On the back of the canvas Johnson wrote, "a veritable incident in the Civil War, seen by myself at Centreville on the morning of McClelland's [sic] advance to Manassas."
1. Despite the brutalities of the institution, slaves struggled to preserve family connections. After the Civil War, family members who had been separated by the internal slave trade sought to relocate one another.
2. The father is the visual center of the painting and his location on the canvas is in itself revealing. In most portrayals throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, blacks are depicted at the edges of the painting, their location in art reinforcing their marginal status in society. By creating a scene that is solely about slaves and by making them the focus of the painting, Johnson adds to the sense of black autonomy.
3. The mother looks behind to see if anyone is following. Until freedom finally came at the end of the Civil War, thousands of fugitive slaves would always be looking over their shoulders for slaveowners seeking to reclaim their runaway property.
4. Here is the Union army under General McClellan advancing into Virginia. Slaves took full advantage of the dislocations created by war and often fled to Union lines where they hoped they would be granted freedom.