National Slavery Museum goes bankrupt without ever opening

National Slavery MuseumThe National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia, has filed for bankruptcy.

This will make little difference to potential visitors, however, since the museum doesn’t actually exist.

Former Virginia governor Douglas Wilder, shown here in this U.S. Government photo, founded a nonprofit organization in 2001 to create the museum. It was supposed to open in 2004 but never did. A small memorial sculpture garden was opened in 2007.

Since 2008, the organization has owed taxes on the property, which have now risen to $215,000. The city has stepped in and is now trying to sell the land. The museum’s filing for bankruptcy is aimed at stopping this from happening. Its bankruptcy paperwork says the organization has more than $3 million in debts.

The museum is also embroiled in a legal battle with Therbia and Marva Parker, who donated almost 100 historic artifacts with the understanding that they’d be put on display. Since it’s obvious that’s not going to happen, they want their artifacts back.

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

Civil WarAs 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

Civil War, Battle of Philippi, West VirginiaToday 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, Frank James
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!

Rowing across the Atlantic to end slavery

Slavery is not dead.

There are millions of men, women, and children forced into physical and sexual labor around the world, but the problem is often drowned out by other headlines.

In order to bring attention to the modern slave trade, a team of ten athletes is Rowing Against Slavery across the Atlantic Ocean. They’ll be stuck in a small boat for weeks, each one rowing two hours and taking two hours off as other team members take the oars, nonstop until they make the entire 3,000 mile journey.

The team hopes to beat the previous world record for rowing across the Atlantic, which is 33 days, but more importantly they will be raising awareness for an often hidden crime.

There are some grim facts and figures on their website, and more on the website of Anti-Slavery International, which was founded back in 1839 but still finds itself fighting a global problem.

It’s noticeable that both sites use the term “slavery” instead of “human trafficking”, which technically only refers to slaves who are moved from one place to another through force or deception. Instead they call slavery what it is. There appears to be a trend in the media of using the nastier-sounding term “slavery” when referring to slaves in Africa or Asia, and “human trafficking” when referring to slaves in the U.S. or Europe.

Slaves in U.S. and Europe? Yes. Many women and children are forced into prostitution in the developed world and there’s no shortage of child workers, like the blueberry farm in Michigan that ABC News found was using children as young as five. Kids as young as twelve are allowed to work legally on U.S. farms. Child labor is often considered slavery because the children have no choice about working, and are often denied access to education and are subject to sexual exploitation.

To follow the team’s adventure across the Atlantic, check out their blog. There’s a donate button if you want to help the effort to free the slaves. In the land of the free, what could be a better cause?