Saturday, December 22, 2012

2013 USCT Books

2012 was a pretty good year for Civil War titles featuring United States Colored Troops, but from what I’ve found so far, 2013 is shaping up to be an even better year. This past year saw such outstanding titles as Levin’s Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, Bryant’s The 36th Infantry United States Colored Troops in the Civil War: A History and Roster, and Coddington’s African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album.

Here’s a peek at what lies ahead in 2013:
Camp William Penn:1863-1865 by Donald Scott, Sr. (Dec 28, 2012)

Civil War General and Indian Fighter James M. Williams: Leader of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry and the 8th U.S. Cavalry (War and the Southwest Series) by Robert W. Lull (Feb 20, 2013)

Freedom's Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of Henry McNeal Turner (Regenerations) by Jean Lee Cole and Aaron Sheehan-Dean (Mar 1, 2013)
Milliken's Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory by Linda Barnickel (Apr 15, 2013)

The Fort Pillow Massacre: North, South, and the Status of African-Americans in the Civil War Era by Bruce Tap (Aug 3, 2013)

If you know of any other titles I've missed, please leave them in the comments section.

And keep an eye out for The First Battle of Deep Bottom: Grant vs. Lee North of the James by yours truly in 2014!

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.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Hari Jones Responds to Masur’s “Lincoln” Review

Well, I hope that everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving and is prepared for the insanity that is Black Friday.

I had the pleasure of viewing Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln on Wednesday evening and, while I am still sorting through my own feelings about the film itself, suffice it to say I was extremely impressed and any historical errors I may have found pale in comparison to the sum of what may very well be the best Civil War era film we will ever see in our lifetime.

Before I went to see the movie I was interested to know what other historians had to say about the film and it’s overall faithfulness to the historical record. And when Kate Masur published her critical review in the New York Times, stating that African Americans were portrayed as being passive spectators rather than active agents in the process of their emancipation, I thought that this could be a potentially devastating critique, if true. And I must admit I paid special attention to how Mr. Spielberg portrayed the few African American characters (many of whom, I should mention, are United States Colored Troops) when I finally got to view the film.

In the end, I think that Masur went too far in her criticism. For instance, she states that “Mr. Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ gives us only faithful servants, patiently waiting for the day of Jubilee.” Perhaps she missed the opening battle sequence which showed USCTs locked in mortal combat with Confederate soldiers? These African Americans were hardly being “passive” when they were shooting, bayoneting, punching, and drowning their enemies and then later bragging that they had killed 1,000 without taking a prisoner.  Masur also criticizes a fictional dialogue between Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley in which Lincoln admits his unfamiliarity with African Americans and his ignorance of how they will fare after slavery has been abolished. While Masur criticizes this scene for being “awkward” and diminishing Keckley, I found the scene to be powerful and refreshingly honest.
Hari Jones of the African American Civil War Memorial has responded to many of Masur’s criticisms in his latest blog post, which can be found here.
In response to the criticism that Masur and others have made about the exclusion of Frederick Douglass from the film, Jones states that “Spielberg’s interpretive choice to note the military contributions of African Americans rather than to find a way to include an African American editor at the margins should be applauded not censured by those who seek to include the role of the enslaved in the ‘dynamic of emancipation’ that was occurring inside the frame.”
It is easy to bring an entire career’s worth of historical training and inflict it upon a film that is not attempting to be purely a history lesson.

While there are some things that Spielberg and company got wrong with this film, I consider it a minor miracle how much they got right.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

New Market Heights Used as a Recruiting Tool

Taken From: View of transparency in front of headquarters of supervisory committee for recruiting colored regiments, Chesnut Street, Philadelphia, in commemoration of emancipation in Maryland, November 1, 1864.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Did Arlington’s Slaves Rise Up to Fight Lee? – Meet Pvt. Lucius Bingham, Co. A, 38th USCT

In a previous post, I raised the possibility that some of the Custis-Lee slaves who had resided at the Arlington estate may have joined the U.S. Colored Troops due to the nearby location of Camp Casey – a training ground for many USCT units located near the present-day site of the Pentagon. To ponder the irony of a slave that Robert E. Lee had overseen taking up arms as a USCT was a fun “what if” – but could I prove it?

