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Monday, July 10, 2017

"They would have him dead or alive"

Beechwood today (Vickie Neely)

     One of the facets of Spotsylvania's history that does not always receive the attention it merits is the story of those who remained loyal to the United States during the Civil War. That has certainly been true of this blog, which generally focuses on the lives of people who were native to this area. However, I recently had the good fortune to have been allowed access to the family archive of Spotsylvania resident, Vickie Neely. This collection of papers and photographs pertaining to the Armstrongs, Colemans and related families opened my eyes to their importance in local history. Their experiences during the turbulent Civil War era shed light on what it meant to be a patriotic American among hostile and suspicious neighbors.
     During the 1840s and 1850s, northern families in increasing numbers began to buy farms in Spotsylvania County. They were motivated to do so because of improving agricultural conditions in Virginia, and also because land prices here were significantly cheaper than  in northern states [1]. Among the families that came to Spotsylvania during those years were the Harrises [2] and Couses, who arrived from New Jersey in the 1840s; the Colemans from New York; and the Alrich, Armstrong and Morrison families from New Castle County, Delaware.
     The manner in which these new arrivals accommodated themselves to the mores of their adopted state varied. While I find that only one of these northerners was a slave owner (Moses Morrison owned a 60-year-old woman), a number of them rented slaves from their neighbors: Thomas, James & Moses Morrison; John Roberts Alrich; Peter Couse; and Archibald Armstrong. Robert McCracken Harris employed free blacks to work on his farm. In addition, most of these northerners remained loyal to the Union, but this was not true for all of them. Alrich voluntarily joined the 9th Virginia Cavalry. Three of Robert M. Harris' sons fought for the Confederacy. However, one of them, William, left Virginia and served in the Union army. He returned to Spotsylvania after the war.

Archibald Armstrong (Rich Morrison)

     The first of the Armstrong family to own property in Spotsylvania was Archibald, who in August 1857 bought a 207-acre farm from Parmenus Pritchett near the intersection of Brock and modern Gordon roads. In December of that same year, Archibald's uncle, 53-year-old Benjamin Armstrong, bought "Beechwood" from William H. Hansbrough. This was a 500-acre farm on modern Gordon Road at the Ni River, for which he paid $4,000 [3]. Benjamin's youngest son, Mahlon, came to Spotsylvania first, and began to get things in order for the other Armstrongs, who arrived in 1859. With Benjamin came his wife, the former Ann Mendenhall, and their daughters Anna Maria and Hannah. Mahlon's older brother, William L. Armstrong, brought his wife and two children. Benjamin and William shared the responsibility of operating the farm.

Spotsylvania, 1863 (

     In the Civil War-era map detail shown above, the Armstrong home at Beechwood can be seen at the upper center. Just southeast of the Armstrong farm was "Laurel Hill," the property of the Couses. Spotsylvania County Court House is at lower right.
     The Armstrongs, like the other northern families that came to Spotsylvania before the Civil War, would certainly have been aware of--and sensitive to--the sectional differences that had long divided the country. Before the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, however, few thought that a war between north and south would become a reality. For reasons of his own (perhaps as a way of making friends in his adopted county), Mahlon joined Mercer's Cavalry soon after his arrival [4]. This militia unit was the forerunner of Company E of the 9th Virginia Cavalry. Mahlon joined the militia against the advice of his father. He would have ample opportunity to regret his decision.
     It is not known what sort of reception the northerners received from their neighbors when they first came to Spotsylvania. However, as the nation moved closer to civil war after the 1860 election, the Armstrongs, Colemans, Couses and Morrisons and others faced increasing levels of suspicion and hostility because of their undisguised loyalty to the United States. "It was a crime to be born north of Mason and Dixon's line at that time," Moses Morrison testified after the war [5].
     As secessionist fever gripped Virginia during the spring of 1861, men like Benjamin Armstrong, Peter Couse, Paul Coleman and Moses Morrison and his relations found it necessary to down play their Unionist sentiments. Although southerners often trumpeted their desire for liberty and to be free from northern "tyranny," they were utterly intolerant of anyone who harbored beliefs at odds with their own narrow orthodoxy. Southerners felt highly threatened by those whose loyalties remained with the old Union, and they were quite willing to take whatever action they deemed necessary to defend their cause from such heretics.
     On April 17, 1861, the Virginia Secessionist Convention voted to take the state out of the Union. On April 25, the Mercer Cavalry assembled in Fredericksburg, where its members were mustered by Captain Francis Corbin Beverly into what would become Company E of the 9th Virginia Cavalry. Most of these young men joined willingly, often with great enthusiasm. Twenty-three-year-old Mahlon Armstrong, who shared his father's allegiance to the Union, was "compelled" to join [6].

Mahlon Armstrong, early 1900s (Vickie Neely)

     Company E was sent to Camp Salvington in Stafford to be outfitted and trained, and then they were moved to Camp Potomac in King George County. It was while there that the men of Company E were assembled for the purpose of voting for the articles of secession. In his testimony before the Southern Claims Commission in 1872, Mahlon described what that episode was like: "The company that I was in was drawn up into a line and marched by a ballot box. It was not a ballot box, either. It was a fraud. It was down here on the Potomac River...I was threatened if I didn't [vote for secession] I would be shot [7]."
     Meanwhile, back home at Beechwood, Mahlon's father was contending with his own difficulties. The men of Spotsylvania qualified to vote were scheduled to cast their ballots for secession on May 23, and intense pressure was exerted on known Unionists to get in line and vote the "correct" way. This was not a ballot cast in secret. Each man had to stand before his neighbors and vote affirmatively by voice. Some of the Unionists went along with this charade to avoid immediate confrontation. Benjamin Armstrong, on the other hand, simply chose not to participate in the vote [8]. While he felt free to speak his mind with his family and other loyalists, Benjamin avoided talking with any else about the momentous events of that time. The official tally of Spotsylvania's vote on the question of secession was 1,323 in favor, 0 against [9].
   In late 1861, Mahlon fell ill while in camp, and he was furloughed to go home and convalesce [10]. By this time, Mahlon had given careful thought as to the timing of his planned desertion from the Confederate cavalry. He was fortunate that Company E had spent much of its first year in camp on the Potomac. When he returned to the 9th after recuperating, he still had not fought in any major engagement. On February 1, 1862, Mahlon was reenlisted for an additional two years of service and he received a $50 bounty. With that extra money in hand, Mahlon's chances of escape were much improved. On April 18, 1862, Private Mahlon Armstrong deserted from his regiment [11].
Moses Morrison (Steve Armstrong)

     Mahlon made his way back to Spotsylvania County, where he hid in the pine woods near the farm of Moses Morrison. It appears that Moses had some prior knowledge of Mahlon's plan, or somehow learned where he was hiding. Confederate patrols were prowling about, looking for Mahlon, and "they were determined to have him, dead or alive." One of Moses' brothers, Thomas Love Morrison, also hid in the woods with Mahlon [12]. By now, the Union army encamped in Stafford would soon cross over to Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania during General Joseph Hooker's ill-fated attempt to crush General Lee's army. In anticipation of the Federals' invasion, Confederate authorities had already arrested Peter Couse and other loyalists to prevent them from rendering any aid to the Union army. The Morrisons were also being closely watched. Moses came to Thomas and Mahlon's hiding place at night to provide food and other help. On April 25, 1862, Moses and Thomas led Mahlon to the headquarters of Union General Rufus King, thereby ensuring his freedom [13]. Their heroic deed was reported in The New York Times three days later:

The New York Times, 28 April 1862 (Rich Morrison)

