Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Just Finished Reading - A Fierce Glory


For decades the Battle of Gettysburg, the so-called "highwater mark of the Confederacy" was viewed by many historians as "the" turning point in the Civil War. However, over the last twenty-five years or so the Battle of Antietam has largely replaced Gettysburg as "the main" turning point in the conflict, if one has to chose one specific event.

Antietam, or the Battle of Sharpsburg, as it is often referred to by those with Southern leanings, has received its fair share of historical scholarship. Some of the subject's best researchers and writers have taken on Antietam - James McPherson, Stephen Sears, and Gary Gallagher, among others, have produced either books or collections of essays on the battle or parts of it.


A Fierce Glory: Antietam-The Desparate Battle that Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery by Justin Martin is a welcome addition to the works that have preceded it. Martin, no stranger to the Civil War-era, tells the story of Antietam, from the slug fest in Cornfield to the battles for Burnside's Bridge and the Bloody Lane, to A.P. Hill's timely arrival from Harpers Ferry, in a see-saw manner and with such descriptive detail that it almost places the reader among the terrifying action. In fact, the primary strength of A Fierce Glory is how this story is told. For example, on pages 49 and 50, Martin writes: "The Hagerstown Pike ran along one side of the cornfield. It was just an ordinary country road. On this morning, it became a ferociously contested demarcation, both sides struggling to keep the other from crossing. Never mind that hoary whites of their eyes; pupils dilated in terror must have been nearly visible as the soldiers fired across the road, sometimes trading bullets over a space of less than 100 feet." Martin's ability to paint word pictures is second to none.


Another strong point of the book is how Martin contextualizes the battle by telling its associative stories. President Lincoln's mourning of son Willie, Clara Barton's courage and Jonathan Letterman's medical advancements, Alexander Gardner capturing images for Matthew Brady, and of course, the Emancipation Proclamation as a product of the fight, and other people, places, and events figure prominently into and benefit the narrative.


While Martin could have explored some of the less familiar soldiers' stories by diving deeper into available primary sources instead of relying so heavily on secondary sources, the highly descriptive way he tells many of the stories breaths new life into them.


Calling a book a "page turner" has become rather cliche, but in this case it sincerely fits. I recommend A Fierce Glory, particularly to new students of the Civil War, as its literary pull is sure to make it an influential book for years to come.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Just Finished Reading - Lincoln's Loyalists


Although Southern Unionism is a relatively new niche interest for me, I'm finding that some scholars have been exploring the topic for quite a while. Published in 1992, Lincoln's Loyalists: Union Soldiers from the Confederacy by Richard Nelson Current is one of those early studies.

Most Civil War students are aware that Tennessee (particularly East Tennessee) produced thousands of soldiers for the Union army. Similarly, Western Virginia (eventually to become West Virginia) was also a stronghold of Unionism. Examination of each of these two states serve as Current's first two chapters. 

Current's third chapter looks at Unionism in North Carolina (mainly in the western Mountains and in coastal areas under early Union occupation), and in Arkansas. The book's fourth chapter explores the units raised in other seceded states. Current finds that every Confederate state, except South Carolina, raised at least a battalion of white troops that served in the Union army. In total an estimated 100,000 white men from seceded states served in the Union army. That figure was an enormous double negative for the Confederacy. Not only were they taking away manpower from the South, they were adding strength to the Union army. 

Current's other four chapters focus on those men who initially fought for the Confederacy but ended up fighting for the Union. Often referred to as "galvanized Yankees," most often these men were sent to areas where they were not expected to fight against their former comrades. "What Manner of Men," the sixth chapter, is a look at traits of Southern Unionism, and the seventh chapter examines the fighting effectiveness of Southern Unionist regiments. The final chapter, "Unknown Soldiers," shows possibly why Southern Unionists contributions have been previously overlooked, and also makes a strong case for telling the important place they should have in future Civil War scholarship. 

I highly recommend this book to those seeking to gain a stronger understanding on this particular subject.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Tell Your Senators That You Support Battlefield Preservation


I received an email from the American Battlefield Trust (formerly Civil War Trust) with an opportunity to let your elected representatives know that you support battlefield preservation.

