Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Corporal Miles James - A Superior Soldier


The last few weeks I've been spending the time I normally fill with reading by doing some research on the Battle of New Market Heights for a tour I will be giving on Friday. In the September 29, 1864 battle fourteen African Americans in Brig. Gen.Charles J. Paine's Division in the XVIII Corps earned the Medal of Honor.

To fill in these men's stories I've been searching their service records for information that tell something about their Civil War experience. Most of the fourteen soldiers' records only contain basic data and dates. However, when I paged through the records of Corporal Miles James, who served in Company B of the 36th United States Colored Infantry, I was surprised to find more.  

As for the basic information, James was a thirty-four year old farmer when he enlisted in his regiment. He was five feet, seven inches tall, and was described as "black" complexioned. He was born in Princess Anne County, Virginia, and had enlisted in Norfolk on November 16, 1863. James was officially mustered into service at Fort Monroe on December 28, 1863. No mention is made if he was free before the war, so he was likely enslaved prior to the conflict and Union occupation of southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina.

The 36th USCI was originally designated the 2nd North Carolina Colored Infantry Volunteers. Miles James must have exhibited soldierly qualities early on, as he received his promotion to corporal on February 15, 1864.


James was listed as always present for duty until that fateful September 29, 1864 day. During the charge made by Col. Alonzo Draper's brigade (5th, 36th, 38th USCI), Miles James was shot in the left humerus (upper arm) as he got within thirty yards of the Confederate breastworks. The minie ball that stuck the bone shattered it. Despite this grievous wound, James continued to load and somehow discharge his rifle with one arm, all while urging his comrades onward. The courageous soldier received a field amputation and was sent to a hospital facility at Fort Monroe for recovery. For his bravery James received the Medal of Honor on April 6, 1865. He also received a promotion to sergeant on April 27, and the "Butler Medal."  

Normally such a wound provided a soldier with his ticket home. But Miles James was not an ordinary soldier. His service records contain a letter written by his brigade commander, Col. Alonzo Draper, on February 4, 1865, to the chief surgeon at the hospital at Fort Monroe. It reads:

"Sir - 
Sgt. Miles James, Co. B, 36th U.S.C.I. writes me from your Hospital to urge that he may be permitted to remain in the service.
He lost his left arm in the charge upon New Market Heights, Sept., 29, 1864.
If it be possible, I would most respectfully urge that his request be granted.
He was made a Sergeant and awarded a silver medal by Maj. Gen. Butler, for gallant conduct.
He is one of the bravest men I ever saw; and is in every respect a model soldier.
He is worth more with his single arm, than half a dozen ordinary men.
Being a Sergeant, he will have very little occasion as a file closer to use a musket.
He could be Sergt. of my Provost Guard or Hd. Qtr.Guard, and could do full duty in many ways.
If consistent with your views of duty, I shall be greatly obliged if you can make it convenient to return him to his Regiment.
I have the honor to be 
Very Respectfully
your Obt. Svt.
A. G. Draper
Bvt. Brig. Gen. Comdg."

One might think that the surgeon would dismiss such a request, but it appears that it was honored, because another letter appears in Miles's file. In it Draper issued a special order from "near Petersburg" on April 18, 1865. It reads:
"The following named enlisted man is hereby detailed for duty at these Hed. Qrs. and will report at once - The commanding officer of the 36th U.S.C.I. will furnish him with a sergeant's sword instead of a musket.

Sergt. Myles [sic] James 36 USCI"

Miles James continued to serve until he received a disability discharge on October 13, 1865, at Brazos Santiago, Texas, where his regiment was serving out its enlistment.

As the fictional character Silas Trip, played by Denzel Washington in the film Glory claimed, the USCTs had to prove themselves and "kick in like men." Miles James kicked in like a man, and then a great measure more. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Helping Make Ancestor Connections


If you are like me, too often, you receive those emails from unfamiliar senders that makes one wonder if your spam catcher is up to date or not. But, yesterday I received an unrecognized email in my mailbox that put a genuine smile on my face.

I did not remember seeing the sender's name before, but the title certainly rang a bell. "Corporal Harrison Graham." I figured the email was in relation to my blog, so I searched it and found this post I made back in May 2015.

This lady's email read: "Hello I am Harrison's great great great granddaughter. My mother and I have been wanting to know more about our family and your article took our breath away. I was wondering if may have had any pictures or any information about his wife Sara and their children. Thank you so much!!!"

Finally! One of my objectives for posting these soldier-focused USCT stories was now happily realized. I replied and returned her thanks with appreciation of my own for letting me know that I had helped with a piece of the historical puzzle. And I explained that, unfortunately, I did not have further information on Corp. Graham or his family. Of course, another objective was to bring a measure of attention to these largely forgotten men who gave their lives for the United States. Its seems that I achieved both goals with at least one reader. My day was made. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Recent Acquisitions to My Library


The ties between the Civil War and the Reconstruction eras and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950-60s are indisputable, and fascinating . Curious to learn more about the attempts to restrict integration in nearby Prince Edward County led me to purchase this book. For a time, the county's schools closed their doors rather than allow African American students to attend. This looks to be an educational and inspiring story of the perseverance of the black community in effort to achieve an equal learning opportunity for their children. 


Sgt. Marion Hill Fitzpatrick of the 45th Georgia Infantry was mortally wounded on April 2, 1865, during the Union VI Corps breakthrough, not a couple of stone throws away from where I live. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting Fitzpatrick's descendant and one of the co-editors of this collection of letters when he came to visit the Park for a custom tour. In appreciation, he kindly gifted me a copy. I am sure reading these "Letters to Amanda" will better inform me of yet another common soldier's experience.    


Dr. Stephen Rockenbach of nearby Virginia State University presented a talk on September 16 at the Park on his recently published book. This work examines and compares the experiences of the Ohio River Valley border region communities of Frankfort, Kentucky, and Corydon, Indiana. Having lived in Frankfort for six years I am sure to find many familiar names and issues. While there I developed a fondness of border region scholarship and this book promises to add to that growing field.


I have not posted much the last few weeks or so due to much of my time being consumed with research for a special tour of the New Market Heights battlefield that I will be giving on October 20. I've tried to read as much as I could find on the fight (both primary and secondary sources) which brought distinction to fourteen African American Medal of Honor recipients. This book covers the 5th USCT, which was part of Col. Alonzo Draper's brigade and who made the second and ultimately successful charge of the Confederate earthworks at New Market Heights. Raised in Ohio and made up largely of free men of color, the 5th served in the XVIII Corps and then XXV Corps.


In Tennessee, William G. Brownlow is either hated or loved. In Unionist East Tennessee he brazenly criticized the state and national Confederate governments and often found favor with his fellow natives of the hills. In Middle and West Tennessee, not so much. Brownlow went on to become governor of the state during the early Reconstruction years and then served as a U.S. Senator from the Volunteer State. His hatred toward secessionist for breaking up the Union knew few limits. I've not read much of Brownlow's own writings, so this should be an excellent opportunity to look into the mind of this Southern Unionist. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Different Points of Views Result in Different Accounts


As shown in my last post, there was a great deal of skepticism concerning the black man's combat ability within the Union army. Despite showing well in earlier fights at Battery Wagner, Milliken's Bend, Port Hudson, and the first days of the Petersburg Campaign, many were still not convinced that when faced with fighting Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia' battle-hardened veterans, the USCTs would be measured and found wanting. Others, however, were thoroughly convinced the black soldiers would fight when given an equal chance and were properly led.

Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, commander of the Army of the James, was in the later camp. In fact, in his memoirs, Butler claimed that the fight at New Market Heights was placed almost wholly on the back of the USCTs to show they could take hot fire and not wilt. Butler wanted to prove to the white Union soldiers that they need not worry when fighting alongside blacks.

The United States Colored Troops were of course fighting to abolish slavery. Many of them, even free men of color, felt their race would not advance with the weight of the "peculiar institution" slowing them all down. Many were also fighting to preserve the Union. Black soldiers, especially those from loyal border slave states, were fully aware to the fact that slavery remained in those regions, but with Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, and the Radical Republicans in control of Congress, progress in the United States was slowly being made. But, many black men enlisted, chanced death, and braved shot and shells to prove they were the equal to any man. If they could prove they were men, citizenship and its accompanying political and social rights should come next.

With skepticism rife in the Union army, one can imagine what most Confederate soldiers thought about their African American adversaries and the motivations or (perceived lack there of) of the USCTs. An interesting example of how preconceived notions can cloud one's interpretation of events comes from the Battle of New Market Heights, where fourteen black soldiers showed such courage that they received the Medal of Honor for their actions.

Before the USCT attacks the morning of September 29, 1864 kicked off, they were instructed to fix their bayonets, load their rifles but not prime them with percussion caps. They were instructed to keep moving forward, not matter what happened, not stopping to fire less they break their formations, and take the Confederate earthworks, driving out the defenders.

First, the 750 or so men of 4th and 6th USCT regiments which made up Steven A. Duncan's small brigade went in. They took horrific casualties when they encountered a line of abatis and then a line of chevaux de frise, which broke their formations, slowed them down, and made them perfect targets for the Texans defending the position. Despite losing over 50% killed, wounded, and captured, some continued on up the works, apparently only a few firing occasionally in desperation; most following orders to the end. After about half an hour the handful of white officers no killed or wounded ordered the men to withdraw. Five black soldiers in Duncan's Brigade received the Medal of Honor for their heroism shown in rescuing their flags or rallying men.

The Texans, however, interpreted the black troops's lack of firing differently. Some of the Confederates, not believing that African American men had the steel in their nerves to attack such a fortified position believed that the USCTs were being forced forward by white soldiers. Pvt. Benjamin Fitzgerald of the 5th Texas stated: "When the men learned who were advancing, scorning the use of of breast works, they mounted them and quietly waited their approach. Goaded by the bayonets of the white troops in rear they advanced with great desperation and were slaughtered like sheep." The problem with Fitzgerald's account is that there were no white troops "in rear." The attacking black troops were only later supported by other black troops. I'm sure he could not fathom black men, who he had only known as slaves, could fight like the men at New Market Heights did.

Another interesting statement comes from Thomas L. McCarty of the 1st Texas. He noted about that morning: "Up in our line at break of day, about 5 1/2 o'clock. In a few moments we were heavily engaged, the negroes crossed the second line of abatis, and into the first, when the fight raged for a few minutes, men firing on them at about 25 steps. They soon broke and fled with heavy loss." So far McCarty's account appears to match other accounts, but then he saw something from his view point. McCarty wrote, "They [USCTs] seemed as if they did not know how to use their guns. . . ." The Texan, naturally, did not know the black soldiers had been ordered not to fire, but instead of thinking of that possibility for why they were not shooting, he likely reasoned they had either not been trained properly or were too scared to work their rifles correctly.

During the Civil War the USCTs found themselves in a unenviable position. Doubted by many on their own side and often put in difficult situations to prove their manhood and ability, they were also despised by their enemies, who found any other reason than black bravery to justify USCT displays of courage.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Theodore Lyman's Early View on Black Soldiers


United States Colored Troops faced an enormous uphill battle to gain the respect of some of their white officers. Preconceptions of racial inferiority clouded the ability of many whites, both inside the army and out, to give them a fair chance to prove themselves in battle. When they finally got their opportunity they fought not only to end slavery and preserve the Union, they also sought to wipe away the stain of prejudice and stake a claim to acceptance and equality as men and citizens. One perfect example of this prejudice comes from Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman (pictured on the far right), who served on Maj. Gen. George G. Meade's staff  from the late summer of 1863 to the end of the war.

As the Army of the Potomac kicked off its attempt to destroy Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and capture Richmond, Lyman noted some brief thoughts on a group of black troops he observed following the Battle of the Wilderness. To give Lyman some benefit of doubt, he had yet to see USCTs in combat, as they had not been afforded the opportunity with the Army of the Potomac as yet. He wrote:

"A division of black troops, under General Ferrero, and belonging to the 9th Corps, marched up and massed in a hollow near by. As I looked at them, my soul was troubled and I would gladly have seen them marched back to Washington. Can we not fight our own battles, without calling on these humble hewers of wood and drawers of water, to be bayonetted by the unsparing Southerners? We do not dare trust them in the line of battle. Ah, you may make speeches at home, but here, where it is life or death, we dare not risk it. They have been put to guard the trains and have repulsed one or two little cavalry attacks in a creditable manner; but God help them if the grey-backed infantry attack them!"

Lyman's preconceived thoughts, and probably his limited experiences with African Americans, formed his belief that black troops could not be trusted in battle. Their limited opportunities as free men of color and as enslaved individuals, their imposed subservient status as "hewers of wood and drawers of water," as he referred to them, kept Lyman from thinking that they could stand up to a fierce fight from veteran Confederate infantry. He could not fathom depending upon a black man to stick in line of battle when the bullets and shells started flying and the rebel yell was released.

The Lt. Colonel's doubts proved false when black troops were finally given the chance, and when provided with competent leadership. African American men fought just as well as white soldiers, often while laboring under disadvantaged circumstances like less pay, sometimes with inferior weapons, and often put in unenviable situations, time and time again. The historical record proves it.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Black Barber Who Received the Medal of Honor


On this date 153 years ago, Col. Charles Paine's United States Colored Troops division of the XVIII Corps attacked a fortified position at New Market Heights just southeast of Richmond. Coldly greeting the USCT attack was the famous Texas Brigade, under the command of Gen. John Gregg.

In the vicious fighting that evolved in the early morning hours attacking regiment after attacking regiment went forward only to get shot to pieces. Displays of courage by the black troops were common this day. Eventually fourteen men of color earned the Medal of Honor for their bravery at New Market Heights.

One of the recipients, James H. Bronson, the 1st Sergeant of Company D, 5th United States Colored Infantry was a barber before the war. Bronson's citation states that he "Took command of his company, all the officers having been killed or wounded, and gallantly led it."

Bronson was 25 years old when he enlisted on Independence Day, 1863, at Trumbull County, Ohio. His service records state he was born in Indiana County, Pennsylvania. He was five feet, nine inches tall, with grey eyes and "dark" hair. His complexion is listed as "mulatto." He was promoted to 1st Sergeant on August 23, 1863. However, two months after the fight at New Market Heights he requested to be reduced to the ranks "in order to become a member of brass band of 5th U.S.C.T." Bronson was mustered out of the service on September 20, 1865, at Carolina City, North Carolina.

