Tuesday, February 19, 2019

General Orders No. 143 - Bureau of Colored Troops Established


Washington, May 22, 1863

I . . A Bureau is established in the Adjutant General's Office for the record of all matters relating to the organization of Colored Troops. An officer will be assigned to the charge of the Bureau, with such number of clerks as may be designated by the Adjutant General.

II . . Three or more field officers will be detailed as Inspectors to supervise the organization of colored troops at such points as may be indicated by the War Department in the Northern and Western States.

III . . Boards will be convened at such posts as may be decided upon by the War Department to examine applicants for commissions to command colored troops, who, on application, to the Adjutant General may receive authority to present themselves to the board for examination.

IV . . No persons shall be allowed to recruit for colored troops except specially authorized by the War Department; and no such authority will be given to persons who have not been examined and passed by a board; nor will such authority be given any one person to raise more than one regiment.

V . . The reports of Boards will specify the grade of commission for which each candidate is fit, and authority to recruit will be given in accordance. Commissions will be issued from the Adjutant General's Office when the prescribed number of men is ready for muster into service.

VI . . Colored troops may be accepted by companies, to be afterwards consolidated in battalions and regiments by the Adjutant General. The regiments will be numbered seriatim, in order in which they are raised, the number to be determined by the Adjutant General. They will be designated: "-- Regiment of U. S. Colored Troops."

VII . . Recruiting stations and depots will be established by the Adjutant General as circumstances shall require, and officers will be detailed and inspect the troops.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Sgt. Alexander Heritage Newton

At Pamplin Historical Park and National Museum of the Civil War Soldier’s permanent exhibit, “Duty Called Me Here: The Experience of the Common Soldier in the American Civil War,” guests can chose a soldier comrade to help them explore the museum galleries. One of the thirteen choices available is African American soldier, Alexander Heritage Newton.

Born free on November 1, 1837, in New Bern, North Carolina, Newton grew up fully aware that although not enslaved, he lived as a second-class member of his town’s population. But also, having an enslaved father, he knew full well the additional burdens placed upon those who labored in bondage.

In his autobiography, Out of the Briars, originally published in 1910, Newton explains that he left his native slave state in 1857. Working as a cook aboard a schooner, he soon landed in New York City. There Newton reunited with his mother, who had preceded his arrival. In New York, Newton worked a variety of odd jobs, married, and became committed to his church, where he developed a keen sense of helping others. “I was convinced even then that it does not follow that because our skins are dark and that we are identified with the Negro race that there is no chance for us to become potent factors in the uplifting of humanity and especially my own people . . .” Newton wrote.

In 1861, although not allowed to formally enlist at that point in the war, Newton accompanied the 13th Brooklyn Infantry Regiment “to the front.” In what capacity Newton served the 13th is unknown, but perhaps he helped the unit with cooking as it was skill he had previously acquired. However, when the 13th received a transfer to New York to help quell the draft riots in 1863, Newton got caught up in the racial violence, but fortunately made his escape to New Haven, Connecticut.

On December 18, 1863, Newton enlisted in Company E of the 29th Connecticut Infantry Regiment, one of the few African American units allowed to keep its state designation rather than receive a United States Colored Infantry regimental number. Newton’s enlistment papers show he was just over 5’ 8” tall, with black hair, black eyes, and black complexion. His stated occupation was that of mason. The 26 year old Newton immediately received the rank of sergeant, and later received appointment to commissary sergeant.

The 29th Connecticut’s first assignment was in South Carolina, but in the summer of 1864 they transferred to the fighting raging around Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia. On September 29, 1864, Newton participated in Battle of Chaffin’s Farm. “I, myself, feared, shook, and thought that my time had come. I was full of thoughts of my loved ones at home.  I knew that they were praying that I should be delivered from the jaws of death. This thought cheered and comforted me; and yet I saw friends falling around me, whose loved ones and friends, were also praying for them,” he explained.

