We’ve just published our entry on Mary Richards Bowser. Born into slavery, Bowser played an important role in the pro-Union spy ring that Elizabeth Van Lew ran in Richmond during the American Civil War. Lois Leveen, the author of the entry, has unearthed a tremendous amount of new information on Bowser—but it is likely that more documents related to Mary Richards Bowser are yet to be discovered by historians. To facilitate this process, Leveen has written a guest post that provides scholars and students with suggested areas for further research.
If they gave gold medals for historic research, I’d have won one for becoming the world’s leading expert on the Mary Richards Bowser. But unlike most gold medalists, I’m hoping someone else will break my record, by unearthing new information about this extraordinary woman who was born into slavery but became a Union spy in the Confederate White House.
As important and inspirational as Bowser is, very few details of her life can be substantiated. In the age of instantaneous internet searches, it’s easy to forget that accurate history depends on hours of rigorous research to identify and analyze primary source documents. Despite the generations of historians who’ve studied slavery and the Civil War, the case of Mary Bowser reminds us that race, class, and gender limited the ways in which millions of Americans have been included in sources like voter rolls or tax records that historians rely on to learn about the past. But equally frustrating is the way in which Bowser has been mythologized, with unsubstantiated claims about her repeated in print and online publications, even in seemingly scholarly accounts.
(In what is perhaps the Historian Olympics equivalent of a potential doping scandal, I must admit that I’ve perhaps contributed to the obscuring of Bowser’s biography by authoring The Secrets of Mary Bowser, a novel which imagines her experiences growing up in Virginia, being educated in the North, and returning to participate in the pro-Union underground that operated in Richmond during the Civil War. Although this fictional account deviates from Bowser’s real-life experiences, it offers readers insight how blacks and whites lived in Richmond and Philadelphia in the 1840s, 50s, and 60s.)
As a teacher and historian, I’m committed to sharing the history behind the novel, and to helping others undertook new research about Bowser. The new Encyclopedia Virginia entry on Mary Richards Bowser provides the most detailed account of her life, including dispelling false or unsubstantiated claims about her. But documentation regarding Bowser continues to emerge. Having spent more than a decade researching her life, I’ve compiled a list of areas for further research. And I hereby invite scholars and students interested in doing original research on her to pursue any of the following. (The list will make most sense after you read the full entry about Bowser first).
Relation to the Richards family: No known evidence explains Mary’s use of the surname Richards before and after the Civil War. She may have been born the property of Van Lew’s extended family, which included cousins with the last name Richards, or perhaps she was the child or grandchild of one or more of the Richards’ slaves—or perhaps her father was a white Van Lew relation with that name (although there is no extant evidence that her father was white). Wills, tax assessments, correspondence, journals, or bills of sale may survive among the Richards’ family papers containing information relevant to a slave named Mary.
Connection to Union military leaders: The Brooklyn Eagle reported on September 25, 1865 that Mary Richards Bowser, then using the pseudonym Richmonia St. Pierre, presented “letters of recommendation from Generals [Alfred] Terry, [E. O.] Ord, and [Colonel] S H Roberts.” It also reported that immediately after the fall of Richmond, she provided information to “the Provost Marshal,” likely either Brigadier General Marsena R. Patrick, Major Atherton H. Stevens, Jr., Lieutenant Colonel John Coughlin, or Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Manning. This is the first evidence that these Union military leaders had direct knowledge of her intelligence work. The official or personal correspondence of these Union officers may yield further information about an agent using the name Mary Richards, Mary Bowser, or perhaps St. Pierre.
Appearances on the Northern lecture circuit: It is quite possible that Mary gave other lectures in the North after the Civil War, or that additional newspapers reported on the two lectures she is known to have given. Although her use of different pseudonyms at each of the two known lectures underscores the challenge of identifying other speeches given by her under as-yet-unknown names or in as-yet-undiscovered locations, searching nineteenth-century newspapers, especially Northern black papers, may reveal more evidence of her appearances on the lecture circuit. Extant records from the black churches at which she spoke (Abyssinian Baptist Church, then located on Waverly Place near Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church then located on Bridge Street near Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn), including personal diaries of their pastors, might also include details about the events.
Postwar marriage and possible emigration: Nothing is yet known about her second husband except for his surname of Garvin, and his presence in Georgia in early 1867 (the two were probably married in April or May, most likely in Savannah). Aside from her June 1867 correspondence, no evidence has been found regarding whether Mary Richards Bowser Garvin joined her husband in Havana or elsewhere in the West Indies, or whether he returned to settle somewhere within the United States with her. Research in this area would be especially useful to understanding how Bowser represented her own Civil War activities in the decades that followed.
If you uncover new information, please let me know at research[at]loisleveen[dot]com—I promise to hum you a tune appropriate to your triumph—and to update the Encyclopedia entry accordingly.