I was not able to locate Bronson in the 1860 census, but did find him in the 1870 census. In that listing, Bronson still held the occupation of barber. He was 29 and living with his 20 year old wife Ellen, who was born in West Canada. Both are listed as mulatto. They resided at that time Columbiana County, Ohio in the Perry township. No values were listed for the Bronson's real estate or personal property, but no values were for any of the individuals on their page. Interestingly, another mulatto barber, named Thomas Caldwell, lived only a few doors away from Bronson.

United States Colored Troops soldiers came from all walks of life. It did not much matter what they did before the war when it came to combat. On the field of battle men were only judged by what they did or did not do. Bronson and his comrades stood like men on September 29, 1864.

The painting "Three Medals of Honor" by Don Troiani actually depicts men in the 6th USCT who were awarded the Medal of Honor.

Monday, September 25, 2017

"Coloured Barbers" Excluded From Apprentice Prohibition


I've been reading through Drift Toward Dissolution: The Virginia Slavery Debate of 1831-1832, by Alison Goodyear Freehling. This book focuses on the legislative discussions that occurred among the Virginia delegates in the wake of Nat Turner's rebellion. Proposals were issued for different ideas and arguments on gradually phasing out slavery, compensating owners, and colonizing (some for voluntary and some for non-voluntary) free people of color out of the state and nation. A rather strong divide between those in western Virginia and those in the tidewater was clear on the issue of potential gradual emancipation. The westerners were mainly for, and the easterners largely against developing a plan for ending slavery in the Old Dominion.  

One result of all the debate was Bill 18, which was "a bill to amend 'an act reducing into one, several acts concerning slaves, free negroes, and mulattoes,' and for other purposes." In Bill 18 are a number of itemized regulations which sought to further limit African Americans' already highly controlled lives. Just a few examples are:

"No slave, free negro, or mulatto, whether he shall have been ordained, or licensed, or otherwise, shall hereafter undertake to preach, exhort, or conduct, or hold any assembly, or meeting for religious purposes, either in the day time, or at night . . . ."

And

"No free negro or mulatto, shall hereafter be capable of purchasing, or otherwise acquiring title to any real estate of any description, in fee, for life, or for a term longer than _______ year."

And

"No free negro or mulatto, shall be suffered to keep or carry any firelock [firearm] of any time, any military weapon, or any powder or lead; and any free negro or mulatto, who shall so offend, shall, on conviction before a justice of peace, forfeit all such arms and ammunition, to the use of the informer, and shall, moreover, be punished with stripes, at the discretion of the justice, not exceeding thirty-nine lashes."

But, the one that caught my eye was, "no such free negro, or mulatto tradesman, or mechanic, shall, under any circumstances, be hereafter allowed to take apprentices, or to teach their trade, or art, to any other person, except that coloured barbers may take apprentices."  

It is interesting that out of all the occupations that free people of color held, barbers were the only ones excepted from an apprentice ban. This work was of the type that required teaching it to someone before that person gained proficiency, but so did blacksmithing or brick masonry. However, barbering was viewed at that time, and particularly in the slave states, as unsuitable for whites. Although skilled work, it was a servant-type job. Blacksmithing or brick masonry were acceptable for white workers, but not barbering. Thus, it was excluded from apprentice prohibition.

As has been discussed here on many occasion, many black barbers made the most of their slim situation. They turned shaving faces and cutting hair into personal property and real estate assets, and often respected social positions within the black community, before, during, and after the Civil War.      

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Alexander Stephens Gets Grilled, Then Gets Real, Again


In March 1861, Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the newly formed Confederate States of America gave an unplanned speech in Savannah, Georgia. In the speech, the Georgian exclaimed that:

"The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution [slavery] while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the equality of the races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the 'storm came and the wind blew.'

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundation is laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery - subordination to the superior race - is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth." 

Here, early on, Stephens put it our there. He made it clear, at least in his view, what the new Confederacy was based upon. In modern terminology he "kept it real." And, at this point, why not? There had not been a defeat. Shoot, at this point there was barely a Southern army. Military victories and ultimate defeat were in the unforeseen future.

Some five years later, in 1866, Stephens was called before the U.S. Reconstruction Committee, where he was grilled with a series of questions and provided sworn testimony. He was asked at one point what the people of his region thought concerning the justice of the rebellion. Stephens answered that "the exercise of the right of secession was resorted to by them from a desire to render their liberties and institutions more secure, and a belief on their part that this was absolutely necessary for that object." What Stephens was saying here in other words is that Georgians left the union to protect their right to property in slaves. 

Stephens was asked if the people of Georgia have had a change of opinion on the right to secede since the end of the war. The former Confederate vice-president sort of beat around the bush, saying in effect that they had learned their lesson. When asked to clarify if they still believed if they had a right to secede. Stephens said that, "I cannot answer to that." 

When asked about how well secession was supported in 1861. Stephens answered that after Lincoln's call for Northern volunteers the idea was widely supported with "very few exceptions." He claimed that before that particular event the state was very much divided on the practicality of secession. The questioner asked if the ordinance of secession was not passed before Lincoln's call for troops. Stephens answered yes, and that he had previously said the peoples' sentiment was much divided.  

Stephens was also asked if the decision to secede was put to popular vote. He answered that only in that delegates were elected to the secession convention. When asked if it would have made a difference if it had been put to popular referendum rather than delegates, Stephens claimed as things then went with South Carolina, Mississippi, and Florida going out, the people would have voted to secede, too.

The questioner soon got down to brass tacks. He asked "In what particular did the people believe their constitutional liberties were assailed or endangered from the Union." Stephens answered "It was the serious apprehension that if the republican organization, as then constituted, would succeed to power, it would lead ultimately to a virtual subversion of the constitution of the United States, and all essential guarantees of public liberty."  As a followup question the quizzer asked "To what feature of their internal social polity did they apprehend danger?" Stephens, like in 1861, "kept it real" and cut to the chase. He answered, "Principally the subordination of the African race as it existed under their laws and institutions." 

There it is. Secessionists, according to their former vice-president, feared that the then newly elected Republican Party would free enslaved African Americans. They reasoned that if slaves were freed, they would have to be citizens, and if citizens, then they would be political equals in that they could vote and hold office. This was unfathomable to those whites in the slaves states, whether they were a slave owner or not. Secession was ultimately their solution to the problem. They formed their own government where their constitution would be upheld and not subverted by a perceived rouge political party. So they dissolved the Union. And war came.

If you would like to read the full transcript of the questioning session you can access it here.

Image of Alexander Stephens courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Recent Acquisitions to My Library


With my keen interest in free antebellum African American barbers, America's Forgotten Caste, which focuses on free people of color in Virginia and North Carolina, will hopefully introduce me to some of those men I have not previously located. I am looking forward to reading and seeing if the author's interpretation of these states' free black communities are similar to studies I've read about other locations in the South.


When I read it a couple of years ago, I was very impressed with Brian Matthew Jordan's most recent book, Marching Home, which examines Union veterans' post-war struggles. Therefore, I am quite hopeful that his earlier book on the Battle of South Mountain, Unholy Sabbath, will be just as intriguing, informative, and well written.