Moses and Thomas Morrison were then arrested, and spent several months in a series of Confederate prisons. Mahlon made his way north, and spent the rest of the war in Milwaukee, Wisconsin [14].
     During the spring of 1862, life for Benjamin Armstrong and his extended family became intolerably stressful and dangerous. "It was not safe for any of us [northern men] to say anything in favor of the U. S. Gov't, and the consequence was we had to hold our peace [15]." While Confederate armies were still winning dramatic victories early in the war, the Armstrongs' neighbors would come by to crow about the north's apparently declining prospects. Benjamin received threats from his fellow Spotsylvanians, and beginning in late 1861 he would hide in the woods from time to time to avoid capture and imprisonment. In May 1862, Benjamin fled for his own safety and made his way back to New Castle, Delaware. With the exception of one brief episode, he would not see Beechwood again for three years [16].
     Almost all the other Armstrongs left Spotsylvania about this time. Hannah joined her father. Archibald and William Armstrong and their families also returned to their previous homes. Remaining at Beechwood were Benjamin's wife, Ann, and their eighteen-year-old daughter, Anna Maria. One reason they stayed behind was to protect Benjamin's property interests. Had the Armstrongs abandoned Beechwood altogether, Confederate authorities would have been all to happy to seize the farm. Anna Maria was also threatened with imprisonment. "I was sometimes afraid they would do it," she later testified [17].

Portrait presumed to be that of Paul Coleman (Vickie Neely)

     The example of Paul Coleman (Mahlon Armstrong's future father-in-law) demonstrates why Spotsylvanians were so sensitive to having northern sympathizers in their midst while a huge Union army loomed just across the Rappahannock River. Paul and his family lived on a farm south of the court house. Paul, his wife Esther, their daughter Romelia and three sons came to Spotsylvania from New York in the 1850s. They settled on a 300-farm on the Court House Road. The family called this place "Pea Ridge," a place name that generally referred to the Partow area. Like most of his northern neighbors, Paul remained devoted to the Union. By early spring of 1862, Paul left Spotsylvania and divided his time between New York and Maryland. On April 5, 1863, he wrote this letter to Union General Joseph Hooker. Had his southern neighbors had any idea to what lengths Paul would go to serve the interests of the United States, he would have been in mortal danger.

Letter of Paul Colman to General Joseph Hooker (

"Flat Brook April 5th 1863
"Major General Joseph Hooker
     "My Dear Sir. although personally unknown to you, I thought perhaps I might be of Service to you in case of a forward movement from your present position having lived three years in the centre of Spotsylvania County and being familiar with the three main Routs from Fredericksburgh South for Some forty Miles perhaps I might be of Service as a Guide South by the Plank Court House or Telegraph Roads either of which I am conversant with (and the intervening country) for Some thirty Miles South or I might be of use to an Engineer in getting up a Map of that part of the County.
      "If in the way I have proposed or in any other way I can be of any Service to you or your command you can direct a line to me at the Eutaw House Baltimore Md accompanyed by an order or Recommendation to the Secretary of War or any other properly authorized person at Washington and it will be promptly and cheerfully attended to. with regarding my Loyalty, my Exile from my Home Should be a Sufficient guarantee I can also refer you to General Doubleday or Major Charles E. Livingston Genl Patrick or Genl Burnside. perhaps Genl Doubleday is more acquainted with me than any other Responsible person within your command. Yours Respectfully
"Paul Coleman
"To Major Genl Joseph Hooker Head Quarters Army of the Potomac Va"

     The Battle of Chancellorsville was fought north and west of Beechwood, so it was not until the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in May 1864 that Ann and Anna Maria would learn for themselves what price they and their family would pay for their loyalty. On May 4, 1864, a large Union army commanded by General George Meade, and accompanied by Lieutenant General Ulysses Grant, left their camps in Culpeper County and crossed the Rapidan River into the Wilderness of Orange and Spotsylvania. During the battles that took place over the next several days, the Confederates were pushed southeast down Brock Road toward Spotsylvania Court House. Beginning May 7, the opposing armies fought a series of pitched battles in the vicinity of the court house.
     On the morning of May 12, General Grant moved his headquarters from the Alsop farm north to Beechwood. In his Memoirs, Grant described his first meeting with Ann Armstrong: "During the day I was passing along the line from wing to wing continuously. About the centre stood a house which proved to be occupied by an old lady and her daughter. She showed such unmistakable signs of being strongly Union that I stopped. She said she had not seen a Union flag for so long a time that it it did her heart good to look upon it again...She was without food, or nearly so, so I ordered rations issued to her [18]."
     Accompanying General Grant were two members of his staff, Horace Porter and Adam Badeau. Porter later gave this eyewitness account of Grant's meeting with Ann Armstrong: "...the general came to a humble-looking farmhouse, which was within range of the enemy's guns, and surrounded by wounded men, sullen-looking prisoners, and terror-stricken stragglers...An old lady and her daughter were standing on the porch. When the mother was told that the officer passing was the commander-in-chief, she ran toward him, and with tears running down her cheeks, threw up her arms and cried, "Thank God! thank God! I again behold the glorious flag of the Union that I have not laid eyes on for three long terrible years [19]."
     Anna Maria asked General Meade if he would mail a letter to her father, who was staying in Wilmington with his son, William. Instead, Meade generously "sent a telegram in which he informed her father (prematurely it turned out) that it was safe to come home. Later in the day Grant, Meade and [General Marsena] Patrick sat down to dinner at the Armstrong house [20]."
     The following day, Grand and Meade moved their headquarters from Beechwood and "the hospitals of the Second and Fifth Corps that had been at the Couse farm arrived. The Union medical corps also moved forty Confederate prisoners to the Armstrong barn from the Landrum house...On May 16 army ambulances and wagons transported all the wounded, including Confederates to Spotsylvania Road and from there to Fredericksburg [21]."
     As it happened, Benjamin Armstrong successfully made the journey from Wilmington to his home in Spotsylvania. But his stay would be brief. As the Union army moved away, Confederate cavalry began to sift in behind them and were soon present at Beechwood. Benjamin managed to get away without being seen, and returned to Delaware.
     Several days later, on May 23, Anna Maria wrote a letter to her sister, Hannah, in which she provided a vivid and emotional account of what she and their mother had just experienced. Her letter was published in the June 2, 1864 edition of the Wilmington Delaware Republican [22]. That article was clipped from the newspaper and saved in a family Bible:

Letter of Anna Maria Armstrong (Rich Morrison)

