Sunday, June 25, 2017

A Visit to Eppington Plantation


As a way of thanking our wonderful volunteers at work, I arranged a tour of Eppington Plantation in southwest Chesterfield County last Thursday. We received an educational and informative tour through this almost 250 year old preservation treasure.

Now owned by the Eppington Foundation, and managed by Chesterfield County, this historic home was built by Francis Eppes VI on land he inherited from his father Richard Eppes. Construction began in 1768 on the Georgian center section of the home, and apparently Eppes moved in in 1773. The wings were added around 1790. Most of the materials were taken from the surrounding forests and fields and constructed through skilled enslaved laborers. One exception is the glass, which apparently came from Europe. The heart-of-pine floor boards stretch for yards and yard and makes one wonder what size of trees they came from.

Inside the house the skilled work necessary to build an eighteenth century home is evidenced through the woodwork, plaster work, and other visible methods of construction. The house is presently undergoing an extended preservation effort. Due to the costs of a quality restoration, areas of most need are receiving top priority, while others wait. In addition to its preservation there is a plan in place to recreate several of the outbuildings such as the summer kitchen and school building. The house stood on thousands of acres. The land immediately around the home featured landscaped and terraced gardens and orchards. The Appomattox River flowed a short distance away and was at the time visible through the cleared woodlands.

Francis Eppes VI was the brother-in-law of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's wife, Martha Wayles Skelton was the sister of Elizabeth Wayles, who married Eppes in 1771. Eppes and Jefferson developed a close relationship, probably due as much to their common interests, as to their marriage to sisters. Both men were fascinated with plants and agriculture. Both men managed large plantations and hundreds of enslaved people on thousands of acres of land. Jefferson, Eppes, and John Wayles, their father-in-law, also had common ground through he Hemmngs family. Wayles owned Betty Hemings and fathered Betty's daughter Sally. Betty's daughters, Sally and Critta, both served Eppes at Eppington, and after Jefferson's daughter Lucy died at Eppington, Sally was sent with Jefferson's other daughter, Maria, to assist Jefferson in France. It is readily believed that later, Sally fathered children by Jefferson at this Monticello.

Eppington is only open to the public on limited occasions or special arrangement, so we felt particularly fortunate to have the opportunity to learn about his historical treasure and its place in Virginia's history. If you are wishing to visit Eppington, they will be having a special event in early October, so please consider taking advantage of the opportunity. I promise, you will be impressed.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

A Visit to Deep Bottom and New Market Heights


I took advantage of some unseasonably cool June weather early this morning to take drive up to the New Market Heights Battlefield and the Deep Bottom crossing point on the James River. I had never visited Deep Bottom, so it was a treat to see the famous location that appeared in many period photographs and often served as the Union army's route of transfer between the Petersburg and Richmond fronts during the summer and fall of 1864.

The Deep Bottom area figured prominently into Gen. Grant's offensive plans to keep Lee's limited manpower resources tied down and less able to support one another on the two fronts. The first action there was in association with Grant's Third Offensive at the end of July 1864. On the 28th, Grant had Hancock's II Corps move across the bridge from Petersburg and sent Sheridan's cavalry on a move toward the Confederate defenses from Deep Bottom, but they were turned back by forces in Lee's Second Corps under Gen. Joseph Kershaw. This setback combined with the failure of the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg did not dissuade Grant from his strategic campaign goal.


The second movement involving a crossing at Deep Bottom's pontoon bridge occurred in mid-August in conjunction with the movement at Petersburg toward the Weldon Railroad in what was Grant's Fourth Offensive. Again, Hancock's II Corps was involved. However, this time Gen. Birney's X Corps movement on the left flank of Lee's line drew a fierce counterattack at Fussel's Mill that resulted in a Federal retreat with the fighting occurring over much of the same ground as that a half a month before. Although this movement did not result in a substantial gain, it did keep some of Lee's forces occupied north of the James River while Grant snapped the Weldon Railroad at Globe Tavern outside of Petersburg.


Finally, in late October, Gen. Butler's Army of the James tested Lee's Richmond defenses at Chaffin's Farm. The Army of the James, which consisted of the X Corps and XVIII Corps, crossed the Deep Bottom bridge and hit the Confederate earthwork line along the New Market Road. Fierce resistance saw savage fighting between Gen. Gregg's Texas Brigade and African American soldiers of Birney's X Corps. Fourteen black soldiers earned the Medal of Honor for their fighting spirit at New Market Heights, where they captured the rebel works. The XVIII Corps also experienced initial success farther to the west capturing sparsely held Fort Harrison. Stiffer resistance was encountered at Fort Gilmer, just to the north of Fort Harrison, where many of the Texans ended up facing some of the same black troops they had fought earlier in the day at New Market Heights. Gen. Lee attempted a counterattack the following day in attempt to regain Fort Harrison, but was unsuccessful and things settled back into stalemate mode again.

It is a shame that the New Market Heights battlefield is not more accessible and better interpreted than it is. Only a Civil War Trails wayside sign and the above highway marker are posted to inform the public about this significant action where African American soldiers proved they could fight as well as any white troops.

It would only be just for some type of monument to be erected at the little park just east of the I-295 and New Market Road intersection to honor those soldiers that fought so gallantly at New Market Heights. Hopefully, some day that tribute will come to fruition.

Deep Bottom historic photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Photographs of present-day Deep Bottom and the New Market Heights marker by author June 7, 2017.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

What was Jones Farm?


When listing the various battles that occurred during the Petersburg Campaign, they often include "so-an-so's farm" as a mark of identity and location. There's the Battle of Baylor's Farm, the Battle of Peebles Farm, the Battle of Lewis Farm, and the Battle of Jones Farm. The military fighting that occurred on the fields and woodlots that covered these acres have received much more coverage than their original interned purpose of agricultural enterprise.

However, by doing a little basic research, one can gather quite a bit of information about the owners and the operation of these farms (or more accurately in many instances, plantations). Such was the case of Robert H. Jones's place, just southwest of Petersburg. The picture above shows part of land on which the Jones Farm once occupied.

Robert H. Jones was a tobacco inspector and planter. His home, "Oak Grove" was located along the west side of Church Road, but apparently the plantation encompassed both sides of road. In 1860, the fifty year old Jones had land holdings valued at $57,800, which consisted of 700 improved acres and 320 unimproved acres. He owned another $5000 in farming implements. 

Jones's Oak Grove bordered the neighboring plantations of Mrs. Thomas Banks, Joseph G. Boisseau (brother in law), Albert W. Boisseau (brother-in-law), and J.C. Boswell. In the household along with Robert was his second wife, Ann E. Boisseau Jones, who Robert married around 1850. Mary was the sister of Robert's first wife, Martha Eliza T. Boisseau, who wed Jones in 1834, but died in 1840. Ann and Martha's mother, Athaliah Boisseau, also lived with the Jones couple, as well as nephew Adrian (twelve), the son of Robert's brother-in-law William E. Boisseau, who along with his wife, Julia, had died in Alabama in 1854. In addition, forty-five year old Thomas Ritcherson is included in the Jones home. Jones's personal property is listed at $57,000 and real estate at $10,000.


As one might imagine, Jones worked a large enslaved labor force on his one thousand plus acre plantation. The 1860 census lists him owning seventy-four men, women, and children, who lived in seventeen slave dwellings.

