Commemorating the Battle of New Market Heights, Henrico County, Virginia

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Bennie White of Company A, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry; he was one of the many Reenactors/Living Historian at the Battle of New Market Heights Commemoration, September 27, 2014

This past weekend (September 27, 2014) I attended a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the US Civil War’s Battle of New Market Heights in Henrico County, Virginia. The county borders the city of Richmond, which was the Capital of the Confederacy. Many battles took place in the vicinity before the end of the war in early 1865.

The commemoration included a number of events, the highlight being a staging of the battle by a large group of Confederate and Union soldier reenactors.

New Market Heights is significant as the battle which earned the Medal of Honor for more than a dozen soldiers of the United States Colored Troops, or USCT. The USCT was the part of the Union army which contained just about all of its black enlistees. A ceremony was held at the end of the day to honor the medal winners, which included some of those soldier’s descendants. I found that to be a very poignant event,

I didn’t get a lot of great photos during my visit, but I am fond of the one which is above. The gentleman in the photo is Bennie White of Company A, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which is based in Boston, Massachusetts. He mentioned that his involvement in reenacting dates back to the movie Glory – and many African American reenactors/living historians have told me the same. That movie has sparked more black interest in the war than any book, it seems to me. Which says more about the books that have been used to teach the history of the war, than the movie, I think.

I want to give a shout out to my friend Marquett Milton. Milton, who is young, energetic, and enthusiastic, was chosen to lead the charge that captured the New Market Heights earthen fort. After doing so, he was very pumped up, as you can imagine. We drove back to Washington, DC, when the day’s events were finished, and he fell asleep after just 10 minutes. Although some very late night banter from the previous day with his fellow camp mates may have contributed to his fatigue. (Many reenactors slept in a tent camp the previous night, and had a good time while at it.)

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Marquett Milton, United States Colored Troops Reenactor/Living Historian at the Battle of New Market Heights Commemoration, September 27, 2014

Finally, hats off to the folks of Henrico County for a great event.

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Reenactors/Living Historians at the Battle of New Market Heights Commemoration, September 27, 2014. These men took part in the ceremony that honored the members of the US Colored Troops who earned the Medal of Honor during the Battle.

The Many Facets of the Remarkable Robert Webster

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Robert Webster: Confederate Slave, Union Supporter, Business Man, and the Allleged Son of “Black Dan” Webster
Source: Julie Rowlands Collection, from the October 2014 issue of Smithsonian magazine

The October issue of Smithsonian magazine features an article about a man who is rightly describe as remarkable. Writer Marc Wortman tells the story of Robert Webster, who “risked his life to undermine the Confederacy yet remained close to his former owner after the Civil War.”

The article, titled Why Was Robert Webster, a Slave, Wearing What Looks Like a Confederate Uniform?, introduces us to Webster, a slave who gained minor prominence during the Civil War. From the start of the piece:

As Confederate troops abandoned Atlanta during the night between September 1 and 2, 1864, they blew up a stranded 81-car train packed with munitions. A series of explosions, audible 80 miles away, leveled nearly everything within a quarter-mile and set the cotton warehouses aflame. The perplexed Union commander, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, said that from his position almost 20 miles distant, the sound of the fire was “like that of musketry.”

Yet when a few hundred stunned people clustered downtown on the morning after, one of them remarked, “I have never seen the city more quiet.” After living under siege for nearly six weeks, they watched nine of Atlanta’s leading citizens saddle up to ride out to surrender the city to Sherman’s 100,000 men. “Language falls short,” one of those on hand wrote, “in expressing the suspense and anxiety experienced by everyone.”

Perhaps the clearest signal that life in Atlanta would never be the same could be seen among the men who rode out under the white flag: One of them was black. And while technically still a slave, he was as rich as the white men riding beside him. “[He] was better off than any of us,” a white businessman would testify. Bob Yancey, as he was known at the time, was 44 years old. Over the course of his life he was also called Bob, Bob Gadsby, Bob Cunningham, Yancey and, finally, Robert Webster. After the war, he would insist that Webster was his rightful surname—a legacy from the famed Senator Daniel Webster, whom he claimed as his father.