IMAGE: The Van Lew home in Richmond, where Mary Richards Bowser might have spent part of her childhood (Virginia Historical Society)
On this day in 1610, William Strachey dated a letter, addressed to an anonymous “Excellent Lady,” in which he spun his now-famous narrative of the Sea Venture shipwreck on the islands of Bermuda. This was actually the second of his two drafts. A first draft, the first page of which is pictured above, was started in Bermuda and finished at Jamestown. The second version was longer and more polished and begun after Strachey had become secretary of the colony.
Both drafts likely circulated among Londoners connected to the Virginia Company, and many scholars believe that William Shakespeare used one of them as a major source for his play The Tempest, thought to have been written in 1610 and 1611. In 1625, the Reverend Samuel Purchas published Strachey’s longer draft as A true reportory in the fourth volume of Hakluytus Posthumus; or Purchas His Pilgrimes. He had obtained the manuscript from Richard Hakluyt (the younger).
For all of its later fame, the Virginia Company actually refused to publish Strachey’s account of the Sea Venture. Although he praised Sir Thomas Gates and Sir George Somers, Strachey was a bit too forthright about the mutinies in Bermudaand highly critical of the Jamestown colonists’ “Idleness” and their leaders’ “misgovernment.” Ironically, he also may have been too effusive in his praise of Bermuda’s prospects for colonization, the English preferring to keep this information close lest it tempt the Spanish into populating the islands.
A version of this post was originally published on July 15, 2012.
IMAGE: First page of the original draft of William Strachey’s Sea Venture narrative, 1609 (The Mariners’ Museum)
On this day in 2007, I arrived in Virginia without a job or a home, but with a good working knowledge of 1776 (1972).* And while being able to recite the lyrics to “Sit Down, John!” has neither been sufficient in terms of my professional advancement nor even helpful where the happiness of my marriage is concerned, it has given me great joy.
That said, I suppose it’s unlikely that William Lloyd Garrison felt quite the same joy when, on this day in 1854, somewhere near Boston, he publicly burned copies of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. The context of this was the capture, trial, and deportment, earlier in the year, of Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave from Virginia.
Moncure Conway,** himself a Virginian and the son of a planter, used the occasion to “come out” against slavery, declaring that “in Virginia, they not only had slaves, but every man with a conscience, or even the first throbbings of a conscience, is a slave.”
Serious business, slavery. And history. Which is why, I think, we sometimes require the musical.
* I believe it was Ezra Pound who described the musical 1776 as “of the best, among them, / For an old bitch gone in the teeth.”
** Conway is one of the most interesting guys you may never have heard of. Seriously.
A version of this post was originally published on July 4, 2011.
Lee’s description of “that grand charge” foreshadowed the way in which Pickett’s Charge would be transformed from a disaster to a moment of high glory. “In less than one half century,” the historian Carol Reardon has written, “Pickett’s Charge became both historical event and emotional touchstone—history and memory—with the demarcation between the two often imperceptible.” The symbolic meeting point of history and memory became the Bloody Angle and the trees behind it, a place that in 1870 John B. Bachelder—a painter who turned himself into the unofficial historian of the Gettysburg battle—famously described as “the ‘High Water Mark’ of the rebellion.”
The scene posted above, from the film Gettysburg (1993), is ample illustration. One of the “top” commenters writes, “This particular scene is my favourite, especially because of the powerful music. This combination gives me goosebumps!” Which is the whole point, of course, because in Gettysburg, as in the larger culture, Pickett’s Charge has become, oddly, something to be proud of. And this development would have shocked no one more than Pickett himself.
A version of this post was originally published on July 3, 2011.
Where were we? Oh yes. Day two of Gettysburg, fought 150 years ago on fields just to the north of Virginia. Having been chased by Confederates through town on July 1, Union forces took up positions in nearby hills. Those positions were famously in the shape of a fishhook and well reinforced. Robert E. Lee‘s plan was to have the one-legged Dick Ewell make some noise on the Union right while James Longstreet and some of A. P. Hill‘s men attacked the left in full force.
Again, because this is Gettysburg, there’s bound to be controversy. From our entry:
Long the villain in this drama, Longstreet was targeted by Lost Cause historians—especially Jubal Early—because of his wartime ambition, his criticisms of Lee, and his postwar defection to the Republican Party. Some modern historians, including Douglas Southall Freeman, however, also have held Longstreet partly accountable for holding up the day’s assault by more than three hours. In Lee’s Lieutenants (1942–1944), Freeman charged that the general “sulked” as much as he fought, “the dissent of Longstreet’s mind [acting as] a brake on his energies.” Freeman’s negative opinion of Longstreet, however, has been challenged by more recent scholarship that acknowledges while Longstreet was guilty of some delay he also managed his corps with considerable skill in its attack that afternoon.
