Ben Lomond’s Grand Re-opening

The Grand Re-Opening of Ben Lomond

This past weekend I was able to take off from work and help some friends in the grand re-opening of the historic site they work at. You may do something different with your time off, but I took off from interpreting to go interpret. When you are passionate about something as much as I am about the historical events in our past, interpreting is not merely a career path or a job for now. The historic site, Ben Lomond, may possibly be the first site in Virginia to really give folks some idea of what it was like for a private residence to become a field hospital due to battlefield casualties.

A brief history:

In 1832, a descendant of Robert “Councillor” Carter, Benjamin Tasker Chinn, inherited land in Prince William County. On a parcel of that land he had a Federal style, two story building constructed of local red sandstone laid irregularly which was historically covered in stucco and scored to appear to be more expensive stone. The Chinn family by 1850 leased the house and farm referred to as “Ben Lomond.” By the mid-1850s the property had been subleased to three Scottish citizens: Thomas Pringle, his son,  Andrew, and his grandson, Andrew, Jr. Following the battle of 1st Manassas on July 21, 1861 the house for about three months was used as field hospital. The Pringles were given an option to leave the house completely or move as much as they could fit into one room and remain in there. They chose the latter option and occupied an upstairs room.

In March 1862, the Confederates evacuated the Manassas area. During the spring of 1862, Union soldiers came to Ben Lomond and smashed up furnishings and placed graffiti on the walls of the house. This graffiti still survives today.

The property includes a dairy and smokehouse of the same materials as the big house and a slave quarter built about the same time as the other structures and of the same materials.

You can and should visit Ben Lomond Historic Site, 10321 Sudley Manor Road, Manassas, VA.

A recap of the event:

After years of research, fundraising and of exhibition installation, the hospital exhibit opened Saturday, May 21.  Saturday’s visitation was about 300 and Sunday’s visitation was (as expected) less. The grand re-opening program featured speeches by county officials but certainly the crowd stopper was a friend of mine, George Wunderlich, Executive Director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. George continues to remind us all to really investigate the medical practices of the 1860s. Often those who are buffs of the American Civil War imagine ill-trained medical staff and relentlessly hacksaw surgeons who did nothing but cut off limbs. We also imagine popularly that most soldiers died of issues related to battlefield wounds. In contrast, we think of ourselves as so innovative with our ability to get prompt medical attention. Anyone who has been to a modern emergency room, Patient First, or doctor’s office would know that it not the reality but it is often our perception of reality. Friends Paige Gibbons, Elaine Kessinger and Noah Briggs regaled visitors with tales regarding those who came to or worked at Ben Lomond in July 1861. I was the interpreter for the slave quarter.

Honestly, I expected once the speeches were complete that everyone would crowd into the big house at Ben Lomond. Several folks, however, took to dash off to the slave quarter, also known as, the area I volunteered to interpret. I was happy over the course of Saturday and Sunday til about 2:00 P.M. to have talked to just about everyone who visited the site. The public did not ignore the slave quarter and indeed I had some people who remained in the building for at least an hour and possibly longer.

I found the public who visited to generally have a thirst for knowledge about the conditions of slavery, the lives of enslaved people, and relationships between enslaved people and their owners, the community in which they belonged (and yet not totally a part of), and the law. Equally people wished for some understanding of the lives of free blacks in Prince William County and Virginia generally in the late antebellum and Civil War periods.

This photo was taken of the exterior by myself in September 2010.

My friend Bill's personal endeavor was to furnish the quarter as it may have appeared during occupancy. I advised him a little but I think they hit the nail on the head here.

Probably the most often asked question this weekend was “How many people slept in this quarter?” That is an answer difficult to come by.

Benjamin Chinn owned seven slaves when he came to Ben Lomond in 1830. However, little information survives regarding the enslaved people owned by the Chinns. Therefore I spent a considerable amount of time discussing generics lf slave housing. Drawing on primary sources from slave holders and the important work of John Michael Vlach since the 1990s, I informed visitors about the theories of slave holders regarding slave quarters like the one at Ben Lomond which is constructed of the same materials as the big house. Slaveholders at the time believed these to be improvements and indeed they were. However, often these duplexes could be crowded with medium to large families. In the arrangement of the duplex form of slave housing, one family unit was allowed one room. Thus a duplex such as the one at Ben Lomond could have one family on the left side of the building and one on the right side. There is a loft space above which could be shared by the occupants of one duplex. Again, it is impossible to know precisely how the duplex at Ben Lomond was used but I tried through the course of the weekend to leave upon people some generics of slave housing.

