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This Day (Last Words Edition)

October 29th, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

On this day in 1618, having made one final revision to an old poem and entrusted it to his Bible, Sir Walter Raleigh climbed the scaffold before a large crowd that included his old compatriot Thomas Hariot. According to witnesses, the condemned man ran his thumb along the executioner’s blade and said, “This is a sharp medicine but it is a physician for all diseases.”

Mark Nicholls, an Encyclopedia Virginia contributor who co-authored a recent biography of Raleigh, elaborates on the scene:

He rejected a blindfold, saying that since he had no fear of the axe itself, he would not tremble at its shadow. The usual arrangements were made, that the condemned prisoner could pray a while, and then stretch his arms as a signal to the headsman. Ralegh prayed, and reached forward. The axe did not fall. Again he pushed forward, urging an end: What do you fear? he asked. ‘Strike, man.’ Even in the horror of death Ralegh seemed to control his own final moment, and ‘the last act’, according to the familiar contemporary proverb, ‘carrieth away the applause’.

The deed finally done, the head was taken away in a red leather bag and gifted to Raleigh’s wife, Bess, who embalmed it, and stored it in a special case for the remaining twenty-nine years of her life.

IMAGE: The Last Words of 20 People Who Were Executed

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This Day (Lazarus Rises Edition)

October 28th, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

On this day in 1886, the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in New York Harbor. Designed by Frédéric Bartholdi, the statue was a gift of France and a kind of promise, following the repressive regime of Napoleon III, to recommit to the principles of liberty.

The connection to Virginia is twofold. The New York Times reminds us that Emma Lazarus, whose sonnet “The New Colossus” (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”) has become synonymous with the statue, was descended from the man who once wrote a letter to George Washington welcoming him to Newport, Rhode Island. Lazarus biographer Esther Schor explains that in 1790, Lazarus’s great-great uncle Moses Seixas, a Newport merchant, wrote Washington on behalf of the Touro Synagogue:

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People—a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship …

Washington responded with the assurance that Jews were welcome and free members of the American community. Schor write: “The collaborative vision of Washington and Emma Lazarus’s ancestor Moses Seixas—to live not only with civil rights, not only free to worship, but also without fear—has been the presumption of American Jewry from that day to this.”

On the Times‘s comment board, Encyclopedia Virginia contributor Henry Wiencek takes that Washington-Lazarus connection a bit further:

It is intriguing to learn of Emma Lazarus’s distant connection to George Washington because her poem perpetuates a vision for the American future Washington expressed in 1783, when he exulted over the success of the Revolution: “for, happy, thrice happy shall they be pronounced here after, who have contributed any thing … in protecting the rights of human nature and establishing an Asylum for the poor and oppressed of all nations and religions.”

In the meantime, there’s a second Virginia connection in all this, one we pointed out some time back: Constance Cary Harrison, the blue-blooded Virginia writer, may have been the one to convince Lazarus to write her poem in the first place.

But regardless of whether the whole world revolves around Virginia, this day belongs to Lady Liberty. Happy birthday!

A version of this post was originally published on October 28, 2011.

IMAGE: Liberty Sunset, 2005 by Judy Rey Wasserman

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This Day (Promises Promises Edition)

October 27th, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · 1 Comment

On this day in 1674, Nathaniel Bacon signed a promissory note to landowner Thomas Ballard. Bacon, a recent arrival from England, agreed to pay Ballard 500 pounds sterling over the course of two years in return for Curles Neck Plantation in Henrico County, Virginia. He also acquired from Ballard a smaller tract of land near the falls of the James River that became known as Bacon’s Quarter.

There are no contemporary images of Bacon; this is his earliest known signature. Two years later he would lead Bacon’s Rebellion.

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What the Overseer Said

October 26th, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

In part four of our series on primary resources related to Sally Hemings, we consider the recollections of Edmund Bacon. (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.) Bacon was an overseer at Monticello from 1806 until 1822 before retiring to Kentucky. There he was interviewed by the Reverend Hamilton W. Pierson, who published Bacon’s words in 1862 as The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson.

