Saturday, August 29, 2020

"Need I now tell you why our boys burnt buildings?" - Robert McAllister and the Stony Creek Raid

This summer, I found myself reading an amazing collection of 637 letters written by Robert McAllister to his family during his wartime service from 1861 to 1865. 47-years-old and living in New Jersey when the war broke out, this former railroad construction engineer had every reason to pass on military service and nevertheless enlisted as a Lieutenant-Colonel in the 1st New Jersey. He had every reason to serve a period of time and come home to the accolades of his neighbors,  and yet remained in service throughout the war with the Army of the Potomac. He received two battlefield wounds, and three promotions during the war. He saw combat in some of the worst places of the Eastern theater - Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, and Hatcher's Run to just name a few. He is one of many deserving officers of the United States Army who sacrificed a great deal for his country during the Civil War, only to have his own contributions obscured and overshadowed by the glorification and deification of rebel leaders by later historians influenced by the Lost Cause.

Over time, I have discovered that I much prefer contemporaneous wartime accounts - letters, diaries, etc. written in the moment - to the memoirs so many participants published decades after the war. For me, they ring more true to the realities of the war, and provide a far more complete picture of the experiences of soldiers in the ranks, particularly beyond the movements and stratagems of the battlefield.

The details of the events I highlight below come from a letter McAllister wrote to his wife on December 14th, 1864. This letter struck me immediately as a powerful depiction of the war, and described the kind of scenes and expressed the raw emotions that later memoirs and histories often glossed over and submerged from view. Walt Whitman was not wrong when he wrote, "The real war will never get in the books."


On the morning of December 10th, 1864, Brigadier General Robert McAllister and his men in the 3rd brigade, 3rd division, 2nd corps of the Army of the Potomac began to stir amidst a wintry landscape. Encamped within ten miles from the North Carolina border, and some forty miles south of the main U.S. lines outside of Petersburg, McAllister's men had spent the last three days marching and tearing up miles of railroad tracks. Temperatures had plummeted below freezing and rain and sleet fell steadily through the preceding night. "The trees and bushes were loaded with icesecles; the ground was covered with ice," McAllister reported in a letter home a few days later.  He and his men faced a long return march to the safety of U.S. lines through mud, ice and water. Along the way, rebel cavalry and infantry stalked their progress in the hopes of cutting off and destroying the large raiding force of more than 20,000 under the overall command of Major General G.K. Warren. The successful expedition, called by some the Stony Creek Raid, is today a little-known footnote in Civil War history.

After a hot cup of coffee and breakfast, McAllister got his men on to the muddy roads and they began to march. "Our artillery sunk deep in the mud," he recorded. "The ice still hung on the trees, and it continued cold." The column pushed north alongside the remnants of the Weldon Railroad, and then turned northeast on to a road leading toward Sussex Court House. Up ahead in the small unincorporated crossroads of Henry, Virginia, this day would forever alter the world of the many residents of Andrew Jackson Leaville's plantation.

War of the Rebellion Atlas, Volume I, Plate XCIII shows the Leaville plantation, located south of Sussex Court House and east of Jarratt's Depot on the Weldon Railroad.

Leaville was 48 years-old in 1864. He apparently did not serve in the Confederate Army, but rather as a member of the local home guard. He resided here on this plantation with his wife Martha (44) and three children: two daughters Fanny and Helen (both 18), and a son Walter (14). In the 1860 Census, Leaville claimed his property to be worth $13,000, and also estimated his personal property at $41,000. These values tell us that Leaville's plantation was sizeable, and that he enslaved a large number of African Americans. 

McAllister's men marched through a part of Virginia that had escaped the attention of the U.S. army for much of the war, but no longer. Enslaved African Americans made the most of their opportunity to claim freedom as the U.S. army passed. One Pennsylvania soldier wrote "Negroes from all directions left their masters and flocked to the protection of the Union troops, among them old women and little children." McAllister himself wrote of a separate incident on December 8th:

You ought to have seen the poor slaves--old and young, men and women--running out to meet us and hobbling along to the 'land of liberty.' When asked where they were going, they would answer: 'Going with the Union Army!" They know that our flag is the flag of liberty and not oppression. One man and all his family (except one little girl) were fleeing their masters and had reached the road. But the thought of leaving the child behind caused the old man to cry out: "God bless you! God bless you! Oh, get my daughter, my daughter! I will pay you for it! I will do anything! Get her! Get her! God help you!" One of my aides road up to the house, procured the child, and delivered it to the parents. I cannot describe to you the happiness of that family, some nine in number, and a happy group. They stood in the road as our column was passing, with a fair prospect of soon getting to the land of liberty.

As McAllister's troops came into view of Andrew Leaville's plantation, a similar seen was about to play out. Leaville and his 14-year-old son Walter were not at home as the column passed by. Guerilla fighters had plagued Warren's entire expedition, and McAllister assumed that the men of this household had probably hidden out in the woods with arms in their hands. He wrote that only Martha Leaville and one of her daughters remained at home. McAllister's aides, Lieutenants Charles Bowers and William Plimey, approached the house to speak with the residents. They found that soldiers had already visited the comfortably appointed home and turned things upside down looking for liquor. Martha Leaville pleaded with the lieutenants for a military guard, and insisted her missing husband was a "first rate Union man." They declined to offer a guard.

