Tag Archives: Civil War

Civil War Institute Talk Now Online

Followers who were busy on July 4th and 5th can now view my talk online. I thank my friend Pete Carmichael for asking me to come, the wonderful staff of the Civil War Institute for their work in organizing (especially Diane and Allison), and those who participated in asking questions and continuing this and other conversations at CWI a couple weeks ago.

I have since gotten very nice comments from friends and strangers and I appreciate those too.

To view: http://www.c-span.org/video/?319539-2/us-colored-troops-battle-crater

In this medium, the conversation can continue for those who wish to do so.


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Civil War Institute 2014 Recap

Just back from the Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute. It was enjoyable to be surrounded by friends, old and new, as I spent three days there. During the 150th anniversary (starting in 2011) of the Civil War, the Civil War Institute has focused on the specific anniversary year. Thus this year, the topics were centered around the war in 1864. Which as far as I’m concerned is the most interesting year of the war.


Friday’s programming began in the late afternoon with a masterful overview of the war in that pivotal year of 1864 by my friend (and recent PhD) Brian Matthew Jordan. In 40 minutes or so, Brian complicated the traditional narrative that the war was already won in 1863 and that the North was predestined to victory on the battlefields around the South as well as at the ballot box with the Presidential election in November. He covered North and South, from St. Albans, Vermont to the Trans-Mississippi. I continue to be amazed. He was followed by a conversation between CWI’s director, Peter Carmichael and Gordon Rhea regarding the Overland Campaign in May-June 1864.


Saturday’s programming began with Pete Carmichael on Robert E. Lee’s struggles with his corps commanders, James Longstreet (recovering from a wound much of 1864), Richard S. Ewell (shattered by the war and thus sent to command the Richmond defenses in May 1864)/Jubal A. Early, and Ambrose Powell Hill (in and out of command due to his own health issues) as he attempted to annihilate the Federal Army of the Potomac. Following him was Brooks Simpson weaving together humor and seriousness to discuss Ulysses Grant’s ability to deal with what he called the “problem of Virginia.” Brooks stated that Grant did not want to fight in Virginia. In January 1864, before he was tapped as general-in-chief had been asked by then general-in-chief, Henry Halleck for a plan to destroy the Confederacy. Grant consulted with Cyrus Comstock and William F. “Baldy” Smith who had both been in Virginia earlier in the war. Grant ended up proposing an amphibious assault out of eastern North Carolina which could have destroyed the vital Wilmington & Weldon and Petersburg & Weldon railroads. The Army of the Potomac would have protected Washington D.C. Halleck rejected the plan. As Brooks more or less summarized, Grant felt like if Virginia could not be his theater of decision, he would work to make sure Lee could not be the decision maker in the Old Dominion either. Much of the larger plan of Grant would result in the war being decided in the Deep South until the August promotion of Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley to army command. It was then when Virginia was converted to a theater of decision-making on Grant’s terms.


Certainly’s Saturday’s most disturbing topic was delivered by Ari Kelman. Ari spoke about the contested memories of the Massacre at Sand Creek which he wrote a book about. It has been well received and received awards. The greatest reminder that I took away from Ari’s talk (beyond the mutilated bodies of Native people) is that the idea of “healing” is very complicated between the Federal government and groups of people who have been oppressed. The creation of Sand Creek National Historical Park was greeted by government officials as an acknowledgement of the massacre that took place there in 1864. Yet descendent tribal leaders struggled to find the healing because of the long, contested and testy relationship between the Federal government and tribal folks. Ari positioned this event within a larger framework of America embarking on its empire as the Republican party could mold through policy and war, how the west would be settled.


Almost ironically during the afternoon concurrent sessions, I went to Kevin Levin’s talk about white Union troops’ memories of the Battle of the Crater and Caroline Janney’s talk about Petersburg civilians in 1864-1865. Regrettably, I missed Susannah Ural’s talk Saturday evening as I made final preparations for my program the next morning.


Sunday started with my friend Dr. Keith Bohannan speaking on the Atlanta Campaign Keith criticized Sherman’s poor use of cavalry. He also drew the contrasts between Sherman’s positive relationship with the Abraham Lincoln administration and Ulysses Grant and Joseph E. Johnston’s negative relationship with the Jefferson Davis administration. He suggested that Sherman may not be remembered for crushing battlefield victories in 1862-1863; but, he was a master at maneuvering during the Atlanta Campaign.