The article title focuses on the uniform Webster is wearing in the above photograph. But Webster was not enlisted in the Confederate army, and there is no evidence he did any combat duty. I dislike the article title, as it seems to me that the uniform is almost a minor part of Webster’s story. Having said that, it does seem that an African American in (what might or might not be) a Confederate uniform draws a lot of attention in some places.

I found the story poignant in two ways. First, it illustrates the divide, which could be a wide divide, between the lives of plantation or so-called “field slaves” and “servants” or “body servants” or so-called “house slaves.” The black leader Malcolm X gave a speech which is famous to students of him and his era called “the field negro and the house negro” which explores this divide, albeit, in a very pointed way.

This is not to say Webster was a “house negro” in any derogatory sense. Rather, it’s clear that being a house servant gave him privileges and opportunities which he keenly maximized, and used to aid his master’s enemy – the Union – at some financial benefit to himself. It also seems he had some ability at working with diverse groups of people.

Second, I was intrigued by Webster’s alleged lineage from the Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, who was sometimes called “Black Dan” Webster due to relatively dark skin color.

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Daniel Webster, of Massachusetts, who served in the US House and Senate, and was twice US Secretary of State; was he Robert Webster’s father?
Source: Wikipedia Commons

If I could go back in time and meet Robert Webster, my first question would be, “how did your… belief that Dan Webster was your father affect you, and make you what you are?” The stories of mulattos and the impact of white parents on their lives is not something that I have seen discussed in extensive form, outside of individual biographies. That story is a part of my own family history, a story which my family has, in general, avoided discussion of (and this is not at all uncommon).

Two Views of Emancipation – Which is Right?

Which of these two monuments offers the best depiction of the relationship between African Americans and Abraham Lincoln, and the role each played in ending slavery? This one…

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The Emancipation Memorial, AKA the Freedman’s Memorial, in Washington, DC
Source: Wikipedia

…or this one?

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Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, Cleveland, OH
Image © Dave Wiegers Photography, see here and here. Wiegers has done a number of photos of monuments to Abraham Lincoln. 

My thoughts are below the fold. Continue reading

He died for his master’s country

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Claim receipt for compensation to a slave owner, Peter Gaillard Stoney of South Carolina, for the loss of his slave Toby. Toby died while building military fortifications in the Charleston area.
Source: railsplitter.com, a site for the sale of Civil War era collectibles. See here, item number 894. This document had an estimated value of $200-300.

When the Civil War began, some Confederates opined that slavery would be a source of strength for their putative nation. Slaves would perform the drudgery type work that every country at war must have done; and white men could be dedicated to combat and garrison duty. Thus, even if negroes could not take arms for the Confederacy, they could be useful by providing valuable labor.

Slaves were used in various capacities. Many were employed building fortifications to protect positions within the CSA from attack by the Union. Working on these fortifications could be hazardous, due to heat, exhaustion, disease, accidents, or other perils. Some owners resisted this use of their slaves precisely because the work conditions could be so dangerous to their slave property.

In 1864, a slave known as Toby paid the ultimate price for his duty to his master and his master’s cause. He died while building fortifications in South Carolina. The monetary compensation for the loss – $1900 – indicates that Toby was considered a valuable slave. The payment went to the owner, who might have felt the loss of a slave – perhaps someone considered a loyal slave – on different levels. It is unclear if Toby’s family received a share of the monies.

Toby, of course, could not have died for his country… he had no country. As a slave, he was no more a citizen of the Confederacy than a horse or a mule. It was his role as a human beast of burden that would position him for his deadly enterprise, such as it was.

Toby’s death underscores the fact that many more people died during the war, directly because of the war, than are counted on military death rolls. And no doubt other men, black or white, Confederate or Union, died under similar conditions. These are the uncounted casualties of the Civil War.

Andy Hall of the website Dead Confederates has identified the slave owner as Peter Gaillard Stoney (1809-1884) of St. James, Goose Creek Parish, Charleston District of South Carolina. Stoney had 120 slaves according to the 1860 U.S. Census. The Stoneys’ home was Medway Plantation, that still stands.

This is a photo from the Medway Plantation. The date is unknown, but this was probably taken sometime after the end of the Civil War. The structure in the photo appears to be one of the former slave quarters. Perhaps Toby’s friends and family, or Toby himself, resided here.

