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

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Recent Acquisitions to My Library


In attempt to purge some seldom used titles in my library, I conducted a bit of a clean out last week. To help make the sweep, I found three outlets to dispose of about 80 or so books. Some went to a local Goodwill store, some to a used book store (they were rather picky on what they chose to accept), and some were offered as a donation to sell as used books in the gift store at work. Hopefully they find good new homes and benefit the selling organizations as well as the knowledge hungry buyers in some small way.

To help ease the pain of parting with some old friends, I acquired some new ones over the last month or so.


As I posted a couple of weeks back, I was recently able to visit Eppington Plantation with some colleagues from work. While there, my curiosity was piqued by the kin connections between the master families of the Eppes and Wayles, and the enslaved Hemings family. I'm looking forward to learning more about them all in this seemingly comprehensive study.


Civil War soldier studies are some of my favorite reads. This book appears to be a sort of Union-focused companion to J. Tracy Power's Lee's Miserables: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox, which came out in the late 1990s. I received this recently published volume in return for producing a book review on it. From what I've read so far, it will be a joy to read the book and write the review.


I read this book about a decade or so ago on an inter-library loan. I had searched for a copy that was reasonably affordable since then. Fortunately, I recently found one used on Amazon.com in good condition at a low cost and snatched it up. This work contains over 100 letters that African American soldiers wrote to black and abolitionist newspapers about different aspects of their service. Due to the lack of extant family kept letters by USCT soldiers, these missives inform us about black soldiers' Civil War service better than just about any other source. This volume is required reading for those interested in the USCT experience.


Another historical subject that I've always found fascinating is that of Southern honor. This book contains a wealth of intriguing essay titles on many different facets of that subject. I can hardly wait to dive into this work!


Building around the historical incident of the escaped enslaved Virginian Anthony Burns, and the attempt to rescue him from Southern rendition in Boston under the Fugitive Slave Law, the author seeks to show that there were diverse opinions on race relations in mid-nineteenth century Boston. Just as our society today is experiencing conflict and clashes over various ideas about tradition, law and order, and the need for progressive change, so too, did the people in the 1850s North. 

Monday, July 3, 2017

Contraband, Changing Quarters


When I happen across a Civil War-era image that I haven't seen before, particularly one that deals with a subject matter of special personal interest, it is a little bit like Christmas. While searching for the lyrics to the Civil War song "The Colored Volunteer," I found the above image on the "Jubilo! The Emancipation Century" blog, who credited it to The Philadelphia Print Shop, Ltd.

The print shows a young African American man, presumably a slave, riding a magnificent white horse from the right side of the image to the left. Running beside the horse is a canine that is looking up at the rider. The horseman appears to be leaving a military encampment that displays a "Stars and Bars" on the right to a camp floating the "Stars and Stripes." Perhaps the "contraband" rider was a jockey for his former master, as his colorful cap, saddle blanket, and shirt may indicate.

I am not sure if the artist intended the image to be literal or figurative, or possibly, both. Is the escaped slave actually leaving his master (on his master's horse) as a camp servant in the Confederate army to a new life of freedom with the Union forces? Or, does the Confederate encampment represent the Confederate States of America at large? Does the Union garrison symbolize the free labor North? And, does the horse represent the acts of agency that were displayed by thousands of so-called contrabands?

Unfortunately, I was unable to find out much anything about the artist, the publisher, or the date of the image. There are addresses of Hartford, Connecticut and New York on the bottom border of the picture, but I am unable to read what it says before those locations are given. Regardless, the picture provides the viewer with a lot to think about and provides an intriguing interpretation on the situation experienced by thousands of people from 1861-1865.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Petersburg's Sycamore Street - Then and Now


Describing change over time is something that historians specialize in. However, seeing that change through visual images can sometimes have just as much impact as reading a historian's words describing it. 

A few months ago I happened upon the above photograph in the Library of Congress online catalog. It shows Union soldiers on a Petersburg, Virginia, sidewalk and street, some time in 1865. This photograph's particular perspective is that of looking north on Sycamore Street, one of Petersburg's most important commercial thoroughfares. It appears to be only about a block north of Sycamore Street's intersection with Washington Street. 

If one zooms in on the photograph, a few names of business owners can be read on their various shingles. On the left side (west side) of the image is Britton, Todd, and Young, one of Petersburg's many grocers and commission merchants. Beside Britton, Todd, and Young is the hardware and cutlery business of Alfred James. Further north is Burton and Brothers, probably yet another commission merchant. Across the street (east side) is Smyth and Company, yes, another commission merchant. Also, the shingle of William E. Steward, who was a saddle and harness maker. During the Civil War, Steward's son, Powhatan, served in Company E of the 41st Virginia Infantry, a Petersburg raised unit. Visible on the wall on the extreme right of the image is the number 108. I assume this is the address number as it seems to closely correspond with the present-day street address. 


Sycamore Street in 2017 is no longer a dirt street. There are still street lamps, (as a matter of fact they look much like those in 1865) but they are no longer gas powered. There are no longer horses and wagons traveling north and south, rather automobiles of all types dominate Sycamore Street. Commission merchants do not fill the business spaces one hundred and fifty-plus years later. Instead, difficult times have left many of the buildings empty, others house small restaurants, individual businesses of various types, and art shops. Many of the building's street-side facades have changed with the times, too. And some have become stuck in their mid-twentieth century forms. Regardless of their condition and look, elements of Petersburg's Sycamore Street are still visible today and remind us of a century and a half ago, when a different type of enormous change was just starting, that of emancipation.