Art and Ellwood

Looking north-NW. Wilderness Run at right, Ellwood at left center.

From John Hennessy, NPS (sorry for the silence; we have been on vacation the last ten days; we’ll get back in full swing as soon as we can):

Of all the pieces of original art we have had done over the last few years to support interpretive media, I think my favorite is this image of Ellwood and its surrounding landscape on May 5, 1864, at the height of the Battle of the Wilderness.   Another piece by Richard Schelcht, this art lives now as part of the new exhibit at Ellwood (more on that in a future post), but we will also likely incorporate it into a new wayside exhibit on the grounds of Ellwood–an exhibit that mimics at ground level the aerial view shown in the painting.

Ellwood today is beautiful, but its beauty obscures almost all hint of what went on there for the two days that redefined the place in history’s eyes.  This image repopulates the landscape.  Too it gives the outstanding volunteers at Ellwood a set piece to use to help visitors understand the site geographically.

Ellwood, framed by the grand Catalpa tree that came down in 2006.

The Slave’s Voice Emerges, Part II: Trail to Freedom

From John Hennessy, NPS, on behalf of the Crossing Committee (for an earlier post about John Washington and the emergence of a voice for Fredericksburg’s slaves, click here):
Note:  The event is at 10 a.m. on Saturday June 19 at Historic Port of Falmouth Park (better known as Falmouth Beach, on River Road)

From the "Journey of a Slave"

The only memorial to emancipation in the Fredericksburg region is a marker at the home of a white man, Moncure Conway of Falmouth, acknowledging his undeniable impact on the march toward freedom for America’s slaves.  No memorial and few interpretive markers acknowledge the acts of the most important of all emancipators in the Fredericksburg region: the slaves themselves.

That will change this weekend when Stafford County, the City of Fredericksburg, and the National Park Service unveil the first interpretive markers on the new Trail to Freedom, which will track the passage of 10,000 slaves across the Rappahannock River into Stafford County (and Union lines) during the spring and summer of 1862.  The location of these two exhibits–one in Old Mill Park on the Fredericksburg side of the river and one at Historic Port of Falmouth Park (Falmouth Beach) on the Stafford side–is no mere happenstance. They mark the crossing site of Fredericksburg slave John Washington who, on April 18, 1862, was among the very first of the 10,000 who dared to seize freedom themselves.  The exhibits and the trail are the product of the regional Sesquicentennial Committee and its Crossing workgroup, which organized funding and put together the exhibits.

The site of John Washington's crossing, taken from the Falmouth side of the river. Bridgewater Mill is at right.

John Washington, early 1870s.

That this story is being told is due in large part to the emergence of John Washington’s narrative, “Memorys of the Past.”  Before this narrative emerged in the 1990s, we had only statistics and the voices of Union soldiers who witnessed the passage.  But now we know exactly what the moment meant to one of those slaves: “Life had a new joy awaiting me,” he wrote.

The site of John Washington's crossing, Old Mill Park, Fredericksburg. The ruins of Bridgewater Mill are in the foreground.

We also know almost precisely where John Washington went across the river–he crossed a few yards below the Bridgewater Mill, the ruins of which are still visible in Fredericksburgs’ Old Mill Park.  This weekend’s ceremony, which will feature a reading of John Washington’s narrative of the moment by the indomitable Dominic Green, will take place on the Stafford side–at Falmouth Beach off River Road, where, that April 18 day, Washington was welcomed and surrounded by Union soldiers, curious about news from Fredericksburg and his life in slavery.  One of them asked, “Do you want to be free?”  Washington responded, “By all means.”

This blog is not really for plugging programs going on in the community. But this program is a bit different.  I have always felt that the combination of a place, the words of one who was there, and the work of the mind’s eye makes for an experience rarely surpassed.  All the elements will be there this weekend.  But more than that, this expression toward our history is historic in its own right, as the words of the slave are being heard.