Bacon actually knew Sally Hemings, and in a chapter on Jefferson’s slaves he recalls that he “often heard her tell about” her ocean voyage to France. Regarding the paternity of Hemings’s children, Bacon mentions (although not by name) Harriet Hemings, born in 1795. He says:

[Jefferson] freed one girl some years before he died, and there was a great deal of talk about it. She was nearly as white as anybody, and very beautiful. People said he freed her because she was his own daughter. She was not his daughter; she was ……’s daughter. I know that. I have seen him come out of her mother’s room many a morning, when I went up to Monticello early. When she was nearly grown, by Mr. Jefferson’s direction I paid her stage fare to Philadelphia, and gave her fifty dollars. I have never seen her since, and don’t know what became of her.

So Harriet Hemings is not the daughter of Thomas Jefferson; she’s the daughter of “……” And Mr. Bacon, who did not even become the overseer at Monticello until 11 years after Harriet’s birth, knows this because he has seen another man come out of Sally Hemings’s room? There are problems here, obviously. What historians have found interesting about this particular recollection is how odd it was for Jefferson to be sending one of his slaves off with stage fare and fifty dollars while noting in his always-meticulous records that she had run away.

If he had wanted to free her, why not do it officially? Unless he didn’t want to explain why he was freeing her. And the “why,” some historians have speculated, can be found in Jefferson’s supposed agreement with Sally Hemings—made in Paris, according to the recollections of Madison Hemings—to free their children when they reached the age of twenty-one.

As with so many of the other actors in this drama, Edmund Bacon is someone we cannot wholly trust or wholly distrust. But hey, read him for yourself!

IMAGES:  Monticello (chriskern.net); undated daguerreotype of Edmund Bacon (University of Virginia Library, Special Collections); title page and page 103 of The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson by Hamilton W. Pierson (1862)

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This Day (Bringing Home the Bacon Edition)

October 26th, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

On this day in 1676—after provoking a war with the Indians, rousing up an army of rebels against the governor, and burning JamestownNathaniel Bacon died suddenly of dysentery. The humorous picture above, from PerezHamilton.com, is not actually of Bacon, though. Sadly, there are no known images of him.

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What the Journalist Claimed

October 25th, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

This is now our third in a series of primary resources associated with Sally Hemings. (Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here.) Our not-yet-published entry on Hemings explains why “The President, Again,” by James Thomson Callender, was so important:

In 1802, James Thomson Callender, who once had been Jefferson’s own hatchet man against the Federalists, turned on his former patron, now president. Having joined the staff of a Federalist newspaper in Richmond called the  Recorder, or Lady’s and Gentleman’s Miscellany, Callender published a series of vitriolic items beginning on September 1, 1802, when he wrote: “It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is SALLY … By this wench Sally, our president has had several children. There is not an individual in the neighbourhood of Charlottesville who does not believe the story, and not a few who know it.” Callender also suggested that Hemings had an eldest child, named Tom, “whose features are said to bear a striking though sable resemblance to those of the president himself.”

So is Callender to be believed? Arguments against: He was not a disinterested observer, but felt betrayed by Jefferson and sought to exact some measure of revenge. He was not what you’d call an upstanding citizen, but a person who has regularly been described as “loathsome,” “drunken,” and “vile.” His claim that Sally had a son Tom has not been corroborated by Jefferson’s records at Monticello. Arguments in favor: Rumors of Jefferson and a slave mistress had existed prior to Callender. Other newspapers at least claimed to independently verify the most basic allegation and added new details, doing so in such a manner as not to suggest Callender’s same animus. Callender’s claim generally fits with that of Sally Hemings’s son Madison, who declared his father to be Thomas Jefferson.

Now go read it, and see what you think!

IMAGES:  Monticello (chriskern.net); detail of The Recorder, or Lady’s and Gentleman’s Miscellany, September 1, 1802, page 1 (Library of Virginia); first paragraph of the page-2 article from the same paper, “The President, Again” by J. T. Callender

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This Day (King of Byrds Edition)

October 25th, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

On this day in 1760, King George II died after suffering a stroke at Kensington Palace in London. His grandson, George William Frederick, succeeded him as king, but waited nearly a year—until after he had married—to be coronated.

