Wednesday, August 23, 2017

No room for nuance in NPR's narrative?

In reading a piece on NPR on how "Confederate Statues were Built to Further a 'White Supremacist Future,'" it is clear that Miles Parks only wants to further widen the divisions that have always existed in the United States and which the media, unfortunately, exploits. Parks, and the others he quotes, miss one key element in their anti-monument pep rally : Economics 101.

The chart accompanying  the article shows peaks in when monuments were erected. The majority of the Confederate monuments were erected between 1905 and 1920. (It would be interesting to see a comparable chart regarding Union monuments, but who cares about them, right? They don't fit the narrative. )

Enter the Second Industrial Revolution. In the last couple of decades of the 19th century, and the first 20 years of the 20th century, the United States entered a phase of rapid industrialization. There were numerous new discoveries and inventions, like the automobile. It boggles the mind to think of all the related industries beyond those of the plants of Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler that the automobile created. Oil had to be refined (and shipped), and gas stations, roads, dealerships, and repair shops had to be constructed. All of this would lead to the rise of inns for travelers to stay, and restaurants in which they could eat. Added to this were advances in machinery, tools, electricity and lights, etc., etc. By 1895, the United States had outpaced Great Britain for first place in manufacturing output. Economic growth between 1890 and 1910 was above 4%. People had jobs, had money to spend, and had money to give to civic projects.

There were over 50 Confederate monuments raised in the 1910s and 1920s in North Carolina. The economy could support it. When the stock market crashed in 1929, followed by the Great Depression, the erection of monuments slowed to a crawl. Parks quotes Jane Daily, an associate professor at the University of Chicago as saying "Most of the people who were involved in erecting the monuments were not necessarily erecting a monument to the past, but were rather, erecting them toward a white supremacist future." Hmm. Professor Daily, can you actually prove that, or is that just an assumption? Which people? Where is the documentation?  I've looked into the erection of North Carolina monuments for the better part of twenty years. First, there is no treasure trove of material, usually just little snippets of the past found in newspapers of the time. I've never seen an article, letter, or diary state "Oh, we're against African-Americas. Let's put up a monument so these people know who is still the master, no matter what year it is." Never.  Maybe someone was thinking that , but historians cannot get into the mind-reading business without supporting evidence.  Parks's article also seems to lead readers into thinking that these monuments just magically appeared overnight. The truth of the matter is that it took years for the groups that erected these monuments (mostly women and many of them widows and children of veterans) to raise the necessary funds. In Stanley County, it took ten years to raise the first $6,000. That was in 1880. The monument was not actually finished and dedicated until 1925. In Burke County, the base of the monument was dedicated in 1911, but the bronze soldier on top was not dedicated until 1918.

Economics is not the only subject that gets left out the discussion. What about the African-Americans in North Carolina who also participated in the fundraising or dedication of the Confederate monuments? There is a great picture of the dedication of the Unity Monument at Bennett Place in 1923 that shows an African-American man front and center, sitting on a platform, apparently listening to something going on that we cannot see. Whatever is going on has his attention, unlike the row of politicians, or veterans, behind him, who appear to be mostly asleep. I wish we knew his story. There are other well-known photographs of black men, proudly bedecked in Confederate Veteran reunion ribbons and medals. Their story is complicated, and it needs to be told. 


Certainly, there is no doubt that life for African-Americans in the Jim Crow era was horrible.  Even until quite recently, ridiculous and humiliating rules and assumptions were firmly in place, and they were as appalling and wrong then as they would be now. Not long ago, as our family watched Hidden Figures (an amazing  movie that I highly recommend both for its treatment of the space program and of social issues), our younger child was stunned that anyone would expect someone to use a different coffee carafe because of her race. She had trouble grasping that such nonsense was ever perpetuated in our country, and kept asking "Did that really happen?"  We should all be horrified that anyone could be treated the way African-Americans  (along with many other ethnic groups) have been treated. Perhaps somebody in the process of putting up a monument somewhere did have nefarious intentions, but we do not know that for certain, and if we make assumptions about those people, judging them by our standards, we are not only misunderstanding the past; we are misunderstanding actual people, whose complex lives cannot be boiled down to a slogan or shoved into a box that suits our narrative, whatever it may be.  We should recognize that the past is just as complicated as the present, that people are complicated, and that every era, like every person, is a mixed bag of both good and ill.

