Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Civil War Odyssey of George Washington’s Will

Two historically priceless documents, the wills of George and Martha Washington are housed in the Fairfax County Courthouse in Fairfax, Virginia. 

During the Civil War, Federal troops occupied the Fairfax area.  The Clerk of Court instructed his wife to take George Washington’s will to the home of their daughter near Warrenton, Virginia.  The will was placed in a chest, which also contained family silver, buried in the wine cellar and covered with coal. In 1862, the will was taken to Richmond for safekeeping. The will was folded when it was moved to Richmond for safekeeping. As a result, the brittle pages were damaged and every page was broken. In an attempt to prevent further breakage, some of the broken pages were sewn together with needle and thread. In 1865 the will was returned to the Fairfax County Courthouse.  In 1910 William Berwick, restored George Washington's will using a conservation process called crêpeline lamination. This technique involved coating each page of the will with a paste of wheat starch and water and then embedding a fine silk net into the paste.

During the Civil War, Martha Washington's will remained at the Fairfax Courthouse. In 1862, the courthouse was vandalized by Union troops and Martha Washington's will was stolen by Brevet Brigadier General David Thomson, who shortly before his death, gave the will to his daughter Mary Thomson. Miss Thompson sold the will to Wall Street financier and avid art collector, J. Pierpont Morgan.  The Commonwealth of Virginia pursued the will's return to the Supreme Court of the United States of America. In 1915, prior to the Supreme Court hearing the case, Morgan's son returned the stolen will to the Commonwealth of Virginia.

A quick look at women doctors and medicine in the Civil War for the general reader. Technologically, the American Civil War was the first “modern” war, but medically it still had its roots in the Middle Ages. In both the North and the South, thousands of women served as nurses to help wounded and suffering soldiers and civilians. A few women served as doctors, a remarkable feat in an era when sex discrimination prevented women from pursuing medical education, and those few who did were often obstructed by their male colleagues at every turn.

Monday, May 04, 2015

George Armstrong Custer and African-Americans

Isaiah Dorman

In his 1984 book, Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn, Evan S. Connell talks at length about Isaiah Dorman a black interpreter with Custer.  While earlier historians either omit reference to Dorman or pass over his role quickly, Connell spends several pages talking about his origins, his marriage to an Indian woman, his friendly relations with the Indians and his slow and painful death at their hands when they believed he had betrayed them by working for the bluecoats. (Connell, 25-27)

Elsewhere Connell quotes Custer’s views on blacks, “I am in favor of elevating the negro to the extent of his capacity and intelligence, and of our doing everything in our power to advance the race morally and mentally as well as physically, also socially….As to trusting the negro…with the most sacred and responsible privilege, the right of suffrage, I would as soon think of elevating an Indian Chief to the Popedom in Rome.” (Connell, 125)

Connell discusses the life and lot of black soldiers on the frontier, noting at one point that the high desertion rate in the U.S. Army did not apply to black soldiers.  “In 1867, for example, twenty -five percent of the army simply vanished….It has been suggested that they (black soldiers) could not easily merge into frontier communities and for the most of them a soldier’s uniform represented a social step forward.  The only thing certain is that very few buffalo soldiers missed roll call.” (Connell, 151)

Connell’s breakthrough inclusion of blacks in the Custer saga mirrors broader trends which saw the general emergence of history’s “invisible people” (blacks, women, minorities) into popular and academic histories.

Views of Custer have changed over succeeding generations. Custer has been portrayed as a callous egotist, a bungling egomaniac, a genocidal war criminal, and the puppet of faceless forces. For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values. Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history.