So yesterday the battle was lost because of Ewell; today, it’s because of Longstreet. And yet … and yet … the battle was nearly won! Fierce fighting raged in places soon to be burned into the American lexicon: Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, Cemetery Ridge, and Cemetery Hill. Longstreet nearly broke through, and while Confederate apologists hate to hear this, his failure may actually have had something to do with Union commander George G. Meade. He had smartly captured the high ground and just as smartly used it—reinforcing various spots quickly and efficiently.
Still, even as the curtain fell on Act Two, Lee felt victory was in his grasp …
IMAGE:A Harvest of Death; Union dead at Gettysburg, July 5, 1863, by Timothy O’Sullivan; the men were killed in fighting on the Rose farm, near the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den, and Little Round Top, on July 2 (Library of Congress)
Such a big day for Civil War nerds. On this day 150 years ago, Confederate general A. P. Hill sent two divisions into the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg to brush aside whatever annoying Union presence had shot at his men the day before. What they found, just west of town, was the stiff back of Union general John Buford, whose horsemen were determined to hold the town until the nearby First Corps could arrive.
So began the most famous battle of the war. What, if anything, did it have to do with shoes? Or that terribly handsome Virginian Harry Heth? You can find out here.
Anyway, the fighting turned pretty fierce and Heth was shot in the head. Don’t worry; he survived. Union general John Reynolds was not so lucky, however, and the Virginian John Newton eventually assumed command of Reynolds’s old corps. By the end of the first day, Hill and his comrade Jubal Early had sent Union forces skedaddling through town and into the hills beyond.
Things looked good, right? Well, where Gettysburg is concerned, there’s always going to be controversy. And here, the controversy revolves around the decision of the one-legged Confederate general Richard Ewell not to immediately attack Union troops in those hills. “Old Bald Head,” as his men called him, had taken over for Stonewall Jackson when the great hero had fallen at Chancellorsville a few months earlier, so maybe he would always be seen to fall short. Whatever the case, a lot of people like to play “what if,” and this is one of those moments. What if he had attacked? Could the battle have been won? Or what if Jackson had survived? Certainly he would have attacked, right?
Some folks, though, forge that there was another commander on the field that day: Robert E. Lee. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Here’s what our entry says:
Lee’s decision not to attack Cemetery Hill has been a source of controversy ever since. Some historians have suggested that Ewell was not nearly as aggressive as Stonewall Jackson would have been. Others have blamed Lee for issuing orders that were vague, contradictory, and overly discretionary. Ewell was to attack Cemetery Hill, according to Lee, “if he found it practicable, but to avoid a general engagement.” As historian Stephen W. Sears has written, “The decision was left entirely in Ewell’s hands, and he was urged to start a fight but not to start a battle.”
We report, you decide.
IMAGE: Union and Confederate veterans at Gettysburg, 1913 (Library of Congress)
On this day in 1788, and after intense debate among the delegates to the Virginia Convention, the United States Constitution is ratified by an 89 to 79 vote—due in part to a promise by the Federalists to consider amendments after ratification.
George Mason and Patrick Henry opposed the Constitution, worrying that the central government was too strong and that it lacked a bill of rights. According to one of Henry’s fellow delegates, the irate losers met to discuss “a plan of resistance to the operation of the Federal Government” and invited Henry “to take the chair.”
And here you’ve got to hand it to Old Pat. For an anti-Federalist, he nevertheless seemed to care—already!—about the Union. He reminded his friends that he had already “done his duty strenuously … in the proper place” where “[t]he question had been fully discussed and settled.” Now, Henry concluded, “as true and faithful republicans, they had all better go home!”
Also on this day, in 1864, members of the 48th Pennsylvania, miners led by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, begin digging a long tunnel to the Confederate lines in front of Petersburg. Stay tuned for the results. Bang bang!
IMAGE:Painting by Louis S. Glanzman; commissioned by Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey State Societies Daughters of the American Revolution Independence National Historical Park Collection, 1987
On this day in 1726, the governor’s Council clerk, William Robertson, had the thankless task of informing the body’s senior member, Edmund Jenings, that he had been found incompetent to serve. The timing was significant. Lieutenant Governor Hugh Drysdale was only a few weeks short of death, and by right of seniority, Jenings would serve as acting governor until the Crown got around to appointing someone else. (The last time this happened, it took three years.)
Anyway, Jenings’s buddies on the Council wanted no part of this scenario, suspecting that the old man suffered from “the insanity of his mind & memory.” They even dispatched emissaries to Ripon Hall, one of whom, a former business associate, found the colonel
sitting in his Chair, and when I came up to him, he rose up and took hold of my hand, and said he was glad to see me; so that I believe he did know me. He sat down again immediately, and fell a weeping and continued so sometime I sat with him at least half an hour, and he did not say any thing to me, only, I think, when I ask’d him if he had a good stomack, he said yes.