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Former slave quarters(?), Medway Plantation, South Carolina; probably post Civil War.
Source: South Carolina Library, Digital Collections, Berkeley County Photograph Collection, Accession no. 1001.15, Folder 1001 Berkeley (1-22), housed at South Caroliniana Library

Child’s Play is Not Child’s Play on a Civil War Era Plantation

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“But seriously… did you have to go there?”
Source: Image of Miss Ophelia and Topsy from Selection from Uncle Tom’s Cabin: A Digital Critical Edition: “Topsy”: Houghton, Osgood & Co. “New Edition,” 1879

Sometimes a game is not a game. Susan Snow, a former enslaved woman, learned this the hard way during the Civil War.

Snow was one of many former slaves who was interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Depression-era Work Projects Administration. During her interview with a Project writer, she recalled an incident from the War, when she was in her early teens:

I was born in Wilcox County, Alabama, in 1850. W.J. Snow was my old marster. He bought my ma from a man named Jerry Casey. Venus was her name, but dey mos’ly called her ‘Venie.’

“I got more whuppin’s dan any other Nigger on de place, ’cause I was mean like my mammy. Always a-fightin’ an’ scratchin’ wid white an’ black. I was so bad Marster made me go look at de Niggers dey hung to see what dey done to a Nigger dat harm a white man. Continue reading

Martin Jackson: Recollections of a Confederate Servant

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Martin Jackson at age 90: Texan, house slave, Confederate servant, freedman, and WWI veteran
Source: Gelatin-silver photographic print of Martin Jackson, San Antonio, Texas, 1937. Prints and Photographs Division and Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Photo was taken by or for the Federal Writers’ Project, which was part of the Works Progress Administration.

Martin Jackson had a long and interesting life. As a slave during the Civil War, he rescued Confederate wounded from the battlefield – he was an “official lugger-in of men,” he called himself. Much later, during World War I, he enlisted as a cook! This is not a story you will hear much.

Jackson was a long time resident of Texas. At the age of 90, he was interviewed about his life as a slave for the Federal Writers’ Project of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. He recalled his early life, mentioned the “good treatment” he enjoyed as a house slave, spoke about the difficulty of telling the true story of slavery to strangers (such as, perhaps, those who conducted these slave interviews for the WPA), and his experiences during the Civil War.

Some have applied the label “black Confederate” to men like Jackson, saying that they “served” the Confederacy. But Jackson’s comments provide a much more complex understanding of his “service.” Rather than characterize his statements in any way, I will let Jackson’s words speak for themselves.

This is an abridged and edited version of the WPA interview. Mainly, I have moved paragraphs around so that they follow a linear timeline; the original interview kind of skipped all over the place in time. Here it is:

“My earliest recollection is the day my old boss presented me to his son, Joe, as his property. I was about five years old and my new master was only two.

“Lots of old slaves closes the door before they tell the truth about their days of slavery. When the door is open, they tell how kind their masters was and how rosy it all was. You can’t blame them for this, because they had plenty of early discipline, making them cautious about saying anything uncomplimentary about their masters. I, myself, was in a little different position than most slaves and, as a consequence, have no grudges or resentment. However, I can tell you the life of the average slave was not rosy. They were dealt out plenty of cruel suffering. Continue reading

Portrait of a Washerwoman for the Union Army, around Richmond, VA, with a flag pinned to dress

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Ambrotype photograph of an unidentified washerwoman for the Union Army, circa 1865, Richmond, Virginia.
Source: Photographic History Collection, Division of Information Technology and Communications, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

At the website for National Public Radio, Shannon Thomas Perich offers an interpretation of this image:

The flag (on the woman) especially raises questions as it is called out by the coloring. Why is a woman who is disenfranchised because of her skin color and her gender wearing the flag, often a symbol of freedom? Is that what it meant for her? If so, how did she describe freedom for herself and the nation? Is she wearing the flag by choice? Did she purchase this image? Did she own it? If not, then who did?

…This photograph was not made casually or by accident. Before she even sat for the camera, her dress was clean and pressed, and her hair coiffed. The pinning of the flag, and its coloring and the pink tint on her cheeks, are deliberate actions. The woman holds herself steady, with pride, perhaps assisted by a hidden head brace, and by her arm on the draped table. She holds our gaze with her eyes, which do not reflect happiness or relaxation, but seem to signal a bit of trepidation.

The enitre article from Perich, titled A Flag Of Freedom?, is here.