Civil War anniversary: first escaped slave to take up arms against Confederacy

As the nation commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War over the next four years, there’ll be a lot of mentions of “firsts”. Here at Gadling we’ve already covered first land battle of the Civil War and the first significant battle of the Civil War. One lesser-known but significant anniversary is happening today.

By June of 1861 there had been very little fighting. Both sides were preparing for their first campaigns and securing important bases. One important Union foothold was Fort Monroe on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. From there it would be possible to launch a second front against the rebellious state.

The Confederates wanted to take it. At the moment they didn’t have the strength to assault the well-defended fort, so a force of 1,200 men kept a close watch on it from a few miles away at Big Bethel Church and Little Bethel Church.

Union commander Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler decided to push the Confederates back from these positions and sent 2,500 men on the night of June 9 to get in position for a predawn attack on Little Bethel. The area had already been scouted by George Scott, a runaway slave hired by the army as a guide. Butler wrote in his orders, “George Scott to have a shooting iron.” This is the first known instance of a black man being legally allowed to take up arms against the South.

A night march was not a good idea for inexperienced soldiers. One group fired on another thinking they were rebels. Two men were killed and 19 wounded. The friendly fire also alerted the Confederates at Little Bethel, who withdrew to Big Bethel where the rest of the rebel army prepared a warm reception for the Yankees. They were dug in at a strong position overlooking the bridge over Big Bethel Creek.

Despite the loss of surprise, the Union troops forged ahead and came upon the bridge early in the morning. They crossed the creek at two points but fell back under heavy fire from the entrenchments. Deciding another attempt would be fruitless, they returned to Fort Monroe. The Union side lost 18 killed, 53 wounded, and 5 missing. The Confederates lost one killed and 7 wounded.

%Gallery-126108%There’s no record of whether George Scott actually participated in the fighting, but the fact that he was legally allowed to carry a weapon was significant. It wasn’t the first time black men had done so, however. Over in Kansas, abolitionist senator Jim Lane raided Missouri farms to kill slave owners and free slaves. At least one report mentions that some armed black men rode with him. Senator Lane was acting beyond the law but didn’t care.

It would be some time before black units were formed and used in battle. Most African-Americans in the army were used for manual labor. The First Kansas Colored Volunteers was the first black unit of the American army to see battle when it defeated rebel guerrillas at Island Mound, Missouri, on 29 October 1862. At this point it was an illegal unit run by none other than Senator Jim Lane, but it eventually got recognition as a Union army regiment.

Like all too many Civil War battlefields, the site of Big Bethel is not well preserved and much of it has been built over. The Raleigh Civil War Round Table is currently trying save what’s left. Civil War Round Tables are found all over the U.S. and are often at the forefront of local research and preservation. If you want to learn more about the war in your area, joining the local Round Table is a great way to start.

The Hampton History Museum will be commemorating the battle tomorrow with the dedication of a monument to the Union soldiers who fought and died as well as a wreath laying at the monument of the Confederate soldier who died.

Thanks to the Civil War Daily Gazette for reminding me of this important anniversary. This blog gives daily coverage of the war and makes for great reading for anyone interested in this historic conflict.

[Photo courtesy of African-American Union sergeant courtesy Wikimedia Commons. This image dates from 1864 and is not of George Scott. No images of him are known to exist.]

Civil War’s first land battle to be reenacted in West Virginia

Today is the 150th anniversary of the first land battle of the Civil War.

After the April 12 attack on Fort Sumter kicked off the Civil War, there was a lull while both sides got ready. Some scattered skirmishes took place that had few casualties and no importance, but on 3 June 1861, the town of Philippi, in what’s now West Virginia, became the scene for the first big fight.

Philippi stood next to an important bridge and railroad line desired by both armies. The Confederates had made it there first with 800-1000 raw recruits, many of whom were unarmed. A Union force of 3,000 regular soldiers went after them. They came upon Philippi early in the morning in a pincer movement in the hope of surrounding the rebels. One of the pincers made it to the bridge first and found the rebel pickets asleep in their tents, hiding out from the cold rain. The Union force opened fire on the main camp and the rebels retreated after only a few minutes.