The 1860 agricultural census is a significant key to better understanding Oak Grove plantation at this time. As far as animals, enumerated were four horses, eighteen asses and mules, eight milk cows, and ten other cattle. That may sound like quite a small sum to help feed a plantation family and their enslaved workforce until one reads the following line of two hundred swine, which provided the bulk of the meat consumed on Southern plantations. All of Jones's livestock was valued at $5330.00.

Also listed were the crops grown on the plantation. They were: three hundred bushels of wheat, ten bushels of rye, 5500 bushels of Indian corn, three hundred bushels of oats. Also listed are 3000 pounds of tobacco, which seems like a very small amount to keep seventy-four slaves engaged. Perhaps Jones leased out some of his surplus slaves, but that is merely speculation on my part.

The Jones Farm endured fighting not once, but twice. Its first experience was during the Peebles Farm fighting, September 20-October 2, 1864. However, it was on March 25, 1865, that the Jones Farm endured it most significant combat, with the family home being among the engagement's causalities. The house was set ablaze by soldiers in the Union VI Corps when it was utilized by Confederate sharpshooters. The March 25 engagement will be the subject of a future post.

Present-day photograph of Jones Farm by the author on May 20, 2017.
Period map of Jones Farm location courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Recent Acquisitions to My Library


Gen. Grant's Fifth Offensive in the Petersburg/Richmond Campaign has long been a fascinating subject to me, so whenever I come across a book discussing some aspect of these movements I'm interested to hear the author's take. Initially successful, the Union assaults north of the James River, which were directed by Gen. Benjamin Butler, stalled out with stiffer resistance after capturing Confederate works at New Market Heights and Fort Harrison. 


Since reading John Hope Franklin's The Militant South, 1800-1861, by John Hope Franklin, way back in graduate school; as well as doing a significant research project at the same time on North Carolinian Henry King Burgwyn, who tried to get into West Point but landed at the Virginia Military Institute before eventually becoming the colonel of the 26th North Carolina, the ideal situation of a military-based education and its importance to Southerners has intrigued me. 


In an era of politicians who drew and threw fire with their words, few were as caustic and expressed a self confidence as John Randolph of Roanoke. Randolph spent several terms as a U.S. congressman and part of a term as a Senator from a Southside Virginia district. Randolph famously exclaimed, "I am an aristocrat. I love liberty and hate equality." John Randolph's formative years and education had a significant impact on what type of man he came to be and projected in his public service. This book gets into John Randolph the private man, tortured by ill health and troubled relationships.


This slim volume attempts to briefly detail Lincoln's initially tentative thinking on the use of African Americans as soldiers in the Union army, to his evolved position on potentially extending citizenship and even voting rights to those who served as fighting men in effort to preserve the Union; and with the Emancipation Proclamation, the additional war aim of ending slavery.


The concept of nationalism was one that the Confederacy had to embrace with the formation of its government after eleven slave states seceded. However Confederate nationalism seemingly did not end with the end of the Confederacy. It survived through the war, through Reconstruction, and lives on in many people's thinking into the twenty-first century.
 

Many ethnic groups participated in the Civil War, both for the Union and for the Confederacy. Many served to prove their right to the full fruits of citizenship. This book contains essays that discuss the experiences of Germans, Irish, Jews, Native Americans, and African Americans. Without these groups' participation, the Civil War would have been a much different war. I am certainly looking forward to learning a lot from these fascinating essays.

Friday, May 19, 2017

"He Left No Effects": Pvt. Joseph Gatewood, Co. A, 43rd USCI


On April 28, I made a post about Joseph Crossman, a free man of color, who fought and died in the actions near Hatcher's Run on October 27, 1864. Crossman served in Company B of the 43rd United States Colored Infantry. While searching for African American soldiers who were killed in that day's engagement, I also came across another soldier named Joseph, and who was in the 43rd USCI, but who was from Company A, Joseph Gatewood (sometimes noted as Gaitwood).

Reviewing Gatewood's service records, several things caught my attention. First, was Gatewood's place of birth, and yet his place of enlistment. He was noted as being born in Alabama, most likely enslaved. However, he enlisted in Buffalo, New York. If I were speculating, I would guess that Gatewood somehow managed to escape his life as a slave and made his way to Buffalo, which due to it extreme northern location and proximity to Canada, proved to be somewhat of a haven for runaway slaves, especially after the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

The second thing that drew my notice was Gatewood's age. He was only 18 at the time of his enlistment on September 2, 1864. His age made me wonder how old he was when he arrived in Buffalo. Did he come to the city on Lake Erie alone or with family and friends? His given occupation was the ubiquitous description of "laborer," so often listed for enlisting men of color. He is described as five feet five inches tall and with a black complexion, and with black eyes and black hair.

Thirdly, and associated with the previous, was the fact that Gatewood's service records note that he was a "substitute for [a] drafted man." Did Gatewood receive compensation from the "drafted man" to serve in his stead? Did Gatewood enlist out of monetary concerns, or out of patriotic or other altruistic motivations? Or, was it some combination of the two, or a multiple of other reasons?

Lastly, if you haven't already caught it yourself, was the realization that Gatewood was killed in action less than two months after enlisting. Unlike some other soldiers, his records do not give further details on where on his person he received the wounds that took his life. The inventory of his personal effects has two big X marks across it and plainly states "He left no effects." Another page states "He has not drawn any clothing with the exception of his outfit when enlisted."

Like Joseph Crossman, his fellow 43rd USCI soldier, Gatewood's place of burial is not noted. He was likely buried on the field where he fell. Regardless of where his remains reside, it is fitting and proper to at least note the service of this young man, otherwise lost to history and who apparently did not have to serve, yet did and in another's place, only to fall a victim of battle.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Just Finished Reading - The Guerrilla Hunters: Irregular Conflicts during the Civil War

The Guerrilla Hunters: Irregular Conflicts during the Civil War, edited by Brian D. McKnight and Barton A. Myers; Louisiana State University Press, 2017.

When the Civil War bug bit me about thirty-five years or so ago, I was fascinated by the scope of the conflict. I dreamed of going to the many battlefields of Virginia and Tennessee. A weekend family trip to the more approximate Perryville Battlefield State Shrine temporarily satiated my quest for battleground exploration, but when I brought my enthusiasm for the subject to my grandparents home and farm in Clinton County, Kentucky, I began to learn that the Civil War was not experienced the same everywhere.

Clinton County was the native home of notorious Confederate guerrilla Champ Ferguson, and although Ferguson later moved to White County, Tennessee, he returned often to the area to carry out various terrorist activities. On one visit my grandfather told me a family story of Ferguson and his men raiding my ancestors' corn crib. The anecdotal tale made me want to learn more about Ferguson and other guerrillas. However, the only book I could find at the time was Thurman Sensing's, Champ Ferguson: Confederate Guerrilla, which was first published in the 1940s.

Fortunately, for those of us interested in Civil War guerrilla studies, scholarship in this field has expanded tremendously over the last decade or so, with some excellent studies emerging in the last five years. Topics and geographical regions previously unexplored, now are providing us with a much better understanding of how the war was often carried out in the "shadows" of the larger and more familiar military campaigns.

One of the most exciting recent additions to this growing body of scholarship is Guerrilla Hunters: Irregular Conflicts during the Civil War, a series of excellent essays edited by Brian D. McKnight and Barton A. Myers, both of who have produced individual significant works on guerrilla actions.