Meanwhile, outside the home McAllister noted the bountiful fields of the plantation - "hay and grain stalks all around." Those responsible for tending these fields, the Leaville's enslaved labor force, began to join to the army on the march in droves. McAllister wrote:

I beheld a sight which I wish could be seen by every man in the North. Slaves were running off in squads to have the protection of the Union army--old men, young men, old women, young women, even babys--seventeen from this one house.... These slaves, hearing of the Union army coming and seeing our glorious old flag--the emblem of union and liberty--floating to the breezes along their highways, snatched up their little all and came running to the road to join our moving column and to march to the land of freedom. They were all either very thinly or or very poorly clad. The house girls had old threadbare summer clothes and shawls, given to them by their mistress.... At this time we had no wagons with us. They were ahead. On marched the veteran troops, and on pushed these contrabands to keep up, yet buoyed by the hope of liberty and freedom. Barefooted, on they trudged through the mud and ice, with smiling faces at the thought of liberty.

About a mile up the road, the column halted to camp for the night. The soldiers built large fires, put up a tent and delivered rations to the refugees fleeing the Leaville plantation. They found one family worried about a missing daughter:

They told us this story. Some week or more before we passed along, this girl was tied to the whipping post and received 100 lashes from her mistress, after which she fled to the woods and had not returned to the home. Her brother attended to her by carrying her food in the darkness of the night. After seeing the family safe in our hands, the father and brother devoted that night to getting the lost sister, notwithstanding the dangers of the undertaking with the Rebels on our rear. To the joy of this family, before dawn of day the lost and abused one was restored to the contraband household. The night was very stormy, with a greate deal of rain. But it was not so cold as it had been, and morning found them quite comfortable. 

The next morning the column continued its march toward Sussex Court House. Before they had traveled very far, McAllister received word that the bodies of six or seven murdered U.S. soldiers had been found in the woods, not far from the road.

I went to the spot. It was a sad sight. From appearances they had been stripped of all their clothing and, when in the act of kneeling in a circle, they were shot in the head--murdered in cold blood by the would-be 'Chivalry of the South.' Oh what a story for historians to tell! It is a story that will make the blood run cold in the veins of those who read it. It holds up to light the true character of those who are pushing the rebellion to the destruction of our glorious Union. Need I now tell you why our boys burnt buildings? I ordered the men to bury the bodies."

From this point forward, the destruction of private property by U.S. soldiers on the march back toward Petersburg became indiscriminate, enraging the rebel soldiers following close behind. One Pennsylvania soldier reported: "Now, either with or without orders, the men began to burn and destroy every thing within their reach."


On December 10th, 1864, at least seventeen people who called the Leaville plantation home seized their opportunity for freedom as they marched away with the U.S. army. Over the ensuing years of Reconstruction, and then a century of Jim Crow that followed, that so-called freedom contained its own trials and oppression. Sadly, though Robert McAllister's vivid account provides us a window into this dramatic scene at the Leaville plantation, the individuals formerly enslaved by the Leavilles remain anonymous, and I have no way of tracing their story further.

For Andrew Leaville and his family, December 10th likely represented a terrible though temporary blow to their economic prospects; prospects tied directly to their enslavement of other humans. The families that left his plantation on that day represented a significant portion of the $41,000 of personal property he reported in the 1860 Census. Though I could not locate Leaville and his family in the 1870 Census, they appear again in 1880, on the same farm in the same small crossroads community. In this Census many of Leaville's neighbors are black tenant farmers, their occupation listed as farm laborers, likely in the fields of Leaville and the other white landowners that formerly enslaved them.


I first came across this account against the backdrop of the ongoing protests that swept the nation after the murder of George Floyd by a police oficer, and the subsequent debate about Confederate monuments and symbols. We've had this debate already: in 2017 after Charlottesville, in 2015 after Charleston, and countless times before. Go back to the late 19th century and you will find veterans arguing about the propriety of Confederate monuments on the Gettysburg battlefield.

In all of this, I'm reminded of a speech Frederick Douglass gave on Memorial Day in 1877, about the memory of the Civil War:

We must not be asked to say that the South was right in the rebellion, or to say the North was wrong. We must not be asked to put no difference between those who fought for the Union and those who fought against it, or between loyalty and treason…. It was a war of ideas, a battle of principles and ideas which united one section and divided the other; a war between the old and new, slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization; between a government based upon the broadest and grandest declaration of human rights the world ever heard or read, and another pretended government, based upon an open, bold and shocking denial of all rights, except the right of the strongest.... There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war, which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget, and while today we should have malice toward none, and charity toward all, it is no part of our duty to confound right with wrong, or loyalty with treason. If the observance of this memorial day has any apology, office, or significance, it is derived from the moral character of this war, from the far-reaching, unchangeable and eternal principles in dispute, and for which our sons and brothers encountered hardship, danger, and death.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Gettysburg Newspapers Mourn a President and Debate Reconstruction

The news of the death of President Lincoln, by assassination, was received here on 
Saturday morning, between 8 and 9 o'clock. That it shocked, appalled all--such as 
no piece of intelligence ever before did--is but using a weak expression as to its effect. 
Every face gave evidence of the occurrence of some terrible calamity.