At this point they should have been cut off by the second pincer, but this Union column hadn’t made it to the right spot in time and most of the rebels got away. Only four Union soldiers were wounded and there were 26 rebel casualties.This early victory helped the career of Maj. Gen. George McClellan, the regional Union commander. After a few more little victories he became commander of all Union armies. Western Virginia, with its rugged mountains and small farms, had few slaves and the population was mostly Unionist or neutral, while the rest of Virginia depended heavily on the slave economy and therefore supported the South. West Virginia separated from the rest of Virginia and became a Union state in 1863, right in the middle of the war.

Philippi is commemorating the battle with five days of events, including a reenactment of the battle, talks, living history demonstrations, traditional music and crafts, and even a reenactment of a battlefield amputation. If anyone is going to this last event, please send me a photo to post on Gadling!

The Philippi reenactment starts a long series of events sponsored by the West Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission.

While the Philippi Races can claim to be the first land battle of the Civil War, the Boonville Races, more properly known as the Battle of Boonville, Missouri, was the first significant battle of the war. This equally easy Union victory on June 17 secured the Missouri River and went a long way to securing the entire state for the North.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

The Jesse James farm

Jesse James grew up both lucky and unlucky. His father, Baptist preacher Robert Sallee James, owned a prosperous farm in Clay County. His slaves cultivated hemp and other cash crops, and Jesse and his older siblings Frank and Susan grew up in comfort. Robert kept a large library and both his sons became avid readers. Frank loved Shakespeare, while Jesse was more devoted to the Bible and newspapers.

The boys’ luck quickly changed. Although Robert had founded a successful Baptist church and was respected by his neighbors, he wasn’t content. In 1850 he decided to go to the gold fields of California to preach to the miners. Jesse James, then only two years old, clutched his leg and begged him not to go. Robert went anyway, and within a few months had died.

This was a financial disaster for the James family. It turned out Robert had left many debts and some of the family possessions had to be auctioned off. Jesse’s mother Zerelda, a tough Southern woman, married a wealthy farmer named Benjamin Simms, a man twice her age. This saved the financial situation but did not stabilize the children’s lives. Simms rejected his stepchildren and made them move into a relative’s home. Simms soon died by falling off a horse and Zerelda, showing little grief, married mild-mannered physician Reuben Samuel. The children moved back to the farm and Samuel treated them as if they were his own.

All should have gone well, but Clay County was on the border of the Kansas Territory. In the 1850s, there was a bitter fight over whether Kansas would be admitted into the Union as a slave state or a free state. Immigrants from the north arrived armed, ready to make Kansas free, while Missouri “border ruffians” crossed the border to disrupt local elections and skirmish with the Free-Staters. Kansas “Jayhawkers” raided Missouri, freeing slaves and killing slave owners. As slave owners themselves, the James family wanted Kansas to become a slave state. The majority of Missourians agreed with them, although a growing minority were outspoken abolitionists.

%Gallery-108204%Bleeding Kansas, as the fight was called, was the precursor to the Civil War. When the Confederacy formed in 1861, Missouri’s governor and much of the legislature wanted to join, but they met fierce resistance. Soon there were two Missouri state governments on opposite sides of the Civil War. Jesse was still a boy, but Frank was old enough to enlist in the Missouri State Guard, a Confederate outfit. He saw fighting at Wilson’s Creek and Lexington, both Confederate victories, then fell ill and was left behind and captured. Frank swore loyalty to the Union and went home, but when the Unionist state government required that all able-bodied men join a local Union militia, he fled and became a guerrilla under the command of William Quantrill.

Quantrill’s band of guerrillas, often called “bushwhackers”, terrorized Unionist civilians and attacked Union patrols. They became famous for their lightning raids and merciless persecution of Unionist civilians. Their worst atrocity was attacking Lawrence, Kansas, a center of abolitionism, and killing 200 mostly unarmed men and boys.