And on this day in 1888, Richard E. Byrd was born in Winchester. The younger brother of Harry F. Byrd became a noted Arctic and Antarctic explorer who earned his fifteen minutes in 1926 as the first man credited with flying to the North Pole.


IMAGES: King George III (in coronation robes) by Allan Ramsay, 1761–1762; Richard E. Byrd (Virginia Historical Society); map of Byrd’s Second Antarctic Expedition, 1934 (Library of Congress)

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What the Granddaughter Heard

October 24th, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · 4 Comments

As we noted yesterday, we’re beginning to publish some of the primary resources associated with Sally Hemings. And, as it happens, it was on this day in 1858 that Thomas Jefferson‘s granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, penned an oft-quoted letter to her husband, Joseph, on the still-swirling controversy regarding the dead president’s sex life. As you might imagine, Mrs. Coolidge was firmly in the Jefferson-didn’t-do-it camp:

Again I ask is it likely that so fond so anxious a father, whose letters to his daughters are replete with tenderness and with good counsels for their conduct, should (when there were so many other objects upon whom to fix his elicit attentions) have selected the female attendant of his own pure children to become his paramour! The thing will not bear telling. There are such things, after all, as moral impossibilities.

One actually wonders if there is. But that’s neither here nor there. What’s really interesting about this letter, and why it is so oft-quoted, is its transmission of a bit of gossip:

Now I will tell you in confidence what Jefferson told me under the like condition. Mr. Southall and himself being young men together, heard Mr. Peter Carr [Jefferson’s nephew] say with a laugh, that “the old gentleman [Jefferson] had to bear the blame of his and [his brother] Sam’s (Col. Carr) misdeed.

There is a general impression that the four children of Sally Hemings were all the children of Col. Carr, the most notorious good natured Turk that ever was master of a black seraglio kept at other men’s expense.

Combine moral impossibilities with third-hand family gossip, and you have a version of the Hemingses’ paternity that lasted for not quite 150 years—until a DNA test found no connection between the Carr brothers and Sally Hemings’s youngest son, Eston.

IMAGES:  Monticello (chriskern.net); Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge (Thomas Jefferson Foundation); letter from Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Joseph Coolidge (October 24, 1858), pages 1–2 (University of Virginia Library, Special Collections)

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Numbers 21:6

October 24th, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

From the July 3, 1944, issue of Life magazine: faith healers in southwestern Virginia.

RE THE POST’S TITLE: Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died (NIV).

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This Day (Nose Out of Joint Edition)

October 24th, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

On this day in 1757, Landon Carter—among the most huffily self-important of colonial Virginia‘s gentry—had his nose particularly out of joint.* He had fussed with his son, also Landon Carter, and then, in language weighted down with self-justifications, described the whole kerfuffle in his diary. Keep in mind as you’re reading that the elder Carter liked to leave his diary open in Sabine Hall for his family members to happen upon and read.

This day near Sunset Landon Carter came home. I with great mildness asked him if he did not think that as he was to go up to Bull Hall tomorrow he ought to have staid at home to have taken my directions with regard to my affairs and if he did not think this Sauntering about from house to house only to inflame himself the more by visiting a woman that he knew I would never Consent to his marrying would not ruin him and contrary to his duty. He answered very calmly No. Then Sir be assured that although you will shortly be of age if you do not henceforward leave her you must leave me. He answer, then Sir I will leave you, on which I bid him be gone out of my house. He took up his hat and sayd so he would as soon as he could get his horse and went off immediately without shewing the least Concern, no not even to turn round. This I write down the moment it passed that I might no through want of memory omit so Singular an act of great filial disobedience in a Child that I have thought once my greatest happyness but as a just Father kept it concealed.

* A phrase coined by this man in this book.

SOURCE: Jack P. Greene, ed., The Diary of Colonel Landon Carter of Sabine Hall, 1752–1778 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia for the Virginia Historical Society, 1965).