Guerrilla Hunters opens with a thought provoking introduction by the editors which seeks to "present guerrilla studies in their full complexity, not as a field unto itself." In reading the rest of the essays, this goal is met.

The full complexity the editors wish to expose is partly achieved through the range of geographical diversity in which the essays examine. Of course, the traditional border regions, where irregular operations flourished such as Missouri, Kansas, and Kentucky come in for their fair share of coverage. But essays such as "Irregular Naval Warfare along the Lower Mississippi," by Laura June Davis, and "American Warlord: Reconsidering 'Guerrilla' Leader John Gatewood," by Adam H. Domby, give us a look into both previously unexamined geographical regions and topics.

Many of the essays also develop informative new perspectives. For example, Aaron Astor's essay on Tennessee/Kentucky border Unionist Tinker Dave Beaty and his men and their social networks show the importance of family and kin connections in determining who community members could turn to for protection, and even sustenance support. Similarly, Lisa Tendrich Frank's contribution, "The Union War on Women," looks at how Confederate home front women often endured the counter-guerrilla operations of the Union army, who ironically used many of the same tools to fight irregular forces that they found reprehensible. Matthew M. Stith puts two emerging Civil War fields of study together: environment and guerrillas, in his "Guerrilla Warfare and the Environment in the Trans-Mississippi Theater." The land, weather, and animals/insects of this region, still considered a wilderness in many contemporary circles, shaped how the bushwhackers and their pursuers experienced their unique type of civil war. Likewise, Joseph M. Beilein, Jr.'s "Whiskey, Wild Men, and Missouri's Guerrilla War," examines the influence of alcohol on probably the most active geographical area of guerrilla operations. Beilein argues that alcohol fueled a significant amount of aggressiveness and bad decision making among those who operated in irregular fashion.

Other intriguing essays include Matthew C. Hulbert's "Larkin M. Skaggs and the Massacre(s) at Lawrence," which takes likely the most infamous guerrilla episode and examines it from an new angle. As Hulbert states "when the massacre is broken down into a momentous wave of home invasions perpetrated by pro-Confederate bushwhackers against the households they believed were allowing jayhawkers to function efficiently as pro-Union guerrillas, it much more closely resembles how irregulars themselves understood the waging of war in the Missouri-Kansas guerrilla theater." Also, Andrew Lang's "Challenging the Union Citizen-Soldier Ideal," looks at how Union volunteers sometimes struggled reconciling their images of what a citizen soldier should look like and behave like when forced to deal with irregular forces. Union regulars found that sometimes occupying a region and attempting to control guerrillas set their conceptions of warfare on its head and required the destruction of private property and potentially harming civilians.

Finally, I appreciated that the editors provided a thorough "Readers Bibliography of Civil War Studies." This list of scholarship available on the subject only boosts the Guerrilla Hunters's overall importance.

Whether mentioned above or not, all of the essays contained in this volume advance our understand of an important and ever emerging facet of the Civil War. Irregular warfare studies such as Guerrilla Hunters shed light on the dark corners of Civil War scholarship and remind us that there are still areas of our nation's most significant four years that need examining and rethinking. I highly recommend this work to any student of the Civil War. By reading this book you will certainly not be disappointed in what you learn or how it makes you think about other aspects of the conflict.

Friday, April 28, 2017

A Fighter From Maine: Joseph Crossman, Co. B, 43rd USCI


I am in the process of reading Richmond Must Fall: The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, October 1864, by Hampton Newsome. I am impressed with both the author's depth of research and his ability to clearly convey the various military movements that made up Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Sixth Offensive, north of the James River, as well as southwest of Petersburg.

On October 27, a Union movement was made on the Petersburg front by Parke's IX Corps, Warren's V Corps, and Hancock's II Corps in effort to cut the Boydton Plank Road and hopefully reach the Southside Railroad beyond. All three corps moved west, with the IX being the northern most, the V below it, and the II being southern most.

The IX Corps sector saw Ferrero's Division, which included the four black regiments of Col. Ozora P. Stearns's Brigade (one of which was the 43rd United States Colored Infantry), slide through the pine trees and dense underbrush and encounter Confederate pickets while skirmishing and searching out the location of the rebel earthworks near Hatcher's Run (pictured below).


Newsome includes a reference that in the engagement the 43rd officially lost twenty-eight killed, wounded and missing. Being that this action happened just a handful of miles south of where I live, I was curious to see if I could find some information about the African American soldiers who lived their last hours that October 27, 1864 day. A quick internet search brought up a roster of each company in the 43rd USCI with the soldiers' names, dates of muster in, and dates of death, wounding, or muster out. From there it was quite simple to find a few names to research. One of the first I happened upon was Private Joseph Crossman.

Crossman's service records were easily located. They indeed state that he was "killed while skirmishing with the enemy. . .shot in the head by a minnie ball," on October 27. Crossman had enlisted in Augusta, Maine, on February 27, 1864, and was mustered in on March 16, 1864, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, probably at Camp William Penn. Apparently Crossman was born as a free man of color in Greene, Maine. Crossman was listed as five feet, seven inches tall, with a complexion of "black." The same description was given for his eye and hair color.

Crossman's true age is difficult to determine, as their are multiple figures given in different official records. His enlistment card states he was forty-three, but when he was sent to the hospital at City Point for a "debility", in August 1864, they listed his age as fifty-six. The 1850 census for Norridgewock, Somerset County, Maine lists Crossman as a forty year old farmer, who lived with his wife, Winnifred, who was forty-six. Both are listed as "mulatto." Crossman owned $900 in real estate. Skipping ahead a decade, Crossman appears as a forty-seven year old farmer, still in Norridgewock, still married to Winnifred (fifty), and with boarder Cyntha Jackson, a fifty-two year old "pauper." Perhaps Cyntha was Winnifred's sister since they are listed being similar in age. The 1860 census shows all three listed as "mulatto." Crossman's real estate wealth remained at $900, and his personal wealth was noted as $300.

Crossman's service also included fighting at the Battle of the Crater (pictured below) on July 30, which he apparently survived unscathed. Gen. Ferrero's Division saw particularly difficult fighting that day. Many of his African American soldiers who were captured were not allowed to surrender as prisoners of war, but were rather massacred.


For me, Crossman's survival at the Crater, yet death in the fighting on October 27, at Hatcher's Run, illustrates perfectly the uncertainty of soldiering during the Civil War. One seemingly never knew which day would be the last, or in what form death would come.

Crater sketch image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Hatcher's Run fortifications photograph taken by author February 23, 2017.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Finding Petersburg's New Market Race Course



A couple of months back I offered a couple of posts regarding horse racing in Virginia. One focused on noted turf man William Ransom Johnson, and the other on William Wynn's Dinwidde County farm, stables, and home, known as Raceland. One of Johnson's and Wynn's most visited racetracks was just about a mile east of the Petersburg town limits. It was known as the New Market Race Course.

I had read about New Market, and often viewed advertisements while searching period newspapers, but I had never been able to put my thumb exactly on where the race track was located. That was all before a colleague at work shared a map of Petersburg (partly pictured above) and its environs produced by Confederate engineer and topographer Jeremy F.Gilmer in 1863. The map clearly shows the circular New Market Race Course located at the split of the Petersburg and City Point Railroad and the Petersburg and Norfolk Railroad, and situated just south of the Appomattox River and northwest of the Hare House site. The Price George Courthouse Road ran on the track's eastern border (just off the above image's right side).