Which must have been really awkward. But on June 25, the deed was officially done, and when the Council met again on August 1, Robert “King” Carter, and not Edmund Jenings, was acting governor.
A version of this post was originally published on June 24, 2011.
On this day in 1944, the Allies invaded Europe. The town of Bedford, Virginia, lost nineteen of its men engaged that day, all members of Company A, 29th Infantry Division. (Four more Bedford soldiers died later in the campaign.) For that reason (and others more political and less fittingly symbolic), on this day in 2001 U.S. president George W. Bush dedicated the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford. The original design was modest, but you know how these things go. It got bigger, and by 2002 the D-Day Memorial Foundation had gone bankrupt and its director was tried in federal court for fraud … twice. Hung jury both times.
Back to D-Day, though. Our entry describes the memorial as a “colossus,” and maybe that’s appropriate. After all, D-Day looms rather large in our collective memory, and not just because of Band of Brothers. The invasion, the memorial’s website tells us, was “epic in scope” and so large it was “hard to conceive.” Which leads one to wonder how many men were killed and wounded on that day. This was, after all, the “decisive battle,” according to the folks at the memorial. So how many? A hundred thousand? Fifty thousand?
The memorial’s website says 10,000, but in her book The War Complex: World War II in Our Time (2006), Marianna Torgovnick estimates Allied casualties (killed and wounded) at less than half that, or about 4,900. Of those, 3,581 were Americans. That’s a lot, no doubt. But consider the more than three-quarters of a million Soviets who fell at Stalingrad. Torgovnick is quick to add that it’s not a contest; it’s just that for reasons both cultural and political, D-Day is the battle for Americans.
Oh, and for those of you who might object that D-Day—apart from the full Normandy campaign—was but 24 hours while Stalingrad lasted 199 days, here’s some quick math: At a rate of 3,581 casualties per day over 199 days, you still end up with 712,619 killed and wounded, or about ten days of slaughter short. But imagine it: 209 consecutive D-Days!
A version of this post was originally published on June 6, 2012.
On this day 150 years ago, Confederate general Robert E. Lee‘s Army of Northern Virginia, numbering approximately 75,000 confident, veteran soldiers, began to slowly shift west from its positions around Fredericksburg. The idea was to move north into Pennsylvania, maybe capture the state capital and so embarrass the Lincoln administration. Any kind of victory on Northern soil, meanwhile, might bring a favorable end to the war.
It wasn’t exactly a case of freedom on the move (as Colonel William S. Christian happily attested). A better example of that would have been fifty-one years ago on this day, when the famous Freedom Riders boarded a bus in Washington, D.C., and rode it through the Deep South to protest segregation. As an NPR News report put it last year:
By 1961 the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that segregating interstate travel facilities like buses and bus terminals was unconstitutional. But most places in the South continued to violate the law. So a group of young people, mainly college and university students, decided to draw attention to it.
Actually, the Supreme Court had ruled on the issue of segregating interstate travel facilities all the way back in 1946—on this day in 1946, in fact—in the case of Morgan v. Virginia. By a vote of 7-to-1 (Justice Robert H. Jackson was busy at Nuremberg) the Court ruled it unconstitutional that two years earlier, on a crowded Greyhound bus bound for Baltimore, twenty-seven-year-old Irene Morgan was arrested for taking an open seat three rows from the back—but still in front of some white passengers. She later was tried, convicted, and fined ten dollars, which she refused to pay.
Irene Morgan, in other words, was the original Freedom Rider.
On this day fifty years ago, a few weeks after well-publicized demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, peaceful protests led by two members of the Danville Christian Progressive Association began in Danville. The demonstrators sought the participation of blacks in municipal government and services and the hiring of blacks in downtown white businesses. Come June, the city responded with clubs and fire hoses. In the video above, protestor Louise Pinchback reads a letter she wrote from jail.
August 20, 1963: I am a satisfied demonstrator. This is strange, indeed, and maybe a little comical, but a very truthful thought. Near the end of May 1963 our city of Danville became a city of people, Negroes becoming wide awake from a long deep sleep. Became a city of protesting and demanding people. Thus was the beginning of the freedom movement. I became thoroughly convinced that I had to stand up and protest the evils of segregation even if it meant going to jail.
Watch the video for the rest, and click on the entry for some compelling television footage of the protests.
A version of this post was originally published on May 31, 2011.
The poet Kiki Petrosino, a descendant of slaves and a graduate of the University of Virginia, has written a short essay on this sentence from Thomas Jefferson‘s Notes on the State of Virginia:
They secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odor.
“Here is the poet-naturalist at work,” Petrosino writes.
The irresistible rhythm of Jefferson’s language—so like the rolling hills of Virginia—seduces the reader’s body into going along, into agreeing by a kind of accession, even before the mind registers the sinister implications of the words themselves. Black people are different, says Jefferson. The evidence is as plain as your sense of smell.
