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Monthly Archives: June 2013

Nat Turner’s Long Silence

Several years ago I began visiting the sites of the Nat Turner slave revolt in Southampton County, Virginia. My interest began after teaching an early American slavery class and spending some time with the work the revolt, particularly Steven Oates’s The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion and Kenneth


Greenburg’s Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory.[1] I was particularly spurred on by Irving Tragle’s older but still quite useful source book The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material, Including the Full Text of The Confessions of Nat Turner.[2] My goal was to locate what I could find of what survived of the old landscape and see what there was to see.

I brought a team of archaeology students there for the first time in 2003 (as memory serves) and we drove around guided by Tragle’s 1960s photos of then-still-surviving homes as well as some of his hand-drawn maps. I matched those up as best as possible with a county map and off we set to see what we could see. My reasoning was simple. If a building was still standing in the 1960s, there was at least a chance that it was still standing in 2003. We whirled up and down the region’s dusty roads stopping here and there and looking over the land.  We even knocked on doors to see what local people knew. It was fascinating to hear how they spoke of the events and their landscape. This was particularly valuable to me as I had made a conscious choice to avoid the official arbiters of the landscape and its stories—a strategy I always employ and highly recommend. Learn a place first using your own resources and then only later turn to the “officials.”

After much valuable trial and error I was able to locate four buildings still on their sites—including the ruined Whitehead, Porter, and Edwards houses.

The Peter Edwards House in 2006. Now gone having been dismantled the following year by salvagers for its framing members sold to developers in northern Virginia.

The Peter Edwards House in 2006. Now gone having been dismantled the following year by salvagers for its framing members sold to developers in northern Virginia.

Since then, subsequent annual trips have allowed me to see the loss of the Edward’s house and watch the ongoing decay of the Whitehead house. One benefit has been getting to know one local farmer and his wife. The family owns much of the land and some of the most important sites, but, as is so often the case, is not on good terms with the local official history folks. But, my farmer friend has been more than willing to grant me access to the site, share his collection of found objects and his and his family’s own life stories. He showed me the site where the former owner disposed of the old Whitehead family grave stones to gain more plowing space and is even willing to allow me to excavate some day perhaps. He invited Colonial Williamsburg architectural historian Matt Webster and I to do a sustained “crawl through” of the Whitehead House ruins–a considerable risk since the ruin could collapse at any moment. I also located the cellar hole of the Francis House, and a trip into the woods on the advice of another aged neighbor showed me the plywood-covered remains of the home which had been moved in the 1980s. Two other buildings survive, one restored and occupied by a Norfolk lawyer and the other, the Rebecca Vaughn House, was long ago moved to a park in Courtland and all but abandoned.

Over the years I have brought a few dozen students around the land, toured friends and professional colleagues, and even drove the Smithsonian’s Museum of African

The decaying remains of the Whitehead House. Hidden away far from the modern road system and on private land.

The decaying remains of the Whitehead House. Hidden away far from the modern road system and on private land.

American history’s director Lonnie Bunch over hill and dale to see what might fit the museum’s needs (as far as I know, nothing much came of that adventure) But, I have not written about it. Why have I not done that? Like the nation, I have helped Turner continue his long imposed silence.

That question bugs me. The easy reason is that Ferry Farm and George Washington have kept me pretty busy. Another problem is that this might need to be a first person essay and that is a tricky thing. Mostly though it has been hard to see the hook, but I am getting close though, and this entry is part of getting those ducks in a row. Here is what I learned in preliminary form. For one thing, I am pretty sure that the ruins of the Porter House and the now lost Edwards House probably post-dated the revolt even though local stories set events there. For another thing, there is no real possibility of doing any meaningful historical preservation on this landscape. It is in fact virtually forgotten and entirely un-commemorated. Race and divisive local politics play a huge role in this fact, but there is as many have noted, a larger national lack of willingness to come to terms with Turner. Local memory is a carefully guarded commodity making treacherous political shoals. What it comes down to is that no one really wants to talk about Turner, and thus no one does, or at least when they do it all within a carefully constructed framework.

