Monday, February 27, 2017

Try to Make His Way into the Enemy's Lines


Back about twenty years ago I worked in Bristol, Tennessee, as a branch manger for a car rental company. At that time we covered a rather large geographical market which included a good part of southwest Virginia. I probably spent almost as much time building business referral networks in that part of the Old Dominion as I did in our own backyard. Doing so afforded me the opportunity to often visit the historic towns and villages of the area. Places like Abingdon, Saltville, and Glade Springs retained much of their nineteenth century feel and I always enjoyed looking at the historic homes and buildings when I visited these environs.

When I found editions of the Abingdon Virginian from 1862 through 1864 digitized on the "Chronicling America" database from the Library of Congress, I wondered what I might find with a little browsing. In the December 19, 1862, issue the above runaway slave advertisement caught my eye.

In the notice, Stuart, Buchanan, and Company posted a $25 reward for the capture of Abram, who absconded on November 14, 1862. As the ad mentions, Abram was owned by a Colonel I. N. Clarkson. The enslaved man was likely leased to the Stuart and Buchanan firm as a laborer. Stuart and Buchanan owned the salt production facilities at Saltville in neighboring Smyth County. These entrepreneurs purchased this vital industrial location in the fall of 1861, and soon thereafter signed a contract with the Confederate government to produce a determined quota of salt per month. The firm churned out millions of bushels of salt during the war years. The Stuart part of the company was William A. Stuart, the older brother of famous Confederate cavalryman, J.E.B. Stuart. The horse soldier had other relations in the area as well and had briefly attended nearby Emory and Henry College as a youth before moving on to West Point for his formal education

A great deal of the labor intensive work, which consisted of chopping wood for fuel and transporting the saline rich water to enormous vats for the boiling process to get the salt, was produced by enslaved individuals like Abram.

As the advertisement mentions, Abram had been purchased the previous summer in Charleston, South Carolina, apparently by Col. Clarkson. I am not sure if Clarkson's was an actual military title or a social title. It was common for wealthy Southerners to be called Colonel, Captain, or Major, whether they had served in the military or not. Stuart and Buchanan's notice offered a traditional physical description of the runaway, as well as what Abram was remembered wearing in effort to help potential captors identify the man. They also gave a brief personality identification of Abram as "intelligent." Finally, they offered their view on where Abram may be headed. They thought that he "will, most likely, try to make his way into the enemy's line," as so many other Virginia slave had done in 1862.

This small newspaper advertisement reminds us how vital slave labor was to the new Confederate nation. Without laborers such as Abram, there is little doubt that those type of services would have suffered or required white men to do them, which would have deprived the army of soldier manpower. When slave like Abram started making their way to the Union lines it served as double negative to the Confederates: It not only deprived Southerners of needed labor, it also added workers to the Union's manpower pool. It was (at least in part) the Confederacy's use of slave labor to continue the war that swayed the Union Congress to evolve toward the idea of military emancipation, Lincoln's issuing of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, and final Proclamation a couple of weeks after this notice ran.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Raceland of Dinwiddie County


Keeping with the theme of yesterday's post on horse racing, I thought I'd share one of Dinwiddie County's connections to thoroughbred history.

Located along Old Stage Road in east central Dinwiddie County is a historic house called Raceland, which dates back to the mid-eighteenth century and was first known as Rice's Tavern. It operated as public ordinary in the early days of the county's history. Unfortunately, not much is know about its phase as an inn.

The property eventually came into the possession of noted horseman William Wynn. The turfman constructed a racetrack and stables on the property to make it a full service horse racing and breeding operation. 

Wynn had an interesting connection with yesterday's post, William Ransom Johnson. About 1816, Wynn purchased the three year old Timoleon (sired from the famous thoroughbred Sir Archy) from Greensville County breeder Benjamin Jones. For some reason, perhaps in effort to earn a quick profit, Wynn sold Timoleon as a four year old to William Ransom Johnson's brother, Robert R. Johnson. Remorseful, Wynn sought to buy back Timoleon from Johnson ten days later for a thousand dollars more than Johnson paid for the horse. I was not able to find if Wynn was was successful in his repurchase effort, but apparently the two men worked out some kind of a deal, as Timoleon stood stud at both Wynn's and Johnson's stables before finally being sold to Col. David Dancy. Timoleon went on to sire Boston, who in turn sired the famous Kentucky thoroughbred Lexington.