A modern satellite view provided by Google Earth shows the present-day area in the center of the above image. The railroad split can still be easily seen, as well as the Prince George Courthouse Road running southeast off of modern day Highway 36 (East Washington Street). The New Market Race Course was located in the vicinity of the squares formed by the streets in the center of the photograph. The Union earthworks of Fort Stedman and the Confederate fortification of Colquitt's salient can be seen in the bottom right center of the photograph.


Although now mainly developed into streets and single family homes, part of the area where the track once stood is still open and on the grounds of Robert E. Lee Elementary school (shown above).


Just through a little skirt of woods and up the hill from the track once stood the Hare House. This land is now part of the Petersburg National Battlefield (PNB). The Hare House is long gone, but its former location is marked on the PNB grounds by the small metal sign shown above.


The Hare House was sketched by noted Civil War artist Alfred Waud in 1864 (above). The Hare House became the center of the furious fighting on June 18, 1864, during the early stages of combat of the Petersburg Campaign. The desperate charge of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery (fighting as infantry) toward Colquitt's Salient that day crossed the Hare property.

Otway P. Hare, or more commonly called O. P., owned the New Market Race Course. I found Hare listed in the 1850 census for Prince George County. He was described as a forty-seven year old "farmer," and owned real estate valued at $6300. His wife, Elizabeth, was three years his junior. Their children were Macon (seventeen), Laura (eighteen), and Walter (thirteen). Also in the household was Thomas Gentry, a 46 year old race horse "trainer." Both of Hare's sons were noted as having attended school within the last year. The slave schedule census shows Hare as owning twelve slaves at that time.


I was not able to determine when racing started at the New Market track. However, I was able to find advertisements in Petersburg newspapers as early as 1820 (above from the Petersburg Republican April 18, 1820). One reference I found mentioned that the track was owned by Petersburg commission merchant Thomas Branch before Hare purchased it. Another, in 1829 called New Market "the oldest and most popular club in Virginia; its races are over a course, one mile in length, of good soil for running, and commanding an extensive and beautiful prospect in every direction; the commence, regularly, the first Tuesday in May and the second Tuesday in October." 


The New Market Race Course drew turf men and racing fans from far and wide. Apparently some of the ladies that attended viewed the heats from Hare House Hill. The Civil War fighting around Petersburg brought racing at New Market to a halt for a time. A brief revival in the late nineteenth century brought horse racing back to the course, but it was not long before the track's land was turned into a housing development just before World War One.

Gilmer Petersburg Map courtesy of Baylor University.
Hare House sketch image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Searching for Corporal Dick


If you've read Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg by Richard J. Sommers (or pretty much any work on Gen. Grant's Fifth Offensive during the Petersburg Campaign), it is likely that you've come across an account of one Corporal Dick.

The attacks on Fort Gilmer (named for Confederate engineer Jeremy Gilmer) on September 29, 1864, resulted in part due to successful actions earlier in the day at the Battle of New Market Heights by regiments of the United States Colored Troops, as well as a flanking movement by Gen. Alfred Terry's division. Once the Confederate defenses at New Market Heights were breached, the Union troops moved on north up the Rebel line of fortifications. Success followed success when Fort Harrison was captured by Brig. Gen. George Stannard's brigade. Stiffer resistance and uncoordinated attacks stalled the Union army when they encountered Fort Gilmer.

Gen. William Birney, son of abolitionist and Kentucky native James G. Birney, led the brigade that sent African American soldiers to attack Fort Gilmer after two previous waves were repulsed. One of the regiments that was sent in by company in piecemeal fashion was the 7th USCI, a unit that was raised in Maryland. For whatever reason only four companies of the 7th were sent forward on what appeared to be a suicide mission. Making their way through the Confederate obstructions, and the detritus of the previous attacks, all while under heavy fire from both small arms and artillery, a number of the men reached the relative safety of the seven foot deep ditch in front of the fort's rampart wall.

Confederates inside the fort, not wishing to expose themselves, lit artillery shells and rolled them down on the attackers in the ditch, some of which were returned with favors. Desperate to take action, several of the black soldiers formed a human ladder of sorts in the attempt to go over the wall. Each brave man who attempted to go up and into the works was shot in the head and tumbled back down on to his fellow attackers in the ditch.

One gallant African American soldier stood out to the Texas and Georgia Confederate defenders. As remembered by Texas soldier Joseph Benjamin Polley, the dire situation at Fort Gilmer unfolded as follows. When told to surrender, the brave black soldiers shouted back, "surrender yourself," and "Just wait until we get in there." They were also heard to say "Let's lift up Corporal Dick, he'll get in there sure." The brave soldier was heaved up and promptly shot through the head. His comrades, shocked at their friend's tragic and sudden death exclaimed, "Corporal Dick's done dead!" Various versions of the story, all of which contain the same basic elements, appear from several other soldiers that were present. Another Confederate claimed the black men in the ditch stated that "Corporal Dick is the best man in the regiment." It was also mentioned that afterward, when African American troops were encountered by these Georgians and Texans they were referred to as "Corporal Dicks."

Fort Gilmer's stout defense held. Those black troops still living and that remained in the ditch finally decided to surrender. However, their brave and desperate fighting impressed some of the Confederate defenders. I find it intriguing that it took such violent actions on the part of these African American soldiers for them to earn the respect of whites, both North and South.

So, who was this Corporal Dick? Having a little time on my hands I decided if I could find him in the service records of the 7th USCI. Searching through the regiment's roster alphabetically, I looked for soldiers with the first name "Dick." Not finding any, I re-searched for "Richard." I found several of these. However, no Richards were corporals. One Richard was indicated as killed at Fort Gilmer, but he was listed as a private. That soldier's name is Richard Gibbs. Gibbs was mustered the year before on September 26, 1863. He was a 40 year old from Queen Ann, Maryland, who stood 5 feet 10 inches tall. Gibbs was of an age that he would garner respect from younger soldiers, and at 5'10" he could have been of such a stature as described in a couple of the Confederate accounts. But, in Gibbs's service records it interestingly lists his hair as "curly" in place of the usual listed hair color, and one Confederate account claims that Corporal Dick was bald headed.

Was Private Richard Gibbs respected so much by his comrades as to receive an honorary rank of corporal? Was Richard Gibbs the Corporal Dick of legend? I have to admit, I do not know, but I do not think so. This one has me totally stumped. I would certainly be interested to learn more about the true Corporal Dick if anyone happens to know.

Present-day photograph of Fort Gilmer taken by author in April 2016.

Friday, April 14, 2017

An Underground Railroad Shootout in Silver Spring, August 8, 1850


It is amazing what traces of history one can find with just a little looking around. While in Silver Spring, Maryland, for a few days this week I decided to see if I could find the site of an Underground Railroad incident that I had read about in several different books. It was not difficult to locate the site with a little bit of searching on the internet.

The incident that happened on the night of August 8, 1850, involved a number personalities who were of major political importance, not only at that time, but in the coming years as well.

