Research Question: How Reliable is Richard Williams’s Old Virginia Blog?

Had it not been for Kevin Levin, I probably would never have heard of Richard Williams’s Old Virginia Blog, which over the years has become better known for its author’s rants about political correctness (as well as his distain for certain blogs, including this one) than for anything having to do with the study of the American past. During that time Williams has abdicated offering original commentary in favor of presenting his blog as a largely uncritical clipping service of conservative news sources supplimented by his own distinctive prose stylings. Readers of his blog (which will now most assuredly reach double digits) already know of his boasting that proclaim his subjectivity and bias is superior to everyone else’s (Williams believes that one’s political position explains nearly everything about them and how they see the world, although only he really knows what they think), as well as his assumption that people who don’t post about what he thinks they should post about are part of some left-wing (and usually Marxist) conspiracy to upend American values, which he thinks are best reflected through the experiment in Confederate independence.

Or so some might say.

So let’s test this proposition and in the process assess Mr. Williams’s blog by exploring his most recent post, reproduced below:

polston OVB

This is his only post on this news item. For the item to which he links, look here.

So, folks … let’s do a little research, and see whether this post is complete, sufficient, and accurate in understanding the incident it purports to highlight. Tell us what you find and how what you find might alter your understanding of the story as presented by Mr. Williams.

Oh, yes, and then be on the lookout for the whailing and whining that are sure to follow from Virginia Whine Country.


Heritage, Not History: Distorting the Past To Satisfy Present Needs

Confederate heritage advocates always claim to be rather interested in history, although it appears their ability to ensure historical accuracy (as opposed to heritage correctness) is not always sound. Take this example:


This little item appeared on the Facebook page of our good friends the Virginia Flaggers. Of especial note is the quote attributed to William Henry Seward, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State.

I found the quote provocative, and so I decided to do a little research. Guess what I found?

First, apparently Confederate heritage advocates are rather fond of this quote, as a look at Google suggests. But they aren’t always very good at citing the source. Fortunately, it’s also easy to find the quote in question. You will come across it in a book written by one George Edmonds, Facts and Falsehoods Concerning the War on the South, 1861-1865, published in 1904 in Memphis, Tennessee. You’ll find it on page 23:


This is a valuable clue. The Piatt in question is one Donn Piatt, a big fan of George H. Thomas and someone who had no problem writing vivid if not always accurate accounts of his interaction with famous folks. Perhaps that explains why a recent biography is subtitled “Gadfly of the Gilded Age.”

In 1887 Piatt published Memories of Men Who Saved the Union, which recounted many of these encounters. Among them, we learn, is the conversation in question.

Piatt recalled that he first met Seward while Seward was still a senator from New York. He later recounted on pages 135-38 the exchange he had with the former governor:


Piatt Seward 2.JPG


Piatt Seward 4.JPG

Oh, my. That’s not what Confederate heritage advocates claimed Seward had said. Yes, southerners used the Constitution “as a shield” … “to cover their wicked designs” to expand slavery.

I didn’t see that when the Virginia Flaggers posted the quote. I wonder why. Nor did I see them remind us that Seward said that the Constitution was “a sacred ark of covenant” to the North. Somehow that information didn’t make its way onto the Virginia Flaggers’ post, either.

Someone’s been lying for 112 years. But then distortions of the record have always been essential to Confederate heritage correctness. It’s just that in this case we can see that the practice has a long history. It’s a tradition of dishonesty.

We hear all the time from Virginia Whine Country about “political correctness” and distortions of the past, but somehow not when it comes to the distortions (and fabrications) of the historical record for which certain Confederate heritage advocates are so well known. That’s because the “political correctness” that I have styled “heritage correctness” serves their own self-serving politicized view of the American past. I guess that also runs in the blood of certain haughty Virginians (I’ve always thought the blood’s been diluted over time). Some people’s blood runs hot. Some people’s blood runs cold. In this case, it’s simply run out.

And if you’re waiting for a retraction or an admission of error from the Flaggers, be prepared to wait a long time. Given their interest in monitoring this blog (hi Connie!), we’ll see whether the Flaggers clean up their feed.

Remember, folks, it’s heritage, not history. And if it takes lying to preserve the heritage and restore the (lost) honor, so be it.