Wynn appears in the 1820 census as owning thirty slaves, a number of whom most assuredly took care of and trained Wynn's equine property. In 1830, Wynn more than doubled his enslaved community, to sixty-five. By 1840 Raceland was owned by William's son, John M. Wynn. That year's census shows the younger Wynn as owning thirty-five slaves. I was not able to determine if John carried on his father's passion for horse racing or not.


The 1850 census lists the forty-four year old John M. Wynn with an assessed value of $12,000 in real estate, and the slave schedules show him owning thirty-eight slaves. He apparently employed a twenty-eight year old man named William B. Stone as an overseer. By 1860, John's slave holdings slightly dropped, to thirty-four. They lived in eight slave houses. John M. Wynn's 1860 real estate value is not noted, but showed $58, 980 in personal property.

In 1883, Moncure Marshall purchased Raceland and it stayed in the Marshall family for many generations. Today, the handsome home sits adjacent to Old Stage Road with few if any reminders of its horse racing past.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

William Ransom Johnson: Napoleon of the Turf


The changing of seasons from winter to spring often brings about two things for me. The first is the quite unpleasant experience of allergies. I've seemed to avoid this nuisance so far this year (as knocks on wood), but normally, with the budding of trees and growth of grass comes the discomfort of a scratchy throat, coughs, congestion, and itchy eyes. The second, and much more pleasurable than the previous, is horse racing season. Having resided in Kentucky for six years (2009-2015), it only seems natural to start thinking of the pounding of hooves on dirt tracks when spring rolls around.

Kentucky inherited more than its political existence from the mother state of Virginia. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the Old Dominion was viewed as the center of the horse racing universe. Many wealthy Virginia planters spent considerable financial and material resources developing their blooded-stock stables and betting on their own and their friend's horses.

Probably the most famous of Virginia's horsemen was William Ransom Johnson. The man who would later become known as the "Napoleon of the Turf" was born in Warren County, North Carolina in 1782. While still a young man in North Carolina, Johnson became a noted horse breeder and politician. Johnson moved to Virginia before 1818 and continued his occupations in his new residence.


Johnson's noted ability to judging horse flesh brought him a prominence few others could attain. Horse racing was probably the favorite sporting event in the United States during his lifetime, and he was indeed the king of the track. Noted horse enthusiasts such as politicians Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay visited Johnson's Virginia stables and sought out his advice on breeding their stock.

Johnson's horse racing orders were carried out by his large enslaved labor force on his Oakland Plantation in southwestern Chesterfield County, about eighteen miles from Petersburg. The 1830 census notes Johnson as owning 71 slaves. In 1840, he owned 65 slaves. Skilled in working with equine, enslaved individuals served as trainers, grooms, jockeys, and farriers, and those less skilled, as stable laborers. Back last August I shared a document from the Virginia Historical Society, which showed the sales of many of Johnson's slaves and other property to cover the turf master's debts in 1845. The auction was handled by Petersburg commission merchant Thomas Branch, and a number of the slaves were purchased by Petersburg slave trader Henry Davis.

Apparently Johnson met his demise while traveling and staying in Mobile, Alabama. It seems he dies of natural causes. His body was brought back to his beloved Oakland Plantation for burial. Johnson's fondness for betting on races and luxurious lifestyle left many debts to be resolved by his relatives.

One of those family relation connections with Johnson was to future Confederates General John Pegram, and his brother Lt. Col William (Willy) Ransom Johnson Pegram. The Pegram brother's mother, Virginia Johnson Pegram, was William Ransom Johnson's daughter; making the turf man the the soldier brothers' maternal grandfather.

Image of William Ransom Johnson courtesy of the NCpedia.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Fate's Irony: Sgt. Major George F. Polley, 10th Mass. Infantry


George F. Polley seemed to be living a charmed life as a Civil War soldier as the Petersburg Campaign began. A twenty-one year old young man when he enlisted for three years in June 1861 in Springfield, he landed in Company C of the 10th Massachusetts Infantry. The 1860 census indicates that Polley had worked as an "operative" of some sort before the war in Williamsburg, Hampshire County, Massachusetts. He was listed as owning no real estate or personal property wealth in the census. A regimental history states that Polley was a "silver plater" before the war.

