Preserving Petersburg’s African-American Past

Yesterday I spent the day in Petersburg conducting the first round of interviews for the final section of my Crater study.  In the morning I interviewed Richard Stewart, who founded the Stewart-Pocahontas Museum located out of his home on Pocahontas Island in 2003, followed by Virginia Delegate and former Petersburg Mayor, Rosalyn Dance.  Over the next few weeks I will be interviewing a number of people in the Petersburg area, including public officials, private citizens, and NPS personnel.

I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and talking with Richard Stewart.  He is a passionate advocate for black history in the Petersburg area and is well known within the community.  Stewart is recently retired after 40 years in the military.  When I pulled up to the house Stewart was talking with a gentleman from up the street.  We began our discussion on the porch, but quickly moved inside which made it easier for me to record the interview.  The interior walls are covered with old photographs, newspapers and every space has been converted to address a different theme of local black history.  Following the interview I learned that the upstairs was equally adorned with artifacts of various kinds.  Stewart’s voice is warm and welcoming, which was ideal for someone conducting his first interview.

We talked about a wide range of topics beginning with his childhood and his experiences in the public high school.  I asked Stewart about what he was taught in his American history classes and whether local black history was a prominent feature within the curriculum.  He remembered learning about important black leaders such as Harriet Tubman and others from his teachers, but reminded me that his textbooks included nothing about topics related to black history.  The textbooks were passed down from segregated white schools in the area.  I was struck by his comments, however, regarding the kinds of black individuals stressed by his teachers.  Stewart suggested that there was an emphasis on mulatto or light-skinned African-Americans, which left him wondering whether a dark-skinned black individual (like himself) had ever accomplished anything important.  He remembers learning very little about the Civil War, including emancipation, and the contributions of African Americans.  At one point he gestured in the direction of one of the more popular images of the surrender at Appomattox on his wall.  The amicable account of the surrender was easily recalled followed by the dispersement of the two armies.  And that was the end of the war.  The story of Reconstruction was clearly a sore topic with Stewart.  He remembers being taught the traditional story of carpetbaggers who came down to the South to undue the bonds of friendship that had been so painstakingly constructed before the war.  Stewart wanted me to understand, however, that it was only after reading more about the period that he understood the inaccuracies of what he was taught.

I was not prepared to hear what he had to say regarding his earliest memories of the Crater, and if that was all he had to say the 90 minute drive would have been worthwhile.  Stewart recalled hearing about a massive explosion followed by a bloody battle, but that was all he knew about it.  I asked if he had ever visited the battlefield as a child.  Stewart’s response is very instructive.  He said it was impossible for a black man to visit the battlefield because of the imaginary line that stretched along what is now the Crater Road which divides Blandford and the rest of the area.  In short, the area around the Crater was understood as white only.  Stewart never visited the battlefield until the 1970s when he used the trails for jogging.  In addition to the realities of public segregation Stewart suggested that based on what he knew the battlefield didn’t hold anything that could give his life meaning.  Only later did he understand otherwise and this applied also to Blandford Cemetery where he later learned that a number of African Americans were buried.

Stewart also touched on the theme of black Confederates.  He is known for his involvement with local chapters of the SCV and argues that some local blacks did “serve” with Confederate units.  The issue came up a number of times so I finally asked him to explain what he means by “serve.”  Did he mean that they fought on the battlefields in individual regiments or did he mean something broader that would acknowledge the many capacities in which they worked?    Stewart tied his response to a point that he made earlier in reference to the substantial free black population of Petersburg and Pocahontas Island in particular.  Stewart himself claims to be a descendant of free blacks.  The point he was making, which is an interesting one, is that there was a great deal of interaction on all levels between whites and blacks.  That interaction created strong ties going both ways and when the war began, according to Stewart, local blacks identified with their communities.  At one point he suggested that blacks would have died for their white neighbors.  From what I can tell Stewart was not making the political argument that so many within the heritage sphere tend to make, the goal of it being to distance the Confederate experience from issues of race and slavery.  Stewart was making a more positive claim about the way he believes local blacks identified with their surroundings.  When asked about the service of African Americans in the Union army Stewart was quick to acknowledge their sacrifice and took the opportunity to suggest that not nearly enough has been done to promote their service at the Crater.  Before I could move on he also reminded me that blacks had served in the Revolution and later pointed to a long list on one of his wall of individual names from the area as proof.  He wanted to know why their service had yet to be recognized.

We talked for about an hour.  Towards the end Stewart suggested that now is the most opportune moment for talking about and promoting black history in the Petersburg area.  He referred to the attention to public schools along with the change in the make-up of the city council and local government.  When asked about the National Park Service Stewart was quite optimistic and suggested that they are on the right track in terms of programming and outreach.  Stewart hopes that Petersburg will be able to use its rich history to bring about “peace and harmony” within the community as well as to promote the region as an important historical destination.

Recent news items about Stewart’s museum can be found here and here.