In the end, I think just as strong of a case can be made for economics being a driving force behind the erection of Confederate monuments in the nation as the one for the era of Jim Crow. Very likely, some of both motivations, along with others, were part of the mix; people are complicated. At least with economics, it is easier to prove. Just look at the numbers. Perhaps Dr. Dailey's remarks have been taken out of context or truncated.  It is possible her original words were more complicated, reflective of a more complex view of the past than the article demonstrates. While we cannot quantify how good or bad people are, how pure or evil their hearts may have been, we can look at their finances. Unfortunately, early twentieth-century economics doesn't grab readers and viewers, but if the media were more focused on telling a whole picture than on promoting division and fomenting conflict, maybe we would all view ourselves, and our past, with more nuance, and maybe we would be more interested in hearing those complicated stories than in calling names and making assumptions. 


You can read the original article here

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Colonel Hargrove, the 44th NCT, and the 1863 battle of South Anna Bridge.

I was doing some research recently, and I came across this story. Sometimes, pieces like this make me want to dive in and write about a particular regiment or battle. This came from the Oxford Public Ledger September 24, 1908.

Tazewell Hargrove
   During the battle of South Anna Bridge, on June 26, 1863, Lt. Col. Tazewell Hargrove was commanding two companies of his regiment, the 44th North Carolina Troops, "about 80 men" against 1,500 "Yankees," engaging them for 4 hours - was himself knocked down twice, wounded in two places by sabre, in two places with bayonet, and after firing all the loads from his pistol, threw it at a Yankee and knocked him down, causing him to swallow several of his teeth. He [Hargrove] had sworn never to surrender and never did, but was captured by several Yankees who seized him and threw him down and held him, they were too thick around him to sabre or pistol him. Private Cash of Co, "A," stood upon the abutment of the Bridge, and ran a sabre bayonet through a Yankee, the bayonet sticking half a foot out behind his back, and had drawn his weapon for another thrust, when he was shot by two Yankees through the head. Private Cates of Co. "G," stood on top of a breastwork for an hour amid a storm of bullets, he was posted there to see when the enemy, who were formed beyond a little rising ground should advance. I [William H. Harrison, maybe] stood myself at the other end of the work, for a like purpose, and the Yankee who guarded me asked me if I was man who was standing at the other end of the work, with sword and pistol on, I said yes, and he good humouredly replied, 'well you are hard to hit. I took four deliberate cracks at you hardly 150 yards, but I am glad I missed you.'"


According to the NC Troop books, Volume X, Hargrove's coat was found after the battle with "eight sabre cuts." He was taken to Fort Delaware, and later was a part of the Immortal 600. Hargrove survived the war, taking the Oath of Allegiance on July 24, 1865.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Visiting the Condor.

Once a year, I make the trip from the mountains to Fort Fisher, to speak at during the "Beat the Heat" speaker series. It is usually the last weekend in July that I go, which was last weekend. My family often tags along, looking forward to a quick trip to the beach before school starts. We were at Fort Fisher about noon and pulled into the parking area overlooking the beach. It was storming at the time, and we really had no other place to go.


As the rain subsided, we could see two buoys off the coast. A little online research showed that these buoys mark the final resting place of the blockade runner Condor. The Condor was originally a steamer, 270 feet long and built in Scotland, with a crew of forty-five.  On September 7, the Condor steamed into Halifax. She was reportedly loaded to the gunwales with war supplies. Before long, she was on her way to the port at Wilmington. The US Navy was alerted to the Condor's  mission, and the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron was always on the lookout for ships trying to run into the Cape Fear River.

