Thursday, January 30, 2020

Writing County-Specific Civil War Histories

Over the past few days, while working on the Feeding the Army of Northern Virginia project, I have spent some time looking through some Virginia county histories. I am trying to find some more details about civilians and boxes from home. I have some good sources, but I can’t pull everything from my work on North Carolina. I need a little more “diversity.”

I often talk to people who are interested in local history in some form or fashion. And looking at the old, worn, and tired county histories found on shelves today, we need a new generation of county historians willing to do the hard work and provide their communities with fresh material. For the purpose of this discussion, I’m just going to talk just about mid-19th century United States. Many of these ideas could be applied to other time periods.

What makes a good war-time local history book? That’s a great question. I know what I like to see: numbers, an understanding of how the war as a whole relates to a local story, and for many people, names.

Let’s start with the last aspect: names. For many people, they want to know how their ancestors were involved. Were they good Confederates, bad Unionists, or some of the many dissidents who tried to avoid the war altogether? Oftentimes, we just get fragments of people’s lives: a muster roll sheet, a pension application, maybe service as a juror. But those three things can tell us a lot. When did a man enlist? If 1861, he probably had some type of conviction about the war. If 1862, he was probably forced in by Conscription. (That’s not to say he was Conscripted, but he did understand the law). If he received a pension application, then he served until disabled, or until the end of the war, and was favorably viewed by the local pension board, and the state. If he can be found serving as a juror, then for at least part of the war, the court system was still functioning.

Middle point: an understanding of the how the war as a whole relates to a local story. So many local histories that I study have a few paragraphs about the 1860s, and never put anything into context. For many counties, the war is far away, in Pennsylvania or Mississippi, and the only interaction is the stories sent back home by the soldiers in the field. But that is not exactly true, is it? Caldwell County, North Carolina, had two companies in the 26th North Carolina Troops. At the battle of Gettysburg, these two companies sustained almost 100 percent casualties. Those losses, all at one time, had an enormous impact on that county. Battles, conscription, tax-in-kind, reconstruction, deserters, the underground railroad… having that understanding about how the war as a whole fits into the local scene makes a better book.

First point, last: numbers. For the past 25 years, I have lived in Southern Appalachia. I have strong roots here, ancestors who were here during the American Revolution, the Civil War, and on into the 1960s. There have been some good books about the area during the war years. Inscoe and McKinney’s The Heart of Confederate Appalachia and Fisher’s War at Every Door come to mind. Yet there is a huge hole when it comes to more localized studies. I frequently hear (and at times refute) that all counties in the area were pro-Union, and that simply is not true. How do I know? I’ve taken the time to break down a couple of counties by the 1860 census, line up soldiers, and count. Until others tackle this type of project, we’re just simply not going to know. Maybe some of those east Tennessee counties had a majority that were pro-Union, but until someone takes the time to really look, it is just a guess.

