Happy Richard Poplar Day

Petersburg’s favorite “black Confederate” is being honored today for his loyal service to the Confederacy.  Richard Poplar’s story is probably quite interesting given the racial dynamic of Petersburg, but like everyone else that the SCV and UDC get their hands on, his story will be reduced to one of loyalty to his comrades and sacrifice for the cause.  His 1886 obituary states the following:

When the Sussex Dragoons were formed at the beginning of the war, and when they became Company H, of the Thirteenth Virginia Cavalry, Richard attached himself to the command.  The Sussex Dragoons were a wealthy organization, and each member of the company had his own servant along with him.  From April 1861, until the retreat from Gettysburg, Richard remained faithfully attached to the regiment.

The reference to Poplar as having “attached himself” to the unit suggests that he did not enlist as a soldier, which is not surprising given that the Confederate government explicitly denied free blacks the opportunity to serve.  Unfortunately, Poplar’s stone indicates that he was, in fact, a soldier.  What I would like to know is, assuming that this stone looks fairly new, what was there before and what did it say about Poplar?  Yes, I know that the H.E. Howard volume on the 13th Virginia Cavalry lists Poplar as a private, but has anyone actually seen his enlistment papers?  He may, in fact, be a bona fide black Confederate soldier.  That would make his story even more interesting, but all I’ve seen are documents related to his capture at Gettysburg on Footnote.com.

And, finally, why do these headstones fail to indicate service as a black Confederate given that so many believe that there has been an active cover-up by various groups?

Here is the 2004 proclamation for Richard Poplar

This day, 18 September 2004 is proclaimed Richard Poplar Day in Petersburg, Virginia:

WHEREAS, Richard Poplar, a highly honored Petersburg “Colored Confederate Soldier” and American veteran was buried with full military honors at Memorial Hill, Blandford Cemetery, Petersburg, Virginia in 1886,
WHEREAS, Richard Poplar served as a nationally known chef at the historic former Bollingbrook Hotel in Petersburg, Virginia,
WHEREAS, Richard Poplar served in Co. H, 13th Virginia Cavalry, the famous Sussex Light Dragoons, with extraordinary distinction,
WHEREAS, Richard Poplar spent 19 months as a Prisoner of War at Fort Delaware and Point Lookout, Maryland , and he NEVER turned his back on the South, his beloved Virginia, or his comrades,
WHEREAS, Richard Poplar was a man of deep unshakeable faith, and conviction,
WHEREAS, Richard Poplar provided commended honorable aid and comfort to the Prisoner Of War reserves (The Old Men and Young Boys) who were captured at the First Attack on Petersburg on 9 June 1864,
WHEREAS, along with all his comrades, Richard Poplar will be honored forever on Petersburg’s Memorial Day, the 9th of June, and appropriately on our National Memorial Day,
WHEREAS, Richard Poplar serves as a shining example to all Petersburg natives and all mankind,

Today, we honor our own Private Richard (Dick) Poplar on this 18 September 2004. This day will continue the reflection of Richard’s accomplishments for posterity.

May his life, heroism, and memory serves as a beacon to greatness for Petersburg, for our country, and for the world.

[signed] Annie M. Mickens, Mayor of Petersburg, Virginia
18September2004

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30 comments… add one

  • Emmanuel Dabney Sep 18, 2010

    In an upcoming podcast for Petersburg National Battlefield, I made a decision to include Poplar.

    I used the compiled service records available on Footnote.com for Virginia soldiers and found only one piece of paper for Richard Poplar. It noted that he was captured on July 5, 1863 and said he was a private. The dates relevant to his PoW experience were not filled out. Nothing else was there.

    I also conducted census searched for Sussex County and Petersburg from 1850-1880 and could not find anyone named Richard Poplar or Popular (I always run an alternative spelling if possible). However, he obviously lived in Petersburg at some point after the war according to the only other reference I have for him which is the 1886 obituary in a Petersburg newspaper.

    I went next to the Blandford Cemetery office where I had a search conducted for him. The note in the cemetery records is that he was buried east of Memorial Hill but precisely where was not recorded. Thus this marker is more commemorative than precisely the location of Poplar’s earthly remains. No other information was recorded in 1886 about him.

    To me the critical information about Poplar’s service was that he was a servant. The 1886 newspaper account notes he was a cook, not a gun-toting, black powder shooting man. Does it make him less critical to the service of others? Not really. Does it mean he is the end-all-be-all of the interconnectedness of blacks with the Confederate military? I don’t think so either.