Fortunately, Alexander Heritage Newton survived the war. After a transfer to Texas, he mustered out with the 29th Connecticut in November 1865. He returned to New Haven, became a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, serving in numerous congregations. Newton died in 1921 in Camden, New Jersey from heart ailments and rests there in Mount Peace Cemetery.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

John Pegram House

A couple of months ago I shared a brief post about the burning of the Albert W. Boisseau house in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, during Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Fifth Offensive at Petersburg. A near neighbor to the southeast of Boisseau was the plantation of John Pegram. Like the Boisseau home, its final fate was burned ruins. 

Shown above in a period sketch, this close up view indicates the house apparently stood as late as October 2, 1864. Perhaps it fell victim on October 7, as did the Boisseau home. Being between the belligerents' lines, its chances of survival were slim.

The uncertainty of where the armies decided to move to and entrench around Petersburg ensured the destruction of many citizens residences and their associated resources. Crops in all states of cultivation were ruined, farm animals that were not removed before the armies arrived were impressed or consumed, woodlots were denuded, and uncountable yards of earth relocated. All of these activities by the military forces left an indelible mark on the landscape.

After securing the ground that was the Pegram farm, the Federals dug in and created earthen fortified lines and positions. In the above woodcut image from November 5, 1864 edition of Harper's Weekly, the burned ruins of the Pegram house stands to the right and the newly constructed Fort Welch occupies the right.

Comparing the Harper's Weekly close up image to the top sketch close up one notices the same locations of the chimneys. It seems the artists used the same angle to produce their images. Or, maybe, the ruins woodcut was based on the earlier house sketch.

The title of the Harper's Weekly woodcut states that it is "The late residence of the rebel colonel Pegram." However, the owner of the burned home was John Pegram. Perhaps Harper's Weekly confused John Pegram with either Confederate brigadier general John Pegram, or his younger brother, colonel Willie Pegram, who were relatives of this John Pegram.

Pegram is listed in the 1860 census as a "farmer," although planter would probably be a more appropriate occupation description, as he owned $10,000 in real estate and $51,000 in personal property. He was 75 years old at the time of the census and lived with his wife Martha (66), and apparently their children, Oscar (29), Octavia (17), and perhaps his sister Mary Jolly (75). John Pegram owned 44 enslaved individuals who ranged in age from 1 to 55. These people lived in 6 slave dwellings. 

Today, nothing visible survives of the Pegram homestead other than a small family cemetery. However, Fort Welch's earthen walls still stand, reminding us of the high costs of war on civilians as well as on those who served in the military.

Pegram House sketch courtesy of the New York Historical Society.
Harper's Weekly image in the public domain.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County

The 1831 Nat Turner rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, is an episode in U.S. history that has received its fair share of scholarship since it happened. Still many misconceptions remain.

In what in my opinion is the most thoroughly researched work yet on this subject, David F. Allmendinger, Jr.'s Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County draws upon both public and private documentation previously unexamined. By looking closely at the family histories and their county tax records, Allmendinger convincingly contends that Turner's enslaved experience created a sense of hopelessness of ever getting out from under its control. Thus, he conceived a plan and acted to end it.

Chapter Two's second paragraph is so well written, and clearly put I can't help but share it in full: "Their exceptional slave [Turner] could not have forgotten them [owners]. From his seventh or eighth year onward, they had passed him down a line of willing heirs and beneficiaries, assigning him as personal property in almost every conceivable way: the Turners had lent him, given him as patrimony, and conveyed him by will; the others had sold or transferred him, hired him out, and held him in trust. Whenever a vital event had taken place--a marriage, a death, or remarriage--his masters had been given an opportunity to consider anew his future, and at every such opportunity they had kept him in their holdings. Their decisions about dowries and patrimonies, gifts, and loans, transfers and exchanges had determined the course of his life." This inability to control one's destiny when combined in the mind of an exceptional human being made for a volatile mixture. Turner's own experience showed him that white people were unwilling to consider black people as anything other than valuable property. Too valuable to emancipate.

One popular misunderstanding is that in the wake of Turner's rebellion owners retaliated by killing hundreds of their slaves. Allmendinger does an exceptional job of explaining how this myth seemed to originate and then compared the Southampton tax records before the event and after the event to show that about 54 slaves in the county perished from all causes during and after the uprising.

In addition, the author's look into attorney Thomas R. Gray's personal history and his writing and publishing of "Nat Turner's Confessions" provides significant insight into this important but probably flawed primary source.