IMAGES: Landon Carter (Virginia Historical Society); Sabine Hall (VirginiaPlaces.org)

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What the Blacksmith Saw

October 23rd, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · 2 Comments

Ahead of the publication of our entry on Sally Hemings, we are beginning to publish some of the primary resources associated with her life story. One of these is the recollections of Isaac Granger Jefferson, the product of an interview the blacksmith gave in 1847 while living in Petersburg. (That’s him above, in the blacksmith’s apron.) Some scholars and so-called Jefferson defenders have argued that Thomas Jefferson‘s brother Randolph was actually the father of Hemings’s children, and they point to Isaac Jefferson’s account as evidence. In it, Isaac Jefferson says that Randolph Jefferson “used to come out among black people play the fiddle and dance half the night.” And because Isaac Jefferson was born and raised at Monticello, perhaps he ought to know.

In his new book, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, Henry Wiencek argues that the context of this claim—obscured by past published editions—is a description of events happening far away from Monticello; i.e., Randolph Jefferson may have danced the night away with enslaved women, but Sally Hemings wasn’t one of them. My own reading is that the account is neither clearly about Monticello nor clearly not about Monticello. Regardless, our entry notes the following:

Prior to 2000, no [Jefferson] family members or historians had argued for Randolph Jefferson’s paternity, and historians have found no solid evidence of his presence at Monticello during any of the known periods of conception. Most scholars now agree that Thomas Jefferson was likely the father of Sally Hemings’s children.

But don’t let us tell you what to think! Read it for yourself. The manuscript promises “a full and faithful account of Monticello and the family there, with notices of the many distinguished characters that visited there, with his Revolutionary experience and travels, adventures, observations and opinions, the whole taken down from his [Isaac Jefferson’s] own words.”

RE THE POST’S TITLE: It’s a chapter title in Wiencek’s book.

IMAGES: Monticello (chriskern.net); “Life of Isaac Jefferson of Petersburg, Virginia, Blacksmith,” pages 1–2; Isaac (Granger) Jefferson (University of Virginia Library, Special Collections)

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Bad Thoughts, Good Health, & Good Humor

October 23rd, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

William Byrd II was a planter, an explorer who helped fix the line between Virginia and North Carolina, and a founder—he established Richmond. (He even put an ad in the paper announcing the new town!) He also was a prolific, and secret, diarist. In a coded scribble that he learned from this book, he noted how he “made … good sport” with various servants and slaves or how he liked to “roger” his poor wife with a “flourish.” He also danced … a lot.

In the three excerpts below, all from this day in 1709, 1710, and 1711, he reveals the rather dull life of a member of the governor’s Council: kissing up to the governor, eating boiled beef, and committing various sorts of uncleannesses.

October 23, 1709

… Daniel came and shaved my head. About 11 o’clock I waited on the President and Colonel Harrison to church, where Mr. Cargill preached a good sermon. After church Colonel Harrison asked me to go to Mr. Blair’s to dinner. I ate fish and goose for dinner. I went in the evening to Colonel Bray’s where we found abundance of company and agreed to meet there the next day and have a dance. About 10 o’clock I came home and neglected to say my prayers and for that reason was guilty of uncleanness. I had bad thoughts, good health and good humor, thanks be to God Almighty.

October 23, 1710

… About 9 o’clock I went to wait on the Governor, where I found Colonel Custis. I read my proposal about naval stores to the Governor and he approved of it. Then we went to court. I sat a little while and then returned to my lodgings and prepared my public accounts and continued at them till 3 o’clock … I said my prayers but I committed uncleanness, for which God forgive me. However I had good health and good humor, thank God Almighty.

October 23, 1711

… About 9 o’clock I took leave of my wife and daughter and was set over the creek and was angry with Tom for forgetting the strap of my portmantle and I was displeased with Eugene for forgetting his cape. It rained all the way I rode to Williamsburg, where I got about 3 o’clock pretty wet. Then I got ready to go to court that I might not lose my day and accordingly did save it. I made my honors to the Governor and to the gentlemen of the council and took my place. We sat in court till about 5 o’clock and then the Governor took me home to dinner and there I found Mrs. Russell returned from her travels. I ate boiled beef for dinner. The Governor told me that our design upon Canada had miscarried by the fault of the Admiral. About 8 o’clock we went to the coffeehouse where I played and won 50 shillings. About 10 I went to my lodgings and wrote a letter to my wife. I said my prayers and had good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thank God Almighty.