"The following letter from a young Delaware girl residing near Fredericksburg, Va., dated Beechwood, May 23d, 1864, shows the hardships to which the people of that section have been subjected.
"Dear Sister--Once more I take my pen in hand to let you know we are well and still staying here, but that is all. You dont know how lonesome we are since the U. S. soldiers left. On Thursday night we went to bed completely worn out and slept very soundly. On Friday morning when we got up the pickets were gone. We had just done breakfast when we saw some of the rebels, they came on and one of them shot our dog; mother begged him not to do so, but it was no use. The rebel cavalry came soon after and Ewell's Corps of infantry arrived in the evening and went on about half a mile, where they had a severe fight. They owned they got a complete whipping. They brought about 80 wounded back to our barn--the last one of whom got away to-day, much to our relief. On Friday there was a skirmish line thrown on around our house, and it was really laughable to see the greybacks walking up and throwing down their guns. They say they are starving and will not fight. They were trying to cut off a wagon train, but thank God they did not succeed. If our house had been directly in range you would have seen us before now. They have got the cars running from the creek to Fredericksburg I heard to-day, and I hope you will come home soon, if you think you can be satisfied. Send us word before you come, and we will try to send for you. I tell you it is hard doing without a horse. I hope father got home safe. He just got away from in time. They came and took the horses from the hospital in about half an after he left. Mother begged them to leave them to take care of their own men, but they would not. You dont know what people they are; I wish that the U. S. soldiers would let the rebel wounded stay on the battle field, they deserve nothing better. I could see every one of them shot before my eyes. There were six buried in our lot. I wish Gen. Lee and all his men were in the same condition. There was one buried this morning; I expect if you were here you would be afraid to go to the wagon house after hearing them groan so. I believe one can get used to any thing. Our yard is almost covered with blood, you cannot pick up a piece of wood that is not completely wet with human gore. Do not faint or be afraid to come home when you read this letter. The little pig-pen is almost full of guns, so you see if they should hunt us we can shoot them. I must tell you what we have to pay for things here, flour is selling in town for $800 per barrel, bacon from $8 to $10 a pound; coffee $16, sugar $12, rice $1, and not much at those prices; calicoes $12 per yard. I do not know what muslin is now; I gave 50 cents for 1 pair of shoestrings; I will send you a sample of some dresses we got last summer and gave $8 a yard for them, and got them very cheap. I have got one home spun dress, it was a long time before I would wear it, but I had to come to it. I am afraid we will see no more of the U. S. boys; I wish they would camp on our place until the war is over, which it will soon be. The soldiers are getting dissatisfied and discouraged. I expect to hear of Richmond being taken soon.
"A. M. A."
     The damage done to the Armstrong property during its brief occupation by Union forces was extensive. Six miles of fencing, comprised of some 28,000 rails, was used for firewood. The engineer corps seized a considerable amount of timber that was used in the construction of a corduroy road. Two outbuildings were dismantled to provde wood used to build a bridge. Eight hundred dollars worth of growing crops were either seized for army use or trampled underfoot by horses, wagons and soldiers [23].
     Ann and Anna Maria Armstrong continued to live alone at Beechwood for the remainder of the war. Mahlon and Benjamin returned home in May or June 1865, and the hard work of rebuilding the farm began. It would be many years before Beechwood was restored to some semblance of its pre-war condition.


- Many thanks to Russell Smith,  who kindly gave me permission to quote from his superbly researched  article, "Opening the Gates of Hell:" A Unionist Family on the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield.

- A special thank you to my friend, Rich Morrison, for the research he undertook on his own initiative, which helped make this article better than it would have been otherwise. And, as always, there are treasures to be found in his family's vast photo archive.

- Thanks also to my friend, Vickie Neely, who shared her ancestors' archive with me, and trusted me to tell part of their story here. Vickie greatly improved the quality of this article by contributing her own research. I am also grateful for her transcription ability and her editing skills, which have made writing this a joy.

There will be future posts about the Armstrongs and the Colemans. Stay tuned.


Armstrong, Benjamin. Publication Number M2094, Southern Claims Commission Approved Claims, 1871-1880, Claim Number 37018. National Archives and Records Administration.

Armstrong, Mahlon. Publication Number M324, Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers who served in Organizations From the State of Virginia. National Archives and Records Administration.

Coleman, Paul. Publication Number M345, Union Provost Marshal's File of Papers Relating to Individual Claims. The National Archives and Records Administration.

Hennessy, John. "Democracy's dark day--the May 1861 secession vote in Fredericksburg, Part 2."

Neely, Vickie. Papers of the Armstrong and Coleman families.

The New York Times, "Department of the Rappahannock, April 28, 1862, p. 8.

Smith, Russell P. "Opening the Gates of Hell:" A Unionist Family on the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield. Originally published in Fredericksburg History and Biography, Volume 5, Central Virginia Battlefield Trust, 2006. The version I cited for this article is a PDF shared with me by Rich Morrison.


1. Smith, "Opening the Gates of Hell," p. 3.

2. My article on the Harris family can be read here.

3. Armstrong, Benjamin, Southern Claims Commission, p. 5.

4. Ibid., p. 7.

5. Ibid., p. 50.

6. Ibid., p. 6.

7. Ibid., p. 9.

8. Ibid., p. 8.

9. Hennessy, "Democracy's Dark Day."

10. Armstrong, Benjamin, Southern Claims Commission, p. 22.

11. Armstrong, Mahlon, Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers, p. 7.

12. Armstrong, Benjamin, Southern Claims Commission. p. 54.

13. The New York Times, "Department of the Rappahannock."

14. Armstrong, Benjamin, Southern Claims Commission, p. 4.

15. Ibid., p. 23.

16. Ibid., p. 5.

17. Ibid., p. 34.

18. Smith, p. 6.

19. Ibid., pp. 6-7.

20. Ibid., p. 9.

21. Ibid., p. 10.

22. Ibid., p. 1.

23. Armstrong, Benjamin, Southern Claims Commission, p. 2.


Sunday, November 6, 2016

"To hear the shout of victory, before I die"

Letter of John Winn Moseley to his mother, July 4, 1863 (Library of Virginia)

     In the course of transcribing documents for the Library of Virginia, I am fortunate to come across a number of writings from the nineteenth century that have the power to communicate to us evocative feelings and events from that bygone era.
     This morning, I found this letter written by John Winn Moseley of the 4th Alabama Infantry. Born in Buckingham County, Virginia, in 1832, John moved to Alabama as a young man. He enlisted in the 4th Infantry in Marion, Alabama on April 24, 1861. His regiment accompanied General Lee's army as it undertook its ill-fated invasion of Pennsylvania in late June 1863.
     Sergeant Moseley would not live to see either Virginia or Alabama again. He was gravely wounded during Pickett's charge on July 3. Before he died the next day, he wrote this letter to his mother. He died convinced that his sacrifice had not been in vain.

Battlefield Gettysburg Penn.
July 4th 1863
Dear Mother
I am here a prisoner of war & mortally wounded. I can live but a few hours more, at farthest. I was shot fifty yards of the enemy's line. They have been extremely kind to me. I have no doubt about the final result of the battle and I hope I may live long enough to hear the shout of victory before I die. I am very weak. Do not grieve my loss. I had hoped to have been spared but a righteous God has ordained otherwise & I feel prepared to trust my cause in his hands. Farewell to you all. Pray that God will receive my soul.
Your unfortunate son

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

"Bullets flew about me like hailstones"