Nevertheless, what matters about this landscape still is its emotional power. I have seen people’s reactions and there are something. There is something amazing about standing by the ruins of the Whitehead House. Although it underwent some changes, study of its collapsing subfloor framing showed that at least that part dated to the late eighteenth century—this was indeed the house that Turner and his men visited. With some work and careful crawling I have made my way to the spot where Turner’s ally Hark cut off Katherine Whitehead’s head at her doorstep. We have seen what is said to be the chimney corner where Margaret Whitehead hid before Turner caught her and killed her a short ways away (this was the relationship William Styron’s novel made so problematic). If we believe the Thomas Gray account (which we currently do) then this is the only killing by the most famous slave rebel in American history. I have brought students to a very good guess about where that place is based on old road cuts and fence lines.

The front door of the Whitehead house. If a few good suppositions line up, this was a killing spot--perhaps the only one of which we can be sure.

The front door of the Whitehead house. If a few good suppositions line up, this was a killing spot–perhaps the only one we can be sure of.

There is a rise just before the old house and it was on this hump that locals laid out the bloody remains of the Whitehead family after the revolt so that arriving militia men from other counties could get fired up before going off to exact revenge on what survived of the enslaved and free black population. A meaningful place, and people can still feel something there.

This sort of connection is the essence of historical landscapes. Feeling the past is what motivates most people to visit sites all over the nation. But not all sites are the same. Some are too troublesome (to borrow the word) to warrant attention. A century of neglect has done a good job in erasing what survived of an event most wanted to forget. For a while the Navy considered moving its airfields away from Norfolk to the more in-land Southampton. The move would have enclosed much of the Turner lands and made them unapproachable to the public. The plan was sidelined, for now. Gradually though, the last vestiges of this event are fading away.

Turner spoke so loudly that permanent silencing was his punishment.

[1] Steven Oates, The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion (New York: Harper Perennial, 1990); Kenneth Greenburg, ed., Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[2] Irving Tragle, ed.,The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material, Including the Full Text of The Confessions of Nat Turner (New York: Vintage Books 1973).

Tramp Tramp Tramp Redux.

In the past two weeks two stories emerged about the 150th Civil War anniversary. One was a radio interview with local National Park Service (NPS) officials not being totally thrilled with the outcome of the Fredericksburg festivities this last winter. The other was this piece describing how Spotsylvania County lost money on the events it had sponsored. It would seem that the anniversary theme is not working as well as many had hope. This requires some reflection.CivilWarLogolarger

The whole 150th idea frankly leaves me a bit on the fence. I have nothing against commemoration, I certainly want the NPS to thrive, I support idea of historical education at this sort of mass scale. But there is something sort of made up about a 150th anniversary, something contrived (if that is not too harsh) or at least inorganic about it.  It feels as if there was a desire for an event, and so the event was located within a calendric logic and declared. Let’s be clear—a 150th anniversary of a wedding would be a remarkable thing—especially if the couple were there to cut the cake anew. But a war? Centennials are more traditional.

The 1990s saw the more clearly contrived 125 anniversary of the war fueled as it was by the energy and enthusiasm created by Ken Burns’s much beloved The Civil War—an influential historical text as ever there was. That half-decade saw the resurgence of war reenacting—a commemorative pass time that began its modern iteration amidst the 1960s centennial. But the growth of the hobby in the 1990s was without precedent. Clinton-era prosperity put lots of surplus income in enthusiasts’ pockets, and a thriving industry of producers coalesced to meet the desire for specialized goods that ranged from the highest quality museum replicas to mass produced crap. In either case, there were goods for all levels of historical sentiment or purses from the most detail-conscious devotee like those made famous in Tony Horowitz’s Confederates in the Attic, to members of the common heard eager to eat some hardtack, sneak a cigarette, and shoot some blank shots on a budget.


Don Troiani shows his debt to the great French military artists of the late ninetieth century and builds on an excellent understanding of the era’s clothes and equipment.

Civil War reenacting became the largest outdoor historical hobby with countless local fraternal groups all over the nation—and even overseas. This all breathed new life into older more formal groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans who adopted the pose and style of reenactment companies. Likewise, the number of Civil War roundtables grew as did preservation supporters all of whom has reenactors and new enthusiasts in their ranks. These groups erected new monuments and even worked to preserve more obscure corners of battlefields. A subgenre of art began to grace walls as historian/collector/painters like Don Troiani and Keith Rocco brought Edouard Detaile-style to Civil War themes. They were followed by a far larger number of lesser lights but nevertheless commercially-savvy artists like Dale Gallon and Mort Kunstler who relied on reenactors as they looked on battle weekend for models, thus  painting a chubbier, older, and oddly attired present into the past.


