Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Living Legacy of “Councillor” Carter’s Deed of Gift: Nimrod Burke, 23rd USCT

On September 5, 1791 Robert “Councillor” Carter III – scion of one of the wealthiest slave-owning families in all of American history – filed his famous “Deed of Gift” with Virginia’s Northumberland District Court, announcing his intention to free over 450 of the slaves that toiled at 16 plantations under his care.
Robert Carter III

It was the single largest act of liberation in American history prior to the Emancipation Proclamation and has been covered in Andrew Levy’s moving book The First Emancipator: Slavery, Religion, the Quiet Revolution of Robert Carter (2005).

Of the many slave families whose freedom was set in motion with the Deed of Gift (which would go into effect in stages over many years) was the Burke family of Leo Plantation (later renamed Oatlands) in Loudoun County.  “Baptist Billy” Burke was the “most trusted emissary” of Robert Carter III and around 1795 his family was emancipated. Burke's family was living at the Bull Run Quarter of Leo Plantation, which was located in Prince William County near the present day Manassas battlefield.

Burke’s great-grandson was named Nimrod Burke, who was born in Prince William County in 1836. While you may not be familiar with the name of Nimrod Burke, if you have studied African American participation in the American Civil War you have probably seen his picture before (as a member of the re-created 23rd USCT, Nimrod Burke has become the “poster child” for our living history group).  Burke was one of 54 known African Americans to fight for the Union cause from Prince William County, but unlike most of his comrades-in-arms from Prince William, Burke was born a free man – thanks to the Deed of Gift.

Nimrod Burke, Co. F, 23rd USCT
Burke resided in Prince William until 1854, when he moved to Ohio with his parents. The 1860 census lists Nimrod as a “mulatto” whose occupation was simply recorded as “farmer.”

He was 25 years old when the Civil War began and, like many African American men his age, he tried to enlist and fight for the Union cause. However, in 1861 the policy of the Lincoln administration was that this was to be a white man’s war only. With a direct route to military service blocked, Burke found a roundabout way to join the war effort.

The man that Burke was working for in Ohio prior to the outbreak of war became an officer in the 36th Ohio. This man knew that Nimrod had been raised in Virginia and would be familiar with the country that they would soon be fighting in, so he hired Burke as a teamster and scout for the regiment before they embarked for Virginia.

Burke continued to serve as an army scout until March of 1864. When the 36th Ohio was garrisoned close to Washington D.C., he enlisted in the 23rd United States Colored Troops and was appointed 1st Sergeant of Company F. The 23rd was organized at Camp Casey, which sat near the present day location of the Pentagon near Robert E. Lee’s beloved Arlington House.

The 23rd was the regiment that sustained the heaviest losses of any USCT unit at the Battle of the Crater, but fortunately for Burke, he was in the hospital at the time with what his service record calls “general debility.”

Burke returned to health and rejoined his until in October of 1864 and was at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865 when Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia. This was particularly significant for Burke since John Carter (a Lee ancestor) had once owned members of the Burke family.

He was mustered out of the service in Brazos, Texas on November 30, 1865. Burke lived for nearly 50 years after the war and died on July 15, 1914. He is buried at Greenlawn Cemetery in Chillicothe, Ohio. 

In a sense, Nimrod Burke continued to carry the torch of the man who once owned his forebears – and for that reason, among many others, they are both worthy of our attention.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Robert E. Lee's Daughter Laments the Great War

NOTE: This post originally appeared on my WWI blog Over There and has received enough attention to warrant re-posting here for my Civil War readers. It was originally posted on November 25, 2012.

When the maelstrom of war swept through Europe during the summer of 1914, many vacationing Americans were caught up the in tide of events and found themselves unwitting witnesses to the opening rounds of the First World War. One such Americans was none other than Mary Custis Lee – the oldest daughter of the famous Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Ms. Lee had been travelling abroad for nearly a decade by the time that war broke out and had resided in France, Germany, Italy, and even Egypt. She happened to find herself in Germany when that country violated Belgian neutrality and the dominoes began to fall, ensuring that what many thought would be a short European war would develop into a global conflict. Wisely deciding that she had better return to the United States, Ms. Lee managed to work her way through Holland to London, where she gave a fascinating interview to the New York Times as she awaited transport to the U.S.

Mary Custis Lee, 1914
The interview took place at Hyde Park Hotel on October 21, 1914. By this point in the early days of the war, the “Miracle of the Marne” had taken place and the race to the race to the sea had just finished. The horrors of large-scale trench warfare that would define the conflict had not begun, yet Ms. Lee speaks of the soldiers suffering in the trenches.
From the 22 October 1914 issue of The New York Times:

LONDON, Oct. 21.—Miss Mary Lee, the only surviving daughter of Gen. Robert E. Lee, has just reached London from Hamburg via Rotterdam, and to-day she gave the correspondent of THE NEW YORK TIMES a striking interview at Hyde Park Hotel, where she will stop until she sails for America.
I am a soldier's daughter," she said, "and descended from a long line of soldiers, but what I have seen of this war, and what I can foresee of the misery which must follow, have made me very nearly a peace-at-any-price woman."

A battalion of Lord Kitchener's new army was marching by directly beneath the room in which Miss Lee was speaking. They started to sing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," and Miss Lee, who had never heard this now imperishable music hall ballad, went to the window and stood for some time silently looking at the column of khaki-clad men below her. When she turned to speak again there were tears in her eyes, and her voice broke.
"My father often used to say," she said, looking straight at a table on which was a picture of Lord Kitchener, autographed by "K. of K." himself no longer ago than last Christmas, "that war was a terrible alternative, and should be the very last. I have remembered those words in the last three months, and I often wonder and wonder with many misgivings if in this case war was the last alternative. As I say, I am a soldier's daughter, and got my first full view of life in the dark days of one of the world's great civil wars, but it has been an altering experience for me to watch, one week in Germany and the next week in England, the handsome, the strong, the brave of both countries marching away to kill or to get killed, perhaps to return no more, perhaps to return maimed and useless men. My father used to say it was not those who were killed in battle—often a quick and always a glorious death for a soldier—but those who, crippled and mangled and enfeebled, faced after the war a world that they could not understand and that had no place for them.

"I think of all of this and ask myself why must it be? What can be worth it? I feel close to the English people, and particularly close to the English Army. I have known many English officers and their wives and daughters. Last Winter, in Egypt, I had the privilege of seeing something of Lord Kitchener, and I have a high admiration for him. But much of what I see in the English press seems hysterical and without reason. The spy mania, for instance, and the senseless calling the Germans Huns and Vandals. I have known many German military men, and I cannot believe that these men are what the English imagination has painted them.
"From the beginning of the war I have been neutral. I have tried to follow President Wilson's advice in word and deed. My sympathy is with suffering wherever it exists—with the brave men who are fighting and suffering in the trenches and the brave women who, in practically all the homes of Europe, are waiting and suffering."

Mary Custis Lee, the last surviving child of Gen. Lee, would live to see the full realization of trench warfare and even lived to see the Armistice. She passed away on November 22, 1918.