Cecil Amander Burleigh (

     During the past two years, I have been part of a team of volunteers who transcribe documents from the archives of the Library of Virginia. This crowdsourced program is open to anyone who has an interest in Virginia history at
     Recently, I have devoted my time to a large cache of letters sent and received during the Civil War by Cecil Amander Burleigh and his wife, the former Caroline ("Carrie") Dickerman. I have come to appreciate the struggles and sacrifices of this married couple, whose personal difficulties during the war were replicated tens of thousands of times across America.. This collection of letters, numbering in the hundreds, was made available to the Library of Virginia by Patricia Bangs, a direct descendant of Cecil Burleigh.
     Cecil and Carrie Burleigh were devout, patriotic people of high ideals whose lives were informed by a devotion to duty and a highly developed love of their country. They were also strongly opposed to the institution of slavery, and their letters make references to the "slave cursed soil" of the South. Their letters also clearly show their deep affection for each other and how well they coped with long periods of separation. Many of Carrie's letters to her husband end with some variation of "May God keep you from danger and may you be spared to return to your family." Cecil signed almost all of his letters to Carrie as "Burleigh," and the letters he received from friends and fellow soldiers usually begin with the salutation "Friend Burleigh." And so that is how he will be known in today's post.
     For those of you who may already be asking yourselves why I am writing about a Connecticut Yankee today, I hasten to say here that the first battle experienced by Burleigh was at Chancellorsville. My focus will be on those events of Burleigh's life leading up to that epic fight and its immediate aftermath.
     Cecil Burleigh was born on June 30th, 1833 in the town of Richford in Tioga County, New York. He left home at age 13 to apprentice as a blacksmith in the nearby town of Berkshire. At the age of 20, he was invited by Edward Dickerman to work at his smithy at Mount Carmel, near Hamden, Connecticut. While employed there, Burleigh met Edward's niece, Carrie, whom he married in 1855. They had one child, Louise, who was born in 1861.
     Burleigh next worked as superintendent for Ives & Pardee, hardware manufacturers, until they went bankrupt in 1860. He then taught school, reluctantly, until the outbreak of the Civil War. In April 1861, he became a recruiting officer for the Union army, a job that required a certain amount of traveling. When the 20th Connecticut Volunteers was organized in August 1862, Burleigh enlisted as a first sergeant in Company I. On August 27, 1862, examining surgeons at New Haven selected 980 men as fit for duty in the new regiment.
     After a brief period of training and equipping, the 20th was sent to Virginia, where it became a part of the 12th Corps, commanded by Major General Henry Slocum. The 20th Connecticut moved from Fairfax County and encamped near Stafford Court House by January 25, 1863. This would be Burleigh's home for the next four months.
     In a letter written to Carrie from that place on January 27, he plainly stated how he viewed the aims of the war:

     "I have no uncivil feelings against the people of this state but they need the influences of education and Christianity more than any people I ever saw. Perhaps you think it a poor way to reform them to lay waste their country & destroy their habitations but desperate diseases need energetic treatment. Before the proclamation of freedom to the blacks I began to fear we were fighting in vain but now we are fighting  for a noble cause to save from bondage not only four millions of people but all future generations."

     In at least one subsequent letter, Burleigh revealed to Carrie his willingness to lead a detachment of black soldiers. When Carrie wrote him of her ambivalence about such a notion, Burleigh told her that it would enable him to get a promotion more quickly. In any case, he never seriously pursued this as a career move.
     In late February 1863, Burleigh received a furlough and returned home to visit his family and friends in Connecticut. On his way back to Stafford in early March, Burleigh visited Washington, D.C., where he observed the House of Delegates:

     "We got there just as members were taking their seats, & listened to the prayer of the Chaplain during that time there was tolerable good order in the house but no sooner was the amen said than the bustle commenced it was not half so respectable an assembly as a town meeting in Hamden."

     The winter encampment of the 20th Connecticut Volunteers at Stafford Court House was cold and wet and stupendously boring. Burleigh shared a ramshackle hut with some friends who helped him build it. Other than occasional picket duty or other routine tasks, there was little to do but write letters, read letters, and try to remain warm and dry. It snowed or rained almost continually until late spring.
     On April 26, 1863, Burleigh wrote his last letter to Carrie from Stafford Court House. "We have positive orders to march at daybreak. I have no idea where we are to go but think we are bound to Richmond which place I hope to see in ten days (not a prisoner)." Incredibly, Burleigh had foretold his own fate.
     The 12th Corps broke camp on April 27 and marched about 30 miles west and crossed the Rappahannock River at Kelly's Ford. They then pushed on to Germanna Ford and forced a crossing against Confederates dug in on the south bank of the Rapidan. General Slocum and his command reached Chancellorsville about 3 p. m. on April 30.

Battle of Chancellorsville, May 3, 1863 (Wikipedia)

     On May 3, 1863, Union positions in the immediate vicinity of the Chancellor House came under intense artillery fire from Confederate batteries nearby. Dr. Daniel Lee Jewett of the 20th Connecticut was inside the residence attending to the wounded during the bombardment. One of his patients was killed by shrapnel while Dr. Jewett was operating on him. During the battle, the 20th heroically stood its ground during the savage fighting until it was forced to retreat when supporting forces on both their flanks gave way. The regiment suffered 197 casualties that day.
     Sergeant Burleigh, as well as other members of the 20th, was captured by the Confederates. He was taken to Fredericksburg, and was then transported to Libby Prison in Richmond,  but was soon paroled. Two weeks after the battle, he was at last able to write a letter to Carrie and tell her of his experience:

"Annapolis Md May 16th 63
Dear Wife
     I want to write you a few lines but the wind blows so here I cant keep my paper still...I dont know where my reg't is or how many were killed or wounded I know four of our Co. were killed & as many wounded & there are nine of us taken prisoners Paddock & Bradley [1] among them Bradley & I stood up & fought till we were entirely surrounded & the ground covered with dead & wounded so did a number of others perhaps it would have been better to have retreated with the regt but the rebels paid dear for our capture. We were captured on Sunday May 3d we were behind a slight breast work made of poles lightly thrown together our forces were driven back on our right & two assaults were made upon our position but we repulsed them handsomely & could have held our position till this time but our forces gave way both on the right & left of us & we were nearly surrounded when Col Wooster gave the order to retreat & the regt left on the double quick I started to follow them but it was so much against my disposition that [I] determined to sell my life as dearly as possible. I found a Co. of the 84th P. Vs. [Pennsylvania Volunteers] who where making a gallant fight. I was very much exposed to the shot & shell & bullets flew about me like hail stones but I thank God he preserved me in all that danger, & kept my heart from fear. I presume you have heard from the regt several times since the fight. I dont know how I am reported perhaps you think me dead but hope your heart has not been subjected to that terrible trial of course you have been very anxious to hear from me but I could not let you know where I was any sooner. As soon as I got inside of our lines I tore a leaf from my memorandum book & an envelope that had been wet & stuck together & wrote you a few lines which I hope you have received it was the best I could do. I will not write you much more to night we did not get here till nine oclock this morning & of course are not settled yet but I can now get enough to eat & feel better than I did but it will take some time for me to get in as good condition as I was when we left Stafford. You may direct to Parole Camp, Annapolis Maryland. I shall need some money but you need not send any till you hear from me again. I dont know how long we shall stay here before we are exchanged but presume it will be two months if so I should like to have you visit me if you felt able to for they say they wont let a paroled prisoner go home though I can see why. Give my love to all good friends & much love & many kisses to my dear wife Mother & child
C A Burleigh"

     Carrie's first knowledge that her husband was still alive came not from this letter, but from the hurriedly written note Burleigh mailed just before departing to the parole camp in Annapolis.

"May 15th 1863 Fortress Monroe
Dear Wife I send this to let you know that through the mercy of God I am still alive & well except I am nearly exausted with the hardship & privations of the last two weeks for I am on board of a transport & shall arrive at  Annapolis tonight I will write you from there as soon as I can I know nothing of the regt since I was taken prisoner Will Bradley & Paddock are with me & six others from my company there were several killed & wounded that belong to our Co but I think none that you know write me direct to the paroll camp Annapolis M. D. & I think I shall get it. I have very much to write but this is all the paper I have. I have lost everything but my Bible & your picture with love C A Burleigh"

     Carrie received this note from Burleigh three days later. She immediately sat down and wrote to him:

"Mt Carmel May 18th / 63
My dear dear Husband
My heart is so full of joy & gratitude to night that I cant begin to find words to express a thousandth part of it, your few words written on your way to Anapolis reached me to night, & it seemed almost like hearing from the dead, you can scarcely know what I have suffered in mind for the last two weeks..."
     Carrie also received a letter from Lieutenant Edward Doolittle, who reassured her about her husband's safety, and then added his own observation of Burleigh during the battle,

"...[his] earnestness is the only cause I can assign for his unwillingness to leave our entrenchments at a time when almost & perhaps all others had left. He was urged strongly by Corpl Austin to leave. I also tried to persuade him. his only reply was "he could not then." As for coolness & self possession few men possess it to the degree than did he. All through the engagement & while standing there alone, he was calm & self reliant, never for a moment seeming the least distressed or dejected. I of course had no chance for conversation  with him during the engagement but from his very looks I was satisfied that he felt that all would go well with him. He would look up at me and smile (I was very nearly directly behind him) this he did repeatedly during our stay behind the Breastwork."
     Lieutenant Doolittle himself would lose his life just five months later in Stevenson, Alabama.