I've been fortunate to recently receive three books to read for book reviews. The first was Steven Sodergren's recently published study, The Army of the Potomac in the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns, for the Civil War News. I must have turned an acceptable review, because I was soon after asked to read Our Good and Faithful Servant, by Joel McMahon, which looks at the life of the long-termed Georgian U.S. Supreme Court justice James Moore Wayne. Wayne was appointed by Andrew Jackson and served until his death in 1867. Unlike many other Georgians who decided to join the secession camp in 1861, Wayne did not. Southern Unionism is getting to be a rather hot topic in Civil War scholarship and I'm sure some fascinating aspects of Wayne's career will be brought to light in this work.


The most recent book I've been asked to review is Gordon Rhea's much anticipated fifth (and apparently final) volume in his classic Overland Campaign series. Titled On to Petersburg, it covers from the June 4th aftermath of the Battle of Cold Harbor to the first day of the Petersburg Campaign, June 15, 1864. I've thoroughly enjoyed Rhea's previous books on the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna River, and Cold Harbor, and I am confident that this one will follow in that fine tradition. 


If you've been reading my "Random Thoughts" for a while, you've probably noticed I have a fascination with the so-called Fire-Eaters, especially those of South Carolinia. What made the planter politicians of the Palmetto State tick? It almost seems that something was in the water that contributed to their secession fever. Madness Rules the Hour promises to give a new perspective on the state's obsession with secession in the cradle of disunionism, Charleston in 1860.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Happy Labor Day


Today, if possible, take a cue from Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler. Grab your favorite carpet slippers, find a comfy chair, all while breathing in some fresh air, and relax. There will be plenty of work to do tomorrow. Happy Labor Day.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Counting Slave Dwellings


Having some time on my hands one evening last week, I took the opportunity to do some counting. I was curious to see how many slave dwellings the 1860 Slave Schedule Census listed for Dinwiddie County and Petersburg. The 1860 Slave Schedule Census was the first, and the last, census to list the number of slave houses per owner along with slaves' age, gender, and color (black or mulatto).

For the Dinwiddie County part of the census it was quite easy. The county is divided into two districts and named as you might imagine, District 1 and District 2. Each of these districts contain a certain number of pages that enumerate the owner and the number of slave houses for that owner. The census taker for these two districts made it easy for me because each sheet has a place to total the page's number at the bottom each sheet. Simply adding the number of of slave houses on each page gives the total for each district. It came out as the following:

District 1 = 690 slave dwellings

District 2 = 763 slave dwellings

The census taker for the four wards of Petersburg was not so kind to me. He didn't take the time to total the number of slave houses on each page. Therefore, I had to total up the various number of each owners' slave dwellings. It obviously took more time, especially for those wards that had a significant number of pages, such as the South Ward. The four totaled as follows:

Center Ward = 195 slave dwellings

East Ward = 210 slave dwellings

South Ward = 474 slave dwellings

West Ward = 215 slave dwellings

The grand total for Dinwiddie County and city of Petersburg shows as 2,547 slave dwellings. The census shows that there were 12,774 enslaved individuals in the same locations. So, if one divides the number of slaves by the slave dwellings. it comes to an average of about 5 slaves per structure. Naturally, the number of enslaved people in urban slave dwellings were often fewer than those in rural structures.

Today, only a very small percentage of the slave houses listed on the 1860 census survive. It is imperative that we do all that we can to ensure they remain on the landscape. They are after all some of the best pieces of evidence we have to teach us about important aspects of the lives of the enslaved.  

Saturday, August 26, 2017

A Johnny Reb's Political Last Will and Testament

To some the pain that Confederates felt upon being defeated militarily is easy to dismiss. Regardless of whether one sympathizes with the Southern cause, or one feels their decision to secede was unwise and traitorous, the hurt of being beaten on the battlefield was very real to those that served in the ranks.

That pain comes through loud and clear in some of the writings they left. One such account is provided by John Sergeant Wise, son of the Virginia governor, Henry A. Wise, who saw John Brown hanged and became a brigadier general in the Confederate army. John's brother O. Jennings Wise, was a noted honor-bound duelist and pre-war editor of the Richmond Enquirer, who was killed leading Rebel troops at Roanoke Island, North Carolina. John knew sacrifice and loss during the war, but not defeat until the end.

John S. Wise was a cadet at Virginia Military Institute during the war and he participated in May 15, 1864, Battle of New Market where the cadets made their famous charge. After the war, John returned to the home of relatives in Richmond where his mother and sister were staying. In his memoir he remembered sitting on the veranda of the house his first evening back watching what was during the war a loyal Confederate group of young ladies. Now however they were entertaining Union officers serving in Richmond's occupation. He wrote, "We looked upon the conduct of the girls, in making merry, singing, playing, and receiving the attentions of Union officers as grossly indelicate, heartless to our dead and us, and treason to their Confederate comrades."

John tells us he spent a restless night plagued with his thoughts of defeat. He awoke in the morning and penned a scathing political last will and testament:

"I, J. Reb., being of unsound mind and bitter memory, and aware that I am dead, do make, publish, and declare the following to be my political last will and testament.
1. I give, devise, and bequeath all of my slaves to Harriett Beecher Stowe.
2. My rights in the territories I direct shall be assigned and set over, with the bricabrac known as State Sovereignty, to the Hon. J___ R___ T____, to play with for the remainder of his life, and remainder to his son after his death.
3. I direct that all of my shares in the venture of secession shall be canceled, provided I am released from my unpaid subscription to the stock of said enterprise.
4. My interest in the civil government of the Confederacy I bequeath to any freak museum that may hereafter be established.
5. My sword, my veneration for Robert E. Lee, his subordinate commanders and his peerless soldiers, and my undying love for my old comrades, living and dead, I set apart as the best I have, or shall ever have, to bequeath to my heirs forever.
6. And now, being dead, having experienced a death to Confederate ideas and a new birth unto allegiance to the Union, I depart, with a vague but not definite hope of a joyful resurrection, and of a new life, upon lines somewhat different from those of the last eighteen years. I see what has been pulled down very clearly. What is to be built up in its place I know not. It is a mystery, but death is always mysterious. AMEN."

John shared his political last will and testament with his family later that morning at breakfast. They thought it was humorous, but he didn't. "I was dead. Everything that I ever believed in politically was dead. Everybody that I had ever trusted or relied upon politically was dead. My beloved State of Virginia was dismembered, and a new State had been erected out of a part of her, against her will. Every hope that I ever indulged was dead. Even the manhood I attained was dead. I was a mere boy again, - precocious, ignorant, conceited, and unformed."

John eventually gained his bearings and seemingly accepted defeat. He graduated with a law degree from the University of Virginia, was a practicing attorney in Richmond, served a term in the U.S. House of Representatives, and ran for governor - but lost to fellow former Confederate Fitzhugh Lee. He died in 1913 and was buried in Hollywood Cemetery.

Accepting defeat was not easy for the Confederate generation, or their children, or their grand children, or their great grand children, and some still struggle with that defeat to today. Hopefully those that still hold grudges and feel they have to carry their disdain for their ancestor's enemies can find a way to let the defeat go. Many of the original Rebels found a way.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Eclipse and Nat Turner


Well, tomorrow marks the big day. For weeks now, people have been talking about the solar eclipse. Its path has been mapped, folks have purchased special glasses for viewing it, and some organizations and companies are giving time off for their employees to watch the infrequent heavenly occurrence. I don't want to sound like a humbug, but personally I don't get all of the fuss. I suppose it that infrequent thing that grabs most people's attention. I doubt many people will take the eclipse's appearance as an omen or sign, but that was not the case 186 years ago.