The ABT makes it easy to participate with a form letter sent electronically. Once you've sent it, share the opportunity with others on your social media outlets.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Recent Acquisitions to My Library


My book purchasing has slowed somewhat this past month as my "to be read" shelf is groaning under the weight of other books. Regardless, I've managed to pick up three books that promise to be good reads.

I came across The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War while reading a recent issue of Smithsonian magazine. I've always been fascinated by the Brooks-Sumner affair in 1856, and I'm sure this book will include a plethora of others to show how violent clashes could be in Congress in the first half of the 19th century.


Denmark Vesey's Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy is a book that has been getting quite a bit of buzz on several social media outlets. It focuses on Charleston, South Carolina and looks into how slavery has been remembered in the city. The horrific church shooting there in 2012 reminds us that the legacy of slavery and thus race still resonates strongly, not just in Charleston, but across the United States.


I recently received an email from the publisher offering a copy of Justin Martin's A Fierce Glory: Antietam - The Desperate Battle that Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery in exchange for writing a book review for it on this forum. Never one to pass up a free book, especially one that covers such a seemingly intriguing angle on the most costly single day of fighting in United States history, I accepted. Be on the lookout for the review. It should be posted in two or three weeks.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Just Finished Reading - Slavery in the Clover Bottoms


I've been a big fan of the University of Tennessee Press's "Voices of the Civil War" series for years. Their concerted effort to put in print the diaries, journals, and memoirs of often not-so-famous people from the Civil War era allows us to have these vital primary sources in a readily accessible form. Slavery in the Clover Bottoms: John McCline's Narrative of His Life during Slavery and the Civil War, edited by Jan Furman, only adds another important perspective to the ever-growing series. 

John McCline, born on Clover Bottom plantation in Davidson County, Tennessee, and owned by James Hoggatt, gives us vivid memories of his enslaved childhood. McCline's mother died when he was very young and his father lived on another plantation. McCline lived with his grandmother and brothers at Clover Bottom where he was made to work years before he should have. In 1862, when McCline was about 10 years old, he observed the 13th Michigan Infantry marching by Clover Bottom. One of the 13th's soldiers, Frank Murray, asked McCline how he would like to go with them to the North and gain his freedom. McCline answered in the affirmative by hopping off of his master's mule and joining the Michigan men on the march. Eventually young McCline became a teamster for the regiment and participated in their campaigns which included Stones River, Tullahoma, Chickamauga (where Frank Murray was mortally wounded), Chattanooga, and Sherman's March to the Sea. 

Although McCline penned his history in his later years and his detail oriented descriptions were sometimes off the mark in chronology and in the directional (north, south, east, west) locations of buildings and other landmarks, he nevertheless gives an amazing look at one man's experience when enslaved and his efforts to gain his liberty by being the agent of his freedom. Cruel treatment by Mrs. Hoggatt and the plantation's overseer, although not expressly stated by McCline as his reason for fleeing with the Michigan soldiers was likely the precipitating cause. 

The editor's end notes help familiarize the reader with both historical context and corrections to McCline's few misremembered moments. Appendices provide additional information on a number of the 13th Michigan soldiers and the Clover Bottom slaves that McCline mentions in his history, as well as his several obituaries from his death in 1948. 

Narratives from formerly enslaved people are becoming more and more available to the public, and McCline's certainly adds another important "voice of the Civil War." I highly recommend it.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

154 Years Ago Today - The Battle of New Market Heights


154 years ago today the horrific battle of New Market Heights was fought just southeast of Richmond, Virginia. Recently I wrote a short piece for work that was included in the "Behind the Scenes at Pamplin" series published in our local Petersburg Progress Index newspaper.

"Vindicated in Death" tells the tragic story of Capt. Charles V. York of Company B of the 6th United States Colored Infantry. The 6th, along with the 4th, was part of the brigade of Stephen Duncan. Duncan's Brigade kicked off the assault that September 29, 1864 morning and received the severest punishment.

Lt. Nathan Edgerton, Sgt. Maj. Thomas Hawkins, and Sgt. Alexander Kelly, three Medal of Honor recipients in the 6th USCI are depicted in the painting above, "Three Medals of Honor," by artist Don Troiani.

Lest we forget!