Mort Kunstler’s art sets reenactors against imagined backgrounds but really represents reenactor portraits as opposed to others’ more informed historical art.

On top of that, there was an overall increase in military reenacting in general as Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, WWI, WWII, and even odder choices like Viet Nam or the Wars of the Spanish Conquest all competed with a busy reenactor’s schedule. All the while though the Civil War was a unifying force—its events were the largest and a great portion of the language and overall culture of historical reeneactments took form in the ranks of weekender Billy Yanks and Johnny Rebs—many of whom fought other fights in their spare spare time.

Battlefield Historian

Ed Bears doing that for which he is most beloved.

But that is where the problem for the 150th anniversary begins. Not only did a whole new consumer Civil War hobby develop, but with it evolved a whole set of characters and historically inflected consumer identities. Reeneactors gradually became a “type,” as more and more people had an uncle or a teacher who made their weekend uniform part of their lives and self identities. Hollywood began to see reeneactors as a self-costuming low-cost source of extras, and movies with themes ranging from battles to zombies employed them. Civil War tourism grew to new levels and lines of Tilley-hatted seniors in safari vests and custom-made matching roundtable golf shirts walked battle sites most every weekend of the year.

On one level, this was a wonderful thing: Americans connecting with their past, making it meaningful and relevant, and supporting with new fervor the cause of preservation. But on the other hand, the very familiarity of the identity, style, symbols, and patter of the Civil War enthusiast made the whole interest easy to marginalize, trivialize, and dismiss. Knowing exactly who liked the Civil War, made it very easy for a far larger number of Americans to not count themselves in the ranks of “those” people. All the images and symbols of the buff or devotee were owned, and indeed, and were even becoming a bit thread bare. The Civil War had become an almost exclusive possession of its fans.

And so along come 2011 and the 150th Civil War anniversary.  The NPS really was the primary agent in making this mid-century way point a date in its own right. But the battalions of private entities, roundtablers, reenactor groups, commemorative societies, museums, and clubs that make up the Civil War world, as well as counties and municipalities hoping for economic boosts all bought right in. Yet the whole thing is foundering already, and in Civil War terms, we have not even reached Gettysburg yet. Why?

Civil War interest has become a victim of its own success—especially the boost it received 25 years ago. There is a ready made audience for all things Blue and Gray, and the 150th planners counted on those people coming out in droves. Dwight Pithcaithley spoke about this at the National Council on Public History conference in 2011 right when all this was heating up. The NPS made conscious a choice here. Option One was give the devotees exactly what they most want—battles, guns, and glory—and do everything possible to offer up the best show possible. Option Two was to widen the scope, talk about politics, contemporary relevance, long-term shadows, and implications. Option One would not bring in new people, but it could force open the wallets of the hardest of the hard core by giving them what they most wanted. Option Two might bring in new people, but only at the risk of alienating a reliable and by now well-defined and mobilized constituency. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the 150th went with Option One—stick with the tried and true—give the reliable customers what they want.

The problem is that in this economic climate, the Old Guard are not rushing in as hoped and planned for. Certainly many have made these events their top priority, but perhaps just not enough of them. On top of that, the Old Guard are just that—old.

Civil War veterans Grand Army of the Republic members at the end of the nineteenth century.

Civil War veterans Grand Army of the Republic members at the end of the nineteenth century.

Today’s Civil War enthusiasts are not a young group of people—they resemble rather more the grizzled gray beard of the GAR than they do the Boys of ’61. If the 150th was intended to be a an eye catching splash that would grab the nation’s attention and reawaken the kind of weepy enthusiasm that accompanied Ken Burns’s The Civil War, then that can be said to have not happened. If the 150th intended to bring new people in or make the war seem meaningful to a new generation of Americans, well that has not happened either.

So we see now the 150th planners and backers waiting for Gettysburg later this summer or maybe the Wilderness and Spotsylvania after that in some sort of oddly reversed “it will be all over Christmas” battle cry. We’ll get ‘em next time boys.

The fact is that Americans are weary. Weary of two real ongoing wars. Weary of the language of division. Weary of the grim predictability of war commemoration. We OD’ed on it as the WWII generation passed away and as we saw, the 200th anniversary of 1812 has all but come and gone with nary a whisper and we will soon see the 100th of WWI will be the same, if not less. And most dangerously perhaps for Civil War history, the public is weary of the pose and style of the Civil War enthusiasts themselves. They have become cartoony—bikers with battle flag adorned vests on rides to the Confederate White House or too-old and too-fat reenactors puffing though yet another charge. overrated-110124These have become the stock of Seth McFarlane punch lines or worse. The brand no longer compels.