Parole Camp at Annapolis, Maryland (Wikipedia)

     At this point during the Civil War, prisoner exchanges still routinely took place between the United States and the Confederacy. Captured soldiers signed paroles pledging not to rejoin their respective armies until properly exchanged. Confederate soldiers simply went home and usually awaited notification that they had been exchanged and could then rejoin their regiments. Union soldiers were confined at parole camps until they were exchanged. In the case of Sergeant Cecil Burleigh, this took quite some time.

Convalescent Camp, Alexandria, Virginia (Library of Congress)

     Burleigh stayed at the Annapolis camp for a short time and was then transferred to the Convalescent Camp in Alexandria, also a holding facility for paroled Union prisoners awaiting exchange. In late May or early June 1863, Burleigh was given a furlough to go home to Connecticut for a short visit. On his way back to Alexandria, Burleigh wrote Carrie from Baltimore on June 10: I feel more than ever how dear my little family is to my heart & I long for the time to come when I may be permitted to stay with them but I will try to exercise patience."

     It would be another two years before Cecil and Carrie Burleigh would see each other again.

     Sergeant Burleigh remained confined until the end of September, when he was at long last officially exchanged. He spent more than a week traveling by train through Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky in order to catch up with the 20th Connecticut Volunteers. Burleigh finally reunited with his fellow soldiers in Decherd, Tennessee on October 9, 1863, more than five months after he had been captured.
     The 20th was now part of the 2d Brigade, 3d Division of the 20th Army Corps. In February 1864, Burleigh was promoted to Lieutenant and assumed command of Company C. Just a couple of months later, the 20th, now part of General Sherman's army, left Tennessee and made its way toward Atlanta. During the fighting around Atlanta Lt. Burleigh had a few close calls but managed to avoid injury, illness or recapture.
     When Sherman took the bulk of his army east to Savannah, the 20th Connecticut remained behind with the rest of the troops garrisoning Atlanta. The 20th rejoined Sherman's main army shortly before the capture of Savannah. Burleigh then marched through South Carolina and then North Carolina. Shortly before the war's end, Burleigh was brevetted to Captain. At the war's conclusion, the 20th Connecticut then marched to Washington, D.C., where they participated in the triumphant military review in May 1865.
     Lt. Cecil Burleigh was mustered out of the Union army in Washington, D.C. on June 13, 1865. He returned home and took up his trade of blacksmithing. He served several terms as town councilman in Hamden and was elected to the Connecticut General Assembly in 1880. In his later years he worked in the insurance business.
     Near the end of his life, Burleigh suffered from the complications of diabetes. During his last month he was in such pain that the was kept in a constant state of sedation by the heavy use of opiates. He died on April 27, 1895 and is buried in Central Burying Grounds in Hamden, Connecticut.

Burleigh's photograph and details of his life are from
I also referred to John W. Storrs' history of the 20th Connecticut:
[1] Sergeants Robert E. Paddock and Willis A. Bradley

Friday, August 19, 2016

To Be a Slave

The Virginia Herald, June 10, 1829

     Today I write my 160th article for Spotsylvania Memory. By now, those of you who have followed my blog over the past five years, as well as those who have read my book, are familiar with my topics and style of writing. My purpose has always been to share, honestly and dispassionately, what I have learned from my research. I have done my best to avoid editorial asides or sermonizing about this or that. I believe that it is important for my readers to experience original source material as I have found it. In this way, each of you may formulate your own views about our shared past without being obliged to peer through the prism of my opinions.
     Today, however, I have decided to take a different approach. And I am doing so on a subject freighted with many complications and possibilities for controversy: Slavery. Because the history of my native state is heavy-laden with emotional investment, nuance of fact and a blurring of many boundaries, it is almost impossible for me to write about it without making my point of view a part of this story. For the history of slavery in Virginia is also the history of my own family.
     First, let us stipulate here that the 246 years existence of slavery was a catastrophe for this nation and for those unfortunate souls who were snatched from their homes in Africa and brought here to labor and live a life without hope. Some of the core principles upon which this country was established--equality before the law and the freedoms proclaimed in the Bill of Rights--were never intended to apply to enslaved blacks. This fundamental hypocrisy, made possible by the dehumanization of generations of people, was the corrosive fact of our polity that has always hindered the United States from achieving the full potential of its founding ideals. The pernicious effects of this dual standard upon the enslaved Africans and their descendants remain with us to this day.
     I also wish to give my opinion on one other matter that is a perennial source of contention among many. I have always believed that slavery was the proximate cause of the Civil War. Had not slavery existed in the United States, it seems to me unlikely that the other sectional disagreements between north and south would have in themselves been seen as justification for secession. Slavery was such a toxic issue, and the south had so much at stake in its perpetuation as a legally-protected institution, that its existence alone made any political resolution of the other issues virtually impossible.
     I have long been of the opinion that the issue of states' rights as the main cause of the Civil War is simply wrong. "States' rights," as preached by southerners in the 19th century, was merely a screen for advancing the interests of the slaveocracy. Southern demagogues who endlessly brayed about states' rights were interested in the issue only insofar as they could sustain the institution of slavery and enable its extension into new territories and states. They were vehemently opposed to the assertion of the rights of other states to be free from the intrusions of the federal government, when those states were opposed to slavery. Northern states, whose citizens found slavery to be odious and whose governments were loath to assist in the capture and return of runaway slaves, were compelled to do so by federal law. These states would certainly have preferred to offer sanctuary to slaves who sought freedom within their borders. But the slave interests who held sway in Congress made this a difficult proposition by forcing the passage of the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850. These laws not only required free states to allow slave catchers to operate freely within their borders, they also obliged these same states to actively assist in the apprehension of runaways. States' rights, indeed.