Richmond Civil War Roundtable Report or Why Mahone is So Damn Important (followed by a short rant about cell phones)

I had a great time last night at the Richmond Civil War Roundtable where I spoke in front of roughly 60 people.  The response was overwhelmingly positive.  I finished my presentation just after 9pm, but didn’t make it out until just before 10pm owing to the additional questions and comments.  The audience’s questions were thought-provoking and challenging.  Between last night’s talk and my involvement with the Civil War Memory conference at Shepherd University I am convinced that the topic of memory is not only suitable for more popular audiences, but that it is ideal.  A number of people appreciated the opportunity of being forced to think about the question of how and why we remember the past in certain ways.

I prefaced my remarks by suggesting that a careful consideration of the political and social dimensions of the postwar-South (especially in Virginia) leads to more interesting and fruitful insights of how our understanding of the war evolved.  Indeed, many of our early histories of the war can only be appreciated from this perspective.  We learn, for instance, why certain individuals or themes were remembered and others forgotten.  At one point we took a poll to see how many were taught or had read about the Readjuster Party; perhaps 6-8 people raised their hands, which is par for the course.  I kept coming back to the essential observation of how it is that we have completely forgotten about the most important bi-racial political party in the postwar-South.

Mahone is an ideal case study for a number of reasons.  He forces people to step outside and challenge deep-seated assumptions about Reconstruction and our more general assumptions concerning white Southerners and motivations of high-ranking ex-Confederate officers.  A number of people expressed difficulty trying to understand Mahone’s obsession with the railroad industry and his heavy-handed political maneuvering.  A number of people suggested that he was pragmatic, which seems to assume that white Southerner slaveowners were all principled plantation operators who had little interest in capitalism or politics.  I too have trouble coming to terms with some of these issues, but part of the problem I suspect, is that Mahone does not fit into our popular stereotypes.  He may have owned a few slaves, but he was not from the planter class and his progressive politics and business interests do not accord with our image of the traditional slaveowner.  Still, Mahone may not have been as unusual as first thought.  Peter Carmichael has recently argued that younger Virginians who came of age in the 1850s advocated the kinds of internal improvements normally associated with the “industrial North.” These are not your typical young white Southerners from wealthy slaveowning families. More importantly, when it comes to Reconstruction our images are of Northern carpetbaggers who forced the evils of “Negro Rule” on the poor helpless white South.  Not so!  Mahone serves to remind us that Reconstruction in Virginia and the rest of the South was instigated, in part, by a diverse group of white and black Southerners, including one of the most successful Confederate generals of the war.  Is it any wonder that with the coming of Jim Crow in Virginia that public leaders would have to purge the history of both Mahone and the Readjusters?  Black deference could only come about by shaping history in a way that ignored the steps that black Southerners had taken both during and after the war to to secure their freedom and civil rights.  You will have a great deal of difficulty finding Mahone or the Readjusters mentioned in histories or school primers through the mid-20th century.

No one called me a “Yankee” or “liberal” or “revisionist historian.”  It was an honest discussion and even if a few were troubled by some of my remarks they were willing to hear me out and consider the evidence that I’ve collected and an interpretation that I’ve developed over the past four years.  And this is all that one can ask for when addressing a topic that remains divisive and emotional.  In the end we all learn something.  If you live in the Richmond area I urge you to check out the RCWRT’s website for a list of upcoming speakers.  They are a lively group and I guarantee that you will have a good time.

Finally, my short rant about cell phones.  I recently broke down and bought a cell phone.  I’ve never enjoyed speaking on the telephone so the thought of having one on me in public is enough to make me nauseous.  From what I can tell 99.9999% of the conversations that I am forced to listen to in public are an absolute waste of time.  Cell phones are the perfect aphrodisiac for those who have trouble being alone.  My wife has a cell phone for emergencies, which is the main reason why I finally decided to purchase one.  I had it on me last night and given that I left Richmond much later than anticipated I decided to call home to let Michaela know that I would be late.  As we talked I pulled out of my parking spot, but within a few seconds I realized that I couldn’t drive and talk at the same time.  Now I understand that there must be a learning curve here, but I was caught by surprise over the difficulty involved in juggling the two actions.  So, my message dear reader is the following:

GET OFF THE DAMN CELL PHONE BEFORE YOU KILL SOMEONE!

New Crater Book

Yesterday on my way to Richmond I stopped at Borders to pick up some coffee and kill some time.  As I browsed the shelves I noticed a new book on the battle of the Crater by Alan Axelrod titled The Horrid Pit: The Battle of the Crater, the Civil War’s Cruelest Mission.  I am pretty good about staying on top of new studies of the Crater, but somehow this one flew completely under my radar screen.  Now I wouldn’t be completely honest if I didn’t say that I was just a little disappointed to see a fresh book-length study of the battle.  Would it utilize the same sources and/or touch on similar interpretive strands?  In short, would it steal my thunder?