The problem with the 150th is that it came fifty years too early. Perhaps we need to forget the Civil War for a time so that a later wave of Americans can discover it anew and make it meaningful. The Boys of ’13 are just not up to the task any longer.

Photographic Now-and-Thens

Over the past few months a new manner of photographic art form has come to my attention. It involves taking old photographs and merging them with new ones. I have loved this sort of game for ages, but digital photography now brings it to our fingertips. Who cannot love the work of William Frassanito who made it his métier to locate the sites and angles of noted Civil War photographs and set “then and now” images side by side?

No one could not claim that Frassanito invented the approach, but few before him had used it to such great effect and historical value. His careful work charted out how photographic teams lugged corpses around battlefields from place to place to get just the right shot. That may not have changed the way military historians understood a fight, but it certainly added a deeply valuable and unique level of humanity to the aftermath of the battles. No small feat. I was one of the almost innumerable kids who grew staring in fascination and horror at the often quite beautiful images of the war’s dead. Frassanito deepened and reanimated these images for me. For example, it was moving to learn that that gaunt, prone, but yet so life-like blood-soaked Confederate boy (as he indeed was) whose life ended with a checked cloth near his hand as he hid in a small pile of fence rails near Spotsylvania Courthouse was also the dead man second from the left in another photo from the same sequence.[1] Frassanito’s work showed us that many of these men in these seemingly separate images were in fact comrades, and in all probability knew each other by name given how close to one another they died. Likewise, Frassanito’s Gettysburg work showed that the much-beloved and ballyhooed photograph of the Confederate prisoners by the fence rails shows men who in fact were not defiant heroes nor exemplars of the “elan” that Shelby Foote effused about, but were instead deserters who hid out in barns near Carlisle and thus missed the battle.[2]

Three "Johnnie Reb" Prisoners, captu...

Three “Johnnie Reb” Prisoners, captured at Gettysburg, 1863 (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

This Frassanito gleaned from photographer’s notes, landscape triangulation, and army records. Wonderful work.

James Deetz too used photographic “then and now” in Flowerdew Hundred when he matched up views of the James River.[3] I am not sure that he really did much more than offer a contrast, but he did use the process in aid of identifying sites—perhaps the approach’s most valuable use. I played at this game early on in the Ferry Farm work, although not with an eye toward finding sites.

But these new Photoshop matchups (although it would be Gimp in my case) are something very different. More art than research. They have enormous capacity to invoke if nothing else–but that capacity is remarkable. The first I saw of these were mashups from Russian cities during The Great Patriotic War. They wonderfully set school children against T-34 tanks and blown out buildings and thus created deeply haunting beautiful  images.

I took my first stab at this in Bristol in the UK—a city that was extensively bombed by the Germans during WWII. I used an image of the lovely Park St. and did my best matching up.

park st

What I had not noticed at first was the contrast of the devastated buildings on the right of the image, and the fashionable cartoon violence referenced in the movie poster on the left. On Park St., one generation knew these horror all to well, whereas a later generation has turned horror into a fun afternoon. I had created art and did not even know it.

Now that I am back in Fredericksburg, I am in a setting filled with great historical images. Years of time here have let me know most of the locations for many of the best shots. So I have set in to do a few of these over the next few weeks.


I do have a question though. In a city struggling with issues of preservation I find myself wondering if this sort of imaging highlights that which is lost, or does it create the impression that more has survived? Of course that depends on the individual image to a large degree. But, I find myself wondering if this helps or hurts the larger cause of preserving past views.

[1], William Frassanito, Grant and Lee: The Virginia Campaigns, 1864-1865 (New York: Thomas Publishing, 1996).

[2] William Frassanito, Gettysburg: A Journey in Time (New York: Thomas Publishing, 1996).

[3] James Deetz, Flowerdew Hundred: The Archaeology of Virginia Plantation (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996).

Ferry Farm in the News

Revisiting the GW Birthplace

I have a team of graduate students hard at work at the George Washington Birthplace National Shrine in Westmoreland County Va.

Memorial House at the birthplace site of Georg...

