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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A Centennial Celebration Gone Very Wrong

GRAPHIC CONTENT: BLOOD & VIOLENCE

The Slasher Sequence Part XXXVI: The second part of HG Lewis’ Blood Trilogy involves Confederate ghosts who set out to capture and a slay a group of Northern tourists. The Yankees are sacrificed one after another as festivities for a centennial celebration. When the survivors alert local authorities, nothing is found where the Southern town once stood. The death scenes are pure, bloody, over the top entertainment. One man is tied to four horses and torn apart while another is shoved in a barrel implanted with nails and sent careening down the hillside. In this excerpt, one of the townsfolk gleefully lays down some gory, good old fashioned axe hacking action.

Here is a link for additional information on Herschell Gordon Lewis and this particular film.  Please pass on a link if you happen to find a longer version of this movie.  I must see it.

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A View of the Crater in 1867

The first time I took my wife to visit the Crater she was less than impressed.  If I remember correctly she said something along the following lines: “This is it?  This is what you’ve been spending your time on?”  Well, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but not by much.  There are a number of points in the broader history of this site that I would of liked to have visited.  Of course, to see the actual battle would have been interesting, but I also find the 1903 and 1937 reenactments to be attractive as well.  Perhaps a round of golf in the 1920s would have been enjoyable.  The only other time that I find attractive is right after the war.  From all the reports I’ve read the battlefield was still an absolute mess, littered with weapons, bones, and other signs of the horrific fight.  I’ve collected a number of accounts from various sources that are included in my manuscript, but nothing comes close to the following description from The Southern Opinion on June 29, 1867:

The crater was between twenty and twenty-five feet deep before it was closed over the dead, but now the average depth of the cavern is not more than eight feet or ten feet, with walls of slippery clay, in which has lately been discovered some valuable properties, equal in every respect to meerschaum clay.  Tim Griffith, youngest son of the proprietor, has become a very artistick worker in the material, and has taken many impressions of relicks, such as United States belt plates, the eagle, and the corps mark of Burnside’s army corps, of which great numbers were to be found.  Colonel Moore, of one of the government departments, Washington, has examined the clay, and pronounced it unequaled for modeling purposes–the best in the world.  Some visitors affirm that the clay received its moulding and adhesive qualities from the blood of the slain buried there, which assertion seems to receive some support from the fact that veins of red permeate the compost.  One fact has been demonstrated, which is undeniable, that the soil possesses great preserving qualities.  On the 30th of July, 1866, three hundred bodies were taken out of the crater, and the corpses were as perfect in flesh as the day they were consigned to the pit, two years before.  They were fresh and gory, the blood oozing from their wounds, and saturating still perfect clothing.

I have numerous accounts of bodies being re-interred into the 1930s, but nothing comes close to the descriptive quality here.  The Griffith family, which owned the land on which the battle was fought, took full advantage of public interest in the site following the war.  They kept a register book, which in 1866 alone includes the names of 8,000 visitors, which suggests that the number was even higher – a testament to its early popularity as a tourist site..  A visit to the Crater today really is a walk in the park.

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Black Confederates on Film

Well, my summer has officially started and it promises to be quite busy.  I have a couple of talks to give, a number of writing projects to finish, and somewhere in between, I need to relax and do nothing at all.  I am loathe to add anything to my plate, but I would have been foolish not to accept an invitation to be interviewed for a documentary on the history and memory of “black Confederates.”  The director of the documentary teaches at East Carolina University.

The project is in the beginning stages so I don’t have much to report.  Admittedly, I was skeptical after receiving an email from one of the director’s assistants, but a couple of phone conversations alleviated my worst fears.  My biggest concern is not having control over my interviews, specifically in terms of how they will be edited and placed in the documentary.  As you all know this is a controversial and widely misunderstood subject and the last thing that I want to see happen is my own words used to further some of the more pernicious myths.  Even with those concerns, however, I still think it would be a mistake to pass up this opportunity.

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Shelby Foote’s Greatest Hits

This is an incredibly helpful video that compiles all of Shelby Foote’s interviews from Ken Burns’s The Civil War.  I use The Civil War extensively in my elective courses on the Civil War and Civil War Memory.  It is still in my mind the best Civil War documentary available.

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