I followed Keith to discuss United States Colored Troops at the Battle of the Crater. I was pleased with the talk; though, I had other examples of reactions to the battle. I did make it through all the participants who approached the microphones to ask questions so there was something to be said for skipping over some examples. I was pleased as soon as the talk was over to see a stream of people line up to ask other questions, express their happiness with the talk, etc. You missed it? You have an opportunity to see it. I’ll explain later.


Following my not very “pick me up” story, concurrent sessions broke out and I listened to Eric Leonard discuss the prisoner of war situation in 1864, particularly at Camp Sumter near Andersonville, Georgia. However, it was the story of John January of the 14th Illinois Cavalry that continues to be seared in my brain. January was captured in the summer of 1864 and sent to Andersonville. He was transferred to Florence, South Carolina in November 1864. Having gangrene and a will to live that most of us are fortunate to never have to face, January along with some others managed to amputate his feet since he was not able to convince Southern physicians that his life was worth saving. He did survive and lived many years after the war. Important things to come out of this:


  • Andersonville more deadly than the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history.
  • Andersonville is in a league of its own and apologists need to stop attempting to compare it with Northern prison camps for Confederates or even other Confederate prison camps for Federal soldiers.
  • Prisoner of war exchange breakdown occurs because of the enlistment and service of black men; not a simple refusal of Ulysses Grant or Abraham Lincoln to exchange Confederates.
  • Andersonville’s prisoners were exposed to the slave culture as they were treated to iron collars and dogs hunting them down when they tried to escape. For those who did escape, they found (like runaway slaves), that they found their best help with other blacks.
  • PoW camps are places for us all to reflect on the consequences of all wars.


In the afternoon, we heard from Dr. Crystal Feimster about mutiny and rape cases at Fort Jackson, Louisiana. Lt. Colonel Augustus Benedict was a completely disgusting man who fortunately was dishonorably discharged as he treated his ex-slaves turned soldiers no better than the slaveholders they had left behind. What her program partially exposed was that gaps existed between blacks about their freedom and Northern whites’ perceptions of black freedom. Black laundresses, victim to sexual assault, did not simply think of themselves as safety seeking refugees but real working-class women. Blacks could testify against whites in court martial cases, setting up another real belief that there would be something different in the aftermath of the war. Of course, many black people were disappointed in the post-war years to find that equal justice would be elusive. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Dr. Feimster exposed that white officers at Fort Jackson attempted to intimidate and silence the laundresses’ voices as they wished to expose the truth about the sexual violence at the fort. I immediately thought about the long history and the on-going desires by some people to silence and ignore sexual violence. Equally disgusting is the trend of blaming the victim. Among the many areas where people who know history cannot say “History doesn’t matter” because it’s easy to find the echoing voices of these laundresses in the world today including in the United States of America.


Concurrent sessions started again and I went to hear Antwain Hunter’s research on black North Carolinians relationship with guns and local and state laws and practices. A question emerged in this talk: did the Confederacy dissolve from conflict between local/county rights versus states’ rights versus national rights/needs? Research by Jamie Martinez regarding slaveholders’ resistance to sending enslaved laborers to dig earthworks in Virginia and North Carolina definitely suggests so.


Dinner ran late and so I was prevented from going to Barton Myers’ discussion of guerilla warfare. But based on tweets from those in the session, I can say he drew the conclusion that guerilla warfare did nothing for the Federal or Confederate national aims but stirred local drama and bad relationships.


Beyond the talks, it was amazing to see over 400 people in attendance, 250 were first time participants and I’d hazard a guess that some 100 were age 45 or less. There were other black people there and at least one Asian lady. I spoke with several high school and college students after my talk about USCT experience during the war. Thus I was restored to know, I’m not the only young, black person whose love of the Civil War era began when I was a young child. I send my praise to Dr. Pete Carmichael, Dr. Ian Isherwood, Dr. Brian Jordan, Dr. Jill O. Titus and VERY importantly, Diane Brennan, Allison Jordan, and Brian Johnson for their work on putting on an amazingly well-organized conference.


Finally, if you’re upset you missed CWI, you can catch several sessions thanks to the great folks at C-Span. Saturday’s sessions were shown live and then stored online. You can view them here: http://series.c-span.org/History/Events/Gettysburg-College-Civil-War-Institute-Annual-Summer-Conference/10737444464/. Sunday’s sessions done by Keith, myself, and Eric and I believe Crystal’s talks were all recorded. Anyway, you can catch those on July 4th on C-Span. Mine is to air at 6PM Eastern time and re-airs at 6AM on July 5th.