Hamilton Cochran, in his 1858 book Blockade Runners of the Confederacy, painted this picture of what happened next: The U.S.S. Niphon was the first to sight [the Condor's] long, gray hull, a mere shadow in the darkness. Up shot the warning calcium flares and the chase was on... The Condor was thrashing towards the Inlet with every ounce of steam her boilers could produce A cloud of black smoke belched from her triple stacks. The Niphon's bow chasers barked and shells tore through the Condor's sparse rigging, then plunged into the sea in white geysers of brine.

Ridge [the Captain] knew that he could outrun the Niphon, for the bar was close. To starboard loomed the Mound Battery at Fort Fisher. It would be only a matter of minutes now before the Condor would plunge within the protective range of those big Confederate guns. Just then, out of the blackness ahead, loomed a vessel's hull and spars. To the Condor's pilot that meant only one thing - "a damned Yankee" gunboat barring the way. In an instant response to his cry of "Hard a-starboard," the Condor heeled and swung away. Seconds later the keel struck the treacherous shoals to the right of the channel. She lurched, scraped, then came to a jarring halt... In the misty dawn those aboard the stranded Condor saw that it was not a Federal man-of-war that had loomed in their path, but the wreck of the British blockade runner Night Hawk... the Niphon moved in for the kill. More calcium flares soared skyward as the Union cruiser again fired at the helpless Condor. Instantly Fort Fisher replied and drove off the eager Niphon with a barrage of shells.

The Condor later broke up in the relentless surf.

Among the cargo and passengers was the famous Rose O'Neal Greenhow. She was a Confederate spy, who had been captured, imprisoned, released, and then sent to Europe to help build support for the Confederacy. On August 19, 1864, Greenhow left Europe, bound for Richmond, carrying dispatches. When the Condor ran aground, she transferred to a rowboat, determined to reach the shore. The boat was swamped in the surf, and Greenhow drowned, possibly weighted down by dispatches and gold sewn into her skirt. She is buried in Wilmington.

The Condor was recently declared a North Carolina Heritage Dive Site by the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. The ship is roughly 700 yards off the beach, in 25 feet of water. Much of the Condor's infrastructure, like the boilers and engines, paddle wheel shafts and hubs, and other hull plating are still visible.

The story of the Condor is just one story of the many stories of the blockade runners that are sunk in and around the Fort Fisher area. In the area between Wrightsville Beach and the southern tip of Bald Head Island are the wrecks of at least nineteen blockade runners, and three US vessels. There are more in the Cape Fear River, and along Oak Island, Holden Beach, and Ocean Isle Beach. Each of these also has stories to be told.


I did not get to dive the wreck of the Condor. Maybe one day that opportunity will present itself. For now, I must be content on gazing off into the surf, wondering what treasures lie beneath the waves. 


The two buoys on the right mark the final resting place of the Condor.

Monday, July 17, 2017

David Parker and food's connection to morale in the Army of Northern Virginia.

I've been reading a lot of Confederate letter collections the past few weeks, and I have discovered something interesting in the letters of David Parker. Parker, from Yancey County and a member of the 54th North Carolina Troops, writes home about food (many soldiers did that), but ties in the morale of the army. We know that morale was tied to food, but it does not get mentioned very often.

In November 1862, Parker writes that all they are getting to eat is "dry crackers and beaf meat." He then confesses that he has lost weight in the past few months, and
David Parker
concludes: " I don't think I can stand the scarcities much longer." (45) Parker became lucky in January 1863. He was detailed to cook for the officers in his company. "I get plenty to eat. Thank god that is one good consolation and that is more than any of the rest of the Privates can say," he wrote home in February. (62)