William L. Chaplin, a native of Massachusetts, resident of New York state, and who served as a newspaper correspondent in Washington D.C. for the Albany Patriot had helped make arrangements to try to get over seventy slaves out of the nation's capital city on the schooner Pearl in 1848. While the ship's captain and crew members were arrested, charged, tried, and convicted, they did not implicate Chaplin and he remained free.

Two years later, Chaplin, apparently under District of Columbia police surveillance, was suspected of new emancipation plans. He was observed readying to leave town,which prompted several officers and two citizens to await Chaplin's arrival just outside the city limits along the Brookville Pike (present-day Georgia Avenue) near the residence of James Blair (known as Moorings and shown above). Blair, was the son of Francis Preston Blair, a former member of Andrew Jackson "Kitchen Cabinet." Also nearby were the homes of Blair's father, known as Silver Spring, and Blair's brother, Montgomery C. Blair (Lincoln's future postmaster general), known as Falklands.

Around 11:30 p.m. on August 8, Chaplin's hired coach approached the awaiting officers. One officer ran a fence rail through the carriage's spoke wheels to stop it while others of the arresting party grabbed the horses' bridles. Chaplain apparently quickly realized what was going on and fired a shot at one of his assailants, shooting a hole through the man's hat.


Inside the carriage were Chaplin's two runaway passengers. One, named Garland, was the property of Georgia congressman Robert Toombs (pictured below). Toombs at this point in his career was an avid Unionist, who worked tirelessly to reconcile sectional issues between the North and the South and supported such measures as the Compromise of 1850. Later, as the 1860-61 secession crisis approached, Toombs relocated to the disunionist camp. Toombs, the consummate politician, aspired to the highest office in the infant Confederacy, but when Jefferson Davis was selected, he was chosen as secretary of state. That role was short lived though as the Georgian resigned it and became a brigadier general in the Army of Northern Virginia, but Toombs resigned that position, too, in 1863.


The other fugitive slave was named Allen, and belonged to Toombs's good friend and fellow Georgian Alexander Stephens (pictured below). Stephens, also a member of the U.S. House of Representatives was in many ways similar in political thought to Toombs, but quite opposite in physical appearance and disposition. Toombs was big and loud, whereas as Stephens was slight and reserved.


As Chaplin was wrestled from the driver's seat and received a beating, the two runaways blazed away at their would-be abductors with revolvers. A news story in the August 10 edition of D.C.-based The Republic newspaper stated that the two runaways discharged "no less than eleven shots from revolvers of formidable caliber." Chaplin was finally pinned to the ground by some of the officers while others fired back at the two enslaved men.

One of the officers had his left eyebrow singed off from the closeness of a shot. Another received a flesh wound to one of his arms.One policeman shot back and one of his bullets hit Allen's watch. Another shot hit Allen in the back. Some of the officers tried to unhitch the horses, and while doing so Garland jumped on one of the officer's back and then ran off into the darkness, but not before being wounded by a shot. Garland made a temporary getaway, however, three days later he turned himself in. 

Chaplin was charged in both Washington D.C and Maryland but was afforded a bailout by Gerritt Smith and other wealthy abolitionist supporters. He jumped bail after being released from his Maryland charge and returned to New York, never standing trial. Chaplin's experience at Silver Spring seemed to dissuade him from further Underground Railroad operations. 

Garland eventually escaped for good from Robert Toombs and made his way to Canada before the Civil War. He returned to the United Stated and enlisted in the 28th USCT, serving as the unit's chaplain as Garland White. When White and his fellow black soldiers entered Richmond, Virginia, he was reunited with his long lost mother in what was a touching story.

This particular instance is just one of thousands of examples in which enslaved African Americans took great risks and went to extraordinary lengths to attempt to stake their claim to the ideals of freedom and equality that were the foundation of the United States.


Toombs image courtesy of the New Georgia Encyclopedia
Stephens image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Petersburg's Fort Davis


With it being spring break for many of the public schools in Virginia, and thus a rather slow field trip week at work, I decided to take some annual leave time to get some over delayed appointments taken care of and enjoy some R & R.

Seeing the dentist in the morning and the eye doctor in the afternoon may not sound like much fun (and they weren't particularly) but on my way to the optometrist's office, I stopped at Fort Davis and snapped the above shot.

After Gen. Grant's first attacks on Petersburg (June 15-18) failed to decisively crack the Confederate defenses east of the city, he moved south and then west toward the Weldon Railroad. That movement came June 21-23 and resulted in scores of captured Union soldiers. However, it also resulted in control of the Jerusalem Plank Road and the establishment of a square shaped earthen fortification, originally named Fort Warren; for Gen. Gouverneur Warren, head of the Union V Corps.


The massive fort covered about three acres of ground and contained a diagonal traverse. The east side faced the Jerusalem Plank Road and the Federals constructed a connecting line to the southwest as they continued to move toward the Weldon Railroad and ultimately the Battle of Globe Tavern in mid-August. Before those later movements though, Col. P. Stearns Davis of the 39th Massachusetts Infantry was killed on July 11, 1864, at the site by an exploding artillery shell and the fort was renamed in his honor. Davis's service records indicate that he was hit by a spherical case shell at about 5:30 pm that fateful day.

Today, as the top photograph shows, Fort Davis is rather well preserved. Its high walls and deep ditches remain. Owned by the City of Petersburg, Fort Davis is bounded by roadways on all four sides, which somewhat limits the foot traffic it has received over the years and thus has helped maintain its historical integrity.

Historic photograph of Fort Davis courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Written Thoughts on April 9, 1865 from Elisha Hunt Rhodes, Lt. Col., 2nd Rhode Island


Elisha Hunt Rhodes entered the Civil War as a corporal with the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry, and ended the conflict leading the regiment as a twenty three year old. He experienced some terrible combat during his service to the United States fighting at such engagements as First Manassas, Fredericksburg, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Petersburg, but 152 years ago today, he was quite happy. He had survived.

"Glory to God in the highest. Peace on earth, good will to men! Thank God Lee has surrendered, and the war will soon end. How can I record the events of this day? This morning we started at an early hour still following the sound of an occasional cannon shot. I found a Rebel Capatain from North Carolina by the roadside, and finding him to be a Mason I has him go with my Provost Guard. About 11 A.M. we halted in a field facing the woods and stacked arms. Rumors of intended surrender were heard, but we did not feel sure. I took the Rebel Captain over to Gen. [Oliver] Edward's Headquarters, and we lunched with him. The Captain insisted that Lee would surrender and begged that we would not send him to the rear. Some time in the afternoon we heard loud cheering at the front, and soon Major General Meade commanding the Army of the Potomac rode like mad down the road with hat off shouting: "The war is over, and we are going home!" Such a scene only happens once in centuries. The Batteries began to fire blank cartridges, while the Infantry fired their muskets in the air. The men threw their knapsacks and canteens into the air and howled like mad.

General [Frank] Wheaton and a party of officers rode out to our Regiment and actually gave three cheers for the 2nd R.I. which were returned with a will. I cried and laughed by turns. I never was so happy in my life.

The Rebels half starved, and our men have divided their rations with them. The 2nd R.I. had three days' rations and after dividing their rations with the Rebels will have to make a day and a half's rations last for three days. But we did it cheerfully. Well I have seen the end of the Rebellion. I was in the first battle fought by the dear old Army of the Potomac, and I was in the last. I thank God for all his blessings to me and that my life has been spared to see this glorious day. Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!"