Research Exercises: Winslow Homer’s Watching the Shot

homer watching the shot

Poking around the internet at the convergence of two of my research interests … Winslow Homer and the 5th New York Infantry … along with a Facebook post from Diane Monroe Smith, brought me to a rather interesting website which explores one of Homer’s lesser-known works, “Watching the Shot.”

I have reason to doubt that this painting combines all the elements claimed by the researcher. The mention of Antietam seems a distraction, for bridges at Antietam look far different. Nor would one easily recall an action where Francis C. Barlow and the 5th New York were in close proximity. Indeed, let’s set Antietam aside: the 5th New York was in reserve at Antietam behind Middle Bridge, still recovering from the devastating losses it suffered at Second Manassas. Nor do I think this piece portrays High Bridge in Virginia: that’s a much higher bridge than offered here, and of course the 5th New York was not present at a battle that took place some 23 months after the regiment went home. But maybe someone here has a different opinion or a better one. In any case, enjoy.

Research Exercise: What Percentage of Southerners Supported the Confederacy?

Here’s a research exercise that should engage some people (including a certain mathematician who reads this blog frequently):

What percentage of southerners supported the Confederacy?

For purposes of this exercise, we hold to the following definitions:

1.  “The South” is defined as the fifteen slave states of the 1860 census. We are not including New Jersey or points west (that would make this too easy to define the Confederacy as a minority movement). Nor will we count the Indian Territory later known as Oklahoma.

2.  All people counted in the 1860 census–free and enslaved–regardless of race or color, are defined as southerners. Recall that the three major categories are whites, free blacks, and enslaved people.

Left to you is to offer an estimation (complete with justification) of the number of southern whites who stayed loyal to the Union.

Show your work so that we may follow your reasoning. Let’s allow until next Monday as the deadline for solutions.

Research Exercise: The Forgotten Black Confederates

We hear a great deal about the debate over the military service of African Americans, slave and free, in the Confederate army. Usually this debate focuses on identifying individuals and defining their service. Were they soldiers? Were they enrolled? Were they serving the Confederacy or simply their masters? Did they really have any choice? We have far less to go on when it comes to describing motivation, leaving people to rely on speculation that tends to reinforce their own prejudices and preferences.

That this discussion is marred by fabrication, distortion, and ignorance doesn’t help matters.

But most people acknowledge that near the end of the war that a handful of African Americans did make their way into Confederate service as soldiers under the terms of legislation passed in 1865 by the Confederate Congress and implemented by the Davis administration and Confederate military authorities. Reports exist of two companies of blacks forming part of a battalion that saw action at Petersburg. But that’s just about it. Information is scarce about these men. Who were they? Where did they come from? Under what terms did they enter Confederate service? What happened to them?

You tell me.

Research Exercise: Confederate Soldiers on Tariff Policy

I have heard it said that since the correspondence of Confederate soldiers does not often mention that the soldier in question was fighting to protect the institution of slavery, Confederate soldiers did not fight to protect slavery … and, ergo, the Confederacy was not established to protect slavery.

Let’s stipulate for a moment that this reasoning is on the mark, and let’s apply it elsewhere … specifically the oft-cited cause, the tariff. Surely, if the Confederacy was established to protest protective tariffs, then Confederate soldiers would write home about how they were risking life and limb to protest the imposition of protective tariffs.

So, folks, show me those wartime letters. Thanks.

Research Exercise: What Horace Porter Said

Horace Porter liked to put himself at the center of everything.
Horace Porter liked to put himself at the center of everything.

One of the enduring images of Cold Harbor comes from the description provided by Horace Porter of how Union soldiers prepared for the attack on June 3 during the evening hours of June 2. One of the enduring characteristics of narratives about Cold Harbor is how people have used this description to further various interpretations of the June 3 assault.

This presents us with an opportunity to do a little detective work. Here’s what Porter actually wrote in his 1897 book, Campaigning with Grant:

Porter Cold Harbor One

Porter Cold Harbor Two

Porter Cold Harbor Three

Your assignment is a simple one: what have people made of this statement? What use have they made of this narrative? Is the interpretation you highlight justified by the text cited?

