Coaxing Stories from the Shadows

Published:June 12, 2014 by Brendan Wolfe


In his lovely book Bloody Promenade: Reflections on a Civil War Battle (1999), Stephen Cushman writes about acoustic shadows, a phenomenon in which people sometimes could hear battles from far away but not from up close. His research on the Battle of the Wilderness, which occurred 150 years ago in May, produced such a pocket of silence, he writes. Or at least it did metaphorically.

Black soldiers fought at the Wilderness, but they are rarely mentioned in traditional narratives of the battle. Primary records, meanwhile, obscure as much as they reveal. To the Union officer Morris Schaff the black troops “were not ordinary stragglers, and I remember no more pleading objects. Most of them had lately been slaves, and across the years their hollow cheeks and plaintive sympathy-imploring eyes are still the lonesome roadside’s bas-reliefs.”

In frustration, Cushman notes how such writing only “deepens the silence” that surrounds black soldiers “by representing them not as quiet men who suffer stoically but as sculpted figures raised just slightly above the background surface of the landscape.”

Cushman’s observations got me to thinking about whether such pockets of silence exist in Encyclopedia Virginia. Certainly they do. Although we have excellent entries on the battle and on the United States Colored Troops (USCT), neither mentions the black soldiers who fought at the Wilderness. In the USCT entry, there is mention of five black Virginians who won Medals of Honor during the Civil War: Powhatan Beaty, James Gardiner, Miles James, Edward Ratcliff, and Charles Veal.

But who were these men? How can we help raise them above the background surface of the landscape? For one, we might observe the tremendous arc of Beaty’s life. Born a slave in Richmond, he later moved to Ohio, where he farmed as a free man. He won his medal in fighting back home, on the outskirts of Richmond in 1864. And after the war he joined a company of African American actors. The Washington Post noted, in 1887, that his performance of Shakespeare pleasantly “surprised those in the audience competent to judge.”

The encyclopedia doesn’t yet have an entry on Beaty, but we do have an excellent one on Mary Richards Bowser, an African American spy in Richmond during the war. Our contributor, Lois Leveen, has challenged head-on this problem of silent and confusing records, coaxing from the historical shadows a fascinating character who, even after the war, seemed drawn to pseudonyms and misdirection.

A reader recently wrote us to point out another kind of silence in the encyclopedia: “I must say I was taken by the bias displayed in this entry [free blacks during the Civil War]. It is as though there was not a single free black who willingly supported the Confederacy.” In another entry, black Confederates, we acknowledge that a few black men appeared to have fought for the Confederacy, but only in Ervin R. Jordan‘s Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia (1995) will you learn the story of George and Stafford Grimes, two free blacks from Caroline County who posed as white in order to join the Confederate army.

We can’t avoid such acoustic shadows completely but we can do our best to minimize them and, in so doing, give voice to all Virginians.

This post first appeared in VFH Views (Spring 2014), the newsletter of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

IMAGES: Powhatan Beaty; a medal issued to U.S. Colored Troops after the Battle of New Market Heights, fought on September 29–30, 1864, depicts two African American soldiers charging a Confederate fortification (Tim Evanson, photograph)