I have two type histories under my belt. Civil War Charlotte was released in June 2012, and Watauga County in the Civil War in October 2013. Two others are in the works, and maybe more in the future. So, I have a little experience in the matter. The volume on Watauga County is better, I believe. We learn as we go. But, instead of just lecturing people who need to be involved in this type of research, or maybe you feel inspired to jump into this line of work (it is a labor of love), here are some tips. (I’m also happy to field questions.)
  •         The 1860 census. Create a spreadsheet based upon the 1860 US census for whatever county you are working on. Pull out the men ages 11 to 60. I find it helpful to leave them as they appear in their districts. This allows me to see enlistment and desertion patterns. In your spread sheet, include name, age, birth/death dates, CS/US, when they enlisted, deserted, returned, paroled, imprisoned, what regiment/company they served in, slave ownership, personal wealth, and where they are buried. The latter allows you to see migration patterns. If your state does not have a troop book series, start with pension applications. Most are online these days. Look for patterns and then go explore others in those same companies. This is a very time-consuming study, but the backbone of the project.
  •          Look for resources EVERYWHERE. Former county or community histories; both CS and US pension applications; family histories; family files at the local library; Southern Claims Commission, both allowed and disbarred; church/association histories; newspapers, both local, regional, and state (war-time and post-war); the Official Records; the Supplement to the Official Records; Confederate Veteran; slave census; slave narratives; local or regional historical and genealogical society newsletters; court records… (this list could go on ad infinitum). It has been my experience that material comes ONE OR TWO SENTENCES AT A TIME. Enough of these sentences might allow us to put a paragraph together. I once found a family history stating a man served as the local salt commissioner during the ar. I already knew that salt was a big deal. This one sentence was what I needed to really tie that story in locally.
  •          Document everything, where it came from, using some standard form of documentation, like MLA, or Chicago, or something. A history book without documentation is just about worthless. People need to know that you are just not making stuff up.
  •          Assume that not everything you read is going to be true. People misremembered events, some of them lied; stories get confused over the years. It is always nice to be able to back up a story with something else from the time period. Also, a letter from 1862 or 1863 is a better source than a story from a grandson. It is not always possible to back up events. In this case, preface your writing by saying something like “According to the family…” That way, your readers know that this may not be exactly factual. At the same time, it is important to capture as many stories as possible. The person reading your final product is probably not going to root through the 1000 sources that you did.
  •        Read other county-level studies. It is not easy to find these. Only 20 of North Carolina’s 100 counties have been covered. Virginia has done better over the years. Tennessee and Alabama are horrible. As far as actual recommendations, hmm… Jordan’s Charlottesville and the University of North Carolina in the Civil War, was ok, as was Shaffer’s Washington County, Virginia, in the Civil War, Williams’ Lexington, Virginia and the Civil War, and of course, my Watauga County, North Carolina in the Civil War.
  •          Unless you know what you are doing, try to get a traditional publisher to publish your book. Unless you have access to a proofreader, copy editor, peer review, and someone to set it up, it is not going to turn out very well as a self-publish. Also, as badly as I hate doing this myself, always include an index (and notes, see #3 above). Use high-quality images. Get a couple of other people to read it and give comments. They will see things you do not.

So that’s my list. I’m sure there will be others that pop into my head over time, and maybe some updates. This post goes along with a couple I wrote a few years back on writing regimental histories. If I can ever help, please feel free to drop me a line.

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

The Fate of Black Confederate Prisoners of War.

      Lt. Col. William S. Pierson Hoffman’s Battalion was in a pickle. A group of new prisoners recently captured at the fall of Port Hudson had arrived at the prisoner-of-war processing center in New Sandusky, Ohio. The four officers, Col. I.G.W. Steedman (1st Alabama), Capt. R.M. Hewitt (Miles Legion), Capt. O.P. Amacker (9th Louisiana Batt. Cav.), and Lt. J.B. Wilson, (39th Mississippi), had brought along six servants, “four colored and two white, the latter small boys.” When the officers had surrendered, the six servants were permitted to accompany them. “Their journey had taken them from Port Hudson, to Governor’s Island in New York, and finally to the outskirts of Johnson’s Island. “Please give me such directions as you think proper,” Pierson asked Col. William Hoffman, Commissary General of Prisoners in Washington, D.C., regarding the matter.[1]

   The question that Pierson posed to his superior is an interesting one: just what was the policy of the Federal government regarding captured Confederate camp servants (both enslaved and free)? It is possible that the Federal government did not have a policy, as the question appeared several times. Louisville, Kentucky’s provost-marshal, Col. Henry Dent, asked the same question in December 1862: “Several slaves have been brought to the prison with their masters who were captured, said slaves having acted as cooks &c. I should like to know what shall be done with.” Dent realized he could not turn them loose. They would be arrested, jailed, and then sold for jail fees. Neither could he send them North, where “they are liable for their value by civil proceedings. Our people protest against their being let loose in our midst.”[2]