    What is equally concerning to me is that he is an enigma who has been made into some beacon of mankind’s goodness. This conversation about him being nationally known during his lifetime is concerning because nationally known figures have more than two surviving pieces of paper about them.

    Hope this helps shed some light, granted a pinhole size, on Poplar, whose service I think is fairly undoubtable but the “how” it happened will likely remain in the dark. However, if other pieces of evidence come forth I’ll be genuinely excited to see them.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 18, 2010

      That is the same document that I looked at on Footnote. His presence in the army and his life in general deserve to be remembered, but I suspect that there isn’t going to be much documentation available to fill in the details. You said:

      “What is equally concerning to me is that he is an enigma who has been made into some beacon of mankind’s goodness. This conversation about him being nationally known during his lifetime is concerning because nationally known figures have more than two surviving pieces of paper about them.”

      That pretty much nails it.

      • Emmanuel Dabney Sep 18, 2010

        Occasionally I will deliver a good two sentences. Brevity isn’t necessarily my specialty. Ha!

    • Andy Hall Sep 18, 2010

      The note in the cemetery records is that he was buried east of Memorial Hill but precisely where was not recorded. Thus this marker is more commemorative than precisely the location of Poplar’s earthly remains.

      That’s an interesting decision, to put up a headstone, as opposed to some other commemorative marker, when the location of the grave is unknown. Still, it beats what the SCV did at Pulaski, where they put out eighteen or so headstones for men who aren’t even buried in that cemetery, on top of what are known to be other, unmarked and unidentified graves. That was so over-the-top, it’s almost like the Sothron Heritage™ folks there were, I don’t know, almost overcompensating for something. Hmmmm. . . .

      • Kevin Levin Sep 18, 2010

        It is incredibly encouraging to know that Emmanuel is down there and doing his best to protect his hometown’s rich history. All of this is over-the-top and reflects almost no respect for people like Poplar. You are right that the Pulaski situation is completely off the deep end.

  • Jessica Sep 18, 2010

    So, does anyone have the service records or any documents pertaining to the regiments of “Black Confederates” formed at the end of the war, and how many exactly were there? I am asking about the ones that are being ackowledged to exist, after March 13, 1865. Also, is there any record of these individuals after the war?

    • Kevin Levin Sep 18, 2010

      That’s more like it, Jessica. This is a very good question as opposed to the silly little comment you left earlier. We know very little about these men precisely because it came so close to the end of the war. I suspect we will never know anything about any one individual’s postwar experience.

      • Jessica Sep 18, 2010

        Very interesting take. Dismissive, and extremely convenient for you. No documentation and yet you believe!
        Whatever works best, including passing me off as “silly” when I made a perfectly valid analogy. Was that not your implication in the prior post on the MOC store and their toy soldier, that you could wave your hand and change the world? Power and sway over a government agency as well. Two feathers in your cap.

        • Kevin Levin Sep 18, 2010

          I was being quite serious when I said that you are asking a valid question. It is true that after a bitter debate and stiff resistance from slaveowners and white Southerners generally that the government authorized the enlistment of slaves. Your analogy was silly as it betrays very little understanding of the subject under consideration, which I’ve written about extensively on this blog. The lack of documentation and poor analysis by most parties is a huge problem with this debate. Historians work with the available evidence. In this case the lack of evidence related to the service of black Confederate soldiers is directly tied to the fact that the Confederate government refused to allow them to fight. No mystery here. By the way, the MOC is not a government agency. Thanks again for stopping by.

          • Jessica Sep 18, 2010

            Kevin, please read your own propaganda:

            “I never doubted for a moment that the Museum of the Confederacy would do the right thing and pull these ridiculous items from their shelves. Thank you. Just another reason why I fully support the mission of the Museum of the Confederacy.”

            “In addition to this situation, Civil War Memory was instrumental in bringing about the removal of poorly-researched information sheets on black Confederates at Governors Island in New York City.”

            “The power of blogging in action.”

            So, please correct me if I am wrong, but the National Park Service is a government agency the last time I checked. “Civil War Memory was instrumental in bringing about the removal…”. Yes, that says it.

            Now, I have to ask this about the other issue. The lack of documentation is ok when telling the story of a “last ditch effort”, but the lack of documentation at other times is just “bad history”, or as you so often say, “silly”?

            • Kevin Levin Sep 18, 2010

              Yes, the NPS is a government agency. I thought you were referring to the MOC in your comment. Thanks for the correction. No, what is silly is your continued assertion that my post is an exercise in propaganda. I think it’s time to end this thread. This is going nowhere.