Well, I present to you Lucius Bingham.
The name “Lucius Bingham” as it pertains to Arlington House first appears in the 1858 inventory that was taken following the death of Lee’s father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis in 1857. The 63 members of Arlington’s enslaved community are listed each by name and in family groups.   The husband/father is listed first followed by the wife/mother and then the children.  Seven interrelated families (the Binghams, Burkes, Checks, Grays, Norrises, Parks’ and Taylors) worked at the Arlington plantation. Many of them or their ancestors had come to Arlington with Custis from Mount Vernon in 1802. Unfortunately, there are no birth dates or ages on this inventory but since Louisa and Austin Bingham are listed as Lucius’ parents, we can gain some insight into how old he was. Louisa would have been 58 years old when this inventory was taken, which would put her youngest children in their late teens and early twenties considering how many children she had.

The Custis Slave Inventory. The Bingham's are on the far left.
The name “Lucius Bingham” does not appear in any record that I have been able to find until 1865 – when a 21-year-old laborer from Virginia named Lucius Bingham enlists as a substitute in the United States Colored Troops in Washington DC. He would be assigned to Company A of the 38th USCT, a unit recruited mainly in Virginia. If this is the same Lucius Bingham that grew up working at Arlington, he would have been freed in late 1862 when Robert E. Lee issued his letter of manumission for all of George Washington Parke Custis’ former slaves (the Custis will stipulated that his slaves were to be freed within five years after his death.) Since we know that many Custis slaves stayed on to work at the newly-established Freedman’s Village at Arlington, it is quite possible that young Lucius worked there until he enlisted, which would explain his occupation of “laborer.”

Now, I wish I could say that Bingham went on to have an illustrious military career (the 38th was at New Market Heights, after all) but he served a one year term of enlistment starting on February 28, 1865. According to his Compiled Service Record, he accompanied the 38th to Texas after Lee’s surrender and was then mustered out when his enlistment expired. And after that, the trail goes cold. NARA has no record of Bingham or his widow (assuming he had one) filing for a pension, so it is going to be a difficult challenge to put the pieces of the puzzle together and say with certainty that the Lucius Bingham who was enslaved at Arlington is the same Lucius Bingham who fought for liberty in the USCT. But I think a good circumstantial case can be made.
So what would it mean if Bingham was a Custis slave who went on to don Union blue? Well, the “Lee didn’t own slaves but Grant did” crowd would be hard put to explain why a slave that Lee controlled at Arlington would jump at the opportunity to enlist in the Union army. I would imagine that a happy slave who was well treated would not be over eager to put his life on the line to join the army that is battling a Confederate army under the leadership of his former master.

Also, if more information can be found on Bingham, it may help tie together the story of Arlington’s slave families. Some families such as the Syphaxes are well documented and individual stories such as those of Selina Gray and Jim Parks help shed light on this neglected topic. Finding out more about a member of one of the largest slave families at Arlington will undoubtedly assist in fleshing out the slave narrative at Arlington House.

As always, I will continue to research this fascinating “what if” and report any new findings here on The Sable Arm.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Save the Date!


A Lecture by Dr. Chandra Manning Followed By a Panel Discussion

On Research and Remembrance


   The Alexandria Black History Museum
902 Wythe Street, Alexandria, Virginia 22314
Thursday, November 8, 2012

 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm
For more information, call 703-746-4356

Thursday, October 18, 2012

An Interview with Christy Coleman

I first had the pleasure of meeting Christy Coleman when she took over as president of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, where I was working at the time.  For those of you who may not know her, Christy S. Coleman oversees a staff of nearly 20 full- and part-time employees at Historic Tredegar, whose mission is to tell the whole story of how the Civil War still shapes the United States. She began her career as a living history interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg, where she served in many capacities until 1999. From 1999-2005, Coleman served as president and CEO of the nation's largest African American museum, TheCharles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. During her tenure, the museum's membership grew from 3,500 to more than 15,000. Coleman has written a number of works for the museum field as well as historic drama for screen, theater and on-site programs. She was raised in Williamsburg, Virginia, and received her bachelor's and master's degrees from Hampton University. I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Christy and getting her thoughts on the sesquicentennial and various and sundry other matters of interest. Enjoy!