Nat Turner grew up enslaved. He knew what it meant to work a hard day. He observed the injustice of slavery, the passionate rages of slave owners, and the physical and mental suffering of African Americans. Through this Nat learned how to read. He felt a spiritual calling and became a preacher. He saw signs in his daily work, and in the heavens, telling him to do something against the injustice.

On February 12, 1831, an eclipse occurred. The path of this eclipse ran across southeastern Virginia, where Nat Turner's Southampton County was located. Like tomorrow, people knew of the eclipse's arrival. Men, women, and children turned out in great numbers to watch the seeming phenomenon in places such as Richmond, Virginia. Well educated people understood that science predicted and explained the eclipse. Most people did not see it as foreboding doom and destruction. However, Nat Turner did.

For Nat Turner the eclipse was a sign for action. In his jailhouse confession given to attorney Thomas Gray, Turner explained "I had a vision - and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened - the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams."

Turner had previous visions. As a young man he ran away for a time. Upon his return he explained that a vision told him to return to his earthly master. Later, he saw lights in the sky and had a vision of "blood on the corn, as though it was dew from heaven." He also saw messages in the leaves of the woods. Later he had a vision that he had been chosen to lead a fight where the "first shall be last and the last shall be first," and that he would receive a sign from the heavens telling him to start the work assigned to him.

That sign for Turner came in the form of the February 12, 1831 eclipse. He told those fellow slaves he felt he could trust that the time would arrive on the coming Fourth of July. Turner was ill when Independence Day rolled around. The rebellion was delayed. But an atmospheric occurrence on August 12, which turned the sky into a odd color, prompted Turner to see this as yet another sign to commence the job of overturning slavery. In the early hours of August 21, Turner and his followers started killing white men, women, and children on area farms and plantations. When it was all said and done about sixty whites were dead by the hands of Turner and his band.

White response was swift and decisive. Most of Turners followers were killed or captured by local men and militia troops, and although Turner escaped capture for about two months, he was apprehended by a local farmer named Benjamin Phipps. Turner was held in a Jerusalem (now Cortland) jail where he gave an account of his life and the events of the rebellion to Thomas Gray. After tired and being convicted, he met his death by hanging on November 11, 1831.

The Nat Turner rebellion put whites in the slave states on high alert. Their worst nightmares were realized. Virginia debated potential gradual emancipation in the wake of the affair, but decided instead to enact more stringent legislation directed at the enslaved as well as free people of color.

 Nat Turner's rebellion was yet another historical event that helped create and widen the split between the North and South over the issue of slavery and put the nation on the path toward civil war.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

James Redpath at Point of Rocks


Recently, while re-browsing through The Roving Editor, or Talks with Slaves in the Southern States by James Redpath, I came across his mention of staying in Chesterfield County in 1854. If you are not familiar with Redpath, he was a avid abolitionist, who traveled incognito into the slave states and wrote back to the New York Tribune on his observations.

But back to Chesterfield County. On his travels through the area he met the hospitality of John Alexander Strachan, who owned a plantation at Point of Rocks, which is on the north side of the Appomattox, just as short distance down stream from Petersburg. While there Redpath didn't mention his host by name in his writing. Instead, I suppose to protect the anonymity of his information source, the reporter called him "Mr. S------n, a planter and Baptist preacher." Redpath went on to tell his readers that Strachan owned "a farm of six hundred acres overlooking the Appomattox River. He has some thirty slaves, old and young."

Curious to learn more about Strachan, I looked him up in the 1860 census. He wasn't easy to find in the free schedules, but he was easy to find in the slave schedules. Lo and behold, he is shown as owning thirty-one slaves on his plantation and had four others on a neighbor's farm. The thirty-one on Strachan's land lived in three slave dwellings.

Strachan did not come up when I searched the free schedules. And, I found out why. After browsing through 103 pages of a total of 114 for the Southern District of Chesterfield County, I finally found him. His name was misspelled as Straughn. He is shown as a forty-five year old farmer with 17,000 in real estate and 24,833 in personal property. Also in the household is his much younger wife, twenty eight year old "E.", their six year old son, John Jr., and two year old son "B." This information was corroborated with that found on a couple of family history web pages.

Redpath mentions his conversation with Strachan about slaves and "Farming Utensils." He wrote:
"Mr. S. walked down his farm with me in the morning. I noticed a hoe, which was heavier, at least, than half a dozen Northern ones, and asked why he made them so clumsy.

He [Strachan] said they were obliged to make everything heavy that negroes handled. If you gave a slave a Northern hoe or cradle in the morning, he would be sure to break it before night, and probably in less than two hours. You couldn't make them [slaves] careful. Besides, he said, they preferred heavy implements; you could not get them to use an axe that was less than six pounds weight. They said that it tired them more to use a light axe or hoe.

I [Redpath] remembered, somewhere, to have heard of a slave who objected to the use of a light hoe, 'kase' he grumbled, 'you has to put out your strength every time you puts it down, and in a 'Ginny [Virginia] hoe it goes into the ground, jest so, by its own weight.'

Mr. S. said, he believed this was the real objection which the negro had to the Northern hoe.

I noticed the great size of his fields - one was over fifty acres. He said they called that a small field here."


A few years ago Chesterfield County purchased the Strachan house (pictured above), which was built about 1840 and its surrounding acreage. The lands of Point of Rocks became an important and strategic site during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign. A large hospital complex developed on Strachan's land around the house, which even hosted the famous Clara Barton in 1864. It is my understanding that Chesterfield County is interested in restoring the house to its period appearance as funds become available. I was fortunate enough to visit it a couple of years ago while on a National Park Service Historian's tour of the Bermuda Hundred Campaign. Chesterfield County offers tours of this historic location every so often, so if you get an opportunity to see the Point of Rocks site, please do so and help support their preservation efforts.

Historic photograph of Point of Rock courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Photograph of the Strachan House taken by the author June 2015.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Recent Acquisitions to My Library


While I gained a much better understanding of Civil War medicine from reading Shauna Devine's Learning from the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of American Medical Science, that volume focused on the efforts doctors went to document and gather knowledge from all of the deaths caused by both Civil War battlefield wounds and diseases. I am hopeful that Civil War Medicine: Challenges and Triumphs will particularly include additional information and define the symptoms of the many camp diseases soldiers suffered from. 


If you've read many of my posts over the past several years, you probably know that I find anything related to John Brown fascinating. Just about every phase of the life of "Old Brown" has been examined rather thoroughly, other than his final days. Now with this volume by Louis DeCaro, Jr., even that topic has finally received the coverage it has so long deserved. I am looking forward to learning more about Brown's days in his Charles Town, Virginia, jail cell and his trip to the gallows. Myth has shrouded much of Brown's last days, but if DeCaro's other works on Brown are any indication, he will present solid evidence to help debunk those with this work.
  