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Zooming in on Scouts at City Point


I've shared a few City Point, Virginia, Civil War photographic images over the past couple of months. These shots give students of the Petersburg Campaign a much better idea of the hustle and bustle surrounding the Army of the Potomac's supply base. This image is titled "City Point, Virginia. Scouts at Secret Service headquarters."

So were these men spies of sorts? Perhaps so. If so, imagine the adventures they had, the risks they took, and the stories they could tell of their ventures behind enemy lines gathering critical information.

The photograph prominently shows a group of four men, but zooming in on parts of the image lets us see many more details.


Two African American men dominate the foreground. They sit on logs, elbows on knees, while looking at the photographer. Both wear boots and civilian style slouch hats. They do not appear to have military apparel, as the man on the left looks to be wearing a civilian-style frock coat, while the man on the right appears to have on a civilian sack coat.


Zooming in on the man on the left's face, one can see his features, including his eyes, more clearly under the shade of his hat brim. He looks to be wearing a cravat, too.


Just behind the two seated men are two standing men. They are about as different from each other as possible. The man on the left is fully dressed, has a hat on, and sports a beard. The man on the right has his baggy trousers tucked into his boots, stands in his undershirt, and does not have a hat on. He is also clean shaven. The only thing these two seem to have in common is that they are both standing about as stiff as possible; probably taking a cue from the photographer to stand still while the image processes.
  

Looking closely, a line of railroad boxcars is visible through the tree branches in the left center of the image. These cars were part of the vital United States Military Railroad. 


The railroad line continues to the right center of the photograph where a flatbed car appears in front of a warehouse. The rail line runs right to the wharf where a side-wheel steamboat with protruding smoke stack sits in either the James or Appomattox River.


I seem to run into a curiosity in each of these "zooming in" shots. Are the cords tied to the tree branches something as simple as a clothes line or are they for something more significant?


In between the two standing men, and further in the background, one can see several lines or railroad tracks, a man standing with his hands in his pockets, and what appears to be an ambulance wagon. Other than the "U.S." on the top line, I am not able to make out the other words. Does anyone have a clue as to what type of conveyance this truly is?

Monday, September 24, 2018

Just Finished Reading - Don't Hurry Me Down to Hades


In Don't Hurry Me Down to Hades: The Civil War in the Words of Those Who Lived It, author Susannah J. Ural gives us an inside peek at the Civil War's impact on individuals and families. By using their own words from the primary sources they left, the war's toll is told in a way that makes the reader feel the weight of these troubled times as if one were there.

Whether Ural looks at individuals, husband-wives, brothers, or fathers-children, they all speak their heart-felt experiences in the conflict. Mixed in with some of the more well known stories to students of the Civil War, like those of Abraham and Mary Lincoln, Jefferson and Varina Davis, and Ulysses, Julia and Frederick Grant, are also those not so well known, like Madison and Lizzie Bowler, Andrew and Ann Erskine, Charlotte Forten, Wilbur Fisk, and William Shepherd. 

The book follows the chronology of the war, along with its ebbs and flows of good news and bad news (depending of course on the views of the writers), but the narrative of the conflict comes largely through the words of the people most affected by it, although expertly synthesized and crafted by the author. Don't Hurry Me Down to Hades reminded me of another book I read a few years back, The Private Civil War: Popular Thought During the Sectional Conflict by Randall C. Jimerson. Although different in their structure, both books rely heavily on the historical actors for their voice. Ural's research on Hood's Texas Brigade, which she has also recently published a book about, comes through in several of the people and events this work covers. 

The book does have a few distracting typographical errors here and there that an editor should probably have caught. And it seems, too, that while the first three years of the war get significant coverage and comment, the last two years appear to get a briefer examination. 

Regardless of these rather minor quibbles, Don't Hurry Me Down to Hades is an excellent book that satisfies the reader's need to learn about the Civil War through "the words of those who lived it." I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Just Finished Reading - Be Free or Die


Our book club at work selected Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls' Escape from Slavery to Union Hero for our next discussion. Although, getting dust jacket endorsements from Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and James McPherson certainly didn't hurt in my ultimate decision to buy a copy, after reading it, I'm happy I've added it to my library. 

