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.