History & Politics
History, particularly popular history, need not be dull, something that Cormac O’Brien demonstrates readily in his book, The Forgotten History of America. Written in a conversational tone and broken into vignettes, old history is made new when written this way. Even so, it’s not the standard stuff taught in schools. It’s about wars and both sides in those wars, reaching back to the country’s colonial beginnings in the 16th century. With personalities writ large on both sides and a good understanding of the differences in modern and historical society, O’Brien leads his readers on journeys back in time:
It begins with the first permanent European settlement in North America:
Pedro Menedez de Aviles anxiously paced the deck of his flagship, San Pelayo. Two days earlier, off the coast of Florida, he had gone ashore and met with Indians who offered valuable information about the prey he was desperately seeking. Now, confident of success, he led his five vessels northward along the coastline, scanning the beaches for any sign of European settlement. The day was September 4, 1565, and Menendez was hunting heretics.
Colonial Churches of Virginia is a beautiful and beautifully-written work that does a good job of giving the history and architectural highlights of more than 50 historic churches in the Old Dominion. Most are Anglican or Episcopal, but representative early churches can also be found for Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Mennonite, and Lutheran congregations. Current service times are noted for each church.
In November, 1775, Harrower tells us of a muster of the minute men of the district, composed of the counties of Spotsylvania, Caroline, King George, and Stafford, which was held at "Belvideira," below the town. In the list of members of the Spotsylvania committee of safety chosen by direction of ordinance of convention on November 17th, of this year, by an assembly of freeholders of the county, meeting in Fredericksburg we find the town represented by Fielding Lewis, Charles Washington, George Thornton and Hugh Mercer. Throughout the Revolutionary War Fredericksburg was a center of distinction. "There is not one spot in the State so generally useful in our military operations," wrote James Mercer in April, 1781. The spring of 1781 witnessed in Virginia that remarkable campaign of the gallant young Marquis de LaFayette; the wonderfully conducted retreat from Richmond leading Cornwallis away from that important center and attempting a juncture with Wayne, who was on his way from Pennsylvania with reinforcements.
William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine (William and Mary Quarterly)
Volume XXVII, No. 2. October 1918. pp. 73-95. Parts II and III may also be read online.
FREDERICKSBURG IN REVOLUTIONARY DAYS
In a charming diary kept by him while under indentures to Colonel William Daingerfield, of Belvideira (a plantation on the river about seven miles below Fredericksburg) John Harrower a clever Scotchman, and schoolmaster to the youth of the Daingerfield and other neighboring households, was wont from time to time to copy letters which he had addressed to his "kith and kin" across the seas. In a letter to his wife in Lerwick in Scotland, sent under date of December 6, 1774, Harrower, after alluding to the "hote war" on the frontier which had terminated in the sanguinary battle of Point Pleasant: the conflict known to history as Dunmore's War, refers to the trouble then brewing between the Mother Country and her American colonies.
You can find them on a map. Barely. Little towns that used to be rather important hubs dot the Virginia countryside, dating from the days when agriculture ruled along with the horse and buggy or mule and wagon. These central spots, often near rail stations, rivers, or better roads, were communities in their own right and many have faded away as the interstate system grew. The Lost Communities of Virginia, by Terri Fisher and Kirsten Sparenborg, takes a look at these fading places, several of them near our area, including Mineral, Woodford, and Milford.
Fans of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café can relate to little Milford, situated in Caroline County and still located on a railroad line. Originally the popular area here was Doguetown, named for the Dogue Indians who used the Mattaponi River for transportation. Milford, named for a nearby plantation in 1792, also used the river as a point for shipping—and inspecting—tobacco. The Mattaponi River was connected to both the York River and the Chesapeake Bay. By the early 1840s, the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad ran from Richmond to Aquia Creek with a stop in Milford. Milford’s North-South railroad connections made it a target in the Civil War.