   An interesting clue is found in a letter from Col. Peter Porter, 8th New York Volunteer Artillery, stationed at Fort McHenry, written to Colonel Hoffman on October 6, 1863. Hoffman had obviously written to Porter on the matter, for Porter quotes Hoffman: “You state that Captured negroes are ranked as Camp followers, and therefore [are] Prisoners of War.” William Duane’s A Military Dictionary (1810) defines camp followers as “Officers servants, sutlers, &c. All followers of a camp are subject to the articles of war equally with the soldiery.” (164) All of the servants of officers, captured by the Federals, were considered prisoners of war. But what to do with them? Colonel Porter continues: “It is respectfully suggested that they be employed in the services of the Government as paid laborers and teamsters—thus rendering service to the Government, and avoiding the return of such as were slaves. It is further suggested that those among them who are freed men with families and desire to go should be sent south with the first installment of prisoners going thither—as exchanged prisoners or not as the Government thinks best.”[3]

   To some degree, that appears to be what happened. Bvt, Brig. Gen. W.W. Morris, commanding Fort McHenry, wrote to Lt. Col. Wm H. Cheeseborough about the disposition of black prisoners. He had 64 “Negroes, Servants of Officers in the Rebel Armies” who had arrived at the fort since the battle of Gettysburg. According to Morris, 16 “had enlisted in the Negro Regt now in process of Organization in Balt[imore]—four… have been enlisted as Assist Cook in Co D 5th N.Y. Artillery, now at this post—four… left clandestinely with the 21st Reg-N.Y. I[nfantry]. National Guard, on its return to New York-, the balance, forty, are still here and chiefly employed in police duty.” So it would seem that soon after these black Confederate prisoners arrived in a prison camp, they took the Oath of Allegiance and were released.[4]

      However, there is some evidence that not all of these black Confederate prisoners were enthusiastic about taking the Oath of Allegiance. The Staunton Express, reprinting a piece published on October 13, 1863, told its readers that “The Petersburg Express is informed by Lieut. Daniels, who has just arrived at Petersburg from Fort Norfolk, that some 35 or 40 Southern negroes, captured at Gettysburg, are confined at Fort McHenry. He says that they profess an undying attachment to the South. Several times Gen. Schneck had offered to release them from the Fort, it they would take the oath of allegiance to the Federal Government and join the Lincoln army. They had peremptorily refused in every instance, and claim that they should be restored to their masters and homes in the South. They say they would prefer death to liberty on the terms proposed by Schneck.”

   On the surface, it would be easy to dismiss the Staunton Express article as hyperbole. Yet there are accounts that support the idea of black Confederate prisoners refusing to take the Oath and gain their freedom.  Lieutenant Robert Park, 12th Alabama Infantry, wrote in July 1864, while near Washington, D.C., that his “negro cook” Charlie was missing. Park believed he had been enticed to leave or “forcibly detained by some negro worshipper.” Yet Park discovered in December that Charlie was being held as a prisoner of war at Fort McHenry, refusing to take the oath.[5]

   There are undoubtedly more black Confederate prisoners of war who refused to take the Oath and remained prisoners of war until the very end. Historians are largely silent on the issue. Since many of the prisoner of war register books have been digitized and are now online (through familysearch), we can uncover more of these stories.

[1] Official Records, Series 2, vol. 6, 397-398.

[2] Official Records, Series 2, vol. 5, 36.

[3] Peter A. Porter to William Hoffman, October 6, 1863, Letters Received from the Commissary General of Prisoners, Record Group 107, National Archives, quoted in James M. Paradis, African Americans and the Gettysburg Campaign, 60.

[4] W.W. Morris to Wm H. Cheeseborough, July 30, 1863, Letters Received from the Commissary General of Prisoners, Record Group 107, National Archives, quoted in James M. Paradis, African Americans and the Gettysburg Campaign, 59-60.

[5] Southern Historical Society Papers, vol. 1, No. 5, 179, 379.