Everybody knew Frank rode with Quantrill. The local Union militia, the same one Frank had refused to join, showed up at the James farm. They had heard Frank and the bushwhackers were camped nearby. Finding 15 year-old Jesse working in the field, they demanded to know where Frank was. When he refused to tell, they beat him. The militia had better luck with Reuben Samuel. They put a noose around his neck, threw the rope over a high branch, and hauled him up. Just before he passed out, they dropped him back down, then hauled him up again. Eventually Samuel revealed where Frank was. The militia rode off in pursuit, but the bushwhackers got away.

Jesse never forgot that beating, and when he was sixteen he joined the bushwackers. He became one of the toughest of a tough crew and participated in the Centralia Massacre in 1864. His mother Zerelda stayed at home throughout the war, helping her boys on the sly and giving the militia a severe tongue lashing any time they appeared on her property. A local Union commander called her “one of the worst women in the state.”

After that the James farm never knew peace. Frank and Jesse, unable or unwilling to adjust to life after the war, continued their guerrilla activities as outlaws. They lived more or less openly on the farm. Many of their neighbors supported them as loyal Southerners, while others were too afraid to cross them. One night in 1874, a group of Pinkerton detectives, thinking Frank and Jesse were home, snuck up to a window and threw a bomb inside. The explosion mangled Zerelda’s arm and killed eight-year-old Archie Samuel, Frank and Jesse’s half brother.

In 1882 Jesse was assassinated by Robert Ford and Frank gave himself up shortly thereafter. He was found innocent of all charges (this was a time before fingerprinting and CCTV) and settled down to a peaceful life. Zerelda stayed at the farm until her death in 1911, giving tours of the farm for the curious. She even sold pebbles from Jesse’s grave for 25 cents. When she ran out of pebbles, she’d go down to the nearby creek and get some more.

At the James Farm Museum just outside of Kearney you can still buy a pebble from Jesse’s grave, and they still cost 25 cents. The visitor’s center explains the life and times of Frank and Jesse and displays many artifacts from the family. Hidden behind a screen of trees the James farm looks much as it was, lovingly restored in the 1970s by James devotees and filled with family heirlooms. The legend lives on there, as it does in many other spots where the James brothers fought, robbed, and died in Missouri.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.

Coming up next: Jesse James robs his first bank!

The Kura Hulanda Museum in Curacao – looking back on a dark history of slave trade

If you were going to study slavery, you might not think to look in Curacao, but the Kura Hulanda Museum has the most extensive collection of slave-related artifacts and replicas I’ve ever seen, anywhere. The museum, located at Hotel Kura Hulanda, also houses the largest collection of African artifacts and anthropological exhibits in the Caribbean. It seems impossible, considering that about half of the Americans I’ve spoken to don’t even know where Curacao is.

(It’s in the Dutch Antilles by Aruba, and very close to Venezuela. Venezuela is on the north coast of South America. Curacao is below the hurricane belt, which makes it an ideal beach destination for the June through September months.)

So. Inside Hotel Kura Hulanda, a charming historical neighborhood-turned-hotel with unique rooms and gorgeous antique furniture from all over the globe, is the Kura Hulanda Museum, which is owned and curated by hotel owner and entrepreneur Jacob Gelt Dekker. He hand-picked each item for the collection while traveling the world, and continues to add to it whenever he comes across something special. He’s not without skill — the result is an incredible, gut-wrenching teaching institution for all of the Caribbean and beyond.

Those who know a little about the history of slave trade have probably come across Curacao in their studies. The Dutch West India Company made Curacao a major hub for human trafficking in 1662 and it remained as such for the next 200 years. By the time the Dutch abolished slavery (1863), the economy had become entirely reliant on slave trade. Abolition crushed the prosperity of the island for many years, that is, until oil was discovered there in 1914.
It’s a strange history for what many would call a strange island. The green landscape is filled with bright, colorful buildings made in traditional Dutch styles, and the major landmarks include a fort full of bars and a floating pontoon bridge which opens and closes to allow cruise ships to dock, as well as the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the entire Western hemisphere. You might expect such an unusual island to brush its history as a slave trade hub under the rug. In fact, that’s just what many feared was happening until the Kura Hulanda Museum opened in April of 1999.
Now, visitors can explore a labyrinthine exhibit through modern buildings, courtyards and shacks with a vast slavery collection including KKK uniforms, brands and unfathomable torture devices — some replicas, some real. There’s a basement converted into a replica of a slave ship slave’s quarters.