The Bloody Angle: Balancing Access and Interpretation

From John Hennessy, NPS:

In a comment yeasterday, reader Todd Berkoff queried about plans for the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania–especially questioning the decision to remove the foot bridge that sits atop the Bloody Angle.  As I promised in my response, here is a map of what we plan on doing. 

For those of you who missed it, I repeat much of my explanation included in my response to him last night.

The planning for what is about to happen at the Bloody Angle was done by a multi-disciplinary group of both NPS sorts, local planners, and some interested residents. Our efforts to lay out a new trail at the Bloody Angle was dominantly guided by two things. First, a desire to offer visitors a way to understand both the Union and Confederate perspectives of the battlefield. This entailed giving visitors visual access to the shallow ravine in front of the Bloody Angle. The art we have sharedteh other day is intended for use at that vantage point.

Second, and even more important, was to develop a treatment that would encourage visitors to view and respect the Bloody Angle itself as they would a precious artifact, and thus to enhance its prospects for long-term survival. Part of that entails treating the site with respect ourselves.

The plan  envisions a trail system with a crossing of the works at someplace other than the Angle itself. There are three reasons why visitors cross at the Angle. First, we offer no alternative; second we give them a bridge–we virtually beg them to cross there; and third, given the current access only from inside (CS) of the Angle, the monuments beyond the Confederate works are an irresistible attractor. Moreover, we believe the presence of the bridge, which encourages people to cross, is likely the reason the works immediately adjacent to the bridge are among the most deteriorated in the park.

Our plan is to 1) route visitors from the parking area to the monuments first–all on the Union side of the Angle 2) leave no obvious attractor on the other side that would inspire them to walk over the works.. 3) Then cross them 50 yards or so down the works, in the direction of the East Angle. We will combine this with low-scale signage that constantly reminds them of the hallowed nature of the place, urges them to respect it, and not to leave the trail.

By doing this, we hope to remove the reason for having a footbridge right on the Angle itself. There is literally no more intrusive modern component anywhere in our park than the footbridge at the Bloody Angle. It’s a bit like having an exterior elevator shaft to the front facade of the White House. This is arguably the most hallowed place in the park; certainly this is the most precious, evocative stretch of earthworks we have (and perhaps anywhere in North America); to have a bridge literally atop the Angle is something we should all seek to avoid.

So, the big question: will our plan work? We’ll be watching nothing more closely than how people use the new trail (which will be open in the fall or winter). If we find that people ignore all we have done and choose to cross the works regardless, then we’ll be ready to act–even to the point of putting the bridge back. While your concerns about the Angle are well taken, please know that our planning is intended specifically to end the ongoing deterioration of the site–the root of your concerns. We hope that the guidance offered by a more formalized trail, a ready alternative to getting across at the Bloody Angle, and an inspired respect for the site will render a bridge right at the Angle unnecessary. We admit it’s a bit of an experiment, but it’s not a risk. We won’t let it become one. We all take our charge to preserve exceedingly seriously, and rest assured there are no people on earth more devoted to the Bloody Angle’s preservation than we are.

“The Journey of a Slave” Anticipates Interpretation of 2010

From Harrison, NPS:

Sometime during or shortly after the Civil War, a Northern publisher issued a remarkable set of chromolithographed cards, somewhat in the style of cigarette cards.  Those numbered at least a dozen and bore the collective designation, “The Journey of a Slave.”  The publisher also gave the illustrations individual titles and numbers.  The following copy of the Journey of a Slave series now resides at the Library of Congress, which tentatively attributes the work to Philadelphia artist James F. Queen:

Journey of a Slave is a remarkable piece of public history and art.

For one, it clearly reflects a commercial undertaking and shows that, for at least some entrepreneurs, slavery was a story to be publicized rather than forgotten or suppressed.  True, the illustrations may have been aimed at or found their strongest market among African American consumers in the North, but the subject of slavery was certainly in this case publicized thorough a mass-produced, dynamic (even lurid, given the blood spurts in “The Lash,” “Make Way for Liberty,” and “Victory”), easily accessible product.         