Image in the public domain.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Henry "Box" Brown's Aide Was Caught Helping Other Slaves in Richmond


At work we use the Henry "Box" Brown story to help students better understand the diverse methods that enslaved individuals used to exert resistance to the "peculiar institution." Some students seem to have doubts in the veracity of the story, but there is proof beyond Brown's own narrative.

Browsing through 1849 issues of the Richmond Enquirer, I ran across the headline "The Kidnapping Case," on the front page of the May 11 edition. Reading it, I made a connection to Brown's narrative.

Brown was assisted in his unique method of escape by a free black man in Richmond and a white man named Samuel Alexander Smith. The Enquirer article read:
"Yesterday morning at 10 o'clock, S. A. Smith was brought before the Mayor of the City upon two charges of having aided and advised the slaves Alfred and Sawney, to abscond from their owners." Apparently as witnesses were absent that day, the case was postponed.

The scanned newspaper page is wrinkled, however, it is easy to put two and two together. The article continues: "As our notice yesterday may be construed by some, so as to do injustice to the faithful Express Agent here, we deem it proper to succinctly to state the facts exactly as they occurred." Early on that Tuesday morning a porter brought two boxes to the Express Office addressed to W. P. Williamson. No. 32 Buttonwood Street, Philadelphia. A dray ticket was included.

The Express agent asked the porter where the boxes came from but the cart man responded that he did not know, only that they came from near the Armory. The agent's suspicions were further aroused due to the light weight of the boxes. The agent opened one of the boxes and found a slave man inside. The agent quickly placed the top back on the container. The boxes were then taken to the city jail and reopened, finding a runaway slave in each.

Apparently, Smith showed up at the Express office to check and see if the boxes had been sent under the false pretense of checking to see if bag of meal had arrived for him from Baltimore. A Mr. Fisher, who owned the shoe store in which Smith lived and worked claimed that the handwriting on the dray ticket was the same as that found in Fisher's bookkeeping signed by Smith. In addition, Fisher claimed he had seen a letter addressed to W. P. Williamson, Philadelphia in Smith's possession.

In the May 25 issue of the Enquirer under the headline "Not Original," the paper claimed that Smith's idea of boxing up slaves to send them to free states was earlier reported in the Burlington, Vermont Courier "of several weeks since" and seems to be the very story of Henry "Box" Brown as he later explained it in his narrative. It states:
"Having arranged the preliminaries he [the enslaved man] paid some one $40 to box him up and mark him 'this side up, with care,' and take him to the Express office consigned to his friend at the North. On  the passage, being on board a steamboat he was accidentally turned head downward, and almost died with the rash of blood to the head. At the next change of transportation, however, he was turned right side up again, and after twenty-six hours confinement, arrived safely at his destination. On receiving the box, the [illegible] man (?) had doubts whether he should receive a corpse or a free man. He tapped lightly on the box, with the question, 'All right?' and was delighted to hear 'All right, sir.' The poor fellow was immediately liberated from his place of living burial, and forwarded to a worthy Abolitionist in a city of New England, where he is now."

The next reference I located on Smith was in the May 29 issue. The story "Called Court," stated that "S. A. Smith, charged with attempting to abduct the two negroes in boxes, was on Saturday, sent on trial to the Superior Court, Judge Nicholas, at its October term."

Finally, in the November 9, 1849, issue in news of the Superior Court we learn of Smith's sentencing. "S. A. Smith was sentenced by the Judge to confinement in the Penitentiary for four years and six months, on yesterday; and being asked if he had anything to say say why sentence should not be passed upon him, made it known his intention of referring his cases to the General Court."

As a final means of corroboration, and after quite a while searching, I found S. A. Smith in the 1850 census records listed as an inmate in the Virginia Penitentiary. Smith is listed as forty-four year old shoemaker, who was born in Massachusetts and was incarcerated in 1849.

These sources seem to validate the story and method of escape Henry "Box" Brown claims he used to escape slavery. A fascinating story, which also shows the lengths enslaved people would take to find freedom.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Freeman Mason, "Accidentally Shot through the Head"


Civil War soldiers may have entered the war with visions of serving their cause and country. If death must come, surely most believed it would be a glorious death on the battlefield, falling facing the enemy. Time and experience in the army often ground down soldiers' expectations to the harsh realities of military life. A fighting man's mortality came into sharper focus as even more comrades fell to illnesses and diseases than from the foe's bullets. Perhaps worse still were those individuals who perished by sheer accident.

One of the thousands of soldiers who died by mishap was Freeman Mason, Company K, 17th Vermont Infantry. Mason entered the service as an eighteen year old farmer on September 14, 1864. Mason's service records indicate that he was quite typical at five feet four and with blue eyes and brown hair.  

The 17th Vermont was eventually assigned to the Second Brigade of the Second Division of the Ninth Corps. They fought in the Petersburg Campaign near Hatcher's Run in October 1864, sustaining no casualties. They were then shifted east of the besieged city to the Fort Stedman area. It was while there that on March 12, just about two weeks before the early morning Confederate attack, that Mason was "accidentally shot through the head" while in camp.

Freeman's death is particularly tragic in several aspects. First is that his death came so close to the end of the war and by the hand of a comrade in camp. The other is that Freeman's passing followed his brother's, who was killed in the fighting at Savage's Station during the Seven Days Battles in 1862. Freeman's photograph above shows him holding an image of his dear brother in memory.

Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

New Acquisitions to My Library


The interstate slave trade has received a high level of attention from scholars over the last ten to fifteen years. A Troublesome Commerce: The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade, by Robert H. Gudmestad (LSU Press, 2003), is a study that I had previously somehow overlooked. Attempting to understand the effect that the commodification of human beings had to all of those involved in the institution of slavery is an important step in comprehending the South's slave society as a whole.


The removal of Native Americans from what became the Old Southwest and the "Cotton Kingdom" had dire repercussions not only on the exiled Indians, but also for those that repopulated that lands. Creek Paths and Federal Road: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves and the Making of the American South, by Angela Pulley Hudson  (UNC Press, 2010), shows the influence that Native American and federal post routes of travel had on the development of the region that would grow to become one of the wealthiest with the rise of cotton.


We often forget that there were serious attempts to avert conflict between the North and South before Fort Sumter. The Peace that Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War, by Mark Tooley (Nelson Books, 2015), takes an in-depth look at the platforms and the players in this drama with so much at stake.

Placing a monetary value on a human being is something so foreign to us in the twenty-first century that we naturally recoil in disgust at the thought. However, the institution of slavery was built and sustained on that very concept. Enslaved people were valued on their looks, health, skills, age, gender, and a host of other traits. The Price for their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, by Daina Ramey Berry (Beacon Press, 2017), examines valuing the full life cycle of black bodies to even beyond their deaths with a look at the trade in African American cadavers for medical training schools. 


William Blair's Virginia's Private War: Feeding the Body and Soul in the Confederacy, 1861-1865 (Oxford University Press, 1998), is another of the seemingly endless list of books that I find from time to time and wonder how I've not come across previously. Scholars who focus on state and local studies are providing us with greater insights into how the Civil War was experienced differently in different places and how the various people of those places responded to the demands placed upon them by a the war.