The first gallery is about the origins of man, with priceless ancient treasures collected by Dekker. My guide, Yflen, explained to me that the point of this gallery is “to remind you that we all come from the same place.” The impressive exhibit features ornate clay tablets and tax collector slabs, zoomorphic vessels, terracotta deities and fascinating relics from Iran, Ethiopia, Syria and other know habitats of early man.

Then, you enter the first courtyard and are presented with this beautiful face:

Walk around a bit and visit a shack full of skull replicas and the astonishing spider dolls (see: Kura Hulanda’s spiders – an unforgettable hotel exhibit), and take another look at this stunning sculpture by Nel Simon.

It is from here you can begin your journey into a horrifying history of torture and abuse — things we don’t like to, but must, remember. Along with the sinking feeling of seeing what awful things human beings have done and do to each other comes a strong sense of the importance of learning about those things. Being there is a way of honoring the people who suffered; recognizing the significance of that suffering.

The museum ends in an expansive gallery of African artifacts, celebrating the unique and fascinating cultures from which the slaves were torn. My heart still breaks when I recall the story that Yflen told me: slave catchers would figure out where the children from a village went to play, then fill that area with concealed metal traps. A child would inevitably get caught and the adults would come to rescue him or her, only to be caught themselves. Perhaps you already knew that story; perhaps you know one of the thousands of others.

The Kura Hulanda Museum takes you on an emotional and richly educational ride. It’s one thing to have a dark history of slave trade, and another thing entirely to put it out in the light for all to see.

[Photos by Annie Scott.]

My visit to the Kura Hulanda Museum was sponsored by Kura Hulanda, but the ideas and opinions expressed in this article are 100 percent my own.

Kura Hulanda’s spiders – an unforgettable hotel exhibit

On my recent trip to Curacao, I stayed for a few nights at Kura Hulanda, a historical hotel with an unexpectedly enormous museum curated by owner, entrepreneur and traveler Jacob Gelt Dekker. Inside the labyrinth of exhibits, I came upon a shack filled with unsettling dolls by Dutch artist “Mrs. Zanoni.”

Mrs. Zanoni was born in Curacao and at one point lived on the property which has become Hotel Kura Hulanda. The exhibit’s literature refers to her doll-making as a “pleasant hobby” and “a reflection of the society of Curacao.” One look at these dolls will have you wondering what she really thinks of the place.

The Kura Hulanda Museum hosts a huge collection of artifacts and replicas from Dekker’s travels around the world, including the largest collection of African artifacts and anthropological exhibits in the Caribbean. What becomes clear almost immediately as you explore the galleries is the unspoken central subject: slavery. Curacao was once a major slave trade hub in the Caribbean, and this museum quietly, but prolifically, gives solemn recognition to that inescapable past. Mrs. Zanoni’s dolls are no exception, as illustrated by the spiders.
%Gallery-104440%According to my guide at the museum, slaves on Curacao would speak in code to avoid having their personal business, including plans of escape, overheard by their masters. They would refer to themselves as “spiders,” with the allegory being that they had “many works; many arms.” The master was called “The King,” and with these and a few other substitutions, they were able to carry on private conversations even when their masters were in the room. Mrs. Zanoni made these doll spiders to document that secret code, and to teach future generations.

All the dolls have a stylized, grotesque quality, but the spiders are heartbreakingly significant.

Also from the exhibit, as Mrs. Zanoni could not be reached for comment: “Making character dolls is a good way to explain to people who I am and where I come from.”

The other dolls reflect more run-of-the-mill aspects of life on Curacao — including an American tourist (see gallery above) — and have been used in The Netherlands to educate the Dutch about life in the Antilles. “I tried, with the help of the dolls, to put the Antilles with all her positive aspects in the center of attention,” Mrs. Zanoni has said.

[Photos by Annie Scott.]

My visit to the Kura Hulanda Museum was sponsored by Kura Hulanda, but the ideas and opinions expressed in this article are 100 percent my own.