The weekly edition of The Compiler went to press late on Monday, April 17, 1865. The editor of Gettysburg's Democratic newspaper apologized for the delay, explaining to subscribers that he desired to include all the latest particulars of the shocking news of the President's assassination. The news moved at an astonishing pace in April of 1865. Since the start of the month, Richmond and Petersburg had fallen, the largest rebel army had surrendered, and an actor had murdered the President of the United States. The brutal war was swiftly coming to an end, but the daunting and unprecedented task of reconstruction now stood before the nation. Gettysburg's dueling partisan newspapers attempted to make sense of it all.

The news of Lincoln's death brought a measure of unity to Gettysburg. Both the Republican Adams Sentinel and The Compiler described a town in mourning. "This awful event," the Sentinel recorded on April 18th, "...threw over our town a gloom which has never been equaled. The dreaded deed was so shocking to every heart, even of those who had been his friends, and as also his opponents, that but one feeling prevailed, of deep and painful sorrow." All businesses shuttered their doors, and flags draped in mourning soon covered the town. Bells tolled to announce the shocking tragedy.

Yet a survey of these newspapers in the spring of 1865 reveals that rebel surrenders and the assassination of the President did nothing but paper over Gettysburg's obvious political divisions. Alongside notes about Lincoln's funeral, and exciting news about the progress of the United States army, the Compiler and Sentinel continued to lock horns in partisan battles. As during the war, slavery and racism drove these divisions among white Gettysburgians. By April of 1865, Congress had sealed the fate of slavery with the passage of the 13th Amendment. The rights of African Americans and the status of four million newly freed-slaves now hung in the balance. For Democrats, "the Union as it was" reemerged as the rallying cry. The Compiler reported just ten days after Lincoln's death:
If the Abolitionists are in earnest in their professions of attachment to the Union, why not allow[?] to have it as our fathers made it? Why these talked of negro-equality experiments and other equally repulsive and unnatural schemes? The old Union was good enough for the men of 1783--why not for those of 1865? Reasonable men should want no more.
Later in the same issue, the editor commented, "When the war is fully over...the people will begin to reflect, and estimate what Abolitionism has cost the country. The result will stagger many who give the subject no thought now."

Republicans had successfully argued for the end of slavery as a war measure. Yet in the coming years, one central question of Reconstruction tested the nation: would white Americans accept full political and social equality for African Americans. The battlelines formed even as northern states celebrated the end of the war and mourned Lincoln. What political power could African Americans expect to gain? What political power could the defeated white plantation class that brought on the war expect to retain? These questions shaped competing memories of the war before the smoke cleared from its last battlefields. On May 9th, the Sentinel scoffed at the veneration of Robert E. Lee in a passage that could have just as well been written in 2019:
It is disgusting to observe the indications of a mawkish spirit which has appeared in certain quarters to regard some of the rebel leaders, and hold them up as great and admirable men.... In what respect is Robert E. Lee better than the cause of treason, murder and arson which he served? He was probably its ablest instrument, but in every respect he was as bad as any of his associates. Educated at the expense of the United States, he rebelled against, and used the very qualifcations which he had received from them to work their destruction.... It is a most weak, false, perverted sentiment which attaches to traitors the qualities and virtues which belong to honest and honorable men.... The memories of tens of thousands of our brethren who fill untimely graves forbid it. The melancholy procession of widows and orphans made so by this rebellion protest against it. Towns destroyed by fire--devastated fields, and ruined works of public improvement, bear witness to the guilt of treason. Shall the men who wrought all this evil be exalted in public estimation while their crimes cry aloud for punishment? We think the ghosts of all that fell from the day on which Massachusetts men were massacred in Baltimore, until Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, exclaim against it.
These competing Gettysburg newspapers highlighted the challenge Republicans faced as they looked toward the reconstruction of the nation. Though a semblance of unity existed among white northerners to support the war effort and reunite the country, that unity did not extend to guaranteeing freedom and equality for black Americans. Though the fighting between field armies on battlefields came to an end in April 1865, the war over the central issues at stake raged on.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

"Valor, devotion, and loyalty are not always rewarded according to their just deserts" - Robert Brown Elliott and the Civil Rights Act of 1875

ELLIOTT, Robert BrownSometimes, you read a source so good, you just have to share it out.

The speech given on the floor of the House of Representatives by Congressman Robert Brown Elliott on January 6, 1874 opens a window on the radical and swift changes wrought by the Civil War and Reconstruction, reveals the hope and optimism of that particular historical moment, and serves as a stark reminder of the nation's ultimate failures.

Born in England, Elliott had served in the Royal Navy before emigrating to the United States and settling in Charleston, South Carolina in 1867. There he became an associate editor of a freedmen's newspaper and an emerging leader in the Reconstruction politics of South Carolina. Elliott represented South Carolina's 3rd District in the 42nd and 43rd Congress and counted himself among the first black Congressmen in the nation's history. On the sixth of January, 1874, he rose to give a blistering speech in defense of the Civil Rights Bill that Senator Charles Sumner, continued to push through both houses of Congress. The bill made it illegal for places of public accommodation and entertainment to make distinctions between black and white patrons, and prohibited discrimination on account of race in public schools, churches, transportation, cemeteries, and on juries. Sumner thought that "very few measures of equal importance have ever been presented" before the United States Congress, and spent the better part of four years championing the bill, which only passed after his death in 1875.