What did the "Rebel Yell" sound like? Sure, we have recordings of aged veterans giving their best impression at reunions years after the war, but what did that vocal expression really sound like in the fury of combat and coming from thousands of young throats and with deadly intentions in mind? Maybe even more important is, what significance have Southerners placed on the rebel yell since the firing stopped in 1865? How has the rebel yell continued to live on and been appropriated by later generations? Hopefully reading The Rebel Yell: A Cultural History, by Craig A. Warren (University of Alabama Press, 2014) will provide answers to many of these questions that I have, and make me think about others.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Out of the Way Places - The Clements House


Exploring Civil War battlefields can lead one to some pretty out of way places. Thankfully a great deal of the land that battles were fought on remained in rural areas in the generations following the conflict and thus were less threatened by development. However, as the years pass, it seems the out of the way places are becoming fewer and fewer.

One of those out of the way places can be found just a handful of miles south of where I live. The Clements House (pictured above) served as a landmark in two of Grant's offensive attempts to gain Petersburg. In fighting on October 27, 1864, and which received several names (Battle of Burgess Mill, Battle of Boydton Plank Road, and Battle of First Hatcher's Run) the Union forces crossed the Clements farm, located near the far right of the Confederate earthwork line. A little more than three months later (February 5, 1865) the Union V Corps and Confederates in Henry Heth's division battled it out in this area, too.

Being curious to find out a little more about the individual who owned this house and farm, I went to the 1860 census. John E. Clements was born in 1824, as he was listed as a thirty-six year old farmer. The census notes that he was born in Virginia and that his real estate was worth $1000 and his personal property was valued at $2825. Living with Clements was sixty-four year old Margaret Clements; Harriet R. M. Clements, twenty-seven; Virginia G. Clements, twenty; and Joseph G. Clements, nineteen. Perhaps Harriet was Clements's mother, and the others were sisters and a brother.

Laboring on the Clements farm were five enslaved individuals. Their ages: a twenty-six year old female, a twenty-four year old male, an eleven year old female, a nine year old male, and a two year old male could possibly be a family unit, but that would have made the woman about fifteen when the first one was born, if these were indeed her children. Clements is noted in the census as owning two slave dwellings. It would be mere speculation as to how the individuals were divided for their lodging or if only one dwelling was occupied.


Doing a little further research, it appears that Clements served as a private in the 9th Virginia Infantry. He enlisted in Norfolk in April 1862, which was when the Confederates instituted conscription. Many soldiers enlisted voluntarily at that time to avoid the stigma of being labeled a draftee. Clements was captured at the Battle of Five Forks on April 1, 1865, only a few miles from his home place and only eight days before Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox. Clements was sent to Point Lookout prison where he was finally released on June 26, 1865, after taking the oath of allegiance. In his service records release card, Clements is noted as being dark complected, having black hair, blue eyes, and measuring five feet seven and three quarters inches tall.

In 1870, Clements is listed as a forty-five year old farmer with $800 in real estate. He was living with Alice, who was thirty-seven, who kept house, and who, I assume, was his wife. The couple appears to have had a son, John T. two years old. Also in the household was William W. Clements, a forty year old laborer, and perhaps John's brother.

I have not been able to find when Clements died, but an online source says he is buried in the Smith Grove Methodist Church graveyard. Apparently his birth date was Feb. 9, 1824, but his death date is underground on his tombstone.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Try to Make His Way into the Enemy's Lines


Back about twenty years ago I worked in Bristol, Tennessee, as a branch manger for a car rental company. At that time we covered a rather large geographical market which included a good part of southwest Virginia. I probably spent almost as much time building business referral networks in that part of the Old Dominion as I did in our own backyard. Doing so afforded me the opportunity to often visit the historic towns and villages of the area. Places like Abingdon, Saltville, and Glade Springs retained much of their nineteenth century feel and I always enjoyed looking at the historic homes and buildings when I visited these environs.

When I found editions of the Abingdon Virginian from 1862 through 1864 digitized on the "Chronicling America" database from the Library of Congress, I wondered what I might find with a little browsing. In the December 19, 1862, issue the above runaway slave advertisement caught my eye.

In the notice, Stuart, Buchanan, and Company posted a $25 reward for the capture of Abram, who absconded on November 14, 1862. As the ad mentions, Abram was owned by a Colonel I. N. Clarkson. The enslaved man was likely leased to the Stuart and Buchanan firm as a laborer. Stuart and Buchanan owned the salt production facilities at Saltville in neighboring Smyth County. These entrepreneurs purchased this vital industrial location in the fall of 1861, and soon thereafter signed a contract with the Confederate government to produce a determined quota of salt per month. The firm churned out millions of bushels of salt during the war years. The Stuart part of the company was William A. Stuart, the older brother of famous Confederate cavalryman, J.E.B. Stuart. The horse soldier had other relations in the area as well and had briefly attended nearby Emory and Henry College as a youth before moving on to West Point for his formal education

A great deal of the labor intensive work, which consisted of chopping wood for fuel and transporting the saline rich water to enormous vats for the boiling process to get the salt, was produced by enslaved individuals like Abram.

As the advertisement mentions, Abram had been purchased the previous summer in Charleston, South Carolina, apparently by Col. Clarkson. I am not sure if Clarkson's was an actual military title or a social title. It was common for wealthy Southerners to be called Colonel, Captain, or Major, whether they had served in the military or not. Stuart and Buchanan's notice offered a traditional physical description of the runaway, as well as what Abram was remembered wearing in effort to help potential captors identify the man. They also gave a brief personality identification of Abram as "intelligent." Finally, they offered their view on where Abram may be headed. They thought that he "will, most likely, try to make his way into the enemy's line," as so many other Virginia slave had done in 1862.

This small newspaper advertisement reminds us how vital slave labor was to the new Confederate nation. Without laborers such as Abram, there is little doubt that those type of services would have suffered or required white men to do them, which would have deprived the army of soldier manpower. When slave like Abram started making their way to the Union lines it served as double negative to the Confederates: It not only deprived Southerners of needed labor, it also added workers to the Union's manpower pool. It was (at least in part) the Confederacy's use of slave labor to continue the war that swayed the Union Congress to evolve toward the idea of military emancipation, Lincoln's issuing of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, and final Proclamation a couple of weeks after this notice ran.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Raceland of Dinwiddie County


Keeping with the theme of yesterday's post on horse racing, I thought I'd share one of Dinwiddie County's connections to thoroughbred history.

Located along Old Stage Road in east central Dinwiddie County is a historic house called Raceland, which dates back to the mid-eighteenth century and was first known as Rice's Tavern. It operated as public ordinary in the early days of the county's history. Unfortunately, not much is know about its phase as an inn.

The property eventually came into the possession of noted horseman William Wynn. The turfman constructed a racetrack and stables on the property to make it a full service horse racing and breeding operation. 

Wynn had an interesting connection with yesterday's post, William Ransom Johnson. About 1816, Wynn purchased the three year old Timoleon (sired from the famous thoroughbred Sir Archy) from Greensville County breeder Benjamin Jones. For some reason, perhaps in effort to earn a quick profit, Wynn sold Timoleon as a four year old to William Ransom Johnson's brother, Robert R. Johnson. Remorseful, Wynn sought to buy back Timoleon from Johnson ten days later for a thousand dollars more than Johnson paid for the horse. I was not able to find if Wynn was was successful in his repurchase effort, but apparently the two men worked out some kind of a deal, as Timoleon stood stud at both Wynn's and Johnson's stables before finally being sold to Col. David Dancy. Timoleon went on to sire Boston, who in turn sired the famous Kentucky thoroughbred Lexington.