SOURCE: Louis B. Wright and Marion Tinling, eds., The Great American Gentleman: William Byrd of Westover in Virginia, His Secret Diary for the Years 1709–1712 (New York: Putnam, 1963).

IMAGES: William Byrd II (Virginia Historical Society); a page from Byrd’s coded diary

AFTER THE JUMP: What if God had wired up William Byrd’s braces? From Real Genius (1985).

Click to continue →

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This Day (Death Stare Edition)

October 23rd, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

Happy birthday to Turner Ashby. The future Confederate general was born at Rose Bank in Fauquier County on this day in 1828. During the Civil War he served as a cavalry general under Stonewall Jackson and was killed in the Shenandoah Valley in 1862. That’s him up there—dead. And if you dig that, you might like his dead horse’s painted hoof.

Also born this day: prolific writer and suffragist Molly Elliot Seawell (1860) and newspaper publisher and college president John Stewart Bryan (1871).

IMAGE: Hand-painted ambrotype of posthumous Turner Ashby, 1862 (The Museum of the Confederacy)

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Dressed for Auction

October 22nd, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

As you might imagine, I read a lot of history, and one of the best books I’ve read in the last year is Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade by Maurie D. McInnis. Happily, the Library of Virginia also loves the book, presenting McInnis with its 2012 Literary Award for Nonfiction:

The judges called it a beautiful book about an ugly subject, combining art history and social history—aesthetic discernment and pioneering archival and archaeological research—to present new insights about slavery and the slave trade in Richmond; Savannah, Ga.; Charleston, S.C.; and New Orleans.

McInnis, who teaches at the University of Virginia, finished the book as a fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

IMAGES: Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond Virginia by Eyre Crowe, 1861 (Collection of Teresa Heinz)

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The Ghosts of History

October 22nd, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments


The Dutch historian Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse found 300 old negatives at a flea market, many depicting scenes from World War II. She researched the locations, took photographs from the same spot, and overlaid the two. The results are haunting. You can see the original two photographs below. And if this reminds you of Historypin, then you are a winner!


IMAGES: Ghosts of War: France by Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse

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This Day (Ashes to Ashes Edition)

October 22nd, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

On this day in 1854, in Lexington, Elinor Junkin Jackson gave birth to a stillborn son and died the same day. Not long before she had returned from a trip to western Virginia with her husband, Thomas J. Jackson, the future Stonewall, who was a professor at the Virginia Military Institute. The labor came on fast and within two hours she was gone.

Encyclopedia Virginia contributor Ethan S. Rafuse, in his biography of Stonewall Jackson, writes of the husband and father’s intense grief:

Ellie Jackson and her child were laid to rest the next day in the town Presbyterian cemetery. It was a bitterly cold day, with snow falling, as a stoic Jackson watched the single coffin containing the remains of his wife and child be placed in the grave. One of the cadets from VMI who accompanied the coffin as it was escorted through town to the cemetery later wrote of Jackson that “He did not shed a tear, yet everyone who saw him was impressed with the intense agony he was enduring.” Jackson was the last to leave the graveside, and he did not do so until Dr. White came back to personally escort him out of the cemetery. Jackson would return daily. Later he confided to D. H. Hill that more than once he had to fight the urge to dig up the coffin so he could “once more be near the ashes of one he had loved so well.” “I look forward with delight to the day when I shall join her,” he wrote his sister in November, adding, “Religion is all that I desire it to be. I am reconciled to my loss and have joy in hope of a future reunion.”

He had but nine years to wait.

IMAGES: Thomas J. Jackson portrait by Samuel Pettigrew, 1857 (Stonewall Jackson House, Lexington); Elinor Jackson (Stonewall Jackson House, Lexington)

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Rains on Me

October 21st, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

Speaking of Gabriel’s Conspiracy … in their August 1972 issue, the editors of Ebony magazine paid tribute to “The Black Male.” Alas, Gabriel, who plotted a slave uprising in Henrico County in 1800, did not make the list of “Ten Greats of Black History,” although Nat Turner, whose plot was not thwarted by a driving rainstorm, did.