While the series is generalized geographically and not set specifically in the Fredericksburg area—as attested by the prominence of cotton cultivation in the first illustration—the long story of Fredericksburg’s presentation of its slave block, or “slave rock,” provides a local, similar example of the early publicizing of slavery in a commercialized or semi-commercialized manner…after the Civil War, in the case of the slave block.  Whether specific to the Fredericksburg area or not, such efforts provide a useful counterweight to the emphasis, in a number of today’s memory studies of the war and its causes, on amnesia over slavery and the black experience.  “Memory” is not invariably about forgetting, among people of all backgrounds.

Another notable aspect of the Journey of a Slave series is its anticipation of the efforts of the Fredericksburg community and Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park to tell the story of slavery and freedom.  The illustration series is of course a product of the mid-nineteenth century, not the late-twentieth and its focus on African American agency, initiative, and independence.  Until the closing moments of “Glory,” for example, the soldier and former slave, Trip, played by Denzel Washington, has little use for the flag, in contrast to the “Stand Up a Man” illustration in the Journey of A Slave.  Nevertheless, the central character in the Journey of a Slave does take control of his life dramatically, in the course of transitioning from slave to freedman to soldier.  Overall, the series reflects facets that would a century or more later become central to Park Service historical interpretation:  work, family formation, suffering, resilience, resistance, freedom, military service, sacrifice, and commemoration.

Noel G. Harrison

[Editor: For an example of how some of the components of “Journey of a Slave” are finding expression hereabouts, check out a new posting by Noel over at Mysteries and Conundrums on the efforts to document and describe the first clash of African American troops in Virginia north of the James River.  It happened in our midst.]

Fairview transformed…by art

From Hennessy, NPS.

Here’s another example of how we have used artwork to convey what I think are important messages. 

These are two images of Fairview, in 1863 the home of the overseer of the Chancellor family’s slaves, James Moxley.  The images, by Richard Schelcht, offer “before” and “after” images of the same place. They are used on side-by-side wayside exhibits.  What I like about these images in tandem is that visually they convey a powerful message about the impact of the war on civilians and their homes–without us ever having to say a word (though of course we do throw the words around liberally anyway). 

In the ongoing “debate” about using Civil War battlefields to tell a bigger story than just that of men in uniform, these images reflect the types of things we’re talking about.  It’s not revolutionary. It doesn’t detract an iota from the story of the battle.  And it tells us something both interesting and important about the effect of these battles had on the families that peopled these landscapes long before they were battlefields. 

Here is the site today, with the exhibits in place. 

Art as a tool for interpretation

From John Hennessy, NPS.  Click image to enlarge.

The Bloody Angle, by Richard Schlecht

Though we all love to write, and we like to believe that readers avidly consume our words, the fact is visitors to NPS areas don’t much like to stand in the beating sun and read, no matter how well we craft our prose. A hard reality for history types to accept sometimes is that museum exhibits, wayside exhibits, and even publications must dominantly be graphic mediums.  Reading is work, and most people won’t work very hard to get their information.  And so, graphics assume an immensely important role in interpretation.

We manage four major battlefields and two other historic sites that would, if they were farther apart, each be their own NPS unit.  All told, we have more than 100 wayside exhibits in the field or planned.  Each is at a key place, but sometimes the graphic material needed to illuminate a site just isn’t available.  When that’s the case, and when the significance of the site warrants an exceptional effort, we will sometimes turn to creating original art to help interpret the landscape or site.

This is pertinent because I received in the mail this morning our newest piece of original art–an aerial view of the Bloody Angle at the height of the fighting on May 12, 1864.  This will go on a new wayside exhibit (now in development) along a new segment of trail that will allow visitors to view both the Angle and the swale in front of it, where Union soldiers sought cover for hours that bloody day.  The perspective is from right above and behind the exhibit.  The Bloody Angle (which is in fact a barely perceptible turn in the works) is marked in this view by the lone oak tree just behind the Confederate works toward the right of the image.  The art is by Richard Schlecht, who has done this sort of aerial perspective for the NPS and National Geographic for years.   You are the first people to see it, besides a few members of our staff.