The opening months of the Civil War had a certain boldness and cachet to them. Young men in particular signed up in droves. Picnickers came down from D.C. to take a gander at the First Battle of Manassas, discovering all too quickly that war is no theatrical entertainment. However, four years later when the South was playing an end-game, the damage to not just its army but also to its civilians was clearly a factor in its surrender. In 1863, there had been bread riots in Richmond. In 1864, the Shenandoah Valley’s crops and businesses had been burned by Union General Sheridan who was advised by his commander Grant to ”Give the enemy no rest ... Do all the damage to railroads and crops you can.”
And so it was. The civilians and soldiers alike were hit with shortages, and the last year of the war was a particularly brutal time. In William C. Davis’ and James I. Robertson, Jr.’s Virginia at War: 1865, the editors include eight essays by modern scholars and a diary from a Virginia woman, the wife of a minister, who observed that last year from her refugee quarters in Richmond where she served as a nurse and a clerk.
A customer recently called me to tell me that he loved The President’s House, by Margaret Truman, so when I gave a talk in Northern Virginia a few days later, I passed on the recommendation to the group. The next customer who read it just called to tell me that he is really enjoying this book, too. Several of the book reviews said that it is a fun and interesting look at the White House written by a woman who has a deep love for this national icon because she was lucky enough to grow up there.
The personal histories included in All There Is are compelling and powerful. Some are joyous celebrations of love and companionship, while others are stoic accounts of tragedy and perseverance. Despite their differences, each narrative is characterized by an overpowering sense of authenticity. The stories recorded in All There Is were not shared for personal gain or publicity. Rather, they were collected through the efforts of StoryCorps, an oral history project that allows any willing volunteer to record his or her most precious memories and experiences. The participants share the most essential aspects of their lives in interviews that are recorded for their personal archives and, in many cases, for the American Folklife Center.
Since its debut in 2003, the StoryCorps project has spread across the United States, recording over 40,000 interviews. As Dave Isay, StoryCorps’ founder, states, “StoryCorps’ mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives. With a relentless focus on recording the stories of people who are often excluded from the historical record, StoryCorps captures lives that would otherwise be lost to history and reminds the nation that every story matters and every voice counts.”
The Seventeenth Child, by Dorothy Marie Rice & Lucille Mabel Walthall Payne, sets down the memories of a childhood lived in the countryside of 1930s Virginia by a black woman who grew up before the Civil Rights Movement made so many gains. These remembrances are plain, soft-spoken and ring true to an age that was certainly different from the one we know. In some ways, it was a harder time as in her earliest years even basic food was very hard to come by and the sharecropping system made it difficult for all farmers, black and white, to get ahead or even stay afloat during the bad harvest years.
But it was the warmth of family, faith, shared hardship and simple joys that made those days good as well as difficult. The children worked, not only because their help was needed but because it was understood that working was a good thing in and of itself. They helped pull and tend tobacco, can vegetables, sew quilts, raise chickens, and shell corn. Lucille Payne tells of how hard it was to earn money. How sometimes her mother might not be paid much more than fifty cents for a hard day’s washing of filthy clothes in a dark and cold shed. Well, fifty cents and a hambone that might not be fit to eat without it being scrubbed, too, and sometimes not even then. But her mother said, “Well, you accept what they give you; next time it might be better.”
It wasn’t all about acceptance. Sometimes Lucille would see her mother spit in the water while she washed and she would ask her why she did that. “That helps to get them clean.” But I know she was just so angry because she had to survive. When you have so many children you have to survive the best way you can. Likewise, when white children rode the bus to their segregated school, leaving the black children to walk and even calling them names, the black children got a bit of revenge…and a chance to be better than their so-called betters with an act of charity.
There was more than one wide-scale genocide in the 20th century. In 1916, the Turkish Minister of the Interior Talaat Pasha sent a letter to the government of Aleppo in Syria reminding them that all Armenians living in Turkey were be destroyed completely: “An end must be put to their existence, however criminal the measures taken may be, and no regard must be paid to either age or sex nor to conscientious scruples.” It was an order that was to be echoed by Adolph Hitler in 1939 in pursuing the end of “the Polish-speaking race.” Hitler added, “After all, who remembers today the extermination of the Armenians?”