When he took to the floor of the House of Representatives on January 6th, Elliott particularly sought to rebut the arguments of two Southern Democrats - Kentuckian James F. Beck and former Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens. Just one day before Stephens had spoken in opposition to the bill. The author of the famous "Cornerstone" speech again admitted that slavery caused the war, but declared "the cause is now forever removed," and rejected the need for further national protections for African Americans. Stephens invoked the self-evident truth of equality embodied in the Declaration of Independence, but opined: "This truth was never meant, in my opinion, to convey the idea that all men were created equal in all respects, either in physical, mental, or moral development." He insisted he held no prejudices, but railed against the idea of desegregated accommodations: "I do not believe the colored people of Georgia have any desire for mixed schools, and very little indeed, for mixed churches." He rejected the Constitutionality of the Civil Rights Bill and concluded with an impassioned defense of states rights - the same arguments that Southern segregationist lawmakers recycled for the next century. "The United States," Stephens said, "still exist as a Federal republic, and are not yet merged into a centralized empire."

Robert Brown Elliott had built a reputation for his oratorical skills, and deployed these skills to full effect on this day in the House of Representatives, in front of a gallery packed with African American spectators. He began:
While I am sincerely grateful for this high mark of courtesy that has been accorded to me by this House, it is a matter of regret to me that it is necessary at this day that I should rise in the presence of an American Congress to advocate a bill which simply asserts equal rights and equal public privileges for all classes of American citizens. I regret, sir, that the dark hue of my skin may lend a color to the imputation that I am controlled by motives personal to myself in advocacy of this great measure of national justice. Sir, the motive that impels me is restricted by no such narrow boundary, but is as broad as your Constitution. I advocate it, sir, because it is right. The bill, however, not only appeals to your justice, but it demands a response from your gratitude.
Elliott offered a history lesson on the bravery of African American soldiers in the Revolution and War of 1812. He highlighted the loyalty and service of African Americans to the Union during the Civil War, while sniping at the record of Beck's Kentucky - "a State which answered the call of the Republic in 1861, when treason thundered at the very gates of the capital by coldly declaring her neutrality in the impending struggle."

Elliott unleashed a point-by-point rebuttal of the Constitutional arguments laid out by Stephens, Beck, and others. He carefully recounted the limits of the Supreme Court's recent Slaughterhouse decision and demonstrated why it did not affect Congress's ability to pass the Civil Rights Bill.

Elliott reserved particular scorn for the former Confederate Vice President:
...In this discussion I cannot and will not forget that the welfare and rights of my whole race in this country are involved. When, therefore, the honorable gentleman from Georgia lends his voice and influence to defeat this measure, I do not shrink from saying that it is not from him that the American House of Representatives should take lessons in matters touching human rights or the joint relations of the State and national governments. While the honorable gentleman contented himself with harmless speculations in his study, or in the columns of newspaper, we might well smile at the impotence of his efforts to turn back the advancing tide of opinion and progress; but, when he comes again upon this national arena, and throws himself with all his power and influence across the path which leads to the full enfranchisement of my race, I meet him only as an adversary; nor shall age or any other consideration restrain me from saying that he now offers this Government, which he has done his utmost to destroy, a very poor return for its magnanimous treatment, to come here and seek to continue, by the assertion of doctrines obnoxious to the true principles of our Government, the burdens and oppressions which rest upon five millions of his countrymen who never failed to lift their earnest prayers for the success of this Government when the gentleman was seeking to break up the Union of these States and to blot the American Republic from the galaxy of nations. [Loud applause.]

Sir, it is scarcely twelve years since that gentleman shocked the civilized world by announcing the birth of a government which rested on human slavery as its corner-stone. The progress of events has swept away that pseudo-government which rested on greed, pride, and tyranny; and the race whom he then ruthlessly spurned and trampled on are here to meet him in debate, and to demand that the rights which are enjoyed by their former oppressors--who vainly sought to overthrow the Government which they could not prostitute to the base uses of slavery--shall be accorded to those who even in the darkest of slavery kept their allegiance true to freedom and the Union. Sir, the gentleman from Georgia has learned much since 1861; but he is still a laggard.
 In a powerful conclusion, Elliott laid out the stakes of the bill:
Technically, this bill is to decide upon the civil status of the colored American citizen; a point disputed at the very formation of our present Government, when by a short-sighted policy, a policy repugnant to true republican government, one negro counted as three-fifths of a man. The logical result of this mistake of the framers of the Constitution strengthened the cancer of slavery, which finally spread its poisonous tentacles over the southern portion of the body-politic. To arrest its growth and save the nation we have passed through the harrowing operation of intestine war, dreaded at all times, resorted to at the last extremity, like the surgeon's knife, but absolutely necessary to extirpate the disease which threatened with the life of the nation the overthrow of civil and political liberty on this continent. In that dire extremity the members of the race which I have the honor in part to represent--the race which pleads for justice at your hands today, forgetful of their inhuman and brutalizing servitude at the South, their degradation and ostracism at the North--flew willingly and gallantly to the support of the national Government. Their sufferings, assistance, privations, and trials in the swamps and the rice-fields, their valor on the land and on the sea, in part of the ever-glorious record which makes up the history of a nation preserved, and might, should I urge the claim, incline your respect and guarantee their rights and privileges as citizens of our great common Republic. But I remember that valor, devotion, and loyalty are not always rewarded according to their just deserts, and that some after the battle who have borne the brunt of the fray may, through neglect or contempt, be assigned to a subordinate place, while the enemies in war may be preferred to the sufferers.
All seven African American members of the 43rd Congress spoke passionately in support of the Civil Rights Bill and offered personal testimony of the types of discrimination they had personally faced. Congressman and former U.S. General Benjamin Butler sponsored the bill and shepherded it through the House. Speaking of his support for the Bill, Butler recalled an engagement in Virginia in which he commanded black soldiers who had died in battle:
As I looked on their bronzed faces upturned in the shining sun to heaven as if in mute appeal against the wrong of the country for which they had given their lives...feeling I had wronged them in the past...I swore to myself a solemn defend the rights of these men who had given their blood for me and my country.
The Civil Rights Act finally became law in 1875, though without several key provisions such as that prohibiting racial discrimination in schools. The Grant Administration declined to enforce the law. The Supreme Court effectively overturned the law in 1883, arguing that the 13th and 14th amendments did not empower Congress to prohibit racial discrimination by private individuals. Historians consider the Civil Rights Act as the last major piece of Reconstruction legislation passed by Congress. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 later reenacted portions of the act almost a century later.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Stories We Tell and the Stories We Don't