And so was Petrosino’s experience growing up, a sense that only deepened over time. What was once hate—for her body, for Mister Jefferson—blossomed into something else during her time at U.Va.
I can’t hate a body that insists so vigorously on being present in the world. Without consulting me, my heels had struck their own sharp sentence on Jefferson’s ground: I am here. My joy in this doesn’t make up for the collective absence of all those whom he would have barred from his Lawn; their shadows still press into the plasterwork of the colonnade. They stay with me, like Jefferson’s Notes.
Also on this day in 1854, United States president Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act into law. The whole point of the law was to let the states decide for themselves the question of slavery. With no “evil” federal government telling them what to do, then the whole ugly problem might disappear once and for all. As Ron Paul famously suggested a couple of years ago, no war was necessary, right?
That was Stephen A. Douglas‘s reasoning. He was the pint-sized Illinois senator who coined the phrase “popular sovereignty,” and he figured that while planters might drag their chattel north to test out the midwestern soil, they’d find it ill-suited to their purposes. Like gentlemen, they would then retreat south and let the Jayhawks and Cornhuskers count their labor free.
Except that they didn’t. And the whole issue only underscores the problems with states’ rights as understood by Candidate Paul. The Democrats and Whigs in Congress were so divided on the issue that, according to one historian, the South’s “margin of victory was accounted for by the provision in the Constitution [that] gave additional representation to slaveholding states by allowing them to count each slave as three-fifths of a person.”*
In other words, the “evil” federal government acted only with the power it won on the backs of slaves. And maintaining that power required maintaining, even expanding, slavery—the poor quality of Jayhawk soil be damned. Perhaps this is why Henry A. Edmundson, a Democrat from Blacksburg, pulled two pistols from his jacket and aimed them at the head of Lewis D. Campbell of Ohio. This was on the floor of Congress during debate over Kansas-Nebraska.
RON PAUL: Every other major country of the world was able to get rid of slavery without a civil war. So the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery …
The United States, however, has always been exceptional. After all, not every other country in the world boasted the likes of Henry Alonzo Edmundson.
* This does not make the three-fifths clause “anti-slavery” as Bishop E. W. Jackson, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, has suggested. To the contrary, it was designed to empower southerners in Congress beyond what their actual population warranted. It was the definition of un-democratic, and it was designed to guarantee the livelihoods of slaveholders.
A version of this post was originally published on May 30, 2011.
On this day in 1922, the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. Warren G. Harding was president, so he spoke. And Robert Todd Lincoln, Honest Abe’s son, was still around, so he came, as did the former president and current Chief Justice of the United States, William Howard Taft. Considering Lincoln’s legacy, it seemed only appropriate that an African American say a few words, and Taft appointed a Virginian for that role: Robert Russa Moton. He was Booker T. Washington‘s successor as principal of the Tuskegee Institute and the most powerful African American at that time.
Moton spoke to a segregated audience and, despite being handpicked, his speech betrayed his reservations about the success of American democracy. He compared two ships bound for America—the Mayflower, headed for Plymouth and a promised land of religious freedom, and a slave ship en route from Africa to Jamestown, carrying its human cargo. Ever since then, Moton observed, two principles had been contending for the soul of America: liberty and bondage.
Moton’s talk was early in the program, allowing for corrections from subsequent speakers. Both Harding and Chief Justice Taft distracted attention from Moton’s point, asserting that Lincoln’s greatness lay in his saving the nation, not freeing the slaves. Washington papers also glossed over Moton’s talk and even re-interpreted the gist of it, but black journalists were not as easily hoodwinked. The editor of the black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, wrote a scathing, but prescient, piece. Moton’s words, he said, fell “on ears closed and deaf to reason” and Harding’s speech “opened” the memorial, but did not “dedicate” it. The editor called for a boycott of the monument until “juster and more grateful men come to power and history shall have rebuked offenders against the name of Abraham Lincoln.” He closed with a remarkable prediction:
With song, prayer, bold and truthful speech, with faith in God and country, later on let us dedicate the temple thus far only opened. —June 10, 1922
A version of this post was originally published on May 30, 2012.
IMAGES: Moton speaks at the Lincoln Memorial dedication, May 30, 1922 (Library of Congress); the title page and page 1 of his address (Library of Congress)
En ce jour en 1818, Pierre Beauregard est né. And even as they cut the cord, he likely was all jabbering in French, undoubtedly praising the campaigns of Napoléon and combing those lovely whiskers of his. The future Confederate general is the only Pierre in the entire encyclopedia,* and to him belongs one of the great names in Virginia history. Temperance Flowerdew, who survived the Starving Time, certainly deserves consideration, as does the Indian called Don Luís de Velasco. But I’ve always been a fan of Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard.