JP: I’d first like to get your assessment on how the Sesquicentennial commemoration is coming along so far? Are there any areas of improvement that you think should be emphasized more over the next few years?
CC: What I find most compelling about the Commemorations of the Sesquicentennial is the intent of balanced programming in most state-wide observances.  Because of these efforts, audiences are learning more about the intersection of politics, social constructs and personal decision.   With this is a seemingly greater respect for the roles of all involved. This is healthy and important for the nation as we continue to grapple with elements of the collective past that cause division. However, local events tend to be more traditional in approach-- meaning the focus remains on specific military action with complete avoidance of social or political issues. More often than not, these local events are products of various heritage groups and local historical societies.
Considerations of military campaigns and the societal impact of those battles is another area that is remarkably different than in years past. While there certainly are traditional reenactments taking place—the inclusion of United States Colored Troops, discussions about self-emancipators (Contrabands) and the home front, along with the course of battle are very encouraging.

In the closing years of the commemorations, a shift to discussions of legacies would be wonderful—however I do not expect that to be a part of national conversations. Five years is a long time to commemorate anything and attention spans rarely stay fixed on an idea or concept as diffuse as “legacies of war.” But one can always hope! Perhaps the most disappointing element of the Sesquicentennial is that there was no national commission formed—instead the Smithsonian Institute’s museums have served as the conduit for programs and exhibitions focused on the war.
JP: In 1994 you were involved in a very controversial re-creation of a slave auction while working at Colonial Williamsburg. Do you think that the public discourse over race and slavery had changed in the past 18 years? Do you see any room for similar events during the Sesquicentennial?

CC: I continue to be fascinated that there is still interest in the Estate Sale/Slave Auction program.  I think the larger question is why.  I suppose the answer lies in the fact that improvements with interpretation of slavery at the nation’s museums and historic sites has occurred, however, there are still far too many organizations that continue to struggle with how best to address the subject.  I would argue that at the root of this interpretive challenge is the fact that we as a nation have not fully addressed very complex racial issues. In fact we tend to avoid them or use diversionary tactics, often refusing to acknowledge that the issues exist at all.
Over the past eighteen years, I have attended and presented at a number of workshops and symposia on this subject and invariably the conversion is the same.  Who is doing “good” slavery interpretation? Can we replicate it? What resources do we have to introduce it? Are those resources enough? Will the public accept it? How do we prepare our docents and staff? How do we avoid controversy? The answer to each of these is greatly dependent upon the level of risk tolerance or aversion within the institution.

What I have observed thus far during the Sesquicentennial (which admittedly is limited to the work of various National Park Service sites and mid Atlantic organizations) has been a series of lectures or small exhibitions related to slavery at a particular location.  There has been very little in terms of the work of the black abolitionists and their allies to press the former Republican Party to take an emancipation platform and their ongoing efforts to help self-emancipators in the chaos of war. But the last three years of the commemoration are full of opportunities for interpretation at various sites, starting with the official Emancipation Proclamation and the formation of the USCTs.
JP: What in particular draws you to the study of history?

CC: I have always loved history, particularly social history. I have been fascinated by the lesser known stories, the little nuggets of personal experience that can illustrate larger truths. But I have never been interested in being an academic historian. Instead I have chosen to be in public history which involves engaging historians on critical ideas while simultaneously helping the public explore the complexity of the historical narrative—regardless of era.  Being party to those moments of illumination that visitors experience are very gratifying, because I clearly understand that what we do as public historians is help our visitors navigate history (the facts), heritage (beliefs and traditions) and memory (family connections) to come to a deeper level of engagement with the past.

JP: Do you have a favorite Civil War book?

CC: Not really—only because each new book that I read, opens a new area of consideration.  I do have a few favorites for widely different reasons. Among the favorites are :  The Fiery Trial (Eric Foner); Mary Chestnut’s Civil War (ed. C. Vann Woodward); Bloody Crimes (James Swanson); Richmond Burning and Cry Havoc (Nelson Langford); The Negro in the Civil War (Benjamin Quarles) and Battle Cry of Freedom (James McPherson).  There are so many others that I have read and enjoyed—but again, each of these is compelling history and have formed a structure that informs other study.
JP: What can visitors to the American Civil War Center expect to see as the Sesquicentennial continues?  

CC: We are doing considerable preservation work at Historic Tredegar to ensure that the legacy of this important industrial site is here for generations. In addition, we are building new facilities and exhibits that will enable us to showcase more elements of the history of the war through exhibits and programs.
[NOTE: I should also mention that in a few short days Christy’s crew at Tredegar will be staging "American Séance," their original theatrical production that will run Oct. 29 - Nov. 2. Visit for details and to buy tickets. Performances will be at 7 and 8 p.m. Cost is $10 for adults and $5 for students.]