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June 26, 2014 · 4:08 pm

Museum of the Confederacy and American Civil War Center Merger

Rumors have circulated for the last several months that the Museum of the Confederacy was exploring a merger with the American Civil War Center at Tredegar. Today, the news broke that despite denying it initially, it is true.

In the initial rumors there was outrage from the Sons of Confederate Veterans and a group of Confederate Flaggers (which I refuse to discuss on this blog). In fact, some of my friends and acquaintances (who are not in either of those organizations) are dismayed. Still within this merger, it appears to me that the Confederate Memorial Literary Society is here to stay. It unclear at this moment, how the old museum space will be used (beyond the gift shop) and how many visitors may go to the Confederate Executive Mansion.

The Confederate Executive Mansion in the spring of 1865. Today, this building is surrounded by the Medical College of Virginia creating confusion for the Museum of the Confederacy’s visitors. Image in the Library of Congress’ collection.

It may come as a surprise to some of my readers that I have over the years been a member (and clearly remember not renewing for a while when there was a proposal to move the Brockenbrough-Crenshaw mansion from its original location) of the Museum of the Confederacy. I believe that the institution protects important documents and materials related to the wartime and post-war South through its gamble in creating a separate nation and the methods of remembering the Southern wartime experience. I know some talented folks over at the Museum. Yet, it is clear to me that they have been in a challenging situation with the Confederate Executive Mansion and its neighboring 1970s building now dwarfed by the expansion of the Medical College of Virginia.

The Museum of the Confederacy has had its fair share of interpretive challenges since 1896. Certainly for many decades the issue of slavery and its importance to the Confederate government and many of its white residents was ignored. The impact of slavery on and the notion of freedom among the millions of enslaved people living in the wartime south were also ignored. The 1990s saw the beginnings of changes to the familiar Lost Cause tropes and exploration of race and gender and the new satellite Museum of the Confederacy at Appomattox even explores the memory of the Confederacy and the flags.

Yet, for those who are so outraged, failing to support the Confederate Memorial Literary Society could contribute to the disintegration of the very artifacts and documents you profess to want people to have access to. There has to be a balance between the old line supporters of the Museum and new methods to engage the public. I hope that this will be successful; but, I am going to take a wait-and-see approach instead of throwing my hands up in protest or rolling out a red carpet too early. It remains to be seen if the larger public will throw in their support.


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Black Participation in the Civil War 150th anniversary

Where are all the black people at the Civil War 150th commemorations?!

This question has appeared in multiple formats including Natasha McPherson’s post and comments about that from Kevin Levin and Jimmy Price.

I have been a black participant in the Civil War 150th in part due to my work and in part because I’ve long been interested in the Civil War period. There are likely a multitude of reasons why participation from the African-American community has been lacking but I do not agree with Professor McPherson’s comment that the Civil War was not  “our war” (i.e., black Americans).

We have to get to some issues facing a large number of blacks in America. One issue that an acquaintance of mine, Tiya Miles brought up at the Future of the Civil War conference back in March is that historical segregation in traveling practices has inhibited some blacks from traveling.

In the 1930s-60s, it was not always clear where people of African descent could eat a hearty meal, sleep, acquire gasoline, get their car repaired, or a range of other issues when traveling on the roads. Sure there was Victor Green’s The Green Book, which was a travel guide published between 1936 and 1964 which was designed to give African American motorists information for comfortable and safe places to room and board during this period of segregation; but, there still would be vast stretches of land where you would be on two lane roads (at best), and perhaps victim to problems. As most Civil War battlefields are located in the South, this was a legitimate concern for black families. Remember, cars weren’t getting 48 miles per gallon like my Toyota Prius does now. It would also be wise for us to remember how cost prohibitive a car was for many folks (white, black, or otherwise) until fairly recently.

What this perhaps did for some folks is create a culture of not traveling. If mom and dad didn’t go anywhere and didn’t take their kids anywhere, the kids grow up and have kids who don’t take their kids anywhere or if they do it is one or two family vacations when the children are young usually to a theme park. Generations were created of folks staying near or at home.