It is unclear just how long these arrangements lasted, but by late summer 1864, Parker appears to be back in the ranks. His command was in the Shenandoah Valley and while rations were scarce, there were opportunities to supplement with apples and other fruits just coming ripe. In December of 1864, things were not so good. Writing from the trenches around Petersburg, Parker believed that "It is the hardest time in this army that I have saw since I have been out in the service and if it does not get better the soldiers will not stand it long. They are all threatening to run away if they don't give them more to eat." A few days later he wrote that the rations were a little better. We are faring very well at this time though I do not know how long it will last. What we get now we can live on very well. If it will only continue. I have not thought to run away yet though when I wrote last I was very much tempted. If they had not given me more to eat I do not know what I should of done though I do not expect to run away while I can help it for it never was my notion to run away. You know that I all ways was opposed to it but hunger will make men do that they do not want to do. So long as Jefferson Davis does feed me as he is at this time I will stay with him." (136)

Of course, we know that the North cut off supplies coming from the Deep South, and from the Shenandoah Valley, and that thousands did run away. David Parker held out until the end. He was wounded, probably on April 2, 1865, and admitted to a hospital in Richmond the next day. Parker succumbed to his wounds on April 14, 1865; he is buried in Richmond, a long way from his home in the mountains of western North Carolina.


If you want to learn more of David Parker's story, check out Pen in Hand: David Parker Civil War Letters, edited by Riley Henry. 

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Tar Heels buried with Stonewall Jackson.

A few weeks ago, on my return from the living history in Maryland, we stopped by Lexington and spent a few moments with Stonewall Jackson. We also stumbled over to the Confederate monument in the cemetery, and found the names of several Tar Heels chiseled on it. That got me to thinking - who were these men and how did they wind up so far from the front lines of the War? (Yes, the war visited Lexington in June 1864.)

So, who were these men?

On one side is the name of J. C. McKinney, Co. B, 34th N. C. John C. McKinney was from Cleveland County and was 39 years old when he mustered in as a private in February 1863. Four months later (June 17-19, 1863), he died of typhoid at a hospital in Lexington.

Below McKinney was G H B Huggins, Co.I, 2nd N. C. There are no Hugginses in Company I, but I did find a Henry B. Huggins in Company G. Huggins enlisted in Northampton County on July 18, 1861. He was wounded sometime around July 1, 1861, by the "explosion of a bomb shell at Camp Wyatt." Huggins was detailed as a nurse in Lexington on February 15, 1863, and died there of "typhoid pneumonia" on June 16, 1863.

On another side of the monument were the names W. G. Gilbert and A. T. Gilliam, both listed as having served in the 23rd North Carolina. There was a Willis Gilbert in Company D. His records state he was born in Caldwell County and enlisted at the age of 28 in September 1862. He died at or near Lexington around February 6, 1863, of "chr[onic] gastritis."

A. T. Gilliam is proving a challenge. There are no A. T. Gilliams in Company A, 23rd North Carolina Infantry. I tried looking on Soldiers and Sailors for A. Gilliam, and T. Gilliam, but I could not identify this soldier. I also looked at the compiled service records for the 23rd NC, but I did not really see anything there that matched. It could be that the inscription is totally wrong, or maybe this poor lad died of some disease after he enlisted but before he was mustered into the regiment.

I did a little online searching , but I did not find a whole lot about a war-time hospital. The Stonewall Jackson house was used as a hospital, but it is unclear if this happened during the war. Maybe someone has that answer as well.



I wonder how many other Tar Heels are tucked away in places, seemingly forgotten. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

On the field at Sharpsburg

The battlefield at dusk. 
Over three decades, this crazy life I live has taken me to some pretty remarkable places. The archives and libraries hold special treasures, but the fields themselves often hold the keys to whatever it is that I am writing. For years and years, I reenacted. There are still a few places, like Olustee in Florida, or Reseca, Georgia, where reenactors get to take the fields on the actual sites where the boys in Blue and Gray fought. A few years ago, I "retired" from reenacting. Yep - I hung up my sword. Instead, I became a volunteer interpreter. Instead of leading weekend warriors on some distant field, portraying for the masses what a Civil War battle might have looked like, I decided to get a little more personal. For several years, I (and my family) have volunteered at historical sites, trying to work closely with the public and interpret the events. And as a rule, we try to stay within two hours of our home here in the mountains of western North Carolina.  

