Thursday, January 24, 2019

Zooming in on 50th NY Engineers Camp at Poplar Grove

If you've ever been to Poplar Grove National Cemetery, located just outside of Petersburg, you probably learned that during the campaign that location served for a time as the camp of the 50th New York Volunteer Engineers. One of the most recognizable structures the engineers constructed is the impressive pine log church building shown on the left side of the photograph above.

There are a number of similar images of the camp and church on the Library of Congress website. However, this one included some intriguing details when one zooms in on the high-resolution TIFF image. 

The engineers appear to have had an eye for detail in their construction. The impressive workmanship on the church building even included the engineer service emblem.

Not so visible in the non-zoomed image are the many individuals captured in the photograph. A group of ten African American men, who were probably enslaved before arriving in the Union camp, are shown standing in different poses wearing a variety of hats and garments. The four men on the left all wear slouch hats. One man wears what looks to be a long worker's apron. The man on the right in this cropped shot appears to have something wrong with the lower part of his right leg. It bends at an awkward and painful looking angle. Was he hurt while enslaved, or was he injured on an Union army-related construction project?

The group of six men to the last group's left also presents a diverse array of workmen. A couple of the men wear military caps, while others wear slouch hats, and three of these men have worker's aprons. But unlike the other group, at least three of these men are shown holding the tools of their trades. The man on the far right holds a handsaw. On his right is man holding a hammer. And, to his right, a man holds a masonry hawk and trowel. Were these men told by the photographer to hold their tools, or were they expressing the pride they had in their skills by illustrating it with their work implements?

To the group of African American workers' left is another cluster of individuals. On the left edge of the above shot are what looks to be two white soldiers. One is crouching and another is sitting, perhaps on a box or bench behind the other. A saddle rests on a rail in their background. To their left is a group of seven African American women and girls and a young boy. A wash tub rests on the ground in front of one tall woman. All of the teenage or order women wear head wraps. The second woman from the right sits on the ground with her hands covering her face with her elbows resting on her knees. Standing against a brick chimney is a crooked handled broom and what looks to be a metal tub of some type.

The buildings that the women sit in front of are crudely constructed. The logs of the buildings are laid horizontally and the roofs of the cabins are made from ill-fitting layered slab wood. The only element in the cabins that appear as neat and uniform as the other buildings are the log parts of the chimneys. Apparently these cabins were the residences of the African American workers and their families.

Contrasted with what are likely the workers homes are what probably were the enlisted men and officer's winter quarters. These structures have mainly vertical logs walls and nice shake shingle roofs.

Was the labor required to build the church building and the neat quarters provided by the African American workers at the direction of the engineers? Were the black laborers not allowed similar materials and the time to construct similar neat residences? I'm not sure. However, I am sure that photographs like these, that show amazing close up details, also bring up many questions.

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