What was more specific to the site regarding slavery that is better documented is the occupation of the farm by the Pringle family. In the mid to late 1850s, the Pringles were often hiring slaves. This feature of the American slavery system is not one that most people over the weekend (and in my various travels interpreting or lecturing on slavery, most people generally) knew anything about. Thus I spent time explaining that hiring contracts typically ran from January 1st of one year to just before Christmas of the same year. Most slaveholders gave some sort of Christmas relief to their overworked, malnourished, and emotionally distressed laborers.  The Pringles however consistently were in court during the years leading up to the Civil War for the failure to pay slave owners for the use of their enslaved person. Thus we are unsure if by July 1861 there were any slaves on the property. The Pringles MIGHT have burned too many bridges and seen as untrustworthy when it came to the matter of hiring slaves. My friend Bill Backus researched in county court records to determine this information.

I was asked also about free blacks in Prince William County at the time of the outbreak of the Civil War. I don’t proclaim to be an expert about all of them; however, I was able to again talk about James Robinson and his family who lived about two miles away from Ben Lomond on what became the Manassas battlefield (in recent months I’ve been doing a fair amount of interpreting him). A visitor came by who was explaining that there was a small village with some free blacks there. I’ll have to look into that. However, many people were unaware of the legal restrictions that free blacks faced. Perhaps most shocking to some was the restriction on firearms possessed by free blacks. You can look this up in the 1849 Code of Virginia (see Chapter CC, Section 8 on page 754). Also surprising to folks was the law which stated those enslaved people who were freed by their owners since May 1, 1806 had to leave the state unless lawfully permitted to remain (see the same Code of Virginia but Chapter CVII, Section 1, page 466). Often those recently freed people appealed to local whites to petition the Virginia legislature or governor to allow them to remain.

I talked about matters related to labor by seasons, rations issued to enslaved people and their own abilities to garden and raise some poultry or hogs. I spoke considerably about slave families and what constituted a family as well as the destruction of many people’s families and friends through the domestic slave trade in the years after 1808 and until the end of the Civil War. Another fascinating story for this county (which of course now as I write this post I cannot find) but my friend Bill also found in the court records that a Prince William County slaveholder was murdered by his slaves including an elderly woman because that man worked his slaves through Christmas. When questioned why they did this prior to their being hanged, they told the questioner that they wanted the time off from work like all the other slaves in their neighborhood. They were weary from working Monday-Saturday from sun up to sunset and were looking for the relief. This problem was from what I could gather not a one time event but rather for the elderly grandmother, a feature of her entire working life. While some may just say “Oh just criminal activity” or “Murder is never a solution;” I think this story tells us something greater about slavery. In part it illustrates how demanding and torturous it was for the majority of folks enslaved and it also illustrates how desperate people were to try to have some sense of agency in their own lives. Luckily, by 1865 the institution was declared illegal in the United States and her territories.

Readers here may weary sometimes of my discussion of slavery and I have been asked in the past why am I so passionate about telling this story. In fact, a very eager public asked me that question this weekend. In part the reason is because as illegal as slavery is in the 21st century, it is still practiced. I direct you to a May 24, 2011 CNN news clip about this problem in Thailand. Some of these enslaved children are less than 15 years old and are HIV-positive. I firmly believe telling people about slavery 150 years and connecting it with slavery in the 21st century is critical; not only for empathy but hopefully the continued actions of those who are working hard to stop this awful tragedy.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Ben Lomond’s Grand Re-opening

  1. I really enjoyed hearing and seeing what you and Bill have been up to in the last few months (years?!). You touch on the idea of “improvements” being relative, which is an important part of the narrative for the enslaved person’s experience.
    I appreciated learning a bit more about the under-acknowledged habit of hiring out slave labor, and some of the expectations and routines for the slaveholders who engaged in these practices.
    I also think the discussion of interpreting medical care is important. I make a point to pull from the usual suspects like Joseph Plumb Martin (ok, earlier war, forgive me…) accounts’ of medical care during my cemetery tours. Medical reenactors who are well-informed really provide an important reminder of things we take for granted. I sometimes find myself marveling at a lack of awareness of some of the previous ideas about remedies–and the parallels to some modern ideas!

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