Lastly, the appendices are a true bonus to an excellent book. They offer readers ready references to a roster of the insurgents, a list of the 55 white victims and where they were killed, and yet more information on the use of tax rolls and the perceived atrocities in the wake of the rebellion.

While the depth of the author's research and detailed analysis may be a bit off-putting to casual readers who might get lost in family history details, to a student serious in understanding the Nat Turner affair, this book is second to none. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Finding Your Roots - Freedom Tales

I usually don't make it a point to promote history-related television shows or movies on " Random Thoughts," but when I do see something that I find beneficial and well produced, I feel a certain obligation to share it with as many people as possible.

Last night's episode of the PBS show, Finding Your Roots, hosted by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. featured NFL hall of famer Michael Strahan and popular actress S. Epatha Merkerson. In this episode, titled "Freedom Tales," Gates helped dig up the East Texas roots of Strahan and the fascinating story of  Merkerson's family ties to Georgetown College's sale of 272 slaves in 1838.

In one short segment of the show Gates shared with Merkerson what appeared to be a period account describing the living conditions of Maryland's enslaved people. It told of the slaves' bedding and how it looked terribly uncomfortable. The part that really caught my attention was the phrase that went something like this: "A custom softens things." I couldn't help but extend that thought about the bedding of the enslaved to the peculiar institution and other oppressive social practices at large. 

To those that practiced slavery, it likely stuck them at a young age that something seemed wrong about holding another person as property. But over time, and with through the acceptance of society at large, its harshness became "softened." The same goes with prejudice, discrimination, and bullying. 

Why do we celebrate the achievements of people like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks, not only during February's Black History Month, but also year round? Why? Because they selflessly challenged and acted against institutionalized customs that had softened our country's promised freedoms over time. The next time you have the opportunity to fight against "softening," don't miss the chance to act.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Recent Acquisitions to My Library

Reading the actual experiences of soldiers, from their own pens, was once quite challenging. Access to collections of letters, journals, and diaries used to be limited due to their being held in private collections and protected in archives. But over the last twenty five years or so numerous collections have made it into print. Dear Friends at Home: The Civil War Letters and Diaries of Sergeant Charles T. Bowen is widely regarded as offering excellent insight into the life of a common Union soldier in the the eastern theater.  The only problem with Dear Friends at Home is its own limited availability. It was published by Butternut and Blue Press, which is no longer in active business. However, they do still take orders on the books that they happen to have in stock. I was fortunate to grab a copy of Dear Friends at Home a couple of weeks ago. I'm looking forward to getting into this 600+ page collection.

Defining Duty in the Civil War: Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the Union Home Front by J. Matthew Gallman provides a cultural history of the North during the tragic conflict. The author examines forms of popular culture to see how and who Unionists viewed as patriot citizens and how they saw those who were perhaps less committed to the cause. I've read several of Gallman's books and essays about the Northern home front and have found them well researched and thought provoking. I'm sure Defining Duty in the Civil War will follow the path of his other fine studies.

The series of Lincoln books published by Southern Illinois University Press offer readers concise studies on various aspects of the 16th president. One of the most recent, Lincoln and the Abolitionists, by noted abolitionist historian Stanley Harrold, covers the push and pull relationship between the often politically cautious Lincoln and those black, white, men and women individuals who were viewed as some of the most socially radical people of their age. It was the abolitionists who largely helped the conservative Lincoln evolve in his thinking on race, emancipation, and the possibility of black suffrage. I'm interested in getting Harrold's interpretation on these issues.

The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition by Manisha Sinha is a book that I've had on my "wish list" since its publication a few years ago. This almost 800 page history looks to be the most thorough treatment on the subject yet.

Practical Liberators: Union Officers in the Western Theater during the Civil War by Kristopher A. Teters appears to challenge some of the interpretations of a few rather recent studies such as Chandra Manning's What this Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery and the Civil War. Teters argues that emancipation in the western theater was carried out due to military necessity and for much more pragmatic reasons rather than the evolving moral and idealistic ones that some other scholars have purported. Civil War Talk Radio recently had Teters on the show to discuss this important historical episode and his book. Check out both the show and the book.