Tarheels at the Dunker Church. 
Every once in a while, some event comes along that pulls me out of the mountains. When the opportunity came to portray elements of Branch's brigade at Antietam, and to talk about the General on the very ridge where he died, well, it was an event too good to pass up. So my son and I loaded up and headed to Maryland. We were able to camp behind the Dunker Church (and even slept in the church Friday night due to the rain), march onto the field, fire vollies from the Sunken Road, and interact with the public in a very special way.

Our camp for the weekend.
The highlight came on Saturday evening as I had a chance to stand by the cannon marking the site of Branch's death, which occurred on the evening of September 17, 1862. I had planned to speak on the life of General Branch, but my friend John Baucom read a brief biographical sketch of his life before it came to my turn. So just a couple of minutes before my turn came, I changed my talk, focusing on the men of the brigade as they came up from Harpers Ferry, the loss of Branch, James H. Lane's promotion, and the rest of their war. Some probably thought that it was all planned out. No, not really.  But 20 years of research into the Branch-Lane brigade can come in handy.

Camping on the ground where they fought, and marching over the fields where so many died, can give one a perspective very few others can get. It will be an event that I will always treasure, right up there with sleeping on Snodgrass Hill and in the Petersburg trenches. Three cheers for my friends in the 28th North Carolina Troops. It was a fantastic event! 
General Branch's memorial. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Was it really Witcher's Cavalry?


In November 1863, a group of dissidents left Wilkes County, bound for Knoxville, and the 10th Tennessee Cavalry (US). As the story goes, the group of fifty-seven men were being piloted by Wilkes County resident John Bryant. They passed through Watauga County, and on into Tennessee. In an area of present-day Unicoi County (then Carter County) they stopped at the home of Dr. David Bell, for breakfast. As the waited under some trees, "rebels... suddenly came insight, and the alarm was instantly given. The poor fellows tried to save themselves by flight, being closely pursued by the rebels, who were shooting at them and charging on them with their horses at a terrible rate."

According to this account, written by Daniel Ellis in 1867 (he was not present), eleven did not escape. Those killed were:

Calvin Catrel - shot in breast, knocked in the head and then bayoneted.
John Sparks - shot in head
Wiley Royal - shot in shoulder and back and then beaten to death with a fence rail.
Elijah Gentry - shot and killed.
Jacob Lyons - shot and killed.
B. Blackburn - shot in shoulder and then beaten to death.
Preston Pruett - shot in shoulder and then beaten to death.
James Bell - dragged from house and beaten to death.
____ Madison - wounded, but survived.
After killing Doctor Bell, the attackers burned down his house.

Ellis places the blame for the murder of these men on a Witcher, whose first name Ellis could not remember, but believed that it was either James or Samuel. Ellis wrote that Witcher came from Virginia, and had 400 men under his command. A whole host of later writers and historians believe that the man leading the attack was Col. Vincent A. Witcher, commander of the 34th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry, also known as Witcher's Battalion. There are, or course, many who dispute the claim that Vincent Witcher and his men were involved.

Vincent A. Witcher is an interesting soldier. He gained the praise of J.E.B. Stuart. The famed cavalry leader wrote a letter of recommendation for Witcher, on November 26, 1863, stating that he had witnessed Witcher's "personal gallantry and the good fighting qualities of his command. These were particularly exemplified at Gettysburg, at Hagerstown, Funkstown, and subsequently at Fleetwood in Culpeper." However, there was also a dubious side to Witcher's battalion. The Bristol Gazette reported in early 1864 the capture of a Yankee in Lee County accused of rape. It was the prayer of the editor of the Richmond Sentinel, commenting on the Gazette story, that the man "may fall into the hands of Colonel Witcher." Clearly, the battalion's reputation was a fearsome one.

