Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Free Blacks in Prince William County Virginia in 1860

 The Robinson Farm

Although only about one tenth the size of the slave population, Virginia had the largest free black population in the Union (some 30,000 plus).  Freedom was the greatest gift a master could bestow upon a slave, but the situation of the free black was only a little better than that of the slave.

Free blacks could not vote in Virginia, they were required to register every three years, and to pay for certificates of freedom.  It was unlawful for free blacks to organize their own schools.  Free blacks were feared and mistrusted.  They were accused of being unwilling to work, of spreading discontent among the slaves, and of causing a disproportionate amount of crime.  Several Virginia governors advocated that all free blacks be forcibly expelled from the state.  The Assembly did not enact this legislation but did pass laws providing for voluntary re-enslavement.

Despite stifling restrictions, many free blacks managed to improve their lot.  A freed slave named Jim Robinson, the illegitimate son of Landon Carter of Pittsylvania, operated a drover’s tavern along the Alexandria and Warrenton Turnpike, near Manassas Junction.  Eventually he was able to purchase his wife and three of his five children as well as buy several hundred acres of land.  He was unable to purchase his sons Alfred and James, both of whom were talented stonemasons, who had been sold south and eventually ended up in New Orleans.  James’ fate is unknown, but Alfred returned to Northern Virginia in 1888.

The Robinson family continued to work their farm after the Civil War.  The farm was sold to the Department of the Interior in 1934 to become part of the Manassas National Battlefield.  Prior to selling their farm, the Robinson family acted as informal stewards of their part of the battlefield, taking Confederate remains to a small cemetery to join an estimated 500 unknown soldiers. The family philosophy was summed up in the phrase, “Just remember, these remains belonged to someone’s son who did not want to die in this manner.”

White Virginians wanted to believe that their slaves were basically happy, to the point that they would prefer to serve their masters rather than to choose their own freedom.  

Slave flight, “running away,” the most common form of slave resistance, called into question the notion of benevolent paternalism and struck particularly hard at the idea that slaves were basically happy.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

President Taft Gets a Bumpy Ride.

 On July 21, 1911 President William Howard Taft was scheduled to address a group of Union and Confederate veterans in Manassas, Virginia at the Jubilee of Peace, celebrating national reconciliation on the fiftieth anniversary of the First Battle ofManassas.  At the suggestion of his military aide, Major Archibald Butt, the President decided to motor to Manassas rather than take the train.  Numerous Congressmen bent on making political points with the visiting veterans accompanied the President.  The Presidential party, due in Manassas at four o’clock, set out from the White House in four motor cars at half past twelve.  About five miles from the town of Fairfax clouds began to gather, and the caravan made speed to reach the town before the storm broke.  The storm was short and sharp, a regular cloud burst. 

The President had lunch in Fairfax and then set out again for Manassas before three.  According to Major Butt, “[we] were bumped and jolted over the worst road I have ever seen” before coming to a motorcar stranded in a stream filled with frantic people.  It was part of the Presidential party, a car filled with Senators.  Major Butt waded into the stream and found the lowest point.  The rest of the cars proceeded to ford the stream, laughing at the stranded Senators as they passed.  The laughter was short lived.  The party soon reached Little Rocky Creek, a stream even more treacherous than the first.  Another car was put out of commission.  The two remaining cars retraced their bumpy route and re-crossed the first stream trying to make a detour that locals said would take the President into Manassas.  As the party re-crossed the first stream yet another car stuck fast in the water.  From here the trip was uneventful, except for twice frightening horses on the road.  Just after passing Centreville the President’s car ran into dust, for between there and Manassas not a drop of rain had fallen.  At the edge of town the President’s car was met by a troop of cavalry and through clouds of dust the President was escorted into town.

 According to Major Butt, once at the Peace Jubilee the President gave, “…a flubdub speech about the Blue and Gray which brought tears to the eyes of the veterans of both sides and smiles to the faces of politicians.  Every politician has a canned speech up his sleeve for these reunions, and while they all smile while someone else makes them, yet they take themselves most seriously when making them themselves.”

While the President gave his speech two members of his staff scurried about trying to see what could be done about getting back to Washington by train.  They succeeded in finding a railroad magnate with a private railway car, which he put at the disposal of the President.  When the President arrived at the little depot at seven, there were gathered most of the party that had set out from Washington, bedraggled, wet and thirsty.  They had arrived in carts, in buggies, and in “any old vehicle which they could hire along the road.”  

General George S. Patton once said, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” Here are four stories about the history of the world IF wars we know about happened differently or IF wars that never happened actually took place.

The First Civil War Peace Jubilee

President Taft addresses the Peace Jubilee

On July 21, 1911, the town of Manassas, Virginia hosted a Peace Jubilee to mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil War's first great battle. George Carr Round, a Union veteran who settled in Manassas, is credited with organizing this gesture of reconciliation.