Robert Smalls' story is not one of those that could be considered "untold," but amazingly, his biography has somehow not received much historical coverage. Journalist Cate Lineberry's book tells not only Smalls' amazing escape from slavery by stealing a Confederate contracted steamer and piloting it along with 15 enslaved individuals, including his family, to the Union blockade, it also tells the results of such a daring act. 

Once the ship was delivered to the Union Navy Smalls' previous anonymity disappeared and he became the most recognized African American not named Frederick Douglass. The daring deed also brought Smalls a well paying job as a civilian pilot and then as a captain of an army ship. Smalls' reward for capturing the Planter along with his boating positions afforded him with the opportunity to purchase his former masters' house when its taxes went unpaid during the war. His sudden celebrity even brought a meeting with President Lincoln. 

Told though solid research, and written in an engaging style Be Free or Die is a yet another must read for Civil War students. My only minor complaint with the book is that too little coverage was provided about Smalls' post war life and career as a U.S. Congressman. His role in South Carolina Reconstruction politics deserves a much more thorough examination. Despite this small quibble, I still highly recommend it. 

Hopefully, someday, Smalls' inspiring life story will also make it to the silver screen so he will receive the additional recognition he so richly deserves.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Military Images Magazine


Other than offering book reviews, I don't usually make promotional announcements on this forum. But having just received the initial issue (Autumn 2018) of my recent subscription to Military Images magazine, I feel a certain obligation to share my good find.

Military Images has been in publication for years, however, I'd never taken to the time to investigate any issues to see what all they offered. First, I was impressed with the packaging that the issue came in. Too often my Civil War or history magazines come all beat up from rough postal handling. This one, though, was in a strong clear plastic bag. Nice! Secondly, the magazine is printed on heavy, quality stock. And, finally, the images, as one would hope for a photograph-centered magazine, are sharp and clear.

Military Images is expertly edited by Ronald Coddington. You may be familiar with a number of his "Faces of" books from my several mentions here on Random Thoughts. Coddington includes a number of "departments" that appear in each issue like, "Editor's Desk" and "Antebellum Warriors," but each edition also contains a number of featured articles based around themed photographs, all of which are very well written.

Military Images releases four issues each year, which comes to about $6.00 an issue if you obtain a subscription. In my opinion that is a virtual steal for what all you get in each issue. To subscribe, find back issues, or learn more about this fine publication you can do so at this link: Military Images. You'll be glad you subscribed.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Recent Acquisitions to My Library


One of the reasons I like going to history conferences is that I often pick up book recommendations. Historians are typically good about sharing what they think are good books, whether in their presentations or in casual conversation. When I was the the Gettysburg College Civil War Institute back in June, Peter Carmichael recommended No Freedom Shrieker: The Civil War Letters of Union Soldier Charles Biddlecom in his talk on common soldiers. Biddlecom served in the 147th New York regiment and he apparently gives the reader a unglorified look at how he experienced the war.


Studies about antebellum Southern colleges are among my favorites. I saw Rot, Riot, and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson's Struggle to Save the University that Changed America about three years ago in the University of Virginia bookstore while providing an extended tailored tour. Recently I came across an inexpensive used copy while killing some time in a book store in Richmond and decided to buy it.


Last month I had the good fortune to get a little time away from work and spend it listening to the beautiful sounds of the North Carolina coast. While there doing some history sightseeing I realized how little I actually knew about eastern North Carolina's experience during the Civil War. After seeing a copy of Shifting Loyalites: The Union Occupation of Eastern North Carolina in the gift shop of one of the museums I visited, I looked for a used copy when I returned and and decided that this study looked like a good place to start increasing my knowledge about the region.


Battle Scars: Gender and Sexuality in the American Civil War is another book I found in the Richmond used book store. Edited by well-respected historians Catherine Clinton and Nina Silder, this collection of ten essays by a host leading gender historians in the field cover a diverse array of topics on this central theme.


I provided a brief review of John Brown Speaks: Letters and Statements from Charleston in yesterday's post, so I won't mention much here other than to say if one wants to get a inside look at Brown's thoughts and concerns while awaiting execution, there is not better source than the collection of letters he sent from his Charlestown jail cell. Read it!


