Tag Archives: Petersburg

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

The Future of Petersburg National Battlefield

As I make my way through my manuscript on historical memory one last time before sending it in, I am reminded of the dramatic changes that have taken place in the way we remember and commemorate the battle of the Crater.  Much of that change has taken place over the past forty years as a result of the Civil Rights Movement.  Before 1970 you would be hard pressed to find references to the story of USCTs in both written accounts and in the way the battlefield itself was interpreted.  My manuscript ends with a few reflections about the Civil War Sesquicentennial, but when I peer into the future it is this image that I see.  This is a photograph of Emmanuel Dabney, who works as a park ranger at the Petersburg National Battlefield.  He is a native of Dinwiddie County and has fully embraced its rich history.  Emmanuel has a degree in Historic Preservation from the University of Mary Washington and recently completed an advanced degree at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  If Emmanuel has his way he will spend his career educating the public at PNB.

In many ways, Emmanuel is a big part of the story that I tell about the Crater.  On the one hand, the fact that he is African American situates him at a crucial moment in the overall life of the battlefield and our broader understanding of the Civil War.  At the same time Emmanuel has been a huge help to me throughout the research and writing process.  Even this past weekend he helped to track down information about one of the Crater’s wayside markers.  One of the joys of working on this project has been the opportunity to meet people, like Emmanuel, who share my passion for history and education.

[Photograph from Petersburg Progress-Index]

Remembering the Crater at Virginia State University

Today I made what I hope to be the final research trip for my Crater manuscript.  I recently came across an M.A. thesis at Virginia State University by Travis J. L. Stephens and decided that I couldn’t risk not taking a look at it.  In 1967 Stephens completed a thesis with the title, “Participation of Negro Troops in ‘The Battle of the Crater,’ July 30, 1864.”  I wasn’t so much interested in the tactical details of this essay; rather, I was hoping that the author would comment on the broader social and political context on the 1960s and how this influenced the decision to focus on such an important moment in black history.  [For those of you who do not know, Virginia State University is a historically black college in Petersburg.]  Unfortunately, there was very little commentary beyond the confines of the event in question.  I should have known better.  It’s an incredibly well written thesis and is one of the best tactical studies of the Fourth Division at the Crater.

I was pleased to find that Stephens dealt briefly with the massacre of black soldiers following their surrender.

The Battle of the Crater was, in addition to being of the most crucial, also the most sanguine and inhuman of the Civil War.  Never before had troops of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee’s army, clashed with colored soldiers.  The very appearance of these former slaves in uniform agitated the Confederate troop’s hatred to a degree never previously encountered in any campaign.  Though the Confederate soldiers recognized the discipline of these Negro troops by admitting that they conducted a better assault, and gained more ground than their white contemporaries on July 30, it was also stated that these Negro troops could not endure bayonet and close-in fighting as well as the latter.  The frenzy of the Confederate troops upon being opposed by Negro soldiers was such that the rules of land warfare, previously observed when fighting white troops, were discarded.  The Negro troops were brained and butchered until even veteran soldiers became ill at the sight of the mutilated bodies…. When called upon to perform at Fort Hudson, Fort Wagner, and at Petersburg, the Negro units utilized were confronting the enemy for the first time.  One need no longer question the ability of the Negro to fight, for at each of the battles described, he not only fought, but died valiantly.

I’ve spent a great deal of time over the past few weeks surveying the way in which black Americans remembered USCTs and the Crater specifically.  It’s no surprise that this aspect of the war proved to be so attractive.  First, it provided a necessary corrective to the history of the Civil War, but it also worked to empower black Americans at at time when it was clear that a more assertive posture would be necessary in the cause of civil rights.  In other words, it allowed Americans to see themselves as soldiers in one continuous struggle that stretched back to the Civil War.  This emerges most clearly during the centennial celebrations of emancipation in 1963.  A quick survey of popular magazines such as Ebony and Jet include a wide range of colorful comparisons between the battlefields of the 1860s and 1960s.

On my way home I stopped at the Library of Virginia to check out a few scattered sources, which included a Civil War Centennial pamphlet published by the Petersburg Chamber of Commerce and featured the famous painting by John Elder.  As you can see it attests to the importance that local government and businesses attached to the Crater.  It clearly reflects the interpretation of the battle that the white power structure wished to celebrate.

The Battle of the Crater and Slave Rebellions in Civil War Times

I am very excited about the next issue of Civil War Times, which should be hitting the newsstands very soon.  The October issue will include an essay of mine, titled, “‘Until Every Negro Has Been Slaughtered’: Did Southerners See the Battle of the Crater as a Slave Rebellion?”.  I am hoping that readers will find it to be a thought provoking analysis of what happened to a large number of USCTs following the battle.  All too often the massacre of these black men is reduced to some vaguely defined rage.  I argue that this Confederate rage was a function of a cultural outlook that stretched back into the antebellum period.  Acknowledging the long-standing fears among white southerners regarding the management of a slave society and the dangers of slave rebellions (real and imagined) helps us to better understand the treatment of USCTs following the battle.  From this perspective there is very little that is surprising about the massacre of upwards of 200 black soldiers.

I also like the fact that this article came directly out of a blog post from last summer.  As you can see it received a great deal of attention and I immediately emailed Dana Shoaf about the possibility of turning it into a magazine article.  It’s also an opportunity to thank all of you who commented on that post, which I think is a perfect example of how this format can help in the process of actually doing history.  I go into much more detail in the first chapter of my Crater manuscript, which I am happy to say is almost completed.  No doubt, this article will upset some, but I hope it forces readers to think about this battle from a completely different perspective.  That is what good history should do.  Thanks once again to Dana Shoaf, who expressed enthusiasm for this piece from the beginning.  This is my second article in Civil War Times this year and it’s been a pleasure working with the magazine’s staff.

Douglas Southall Freeman Visits the Crater

I have culled a number of helpful sources from Google Books.  Today I am sharing a wonderful image of Douglas Southall Freeman that was taken from a Life magazine article published in May 1940.  The article takes the reader to various places from the Petersburg Campaign, including the Crater and follows Freeman as he attempts to make sense of the growing conflict in Europe and its likely outcome based on his understanding of the Civil War.  It’s an interesting piece and the photographs are wonderful.  The article begins with that famous photograph of Freeman saluting the Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond.

I believe that the photograph of the remains of the Crater was taken facing north.  The modern day trail follows the far side to the left and behind the Confederate position.  If you look closely you can see the South Carolina marker in the rear and to the right behind the tree.  I should mention that Freeman’s fascination with the Civil War began at the Crater.  In 1903 he attended the famous Crater reenactment with his father, who served in the 41st Virginia Infantry.  After watching the veterans of Mahone’s Virginia brigade march by the young Freeman pledged to his father that he would tell their story.  Another great find.