Sunday, December 9, 2012

Pvt. George W.D Kirkland: The Conflicted Legacy of Elizabeth Keckley’s Only Son

The tragic and triumphant experiences of Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress and confidante Elizabeth Keckley have been the subject of a handful of books over the past 15 years, and they have recently come to life on the big screen with Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

While most may be familiar with the narrative of a talented young woman who rose from the horrors of slavery to be a privileged witness to the inner workings of the Lincoln White House, the scene in which a fictional dialogue takes place between the president and Keckley outside the Executive Mansion introduces the viewer to a fact that even I was unaware of – that Keckley had had a son who served in the Union army and was killed in battle.

As soon as that line left Gloria Reuben’s lips, my mind immediately leapt to the obvious question – was this son of hers a member of the United States Colored Troops? After a little digging, I soon found my answer.
Before delving into the details of the short military career of Keckley’s son, a little background is in order. “Lizzie” Keckley was born into slavery in February of 1818 in Dinwiddie County, near Petersburg, VA. She eventually wound up in Hillsborough, NC where here owner, Hugh Garland, “married” her to his neighbor Alexander Kirkland. This basically meant that she was a concubine and, in her own words, Kirkland “persecuted” her for four years, an experience that was “fraught with pain.” This abusive union resulted in a son being born, whom the father named George. Thankfully for Keckley, Alexander Kirkland died when their son was only 18 months old.

In her autobiography, Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, Keckley had this to say about the situation: “The child of which he [Kirkland] was the father was the only child that I ever brought into the world [she would later marry again – this time of her own volition]. If my poor boy ever suffered any humiliating pangs on account of birth, he could not blame his mother, for God only knows that she did not wish to give him life; he must blame that society which deemed it no crime to undermine the virtue of girls in my position.”
The son, originally referred to as “Garland’s George,” would eventually earn freedom along with his mother when Keckley paid $1,200 for their freedom in 1852. George would grow into a capable boy and go on to attend Oberlin College. By the time of the Civil War however, George – who sometimes went by his middle name William – adopted his father’s last name of Kirkland and enlisted as a white man in the 1st Missouri Volunteers – a 3 month militia unit that would be redesignated the 1st Missouri Light Artillery. He entered the service on April 24, 1861 The 1st was one of several unofficial pro-Unionist Home Guard militias formed in St. Louis in the early months of 1861 by Congressman Francis Preston Blair, Jr. and other Unionist from Missouri. They would elect Blair as their colonel, with Nathaniel Lyon in overall command of the Missouri volunteers.


Kirkland was with the 1st when they went into action at Wilson’s Creek on August 10, 1861, and it was there in the Ray family’s corn field where he was killed. It is unknown if his body was claimed, or if he was buried on the battlefield. If he was buried on the field, he may be in one of the 689 unknown graves at Springfield National Cemetery, where all of the Union dead from Wilson’s Creek were moved after the war.

Keckley received a pension starting in September of 1863 with the help of Owen and Joseph Lovejoy and was paid $8.00 a month until her death in 1907. It is interesting to note that she makes scant reference to George in her autobiography – indeed, she spends a much greater amount of type space devoted to the death of Willie Lincoln, and only references the death of her son to illustrate how she could relate to Mary Todd Lincoln and comfort her in her time of grief.




(Note: Keckley was vilified for the intimate details she divulged and the private letters of Mary Lincoln that were included as an appendix to the book. Robert Todd Lincoln, in one of many ugly moments that marked his long life, blocked publication of the book and published his own parody, disdainfully entitled Behind the Seams; by a Nigger Woman who Took Work in from Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Davis and Signed with an "X," the Mark of "Betsey Kickley (Nigger) denoting its supposed author's illiteracy.")
In the end, we are left with many questions. Was Kirkland’s choice to join in 1861 a rejection of his black blood or was it simply his way around the fact that he otherwise would not have been able to enlist at the time? Was Keckley’s scant reference to him due to the painful reminder of four years of abuse that her son embodied? Was she angry at him for casting aside his black identity to adopt his father’s name and serve as a white man? We may never know.

As the story of Elizabeth Keckley continues to unravel and new generations are exposed to her remarkable story through Spielberg’s film, we may one day have an answer.

14 comments:

  1. Jimmy:

    Thanks so much for doing the legwork on this. I was caught unexpectedly by that dialogue, as well, and I appreciate your taking time to tell the story behind it.

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    1. You're quite welcome, Andy (and thanks for reposting this.) Once I was able to find out for sure which unit Kirkland was in, tracking down his CSR wasn't too difficult. And the more I learn about the Missouri militia and Lyon and Blair's involvement, the more I understand why Kirkland would have wanted to fight with them specifically and not an Ohio unit.

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  2. Mr Price,

    I am an independent researcher at the National Archives and plan to look at the pension application of Elizabeth Keckley for George Kirklands service. If you have already done this are there copies to be had? Why do you think George joined the Missouri rather than the Ohio volunteers? further, were you aware of a book called "Nobody's Son" about George?

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    1. Hi Mr. Bracey,

      Many thanks for taking the time to comment!

      I was actually able to access Kirkland’s CSR and pension file via Fold3. You have to have a premium membership in order to view the pension file, but I think the CSR should be viewable without a membership (you may be able to access it via the computers at NARA for free). Just be forewarned that when you search through the members of his unit that his name is listed as “Kirklang” instead of “Kirkland.”

      As far as his reasoning for joining a Missouri unit, I can only speculate that many of the men who would go to Missouri and join up with the likes of Nathaniel Lyon were very much anti-slavery and that that was the type of crowd you would want to serve alongside if you wanted to end slavery and not just save the Union (at least in 1861). Again, that’s just my opinion and is not based on any actual evidence from Kirkland himself.