Monsieur Toutant-Beauregard did not necessarily feel the same way. Upon enrolling at West Point in 1834, the Crescent City creole dropped the hyphen in a bold attempt at assimilation, thus transforming himself into Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard. As changes go, it was no Hiram to Ulysses, and it may have been undercut by his decision to marry a Marie Laure Villeré and name their sons René and Henri. Nevertheless, he was an extremely popular member of society. And rather than push his luck, he eventually decided to sign his name “G. T. Beauregard.”
The loss of “Pierre” did not mean the loss of his French pride, however, and by the end of the war Beauregard was engaged in a bitter dispute with Jefferson Davis. “Pooh! he stinks in my nostrils,” the general wrote to a friend about the Confederate president.
This may be an instance where the French might have sounded a bit more dignified:
Poo! Il pue dans mes narines!
* Okay, there’s one other Pierre: Pierre Étienne Du Ponceau, but he clearly was a figure of marginal intelligence, having pronounced Robert Bolling ”one of the greatest poetical geniuses that ever existed.” (You may recall.)
A version of this post was originally published on May 28, 2011.
When I was in sixth grade (1984, give or take) I wrote a short essay titled “The Best Job in the World.” I discovered this last night while digging through some old boxes. It turns out that at a time when my wife wanted to be a famous actress I was “doing a research project on the great English philosopher, Sir John Locke,” because research “gives me the satisfaction of a job well done.”
I also discovered “A Declaration of Independence by the student representatives of McKinley School,” which I wrote (on a parchment-like brown paper bag artificially aged with a cigarette lighter) so as to carefully follow the outline of the real Declaration of Independence.
Finally, I found a slightly water-damaged portrait of the 27th Georgia Infantry, at Lindsay Park, Davenport, Iowa, ca. 1986. The 1st sergeant (top row, far left) sold Little Debbies from the back of his van, while the sergeant next to him was a veteran of the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut a few years earlier. It was my first reenactment. (I’m in the front row, far left.)
All of which is to say, if anyone was born to edit an encyclopedia …
On this day in 1854, Anthony Burns—a fugitive slave from Stafford County, Virginia, then living in Boston—was arrested under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act (1850). Failing to free him through legal channels, abolitionists later stormed the jail. A federal marshal was killed in the melee and the subsequent trial made national headlines.
After he was returned to Virginia, Burns spent four months chained in one of the Richmond slave jails, an ordeal that left him permanently crippled and in ill health. The Massachusetts Historical Societyhas an excerpt from a letter he wrote to his supporters at that time. Dated August 23, 1854, it reads:
… if what you all My Friends did for Me could Not keep Me from coming Back in to a Land of death it Did do some Good for my Suffering would have Been ten hundred times great than it is But I am yet Bound in Jail and am wearing my chains Night and Day … I am for sale … I will Be to you all A friend all My days … you can get Me Low he would take $800 dollars for Me …
A version of this post was originally published on May 24, 2012.
IMAGES: Two broadsides related to Burns’s arrest and imprisonment suggest the passions surrounding the case. The image on the right can be found at the Massachusetts Historical Society.
On this day in 1607, Christopher Newport and a small company of men began exploring the upper reaches of the James River, where they were feasted by the Indian weroance Ashuaquid. Two years later, a feast would have tasted even better, but relations with the Indians were generally poor and the colony not doing so well. As such, the muckety-mucks at the Virginia Company of London (that’s their seal above) decided on a major rebranding effort that included, on this day in 1609, the rolling out of a brand new charter. It provided for private corporate control—better to instill some discipline!—and extended Virginia’s boundaries all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Below you’ll find the first two pages of the charter, with the names of some of the investors, including the governor, Sir Thomas Gates, and even Oliver Cromwell (not that Oliver Cromwell, but his uncle).
Skipping ahead in time, today is the 188th birthday of Ambrose Everett Burnside, the pride of Liberty, Indiana, and bearded men everywhere. During the Civil War, he led the Union Ninth Corps to triumph at the site of the original Roanoke colonies—okay, it wasn’t much of a triumph, but it weren’t nothing, either—and disaster at Fredericksburg (1862) and the Crater (1864), after which he was sent away to await orders that never came. That’s Ol’ Sideburns on the left down there. On the right is Virginia’s Ordinance of Secession, which was passed by referendum on this day in 1861 by an exact vote (in case you’re interested) of 125,950 to 20,373.
The war at this point was already a fact. On the same day, Union troops occupied the grounds around Arlington House, Robert E. Lee‘s mansion. Within a couple of years, the land would be transformed into Freedmen’s Village, a place for former slaves to make an attempt at a new life. These men and women had been using the war as a means to freedom, and in fact it was on this day in 1861 that three enslaved men from Sewell’s Point fled to the safety of Fort Monroe. The Union commander there, Benjamin Franklin Butler, declared them to be “contraband of war,” or property used by the enemy to aid the war effort. In that way he could affect their freedom without breaking any laws.