According to a contemporary account, “The Peace Jubilee, when a northern President, William Howard Taft, and a southern Governor, William H. Mann, of Virginia, shook hands during the exercises, like the 1,000 veterans of blue and gray present, symbolized the cementing of the two sections.”  This was the first time in history when survivors of a great battle met fifty years after and exchanged friendly greetings at the place of actual combat.

At noon on July 21, the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Manassas, the veterans moved to the top of Henry Hill. When the signal was given, the veterans marched forward with hands outstretched.  For five minutes they shook hands.  The day was capped off by an address by President Taft. 

According to Major Archibald Butt, President Taft’s military aide, once at the Peace Jubilee the President gave, “…a flub dub speech about the Blue and Gray which brought tears to the eyes of the veterans of both sides and smiles to the faces of politicians.  Every politician has a canned speech up his sleeve for these reunions, and while they all smile while someone else makes them, yet they take themselves most seriously when making them themselves.”


General George S. Patton once said, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” Here are four stories about the history of the world IF wars we know about happened differently or IF wars that never happened actually took place.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Death of Major General Philip Kearny (The Battle of Chantilly)

Major General Philip Kearny

Union Major General Philp Kearny lost an arm in the Mexican War and commanded French troops in the Italian War. Philip Kearny had the most combat experience of any General of either side at the start of the Civil War. Kearny took command of the First New Jersey Brigade, and trained it to be an efficient fighting force.  At the Battle of Williamsburg, Kearny led a charge against Confederate troops with a sword in his one hand, and the reins of his horse in his teeth.  He was beloved and respected by common soldiers.  In August, 1862, General Philip Kearny led his division at the Second Battle of Manassas, which saw the Union Army routed and nearly destroyed.  Kearny retreated toward Washington and fought the pursuing Confederates on September 1, 1862, at the Battle of Chantilly.

Responding to warnings about his safety, he said, “The Rebel bullet that can kill me has not yet been molded.” Encountering Confederate troops, Kearny refused a demand to surrender and was shot while trying to retreat. He died instantly. Confederate Maj. General A.P. Hill said, “…he deserved a better fate than to die in the mud.” Kearny’s body was sent to the Union line by Robert E. Lee under a flag of truce, and his death was mourned by officers on both sides. Kearny’s body was embalmed and sent north for burial.  Embalming methods advanced rapidly during the war.  Dr. Thomas Holmes received a commission from the Army Medical Corps to embalm the corpses of dead Union officers to return to their families. Military authorities also permitted private embalmers to work in military-controlled areas.

Kearny was buried in New York. In 1912, his remains were exhumed and re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery. The re-interment drive was spearheaded by Charles F. Hopkins, who had served under Kearny. There is a statue in Kearny’s honor at Arlington National Cemetery, one of only two equestrian statues at Arlington.  The statue was dedicated by President Woodrow Wilson in November, 1914.  The statue was refurbished in 1996 by the non-profit New Jersey, General Philip Kearny Memorial Committee. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Grand Army of the Republic 1866 -1956

Established in 1866, The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) was a fraternal organization of Union veterans.  This photograph shows Union veterans marching at the 36th National Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) in Washington, D.C. on October, 1902. The organization disbanded in 1956 with the death of the last Union veteran.

The last Union veteran, Willard Woolson died in 1956 at the age of 106. Woolson was a drummer boy.  The last Union combat soldier, James Hard, died in 1953 at the age of 109. 

Claims and counter-claims swirl around the age and status of the last veterans, both Union and Confederate. The last verifiable Confederate veteran is thought to have been Pleasant Riggs Crump (1847-1951), although several men subsequently claimed to be the “oldest” Confederate soldier.  Crump was from Alabama and served at the siege of Petersburg.  

The last American slave is thought to have been Sylvester Magee who died in 1971 at the purported age of 130. There is no birth certificate to verify his birth date.

General George S. Patton once said, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” Here are four stories about the history of the world IF wars we know about happened differently or IF wars that never happened actually took place.

Love, Sex, and Marriage in the Civil War

A brief look at love, sex, and marriage in the Civil War. The book covers courtship, marriage, birth control and pregnancy, divorce, slavery and the impact of the war on social customs.

Monday, August 07, 2017

George Washington’s Church During the Civil War

Christ Church

While many churches were turned into hospitals and stables during the occupation of Alexandria, Virginia, Christ Church’s reputation as George Washington’s place of worship preserved it as a church. 

Union Army Lt. Charles Haydon found Alexandria, “A quaint, old looking place….There is not a half hour in the day that I do not have his (George Washington’s) presence associated with the surrounding scenery.”  Lt Haydon mused, “It would do us all good to spend an hour at the grave of Washington in tears over the fate of our country.” Union army chaplains conducted services in the church, where a Union army congregation grew up.  Most of the original parishioners worshipped with other Southern sympathizers elsewhere.  

Union soldiers vandalized the grave of Eleanor Wren at Christ Church, changing her age at death from “32” to “132”.  According to contemporary reports, “The streets were crowded with intoxicated soldiery; murder was of almost hourly occurrence, and disturbances, robbery, and rioting were constant.  The sidewalks and docks were covered with drunken men, women, and children, and quiet citizens were afraid to venture (out)”.