I post this not so much to make any immense point, but to share a little bit of the sorts of things we have in the works.  We are indeed lucky to be working in the profession we have chosen.

Dialect and the N-word on the streets of Fredericksburg

From John Hennessy, NPS:

In our last post I quoted from a WPA slave narrative by Fannie Brown describing a slave sale in Fredericksburg in 1860.  It is by any measure a brutal, powerful passage, and I present it again here.

I recollec’ one day I… went up close among de white folks gathered roun’ de warehouse peepin’ in through de windows to see de slaves. Den after a big crowd come roun’, I heard a nigger trader say, “Bruen…let my niggers out….”  Jim, a big six-foot, tall slave, come out smilin’, and his shirt was took off, and den dey start exzaminin’ him. Dey jerked his mouth open an’ look at his teeth an’ den slapped him on his back, an’ den dey said, “Dis is a prime nigger. Look at dose teeth.” Somebody say one hundred dollars, another two hundred an’ so on ’till one thousand dollars was reached. Den Jim …. was handcuffed an’ put in de coffle  wid de other slaves dat had been sol.

While the challenges of working with WPA slave narratives are many (see here for a quick overview), to my eye and ear, this quote presents two challenges to anyone using it in a public program.  First, the use of dialect.  I have always found it fascinating that when the writers hired by the WPA’s Federal Writers Project did their interviews with former slaves, many chose to record the words in dialect.  We of course have no way of knowing if the dialect recorded actually reflects the words and speaking style of the subject.  Or were interviewers were merely trying to make the words sound more “authentic?”

The larger question in my mind is whether the decision to record dialect reflects inherent racial views of the 1930s that should be rejected in 2010.  Dialect was recorded far less commonly for interviews with white subjects.  By using dialect, were interviewers consciously or subconsciously trying to suggest illiteracy or lack of eloquence?  Does the use of dialect diminish the narrative quality of the interviews? Is it one reason the narratives have, until recently, been so sparingly used?

More to the point, when standing in front of the Planter’s Hotel, reading  Fannie Brown’s remembrance of a slave sale, do I read it as printed, in dialect?

I do not.  Not only would it sound silly coming from me, but it distracts from the power of the words themselves.

We have also used the quote in our podcast for the World and Words of John Washington. We asked a prominent local teacher to record it for us–an African-American who was closely involved in the Civil Rights movement and who is completely devoted to efforts to convey history, flattering or not.  We left it to her to decide how she wanted to read it, and she felt it as an essential part of the quote and opted to read it with dialect. She did a fabulous job–it worked.  But I would not and could not ask someone to do that, and I could not do it myself.

A less subtle question emerges from the use of Fannie Brown’s quote.  When reading it in public, do you use the N-word as quoted in the narrative?

I’m curious how people feel about that.  I’ll give a couple days for folks to offer up their opinions, and then share how I have handled the question.

“Fredericksburg seems to be the best place to sell slaves in the State”: More evidence on the Auction Block

From John Hennessy, NPS (Click for prior series of post–Part One, Part Two, and Part Three):

Large Sale of Slaves. Fredericksburg seems to be the best place to sell slaves in the State. On Tuesday, at Charter’s Hotel, forty-three slaves were sold for $26,000.  One bricklayer brought $1,495.  One woman and child, 5 or 6 years old, brought $1,350.  Several were quite old servants.  It was a considered a tremendous sale.

This is from a small notice in the Fredericksburg News, January 6, 1854, of a slave sale held at what we now call Planter’s Hotel–the site of the disputed auction block.  The glee over the high prices produced by this sale is almost palpable.  The sale was organized, incidentally, by John Seddon, brother of the future Confederate Secretary of War.