    • Andy Hall Sep 19, 2010

      Jessica, you do seem more determined to score rhetorical points than to actually get at substantive questions and answers.

      No one’s challenging the notion that the Confederacy organized units of African Americans to serve as soldiers in (literally) the closing days of the way. While individual personnel records of these men are generally missing, there is ample evidence from other sources that they did, in fact, exist, even if they seem likely to remain anonymous in the historical record.

      But those men in Richmond in March and April 1865 have never been part of the “Black Confederate” debate. The claims that have been made for dozens of African American men servicing throughout the war, in different theaters and armies, in what would be almost de facto racially integrated units, are part of the debate, and the contemporary documentary evidence for their service as soldiers — documentation that is routine for white Confederate soldiers — is almost always entirely lacking. Richard Poplar is an exception to this, in that there’s a single item in the the service records in the National Archives (referenced above) that mention him being taken prisoner in 1863; for most men claimed as black Confederate soldiers, there’s nothing there at all.

      That’s a remarkable coincidence, given the comprehensiveness of the records overall up to the latter part of 1864. In my case, I have a dozen or more Confederate ancestors who served in units from Missouri to Texas to Florida to Georgia, and I’ve found at least a few pages of a service record on every single one of them. In many cases that’s all I know about their service, but there’s no question whatever that they were actually soldiers, under arms, on the muster rolls of their regiments and companies. I suspect my experience is fairly typical, and while there’s no question that there are gaps in extant records, the complete lack of contemporary service records for virtually any of the dozens of men claimed as Black Confederates really does seem to be a significant indicator of their status at the time.

      There’s an old saying, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” That’s as true in the Black Confederates discussion as elsewhere. But we’re still in the “absence of evidence” phase of this, and still looking for the documentation that will establish the broader claims about African Americans in Confederate butternut.

      • Kevin Levin Sep 19, 2010

        Hi Andy,

        Thanks for the follow-up. Head on over to Ann DeWitt’s site. She put up a section on pension records, but it’s her analysis that is too good to be true.

      • Jessica Sep 19, 2010

        Well Andy, and Kevin, you continue to gloss over my point and it is not a rhetorical challenge. My point is, and it is fact, that Kevin called upon whoever to rally against this toy soldier, to have it removed from the shelf as oppossed to offering an educational approach that explained the final weeks of the war enlistment of blacks. I do not need to be told the story ad infinitum nor do I want a suggested reading list.
        It is fact that Kevin was instrumental in bullying an institution into removing what could have been a solidly based educational tool. But when all the dust settles, you can be certain that Kevin’s forthcoming book of the subject will be on those shelves and those of the NPS book stores. Is it a quest for truth or self aggrandizement that motivates?
        Imagine the added value to a blog that didn’t thrive on controversy but actually set out to talk about history, and offered up something of substance and not just a good chuckle to a peanut gallery.

        • Kevin Levin Sep 19, 2010

          Jessica,

          I hope my book on the subject will be available to interested readers. I do love your choice of words: “It is fact that Kevin was instrumental in bullying an institution…” If only I had such power. Once again, why don’t you contact someone at the MOC or NPS to see why they responded in the way they did. Thanks for a few Sunday afternoon laughs.

        • Margaret D. Blough Sep 19, 2010

          Jessica-Expressing concern about something is hardly bullying. He didn’t try to set up a boycott or anything even remotely. As for teachable moments, there are surely better ways of presenting the issues than on whether or not a toy soldier is sold in the museum gift shop.

          As for this blog, it draws people precisely because of the opportunity it provides to seriously discuss issues involving the Civil War and historical memory in a scholarly manner.

          • Kevin Levin Sep 19, 2010

            Thanks Margaret, but I suspect that Jessica has already drawn her conclusions about me and this site. What is truly hilarious is that she continues to return.

  • TF Smith Sep 18, 2010

    The demographic aspect here is kind of intriguing to me – how many 44-year-old cavalry privates were there in the CSA in 1861?

    Or 46-year old troopers in 1863?

    Has anyone done demographic studies of CSA cavalry regiments in the ANV in this period, for example?

    Soldiering is a young man’s game, and the life of a horsed cavalry trooper was pretty damn strenous, in ways that very few people today who do not make their living in the saddle could even understand; the simple fact that the man was (apparently) born in 1816 raises some obvious questions about Poplar’s status as a combatant…

    None of which will matter to the SCV, of course, but it is worth pointing out.

    Garryowen!