However, Gabriel was mentioned prominently in another article, provocatively titled “‘Crazy N—-s’ Then And Now: Exploding ‘docile sheep’ myth, defiant, daring black men revolt against injustice in multitude of ways.” Gabriel was just such a man, apparently, “angry enough or alive enough to demand relief from racial grief.” He was like

any committed yet suppressed black man determined to risk all—to get out or to get others out. But white folks, who thought, all those years ago, that black men were docile sheep, didn’t understand such an individual. And black folks, who understood him too well, wondered how he had survived as long as he had. When they allowed themselves to think of him at all, both folks, one with fear and the other with secret pride, called him “that crazy n—-“—the one who dared to suggest to anybody who would sit still long enough to listen: “I am a man.”


IMAGE: Detail of a man and boy being baptized during a driving rain; photograph by John White (Ebony, August 1972)

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This Day (The Albany Fabulist Edition)

October 21st, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

On this day in 1831, the editors of the Richmond Enquirer published an outraged editorial titled “Gabriel’s Defeat.” Their mission was one familiar to us today—righteous fact-checking. And while their target was an article of the same name published in the Albany Evening Journal on the subject of Gabriel’s Conspiracy (1800), their true subject was Nat Turner’s Rebellion, that bloody uprising in Southampton County that had occurred just a few months prior.

“Gabriel’s Defeat” is an early, and highly entertaining, example of what we now call fisking, a blogosphere term that refers to an often witty point-by-point refutation of an article. “All romance!” the Richmond editors complained after quoting “the Albany fabulist.” And they were generally correct. In an attempt to make hay of Turner’s uprising, the antislavery and abolitionist press had mangled the facts about Gabriel’s Conspiracy.

“We commit these odious libels to the public contempt,” the editors declared before announcing—right there on the same page—that the commonwealth must rid itself of all free people of color. Never forget: higher principles were at stake than just history!

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This Day (RIP Edition)

October 20th, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

On this day in 1698, fire destroyed the State House in Jamestown. Instead of rebuilding, the governor decided to just move the whole capital to nearby Middle Plantation, which was then renamed Williamsburg. RIP, old Virginia capitol.

On this day in 1862, twenty-three-year-old Anne Carter Lee, the daughter of Robert E. Lee and Mary Anna Randolph Custis, died at Jones’s Spring, North Carolina, probably of typhoid fever. Her mother was with her at her death. RIP, young Annie Lee.

On this day in 1881, U.S. Navy surgeon James M. Ambler, stranded with other members of the USS Jeannette in the Arctic Ocean for more than two years (!), recorded in his journal a farewell letter to his family. RIP, Dr. Ambler. May you have warmed up by now.

On this day in 1910, the state shut down the Savings Bank of the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers after an embezzlement scandal. The black fraternal organization’s bank had represented the largest and most successful black business enterprise in the country dating back to 1881. (Just to twist the knife: the bank closing happened on the birthday of the Grand Fountain’s founder, William Washington Browne.) RIP, Grand Fountain.

And finally, on this day in 1966, Harry Flood Byrd Sr., who paid as he went and, when the opportunity arose, resisted massively, died of a brain tumor. RIP, Harry F. Byrd. You were the towering figure of twentieth-century Virginia politics, and may your greatest legacy be a failure: that children of all races and backgrounds find common ground in at least one place—a public school.

A version of this post was originally published on October 20, 2011.

PS: In the Cold Cold Night; or, images from Dr. James Ambler’s tragic adventure in the Arctic.

IMAGES: Harry F. Byrd reviewing the federal budget, 1958 (University of Virginia Special Collections); the True Reformers Building, as it looks today in Richmond (Matthew S. Gibson)

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The Human Wormhole

October 19th, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments


From the Atlantic:

The America of Lincoln and the Civil War can feel like distant history, but every now and then, through the appearance of what Jason Kottke has called a “human wormhole,” we are confronted with the brevity of a century and a half.