Another issue is there was prejudiced history in the Jim Crow era. The experiences and contributions of wartime blacks in the North, South, and West were not included in history books. My mom, a product of a segregated school system, often told people in my youth and her 40s, 50s, and early 60s that it was *I* who taught her about black people during the Civil War period because it was not included in their schoolwork of the 1950s and 1960s. I don’t mean that she didn’t know about Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman but I mean about United States Colored Troops, enslaved people who escaped and those who didn’t during the antebellum and Civil War period, former slaves who go on to become legislators during Reconstruction. So let’s say the Baby Boomers weren’t told in any great detail about the varied experiences of blacks in Civil War-era America, then their children may or may not hear about it, and then the Baby Boomers grandchildren don’t, etc.

So what can I say at this point, about half-way through the Civil War 150th regarding black participation?

I can say that with the exception of one 150th event, I have seen at least one other black person in the audience. Is this a measurement of success? I don’t think so. However, as Kevin asked, what is?

I can say that our historic sites which 50 years ago would not have touched on the issues facing blacks (or immigrants, Native Americans, women, or children) are doing a better job. One of my favorite events of the 150th was an event I organized at work in 2012, it was not focused on a battle but rather on a series of enslaved families and a plantation owner’s family. Ten African-American volunteers and myself portrayed real enslaved people who lived and worked on the Eppes family’s plantation while a white female volunteer portrayed Mrs. Eppes and through a series of semi- scripted scenarios we portrayed to the audience the different emotions and feelings of people as the U.S. Navy neared the plantation in the spring of 1862. Throughout the weekend we had people from diverse backgrounds show up and interact with the volunteers and our staff in third and first-person interactions. There certainly was no “shame” in our game in giving visitors (and indeed ourselves) insight on how these people lived in 1862.

Volunteers and the author portraying enslaved people and the plantation mistress at the Petersburg National Battlefield living history program "Seeking New Shelters" in April 2012.

Volunteers and the author portraying enslaved people and the plantation mistress at the Petersburg National Battlefield living history program “Seeking New Shelters” in April 2012.

I can say that in my work and in special events for the 150th that some blacks are showing up and are engaged with questions and serious conversations. I’ve seen this personally and through photos of Civil War 150th programs that I could not attend.

The author at the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gaines' Mill portraying Cornelius, an enslaved man who escaped in the summer of 1862 from the Wickham family plantation, Hickory Hill in Hanover County, Virginia.  Photo by Jason Martz, NPS.

The author at the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gaines’ Mill portraying Cornelius, an enslaved man who escaped in the summer of 1862 from the Wickham family plantation, Hickory Hill in Hanover County, Virginia. Photo by Jason Martz, NPS.

Scott Manning  has issued a brief little directive we should all take, talk to your black friends and family and create a dialogue about the tough stuff of race, slavery, emancipation, and freedom. Then you can perhaps get them to come with you. Speaking as a black man, I was fortunate to be raised in family who discussed these issues with one another.  I was blessed with the capabilities to ask what it was like in the past, though not a slavery and Civil War past. I was fortunate to have been nurtured to use my love of history; however, it took INTERACTION between me, my family, and my friends. This has given me some amazing opportunities to do presentations regarding my own free mixed-race family’s Civil War experiences to enslaved body servants serving Confederate troops to United States Colored Troops during the war and a whole range of other topics from the slave trade through the Freedmen’s Bureau. But no one is simply born with historical knowledge, so foster it within your household (regardless of race) and your own networks.


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Williamsburg-More than colonial history

Though Williamsburg has marketed itself since the 1930s as Virginia’s colonial captial (1699-1780), there is Civil War history there too. On May 5, 1862, a battle raged east of the city (at least in 1860) pitting almost 41,000 United States soldiers against about 32,000 Confederate troops. This battle in large part started because of information provided by local enslaved people to Federal generals. Though Federal forces may have had a more smashing defeat, the Confederates did continue their retreat up Virginia’s peninsula.

Regrettably, most of this battlefield has been lost to modern development. In fact, part of the Water Country USA theme park is ironically situated on a portion of the battlefield. However, we have a chance to not let more modern development destroy the first major engagement in the Peninsula Campaign.

A friend of mine, Drew Gruber, has been closely following the conversation regarding a 251 acre tract of battlefield land in York County where a portion of the battle took place. For my readers, I encourage you to find more here about the land: http://wydaily.com/2013/07/15/civil-war-history-abounds-on-undeveloped-tract-in-york-county-w-video/.

How can you help? Send a letter to the York County Board of Supervisors.