Should public historians tell the stories our audiences want to hear? Or the stories that we believe they need to know?
Dr. John Brockenbrough's House, 1201 Clay Street, Richmond
Library of Congress.

The question itself contains inherent flaws. In determining what stories our audiences want to hear, we go a long way toward defining the very makeup of those audiences.

Some might say we should just "present the facts." Of course, public historians always have to choose which facts to tell, why they matter, and which facts we leave out. We must decide which stories about a given place are powerful, relevant, and worthy of the telling.

A friend of mine recently asked: how far must a historical site like Gettysburg go in presenting the story of slavery. Should the interpretive markers on Little Round Top explain the significance of the institution of slavery and its relevance to the war?

I'm conflicted in my answer. The power of a historic site is the power of place. Little Round Top's draws more than a million people a year because they can stand there and imagine the chaos and fury of a battle with supreme stakes, see in their mind the lines of troops, picture the air filled with deadly missiles, and smoke rising from the hill like a smoldering volcano. An evocative scene stirs emotions. Little Round Top is not the place for interpretive markers delving into the complex backstory, causes, and legacy of the Civil War.

And yet, we cannot fully appreciate the importance of Little Round Top's story without connecting it to the larger causes and legacies of the war. What's more, our historic sites have been selectively chosen over time, robbing us of the ability to experience the power of place at other meaningful sites. For more than a century, we've preserved battlefields and the houses of the wealthy and powerful. The plantation fields and structures have gone away, removed deliberately or through neglect. Likewise, the slave pens and jails have disappeared from the modern landscape. Few places remain where one can stand and imagine the historical scene of a slave coffle marching south in chains.

The stories of enslaved people were largely silenced too. We can learn thousands of soldiers' stories through the diaries, letters, memoirs, regimental histories, newspaper articles, speeches, monuments, and pension records they left. Comparatively, there are few records as rich to tell the story of enslaved people. We have a few hundred slave narratives. Slave owners used enforced illiteracy as a tool of control. Federal and State governments did not approve funds for the erection of monuments to slaves. We have private foundations that pump money into battlefield preservation, but seem less concerned for the preservation of slave quarters.

The result is a lack of important perspectives at public history sites.

This weekend I toured the Confederate White House in Richmond. I've visited twice before, but not in the last decade. On this trip, I noted that the house itself had hardly changed. The period rooms remained almost exactly as I remembered them from my last trip in 2005. The stories I heard changed. In the entrance hall, our guide presented us with a signed pass for the enslaved butler, Henry. He described how this pass represented the total control that white society sought to exert over Henry's life. Then he described how Henry used the commotion of a fire in the basement one day in 1864 as a diversion to make a daring escape.

The Dining Room remained set for a council of war held in the spring of 1862, as rebel military leaders contemplated the defense of Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign. Our guide reflected on the enslaved servants who came and went from the room during the meeting. What did they overhear? Was it safe to discuss this information freely in front of these potential enemies?

Even with the updated storylines, I wondered at the decisions made long ago in interpreting and furnishing this historic home. Here in a house built in 1818, the central story revolved around a brief four years of its history, and around only one of the many families who called it home.

I wondered about the original builder of the home, and what the surrounding city looked like in 1818 when this home went up in an elite section that included neighbors like John Marshall. I wanted to hear about pre-war Richmond, and how the war drastically altered life here. And I was intensely curious to know the home's postwar story. Seized by the United States government, the mansion became headquarters for the First Military District during Reconstruction. The stories of this house during that tumultuous period could fill a vacuum of public knowledge on the subject.

I left the tour wondering if the decision to restore the entire house to such a specific period robbed it of a chance to tell a broader, more complete story of the American Civil War.

At every site, there are the stories public historians choose to tell and the stories we choose to ignore. Each site has valid reasons for these decisions, and for continuing to operate based on assumptions made by past leaders in past eras. Funding, resources, logistics, and often the limits of historical evidence available, all contribute to the central narratives chosen.