Slave catchers apprehending a runaway

     Slavery in Virginia had its beginnings in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1619, a Portuguese cargo ship, San Juan Baptista, was carrying 350 Angolans to Veracruz, Mexico, where they were to be sold to the Spanish. This ship was waylaid by two English privateers, Treasurer and White Lion. Instead of sailing to Mexico, the English and their captured bounty made for the Atlantic. They sold about 20 of these Angolan men at Jamestown, Virginia and took the rest to Bermuda and other destinations.
     Because this group of Africans had been baptized as Christians, they were treated as indentured servants by the English colonists. This meant that after laboring for seven years, they would be granted their freedom, just like white servants. By 1650 there were about 300 African indentured servants living in Virginia. Some of these black workers, once freed, would buy land and farm. Some would later own black slaves.
     By this time Virginia was experiencing an unhappy transition, whereby the status of black indentured servants gradually changed to that of lifelong slaves. The labor-intensive nature of cotton and tobacco farming led Virginia plantation owners to make the switch from indentured servitude to chattel slavery.
     By 1662, Virginia adopted the doctrine of partus sequitur ventrem, which held that a child's legal status derived from that of his or her mother. A child born of a free woman--white or black--was a free person in the eyes of the law. If the mother were enslaved, then all children born to her would also be slaves, regardless of whether the father happened to be a free white man. Thus, the illegitimate children of white slave owners and their female slaves were considered to be slaves. The owners were under no legal obligation to emancipate their mixed-race progeny or even to acknowledge their paternity of them.
     Until about 1800, Virginia slave owners were at liberty to emancipate their slaves, if they chose to do so (and many did), with a minimum of government meddling. However, the Virginia legislature passed a series of measures which placed conditions on these freed persons of color. Acts were passed in 1793 and 1803 which required "every free negro or mulatto" to be registered and numbered in a book kept by the county clerk. In 1806, the General Assembly passed a law stating that all freed slaves who remained in the Commonwealth for more than one year after their emancipation would forfeit their right to freedom and be sold by the overseers of the poor for benefit of the individual parishes (Virginians strongly felt that having too many free blacks living near their slaves would put unhelpful ideas into the minds of those not yet freed). Beginning in 1837, freed slaves could petition local courts for permission to remain in the Commonwealth. These petitions would include certificates from free white citizens who could testify to the good character and free status of the petitioner.
     Freed slaves also had the right to petition the legislature so that they might be re-enslaved. And why on earth would they do such a thing, you might ask. It often happened that a master would free a father or mother only, but not the family as a whole. If the General Assembly denied the petition of a freed slave to remain in the state, he or she would be faced with the Hobson's choice of enjoying freedom far from his or her family, or rejoining them as a slave.
     In my earlier writings about slavery in Virginia, especially as a documented reality of my ancestors, I avoided the temptation to speculate on the thought processes that enabled white slave owners to perpetuate the peculiar institution for two and one half centuries. Playing the role of amateur psychologist is a task that I am not qualified to undertake, especially as it pertains to analyzing the psychology and motivations of people now long dead. But today I am willing to give it a shot, if only to clarify in my own mind how an evil such as slavery could survive so long in a country nominally dedicated to individual liberty and the dignity of man.
     In order to justify slavery in their hearts, slave owners were obliged to reconcile a number of contradictory ways of thinking. They were aided in this by the simple fact that both during the colonial era and during America's first 90 years of nationhood, slavery was a legally sanctioned enterprise which--especially in the south--also enjoyed the approbation of the church. Rare was the clergyman who would dare to preach against slavery; indeed, most ministers believed, along with their congregations, that slavery had the approval of God, and their selective interpretations of Biblical scripture reassured them that slavery was beneficial both for the enslaved and their masters. Many preachers of the gospels were themselves slave owners, and saw no irony in that fact when juxtaposed with Christ's teachings.
     Once chattel slavery became an established legal and social institution in the late 17th century, its insidious tentacles reached into every corner of Virginia society. The ownership of slaves was the underpinning of wealth for the gentry and the upper classes. In the example of Absalom Row, my second great-grandfather, the inventory and appraisement of his estate in 1856 showed that 40% of his wealth derived from the value of his slaves.

Absalom Row (1796-1855)

     In addition to being an integral part of Virginia's economy, slave ownership was intimately entwined in the social and family life of white citizens. Among the elites, one's status derived in some measure from their slave-based wealth. In many cases, it was considered a sign of good taste to have house servants whose skin color was lighter than that of the field hands. That some of these domestic servants were kin to the people who owned them was a reality known to all, but spoken of very rarely.
     The white masters of antebellum plantations in the south wielded absolute power over their own families and their enslaved laborers alike. Too many of these men fell prey to the corrupting temptations this power afforded them. The sin that dared not speak its name at that time was the coercive sexual exploitation of slave women. Often, this this took the form of the blatant rape of these poor unfortunates. In other cases, these relationships included an emotional tie between both master and slave. Many men chose to ignore the children born of these affairs. Others would openly provide money, clothing and education to these children and even emancipate them and their mothers. For the long-suffering wives of these men, they had little recourse but to gnash their teeth at the whole sordid business, and ignore the existence of the light-skinned youngsters who bore such a resemblance to their husbands. Some of these wives would take out their frustration and humiliation on the the slaves, whom they tended to blame for these incidents.
     This shadowy world of dual families living together in the same household made for a complicated and highly nuanced domestic situation. Of course, everyone knew what was going on behind closed doors, but no one dared to to confront the master of the house with the obvious truth. Even at the highest social levels in Virginia, white and half-white family members, the one free and the other slave, tacitly adhered to the roles this caste system required them to play without murmuring a word about it. George Washington's wife, the former Martha Dandridge Custis, had a half-sister, Ann Dandridge, who lived with the Washingtons at Mount Vernon. Ann was the daughter of Martha's father and a slave woman who was of African and Native American ancestry. No visitor ever had any inkling that this slave woman was a sister-in-law of George Washington. And it got worse from there. Ann Dandridge attracted the attention of Martha's dissolute son, Jacky Custis, with whom she had a daughter, Harriet, and a son, William. The Washingtons were therefore the grandparents of slaves. After Martha's death in 1802, Thomas Law, son-in-law of Martha's granddaughter, Elizabeth Parke Custis, emancipated Ann Dandridge almost immediately. [Source: Wiencek, Henry, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2003]
     The Custis family also furnished a notorious example of a slave owner who openly acknowledged his paternity of his slave child and lavished him with attention and favors. Martha's first father-in-law, the fabulously wealthy John Custis, had fathered a child, "Black Jack" Custis, by one of his slaves. John doted on this child and sought to free him by extra-legal means so that the boy could inherit property from him. This was done to the detriment of his son by his white wife, Daniel Parke Custis, who married Martha Dandridge, the future Mrs. Washington [Wiencek].
     These types of shenanigans were frowned upon in polite society, not just because they were unseemly, they also posed a threat to the underpinnings of slavery itself. The prospect of large numbers of mixed-race people, whose paternity was openly acknowledged by their white fathers, meant that these people could possibly attain legal status, inherit wealth and move freely in white society. Such a possibility, unlikely though it was, challenged slave-owners' belief systems.
     Another aspect of master-slave relationships that required great mental elasticity among whites was the irreconcilable dichotomy inherent in their connections. Many whites indulged in the fantasy that their enslaved laborers were docile, willingly obedient and even affectionate. And there is no question that long-term friendships developed between the races. But there was never any ambiguity  as to who held the upper hand. And most slaves remained alert to opportunities to gain their liberty. White owners who were particularly delusional misconstrued obedience for loyalty. When these slaves took advantage of those rare opportunities to flee before the Civil War, their white owners would feel genuinely bewildered and hurt that these people, whom they had taken care of, would be so ungrateful.
     But residing just beneath this delusion was the existential reality that never quite left the awareness of slave owners. Two slave revolts, the abortive Gabriel's uprising in 1800, and Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831, made very clear to whites that a real desire for freedom lurked behind the docile visages of their slaves, and that there existed within their servants an ever-present potential to use violence to get that freedom. Successful slave uprisings were exceedingly rare, but the possibility that they could be murdered by their own slaves at any time surely must have weighed heavily on the minds of whites throughout the Commonwealth.
     Far more whites were murdered surreptitiously by slaves acting alone or in small groups than did  during the Nat Turner rebellion. For example, Ambrose Madison, grandfather of future president James Madison, was poisoned in 1732 by three of his slaves at his home in Orange County. In 1820, Carlton Row (an older brother of Absalom Row) and his wife Lucy were poisoned by their slaves after Carlton ordered one to be whipped (as family tradition has it). Carlton and Lucy's one-year-old daughter, Rachel, was spared. She was brought to Orange County and raised in the household of her grandfather, Thomas Row.
     Laws were enacted to protect white citizens from their slaves. It became illegal to teach blacks to read and write. Slaves were forbidden to congregate in meetings without a white person being present. Slaves were required to have on their persons passes signed by their masters, giving them permission to do so. Woe to the unlucky slave caught off the plantation without his pass.