Many thanks to Christy for her time and thoughts!


Monday, October 8, 2012

Photo of the Day: Which Name Would You Choose?

It was a frequent occurrence for newly-freed slaves enlisting in the Union army to change their name (which is why you will see so many George Washington's on the muster rolls of nearly every USCT unit.) This grave, located in Section 23 of Arlington National Cemetery, hints that the man history calls "Beast" may have been reviled by many, but was held in high esteem by the enlisted men under his command.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

From Freedom Fighters to Bounty Hunters: USCT Press Gangs Infiltrate Freedman’s Village at Arlington

As we continue to commemorate the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, we are moving into that span of time when Emancipation moved from the realm of proposition to reality. This past Saturday marked 150 years since the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued and the amount of ink spilled on the genesis of black recruitment will no doubt increase over the next few months. As we head into this crucial period, I fear that familiar narratives that oversimplify the USCT experience will once again make their way into the public discourse.
One such narrative goes something like this: Once the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, African American men living in both the north and the south dropped what they were doing and flocked to recruiting stations to don Union blue and fight for freedom and equality.
While there is more than a germ of truth in this popular narrative, the reality shows that large numbers of African American men stayed away from military service or – even more astonishingly – were compelled to join the army by force. Whether or not a large portion of the African American military age population of a particular state sent large numbers of black troops to the front had much to with the progress of the union army. In areas where the Federals had not gained a toehold, enslaved men rarely took the tremendous risk of attempting to enlist (a good example of this is Texas, which provided fewer than 50 men total.)
Further complicating matters were instances in which the military overreached in its attempts to enlist African Americans into the ranks. Public relations disasters such as those which occurred in the Sea Islands of South Carolina in 1863, when local slaves were rounded up and forced into the army, soured the opinions of many and caused mistrust to poison the attitudes of many former slaves.
While the Sea Islands story has been recounted in such works as Rehearsal For Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment, I recently came across a similar incident that occurred much closer to home. While researching the location of Camp Casey, I came across another story that illustrates just how complex African American recruitment could be.
And the kicker for me was that it also involved none other than the 23rd USCT…
 In my previous post about Camp Casey I speculated that it could have been located on the grounds of the Arlington estate, where Robert E. Lee resided for 30 years before the outbreak of Civil War. The conclusion was based on eyewitness accounts and circumstantial evidence. And now even more evidence can be gleaned from the following:
In April of 1864, D. B. Nichols, the Superintendent of Freedman’s Village (a large contraband camp located near the present-day site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier), wrote a letter to Col. Elias Greene, Chief Quartermaster of the Department of Washington. The letter begins by recounting an event that had occurred during the previous month. Nichols states that he met five men, “one wearing the dress of a sergeant of the Colored Regt forming at [Camp] Casey” who asked permission to enter Freedman’s Village “to see their friends.” Nichols allowed the men to enter and apparently gave them no more thought until he was met “by a crowd of women in great distress, saying that colored men had been inside and taken away five or six persons by force, entirely against their will.” The press gang then escaped Freedman’s Village through a gap between the guard posts and “had taken the men off to the camp.” The incident was immediately reported, but it appears to have caused little concern, except among Nichols and the residents of Freedman’s Village.

