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.