Robert Smalls is a fascinating historical character. Along with Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls' Escape from Slavery to Union Hero, he is also the subject of an article in the most recent issue of the Smithsonian Magazine. It is high time that this amazing story gets more deserved attention. I'm looking forward to learning more about the details this exciting story of escape and how the publicity it received in the North was perceived in the Confederacy.


Oberlin, Hotbed of Abolitionism: College, Community,, and the Fight for Freedom and Equality in Antebellum America is a book that has been on my wish list since before it was released. I've kept my eye on its used price and decided that when it finally got within my budget range I'd get a copy, which I did last week. Oberlin, an early interracial and co-educational college, was a leader in the abolitionist movement producing key anti-slavery figures who became participants in numerous events leading up to the Civil War. I'm expecting it to be a great read.


The Tie That Bound Us: The Women of John Brown's Family and the Legacy of Radical Abolitionism is another welcome addition the growing John Brown section of my library. I hoping to form an even better understanding of Brown's influences by reading about female members of his family. I'm not sure how I had not come across this work before, but I'm happy to now have it among my collection.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Just Finished Reading - John Brown Speaks: Letters and Statements from Chalestown


With John Brown Speaks: Letters and Statements from Charleston, editor Louis DeCaro, Jr. assembles a thorough collection of letters that Brown wrote from October 21 to his date of execution, Dec. 2 1859. In the majority of the included letters, Brown wrote in reply to those who sent him letters of encouragement and financial support. They touch upon a diverse array of issues from personal remembrances of past acts of kindness, to making arrangements for the disbursement of inheritance from his father, to concerns about his adult children's state of religious salvation. 

All of the letters are expertly contextualized by the editor and give significant insight into who John Brown, the man, truly was. The letters express no regret or contrition for his role in the Harper's Ferry role. Rather they display the thoughts of a man who fully understood the dangers of his mission and fully accepted the results as God's will. 

Some say that Brown changed over his 30-plus days of confinement, but what comes through in these letters though is that Brown remained constant in his mindset and commitment to try to end slavery. But through these letters, several of which found their ways into Northern newspapers, and his jailhouse statements, others came to see Brown differently from the man depicted in the immediate days following the raid. 

A bonus to the letters are also a set of eight recollections from those who visited Brown in support or interviewed him to gather information on why he did what he did. Some of these account were written in 1859 and 1860, while others were made as late as the late 1880s. 

This book is in fine company with DeCaro's other works - Fire from the Midst of You: A Religious Life of John Brown and Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia. It is one that students of abolitionism should want in their library, and students of John Brown can not afford to overlook.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

John Brown Remember's Petersburg's War of 1812 Volunteers


After president James Madison referred to Petersburg as the Cockade City of the Union for their volunteer service in the War of 1812, the name stuck. Apparently the city's volunteer militia wore cockade badges on their hats as a distinctive marker, thus prompting the president's remark.

Madison was not the only American who found the Petersburg Volunteers extraordinary. Sent to the Old Northwest (present day northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan) to fight the British and their American Indian allies, Capt. Richard McRae and his volunteers fought with valor at the Siege of Fort Meigs in May 1813.

Meeting the Petersburg Volunteers during their service in the Old Northwest was a 12 or 13 year old John Brown. Brown, born in Connecticut in 1800, moved with his family to northern Ohio when he was a boy. During the War of 1812, Brown assisted his father Owen, who provided the United States forces in the area with beef. While working in this role Brown came into contact with the Petersburg men.

During Brown's incarceration for his leading role in the Harper's Ferry raid Brown was visited by some of the Virginia militia guarding the jail. His remarks were reported in the New York Herald on October 31, 1859. The correspondent wrote:
"As the men of the Continentals kept together, they crowded somewhat on him, but Old Brown shook hands with them and said, 'Gentleman, I will shake hands with all of you,' which he did. He continued, 'I am very glad to see you gentlemen, indeed. I once served, though not enrolled, with a company of yours. It was in the late war with England, as it is called, in 1812. But very few of the poor fellows ever returned to their homes. They were a picked body of men, and I remained near them for a time on the Northwest frontier, and it was my happiness on several occasions to render them aid and assistance in their sufferings. They were mostly all of them from Petersburg, in this State, and they were so equal sized that when any small party of them were together I could recognize them at any distance.The Virginian companies were then the finest that I had ever seen."

