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 Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp

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Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia by Thomas Moran, 1862

The Great Dismal Swamp is a huge marshy area that stretches from the city of Norfolk in southeastern Virginia to Elizabeth City in northeastern North Carolina. The swamp was infamous (to white slaveholders) in the pre-Civil War era as a refuge for freedom seeking African Americans. Communities of so-called Great Dismal Swamp maroons, along with a number of Native Americans, made it their home. Wikipedia provides this description of the maroons:

Herbert Aptheker stated already in 1939, in “Maroons Within the Present Limits of the United States”, that likely “about two thousand Negroes, fugitives, or the descendants of fugitives” lived in the Great Dismal Swamp, trading with white people outside the swamp. Results of a study published in 2007, “The Political Economy of Exile in the Great Dismal Swamp”, say that thousands of people lived in the swamp between 1630 and 1865, Native Americans, maroons and enslaved laborers on the canal. A 2011 study speculated that thousands may have lived in the swamp between the 1600s and 1860.

While the precise number of maroons who lived in the swamp at that time is unknown, it is believed to have been one of the largest maroon colonies in the United States. It is established that “several thousand” were living there by the 19th century. However, fear of slave unrest and fugitive slaves living among maroon population caused concern amongst local whites.

A militia with dogs went into the swamp in 1823 in an attempt to remove the maroons and destroy their community, but most people escaped. In 1847, North Carolina passed a law specifically aimed at apprehending the maroons in the swamp.However, unlike other maroon communities, where local militias often captured the residents and destroyed their homes, those in the Great Dismal Swamp mostly avoided capture or the discovery of their homes.

The theme of the Swamp as a place of escape and refuge was seen in several 19th Century works of art. One of the more well-known is the painting Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia by Thomas Moran. The picture, shown above, is centered around a slave family – father, mother, and child – that is on the run from slave catchers. The father holds a bloody knife, having killed a chasing dog. But two other dogs are shown in pursuit, and two slave-catchers loom in the dark background. The family seems frozen in time, as they look up at the on-coming dogs; freedom will not come easy, if it comes at all. The only thing we know for sure is that this family will put up a fight.

The painting was completed in 1862, in the early years of the Civil War. According to the book The Civil War in American Art, edited by Eleanor James Harvey, the picture was commissioned by an abolitionist, and may be based in part on a literary work by the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow, partially at the request of the ardent abolitionist Charles Sumner, Longfellow wrote a group of pieces in his collection Poems on Slavery. One of those works, The Slave in the Dismal Swamp, talks of the harsh life in the marsh:

The Slave in the Dismal Swamp
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In dark fens of the Dismal Swamp
The hunted Negro lay;
He saw the fire of the midnight camp,
And heard at times a horse’s tramp
And a bloodhound’s distant bay.

Where will-o’-the-wisps and glow-worms shine,
In bulrush and in brake;
Where waving mosses shroud the pine,
And the cedar grows, and the poisonous vine
Is spotted like the snake;

Where hardly a human foot could pass,
Or a human heart would dare,
On the quaking turf of the green morass
He crouched in the rank and tangled grass,
Like a wild beast in his lair.

A poor old slave, infirm and lame;
Great scars deformed his face;
On his forehead he bore the brand of shame,
And the rags, that hid his mangled frame,
Were the livery of disgrace.

All things above were bright and fair,
All things were glad and free;
Lithe squirrels darted here and there,
And wild birds filled the echoing air
With songs of Liberty!

On him alone was the doom of pain,
From the morning of his birth;
On him alone the curse of Cain
Fell, like a flail on the garnered grain,
And struck him to the earth!

Many historians today situate the Dismal Swamp maroon communities as part of the larger Underground Railroad network and African American anti-slavery resistance. There is a lot of material about the maroons in books and on the Web. I found this document, which is a general/pictorial history of the Swamp, quite interesting and it spurred me to do further reading on the subject.

Virginia Brochure Touts “Richmond Burning”: Emancipation as a Tourist Destination


From the “On to Richmond.com” website.

I had to do a double-take when I saw it. In big letters and bold colors, this Virginia travel brochure seems to loudly – and proudly – say that, yes, Richmond burned to advance the cause of freedom – and you ought to come visit and check it out.

The above image is from a travel brochure by the Richmond Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau in partnership with the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission and Petersburg Area Regional Tourism. In 2009, they launched the Web site OnToRichmond.com, which is titled after the Union battle cry, “On to Richmond!” The website has Civil War and Emancipation itineraries for landmarks and other items of interest in the Richmond/Petersburg area.

Two things are of interest to me. First, this brochure is not just marketing the Civil War to tourists; it is marketing the Civil War and Emancipation to tourists. They are positioned as two searate and equally important themes which might draw a visitor’s interest.

Second, I am surprised at how aggressively the Emancipation narrative is used to attract visitors. To be sure, many Confederate sites and landmarks are identified in the brochure; in addition to places related to slavery and freedom, such as the Richmond Slave Trail, the Slavery Reconciliation Statue, and the Black History Museum Cultural Center of Virginia. But, a travel brochure that seems to glorify the burning of Richmond to achieve the goal of freedom might be seen as incendiary to some folks; so, too, might be the use of a Union battle cry to name a site about southern tourism. Although I take no offense at these myself. (Note that, the cities of Richmond and Petersburg have majority African American populations.)

But I do think that this approach to promoting the Sesquicentennial, which offers inclusion for the African Americans and many non-southerners, is positive and useful. There is more to the Civil War than just emancipation and freedom; and there’s more to emancipation and freedom than just the Civil War. While these things are clearly related, and interrelated, there are aspects of each that deserve their own consideration, commemoration, and reflection.

I wonder how successful this particular promotional campaign has been in attracting visitors to the area? I suspect that the pull of such materials will get stronger as the anniversary of the final Emancipation Proclamation approaches, and as the role of black soldiers (who were not widely used as combatants before 1863) comes into focus.