      However, I was unaware of the book about him and will look into obtaining a copy – maybe the answer is contained within its pages.

      Thanks again,

      Jimmy

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  3. Jimmy - what more can you tell me about Alexander Kirkland? As you may be aware, Kirkland is a big name in Hillsboro, the most famous fellow from a CW perspective with that name from that town being C. S. A. General William Whedbee Kirkland.

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    1. Alexander McKenzie Kirkland (b. Dec. 3, 1807) was a native of Hillsborough, North Carolina. His parents were William and Margaret Scott Kirkland. Like myself, he was a graduate of Norwich University in Vermont. Kirkland made his money by being a merchant, but died of cancer on May 4, 1843 (when George W. D. Kirkland was only 18 months old.)

      One of his legitimate sons, William Alexander Kirkland, served in the US Navy and stayed loyal during the Civil War. He served on the gunboat Owasco, part of. Farragut's Western Gulf Blockading Squadron. Until the end of the Civil War, Kirkland commanded the river monitor Winnebago. He’s buried in the cemetery at Annapolis.

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  4. Thank you, Jimmy Price, for creating links to your research, so that readers of the Disunion blog in the New York Times are now aware of your own blog here. You bring Elizabeth Keckley and her son, George William Kirkland, into compelling focus. I suspect that Kirkland wasn't the only African-American soldier to enlist early in the war by passing for white, though he must have been one of the earliest to die; you've opened up a significant new subtopic.

    Daniel W. Crofts

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  5. Why Elizabeth Keckley's son should be acknowledged as white:

    http://essays.backintyme.com/item/649

    http://essays.backintyme.com/item/category/slavery

    http://www.danieljsharfstein.com/the-book/

    http://scss.ua.edu/2012/10/09/daniel-sharfstein-on-americas-hidden-history-of-race/

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  6. Just began reading the new novel "Mrs. Lincoln's Hairdresser," and had to take a Wikipedia break to check out George. I saw the movie "Lincoln" but, unfortunately, don't actually remember the above mentioned scene. George is a very interesting piece of lost American history, as are too many unsung, unknown soldiers of this era. Now I can continue reading the book, which I may or may not like. Thanks for the info.

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  7. I found your blog via a Smithsonian article on Elizabeth Keckley, went to Wikipedia's article about her, became interested in uncovering more information about her son, and found the answers here. Thank you so much, Jimmy Price, for adding to my knowledge of notable blacks in America. My parents' roots are in Alabama, and now that I'm retired, I plan to invest some time on uncovering some answers about my family's history. I know my great-grandparents were slaves and my grandparents and some other relatives were sharecroppers near Tuscaloosa and Selma. I'll start there and see how much I can find out about my family's history.

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    1. Hi Majii,

      Thank you for the kind words. It humbles me to know that I was able to assist you in your understanding of our nation's past.

      If I can help you in any way on your quest for knowledge about your ancestors, please don't hesitate to ask.

      Best,

      Jimmy

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  8. Behind the Seams is available here>>>
    https://archive.org/details/behindseamsbynig00otto

    Cheers, Ronald Seagrave

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  9. Elizabeth was in Hillsborough, N.C. with her owner Col. Burwell son when she had a son by Kirkland.

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  10. From a racialist (19th century American) standpoint, George William D. Kirkland was the son of a "white" neighbor. His maternal grandfather, Col. Armistead Burwell Sr (1777-1841) was a "white" Virginia planter and slave-owner, and even his maternal grandmother, the slave-seamstress Abigail (1786?-1857) of the Burwell plantation, was Virginia-born, literate, and may well have been "racially" mixed herself.
    One might speculate that despite his childhood as a slave in North Carolina, Virginia, and Missouri, young Kirkland may have identified himself as white on the basis of his own physical appearance and the social status of his white relatives. Kirkland's last owner, Anne P. (nèe Burwell) Garland (1805-1878), the widow of Hugh Alfred Garland Sr (1805-1854), was his aunt and the "white" half-sister of his mother, Elizabeth Keckley. Garland Sr was a very prominent St-Louis attorney from a socially prominent Virginia family, a published author, and one of the lawyers in the Dred Scott case (representing the slave-owners) which eventually went before the US Supreme Court in the 1857.
    Not only did George Kirkland's "white" half brother attend Annapolis (as mentioned above) and retire as an Admiral - but so did one of his "paternal" cousins from Mississippi.
    A maternal uncle of "Lizzie's George" was a West Pointer who fell in the Mexican War - while another, the prominent Mississippi lawyer, planter, and Vicksburg Unionist, Armistead Burwell Jr (1810-1878) was the very attorney who arranged for the complex administrative requirements which permitted his half-sister, Elizabeth Keckley, and her son (nephew to both the Burwells and the Garlands) to purchase their freedom between 1852 and 1855. To complete the family portrait, Kirkland's young St-Louis (first) cousin, Attorney Hugh Alfred Garland Jr (1837-1864), rose to command the consolidated 1st and 4th Missouri régiments of the Confederate Army. The younger Garland was killed in action at the battle of Franklin (Tennessee). Although little more beyond speculation remains, it may be understandable, given the context, that George William D. Kirkland perceived himself as a "white" person, a free man, and may have held a conflicting position in terms of identity with that of his mother, Mrs Elizabeth Keckley. The War of Rebellion (its official name in contemporary records) and the subsequent overthrow of human slavery in North America may have been somewhat more complicated and conflictual (on both sides of the conflict) at different social levels than some students and scholars are willing to fathom.

    -Cordial salutations to all,
    Brian Curdy

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