A couple of years ago while making several trips back and forth from Kentucky to Virginia, I listened to The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks on audio CD. I found it an intriguing novel about some of the people affected by the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee. If not totally based in fact, it was a rather good story. Hicks follows up The Widow of the South with a postwar story by following some of the same into the Reconstruction years.


So much of the interest in Civil War memory studies centers on how Americans have chosen to honor the dead of our nation's greatest tragedy since the guns fell silent. The loss of so much life and the need to commemorate their deaths naturally tears off the scabs of healing and exposes raw nerves, often limiting the success of reconciling the belligerent sections. Memorialization efforts and commemoration services still trouble us into the 21st century with many questions of inclusion, exclusion, unification, and division.


When I came across this title, my first thought was what a great subject for historical examination. My next thought was, why hasn't anyone explored this topic before? You don't have to read too many soldier's letters to encounter one that mentions the darkness they experienced, the sleep they were often deprived of, and the dreams of loved ones back on the home front. Dr. White, a professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, has graciously agreed to come to give a talk on this book at Pamplin Historical Park on October 7, so I'm looking forward to both reading the book and hearing his presentation on this fascinating subject.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

"Anti-Slavery Jeremiads"


Seeking a Southern perspective on the Brooks-Sumner caning affair (May 22, 1856), I found an interesting editorial in the Richmond Enquirer in the May 27, edition under the headline "Anti-Slavery Jeremiads."

"The attempts of the Northern Abolitionists, in their numerous meetings, to make a martyr of Charles Sumner on account of his richly deserved thrashing for his foul-mouthed insolence and filthy slanders upon the South and her best and purest sons, cannot fail to produce an intense disgust in the communities where such ridiculous demonstrations have taken place. Is a man, because he happens to wear and to disgrace Senatorial robes, privileged to play the slanderer with impunity, and to go unwhipped of justice. however atrocious his conduct may have been? We do not so read the Constitution nor the spirit of our political and social institutions. It is undoubted that Mr. Brooks, impelled by the highest motives, sought to punish the offender elsewhere than in the Senate Chamber, but circumstances prevented him. Where was the mighty wrong in inflicting the punishment in the Senate chamber, which was then like any other place, as the body was not in session? The proposition adopted by the Massachusetts abolitionists, that the House should expel Mr. Brooks, is the most ridiculous that can be imagined. The good sense of the nation will soon regard the whole matter in its true light, and the people will view with disgust an attempt to create an awful excitement throughout the confederacy, because Senators, who outrage decency and propriety, are punished as they deserve. The attempt to make a martyr of Sumner will prove a monstrous abortion."

It is easy to see that the Enquirer felt Brooks was justified in his actions due to the slanders Sumner heaped upon Brooks's kinsman, South Carolina Senator Andrew Pickens Butler. The paper felt that no one, no matter their class or status was above being checked for egregious verbal outrages, especially when directed at one who was not present to make a defense. It mattered little to them that the incident occurred on the floor of the Senate, especially since it was not in order at the time of the incident. The editor felt that Brooks should not face censure from the body of the House of Representatives, and that in their line of thinking, reason would prove them correct when passions died down and the situation was carefully considered.

However correct the Enquirer was in the eyes of Southerners, they were totally wrong from Northerners' perspective. Sumner did become a martyr. From Kansas to Boston, antislavery proponents used the caning incident as motivation to strengthen their fight against the "peculiar institution."

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

An Unreconstructed Eulogy for Benjamin Butler

Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler was among the most hated of Union officers by Southerners. His role in refusing to return runaway slaves very early in the war helped speed the institution to its ultimate death. His issuing of Order No. 28 while commanding the occupation of New Orleans earned him the nickname "Beast Butler." And his praise for African American troops at the Battle of New Market Heights, along with his commissioning of a medal to honor their bravery brought the disdain of Confederates far and wide.

Recently a most unreconstructed eulogy which was printed in the Nashville American was shared with me. I thought it provided an important perspective of how some former Confederates carried their hatred toward their enemies forward years after the war. Butler died in 1893, almost thirty years after the Civil War.

"Old Ben Butler is dead! Early yesterday morning the angel of death, acting under the devil's orders, took him from earth and landed him in hell. In all this Southern country there are no tears, no sighs and no regrets. He lived only too long. We are glad he has at last been removed from earth and even pity the devil the possession he has secured.

If there is a future peace in store for Ben Butler, after his entrance upon eternity, then there is no heaven and the Bible is a lie. If hell be only as black as the good book describes it, then there is not the degrees of punishment in which some Christians firmly believe. He has gone, and from the sentence which which has already been passed upon him there is no appeal. He is already so deep down in the pit of everlasting doom that he couldn't get the most powerful ear trumpet conceivable to scientists and hear the echoes of old Gabriel's trumpet, or fly 1,000,000 kites and get a message to St. Peter, who stands guard at heaven's gate.

 In our statue books many holidays are decreed. It was an egregious oversight that one on the occasion of the death of Ben Butler was not foreordained. The 'Beast' is dead. The cymbals should beat and the tin horn should get in its work."

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Kansas Meeting in Petersburg - May 7, 1856


I've been on a bit of a "fire-eater" kick with my reading choices here lately. I just finished reading Eric H. Walther's William Lowndes Yancey and the Coming of the Civil War, and have just started Holt Merchant's South Carolina Fire-Eater: The Life of Laurence Massillon Keitt, 1824-1864. For those unfamiliar with the term, fire-eaters were radical secessionists, who often based their claims for Southern independence on the need to preserve and expand the system of slave labor.

During the 1850s there was not an issue more strongly argued by the proponents and enemies of slavery than the country's expansion into the western territories. Would slavery be allowed to spread into new territories, or would it be limited? That was the big question on everyone'e mind. The Missouri Compromise (1820-21) solved the issue for about thirty years, but California's admission, and then the desire to construct a transcontinental railroad promoted Kansas and Nebraska as new territories. Fire-eaters had little hope for gaining both territories as future slave states, but many Southerners believed that Kansas was vital to their interests; for if Kansas became free it was believed Missouri would not be able to retain its status as a slave state being surrounded on three sides by free states. Lose Kansas and Missouri to free labor and congressional power would weaken in the House of Representatives and Senate was their slippery slope way of thinking. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed for the people of those territories to determine by vote whether they would be free or slave labor. Popular sovereignty was the watchword. As one might imagine this decision led to many episodes of voter fraud and spawned significant violence, which led the territory to become known as "Bleeding Kansas."

Meeting in cities across the South, pro-slavery advocates attempted to organize financial and practical support for settlement of Kansas by those of their political thinking. On May 7, 1856, at Mechanics Hall (shown above), which stood at the corner of Sycamore and West Tabb Streets in Petersburg, Virginia, a Kansas meeting convened which included a speech by South Carolina Congressman Laurence Keitt, who made the trip down from Washington D.C. to be in attendance. It would be less than three weeks later that Keitt would watch as his fellow South Carolina congressman, Preston Brooks, beat with his cane Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner over the head and shoulders and into a bloody mess on the Senate floor.

At the Mechanics Hall meeting the Kansas Association was formed who passed several resolution, which were printed in the Richmond Enquirer on May 13, 1856. They began by stating: "Whereas, Abolition Societies in the Northern States are now engaged in strenuous efforts to deprive the people of the South of their just and equal rights in the territory of Kansas, and with force and arms are attempting to overawe the authorities, and resist the laws thereof, now to counteract these efforts and maintain those rights . . .," and listed a number of resolutions.