    • Ken Noe Sep 19, 2010

      Two of my five Confederate ancestors, cavalry troopers, enlisted while in their forties. Fourteen of the 320 “Reluctant Rebels” in my sample (4.4 percent) were in their forties–and I had three who were even older. I don’t have Joe Glathaar’s “General Lee’s Army” in front of me, but he’ll have similar statistics for the ANV as a whole. So age alone doesn’t rule Poplar out. Much more to the point is that none of these men were ever described a “servant,” as Poplar was in his obituary. And as I point out in “Reluctant Rebels,” Confederate soldiers themselves did not regard the African-American “servants” in camp as actual soldiers.

      • Andy Hall Sep 19, 2010

        Glatthaar gives the mean age of volunteer soldiers in 1861 in (what later became) the ANV as twenty-five, with only one in seven being eighteen or younger. The overwhelming majority were single. I don’t see that he breaks them out by branch of service; his sample may have had limited numbers of cavalry and artillery so that he’d lose statistical power in those analyses. The three cavalrymen I know of in my tree were 17 (Florida), 20 and 23 (Texas) at the time of enlistment in 1862-63.

  • James F. Epperson Sep 19, 2010

    What is the “Pulaski situation”?

  • TF Smith Sep 19, 2010

    Ken – Thanks, that is interesting. Obviously, I agree that Confederate “labor troops” (whether enslaved or FPOC) were not combatants, and certainly had negligible agency in their “service.” About as much as the Hiwis did, for those familiar with another conflict’s mobilization categories…

    Having said that, I guess the next question from a social/labor historian’s/military sociologists point of view is how many of the enslaved or FPOC had the skill set – i.e., lots of time in the saddle, as opposed to driving a team from behind a plow – that would have translated into a horse cavalryman’s most basic ability.

    Brave Rifles!

    • Ken Noe Sep 19, 2010

      TF–But how many cavalrymen, period, had that skill set before the war? I’ll defer to an expert such as Eric Wittenberg or Laurie Schiller, but certainly the general impression has been that a lot of Federal horse soldiers especially had no real pre-war experience in the saddle. So it was a skill that could be learned, assuming you lived long enough.

      • Andy Hall Sep 19, 2010

        The general impression has been that a lot of Federal horse soldiers especially had no real pre-war experience in the saddle. So it was a skill that could be learned, assuming you lived long enough.

        Ben Grierson was clearly a fast learner. ;-)

  • TF Smith Sep 20, 2010

    Oh, definitely, horsemanship is a skill that can be learned – even if one is an old war horse, so to speak.

    However, “broken down cavalryman” was a real phenomenon – think of Sumner or Cooke.

    Beyond that, my understanding of ANV cavalry mobilization was that the volunteers brought their own mounts, unlike the USV cavalry regiments, who were provided them as government issue.

    So – does a FPOC in Sussex County own a horse fit for cavalry service in 1861?

  • Jeff Fiddler Jun 29, 2013

    Some place along here there was a question posed about the 50th and 75th reunions at Gettysburg. In several write-ups both mention that provision was made for USCT, but the organizers were surprised (?) when Black confederates showed up.
    While I know rosters were kept of all attendees, the one I have for 1938 does not list any USCT.
    The interviews for 1938 mention one (as I remember) Black confederate; Turner T. Hall, teamster, Col. Chambers North Carolina Regm’t; and two U.S.C.T. Peter Robinson 43rd U.S.C.T and Richard Lilley, U.S.C.T. no regmt given.I can’t find these men in the roster I have which is organized by states.
    Does ANYONE have further documentation on these men?

    • Kevin Levin Jun 29, 2013

      The reference to black Confederates at the 1903 comes from a Calvin Johnson editorial that has continually been republished since 2009. There is no evidence that any attended the reunion. I don’t believe that any black Union soldiers attended the 1903 reunion, but I can’t speak to the 75th. It goes without saying that a teamster is not a soldier. Thanks for the info.

  • Greg Farino May 30, 2014

    I recently found this site after learning about the man in question. I find it very hard to believe that he was actually a “soldier”. While there are records for a man with the name, there is no proof that it’s the same man. On another note, I decided to look into the burial location and headstone. I found out that he is buried in the Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, however, the exact location of the burial in “unknown”. As for the headstone, it was ordered from the VA on January 30. 2003 by a man named Terry Barfield and was delivered to the JT Morriss Funeral Home in Petersburg. The headstone was probably placed sometime in the spring or summer of 2003. The exact date or who placed it is unknown. If I had to guess who placed it, I’d have to say it was the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

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