On this day a year later, in 1862, the Confederate spy Belle Boyd, pride of Martinsburg, spied through a peephole in a closet door and in this way managed to obtain information that aided Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in his victory at Front Royal. That’s her down there on the left, in a portrait by Kevin Storms, who, like many before him, wonders about her beauty of lack thereof. She did all right in her day, supposedly wooing information out of some Union men and then marrying one of her eventual captors.
Finally, on this day in 1951, Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robinson filed suit on behalf of 117 students and their parents from Robert Russa Moton High School in Prince Edward County. Exactly a month earlier, the students had gone on strike in protest of poor conditions at their all-black school. The case, Dorothy Davis et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Civil Action 1333, was eventually bundled into Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, and we all know what happened with that. Courtesy of the National Archives, you can check out the original filing (above right) as well as photographs from the plaintiff and defendants, showing conditions at Moton and a comparable white school in the county.
A version of this post was originally published on May 23, 2012.
As we send our best thoughts out to the folks in Moore, Oklahoma, we can’t help but think about tornadoes. The most deadly twister in Virginia history was at Rye Cove, in the Appalachian highlands, on May 9, 1929. Twelve students and a teacher were killed when a tornado slammed into Rye Cove School.
At the top, you’ll see a screen shot of what the map looks like. But you can drill down. The screen shot below shows an F-1 tornado that spun just to the west of Charlottesville, and alarmingly close to the Encyclopedia Virginia World Headquarters.
The deadliest post-1950 tornado, however, was on September 30, 1959. According to the Crozet Gazette:
Few took particular note when, around 2:25 p.m., telephone and electrical service were lost to much of western Albemarle County. After all, there were thunderstorms in the area, and such a temporary inconvenience was not unheard-of. There was no way of knowing at the time that the outage was the result of tornado #1 that had downed trees, power and phone lines northwest of Ivy Depot before vanishing over open ground.
Twelve people died altogether. And if you want to see full-on what the Oklahoma tornado looked like, then check this out:
On this day 150 years ago, following Lincoln’s call for black soldiers in the Emancipation Proclamation, the War Department organized the Bureau for Colored Troops. Major Charles W. Foster was charged with issuing guidelines for black regiments, staffing the units with officers, and overseeing recruiting and enrollment. There were already a few black regiments, and they were brought under the auspices of the bureau. As our entry on United States Colored Troops, newly published today, notes:
The Bureau for Colored Troops brought efficiency to the USCT regiments, but not always equitable treatment. Despite objections from black leaders, the Bureau insisted on assigning only white men to commissioned officer positions. Although a small number of black soldiers received commissions by the end of the war—including the Virginia-born Martin R. Delany—and many served as noncommissioned officers, the USCT remained primarily an organization led by whites. Officials in the army and in the government also initially assumed that black regiments would rarely, if ever, be used in combat. As a result, black soldiers endured a disproportionate share of labor duty.
The image above, of white USCT officers during the siege of Petersburg, shows that well enough. Next to them is Sergeant Nimrod Burke, of the 23rd USCT, which mustered in Alexandria and also fought at Petersburg. You can read more about Burke’s story here.
About 5,723 black soldiers were mustered into service in Virginia, although many black Virginians—especially those who had escaped slavery—likely signed up and served elsewhere. Sixteen Medals of Honor were awarded to black soldiers during the war, and five of those went to Virginians:
In the meantime, a monument for black troops was unveiled in Maryland last year. You can read more about that here.
IMAGES: United States Colored Troops Civil War Memorial Monument at John C. Lancaster Park in Lexington Park, Maryland (dcmilitary.com); Field and staff officers of the 39th U.S. Colored Infantry, Petersburg, September 1864 (Library of Congress); Sergeant Nimrod Burke (1836–1914), Company F, 23rd U.S. Colored Infantry
On this day in 1775, Robert Bolling published a long elegy in the Virginia Gazette mourning the deaths of Virginia militamen at the hands of Indians during Dunmore’s War (1773–1774). Bolling was a burgess and something of a hipster wine guy who was once jailed for challenging one of the more flighty of the William Byrds to a duel. He later was sued by his own brother. (Bolling’s attorney was Thomas Jefferson.)
What he really wanted to be when he grew up, though, was a poet, and the Gazette was happy to publish all twenty-one tedious stanzas by this great-great-grandson of Pocahontas, thereby doing violence both to basic meter and to the dignity of Virginia Indians. If you must, you can find an example here.
Meanwhile, on page four of the Gazette that day was a personal ad by one John Maxwell of Lancaster:
This is only speculation, of course, but perhaps Bolling’s stanzas were the last straw.
