Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Loss and hope at Petersburg battlefield: Cemetery lodge showcases sword, burial registry, record of freed slaves

Soldier-built church was used by Freedmen's Bureau (LOC)

Emmanuel Dabney
Civil War-era documents and artifacts on exhibit in a Victorian-era lodge at Poplar Grove National Cemetery in Virginia are reminders of death and despair, but also inspire hope. The Picket spoke this week with Emmanuel Dabney, curator at Petersburg National Battlefield, about the items, which were placed in the building for this spring’s rededication of the cemetery after an extensive rehabilitation project.

Freedmen’s Bureau: ‘Sense of hope’

A single page in a Freedmen's Bureau registry conveys the challenges facing former slaves left destitute and homeless by the Civil War: “lame”; “blind”; “sick for ever.”

The lodge features a copy of a May 1866 partial census record of free people who received assistance until they had to move within about a year of the war's end because of construction of the Poplar Grove cemetery. A nurse who wrote about her experiences said between 500 and 600 people lived on the site of a well-constructed camp built and left by the 50th New York Engineer Regiment, which was stationed near the 1864-65 battlefield.

School-age residents attended schools and adults received help in getting work and caring for their families.

“There was a sense of hope that springs forward from the end of slavery,” said Dabney. 

Blacks could for a time receive justice in courts and thousands learned to read and write.

On display: Copy of National Archives document

Nurse Charlotte Elizabeth McKay recounted a conversation she had with a carpenter doing repairs on her quarters. Would he have not done better to stay with his former master in North Carolina?

“Oh, no, indeed, madam. I’m bound to believe I can do better to have my own labor. To earn a hundred dollars for another man, and not get a hundred cents for yourself, is poor business.”

The bureau was closed in 1872. Blacks saw many setbacks in the decades to come as entrenched segregation and Jim Crow laws took effect.

“I want to make clear that this site has a layered history," Dabney said. "Those layers aren’t simply Union soldiers camped here and Union soldiers buried here.” A black community – with residents who toiled and dreamed -- existed for a time.

The sword with a roundabout journey

(National Park Service photo)

Park officials were thrilled to acquire a fallen Federal officer’s sword and scabbard in 2014. “We have very little in connecting … three-dimensional artifacts to people buried at Poplar Grove,” Dabney said.

Lt. Edwin I. Coe of the 57th Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteers was shot in the head in a June 17, 1864, attack on the battlefield. “He is in what turned out to be a series of poorly coordinated assaults on June 16, 17 and the day after his death… Union troops attacking … without all their troops at one given time,” the park curator said. The Yankees failed to break through and take vital railroad lines and Petersburg.

Lt. Edwin Coe
Like other items in the lodge, the text is concise -- so there was no room to tell the compelling, full story of the sword and scabbard, which the Picket wrote about in 2015

They somehow ended up for sale at a jewelry shop in Honolulu, Hawaii, before the park was contacted and purchased them. After the sword arrived, Petersburg staff took the blade to Poplar Grove. “To have it lying on top of his resting place, it doesn’t get much more powerful,” park staffer Chris Bryce told the Picket then. Officials still don’t know how the sword’s circuitous route ended up in the Aloha State.

Recording the dead

Poplar Grove’s first burial registry is on display for the first time. It was likely acquired in 1866, with the frontispiece bearing an 1869 notation. The last entry was made in the 1930s, Dabney said. All but a few dozen of the 6,100 graves in the cemetery belong to Union soldiers – the majority of them are unknown. 

Grave numbers were not entered in order; Dabney theorizes the entries were made as bodies were recovered on various parts of the sprawling battlefield and brought to Poplar Grove shortly after the war.

(National Park Service photos)

The book is open to two pages, one listing members of the U.S. Colored Troops. Some 331 African-American soldiers are buried at the cemetery. Most who are known died in hospitals. 

But not these men on page 71. “It is typical the unknown outnumber the known,” Dabney said. They are believed to have been killed in the valiant, but doomed Federal assault on the Crater.

Soldier’s emotional letter to children

Levi Hilton is believed to be among the unknown dead interred at Poplar Grove. Shortly before he was killed at Petersburg, the 37-year-old corporal with the 2nd Michigan Infantry wrote a four-page letter that consoled his children, discussed army life, food and the danger brought by Southern snipers.

“Alsa don't be asshamed to read your Bible and treasure it up in your Memory and persuade your Sisters to do the same I want all of you Children if you love me to be good children,” Hilton wrote, according to a CNN article.

The letter, an envelope and photo were donated by a descendant who attended the cemetery rededication. They are temporarily off display, but officials expect them to return.

The lodge was part of major project at cemetery (NPS)

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