During the war, Polley and the 10th Massachusetts certainly saw their fair share of hard fighting in the Army of the Potomac. The 10th fought in the Peninsula Campaign, the Seven Days' Battles, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and Cold Harbor. He apparently proved to be an effective soldier as he received promotions to corporal (October 1862), sergeant (November 1862), and sergeant major (February 1863). Polley's service records indicate that he did not have to endure time in hospitals suffering from disease and illness as many of this comrades had, nor did he experience time in a prisoner of war camp. When Polley's three year enlistment neared, but the war was not yet over, he promptly reenlisted early as a Veteran Volunteer. In doing so he received a thirty-five day furlough.   

However, as Union forces targeted and then assaulted the Confederate defenses of Petersburg, apparently Polley had some premonition of his fate. After those first days of hard fighting east of the Cockade City (June 15-18), things started to settle into stalemate on that part of line. 

The Union army took advantage of the brief quietness on that front to hang a 23rd USCT soldier named William Johnson (see image below), who had been arrested and convicted for desertion and an "attempt to outrage the person of a young lady at New-Kent Courthouse [Virginia]." The sight selected for the execution was near the Jordan House, which would put it very close to where the Petersburg National Battlefield visitor center stands today.


On the morning of June 20, the gallows stood awaiting its victim when the Confederates opened an artillery barrage. Apparently they thought the Federals were hanging a Southern spy within eyesight of their lines, so they lobed a few projectiles in that direction. One of the shells struck Sgt. Major Polley in the stomach, who was attending the hanging as a witness. Polley died almost instantly.

Just before the tragic incident, the 10th had been notified that it was relived of duties and were awaiting orders to head to City Point. The 10th's 1909 regimental history mentions that Polley took the down time before the execution to amuse himself by self-inscribing a headboard, which included the incomplete death date of "June__, 1864," while chatting for a last time with his comrades whom had not reenlisted and were getting ready to head home to Massachusetts. As mentioned above, Polley had signed up as a veteran volunteer, and unknown to him, a lieutenant's commission was on its way. Polley was soon thereafter struck by the shell that killed him. A comrade searched for the carved headboard to use at Polley's hastily dug grave, but soon learned that Polley had split it up minutes before he was hit to use as fuel to boil his morning coffee. The history says that William Winter from Company F carved Polley a new headboard, which was placed on his grave at the City Point cemetery.  

Polley's undelivered commission was for an officer's promotion to become a first lieutenant in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry, which along with the famous 54th Massachusetts, and 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, were the Bay State's African American regiments.

Those soldiers that had reenlisted from the 10th Massachusetts were transferred to the ranks of the 37th Massachusetts Infantry in Edwards's Brigade, Wheaton's Division of the VI Corps. They would fight in the Shenandoah Valley, breakthrough the Confederate defenses at Petersburg on April 2, 1865, battle at Sailor's Creek on April 6, and be present at Appomattox Courthouse for Lee's surrender to Grant on April 9.

George F. Polley image courtesy of American Civil War Research Database.
William Johnson execution image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Volck's "Slaves Concealing their Master" and the Faithful Slave Myth


Adelbert Volck's images continue to intrigue me. His pro-Confederate etchings serve to show us a perspective that was not merely his or Southerners' after thoughts, but one that was wholeheartedly believed by those who held that particular world view. Those who looked to take the slave states out of the Union made no bones about why in their political speeches and writings, and Volck did the same through his drawings.

Volck's image above, "Slaves Concealing their Masters," is a good example of this world view. In it a master hides behind a door to either one of his slaves' dwellings or perhaps more likely the plantation kitchen. The owner holds a pistol, the only portion of him that is visible is the toe of his right shoe under the door. He listens intently standing beside what seems to be a bedstead on the right edge of the image as the Union horsemen outside apparently interrogate a slave woman who points them off. She holds a spoon and wears a head-wrap, her sleeves rolled up to her elbows. The Union cavalrymen outside the building sport long mustaches, which make me think they are to be depicted as foreign, perhaps German immigrant soldiers; another popular and exploited portrayal from Confederate observers.