Slave patrol schedule for Spotsylvania County, 1853
     The activities of slaves were monitored by slave patrols. These patrols--referred to as "paddyrollers" by the slaves, were comprised of members of the local militia and were appointed and compensated by officers of the court. As a justice of the peace, Absalom Row was one such officer who organized these patrols in Spotsylvania County, and his signature appears on a number of related documents, like the one above. Among those listed was James H. Brock, who was Row's overseer at his plantation, Greenfield. The patrols were empowered to break up any unauthorized meetings of blacks they might come across. They carried firearms for their own protection and whips to mete out summary punishment to any slave caught without a pass.
     Slaves well understood that organized resistance against whites was suicidal, and that even more subtle forms of violence--like putting ground glass in the master's food--would not save them from savage retribution. What resistance they did offer was more subtle in nature. The tempo of work songs, which dictated the pace of communal work, could be slowed down when the overseer's attention was diverted. Handles of tools stored in sheds would be found mysteriously broken. Recently honed axes would turn up dull and rusty. Planters learned that trying to introduce new farming methods or machinery was futile, as slaves would feign incomprehension and new machines could be ruined and new ways of doing things could be easily misunderstood.
     By 1860, many in Virginia understood that the slave system was a wasteful and inefficient way to make money in an overwhelmingly agricultural society. However, slavery was so deeply ingrained into southern life, no one could imagine how things could be done differently. There was no good alternative to  keeping blacks right where they were. More to the point, white southerners were horrified by the thought of over four million slaves suddenly being freed, at liberty to roam at will and to compete with whites as farmers and skilled laborers. Freedom for blacks would mean the annihilation of their world view, their financial impoverishment and the threat of violent revenge from those whom they had victimized for generations. It was unthinkable. As Thomas Jefferson observed in a letter he wrote in 1824, "We have the wolf by the ears and feel the danger of either holding on or letting him loose."

Notice to Judicial Officers, 1861
      In April 1861, the Civil War long desired by the fire-eaters of the south began. It soon became apparent to slave owners in Virginia that their human property would seize upon this golden opportunity to make good their flight from bondage and reach sanctuary within the lines of the invading armies of the United States. As slave owners began to see their labor force and the source of their wealth take refuge with Union troops, it fell to the newly-minted Confederate government to take steps to to try to reassure citizens that something was being done to provide compensation for their loss. Accordingly, in October 1861, acting secretary of state William Browne published a "Notice to Judicial Officers." This proclamation provided instructions necessary to file a claim of loss of slave property. Implicit in this exercise was the hope that some day former owners would receive compensation for their loss. That day never came.

Nancy Estes Row's list of runaway slaves, 1862

     One of those who filed an affidavit of the loss of her slaves was Nancy Estes Row, the widow of Absalom Row. During the summer of 1862, she wrote the list of the names of the "servants" who ran away from Greenfield, shown above. She duly filed her paperwork with the Corporation Court of Fredericksburg in January 1863. She documented the names, ages and monetary values of each of the persons who ran away.
     But not all of her slaves ran away that summer. Some stayed with Mrs. Row, including Horace, Henry, Albert and William, whose names appear in letters and ledger entries after the escape of most of the other slaves of Greenfield. What motivated these few to remain in bondage? It is impossible to know, and each one of them may have had his own reason. Loyalty to Mrs. Row? Perhaps. Fear of the unknown? Also a possibility.

Labor contract with Henry Slaughter

     After the war, Henry Slaughter, one of these men who stayed behind with Nancy Row, continued to work at Greenfield. His name appears on the labor contract shown above, written by Nancy's son, George Washington Estes Row.
     George W. E. Row's daughter, Mabel, was born at Greenfield in 1879 and grew up on the adjacent farm named Sunshine, established by her father that same year. In 1960, Mabel shared her recollections of Greenfield with Spotsylvania historian, Roger Mansfield. She remembered being told by those who had lived at Greenfield, family members and former slaves alike, "The relationship between owner and servant was one of mutual respect. Even after the war, when the negroes had homes of their own, and a former slave died, the body was brought to Greenfield to lie in state in the parlor. They 'belonged.' Their burial ground is near that of their earthly masters."

Sketch of Greenfield, as remembered by Mabel Row Wakeman

     The graveyards of the Estes-Row family and of their slaves are all that remain of the old plantation. The graves of the slaves buried there are unmarked except for the dark field stones that have been scattered by time and circumstance. In my writing, I have done my best to share their names and to tell their stories as I have found them in my family's archive and in the public record. They deserved so much more in their lifetimes, but for now this is all I can do for them.
     And from the shadows, their eyes implore us.

Slave sale at Greenfield, 1832

Here are links to the articles in which I have shared what I know of the slaves and free people of color who were part of my family's history. For a few, I have been able to provide a glimpse into what their lives were like after emancipation.


Monday, June 20, 2016

Book Signing Event Scheduled for June 29

     I will be attending a book signing next week in Orange County, Virginia. This event will be held  on June 29, 2016 at 2 p.m. at the Lake of the Woods Clubhouse, 205 Lakeview Parkway. I encourage my readers who are able to do so to come meet me and buy a signed copy of my book. Proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to the Orange County Historical Society. Hope to see you there!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Little Falls School

Little Falls School, 1959 (Stafford County Museum)

     During the spring and early summer of 1917, a new two-room school house was built in Stafford County on River Road (modern Route 3), a few miles east of Chatham Bridge. The school was sited on Little Falls Run on property that once belonged to the Pollock family, who operated a mill there. During the Second Battle of Fredericksburg in 1863, Union soldiers assembled into boats at this place and paddled across the Rappahannock. They were then able to drive off the Confederates on the opposite bank. Park historian John Hennessy has written an excellent article on this operation, which can be read here.

Pollock's mill on the Rappahannock River at Little Run Falls, 1863

     The school was built on land deeded by dairy farmer Edward C. Nathan, a Wisconsin native who took an interest in the progress and well-being of his adopted state. He was then the owner of Little Falls Farm. A year after helping to establish the school, Mr. Nathan died during the influenza epidemic.
     On July 7, 1917, The Free Lance published an article titled: "Little Falls School: The Building Opened for Inspection on July 4. Many Present, Varied Program."  The activities of that day were then described in some detail. The community obviously took great pride in the new building: "The Little Falls School, said to be the best, most efficient and attractive two-room school in the state was opened to the public."
     Two hundred eighty two people attended the ceremonies, which commenced at 3 p. m. with a baseball game played between the River Road Farmers' Union and the White Oak Farmers' Union. The River Road team won, 20-19. The game was umpired by two Fredericksburg businessmen, Horace F. Crismond, Jr. and John W. Berry.
     This was followed by a number of speeches and the singing of songs. There was a patriotic feel to the festivities, as the United States had recently declared war on Germany. Late in the day, a vote was taken to see if the attendees thought holding a dance in the new school would be acceptable. The ayes had it, and throngs of people danced in the school until after midnight.
     The main portion of the school was 60'x24' and included folding doors so that the space could be divided into two class rooms. On the north end of the school (the right side of the building in the photo at the top of today's post) was a hexagonal stage, 21'x15'. Bookcases built beneath the windows had room for over 2,000 volumes, and would serve as a library both for the school and for the community at large. The citizens of south Stafford were justifiably proud of their new facility.

     Four months later, on November 26, 1917, Little Falls School was destroyed by a fire. The building was insured for $2,000, but it was soon learned that it would cost $3,000 to replicate the original structure. The necessary money was raised, and the school was rebuilt to its former glory.
     Little Falls School taught children in grades 1-6. Over the years, a number of capable women served as teachers and principals there. One of these was Elizabeth Dickinson Thorburn.