Map of Freedman's Village, 1865
Nichols summed up this disturbing event by writing:
“This affair had a most unfortunate influence upon the minds of the inhabitants of ‘Freedman’s Village,’ so that many of them were kept from night schools and meetings, for fear of being pressed into service against their will.”
In response, the leadership of Freedman’s Village issued an order telling the sentries “to admit no Colored soldier to the camp, unless upon a written order, except it was to attend church on the Sabbath; nor could any white person be admitted if it was thought that the object of the visit was to interfere with the order…of the camp.”
It appears as if this measure was effective for all of three weeks, when the roving bands of recruiters learned of the arrival of 407 men, women, and children who had just arrived from Haiti and were temporarily lodged at Freedman’s Village. Apparently this large group of potential recruits proved too tempting a target and after being denied entrance to the camp, the recruiting party made another attempt to forcibly round up men of military age and escort them quietly out of the camp. This time, however, the sentries were alerted to the problem and the Haitians were “forcibly taken possession of by [the] guard and brought inside the village.”
Needless to say, this did not sit well with the recruiters of the 23rd USCT. Capt. Robert G. Perry, a commander of the guard at Freedman’s Village, wrote that their resistance “incensed and provoked these Recruiting Officers beyond measure.” Perry went on to note that, “They have threatened to ‘Clean out the Village,’ a threat which fortunately for the parties concerned, was never attempted to be enforced. There would have been some Colored Soldiers less.”
So what was the method employed in these attempts to impress men into the 23rd USCT? According to Nichols, the soldiers would approach a freed person inside the camp and tell them, “if you go quietly you will receive fifteen dollars bounty, but if you refuse, you will get no money and we shall draft you.”
Other recruiters were less ambiguous:
“Some of the inmates of this village have been stopped by colored soldiers and threatened, if they would not enlist; and the only manner they saved themselves from being pressed, was because they possessed greater physical strength.”
The motivation, then, was simple enough – these soldiers would entice men to join on the premise of a lucrative bounty, which was usually more than they made in one month of work at Freedman’s Village. In reality, the promised bounty would most likely end up in the hands of agents or speculators. However, the members of the 23rd USCT who brought the “fresh fish” into Camp Casey would, in fact, receive a bounty for each recruit obtained.
It is also important to note that these events took place before July of 1864 when congress passed legislation making it legal for Northern states to recruit black Southerners and count them towards their state quotas – a practice accomplished by paying them sizeable bounties and which usually caused such excesses as those which occurred at Freedman’s Village. Perhaps the motivating factor, then, lies in the issue of unequal pay for USCTs, which had not been fully resolved by March of 1864. Perhaps the bounty hunters were simply trying to compensate for the smaller amount of money that they were paid each month.
As Nichols concluded his report, he stated that if the African American men of Freedman’s Village were to be recruited, “let it not be by a squad of Black Soldiers who have been promised so much bounty on the obtaining of a certain number of Recruits.”
As for the inhabitants of Freedman’s Village, nothing positive seems to have emerged from their ordeal. We may never know how many of the members of the 23rd USCT that were killed at the Battle of the Crater were former residents of Freedman’s Village, forced to enlist and fight against their wishes. Nichols described the overall reaction as follows:
“It has filled these people with such fear the communication is almost entirely broken off between this Village and ‘Camp Todd’ (another of our Camps bordered on the ‘Govt Farms’ under this command) this Camp being situated beyond the barracks where the Colored Regt is situated.”

Residents of Freedman's Village
Injustices such as those committed at Freedman’s Village should be inculcated into the larger narrative of black military service as the Sesquicentennial continues. The overall narrative of brave African American men rising up and striking a decisive blow for freedom will not be diminished and our understanding of their service will be deepened.  

Friday, September 21, 2012

Remembering Sacred Honor

This week marks one year since my book was released. It has received many nice reviews and attention from a variety of sources, but this "review" might just prove to be the most meaningful.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Did Arlington's Slaves Rise Up To Fight Robert E. Lee?

Most students of the American Civil War are familiar with the story of how Arlington National Cemetery was created – in the spring of 1864 when the need arose for a new burial ground near the nation’s capital, Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs sought to kill two birds with one stone. By locating the cemetery on the grounds of the Arlington estate, Meigs found ample ground for new grave space and had the opportunity to ensure that his prewar acquaintance -- Robert E. Lee – would not be able to come back to the place he had called home for 30 years. A lesser-known but equally compelling story related to Civil War Arlington is that of Freedman’s Village, where newly-freed slaves came by the thousands to work government farms and receive a rudimentary education. Sojourner Truth worked at Freedman’s Village for one year during the war, and many Northerners eagerly followed the accounts of the famous contraband camp on the grounds of the Custis-Lee Mansion.

Freedman's Village, 1864.
The tale of Union war dead (many of whose deaths could be traced back directly to Lee’s army) being buried at Lee’s home and a contraband camp situated on the site where approximately 60 slaves had toiled is rich in irony.

But what if the irony went even deeper than that?
What if thousands of United States Colored Troops were taught the rudiments of being a soldier on the grounds of Arlington as well?

Enter the tantalizing mystery of Camp Casey.

I first ran across the story of Camp Casey when I joined the recreated 23rd USCT last year. The original 23rd was organized at Camp Casey in late 1863 was sent south from there in 1864, just in time for the Overland Campaign. But the 23rd was far from the only African American unit trained at Camp Casey. The 2nd, 28th, and 29th USCT (to name a few) spent time at Camp Casey as well.