Memorial House at the birthplace site of George Washington. The foundation outline in the foreground is believed to be the actual location of Washington’s boyhood home, which burned down in 1779. George Washington Birthplace National Monument, Westmoreland County, Virginia. 30px (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They are working under the supervision of Ranger Amy Muraca and are being funded by the NPS to make sense out of a series of excavations dating back to the 1930s. We call this sort of work Forensic Archaeology since it involves working with a problematic record we did not create. We might also call this particular project an example of Cold Case Archaeology. Our goal is to try to understand what has long been called “Building X” and is interpreted as being the home where Washington was born. The problems are legion as Joy Beasley outlined in what remains the best piece on the site.[1] To being with, the building is a sort of impossibility—architecture by M.C. Escher, if you can picture that. It seems clear that the outlines of what could be four or five rooms (all that survives are brick cellar footprints and nothing above ground) represent varied building episodes and could not have all stood together at the same time. Yet that is just how the building(s) has been understood—and sometimes quite smugly at that. Our job this summer is to untangle this mess and begin to speak from the data—perhaps for the first time in the site’s life.

Already I have been seeing some problems for the current interpretation. The layers in the cellars’ fill do not point to a single filling episode. Also, a major house fire is a crucial part of the current story and interpretation. The evidence for that fire is fading fast, just as did that of the Ferry Farm house fire. On top of that, the dates of the artifacts are not working either if they are supposed to match the current story. In short, it is a mess. But in a few weeks we will have the beginnings of a whole new and data-centered understanding for “Building X.” I will be presenting a paper on this all at the 2014 Society for Historical Archaeology Conference in Quebec, Canada, but I am also seeing that there is whole book to be done on this fascinating and confusing landscape. For now though, we just need to move slowly ahead and make out charts and spreadsheets and reserve judgment.

English: Artifacts on exhibit at Visitors' Cen...

English: Artifacts on exhibit at Visitors’ Center, George Washington Birthplace National Monument, Westmoreland County. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One thing that makes this very exciting, is that this is an “inside job,” that is to say that this is the park reassessing itself—we are just the labor in that task. It is great to be part of the park’s ongoing and evolving understanding of itself. It is also great for students to have such an important hands-on role in this sort of research.

[1] Joy Beasley, “The Birthplace of a Chief: Archaeology and Meaning at George Washington Birthplace National Monument” in Myth, Memory, and the Making of the American Landscape, Paul A. Shackel, ed. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001), 197-220.

Around the Childhood in 70 Volumes.

This last few weeks has been all about reading Washington biographies. Not the whole things mind you, and not a total list (close to 400 by one good count), but rather a wonderfully selective handling of the earliest pages from about 70 tomes. I am only interested in how the childhood years are handled, and a few crucial moments later on depending on the book. I mostly took photos of the 30 some odd pages I needed from about four libraries’ collections. That allowed me to sit in relative peace and read with headphones on and hot chocolate at the ready. I arranged them chronologically and then waded in to what began as about 15, but amounted to 70 when I was done with the list. Some were penned by the famous names including Humphries, Marshall, Ramsay, Sparks, Bancroft, Irving, Lodge, Wilson, Hughes, Woodward, Fitzpatrick, Freeman, Flexner and the newer ones as well.

A portrait of Washington Irving.

A portrait of Washington Irving. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But add to those the more understandably forgettable players such as Wister, Whipple, Hill (twice for the love of Pete!) Thayer, Norwood, and the inexplicable Randall. Of course I also dealt with the fabulists like Weems, Lossing, and the producers of a very odd early 20c genre that created a fictionalized childhood complete with dialogue, all adorned quotation marks. I have more to do before I am ready to finish off the chapter this research supports, but here are some early freebie observations. So much of this is by and large a crap literature. It is derivative, slapdash, and deeply canonical. It all hangs on certain set piece moments (that is what the chapter is arguing) and each of those takes on lives of their own. What is worse, they are desiccated moments—received concerns that even the authors have a hard time getting worked up over. It is a smug literature, filled with a cloying self-satisfied air enabled by the need to navigate “fact” and “fiction.” Nothing makes the historian, or worse, the biographer, more odious or more slap worthy than when they are self-congratulating over their ability to be wiser than those who have repeated “myths” whereas “I” have the real truth at hand. This is made worse—or perhaps made humorous and therefore made this work fun, (read ‘doable’) –by the fact that no sooner does a biographer snark over a myth here and a fable there, than they simply repeat some other cherished canard uncritically. It really is quite remarkable to see unfold over time. It has made me all the more committed to not debunking but discussing.

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