|George Washington Estes Row|
Today I write my 100th essay for Spotsylvania Memory.
It is fitting, therefore, that I choose as my subject the life of my great grandfather, George Washington Estes Row (1843-1883). My readers have long known that he has been the focus of much of my research. There are a few good reasons why this is true. First, he is the most richly documented of my ancestors. Because of the wealth of documentation I have uncovered about him, I know more about GWE (as I fondly--and respectfully--refer to him) than I do about my own parents. Second, the story of his life as revealed in these records makes him a figure of legitimate historical interest. The era in which he lived, and his actions and decisions taken during those years, show him to be a man emblematic of his time and place. His life was lived against the backdrop of the American South during the mid nineteenth century. The great issues of slavery, secession, civil war and reconstruction were all writ large in his life, and he embraced the challenges of each with vigor, intelligence and tenacity.
This photograph of GWE was taken about 1870 by Fredericksburg photographer Frederick Theodore Miller (please click on his image for an enlarged view). This is only the second picture of him I have found so far. If we accept 1870 as the likely date of his portrait, then there are a few things we can say about GWE as he sits with cigar in hand in Miller's studio. He is twenty seven years old and for three years has been married to his first wife, Annie Daniel of Culpeper. On this day Annie--now pregnant with their daughter Virginia Isabella--is likely at home at Greenfield, the Row family farm in western Spotsylvania, taking care of their two year old son Absalom Alpheus Row. Also at Greenfield are Annie's mother- and sister in law, Nancy Estes Row and Nan Row.
GWE does not own Greenfield, and never will. He will manage the family farm for his mother and sister for the rest of his life. Two years before this photo was taken, GWE's mother deeded to him 166 1/2 acres of Greenfield land that lay just south of the old home place and extended along Jackson Trail West to Brock Road. Ten years after Mr. Miller took this picture, GWE would build on this land, which he called "Sunshine," the home in which his family would live for the next 100 years.
As a boy growing up at Greenfield, GWE lived in a world of wealth, privilege and opportunity. Living at Greenfield with the Rows were were two dozen slaves and overseer James Brock. This allowed the Row plantation to operate as an independent principality, complete with a weaving house, blacksmith shop, carpenter shop, shoe shop, barns, stables and other dependencies as well as almost 900 acres of land. GWE's sisters received their education from private tutors. After the death of his father he was sent to board at the Locust Grove Academy near Charlottesville.
With Virginia's secession from the Union in April 1861, GWE Row left school and returned to Spotsylvania to defend a way of life already vanishing, although no one in the South believed it at the time. In one of the last grand gestures made at antebellum Greenfield, GWE's widowed mother sent her son off to war with a slave of his own age. Together they rode to the encampment of the Ninth Virginia Cavalry astride the two best horses from the farm.
GWE Row's experience during the Civil War was blessed by good fortune. He was never wounded, never captured and never hospitalized for sickness. He transferred to the Sixth Virginia Cavalry in 1862 and served as a courier for General Jeb Stuart and other Confederate notables. Having risen to the lofty rank of sergeant in the aftermath of the Gettysburg campaign, he was reduced to private in March 1864 for going absent without leave to help his mother during the hard winter of 1863-64. Three months after his court martial his gray mare was shot from under him in fighting near Petersburg. In April 1865 he was among the fire eating die-hards who cut their way out of the encirclement at Appomattox. He remained at large in his Confederate uniform until surrendering to the Federal provost marshal in Richmond on May 2, 1865.
By the time of his 1870 portrait, GWE had already dipped his toe into the railroad business. Specifically, he began a saw mill operation that manufactured ties, fencing stock and other material for the Fredericksburg and Gordonsville Railroad. Over the next thirteen years he would employ dozens of freedmen in this enterprise.
GWE Row's relationships with the blacks who shared his world, and his opinions about them, remain open to interpretation. He left behind no letters or diaries which reveal anything of his attitudes on the subject. There are no accounts of his abusing blacks or otherwise indulging in the kind of violent reaction to emancipation that swept the South after the Civil War.
Nor is there any evidence that he or his family at any time doubted the legitimacy of the slave system. They certainly gave their all to preserve it. That said, once the war was lost and emacipation became the law of the land, the Rows made the best of the new social order.
Yes, GWE Row was active in the local politics of Virginia's Conservative Party, which would indicate a hard attitude to the status of newly enfranchised black citizens. GWE's family had owned indentured servants or African slaves since 1624, so it may be safe to assume that a certain point of view was not eradicated by the outcome of the war.
And yet there is this: His business ledgers show a meticulous accounting for the compensation of the freedmen who worked at his saw mill. For each of these men is an entry for their pay, which included cash, foodstuffs, whiskey and tobacco. George W.E. Row paid their bail when they fell afoul of the law. He paid for the coffins of their relatives. And he is mentioned in the will of his most valued employee.
In addition to this written record is the oral tradition of Greenfield, as told by GWE's daughter Mabel Row Wakeman. Despite the fact that Greenfield's slaves made good their escape in 1862, a few remained in the neighborhood. When one would die, the body would be laid out in Greenfield's parlor as would be any family member before burial.
A certain ambiguity also characterized GWE's religious beliefs. His parents were devout Baptists. His sisters were also deeply religious, and they fretted endlessly about the negative impact army life was having on his soul during the Civil War. He never joined any church. In a meditation on her husband written a year after his death, my great grandmother wrote that she believed he was a Christian. Shortly before he died of typhoid pneumonia in the spring of 1883, GWE taught a Bible class for the men's Sunday school at Shady Grove Church. in appreciation, the class presented him with a moustache cup, which survives.
His motto was : Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with thy God.
That is good enough for me.
When I began researching my family's history five years ago, I knew very little beyond the names of my grandparents. As I immersed myself into their history, I was struck by the prodigious amount of detail found in these documents and soon apprehended their historical significance. My family's history is no more important than anyone else's. What makes their situation unique is the sheer volume of material pertaining to them that exists in private collections and public archives.
In the intervening years I have accumulated a digital library of over 11,000 images relating to the world of my ancestors. This includes photographs, letters, manuscripts, ledgers, maps, military records, business papers, court documents and so on. The stories of the hundreds of people I have written about on Spotsylvania Memory represent a close reading of those 11,000 pages.
Along the way, I have been helped by many.
To those of you who opened your homes to me to share your photos, your artifacts, your stories and your perspectives, I say thank you. Each of you generous souls has added a stitch to the fabric of Virginia's history. I will be forever grateful to you all.
Two years ago I was encouraged by many to share online what I had learned. At that time I had never written for a public audience and I indulged in some serious hand wringing before launching Spotsylvania Memory. While I am not now and will never be a professional writer or historian, your encouragement was crucial in the birth of this blog. Thank you, each and every one.
In the course of writing Spotsylvania Memory, I have had the honor and privilege of sharing my pictures and the fruits of my research with authors who have included that material in their books. I have answered inquiries by historians, writers, academics and regular folk like myself. I have made digital contributions of thousands of images to libraries, museums and archival repositories around the country.
Over the years many have expressed concern on how much "work" all of this must have entailed. I can honestly say that not for a moment have I ever considered any of this work. This has been an undertaking that has provided me with a high level of fulfillment, pride and personal meaning.
It may be some time before I post in this space again. In the meantime, Spotsylvania Memory will continue to maintain its presence online, and I will remain alert to items of historical interest which cross my desk that may be of interest to you.
And so, until then, I bid to all my faithful readers a fond farewell.