsistence, without the least hope of ever again seeing, my wife and children.”
Quote #4: “Fearful, at this day, to let my place of residence be known, lest even yet it may be supposed, that as an article of property, I am of sufficient value to be worth pursuing in my old age.”
Before reading this article, were you aware of Charles Ball's history and experience as a slave?
In closing, Charles Ball remains one of the most fascinating individuals to have emerged from the Nineteenth-Century. Although little is known about Ball and his history, other than the facts stated throughout his published works, his tremendous courage and disdain for slavery remain an inspiration for readers living in the current day, and serves as a testament to the true horrors of slavery and its impact on the millions of lives that it touched daily in the southern United States. Ball’s story should never be forgotten. To forget the past, we risk repeating (and perpetuating) its horrors.
Suggestions For Further Reading:
Charles Ball. Fifty Years in Chain, Edited by: Philip S. Foner. Mineoloa, New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1970.
Wikipedia contributors, "Charles Ball," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Charles_Ball&oldid=890018169 (accessed May 3, 2019).
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Larry Slawson