So where exactly was Camp Casey? Well, that’s the question I’ve been trying to answer for quite some time now. Here is a sample of what I’ve been able to piece together so far:
We know that you could see Arlington House from it. A soldier in the 1st Battalion, New York Sharpshooters wrote in late 1863 that Camp Casey was “in sight of Rebel General Lee’s residence.” Robert Hamilton, a correspondent for the Weekly Anglo-African, wrote that Camp Casey was “situated on Arlington Heights not very far from the late residence of the far-famed rebel Gen. Lee.”

A further piece of the puzzle comes into clarity from the chronicler of the 29th USCT, Edward A. Miller, Jr. who places Camp Casey “near Fort Albany, one of the installations built to defend the capital.”                                                                                                                           

Circumstantial evidence comes from a War Department document from November of 1864 authorizing Charles Syphax to sell food and other items “to the soldiers within the limits of Camp Casey, Va until further orders.”  Charles Syphax oversaw the dining room at Arlington and lived on property adjoining the original 1,100 acre estate. Given the fact that Syphax was in his 70’s in 1864, Camp Casey must have been near his residence.

Confusing matters is the fact that there were at least two other camps in the nearby area named after Silas Casey – one in Bladensburg, MD and another near Shooter’s Hill in Alexandria. Both are too far away to see Arlington House and nowhere near the location of Fort Albany. This makes sense because Casey commanded the Provisional Brigade, which unbrigaded USCT units were a part of.
I have examined at least a dozen different maps of Arlington and the surrounding area and Camp Casey doesn’t appear on any of them.

Defenses of Washington. Note the location of Ft. Albany and its proximity to Arlington House.
 However, it seems safe to say that Camp Casey was very near – possibly on – the estate that Lee lived at for over 30 years. If Camp Casey can be pinpointed to be on the Arlington site it would add yet poignant and significant dimension to a place already steeped in Civil War lore.

It also leads to a very tantalizing question – if Camp Casey was on the Arlington estate and  many slaves from the nearby area came to the camp to enlist in the Union army, did any of the Custis slaves whom Lee would have known very well take up arms and fight against him?

To illustrate how amazing this possibility could prove to be, let me illustrate by giving a hypothetical. Let’s suppose that one of the male slaves at Arlington ventured into Camp Casey and joined one of the units that would soon be embroiled in the Battle of the Crater. By some miracle, he survives the battle and is taken prisoner. As he is being marched to the rear, he walks by Lee and some of his staff who have ridden up to take in the situation.
And then it happens.
Their eyes meet.
Lee is utterly taken aback by that fact that he recognizes one of the black faces being paraded by him.
It may seem far-fetched, but we do know that nearby slaves did wonder into Camp Casey and enlist. We even have records of the commandant of Freedman’s Village complaining that members of the 23rd USCT were going into the contraband camp and forcing young male slaves to join the army (the 23rd took the highest casualty rate of any USCT unit at the Crater). We may have even found a Custis slave who joined a USCT unit (more on that later).

As far-fetched as it may sound, my mind starts to race when I contemplate the significance of such a hypothetical encounter!
My search for Camp Casey and the underlying implications of its location, then, will be a major feature of my research as my stint as a Park Ranger at Arlington House continues. Any breakthroughs will be reported on The Sable Arm, and if anyone out there has any insights on this matter, please shoot them my way.

Until then, the quest continues…

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

You, Me & Bobby Lee

In the wake of much public outcry from the tens and tens of people who read The Sable Arm, an update from your humble blogospondent:

Greetings and happy summer to everyone!
I apologize for the dearth of posts over the past three months – life has been crazy as of late.

I’ve had the privilege of working at Arlington House: The Robert E. Lee Memorial since May and I’ve had a blast delving into the history of America’s most hallowed ground. For those of you who may be interested, we will be commemorating the 181st anniversary of the marriage of Mary Custis to God’s Second Son (Robert E. Lee to you mere mortals) this Saturday with period dancing, burnt sacrifices and offerings to Ole Marse Robert, and more!