All you need to do is copy and paste this and the following Supervisors/Commissioners email addresses into your email and click send! Better yet have your Organization write a letter! Their names/e-mail addresses:

Walter C. Zaremba-zaremba@yorkcounty.gov

Sheila S. Noll-noll@yorkcounty.gov

Donald E. Wiggins-wiggins@yorkcounty.gov

George S. Hrichak-hrichak@yorkcounty.gov

Thomas G. Shepperd, Jr.-shepperd@yorkcounty.gov

You can copy and paste this letter form below:

Dear Sir/Madam,

It has come to my attention that there are plans to add or maintain “mixed use” overlay on two parcels of land making them more accessible to development than their existing zoning allows. I feel strongly that this overlay should not be allowed on the Egger or Busch tracts and that they should be added to the York County Historic Resources list. Certainly this national treasure should not be thrown away for more unsustainable development. As a prospective tourist such disregard for important cultural resources makes me less likely to visit the historic triangle. 

These two parcels fall within the “Core Battlefield Boundaries” as well as a potential area for National Register Nomination as identified by the the American Battlefield Protection Program (NPS). These parcels have also been meticulously researched by regional and nationally renowned historians and have been identified for their prehistoric, 17th, 18th and impeccable 19th century history. Resources on site includes intact earthen works, roadbeds and building foundations. This is the ground where on May 5th, 1862 General Hancock earned his title “The Superb”, where the 5th NC lost their flag and where hundreds of men were buried around the Custis barns. I stand with the Navy and National Park Service. 


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A Visit to Arlington House

Recently a friend and I visited Arlington House. I will not retell the history of the Arlington estate in this post but direct you to check out the website.

Side view of Arlington House including the massive front portico.

Side view of Arlington House including the massive front portico. Photo taken by me.

I will retell the experience we had at the site. Upon entering the area immediately around the house, visitors gather on the front portico which has a stunning view overlooking Washington, D.C. The ranger explained a few details of the house’s architecture regarding the brick construction to which stucco was applied and scored to look like marble. He then explained that this was the home of George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Dandridge Custis Washington and step-grandson of George Washington. He noted that Custis and his wife, Mary Fitzhugh Custis had only one child to survive to adulthood, Mary Custis. The guide noted that Mary Custis married Robert E. Lee in 1831. He then saw an opportunity to get us into the house and said he could allow 15 into the building and so we progressed forward into the central hall.

The family parlor at Arlington is where Mary Custis married Robert E. Lee in 1831.

The family parlor at Arlington is where Mary Custis married Robert E. Lee in 1831. Photo taken by me.

In the hall we had a ranger who explained that we could look into the Family Parlor, which is where Mary Custis and Robert E. Lee were married. She also explained that the main portion of the house where we were standing was not finished until 1818. The crush of the next group pushed us along while we picked up brochures and some other literature and snapped some photographs of the Family Parlor and Dining Room. We passed through the Hunting Hall and then upstairs.

Upstairs, for an unknown reason to us, a volunteer was engaged in a deep discussion with some visitors about Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863). Perhaps he had been questioned by the visitors about Lee at Gettysburg. Thus I couldn’t fault the volunteer, though, I wished there had been some interpretation about the Custises and Lees at Arlington. As there were a lot of visitors upstairs and more coming, we had to be quick about our looking into the bedrooms. The staff was in the process of repositioning the furnishings in these rooms. Arlington’s furnishings were removed from the house for a few years while a major restoration took place, interrupted in part by the now infamous 2011 earthquake.

The White Parlor at Arlington was not finished until 1855 and the Lees purchased fashionable Rococo Revival furnishings for the space. When we think about the beauty of these furnishings, we must also think about who had to clean and maintain these items. In the Lee household, that task fell in part to the enslaved housekeeper, Selina Gray.

The White Parlor at Arlington was not finished until 1855 and the Lees purchased fashionable Rococo Revival furnishings for the space. When we think about the beauty of these furnishings, we must also think about who had to clean and maintain these items. In the Lee household, that task fell in part to the enslaved housekeeper, Selina Gray. Photo taken by me.