The above video captures this phenomenon succinctly. Here is a man, elderly but still kicking, who witnessed the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Yet his setting — the 1950s/1960s game show “I’ve Got a Secret” — is completely recognizable as a modern media production. Sure, it’s not in color, the hairstyles are a bit outdated, and a cigarette advertisement is prominently displayed, but those are subtle changes when compared with those this man saw in his lifetime.

The Atlantic treats this particular clip as if it’s new; it’s been online for three years. That doesn’t make it any the less amazing, however, and the blogger helpfully provides a link to a newspaper article mentioned in the video.

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This Day (Turned Upside Down Edition)

October 19th, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

On this day in 1781, after an extensive military campaign fought on land and sea over nine months, British general Charles Cornwallis sucked it up and finally surrendered his army at Yorktown. It marked the effective end of the American Revolution.

In his biography of the “virile,” “powerfully rough-hewn,” and “exceedingly graceful” George Washington, Ron Chernow describes the scene:

In the shadow of a redoubt near the river, the articles of surrender were signed at eleven a.m. on October 19. At two p.m. the French and American troops lined up on opposite sides of a lane stretching a half mile long. Baron von Closen noted the contrast between the “splendor” of the French soldiers, with their dress swords and polished boots, and the Americans “clad in small jackets of white cloth, dirty and ragged, and a number of them … almost barefoot.” Led by drummers beating a somber march, thousands of defeated British and Hessian soldiers trudged heavily between the allied columns, their colors tightly folded. As they ran this gauntlet, they had to pass by every allied soldier. Legend claims that British fifes and drums played “The World Turned Upside Down.” In another reminder of allied revenge for Charleston, General Benjamin Lincoln, who had been refused the honors of war there, led the procession. Even at the end the British evinced a petty, spiteful attitude toward the Americans, gazing only at the French soldiers until Lafayette prodded the band to strike up “Yankee Doodle,” forcing the conquered army to acknowledge the hated Americans. At the end of the line, the British soldiers emerged into an open field, where they tossed their weapons contemptuously onto a stockpile, trying to smash them. Then they filed back past the double column of victors. The entire wonder of the American Revolution was visible for all to see. It wasn’t the well-dressed French Army who were the true victors of the day, but the weather-beaten, half-clad American troops.

A version of this post was originally published on October 19, 2011.

IMAGE: Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull (1820)

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Quote of the Day

October 18th, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

From the comments section of an interview with Encyclopedia Virginia contributor Henry Wiencek, author of Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves:

To all of you, did anyone of you personally know Mr. Jefferson? Oh, that’s right, he died before ANY of you were born! I truly hope that 100 years from now, no one tries to publish a book about what was in Bill Clinton’s or Barack Obama’s mind. Mr. Jefferson gave a lot to enrich our lives here in the United States and perhaps this so-called author should write about the Constitution and the fact that he has the right to publish whatever he wishes to publish. Yep, born here and tired of the ‘Let’s get TJ Group’! Why don’t you write about something you have first hand witness to? There is NO proof that Mr. Jefferson fathered Ms. Hemming’s children and I am sick of hearing about it.

After the jump, a different take.

IMAGE: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Statue (Wikipedia)

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Ye Olde Powhatan Oak

October 18th, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

Our friends at the Library of Virginia call our attention to this day in 1937, when New Deal–era government workers wrote a report on the Old Powhatan Oak as part of something called the Historical Inventory Project. The project focused on listing buildings built before 1860 but workers “also wrote reports on cemeteries, antiques, historical events, and people and included transcriptions of historic documents.”

I don’t imagine too many trees made it in, but the Old Powhatan Oak, located at the naval base in Norfolk, did. Why? The locals believed that the oak—estimated to be as much as 350 years old—was the site where Pocahontas famously saved the life of John Smith. A few obvious problems with that: Powhatan, who allegedly ordered Smith’s death, didn’t live near present-day Norfolk. And, as our entry on Pocahontas asserts, whatever happened, it likely happened inside Powhatan’s house. Not that this has stopped artists from placing the scene in the open air, inserting an oak tree, and—why not?—even mountains!

