Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Freeman Mason, "Accidentally Shot through the Head"

Civil War soldiers may have entered the war with visions of serving their cause and country. If death must come, surely most believed it would be a glorious death on the battlefield, falling facing the enemy. Time and experience in the army often ground down soldiers' expectations to the harsh realities of military life. A fighting man's mortality came into sharper focus as even more comrades fell to illnesses and diseases than from the foe's bullets. Perhaps worse still were those individuals who perished by sheer accident.

One of the thousands of soldiers who died by mishap was Freeman Mason, Company K, 17th Vermont Infantry. Mason entered the service as an eighteen year old farmer on September 14, 1864. Mason's service records indicate that he was quite typical at five feet four and with blue eyes and brown hair.  

The 17th Vermont was eventually assigned to the Second Brigade of the Second Division of the Ninth Corps. They fought in the Petersburg Campaign near Hatcher's Run in October 1864, sustaining no casualties. They were then shifted east of the besieged city to the Fort Stedman area. It was while there that on March 12, just about two weeks before the early morning Confederate attack, that Mason was "accidentally shot through the head" while in camp.

Freeman's death is particularly tragic in several aspects. First is that his death came so close to the end of the war and by the hand of a comrade in camp. The other is that Freeman's passing followed his brother's, who was killed in the fighting at Savage's Station during the Seven Days Battles in 1862. Freeman's photograph above shows him holding an image of his dear brother in memory.

Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

New Acquisitions to My Library

The interstate slave trade has received a high level of attention from scholars over the last ten to fifteen years. A Troublesome Commerce: The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade, by Robert H. Gudmestad (LSU Press, 2003), is a study that I had previously somehow overlooked. Attempting to understand the effect that the commodification of human beings had to all of those involved in the institution of slavery is an important step in comprehending the South's slave society as a whole.

The removal of Native Americans from what became the Old Southwest and the "Cotton Kingdom" had dire repercussions not only on the exiled Indians, but also for those that repopulated that lands. Creek Paths and Federal Road: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves and the Making of the American South, by Angela Pulley Hudson  (UNC Press, 2010), shows the influence that Native American and federal post routes of travel had on the development of the region that would grow to become one of the wealthiest with the rise of cotton.

We often forget that there were serious attempts to avert conflict between the North and South before Fort Sumter. The Peace that Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War, by Mark Tooley (Nelson Books, 2015), takes an in-depth look at the platforms and the players in this drama with so much at stake.

Placing a monetary value on a human being is something so foreign to us in the twenty-first century that we naturally recoil in disgust at the thought. However, the institution of slavery was built and sustained on that very concept. Enslaved people were valued on their looks, health, skills, age, gender, and a host of other traits. The Price for their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, by Daina Ramey Berry (Beacon Press, 2017), examines valuing the full life cycle of black bodies to even beyond their deaths with a look at the trade in African American cadavers for medical training schools. 

William Blair's Virginia's Private War: Feeding the Body and Soul in the Confederacy, 1861-1865 (Oxford University Press, 1998), is another of the seemingly endless list of books that I find from time to time and wonder how I've not come across previously. Scholars who focus on state and local studies are providing us with greater insights into how the Civil War was experienced differently in different places and how the various people of those places responded to the demands placed upon them by a the war.

What did the "Rebel Yell" sound like? Sure, we have recordings of aged veterans giving their best impression at reunions years after the war, but what did that vocal expression really sound like in the fury of combat and coming from thousands of young throats and with deadly intentions in mind? Maybe even more important is, what significance have Southerners placed on the rebel yell since the firing stopped in 1865? How has the rebel yell continued to live on and been appropriated by later generations? Hopefully reading The Rebel Yell: A Cultural History, by Craig A. Warren (University of Alabama Press, 2014) will provide answers to many of these questions that I have, and make me think about others.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Out of the Way Places - The Clements House

Exploring Civil War battlefields can lead one to some pretty out of way places. Thankfully a great deal of the land that battles were fought on remained in rural areas in the generations following the conflict and thus were less threatened by development. However, as the years pass, it seems the out of the way places are becoming fewer and fewer.

One of those out of the way places can be found just a handful of miles south of where I live. The Clements House (pictured above) served as a landmark in two of Grant's offensive attempts to gain Petersburg. In fighting on October 27, 1864, and which received several names (Battle of Burgess Mill, Battle of Boydton Plank Road, and Battle of First Hatcher's Run) the Union forces crossed the Clements farm, located near the far right of the Confederate earthwork line. A little more than three months later (February 5, 1865) the Union V Corps and Confederates in Henry Heth's division battled it out in this area, too.

Being curious to find out a little more about the individual who owned this house and farm, I went to the 1860 census. John E. Clements was born in 1824, as he was listed as a thirty-six year old farmer. The census notes that he was born in Virginia and that his real estate was worth $1000 and his personal property was valued at $2825. Living with Clements was sixty-four year old Margaret Clements; Harriet R. M. Clements, twenty-seven; Virginia G. Clements, twenty; and Joseph G. Clements, nineteen. Perhaps Harriet was Clements's mother, and the others were sisters and a brother.

Laboring on the Clements farm were five enslaved individuals. Their ages: a twenty-six year old female, a twenty-four year old male, an eleven year old female, a nine year old male, and a two year old male could possibly be a family unit, but that would have made the woman about fifteen when the first one was born, if these were indeed her children. Clements is noted in the census as owning two slave dwellings. It would be mere speculation as to how the individuals were divided for their lodging or if only one dwelling was occupied.

Doing a little further research, it appears that Clements served as a private in the 9th Virginia Infantry. He enlisted in Norfolk in April 1862, which was when the Confederates instituted conscription. Many soldiers enlisted voluntarily at that time to avoid the stigma of being labeled a draftee. Clements was captured at the Battle of Five Forks on April 1, 1865, only a few miles from his home place and only eight days before Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox. Clements was sent to Point Lookout prison where he was finally released on June 26, 1865, after taking the oath of allegiance. In his service records release card, Clements is noted as being dark complected, having black hair, blue eyes, and measuring five feet seven and three quarters inches tall.

In 1870, Clements is listed as a forty-five year old farmer with $800 in real estate. He was living with Alice, who was thirty-seven, who kept house, and who, I assume, was his wife. The couple appears to have had a son, John T. two years old. Also in the household was William W. Clements, a forty year old laborer, and perhaps John's brother.

I have not been able to find when Clements died, but an online source says he is buried in the Smith Grove Methodist Church graveyard. Apparently his birth date was Feb. 9, 1824, but his death date is underground on his tombstone.