Yet, it is worth taking the time occasionally to step back and question the assumptions underlying our most basic interpretive decisions.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sketching out a Unionist Spy Operation in Orange, Virginia and stumbling across Charles A. Beard

The mystery begins with a photograph taken at Brandy Station, Virginia in March of 1864. The image depicts scouts and guides of the Army of the Potomac just a few months before the start of the Overland Campaign.

According to the Library of Congress summary, the second man standing from the left may be James Cammack. I say "may" because a question mark placed after his name indicates a lack of certainty. How his name became attached to this photograph in the first place, I am unaware.

Who was this man dressed in civilian clothing, and what was his role with the Army of the Potomac in March of 1864? A variety of sources connect some, but not all, of the dots, adding to our knowledge of how Unionist Virginians provided invaluable assistance to the Army of the Potomac's Bureau of Military Information.

The name Cammack appears several times in the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. On September 5th, 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant received a message from Assistant Adjutant General George K. Leet, relating the following:
WASHINGTON, September 5, 1864--2:30 p.m. Lieutenant-General GRANT, City Point, Va.:
The information contained in dispatch of 29th ultimo was obtained by the scouts from an agent named Cammack, an old man who lives near Orange Court-house. Scouts in this morning, who derive their information from the same source, report the following: No troops have passed to or from the Valley since Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry went up. Force of infantry there is Ewell's old corps, Breckenridge's division, and Anderson's brigade of Field's division. Have been steadily falling back of late, but no signs of their leaving the valley.
This information is to the 3d instant, and Mr. Babcock, who has charge of scouts, thinks it reliable.
Geo. K. Leet, Captain and Assistant Adjutant-General.
Ten days letter, another message sent from the head of the Bureau of Military Information, George Sharpe, to Army of the Potomac Chief of Staff Andrew A. Humphreys also mentioned Cammack:
I have a report from Captain McEntee, dated day before yesterday, at Washington. Scouts had returned that morning from Cammacks and Silvers. The news they bring amounts to the absence of all movements through Orange Court-House toward or from the Valley. Cammack reports that a neighbor of his lately received letters from friends in the Ninth and Thirtieth Virginia Regiments...."
Two scholars of the intelligence operations of the United States army during the Civil War, Edwin Fishel and William B. Feis, obliquely refer to the agent named Cammack in their writings, but spend more time exploring the role of another spy in the area, Isaac Silver. In Fishel's landmark study, The Secret War for the Union, he writes:
 Silver again put his Orange county business connections to use as cover for visits to that problem area. He paid special attention to railroad depots, where he questioned railroad employees and travelers, seeking information of movements on the Orange and Alexandria and the Virginia Central, and any other military news they might have. James W. Cammack, who evidently had connections similar to Sliver's (and shared with Silver the sobriquet 'the old man') was similarly employed.
 In Feis's work, Grant's Secret Service, he writes something similar:
Sharpe sent Babcock to Washington in early August to establish an organization to monitor Early's main rail links with Richmond. This operation depended upon three Virginia Unionists who lived in the vicinity of the depots of the Orange and Alexandria; the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac; and the Virginia Central Railroads. Isaac Silver (alias 'the old man'), James W. Cammack, and Ebenezer McGee, all of whom lived west of Fredericksburg, would visit the depots regularly, question passengers and railroad employees about the composition and direction of recent traffic, and watch specifically for troop trains heading for the valley.
Yet the identification of James W. Cammack as the individual referenced in the September, 1864 dispatches flowing to and from Grant's headquarters at City Point raises some questions. One dispatch clearly labels "Cammack" as an old man. Census records reveal that there was a James W. Cammack who lived in Orange County, Virginia. However, he was born in 1833, and in 1864 would have been about 31 years of age. This potentially matches the Library of Congress image we have of Cammack at Brandy Station, but neither supports the description of an old man.

A variety of census, marriage, and death records  start to unravel the mystery of the Army of the Potomac's agent, including census records for 1850, 1870,and 1880. James W. Cammack's parents were William E. and Rebecca Cammack. They operated a farm of about 150 acres in Orange County, Virginia at the beginning of the Civil War. William E. was 53 years old in 1861, and his wife 66. The couple had at least three children: James W. (age 28 in 1861), George W. (24), and Catherine (19). George W. enlisted in the Confederate army in 1861, serving with the 46th Virginia, but his brother apparently did not.

There is compelling evidence to suggest that the "old man" related by Union reports was actually William E. Cammack, and that his son served for a period as a scout for the Army of the Potomac, traveling to and from his father's home.

An 1863 Army of the Potomac map in the Library of Congress highlights a residence named "Cammack" just south of Robertson's Tavern and Old Verdiersville, several miles to the east of Orange Court House.

Then there's an intriguing account left us by Judson Knight, a man who served as a scout (and later chief of scouts) in the Army of the Potomac. Writing in The National Tribune on July 21, 1892, Knight weaves the following story of creating a new source of information within Confederate territory:
During that [Mine Run] campaign a party of scouts from Army Headquarters found themselves in the vicinity of "Old Vidersville," about 12 miles south of Culpeper, Va. in the neighborhood of the farmhouse that looked as though food for man and beast might be procured. Upon the party riding up to the house they were met by an old Virginia farmer who anxiously asked if they were "Yankees." He was told that they were, to which he replied, "I am mighty glad to see you-all."