Back down the stairs we go and through the White Parlor and then into the Morning Room. It was there (finally) that I didn’t feel pushed along by the force of the people progressing through the house. The ranger in this room explained the art painted by G.W.P. Custis, several of which were exhibited and all of which show George Washington during the Revolution. Additionally, she stated that it was in the office that they believe Lee wrote his letter of resignation from the U.S. Army in 1861. She noted that Mrs. Lee spent a considerable amount of time in this room as her rheumatism decreased her mobility in the 1850s. I questioned her about how many slaves the Custises owned. She responded about the 63 that were at Arlington. I clarified “As I recall, there were over 200 scattered across all the different farms?” She said “Oh yes, that is true. Properties that extended into multiple counties.” She then launched into a discussion about Selina Gray, who was an enslaved domestic servant that was not taken by Mrs. Lee and her children but rather left to guard the Washington and Lee family furnishings in May 1861. The ranger (rightfully) credited Gray’s determination to see the furnishings preserved by the occupying Federal troops during the early months of the Civil War. Then we exited the back of the building.

So I have asked myself some questions:

1. When touring the house did I learn anything about slavery? Not as slavery was practiced by the Custis or Lee families at Arlington or as it was experienced by the 63 people who lived and worked as slaves there.

2. Did I gain any insight on the relationships between slaves and masters? Somewhat through the story of Selina Gray but in that case it was more about the relationship between Gray and the Federal troops.

3. Did I learn anything about the relationships between slaves and other slaves? No.

So we progressed on to two surviving slave quarters for domestic servants in the rear of the Custis-Lee mansion. These two slave quarters are masonry, covered in stucco and composed of three rooms. The south Slave Quarters has an exhibit on slavery and the Freedmen’s Village and a model of the Freedmen’s Village. The village established during the Civil War, was a camp of thousands of slaves who had escaped in search of freedom.

George W. P. Custis painted this horse to represent one of George Washington's above one of the doors on the north Slave Quarter. Two others depict the American eagle. All of these Americana scenes, ironically painted on a building to house people whom at no level of government were considered American citizens. Photo taken by me.

George W. P. Custis painted this horse to represent one of George Washington’s above one of the doors on the north Slave Quarter. Two others depict the American eagle. All of these Americana scenes, ironically painted on a building to house people whom at no level of government were considered American citizens. Photo taken by me.

The panel “Slavery and Emancipation at Arlington” discusses individual enslaved people’s stories, perhaps one of the most interesting to me was Sally Norris, who prepared bodies for burial amongst the enslaved community. Photographs were present of several people as well.

It was also within this panel that you learn some of the names of the people who worked and lived at Arlington. Men like Lawrence and Jim Parks, who were field hands and Eleanor Harris and Ephraim Derricks who were domestic servants.

Interpretive signage is generally short, which makes this one rare with three full paragraphs. Some sentences did raise curiosities which needed further explanation such as “Far from powerless, many slaves possessed significant authority, and sometimes dictated the daily routine at Arlington.” What did the slaves do at Arlington to dictate the daily routine? I think the inclusion of Sally Norris helped illustrate that slaves possessed some specific authority.

The panel highlights manumissions given by George W. P. Custis and the dispersed status of some of those manumitted. Even though the site’s subtitle “the Robert E. Lee Memorial” could lead to a wholly one-sided view of the famed Confederate Army of Northern Virginia commander, this panel did not ignore the reality of the enslaved community’s dislike of Robert E. Lee compared to G.W.P. Custis. In one statement you can see that Wesley and Mary Norris ran away (though the story as printed on the panel does not follow-up what happened with them).

The north Slave Quarter has just recently been vacated of office space and a bookstore and is undergoing rehabilitation to reflect the people who lived in the building. The interpretive panels in this space were some of the best at the site.

This interpretive sign gives you a sense of how this building was used. Notice that Eleanor Harris lived upstairs and she aged considerably in her years as she once was George W. P. Custis' nurse and then his daughter Mary's nurse, and later a housekeeper as noted in another sign.

This interpretive sign gives you a sense of how this building was used. Notice that Eleanor Harris lived upstairs and she aged considerably in her years as she once was George W. P. Custis’ nurse and then his daughter Mary’s nurse, and later a housekeeper as noted in another sign. Also notice the photographs of the 1959 interpretation of these rooms. Photo taken by me.

In the center room, you see a floor plan of the structure which shows how the spaces were divided. The center room was occupied by Nurse Judy, while the room to the left on the lower floor housed father and son, both named Daniel Dotson. Both were coachmen and Old Daniel Dotson also served as a butler and mailman (presumably someone who took letters to be mailed and picked things up from an unknown location). Perhaps the most surprising element on this sign was the discussion regarding Custis’ manservant and gardener, Ephraim Derrick who reportedly smoked cigars on the portico with Custis at night and then closed up the house at 10PM. The inclusion of the possibility of Derrick sleeping on a pallet on the floor in the hall in order to tend a fire in Custis’ bedroom sends a clear message, however, that Custis did not treat Derrick as an equal.