Let’s cite an example from the New York Times’ Disunion blog.

Unbelievably, despite having been given orders – and an extra day – to prepare before engaging Lee’s army, the Union corps commanders had conducted practically no reconnaissance of the seven-mile front that stretched from Bethesda Church to the Chickahominy. As a result, their troops would be charging blind. When they received their orders early on the morning of June 3, the soldiers did not panic or run; many of them simply wrote their names and addresses on slips of paper, and pinned the notes to the inside of their blouses, so that their bodies could be identified for burial.

Their fatalism proved amply justified. The attack began in mist and fog, at 4:30 a.m. As they charged, all the Yankees could see before them was freshly turned earth, behind which were the entrenched rifle pits of thousands of waiting rebels. During the first crucial hour of the main attack, the Southern guns poured volley after volley of enfilading fire into the hapless federals. They died in rows, in waves; as many as 7,000 Union soldiers fell in that terrible hour, most in the first 10 minutes. The field was soon littered with Union dead and wounded.

Yes, I know: the 7,000 dead and wounded in thirty minutes tale has been discredited, but it persists in various forms (here we have most falling in ten minutes … can’t these people coordinate their tales?).

Or this, from The Washington Post:

Cold Harbor became Gettysburg in reverse; what Pickett’s Charge would be to Lee, Cold Harbor would be to Grant. Thousands of men were killed or wounded in barely half an hour on that June morning. The story goes that many pinned their names to their clothes before they charged, so that their bodies could be identified.

Not quite so bad, although I don’t recall Lee advancing after Gettysburg. Nor did Grant lose half the attacking force.

I’m well aware that Gordon Rhea has pointed out that he can find no other account to substantiate Porter’s description. I am less likely to dismiss it simply because of that fact … but I also know that the act of fashioning homemade dog tags (there were none issued by the government) was done before engagements on several fields, so to single out Cold Harbor seems a bit exaggerated.

Kevin Levin beat me to the punch on these and several other issues concerning recent commentary on Cold Harbor, and I’ll return to those issues later. But, for now, there’s what Horace Porter said. So let’s see what you find.

Robert Anderson Caused the Civil War

Recently a poster declared:

Secession had many causes, but none of them led to the war. Your proof positive is the Secession documents, which are nothing more than a list of grievances. So that being case, show proof using these documents that the war was fought over slavery. When you have done this I will show proof the issue was not slavery

The only event that leads to the war was Anderson moving from Moultrie to Sumter. Without that event there would have been no war.


Research Exercise: The Imploding Confederacy

People who celebrate Confederate heritage as the story of a proud and unified people defended by soldiers committed to the cause of Confederate independence ought to do a little more research into what happened at home during the war. Here’s a letter from an eminent Georgia politician to Governor Joseph Brown that shows us just how problematic an account of a united white South may be:

Morganton, Georgia

August 11, 1863

His Excellency, Joseph E. Brown

Dear Sir,

I wrote you a few days since, relative to the conduct of the deserters and bushwackers, giving you the program of their actions up to that time.

I called out my cavalry as far as they were armed. Capt. Kincade called out his infantry company and they are now stationed at the place. Both companies have actively engaged scouring the country but up to this time we have not been able to capture any of them. Last night one hundred and twenty five of these desperadoes were within five miles of this place swearing they would come to the town and burn it. They were met by the sheriff and persuaded to disband. The sheriff has several relatives in the crowd and he therefore went boldly to work, and finally prevailed with them to desist.

We have no arms of any value, scarcely old rifles and a few single barreled shot guns and no ammunition, not two rounds a piece. We cannot muster more than fifty or sixty guns which I consider worthless. We must have arms and ammunition or this town will be burned and the country over run and perhaps many citizens massacred.

They swear that no man who is a Southern man in sentiment and action, will be permitted to keep a gun or any other weapon of defense. They are bold and reckless. I repeat to you that we must have help, both in men and arms or our county will be over run. There are some of the Georgia deserters who have sent me word if I can obtain the consent of the War Department that they will join the company here for home defense, but they swear they will die before they return to the army. Can you procure the consent of the department. It would be better to quiet them in this way than to let them connect themselves with these North carolina desperadoes.