"Oh! Give us a rest; we have heard that kind of talk before," was the reply from some of the scouts. The old farmer looked anxiously and rapidly from one to another, and a shade of fear swept over his face as he observed the motley dress of several of the party until his eyes rested upon one who wore a full Federal uniform. He scrutinized him carefully, while the boys were still chaffing him, and addressing him personally, said: "Are you Yankees?"

"Yes, we are!" And the reply was so emphatic and made in such a tone as though the speaker was proud of the fact and of the chance of telling one whom he supposed to be an enemy of the government, that his face instantly cleared and all could see that his assertion of "I am mighty glad to see you all," was a fact.

"Come, gentlemen, light," was his next salutation; and they "lit."
"Can you furnish us a dinner and a feed for our horses?"
"Yes, and glad to do it, too."

While discussing the news the old farmer said: "I am glad you-all came out here today, for I have a son that I want you-all to take with you when you leave here."

He was told that it would not be done, as there was no spare horse for his son to ride.

"Never mind about the horse. I have got as good a horse as any of you-all, and he can have him, if you will only take him along with you all."

All hands saw by this time the old man was a Unionist, and in dead earnest. He told the party his son had been in a neighboring State, and had been able to keep out of the army until the previous June, when he was conscripted and allowed to go home to join a Virginia regiment. He had been home about six months, hid in one of the chambers, and had not been out of doors in daylight in all that time. Stepping to the stairway he called him down. His son was about 32 years of age, and about five feet 10 inches in height, and as white as ghosts are supposed to be, from his enforced seclusion during all those weeks. He was taken along, and when Gen. Meade fell back across the Rapidan he went with us.

Some time during the month of December, 1863, it was concluded at Headquarters that if we could find a good crossing just above Jacob's or Germanna Fords, we would start a line between Headquarters of our army and Headquarters of the Army of Northern Virginia by sending relays of men to the house of the old Unionist, whose name I am not going  to divulge; neither shall I tell the name of his son, but in future will refer to him as "Bob."
The "old man" - William E. Cammack - continued to live in Orange, Virginia after the war. In the 1870s he applied for and apparently received reimbursement for war damages from the Southern Claims Commission. Reimbursement required proof of Union sympathies and loyalty.

His two sons went west. Both James and George moved to Indianapolis after the war. George returned to Virginia by 1870 and was later buried at New Hope Baptist Church in Orange County, Virginia, along the old Plank Road.

James W. Cammack did not return. At an unknown date during or perhaps before the war, James had married Laura Ann Beard of Guilford County, North Carolina. If James and his father are the individuals referenced in Knight's account, it is likely that North Carolina was the "neighboring state" that Cammack spent time in prior to returning to Virginia upon his conscription.

Laura Beard's family were staunch Quaker Unionists during the war, and removed to Indiana at its conclusion, apparently leading or following James and Laura Cammack. James and Laura eventually settled in Knightstown, Indiana with the rest of the Beard family. And it was in Knightstown in 1874 that their famous nephew, noted American historian Charles A. Beard, was born.

Sources Included:

U.S. Census Records, 1850-1880
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Collection Public Member Stories (including newspaper obituaries for members of the Beard family)

Feis, William B. Grant's Secret Service: The Intelligence War from Belmont to Appomattox. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Fishel, Edwin C. The Secret War for the Union: The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War. New York: Mariner Books, 1998.

 United States War Department. The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901.

 Tsouras, Peter G. Scouting for Grant and Meade: The Reminiscences of Judson Knight, Chief of Scouts, Army of the Potomac. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2014.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Sanctuary Cities of Slavery

Anthony Burns drawn by Barry from
a daguerreotype by Whipple & Black;
 John Andrews, sc. Source: Library of Congress
On Wednesday, the President of the United States released an executive order to step up enforcement of immigration laws, and to take targeted action against so-called "sanctuary cities," denying them federal funding. These are cities that refuse to hand over undocumented immigrants to federal authorities intent on deporting them. While such efforts to defy federal authority may strike some as an unprecedented defiance of our national government, it's not terribly unprecedented. In fact, such actions call to mind the personal liberty laws passed by numerous states during the mid-nineteenth century.

The Constitution itself provided provision for the return of fugitive slaves in Article IV, section 2. In 1793, Congress turned this provision into law with its first fugitive slave law. Yet growing anti-slavery sentiment in the North led some states to pass personal liberty laws designed to distance their relationship from slavery. In 1826 Pennsylvania passed such a law forbidding state authorities from aiding the capture and return of runaway slaves. The law walked a fine line - it did not subvert the Constitution because it did not prevent federal authorities from seeking out and returning slaves; only state authorities.Nevertheless, the law was struck by the Supreme Court in Prigg v. Pennsylvania in 1842

Despite the decision, increasing Abolitionist agitation brought about the passage of stronger personal liberty laws in Massachusetts and Vermont in 1843, New Hampshire in 1846, Pennsylvania in 1847, and Rhode Island in 1848. As part of the Compromise of 1850, however, Congress passed a stricter fugitive slave act. This new law  compelled northerners to participate in the recovery of fugitive slaves, threatening heavy fines or imprisonment. Stiff penalties were also set for those individuals found to have assisted fugitive slaves in their escape. The act crystallized northern opposition to slavery, as it seemingly forced their participation in maintaining the inhumane institution. Opposition to the law reached its zenith in the city of Boston in May of 1854, when a Virginia merchant by the name of Charles F. Suttle sought to recover his runaway slave, Anthony Burns.