The second resolution read: "That the attempts of organized Societies from any section of the Union to seize upon the territory of the United States, for the purpose of excluding therefrom citizens of other sections holding negro slavery property, is contrary to law and right, and in violation of the Constitution of the United States, and it is the duty of the citizens of the slave-holding States and all others to resist such attempts."

The next resolution called for any Virginian who emigrated to Kansas to assist in the suppression of "insurrections and rebellions." Another resolution called upon the people of the Commonwealth to give aid to the "objects of the Convention" and to "contribute promptly the means necessary thereof."

The Kansas Association called themselves "THE FRIENDS OF KANSAS." They established an executive committee of seven, who would document those willing to emigrate to Kansas, when they left, and how they were traveling. Emigrants willing to go had to pledge that they were in favor of making "Kansas a Slaveholding State" and that they would remain in the territory until it became a state in the Union. Each emigrant on reaching Kansas would be paid $50 by the association. The emigrants would receive an extra $10 for each slave they took with them to help settle the territory.

Also outlined were the responsibilities of the executive committee and its chairman. And it stated that if other Kansas associations in other parts of the state wished, they could become affiliated with "THE FRIENDS OF KANSAS" group.

The resolutions closed by requesting that all newspapers in the state publish the resolutions. The executive committee included some of the most wealthy and influential men in the Richmond/Petersburg/Southside Virginia region: Richard. K. Meade (U.S. Minister to Brazil), George W. Bolling (Gentleman), Thomas Gholson (Judge of Circuit Court), John W. Syme, all from Petersburg; and James Lyons, William H. McFarland, and James S. Seddon (Goochland County Lawyer and future Secretary of State of the Confederacy), all from the Richmond area. John R. Chambliss (Greensville County Attorney at Law) was the chairman and James Boisseau (Petersburg Commission Merchant) was the secretary of the association.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

A Visit to Fort Monroe


Last Thursday, I was fortunate enough to join in on the National Park Service Historian's Tour of Fort Monroe and the Mariner's Museum in Hampton and Newport News respectively.

I had never visited Fort Monroe before, so I was especially looking forward to that particular stop. This site's historical association with slavery in America is truly unique. It was here at Old Point Comfort in 1619 that the first Africans designated for labor in the recently established English colony arrived aboard a Dutch man-of-war.


It was also at Fort Monroe that many historians date the beginning of the end of slavery in the United States. In May 1861, three enslaved men; Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Sheppard Mallory, who all belonged to a local man in Confederate service made their way by rowboat across the bay from Norfolk to Fort Monroe, then under the command of Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler. When their owner came to claim the men, Butler, a politician and lawyer before the war, claimed that since the owner was a citizen of Virginia and that Virginia had seceded from the Union, Butler was under no obligation to return the men under the direction of the Fugitive Slave Law. Butler instead claimed that since the men were working on Confederate defenses they were considered "contraband" of war and to be retained by the Union forces in occupation of Fort Monroe. Word soon got out and what began as a drip of fugitive slaves arriving at "Freedom's Fortress," quickly developed into a stream and then a flood, as thousands of Virginia slaves first claimed their liberty at Fort Monroe.

Butler's decision helped influence Congress's passing of the First and Second Confiscation Acts and the Militia Act of 1862, which in turn influenced Lincoln's preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and final Emancipation Proclamation. These, along with Union victory led to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865, which ultimately abolished slavery in the United States.


As the historical maker above notes, two United States Colored cavalry regiments, as well as regiment of black light artillery were raised from Fort Monroe men. Fort Monroe also served as the kick off point for both the Peninsula Campaign in the spring of 1862 and the campaigns in the winter of 1865, which eventually conquered defiant Fort Fisher at Wilmington, North Carolina.


Although this location was first fortified in 1609, a concerted effort constructed what would become Fort Monroe from 1819-1834, which was named for president James Monroe. A young Robert E. Lee, recently graduated from West Point, was stationed at Fort Monroe from 1831-1834 to direct the fort's continuing construction. His period brick quarters now serves as the National Park Services headquarters.

Finally, Fort Monroe was also the location that Confederate president Jefferson Davis was incarcerated for two years after his capture in May 1865. First held in a casemate cell,  Davis was later moved to a building on the grounds of the fort.

On our brief tour we were able to visit one of the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century concrete batteries (Battery DeRussy) north of Fort Monroe, as well as the Chapel of the Centurion, which was constructed in the late 1850s. We did not have time to visit the Casemate Museum, so I suppose I will have to make a return trip when I can spend some more time learning greater details of this fascinating historic site.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A Virginia Killing - Honor or Argument?


At work our guests have the opportunity to learn about the two generations of the Boisseaus who lived on Tudor Hall plantation, which once dominated the grounds of the historic site. William E. Boisseau and Athaliah Keziah Wright Goodwyn Boisseau married in 1808 in Greensville County and bought the Dinwiddie County land that would eventually develop into Tudor Hall plantation in 1810. Between 1809 and 1830, William and Athaliah eventually had seven children. Their oldest son, William, Jr., has me somewhat intrigued.

Perhaps why I find him so interesting is because the more information that I find on him, the more he seems to be the quintessential antebellum Southerner. William Jr. was born in either 1809 or 1810. His occupation developed into being that of physician, but I have yet to determine where he was educated. At about 27 years of age (in 1837) William married Julia B. Grigg. The wedding was on March 15, 1837. It was less than a year after their union day that a tragedy occurred.

On Christmas Eve, 1837, a group of men met at the home of Mrs. Elizabeth Grigg to determine what happened in an incident that resulted in the death of George K. T. Lanier. The record states that " . . . we the jury summoned for the purpose of examining the dead body of George K. T. Lanier lying in the house of Mrs. Elizabeth B. Grigg, report accordingly to the evidence before us, and also a strict examination of the body, are satisfactorily convinced that the said Lanier came to his death by a ball received out of a pistol in his left side, between the seventh and eighth rib on the evening of the 21st instant by the hand of William E. Boisseau."

So, what happened to prompt Boisseau to shoot and mortally wound Lanier? I'm not sure at this point. Perhaps it was a family matter. Did it involve a threat to William's honor? I was not able to find much on George K. T. Lanier except that one reference listed him as being born in 1804 and married to Elizabeth Grigg. This same reference had a note that Lanier had purchased land in Fayette County, Tennessee, in February 1837, and that he had returned to Petersburg where he was shot and killed.

I am hoping I can locate a newspaper story that might clarify this whole situation. Was Lanier indeed William's not much older father-in-law? Did they have some dispute that led to the shooting and death of Lanier? Was William tried in court for the killing?

If William was tried of the murder then it seems he beat a conviction because it was seemingly soon thereafter that William and Julia relocated to Autauga County, Alabama. It was at this time that many Virginians were moving into the rapidly expanding cotton empire of the Old Southwest in anticipation of gaining favorable opportunities. But, did the incident with Lanier also influence the move?