The first thing I did was go back to the bibliography and endnotes and within a few seconds my fears were relieved.  The bibliography is very short, but what is even more troubling are the sources cited.  They include my chapter on the Crater which recently appeared in the Sheehan-Dean volume on Civil War soldiers (released just this past December) as well as Jacob Burkhardt’s North and South article which appeared in the last issue – meaning April/May 2007.  Are we to assume that this book went to press some time in May?  Was it peer reviewed at all by the publisher Carroll & Graff?  The notes indicate that Axelrod relied on a small number of sources to build his narrative; they include the O.R., the book on the battle by Cavanaugh and Marvel (subtitled The Horrid Pit) as well as a few pamphlets that are readily available.  These sources as well as a few others are cited continuously throughout.  While my article is cited in the bibliography it isn’t referred to once in the endnotes.  Even more alarming is the complete absence of archival material.  What is cited at least once is Axelrod’s previous book, The Idiot’s Guide to the Civil War.  As if that wasn’t enough James McPherson provided an endorsement for the book on the back cover.

I did spend some time perusing through the book and have to say that it does provide an effective and somewhat detailed tactical overview of the battle and the decisions involved in the planning and execution of the battle.  Axelrod also looks into the Joint Committee hearing that followed the disaster.  Unfortunately, we don’t get anything approaching serious analysis of the salient factors that make this battle such an important interpretive opportunity.

Mark Your Calendars

Next Tuesday (July 10) I will be speaking at the Richmond Civil War Roundtable.  The subject of my presentation will be William Mahone’s postwar career, specifically his entry into Virginia politics, and its effect on his military record.  Additional information can be found here

Petersburg, Race, and the Aftermath of the Crater

Over the past few days I’ve been re-reading my entire archival collection of Union accounts of the Crater and looking specifically at how they characterize the performance of USCTs.  I’ve divided the sources between wartime and postwar and hope to draw some conclusions about the way in which the men reference or fail to reference this crucial aspect of the battle.  As you might expect the few accounts from white officers of USCT regiments spend much more time focusing on the performance of black soldiers during the battle.  One account in particular was penned after the war by First Lieutenant Freeman S. Bowley of the 30th U.S. Colored Infantry.  Bowley was a prolific writer following the war.  The particular passage that I will discuss is from and address that was printed in the MOLLUS Papers of California.

Bowley provides a detailed and rich account of the actual battle, but it is a comment about the events following the battle that caught my eye.  As many of you are know doubt aware large numbers of black soldiers were massacred by Confederates at various points during and following the battle.  Black and white prisoners were sent to various prisoner camps throughout the South.  Their trip began as an orchestrated parade through the streets of Petersburg.  Bowley was captured towards the end of the battle and here is his account:

The next day we were taken through Petersburg.  It was Sunday, and our captors proposed to make a grand spectacle of us for the benefit of Petersburg citizens.  First came General Bartlett–his cork leg was broken, and he was mounted on a sorry looking nag, without saddle; then four wounded negroes, stripped of everything but shirt and drawers; then four officers viz: Col. E. G. Marshall, 14th N.Y.H.A.; Col. Stephen Weld, 56th Mass. Infty.; Col. Daniel White, 31st Maine; Lt.-Colonel Buffam, 4th R.I. Vols.; then four more wounded blacks, then four officers, and so on, alternating the whites and blacks.  I was in the third file of officers, and as the head of the column reached the streets of Petersburg, we were assailed by a volley of abuse from men, women and children that exceeded anything of the kind that I ever heard.  I was seven months before I saw the Old Flag again, and my first impression of the Confederacy did not improve with a more intimate acquaintance.

Historian Will Greene provides analysis of A.P. Hill’s decision to mix white and black soldiers for the march through Petersburg.  Greene sees the decision as primarily an attempt on the part of Hill to humiliate white Union soldiers.  He is no doubt correct in pointing this out: "Hill understood that by doing this he would imply that white Union soldiers were no better than the former slaves who fought by their sides." (p. 209) The overwhelming number of Union accounts in my collection blame the black soldiers for the disaster at the Crater; the racial invective is incredibly strong.  [I am going to comment on this in the next few days and how these accounts fit into Chandra Manning’s analysis.] It is unlikely that Hill was aware of the strong reactions against black soldiers, though it is still the case that he would have understood how such a decision would play out in the minds of white Union soldiers.

What is missing from Greene’s account is how this decision to mix white and black soldiers played out amongst the civilian population of Petersburg.  Seeing white and black men interspersed would have provided the clearest demonstration of just what was at stake if the Confederacy lost the war.  Given the overwhelming sense of insecurity and fear of racial mixing and emancipation that comes through the letters of Confederates it seems reasonable to suggest that this decision also served as a message to the white residents of Petersburg.  [Click here for an earlier post on Greene’s book and some statistics about slavery that are relevant to this issue.] The presence of black soldiers in this battle aroused the same fears from both slaveholding and non-slaveholding Confederate soldiers.  Hill’s decision no doubt bound the same two categories within the civilian sphere.  In short, the decision should be seen as an attempt to forge a bond between the army and civilian population at a time when the outcome of the war and the will of white Southerners remained in doubt.