Working on the wharfs in Richmond Virginia, Burns had managed to board a ship bound for Boston earlier that year. To recover Burns, federal marshals worked with local law enforcement to first arrest the fugitive on fabricated robbery charges. When local abolitionists learned of Burns's incarceration and impending deportation back to slavery, they organized resistance. 5,000 citizens gathered at Faneuil Hall to protest, while a smaller group of black and white abolitionists, led by the minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson, made plans to storm the court house and free Burns. Armed with axes and a battering ram, they breached the heavy doors of the court house, and a melee ensued, during which one defender was stabbed and killed. The abolitionists failed to reach and free Burns.

To enforce the law, local militia were called out, and two companies of U.S. marines were sent to Boston by President Franklin Pierce. One week later, hundreds of federal troops escorted Burns back to slavery. As the rendition took place, some 50,000 Bostonians turned out in the streets to witness the sad scene. As historian Manisha Sinha has recently described it, "Buildings were draped in black, American flags were outlined in black, and a coffin with the word Liberty on it was displayed."

One witness to the events wrote: "When it was all over and I was alone in my office, I put my hands in my face and wept. I could do nothing less."
Sources / Further Reading
Hall, Kermit L. The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Sinha, Manisha, The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.

Wilentz, Sean. The Rise of American Democracy. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2005.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Power of Place: Germanna Ford

View of the Rapidan River at Germanna Ford
Sometimes you can stand in a place and connect with a sense of its history. Yesterday, I felt this power of place when I visited Germanna Ford on the Rapidan River for the first time. As I stood overlooking the stream with the sound of modern traffic audible on the Route 3 bridge nearby, I was struck by the fact that it was here, on the south bank of the Rapidan, that the war entered its final, darkest, act on May 4th, 1864.

The Rapidan begins high up in the Blue Ridge Mountains as a small stream, cascading down over rocks and creating small pools. It meanders across the Piedmont of Central Virginia on its 88-mile journey to a confluence near Fredericksburg with the Rappahannock, which continues on to the Chesapeake Bay.

These two rivers became the dividing line of the war in the east. John Pope and Robert E. Lee's armies skirmished and sparred with each other over these rivers in August of 1862, as a prelude to Second Manassas. The Army of Northern Virginia contested a Rappahannock crossing again at Fredericksburg in December of 1862, and the two armies wintered on opposite banks in the battle's aftermath. In April of 1863 the Army of the Potomac utilized Germanna Ford in an attempt to flank Lee's position at Fredericksburg, but withdrew after defeat at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Under George Gordon Meade, the army returned  to Germanna Ford in November, a portion crossing here before aborting its campaign in front of Lee's entrenchments at Mine Run. During the winter of 1863 and 1864, the Rapidan divided the armed camps of both armies.

For nearly three years, rebel forces had thwarted every attempt by the United States army to establish itself south of these rivers.

After dark on May 3, 1864 the Army of the Potomac broke up its camps around Culpeper to begin yet another, final, attempt to pass the Rapidan. By 4 a.m. on May 4th, the men of the 50th New York Engineers had arrived at Germanna Ford and began to build two 220 foot bridges across the Rapidan. Within two hours, the engineers completed both bridges, and troops began to flow across the river. By 6 p.m., that evening, some 50,000 soldiers of the 5th and 6th Corps, of the Army of the Potomac had crossed on these two bridges.

Germanna Ford, Rapidan River, Virginia. Grant's Troops Crossing Germannia [Sic] Ford.
Timothy O'Sullivan. Library of Congress

Sometime late that afternoon, photographer Timothy O'Sullivan, traveling with the Army of the Potomac, crossed the bridges with his dark wagon, and set up on a bluff on south side to record a series of historic images of the crossing.

These fascinating images record an army in motion. By May of 1864, the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac had gotten used to crossing the Rapidan River. Few of these soldiers probably thought about the historical nature of this crossing. Who among them could have predicted that for most of them, this would be their final crossing of the river before the end of the war? Yet the stakes were higher this spring. The end of this season of battle would bring with it a Presidential Election. It may be hard for many of us to fathom, but the election season of 1864 was darker and fraught with more dangers than even our current unhappiness.

Theodore Lyman, a military aide to Meade, recorded crossing at about 9:30 in the morning, and resting for some time on the high bank south of the river,watching "the steady stream of men and cannon and trains pouring over the pontoons." He later reflected:
I remember thinking how strange it would be if each man who was destined to fall in the campaign had some large badge on! There would have been Generals Sedgwick, Wadsworth, and Rice, and what crowds of subordinate officers and privates, all marching gaily along, unconscious, happily, of their fate
Up ahead lay the Wilderness of Spotsylvania County, where the men of the 5th and 6th Corps would be drawn into battle the following morning. It marked the beginning of 42 days of consecutive battle.

Further Reading
William Frassanito, Grant and Lee: The Virginia Campaigns, 1864-1865
Theodore Lyman, With Grant and Meade: From the Wilderness to Appomattox.
Gordon Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5-6, 1864.