Speaking of leaving the colony, on this day in 1703, six members of the governor’s Council sent the Crown a list of grievances against Governor Francis Nicholson, with the hope that he might make like John Maxwell. Among the governor’s alleged offenses was the use of abusive language (he had called the councilors “Rogues, Villians, Raskalls, Cowards, Dogs, &c.”) and his persistent and unsubtle courtship of one of the councilors’ eighteen-year-old daughter—pursuing her even after she had become engaged to someone else!
The Crown, as you might imagine, was not impressed. So while John Maxwell left the colony of his own accord, alas, Governor Nicholson did not.
IMAGES: Find archived issues of the Virginia Gazetteonline at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
On this day in 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. Except that it failed to explain how quickly and in what manner desegregation was to take place. This was no small omission. Imagine the white American South as a pimply adolescent, by turns defiant and pouty. You wag your finger and say, as did Mr. Chief Justice Warren, “that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.”
Which is only fair, you insist, looking your kid square in the eye.
“Fine!” White American South says, arms crossed.
“So you’re going to integrate, right?”
“Come on now. Don’t force my hand here, White American South. For once, just do as I—”
“What’s my deadline?”
“Yeah. What’s my deadline?”
At which point you look around anxiously for your spouse, who has suddenly needed to leave the room for some unexplained reason.
“You know what?” White American South says, suddenly confident. “Screw public education!”
On this day 150 years ago, Union general Benjamin Franklin Butler, the military governor of New Orleans, issued his notorious General Orders No. 28, or what became known as the “woman order.” It declared that any woman who treated a Union soldier disrespectfully—spitting was the preferred method that spring—would be treated by the law as if she were a prostitute. “The edict,” writes the historian Chester G. Hearn, “was a little out of character for Butler, whose reverence for women was well established and untarnished by any hint of personal scandal. The general, however, had a short temper, and this trait, combined with his penchant for stimulating controversy, often dominated his actions.”
So true. And even though the order was not meant to suggest that the women literally were prostitutes, only that they be subject to equivalent penalties before the law, and only after they had done something so unladylike as to spit on a soldier, word of General Orders No. 28 “hit the streets of New Orleans like a giant keg of gunpowder.” Confederate general Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, whose very name seemed a defense of courtly manners, was shocked … SHOCKED!
MEN OF THE SOUTH: Shall our mothers, our wives, our daughters, and our sisters be thus outraged by the ruffianly soldiers of the North, to whom is given the right to treat at their pleasure the ladies of the South as common harlots? Arouse, friends, and drive back from our soil those infamous invaders of our homes and disturbers of our family ties.
Butler, meanwhile, could just as easily offend those on his own side. Exempli gratia: two years later, President Lincoln was preparing for a touch reelection fight by looking for a new running mate. He sent Simon Cameron to chat with Butler, who, for all his failings as a general, had always been an able politician, at least in Massachusetts. Butler, however, valued his military prowess more highly than others and told the president’s emissary: “I would not quit the field to be Vice-President, even with himself [Lincoln] as President, unless he will give me … [assurances] that he will die or resign within three months after his inauguration.”
Butler, I believe, meant this as a joke. But it probably wasn’t all that funny then, and it’s a hell of a lot less funny now, and that’s even considering Alan Alda‘s fatuously delivered maxim in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989): “Comedy is tragedy plus time!”
A version of this post was originally published on May 15, 2012.
The revolution that happened here [in the United States] was great, and very rarely is that the case in the world. You know, you have this revolution in America, in which the British fight the British, and then they codify classical liberal values into a constitution, and it’s great. But that’s not how it goes down normally. Normally, there’s bloodshed and it’s horrible …
I get what he’s saying: not all revolutions end up establishing governments we like. And it’s an important point. But it’s also important to remember that even when they do, there’s still bloodshed and it’s still horrible. Read, for instance, about the fighting at the Battle of Oriskany, which, among other things, precipitated a civil war among the Iroquois nations. Or considerthat American casualties (i.e., killed and wounded) during the Revolution numbered about 118 per 10,000 in the total population; compare a total 30 per 10,000 during World War II.
Our captain immediately dispatched his lieutenant for a physician, who, when he returned, was so fortunate as to bring two with him. We then procured the means of washing and cleansing the wounded man, and upon examining him there was found, as our captain afterwards announced to the men, forty-six distinct bayonet wounds in different parts of his body, either of which were deep and sufficiently large to have been fatal if they had been in vital parts. But they were mostly flesh wounds, and every one of them had bled profusely, and many of them commenced bleeding again upon being washed. His wounds were dressed, his bloody garments burned, and by orders of our captain, he was waited upon with strict attention until he was able to walk, and then was by Lieutenant Corry (our lieutenant) taken somewhere not distant to an hospital, and declarant heard no more of him.
Only in hindsight do we truly understand whether such bloodshed is worth it, and even then, we were not the ones to suffer it.
IMAGE:Boston Massacre, March 5th, 1770, published by J. H. Bufford’s lithography company based on an illustration by W. L. Champney, 1856 (American Antiquarian Society)