Anyway, according to the Library, “the tree was alive and often photographed during the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition in 1907, but it was dead by the time of this report [i.e., 1937]. The tree no longer stands.”

The image above is a postcard from the Jamestown exposition. After the jump find the photograph taken by the Historical Inventory Project, as well as some other postcards.

PS: I’m dating myself: Doin’ the oak tree.

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This Day (Wait Wait Waitman Edition)

October 18th, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

On this day in 1859, in Harpers Ferry, United States Marines under the command of Lieutenant Israel Greene broke through the door to “John Brown’s Fort” and captured Brown and his raiders. One Marine, Private Luke Quinn, was killed. Someone caught Greene’s attention, meanwhile, and pointed out Brown, whom he (Greene) then slashed with his sword. The whole action lasted about a minute. Greene later resigned from the Marines and fought for the Confederacy.

Exactly forty-eight years earlier, on Buffalo Creek, Monongalia County, or about 165 miles to the west of Harpers Ferry, Waitman Thomas Willey was born. Both events—Brown’s raid and Willey’s birth—were crucial to the creation of the new state of West Virginia. Willey represented the Restored government of Virginia in the United States Senate during the Civil War, which is to say that he represented those Virginians who, in 1861, had refused to secede. Willey himself had been a delegate to the Virginia Convention that voted to leave the Union, but rather than convene when all was seceded and done, he and his like-minded comrades simply moved the convention to Wheeling.

Anyway, when West Virginia statehood was before the Senate, Willey offered a compromise bill that settled what had become a nasty fight over (you guessed it) slavery. From our entry:

Radical Republicans, like Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, argued for immediate emancipation as a requirement for the state’s admission. A former slave owner, Willey was reluctant to embrace such terms and initially supported emancipation only if it was accompanied by compensation for the economic losses incurred. Yet, after intense discussion, Willey offered a compromise stating that “all slaves under twenty-one years old on July 4, 1863, should be free on arriving at that age.” The Willey Amendment secured the acceptance of the statehood bill by the U.S. Senate in July 1862 and by the U.S. House of Representatives in December.

There is the sense that West Virginia was created as a haven for Virginians who were just itching to abolish slavery, but Waitman Willey—not to mention Senator John S. Carlile, who opposed the bill because it called for even gradual emancipation—suggest that this truism is a little too simple.

A version of this post was originally published on October 18, 2011.

RE THE POST’S TITLE: Hanni El Khatib and Irma Thomas

IMAGES: Waitman T. Willey (Library of Congress); poster for Battle Hymn, a New Deal–era play about John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry (Library of Congress)

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Feedback: Still Concerned Over Here

October 17th, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

A reader left the following comment attached to our entry on the Ku Klux Klan in Virginia, which states that while the Klan still exists in the state, “there has been little public notice or concern of them since the late 1960s.”

Clearly, you do not live in Wythe or Bland Counties in Virginia. I do not recall when it was during the 1990s, but the KKK had a big march down Main Street in Bland Va. A little later a white girl had a baby by a black man and she was “run out” of Bland for such a “sin.”

Bland Co. may or may not have it’s own chapter, but they are still there and still a serious threat to those of us who do not share their views. You can even find their notes and mailings in some of the library books in Wythe County Public Library. not to mention that that same library had a copy of the “Turner Diaries” which had a flyer in it.

And, yes, some members still hold public office or government positions in this area, or practice law.

Also in the late 1990s, Barry Elton Black, an ironically named Klan leader from Pennsylvania, was arrested in rural Carroll County for burning a cross on private property. Because the cross was thirty feet tall and clearly visible from the highway, he was charged with violating a Virginia law that dates back to the 1930s and prohibits anyone from such activity with the “intent of intimidating” others. A black lawyer from Richmond, David P. Baugh, defended Black on free speech grounds.

Meanwhile, after the jump you can view a remarkable front page from a newspaper earlier this year that reproduces a flier for a Klan rally in an ironically named North Carolina town.

IMAGE: From a Klan rally in Georgia on April 28, 2012 (KKKKnights.com)

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