Monday, August 24, 2020

Wanted Immediately


While browsing through the June 30, 1864, edition of the Petersburg Daily Express, I came across the above advertisement. It was posted by Maj. Charles J. Wallach, who was apparently in the role of quartermaster. Unfortunately, I was unable to find out much about him or at what level of quartermaster he served.

With this advertisement Wallach sought 100 enslaved or free people of color "with axes, for cutting wood near the city." My initial question is what was the purpose of this timbering project? Being that the ad appeared in the summer, it does not appear that the wood was going to be used for warming fuel. Although, I suppose it could have been used to fuel the many railroad engines running to, from, and through Petersburg. However, one problem with that is that much of the timber around Petersburg consists of pine trees, which do not burn as well for steam production as well as hardwoods. 

I suspect that what these axe men were being asked to cut were the woodlots around the city to create clear fields of fire for Confederate artillery and infantry defensive positions. This advertisement was placed rather early in the Petersburg Campaign, so there was still plenty of tree coverage that needed removed. Having defoliated clear fields of fire not only ensured that potential attackers would not have timber shields to hide behind, they also would not have the advantage of assaults while being concealed.

One wonders how many of these African American wood cutters ended up being recruited for the project and how long they stayed in this role. The ad promised good wages and rations. But the wages went to the owners of those enslaved men who participated, and the risks seemed to outweigh the rewards to the free men of color. Did some laborers end up wounded and killed while doing this work? Did some of the enslaved successfully escape to Union lines? If so, did some become soldiers in the United States Colored Troops? 

There are always many more questions than answers with these types of primary sources, but their existence still gives us some valuable insights into the past.     

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