The 1840 census shows William in Autauga County with wife, a female child, and three enslaved individuals. I was also able to locate William in the 1850 census. He is shown as in Wetumpka, Alabama (Autauga County) with real estate worth $3000. That year's slave schedule lists William as owning thirteen slaves consisting of nine males and four females and ranging in age from fifty years old to three months old.

I also found William's last will and testament. It was dated November 5, 1853. He died January 3, 1854. Perhaps Julia shortly preceded him in death as the will does not mention her, but leaves all of his possessions to their children: Octavia, Ella, William F., Julia A., Adrian, and Martha Eliza. The possessions listed also included sixteen slaves, named: Kathy, Inda, John, Rosena, Hillard, infant child of Rosena not named, Maria, Milly, Yellow Maria, Moses, Charles, Davy, Stephens, Lewis, Harrell, and Rick. William named Thomas B. Grigg as his will's executor. Thomas Grigg was Julia's brother. Doing another search, I found that Thomas, a physician like William, had studied medicine at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky.

William's death on January 3, 1854, is unexplained. Did he die of a disease or some other natural cause? I would certainly be interested if anyone can fill in the holes and answer any of the questions I pose above. I am going to try to find any newspaper reference to the 1837 killing, and if I am so fortunate to find something, I will be sure to share it here.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Passion and Property

On occasion, while leading tours that discuss slavery and plantation management, I've had people mention that all of the talk about slave owners abusing their slaves is way overblown. In their line of thinking, masters, logically, would not harm their slaves because doing so would be injurious to the master's own self interest. I've even heard some individuals provide modern-day examples to emphasize their point. In that line of thinking a farmer might invest a whole lot of money into a piece of equipment that will help make his goal of harvesting as many crops as possible a reality. For example, a pickup truck to the modern farmer would certainly present a certain upfront expense, but one that could be offset through its beneficial use to help do what he or she needs accomplished. Similarly, a slave, to the antebellum farmer/planter was definitely an expensive investment, but one that would do the labor necessary to help make the farm/plantation be profitable.

On the surface, and perhaps even in many instances, that idea probably ringed true. However, what is missing is the important notion of human nature. I think that if we are all being true to ourselves it is not difficult to admit that we have all experienced moments of extreme frustration, embarrassment, perceived danger, and even moodiness that influence our actions in ways that are not in our usual character. Many things have changed since slavery's days, but plenty of documentary evidence provides proof positive that people during the antebellum era struggled with their emotionally-influenced actions just as much as we do today.

If one wakes up on the proverbial "wrong side of the bed," and someone happens to provide a trigger word or action, that someone or something is usually going to receive a manifestation of that ill mood. There are fewer frustrating occupations that those that are agriculturally based. Whether dealing with not enough rain, too much rain, too little time, too many obligations pulling in too many directions, too many damaging pests or uncooperative draft animals and livestock, the farmer's world is one filled with worry, distraction, and disgruntlement. Too often those frustrations manifested itself in abusive actions toward those people in one's proximity, particularly when those people that are nearest are perceived as inferior and property. Passion too often overruled logic and self-interest, just as it does today. Does not the modern farmer sometimes drive his or her expensive pickup truck too hard and over too rough terrain than common sense should allow when he or she receives some bad news? Does not the modern farmer kick the valuable tractor when frustration gets the best of him or her? It was not so different in many respects in the era of antebellum slavery.  

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Mapping the Fourth of July


How did Americans celebrate Independence Day when their nation was falling apart? That's the big question the Mapping the Fourth of July project seeks to answer from multiple perspectives.

Last Tuesday, at work we were fortunate to host Dr. Paul Quigley, who is the James I. Robertson, Jr, Associate Professor of History at Virginia Tech. Quigley, interestingly enough is a native of Great Britain. He shared his research through an engaging presentation about how black and white Northerners and Southerners recognized Independence Day before, during, and after the Civil War. He also provided some information on the Mapping the Fourth of July project, which he is leading, along with members in the Virginia Tech Computer Science, Education, and Library departments.

The project's website, which is located at www.july4.civilwar.vt.edu contains thousands of primary sources that give great insight into how this special holiday was celebrated and the meanings placed upon it by those who celebrated it. But, more than that, it is a website designed for educators to use these documents with their students to help foster historical and critical thinking skills.

The Mapping the Fourth of July project needs your help though. They are seeking individuals and organizations who can help contribute to and transcribe their vast amount of primary sources so that they can be of greater use and to make them easier to locate. This crowd sourcing initiative allows for folks to not just transcribe, but also tag, connect, and discuss the sources.

If you have some spare time to contribute to this worthy project, please do, it will only help us all better understand another aspect of how the Civil War was experienced both on the battlefield and on the home front.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Mattoax Plantation


About a month or so ago I enjoyed reading David Johnson's John Randolph of Roanoke, an informative biography on the acerbic Virginia statesman. In the book the author mentioned Randolph's early formative years being spent at his father's Mattoax plantation in south Chesterfield County. I had driven by the above highway historical marker on River Road between the towns of Matoca and Ettrick many times on "backway" trips to Colonial Heights, but never took the time to stop and read the sign until today while out running some errands.

In 1769, John Randolph, Sr. married Frances Bland, joining two prominent colonial Virginia families. Their marriage produced four children: Richard, Theodorick, John Jr., and Jane, who died as an infant. John Jr., was born at Cawsons in 1773, his mother's family plantation in Prince George County on the Appomattox River. 

The Randolphs had acquired lands through John Sr.'s father, Richard Randolph. Vast plantations (about 40,000 acres total) such as Mattoax in Chesterfield County, Bizarre in Prince Edward County, and Roanoke in Charlotte County, helped maintain the family wealth and provide opportunities for education and influence among Richard Randolph's male grandchildren.

John Sr. died in 1775 at a young thirty-three years of age. Frances, ten years younger, and now a widow of means, was left twenty-four slaves and the Mattoax lands in John Sr.'s will. However, Frances married St. George Tucker three years after John's death. That union produced six children, the last of who, Henrietta Eliza, was born in 1787. Frances's rapid rate of births with her last six children must have been difficult on her physically, as she passed away less than a month after Henrietta Eliza was born.

At Mattoax John Jr. grew up as many boys of privilege did during that time. He hunted, fished, ran through the fields and forests, mastered horsemanship, and prompted by his mother, developed a love of reading and learning. In 1781, when a British threat came to Chesterfield County, Frances and the children fled west to Bizarre, before returning to Mattoax where she died and was buried beside John Sr.. John Jr. made it home from his studies at Princeton to be by his mother's side before she passed. She had earlier told John Jr. to always value and keep his lands.


John Jr. was elected to the U.S. Congress from his district in 1799, and served a number of terms until his death in 1833. Described as an eccentric and often the center of argument and combativeness on Capitol Hill, Randolph fought a duel with Henry Clay in 1826. Both John, and his brother, Richard, made provisions in the wills to free their hundreds of slaves on their Roanoke and Bizarre plantations, and provided funds and or lands for them to settle on after their emancipation. 

Today some of the former Mattoax plantation lands are part of the Randolph Farm, an agricultural research and experimentation farm that is part of Virginia State University, a historically black institution of higher learning. One wonders if John Randolph of Roanoke would be surprised at what became of his boyhood home lands, or if he would be pleased with its development into a place of learning for thousands of African American students over the years. 

Image of John Randolph of Roanoke courtesy of the Library of Congress