The mentioned Continentals were the Continental Morgan Guard, a militia unit from nearby Frederick County and Winchester, Virginia. Their name came in honor of Revolutionary War general Daniel Morgan. Founded in 1855, their uniforms modeled those of their Continental Army ancestors. They were depicted in Thomas Satterwhite Noble's famous 1867 print of Brown exiting the Charles Town jail and blessing slave baby which is pictured below, yet likely never happened.


Saturday, September 8, 2018

Petersburg's Historic People's Memorial Cemetery


This morning I attended a meeting at the Petersburg National Battlefield, and on my way back home I made a short detour to visit to People's Memorial Cemetery. This traditional African American place of final rest has a long history. Originally known as the Negro Burial Ground, and later as Providence Cemetery, it appears that it dates back to just after the War of 1812, when some of Petersburg's white militiamen donated land adjacent to Blandford Cemetery for a cemetery for slaves who went to war with them. 


As the burials increased and space diminished, free black benevolent organizations purchased additional acreage to expand the cemetery. Thomas H. Brown, who was probably born enslaved in 1864, formed the People's Memorial Cemetery Association around 1893 to rehabilitate  the burial ground.

Brown served as hospital steward in the Petersburg Blues militia unit, which was part of the 6th Virginia Infantry during the Spanish American War. He would go on to start his own funeral business in Hopewell in the early 20th century. Brown died in 1952 of pneumonia and was buried in the cemetery he helped revive.


Like Brown, there are several Spanish American War veteran's headstones in the cemetery, including William D. Henderson's, a 6th Virginia Infantry comrade of Brown's (pictured above).


There are also a number of World War I veterans in People's Memorial Cemetery. Willie Graves (pictured above), a private, who was born in 1896, died in 1965.


Likewise, several headstones of World War II veterans grace the grounds. James Robinson, who is listed in the 1940 census as a 14 year old in his father Herbert's household on Bollingbrook Street, died in 1954 and is among the long list of former soldiers buried in the cemetery.


Many of the headstones and grave markers include birth dates before emancipation. It is difficult to tell if these people were born free or enslaved since Petersburg had a large free black population. Regardless of whether people like William E. Steward (pictured above) were born free or enslaved, he spent almost 20 years in a slave society before the institution was abolished.


As one might image, due to age and decay, many of the old headstones are difficult to read. On some only a date or two, or parts of names are decipherable.  Peter and Julia Morgan's headstones are shown above side by side.


Many of the headstones included references or markings of fraternal organizations. John R. Morse, apparently belonged to a masonic organization as shown on his marker. It indicates that he was born in 1838.


The daughter of Samuel Butcher remembered her father according to his headstone. It also states that Butcher was "baptized by Elder Sampson White in 1837." Butcher died in 1885 at the age of 70, which means he was born about 1815.


Emma L. Dabney, the wife of Benjamin Dabney, has an impressive obelisk marker. She was born on April 5, 1849 and died on August 21, 1904. It says "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord for they rest from their labors."


The "daughter and only child of Elizabeth James," Sarah Jane James, has a headstone that is intricately carved. It shows she was born in 1853.


In my humble opinion, the most impressive headstone is that belonging to Rev. L. A. Black. It has a bas relief bust sculpture incorporated into the obelisk. Black served as the minister at First Baptist Church in Petersburg. First Baptist claims to be be oldest African American congregation in the United States. Born in 1820, Black died in 1883. He began his pastoring duties in 1873.

People's Memorial Cemetery was turned over to the City of Petersburg for care in 1986. Being just across Crater Road from historic Blandford Cemetery, it is easy to see which burial ground gets the lion's share of care. Today it appeared that the grass in Peeople's Memorial had not been cut or trimmed in quite a while. Many of the headstones need cleaned and reset on their base or straightened in the ground. Hopefully greater attention can be given to this important piece of our local history to ensure its preservation. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Just Finished Reading - Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown's Army


Almost everyone has heard of John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry, but I would suspect that the majority do not know that his small raiding party included five African American men, let alone name them. 

