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.