Vincent Witcher 
Were Witcher and the 34th Battalion Virginia Cavalry even in the area of east Tennessee in the fall of 1863? On October 20, 1863, Maj. Gen. Samuel Jones wrote from Abington, Virginia: "Colonel Witcher had a spirited skirmish yesterday 2 miles south of Zollicoffer, with enemy's rear guard." (OR vol. 29, pt. 2, 796.) Zollicoffer was an earlier name for Bluff City. Two miles south would put the skirmish near Piney Flats, Tennessee, in Sullivan County. As the crow flies, that is about twenty miles from Limestone Cove, probably a day's ride through the mountains. Edward Guerrant, a Confederate staff officer who left behind a diary, also makes mention of Colonel Witcher arriving in camp three miles west of Blountville on October 27, 1863. (Bluegrass Confederates 358)

One newspaper in Knoxville republished an order that Witcher issued on November 23, 1863: "Headquarters 34th VA Bat. Cavalry... To all whom it may concern: "Notice is hereby given to the people of Carter and Johnson counties that the Union men will be held responsible, in person and property, for all plundering and bushwhacking of Southern soldiers and citizens. Whenever deserters, bushwhackers, and marauders, are known to assemble or whenever they may steal or plunder, the house and barns of Union men shall be burned to the ground. Citizens may appeal to, to organize and destroy the gangs of scoundrels who are infesting the country. The above order will be executed to the very letter. By order of Lt. Col. Witcher." (Brownlow's Knoxville Whig and Rebel Ventilator, August 19, 1864)

So, that places Witcher's battalion in the area.

Unfortunately, the trail runs cold at that point. There is a history of the 34th Battalion Virginia Cavalry, by Scott Cole (H. E. Howard, 1993), but it is silent on the matter.
Parson Brownlow, in his Brownlow's Knoxville Whig [Knoxville] April 16, 1864, published this account five months after the events took place: "Hundreds of men have actually been hanged and shot in upper East Tennessee by Longstreet's thieves and assassins... Witcher's company of cavalry, piloted by Nathaniel [Benson], of Washington county, took James Bell, the brother of Dr. Bell, of Greene county, forced him to lay his head on a chunk in the road and with stones and clubs they beat his brains out. They took some of the blood and brains and rubbed them under his wife's nose, cursing her, and telling her to smell them! They then burned the house down, and its contents with it, allowing her and her children to look on at the flames. The notorious Wesley Peoples and his brother, son of old Bill Peoples, were in this crowd."

There are several interesting points here. One: Brownlow does not make mention of the ten others killed that Daniel Ellis lists in his 1867 account. Only James Bell, the brother of the doctor, is mentioned. Since Brownlow had heard of the death of Bell, the burning of the house, and of Witcher, then surely he had heard of the deaths of the ten.

Next, he makes mention of "Witcher's company of cavalry," not Witcher's battalion, which had several companies. That could simply be a mistake on Brownlow's part - I mean, there is a war going on and information is (probably) coming to him third or fourth parties. There is, however, another Witcher running around the mountains. James Witcher was forty-three years old when he enlisted June 13, 1863. Witcher was born in Virginia, but was living in Sullivan County, Tennessee. His command was known as the Zollicoffer Mounted Rifles, or the Sullivan County Reserves. We know next to nothing about the Sullivan County Reserves. It appears that there were six companies, and the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors database shows 343 men on the roster. James Witcher's folder in the Compiled Service Records from the National Archives contains just three cards. One is a muster and descriptive roll dated June 30, 1863, in Zollicoffer; the next states that he is present from June 13 to December 31, 1863; and the final card states James Witcher's name appears on a report dated Bristol, September 5, 1864. It is doubtful that Capt. James Witcher had 400 men with him, as claimed by Daniel Ellis.

In the end, it is really not clear just who attacked the party at Doctor Bell's home in November 1863, or even who was actually killed.

Maybe there are other documents out there. Maybe we should have a better book on the 34th Battalion Virginia Cavalry (Witcher's Battalion). Maybe we should do some research into the Sullivan County Reserves. Once again, I am confronted with a whole lot of questions, and very few answers.