Since our last post on this topic, Noel Harrison and Eric Mink of the NPS and collector extraordinaire Jerry Brent have dug out a few additional items related to auctions in front of Planter’s Hotel.  Most vividly is this picture, which shows former enslaved person George Triplett, who is reported in some sources to have been the last slave sold on the block in 1862.  Add another source to the list.    The image–from Jerry Brent’s collection–includes the following note on the back:

“The Old Slave, George Washington Triplett, Born in Stafford County, Va., Dec. 27th. 1833. Copy of certificate. Robert T. Knox & Brother. GREY EAGLE MILLS. Fredericksburg, Va. Sept. 29th. 1903. This is to certify that Mr. J.E.Reid, on 29th of September 1903 took the picture of one of our worthy colored men, George W. Triplett by name, who was the last colored man sold on the slave rock.(1862). It is a well established fact and has never been controverted or denied, and that I was an eye witness to the taking of the picture. (signed) James T. Knox of R.T.Knox & Brother.”

James T. Knox, born about 1844, was the son of miller and entrepreneur Thomas Knox, who lived in what is today the Kenmore Inn on Princess Anne Street. It was the elder Knox who purchased Planter’s Hotel after the war, and it would remain in the Knox family for decades.  This background is important in two ways. First, James Knox likely knew the building and its environs as well as anyone alive in 1903 could.  Second, James Knox, by virtue of his birth in 1844, may well have known first-hand of the use of the block in front of the hotel for slave sales.  You’ll note that in his testimonial on the photograph, he went out of his way to assert the truth of Triplett’s claim.

Yet another tidbit: a copy of the early 1862 sale noted in a comment by Noel Harrison. We now have four nine  more than twenty documented sales between 1847 and 1862.

In the face of this evidence in black and white, it might be useful to be reminded of exactly what these sales entailed.  Here is a description of a slave sale in Fredericksburg in 1860 (its precise location unknown, but it’s not inconceivable that it was in front of the Planter’s Hotel, which was surrounded by the sorts of warehouses described by the narrator).  It is from the WPA slave narrative of Fannie Brown, who was ten when she witnessed this scene:

“I recollec’ one day I… went up close among de white folks gathered roun’ de warehouse peepin’ in through de windows to see de slaves. Den after a big crowd come roun’, I heard a nigger trader say, “Bruen…let my niggers out….”  Jim, a big six-foot, tall slave, come out smilin’, and his shirt was took off, and den dey start exzaminin’ him. Dey jerked his mouth open an’ look at his teeth an’ den slapped him on his back, an’ den dey said, “Dis is a prime nigger. Look at dose teeth.” Somebody say one hundred dollars, another two hundred an’ so on ’till one thousand dollars was reached. Den Jim …. was handcuffed an’ put in de coffle  wid de other slaves dat had been sol’

Finally, it is worth noting that the Fredericksburg News, December 7, 1856, included an advertisement for the auction of land, to be held in front of Planter’s Hotel.  This so far is the only known instance of anything other than enslaved people being sold at the site, but it’s also suggestive that the site may have had something intrinsic about it that attracted auctions of more than just slaves.



The Insidious Workings of the Fredericksburg Slave Trade

from:  Harrison

When Madison Henderson, an enslaved man, received a death sentence for murder, robbery, and arson in St. Louis in 1841, he dictated a “confession.”  Printed by one of that city’s publishers, this account related details of Henderson’s life working for a slave trader in Virginia, evidently in the 1820’s, and other locales.  Henderson described how even those Fredericksburg-area slaves whose owners declined to offer them for sale had remained vulnerable to southward trafficking and to destruction of their families and family connections.  He also noted that aspiring owners risked a far milder but still substantial form of victimization through entanglement with the slave trade.

Madison Henderson

I was born, as well as I can recollect, the slave of Mr. Asa Brockman…who resided some miles in the country from Orange Court House…. When I was about 12 or 15 years
Continue reading