Also on the same sign was some institutional history. Three photos show how the National Park Service (NPS) interpreted these three rooms in 1959. There was some fairly fine furnishings in these rooms in 1959 which do not accurately reflect how these enslaved people lived in the space. The signs stating “Restoration in Progress” as well as other signs that mention the NPS is embarking on a historic structures report and furnishings plan give great reason to hope that one day we’ll see a more accurate representation of how the domestic servants lived.

While around the north Slave Quarter, we encountered a great ranger, Dean Bryson. My friend and I conversed at length with Dean about the challenges of trying to discuss in any detail anyone (white or black, free or enslaved) when you literally have thousands of people coming through the house daily. But it was also clear that Dean knew and was passionate about Arlington’s plantation history and the NPS’s ownership history. We chatted about those slaves less concerned about the Washington-Custis-Lee family furnishings such as the Bingham family. Dean told us that the Binghams were some of the slaves who reacted negatively to Robert E. Lee’s management of Arlington. Austin Bingham ran off in 1858 into Washington, D.C. where his sister, Caroline and her child were also trying to evade Lee. Fellow blogger Jimmy Price is investigating if their other brother, Lucious may have enlisted in a US Colored Troop regiment late in the Civil War and Dean told us this story as well. We also discussed that while Selina Gray’s determination to save the historical objects associated with George Washington was important, she does present a “loyal slave” narrative. Her image appears frequently throughout these quarters. Dean’s knowledge of the Binghams helps to balance that there were a multitude of feelings within the enslaved community at Arlington. Finally, we discussed the challenges of representing the plantation landscape at large when most of it is now covered by Arlington National Cemetery (not administered by the National Park Service). I am hopeful that Dean may find permanent employment in the agency. We have to have people like him at all our historic sites.

Our final stop was in the Robert E. Lee Museum, housed in a portion of what had been part of a greenhouse. This is the one area of the site that has largely outdated exhibits. However, in the current environment, it will probably remain this way for a while. In a few places the text was difficult to read due to flaking over the years. However, even with the budget challenges, there was a refreshing sign simply typed in a word processing program and printed with your basic inkjet.

This text almost screams of the ragged Confederate, Lost Cause ideology present at many Civil War sites for generations. Like many other memories of Appomattox Court House, this one fails to mention that Lee attempted one last offensive maneuver on the morning of April 9, 1865 before deciding to surrender his army.

This text almost screams of the ragged Confederate, Lost Cause ideology present at many Civil War sites for generations. Like many other memories of Appomattox Court House, this one fails to mention that Lee attempted one last offensive maneuver on the morning of April 9, 1865 before deciding to surrender his army. Photo taken by me.

That sign updated the old exhibit about Robert E. Lee’s resignation from the U.S. Army in 1861. This is based largely on a letter written by Lee and Mary Custis Lee’s daughter also named Mary Custis Lee. The information was discovered by author Elizabeth Brown Pryor (who wrote Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters published in 2007). So can exhibits be updated on a shoestring budget? Yes. Should they be? Not really; however, this temporary fix sits in juxtaposition with the exhibit featuring miniature representations of Lee and some of his family at the time. It elicited curiosity from other visitors and helps to illustrate that history isn’t always something that we’ve known since a long time ago. New research and interpretation is on-going in the history community.

This simple piece of paper printed and laminated helps to address new interpretations through historic research. Public historians can really help to spread the word about academic historians' books and articles as is illustrated here. Photo taken by me.

This simple piece of paper printed and laminated helps to address new interpretations through historic research. Public historians can really help to spread the word about academic historians’ books and articles as is illustrated here. Photo taken by me.

So I have asked myself the same questions again:

1. When touring the slave quarters and talking with Dean did I learn anything about slavery at Arlington? Yes. I asked about Ephraim and the smoking of cigars with Custis as that still fascinates me. It was apparently recalled by one of the former slaves or one of their children when interviewed in the early 1900s. I also heard about resistance to Robert E. Lee. Through the exhibits in the buildings, I saw what slaves were doing in their tasks on the estate and ways that they were entrepreneurs.