OK, I lied about the whole sacrifice thing, but it will still be a great event…

Also going into effect soon will be a Civil War tour led by yours truly that will explore the history of Arlington House during the Civil War and visit the graves of such Civil War luminaries as John Gibbon, Phil Sheridan, Johnny Clem, Fighting Joe Wheeler, EOC Ord, Hiram Berdan, Phil Kearny and more!
One fascinating aspect of working at Arlington House is getting to know the little-told tale of Freedman’s Village, a contraband camp that was transformed into the first home that thousands of former slaves would live in as free people until it was shut down by the government in 1900.

In terms of the USCT story, over 1,500 USCTs are buried in sections 27, 23, and 13 including Medal of Honor recipients from New Market Heights. In addition, Fort Corcoran, training ground of the 107th USCT (seen below in this famous photograph) was located on the former grounds of the estate that Robert E. Lee knew as home for 30 years.

I hope to post more on Freedmen’s Village and United States Colored Troops buried at Arlington in the near future, but until then please stop by and say hey.

More to follow…

Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Discussion Question (Don’t Worry, It Won’t Be Graded)

Traditional histories of the American Civil War tend to state that the Union success that cemented the re-election of Abraham Lincoln was the capture of Atlanta at the beginning of September, 1864. However, if one is to believe Dr. Gary Gallagher’s thesis that citizens of both the Union and Confederacy always had their eyes glued on what was happening in the eastern theater and gave it more importance than what was happening in the western theater, what impact – if any – would the Union successes gained during the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm (including New Market Heights), fought September 29-30, 1864, have had on Northern morale and the re-election possibilities for the President?


Thursday, March 8, 2012

New Market Heights, The Game?

Why yes, actually.

All things considered, it doesn't look too shabby either...

Great detail on the flag.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Profile in Courage: Milton M. Holland, Part 2

When we last left Sgt. Milton Holland of the 5th USCT, he had described his life up until the Battle of the Crater, where he was “sorely disappointed” that he had not had a chance to participate in the attack. In the latter half of his autobiographical letter (oddly described in the third person) he describes the action that won him the Medal of Honor and a chance at promotion to the rank of Captain – the Battle of New Market Heights:
In the latter part of August, 1864, his regiment moved to the right in front of Richmond at Deep Bottom. It was at this point that his regiment made its brilliant and famous charge on the 29th day of September, 1864. And it was there that Sergeant Major Holland led the assaulting company of his regiment in their famous charge. Brilliant as had been its past record, and courageous as the men had shown themselves to be on other fields, this one occasion seems to have been reserved as the crucial test of their fighting qualities. When they met the enemy, they fought hand to hand with a desperate valor that beggared description. The shot and shell of the enemy mowed down the front ranks of the colored troops like blades of grass beneath the sickle’s deadly touch. But, with a courage that knew no bounds, the men stood like granite figures. They routed the enemy and captured the breastworks. The courage displayed by young Holland’s regiment on this occasion called for the highest praise from General Grant who personally rode over the battlefield in company with Generals Butler and Draper.
Holland was wounded in this battle but did not leave the field. Later in the day the regiment made a charge at Fort Harrison to relieve a brigade of white troops that was unable to get back to the Union lines.
Immediately after the charge at New Market Heights, Holland was examined on the field by order of General Butler and passed for captain, but was, on account of color, refused his commission by the War Department. Twice he was presented with medals which were awarded him for bravery and distinguished services on the field of battle. One of these medals was voted him by Congress and forwarded to him through President Lincoln, and the other was awarded by General B. F. Butler [the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Butler Medal.]
He served with his regiment at Dutch Gap until October 4th, when the regiment went over to Fair Oaks, or Seven Pines, where the Union forces achieved a victory of which they were afterwards deprived by a successful ruse of the enemy.
In December, 1864, the regiment went with the great naval fleet under General Butler to Fortress Fisher at the attempt to break up the blockade-running. [When the] regiment landed at Fortress Fisher, they were compelled to withdraw on account of the insufficiency of support. They returned in January, 1865, under command of General Terry when this fort was captured.
He was with his regiment on its marches through Wilmington, Bentonville, Goldsboro, and Raleigh. He was present when General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered to General W. T. Sherman, and it was here that his regiment received the sad tidings of the death of President Lincoln, when men of iron nerves shed tears like broken-hearted children.

After the war, Holland was employed by the Federal Government, working in the Auditor’s Office. He was eventually promoted to chief of collection for the 16th District. In the late 1800’s he founded the Alpha Insurance Company in the District of Columbia, which was one of the earliest insurance companies in the nation owned and operated by an African American. He died from a heart attack on May 15, 1910 and is buried with his wife Virginia in Arlington National Cemetery.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Oh Jimmy, Where Art Thou?