Elizabeth Thorburn (Ancestry)

     Elizabeth Thorburn was a graduate of Chancellor High School and Mary Washington College. She was a sister-in-law of Thomas Thorburn, whose family was responsible for establishing telephone service in a section of Spotsylvania County. My brief history of the Fredericksburg & Wilderness Telephone Company can be read here. Elizabeth was named as principal and teacher in 1938. She was also active in an initiative in the early 1940s to provide a hot lunch to the students. Local women volunteered to provide canned vegetables to the school to be used as soup stock. In 1945, she was elected president of class room teachers at a meeting of District "A" of the Virginia Education Association.
     In 1949, Lilla Eley was named principal and teacher of grades 4-6. That same year, Virginia Hart Jones was hired to teach grades 1-3. Mrs. Jones later remarried, and as Virginia Ballard was the last principal of Little Falls School.

The Sullivan house, 1953

     Directly across River Road (Route 3) stood--and still stands--the house of my grandparents, Daniel Webster and Ethel Sullivan. The house can be seen in the photo above, taken in 1953. I am seated comfortably with my grandmother.

Daniel Webster Sullivan

     Webster Sullivan, familiarly known as "Web," owned a large poultry farm called the Northern Neck Hatchery. He bred and raised chicks for chicken farmers throughout the region. During the 1920s and 1930s, he used to advertise his business in The Free Lance-Star. Three examples appear below:

 February 6, 1928

March 7, 1931

March 29, 1934

     All six children of Webster and Ethel Sullivan attended Little Falls School. The image below is that of my father, taken in the late 1930's:

Paul Sullivan

     On January 22, 1983, The Free Lance-Star published this 1929 photograph of Little Falls School. All the children are identified in the caption. Included in this group are three of my father's sisters: Gaynelle, Catherine and Hope.

Little Falls School, 1929

     Although I cannot do anything about the quality of this reproduced photograph, I am able to provide this portrait of my four aunts. Standing are Hilda and Gaynelle. Sitting are Catherine and Hope.

The Sullivan Sisters

     Hope does not appear in the article's picture because by 1929 she was 14 years old and would have been attending high school. According to the Stafford County Museum, Falmouth High School was not built until 1931. Until then, white children from Stafford County who wished to attend high school went to Fredericksburg.
     In 1957, my family moved to Los Angeles in order that my father could earn more money than he had been making at the Sylvania Plant. While in California, he worked as a machinist at the Marquardt Corporation, an aeronautical firm that manufactured ramjets, among other things.
     I began my schooling in California, and was enrolled in the kindergarten at Fernangeles Elementary School in the autumn of 1958. I began first grade in early 1959 (a student was allowed to begin in any semester during which he became of age for that grade, in this case I turned six then). Fernangeles was a big-city school with facilities and programs that were unknown in rural Spotsylvania at that time. We raised a garden at the school (I grew radishes) and took numerous field trips, including a memorable one to a commercial bakery in Los Angeles. We held "Duck and Cover" drills, during which we crouched under our desks, as we would be expected to do during a nuclear attack. We danced the hokey-pokey and finger painted. Sometimes we would do some reading and writing.
     By 1959 my father had become restless and wished to come back to Virginia. He believed that a rural environment would be healthier for my sister and me. Plans to return to Virginia accelerated when my Grandmother Sullivan fell ill. My parents quickly sold our house on Pendleton Street, packed up our belongings and sold the family dog. My sister and I were promised that we would get another dog when we came to Virginia.
     My grandmother's health took a sudden turn for the worse in early 1960, and in February my father came back to Virginia alone to see her in the hospital and to be of some help to his father. He never saw his mother again. She died while my father was being given a speeding ticket in Georgia.
     My mother, my sister and I made the move to Virginia in April 1960. Our belongings were placed in storage and we lived at the Sullivan house. Very soon thereafter my father came home from work one day with a puppy for us. We named her Queenie, and she was ours for the next 10 years. Someday I shall write about Queenie.


     My sister and I were happy during our short time at our grandfather's house, (although it must be said that I was afraid of old Web). We used to swim in Little Falls Run, and would sit on the stone outcropping that spanned the creek. My grandfather, long-retired form the hatchery business, kept a large garden in the bottom by the creek. He grew tomatoes and other produce for sale down there. He used to keep a small box of Morton's salt on his person. Sometimes he would pick a ripe tomato for us and cut it in half, sprinkle a little salt on each open face, and give one to me.

Your blog host, 1961

     I was enrolled in the second grade at Little Falls. Although I had only just begun the second grade in California, I was, perforce, thrust into the second semester of the second grade at this rural two-room school in Stafford County.
     To this day I remember without difficulty the shock and panic I felt with this new reality. There was no hokey-pokey. No finger painting. I was a semester behind my classmates and for the first time in my life I was given homework to do. I struggled to keep up.

Report Card, 1960

     Fortunately for me, my teacher was Virginia Ballard, who was also the principal. She was wonderful to me and stayed in close contact with my mother, which was not difficult, given that we lived just 100 yards from the school.

Modern entrance to Sullivan home (Google)

     When I used to walk home from school in the afternoons (Route 3 was just a two-lane road in 1960), Queenie would be waiting for me at the stone retaining wall at my grandfather's house (the house is hidden by the trees in the Google street view above). I would set my books down on that wall and Queenie and I would tussle in the yard and then roll down the small embankment next to the wall (the utility pole was not there in those days). I held on to her and down we went. Then we would scamper up into the yard and do it again. In her excitement, Queenie bit at my hands, and more than 55 years later they still bear the scars of her playful nips. My mother did not mind my bleeding hands so much, but the fact that several of my shirts were torn to shreds while engaged in this activity did not please her.
     I remember shopping with my mother one day at the A&P in Fredericksburg during this time. We encountered Mrs. Ballard in the produce section. It was the first time I had ever seen one of my teachers outside a school setting. The adults chatted while I stood there, dumbfounded. "Mama," I said later, "I did not know Mrs. Ballard ate groceries!"
     One quiet Sunday morning my father and I went rabbit hunting in the field behind the school, near the river. My father was carrying a semi-automatic .22 rifle, which held about 18 or 20 .22 shorts, as I recall. A rabbit started out from our right and raced in front of us toward the tree line. My father threw the butt up to his shoulder and began to shoot. I remember standing behind him, awestruck, as puffs of dirt appeared just behind, and then just ahead of our prey. The rabbit did not make the tree line. That day my father showed me how to dress out a rabbit for supper, and it was a skill I utilized for a number of years afterward.
     But life at the Sullivan house was not entirely idyllic. Web Sullivan was a peculiar and difficult man, and the recent death of my grandmother made him only more so. One day, my father sat me on that stone wall near the house (behind the trees in the photo above). He tied a sheet around my neck and began to cut my hair. My grandfather appeared, and I soon became aware that angry voices were being raised and that a violent confrontation was occurring inches from me. I was terrified.

     We moved from Stafford almost right away. We rented a house at the end of modern Bernstein Road in Spotsylvania County. It was a dirt road in 1960, and it looped around our house on its way back out to Route 3. Among our neighbors were Dr. Henry Bernstein and his family.

Dr. Henry Bernstein

     I never saw my grandfather again. In June 1963, Little Falls School closed its doors for good. Virginia Ballard continued to teach in Stafford County schools for some time after this. She died in 2009 at the age of 100.
     Webster Sullivan died at home one month after Little Falls School closed. His death certificate was signed by Dr. Henry Bernstein.