The dwelling is drawn by Volck as neat and accommodating. It has wood floors, glazed windows (with a roll shade!), a large fireplace with a crane, and simple but ample furniture. A small bag, perhaps for seasoning, hangs by the fireplace and a shelf mantle supports a book of some kind and a candle and candlestick. A picture of a rider on a horse, and perhaps a mirror, adorn the wall by the window. Some type of food, maybe rolls, rest on the table as an enslaved child, who looks unsure of the whole situation pulls close to a male figure cooking at the fireplace. A chair has turned over in the tumult and a dog sniffs at the door. Does the dog belong to the slaves, the owner, or the cavalrymen?

Volck seems to purposely portray the living conditions of the slaves in a positive manner. While it is true that kitchen quarters were normally of better construction and better supplied than field quarters, Volck likely chose that location deliberately. Similarly, by choosing what appears to be domestic slaves, he could accurately depict them well clad. This image of the traditional "faithful" slave served to reinforce the paternalistic image of provider that white slave owners wished to display to both friends and enemies, and it was an image that held on tenaciously in myth long after the Civil War ended.

Volck's image speaks to me. It says that slaves' faithfulness is a reciprocation of the owner's benevolence. In reality, it was often the domestic slaves, who worked long days, with little time off and always under the micromanagement of their owners, who left their situations when the opportunity presented itself. When house slaves fled to Union lines, it surprised owners. Masters and mistresses felt betrayed. They could not understand why slaves who often received better living conditions, clothes, and food, would desert them. Owners did not try to, or could not, see the situation from the slaves' perspective, and thus ended up extremely disappointed.

Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Then and Now: Petersburg Artillery Building


I keep coming across amazing photographs in the Library of Congress online collections which show various buildings in Petersburg. I had not previously seen the above image, which shows the Petersburg Artillery building located on West Tabb Street. The brick building has five bays on the ground floor and five windows above on the south facade. If I am not mistaken, the building to the left served as a fire engine house for the city. The alarm bell on its roof serves as a possible clue. In the historic photograph, probably taken in 1865, a number of Union soldiers stand in front of the building surrounding a fire engine.

The Petersburg Artillery was an antebellum militia unit that was founded by city citizen Hugh Garland in 1843. Garland, an attorney, served in a number of political positions during his career including the Virginia legislature and clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives. After receiving an education at Hampden-Sydney College, Garland married into the Burwell family of Dinwiddie County. The Burwells owned Lizzie Hobbs, later known as Elizabeth Keckly, who would eventually become a free free woman of color seamstress to both Varina Davis and Mary Todd Lincoln. The enslaved Keckly lived with the Garlands in Petersburg, before moving with them to St. Louis, Missouri. While living in the the Mississippi River city Garland also brushed with history when he served as initial legal adviser for Dred Scott's owner. Garland died at the young age of 49 in 1854, before Dred Scott's case finally made its way to the Supreme Court three years later


The Petersburg Artillery was a well-respected pre-war militia unit that was known for its precision in drilling. The unit was one of several Virginia militias ordered to Charles Town in the wake of John Brown's Harper's Ferry raid to serve as protection while Brown was held in the jail there, and at his hanging on December 2, 1859.

During the Civil War the Petersburg Artillery came under the command of Captain Edward Graham and often served in Gen. James Dearing's brigade as horse artillery in eastern North Carolina and southeast Virginia. It was Graham's men, then stationed in Chesterfield County, who responded to the dire situation when Petersburg was threatened on June 9, 1864. Rushing to the scene of action near the town's reservoir and above Lieutenant Run, the Petersburg Artillery helped hold off the Union forces in what became known as the "Battle of Old Men and Young Boys." The Petersburg Artillery had much other work during the campaign for the "Cockade City." Garham's men were engaged in many different actions primarily along the city's southern and southwestern fronts. They surrendered with Lee at Appomatttox.

Today the building is somewhat altered from its antebellum and wartime appearance, but it is still quite recognizable. The original five bay openings are visible, although they are now closed up, and the five second story windows still look much as they did in 1865, minus their shutters. Two modern windows have been created in the eastern facade, and outside duct work now shows on that side of the building as well. The brick building is currently peeling in gray paint, however the grandeur of the old building somehow remains.