2. Did I gain any insight on the relationships between slaves and masters? Yes, Ephraim clearly had a different relationship with the Custis family than many other slaves. Dean discussed how Selina Gray’s domestic service would have made her acutely aware of what were the “Washington Treasures.” And yet, clearly in the panel in the south Slave Quarter and in conversation with Dean, (the evidence comes from Lee’s letters and memories of the formerly enslaved, see Pryor’s Reading the Man) there was unhappiness over Lee’s management of Arlington so evident in some of the Norrisses escape mentioned in the text and discussed by Dean regarding the Binghams.

3. Did I learn anything about the relationships between slaves and other slaves? Yes. Time and time again in the panels in the north and south quarters. From family relationships with the Daniel Dotsons to the people who were freed and that stayed nearby as at that point they were intertwined in marriage and extended family with the enslaved people at Arlington.

So what can be done to address the challenge of the mass of people who come to Arlington National Cemetery and then enter the Arlington house? I’m not sure. Other than creating a timed ticket system, there will be no other way to control all the people. The NPS has a ticket system to access Independence Hall. The boats to Fort Sumter also operate on a timed ticket system. While it isn’t optimal, this could help improve the time spent in the house for fewer people but with greater interpretive power.

I really did enjoy my visit to Arlington house, even though I continue to maintain that it should be remembered as Arlington House, a memorial to George Washington and then left to Mary Custis Lee and a place of bondage for numerous families from 1802-1861. 

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150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

I apologize for the lack of posts of late. However, quantity over quality has always been a motto of mine (except I’d prefer to have a quantity of trillions of dollars; but we can’t all have what we want).

Today, January 1, 2013, is a historic day. It has been 150 years since Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States of America, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Abraham Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation / The Strobridge Lith. Co., Cincinnati, 1888 lithograph. Original image at the Library of Congress.

The National Archives exhibited the original document Sunday, December 30, 2012-January 1, 2013. There were other programs there in December and some others coming later in January.

The Emancipation Proclamation perhaps was best summed up by former slave turned abolitionist-writer/orator, Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass, circa 1850

“THE first of January, 1863, was a memorable day in the progress of American liberty and civilization. It was the turning-point in the conflict between freedom and slavery. A death-blow was given to the slaveholding rebellion. Until then the federal arm had been more than tolerant to that relic of barbarism. It had defended it inside the slave States; it had countermanded the emancipation policy of John C. Fremont in Missouri; it had returned slaves to their so-called owners; it had threatened that any attempt on the part of the slaves to gain their freedom by insurrection, or otherwise, should be put down with an iron hand; it had even refused to allow the Hutchinson family to sing their anti-slavery songs in the camps of the Army of the Potomac; it had surrounded the houses of slaveholders with bayonets for their protection….”


Much has been made about Lincoln’s motivations. Be not confused, Lincoln was opposed to slavery. Being opposed to slavery did not make him a racial equality person throughout his whole life. However, by the release of this Emancipation Proclamation, much about Lincoln’s feelings regarding enslaved people and their immediate future (at least) had been altered.

Lincoln’s final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation was something different in American political discourse and in Lincoln’s own thought process for this document (points I summarize from Eric Foner’s book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (W.W. Norton & Co., 2010):

  • The proclamation did not seek slave owners’ cooperation in emancipation.
  • There was no mention of loyal versus disloyal owners.
  • It was immediate and offered no financial compensation for the slaveholders.
  • There was no mention of colonization or action from the specific states.
  • For the first time really in American history, the Federal government would actively seek, train, uniform, train, and arm black soldiers. This is an often ignored portion of the document but by the end of the Civil War, of the approximately, 179,000 black men who served in United States Colored Troop regiments or in the few state regiments of black men, some 150,000 were former slaves (the remainder being free-born persons from North and South).

So with this in mind, I encourage all my readers to take a re-read of the Emancipation Proclamation (which you can find here along with the preliminary draft, a former slave’s interview, and a thoughtful commentary from the respected and revered historian John Hope Franklin.)


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U.S. Army’s struggles with Public Memory

I was reading Crossroads today maintained by historian Brooks Simpson. There I found an intriguing video crafted by the U.S. Army.

I join Mr. Simpson in my dismay at that the Civil War is totally excluded in this film. Where is Ulysses Grant, the first full-rank Lieutenant General General-in-Chief and shortly after the war ended full general? Where are the United States Colored Troops?

Interestingly enough, there are no Tuskegee Airmen. Why?

I give credit that it looks as though General Ann E. Dunwoody is included but overall, I am disappointed in this film.

What do others think?

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