Tracking the Trajectory of Race in Nineteenth-Century Virginia

Yesterday I had one of those moments, while working on the Crater manuscript, where I was able to see the big picture of the history of race in Virginia in the nineteenth century.  It all came together around one individual, William E. Cameron.  Those of you familiar with Virginia will recognize the name.  Since the connections I made in my head were fairly simple, I am going to keep it simple here.

Cameron served as a captain in the 12th Virginia, which was raised in Petersburg.  He took part in the counterattack at the Crater, which included an entire division of black Union soldiers.  Their presence constituted a direct threat to the social and racial hierarchy that Confederate soldiers hoped to secure in their bid for independence.  Interestingly, by March 1865 we find Cameron trying to convince slaveowners to release some of their slaves for service in the Confederate army.  It is important to remember that the act President Davis signed into law on March 13, 1865 made no provision for the emancipation of slaves in exchange for service; nevertheless, Cameron’s involvement in this process came only after a very public debate about the identity and status of slaves in a society committed to maintaining the institution.  Finally, in 1882 Cameron secured the governorship of Virginia for the Readjuster Party, led by his former commander, William Mahone.  The Readjusters achieved victory, in part, based on the support of the state’s black population, which benefited in numerous way during the party’s short time in power.

And there you have it.  Cameron took part in a war fought to protect slavery only to see his government desperately attempt to utilize these very same people as soldiers, but without any change in legal status.  After the war he engaged black Virginians as free political agents that led him to the highest office in the state.  Just another reason why Virginia’s history is so damn interesting and important.

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