Wynn appears in the 1820 census as owning thirty slaves, a number of whom most assuredly took care of and trained Wynn's equine property. In 1830, Wynn more than doubled his enslaved community, to sixty-five. By 1840 Raceland was owned by William's son, John M. Wynn. That year's census shows the younger Wynn as owning thirty-five slaves. I was not able to determine if John carried on his father's passion for horse racing or not.


The 1850 census lists the forty-four year old John M. Wynn with an assessed value of $12,000 in real estate, and the slave schedules show him owning thirty-eight slaves. He apparently employed a twenty-eight year old man named William B. Stone as an overseer. By 1860, John's slave holdings slightly dropped, to thirty-four. They lived in eight slave houses. John M. Wynn's 1860 real estate value is not noted, but showed $58, 980 in personal property.

In 1883, Moncure Marshall purchased Raceland and it stayed in the Marshall family for many generations. Today, the handsome home sits adjacent to Old Stage Road with few if any reminders of its horse racing past.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

William Ransom Johnson: Napoleon of the Turf


The changing of seasons from winter to spring often brings about two things for me. The first is the quite unpleasant experience of allergies. I've seemed to avoid this nuisance so far this year (as knocks on wood), but normally, with the budding of trees and growth of grass comes the discomfort of a scratchy throat, coughs, congestion, and itchy eyes. The second, and much more pleasurable than the previous, is horse racing season. Having resided in Kentucky for six years (2009-2015), it only seems natural to start thinking of the pounding of hooves on dirt tracks when spring rolls around.

Kentucky inherited more than its political existence from the mother state of Virginia. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the Old Dominion was viewed as the center of the horse racing universe. Many wealthy Virginia planters spent considerable financial and material resources developing their blooded-stock stables and betting on their own and their friend's horses.

Probably the most famous of Virginia's horsemen was William Ransom Johnson. The man who would later become known as the "Napoleon of the Turf" was born in Warren County, North Carolina in 1782. While still a young man in North Carolina, Johnson became a noted horse breeder and politician. Johnson moved to Virginia before 1818 and continued his occupations in his new residence.


Johnson's noted ability to judging horse flesh brought him a prominence few others could attain. Horse racing was probably the favorite sporting event in the United States during his lifetime, and he was indeed the king of the track. Noted horse enthusiasts such as politicians Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay visited Johnson's Virginia stables and sought out his advice on breeding their stock.

Johnson's horse racing orders were carried out by his large enslaved labor force on his Oakland Plantation in southwestern Chesterfield County, about eighteen miles from Petersburg. The 1830 census notes Johnson as owning 71 slaves. In 1840, he owned 65 slaves. Skilled in working with equine, enslaved individuals served as trainers, grooms, jockeys, and farriers, and those less skilled, as stable laborers. Back last August I shared a document from the Virginia Historical Society, which showed the sales of many of Johnson's slaves and other property to cover the turf master's debts in 1845. The auction was handled by Petersburg commission merchant Thomas Branch, and a number of the slaves were purchased by Petersburg slave trader Henry Davis.

Apparently Johnson met his demise while traveling and staying in Mobile, Alabama. It seems he dies of natural causes. His body was brought back to his beloved Oakland Plantation for burial. Johnson's fondness for betting on races and luxurious lifestyle left many debts to be resolved by his relatives.

One of those family relation connections with Johnson was to future Confederates General John Pegram, and his brother Lt. Col William (Willy) Ransom Johnson Pegram. The Pegram brother's mother, Virginia Johnson Pegram, was William Ransom Johnson's daughter; making the turf man the the soldier brothers' maternal grandfather.

Image of William Ransom Johnson courtesy of the NCpedia.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Fate's Irony: Sgt. Major George F. Polley, 10th Mass. Infantry


George F. Polley seemed to be living a charmed life as a Civil War soldier as the Petersburg Campaign began. A twenty-one year old young man when he enlisted for three years in June 1861 in Springfield, he landed in Company C of the 10th Massachusetts Infantry. The 1860 census indicates that Polley had worked as an "operative" of some sort before the war in Williamsburg, Hampshire County, Massachusetts. He was listed as owning no real estate or personal property wealth in the census. A regimental history states that Polley was a "silver plater" before the war.

During the war, Polley and the 10th Massachusetts certainly saw their fair share of hard fighting in the Army of the Potomac. The 10th fought in the Peninsula Campaign, the Seven Days' Battles, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and Cold Harbor. He apparently proved to be an effective soldier as he received promotions to corporal (October 1862), sergeant (November 1862), and sergeant major (February 1863). Polley's service records indicate that he did not have to endure time in hospitals suffering from disease and illness as many of this comrades had, nor did he experience time in a prisoner of war camp. When Polley's three year enlistment neared, but the war was not yet over, he promptly reenlisted early as a Veteran Volunteer. In doing so he received a thirty-five day furlough.   

However, as Union forces targeted and then assaulted the Confederate defenses of Petersburg, apparently Polley had some premonition of his fate. After those first days of hard fighting east of the Cockade City (June 15-18), things started to settle into stalemate on that part of line. 

The Union army took advantage of the brief quietness on that front to hang a 23rd USCT soldier named William Johnson (see image below), who had been arrested and convicted for desertion and an "attempt to outrage the person of a young lady at New-Kent Courthouse [Virginia]." The sight selected for the execution was near the Jordan House, which would put it very close to where the Petersburg National Battlefield visitor center stands today.


On the morning of June 20, the gallows stood awaiting its victim when the Confederates opened an artillery barrage. Apparently they thought the Federals were hanging a Southern spy within eyesight of their lines, so they lobed a few projectiles in that direction. One of the shells struck Sgt. Major Polley in the stomach, who was attending the hanging as a witness. Polley died almost instantly.

Just before the tragic incident, the 10th had been notified that it was relived of duties and were awaiting orders to head to City Point. The 10th's 1909 regimental history mentions that Polley took the down time before the execution to amuse himself by self-inscribing a headboard, which included the incomplete death date of "June__, 1864," while chatting for a last time with his comrades whom had not reenlisted and were getting ready to head home to Massachusetts. As mentioned above, Polley had signed up as a veteran volunteer, and unknown to him, a lieutenant's commission was on its way. Polley was soon thereafter struck by the shell that killed him. A comrade searched for the carved headboard to use at Polley's hastily dug grave, but soon learned that Polley had split it up minutes before he was hit to use as fuel to boil his morning coffee. The history says that William Winter from Company F carved Polley a new headboard, which was placed on his grave at the City Point cemetery.  

Polley's undelivered commission was for an officer's promotion to become a first lieutenant in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry, which along with the famous 54th Massachusetts, and 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, were the Bay State's African American regiments.

Those soldiers that had reenlisted from the 10th Massachusetts were transferred to the ranks of the 37th Massachusetts Infantry in Edwards's Brigade, Wheaton's Division of the VI Corps. They would fight in the Shenandoah Valley, breakthrough the Confederate defenses at Petersburg on April 2, 1865, battle at Sailor's Creek on April 6, and be present at Appomattox Courthouse for Lee's surrender to Grant on April 9.

George F. Polley image courtesy of American Civil War Research Database.
William Johnson execution image courtesy of the Library of Congress.