By the summer of 1863 the Alexandria Gazette reported, old residents of Alexandria had mostly departed.  When the war ended, Christ Church was returned to its parishioners with its interior intact.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

The Remeum: The Remey Mausoleum

Remains of the Remeum

The “Remeum” was a huge family mausoleum erected, on land belonging to Pohick Church in Lorton Virginia, by controversial Baha’i faith leader, Charles Mason Remey. The Remeum was constructed over a twenty year period (1937-1958) until a disagreement between the Pohick Church and Remey resulted in legal action.  The mausoleum was designed by Charles Remey as a memorial to his family’s contributions to America.  According to the Washington Evening Star and Daily News of April 9, 1973, the mausoleum was planned as a magnificent complex of walled courtyards, underground chambers with soaring vaulted ceilings, marble reliefs and statues, carved pillars, chapels and burial vaults.” Remey devoted most of his fortune to building this burial complex.  Some two million bricks were used in its construction.  Remey planned to build a huge three story structure above the underground mausoleum which would have dwarfed Pohick Church.

The completed sections of the Remeum complex included outer courtyards, an atrium, and the underground mausoleum. Costing millions of dollars, the complex featured bas reliefs and sculptures by the famous American sculptor Felix de Weldon, who created the iconic flag-raising Iwo Jima U.S. Marine Corps memorial located in Rossyln, Virginia. There were also sculptures by other artists decorating the various tombs, alcoves, and hallways of the gargantuan structure. Historic events in which the Remey family participated, from the landing of the Pilgrims to Pearl Harbor, were depicted.  Two massive sleeping lions sculpted by Felix de Weldon guarded the entrance to the mausoleum.  Inside the memorial chapel were life size statues depicting “Faith”, and “Charity.”   Another series of carved reliefs illustrated the lives of saints. The complex was lit by electric chandeliers, had an extensive ventilation system, and plumbing.

Unguarded in what was then rural Virginia, the Remeum was frequently vandalized.  Hundreds of vandals defaced the complex over the years.  Fragments of smashed marble reliefs and statues littered the floors.  Discarded beer cans and whiskey bottles were mixed with broken funeral urns and the ashes of the dead.  Statues too large to steal were chipped or painted.  With construction halted, Remey relinquished all rights to the Pohick Church in 1968. Remey was given five years to remove anything of value from the mausoleum.  Remey’s brother-in-law, a navy Admiral,  transferred the remains of fifteen family members to Pompey, New York.  Remey’s wife Gertrude was reinterred in the Pohick Church Cemetery.  The marker over her grave appears to be a marble plaque from the Remeum.  The complex was dismantled over a period of ten years, being finally bulldozed over in 1983.

Northern Virginia’s cemeteries are time capsules reflecting the region’s 350 years of history. They offer a glimpse into the lives and fortunes of the famous, the infamous, and those who are remembered for loving their families, tending to their business, and quietly supporting their communities. There are some 1,000 cemeteries in Northern Virginia, ranging from small family plots to huge national cemeteries covering hundreds of acres. This book presents the history of the region through the medium of cemeteries. Every gravestone has a story to tell. Confederate raiders, freedmen, eccentrics, and nation builders lived and died in Northern Virginia. Sometimes, tombstones are all that remain of their stories. Often, finding their tombstones is the first step in rediscovering the stories of these figures.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Creation of Fort Belvoir, Virginia (1918)

     The federal government acquired the Belvoir Peninsula in 1910 with plans to develop the area into a reformatory.  Local citizens banded together with patriotic organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in opposing the establishment of a reformatory so close to Mount Vernon.  The reformatory idea was scrapped and Congress transferred the property to the War Department in 1912, following a request by the U.S. Army's Engineer School to use the area as a training site.  The Army’s Engineer School, located in Washington, needed field training areas and rifle ranges.  The Belvoir Peninsula provided challenging terrain where soldiers could build pontoon bridges and conduct rifle practice.

     America entered World War I in April, 1917.  In January 1918, camp A.A. Humphreys, named after Union Civil War General and former Chief of Engineer Corps Andrew A. Humphreys, was established on the Belvoir Peninsula.  Within only four months of the start of construction, Camp A.A. Humphreys was in operation. Over the course of eleven months, extensive camp facilities were constructed, with most of the heavy labor being done by segregated African-American service battalions.  To accommodate the twenty thousand troops who were to use the camp, seven hundred and ninety temporary wood-frame buildings were constructed. A newly constructed dam across Accotink Creek and a water filtration plant assured a steady flow of fresh water.  Transportation systems and utilities were also improved.  The unpaved Washington-Richmond Highway was surfaced in concrete within six months and a plank road was built linking the camp to the Highway. Standard gauge and narrow gauge railways followed.  Building these transportation systems facilitated deliveries to the camp, and provided engineer training experience for troops being sent to Europe. During 1918, some sixty thousand troops received training in engineering, trench warfare, and gas warfare.  After the war Camp A.A. Humphreys became a permanent installation and was renamed Fort Belvoir in the 1930s.