So judging from the amount of hits that this website has received over the past few months, it seems as if people have stopped checking in to see just where in the hell their beloved blogospondent has disappeared to.

And I can hardly blame them!
So since I have an off day today, I figured I’d fill you in on a little bit of what life has been like over the past 5 months or so.
Passing the 13th Amendment is hard work.
First of all, yes, the rumors are true – I was involved in the filming of Spielberg’s new Lincoln movie. I filmed for about 30 hours or so (not in one day, of course) and it was exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. Spielberg truly is a master at crafting a scene and explaining to both actors and extras exactly what he wants to see them do. The attention to detail that was put into the production was truly astounding – for Exhibit A, look at what they did to yours truly!

I’m also serving as a historical consultant for the upcoming miniseries To Appomattox, which will be kicking into production this year!

The New Market Heights book is selling well and I’m glad to report that it’s now available in a Kindle Edition!

Also keeping me busy is my new job as an adjunct professor at Germanna Community College. I have the privilege of teaching a great group of students a class on the Military History of the Civil War

In other news, here’s a quick update on what my reenactment unit – the 23rd USCT – is up to:

Saturday, February 25th we’ll be hosting John Hennessy in a program entitled "Bridging the Chasm: A Public Conversation about Slavery, the Civil War, and its Complicated Legacy," on February 25th at 12 noon at the John J. Wright Museum.

Saturday, March 10th we’ll be at Battle of Hampton Roads, Mariner Museum.

Saturday, March 31st at Museum of the Confederacy at Appomattox Grand Opening - We are one the color guards for this event 10:00 a.m.

I’ll also be speaking at the OAH/NCPH Meeting in Milwaukee on Saturday April 21, 2012 as part of a session entitled “Civil War Battlefields: Imagining the Possibilities after 150 Years" with Joan Zenzen, Robert Sutton, & Ashley Whitehead.
I’ve also been invited to speak at a symposium at Antietam National Battlefield on April 28, 2012 titled "The Dignity of Freedom: Pathways through the Civil War and Beyond," with Cheryl LaRoche, Edna Medford, Mark Neely, and Edie Wallace .
Things are busy right now, but I promise – more good stuff will be coming on this blog!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

George Lucas, White Officers, & “Real Heroes”

“The officers of negro troops have not received the credit to which they are so deservedly entitled, and for which the great service they rendered their country in its darkest hour of peril demands.” Maj. Edward Main, 3rd United States Colored Cavalry

When John McMurray sat down to pen his reminiscences of his experiences as a Union officer during the Civil War, he was 78 years old. Originally written for his local newspaper, McMurray published his memoir in 1916, just four years before his death. McMurray had joined up in 1862, serving in the 135th Pennsylvania, the 57th Pennsylvania, and the 6th United States Colored Infantry. Yet it was his service in the last regiment that he took the greatest pride in – so much so that he titled his book Recollections of a Colored Troop.
While it may surprise you that a former white officer would delight in calling himself a “colored troop,” it is worth remembering that approximately 7,000 white officers served in the USCT (supervised by the Bureau of Colored Troops) and that the vast majority of them underwent strict examinations at the Free Military School.

Understand my annoyance, then, with a comment made by George Lucas concerning his upcoming film about the Tuskegee Airmen:
It's an all-black movie. There's no major white roles in it at all. It's one of the first, all-black action pictures ever made. It's not Glory where you have a lot of white officers running these guys into cannon fire. They were real heroes.
While Lucas was making a decent point about how Hollywood has largely ignored the important role that African Americans have played in many of the nation’s conflicts, I don’t think he had to disparage one film in order to promote his own.

Please don’t think I’m saying that white officers in the USCT were somehow better than the men they led – there were some REALLY bad ones who treated their men like dirt (and in some instances shot them for the smallest infraction).

But let us not forget that these officers also ran the risk of being executed by Confederates for inciting slave rebellion if they were captured.
And at New Market Heights, where John McMurray received a brevet promotion to Major for his gallantry, the reason that so many enlisted men earned the Medal of Honor was that all of their officers had been killed or wounded and they had to take charge of their units and lead them through the rest of the battle.

They were all real heroes too.