Under an order of Gen. Buckner of a recent date, I am informed that the names of all the deserters under his command have been stricken from the company rolls. It strikes me therefore that the war department might willingly, if applied to, give permission for them to join the companies for home defense, I must confess I have little confidence in them but they can be better controlled in this way, they can be dispersed all over the country. If this meets with your approbation I trust you will immediately telegraph the war department and if they give their consent, write me immediately and I can quiet all the Georgians in this section.

Since writing the foregoing, I learned that a large party of these scoundrels, after dispersing last night went back a few miles into the edge of Union County and took all the guns they could find in that section. They say they can muster eight hundred men. Every man in Cherokee, N. Carolina who was enrolled for conscription have taken to the bush and if this is true, I doubt not that they can muster a large force. The Tennessee deserters and conscripts are also with them–many of them. And they are all sworn to defend one another, I am not scared but I confess that the times are any thing but pleasant to contemplate.

I intend to hold this place if I can, but how it is to be done without arms or ammunition I must confess looks doubtful. The lives of all the prominent citizens are threatened and unless some relief is sent forthwith, they will doubtless execute their threat.

Now my Dear Sir, as you see how things stand and it is for you to take such course as you think the emergency requires. If you can arm the battalion composed of the companies from Gilmer and this county, we can successfully defend this section and drive the marauders from this country. Without help however we are destined to suffer.

I am as your friend and servant.

E. W. Chastain

P.S. I had omitted to say that the whole country is panic stricken. That I cannot get them to turn out for their own defense. They are afraid to move anyway. EWC.

What does this letter tell us about the state of the Confederacy in the summer of 1863? The floor is open.

Research Exercise: Twelve Years a Slave … Edwin Epps’s Slaves

Much has been made of the movie “Twelve Years a Slave,” but I haven’t offered an opinion on it, largely because I have yet to see it (trying to complete several manuscripts leaves a mark on one’s time). However, I’m well aware of the book, which you can access online here.

One can turn to page 184 to read about the slaves owned by Edwin Epps, and one will find this description:

Epps remained on Huff Power two years, when, having accumulated a considerable sum of money, he expended it in the purchase of the plantation on the east bank of Bayou Boeuf, where he still continues to reside. He took possession of it in 1845, after the holidays were passed. He carried thither with him nine slaves, all of whom, except myself, and Susan, who has since died, remain there yet. He made no addition to this force, and for eight years the following were my companions in his quarters, viz: Abram, Wiley, Phebe, Bob, Henry, Edward, and Patsey. All these, except Edward, born since, were purchased out of a drove by Epps during the time he was overseer for Archy B. Williams, whose plantation is situated on the shore of Red River, not far from Alexandria.

Abram was tall, standing a full head above any common man. He is sixty years of age, and was born in Tennessee. Twenty years ago, he was purchased by a trader, carried into South Carolina, and sold to James Buford, of Williamsburgh county, in that State. In his youth he was renowned for his great strength, but age and unremitting toil have somewhat shattered his powerful frame and enfeebled his mental faculties.

Wiley is forty-eight. He was born on the estate, of William Tassle, and for many years took charge of that gentleman’s ferry over the Big Black River, in South Carolina.

Phebe was a slave of Buford, Tassle’s neighbor, and having married Wiley, he bought the latter, at her instigation. Buford was a kind master, sheriff of the county, and in those days a man of wealth.

Bob and Henry are Phebe’s children, by a former husband, their father having been abandoned to give place to Wiley. That seductive youth had insinuated himself into Phebe’s affections, and therefore the faithless spouse had gently kicked her first husband out of her cabin door. Edward had been born to them on Bayou Huff Power.

Patsey is twenty-three—also from Buford’s plantation. She is in no wise connected with the others, but glories in the fact that she is the offspring of a “Guinea nigger,” brought over to Cuba in a slave ship, and in the course of trade transferred to Buford, who was her mother’s owner.

That seems rather interesting … and it gets even more interesting when one turns to this lesson plan that includes an image from the 1850 federal slave census:

Epps 1850 slave census


As Susan had died, there were eight slaves left (including Northrup). Yet this schedule does not easily match at first glance with Northrup’s description of Epps’s slaves.

Your mission is to figure out why and what this says about Northrup’s narrative.