Free men of color Dangerfield Newby, John Anthony Copeland, Lewis Sheridan Leary, and Osborne Perry Anderson, along with fugitive slave Shields Green, all knowingly risked their lives as participants in the raid. Only Osborne Anderson would escape with his life. Newby was the first raider killed. Leary was also killed in the fighting. John Copeland and Shields Green were both captured, jailed, tried, and then hanged on December 16, 1859 in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia). 

In this book, journalist Eugene Meyer vividly gives the historical background of these men, their roles in the raid, and how they have been remembered (or more accurately, forgotten) since the raid. Although Anderson published a short account of the raid titled "A Voice from Harper's Ferry" in 1861, and a biography of Copeland came out in 2015, the African American raiders' stories have by and large been ignored in favor of John Brown biographies and studies. And while the well known Brown studies include mention of the black raiders, they do not usually receive the coverage their actions deserve. 

Meyer's journalistic talents add a nice touch to the book, especially when he covers the stories of descendants of the black raiders, the centennial commemoration of John Brown's raid and the Heyward Shepherd monument, and the history of Storer College. Another impressive part of the work was the author's description of the genealogy of raider Newby. 

This book is important because it puts these active agents of change prominently back into the story of Harpers Ferry, one which they helped make in the first place. They all had different backgrounds, but they all had the goals of abolishing slavery and gaining citizenship and equality in common. Of the five men covered in the book, only Anderson would live to see the goal of slavery's end accomplished. However, their descendants, and others they inspired through their efforts, helped blaze the trail toward the other. I eagerly recommend it.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Zooming in on a Confederate Camp Scene



Civil War photographs of Union army camp scenes are so common they often get taken for granted. Confederate camp scenes, though, are more rare. Most of those that do exist come from early in the war. The above photograph comes from the Library of Congress website and shows what is titled "A Confederate picket post near Charleston, S.C., 1861."

The scene appears to be on some body of water, perhaps either the Cooper or Ashley River, or maybe part of the Charleston Harbor. A tree draped in Spanish moss frames the image on the right side. Two groups of men either sit or stand on a raised bank with two "A" frame tents in the background.



In the left group of men, standing on the far left, is what appears to be an enslaved camp servant who holds and ax on his shoulder while looking at the photographer. Perhaps he was detailed to cut some firewood or maybe he was using the back of the ax to drive tent stakes. It is difficult to tell for sure, but it look like he wears a non-military style cap. 


Standing beside the ax man is a corporal. He wears a shell jacket, a military kepi, and stands in a "Napoleonic" pose. His shell jacket had slightly darker colored cuffs. One has to wonder what branch of service this scene shows? Artillery perhaps?


In front of the two standing men are three others either sitting or crouching. Two of them are African American camp servants. The crouching one on the left is hatless and appears to be cooking over the campfire, as a pot hangs above the fire and another is directly in front of him. The other camp servant holds what looks to be a shiny reflecting tin plate while in a crouching position. He wears what looks to be a military shell jacket. 

It is not a surprise that the three black men are shown doing labor-related tasks while the white soldiers are all shown at leisure. A soldier sits between the two crouching servants, leaning back on his left arm, and has what looks to be a cigar or pipe held in his right hand at his mouth. 


In the group of men on the right side of the image a soldier rests on his left side while holding a bottle in his right hand. Like the majority of the other soldiers in this image he wears a military kepi. It appears to have a colored headband.


Between the two groups is a soldier wearing a slouch hat and reading a newspaper, or just peering over the top of the page at the photographer.


Beside the reading and drinking men is a group of three standing soldiers watching a group of four others playing a card game on a spread out blanket. One man, on the left of the group, looks to be giving some type of instructions to what may be a sergeant major. Standing in the center of the group is a tall man with a bushy beard. He holds his hands close together in front of his chest while wearing a shell jacket and sporting his kepi at an extreme jaunty angle. The card playing soldier facing the camera sits cross-legged and wears what looks to be a high-crowned hat. The soldier at the far right kneels while apparently discarding one of his cards.

This photograph gives the viewer great insight into the activities of an early war Confederate camp. So many of the activities shown here are those that are mentioned in many soldiers' letters. Particularly interesting are the roles of the group of camp servants, who did much of the fatigue duty of camp life (cooking, cleaning, laundry, splitting wood, etc.) that soldiers either loathed or perhaps were unused to in pre-war life, depending on their socioeconomic status.