Four Notable Slaves and Two Generals

While visiting ancestral haunts and a few more famous historic sites in Southampton County, Virginia, in April, we pulled the car over in front of the Rebecca Vaughan house in Courtland and I got out to take a photo of it. Soon I heard a lady’s voice behind me asking, “What do you think?”

She turned out to be the head of the Southampton County Historical Society, which runs a museum in another historic site I had photographed near what used to be called Jerusalem Courthouse, when the county seat had been called Jerusalem. Perhaps she had followed us from there, because she followed us into Heritage Lane, where the Vaughan house sits, and back out when we stopped to take a photo.

The house is still being restored and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places because it was the last house in which anyone had been killed during the Southampton Insurrection of 1831, more commonly known as Nat Turner’s Rebellion. (I read William Styron’s novel The Confessions of Nat Turner not long after it first appeared in 1967, the year I moved in with my uncle in Southampton County after finishing high school—in fact most of my childhood—in Japan.)

We two history buffs had a long and enthusiastic conversation that might have gone on even longer if it hadn’t been getting close to supper time. She named four famous slaves born in Southampton County.

1. Nat Turner (1800-1831), who led the slave rebellion in 1831.

2. Dred Scott (1795-1858), who left the County not long after his birth and died shortly after the landmark Dred Scott Decision in 1857.

3. Anthony Gardiner (1820-1885), whose family emigrated to Liberia in 1831, and who went on to become Liberia’s 1st attorney general (1848-1865), 7th vice president (1872-1876), and 9th president (1878-1883).

4. John Brown (c. 1810-1876), who escaped to England in 1850, where he dictated his life story to the president of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, which published it under the title, Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Now in England (1855). (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin had appeared in 1852.)

I hadn’t heard of the last two men, but I had heard of the two Civil War generals she next told me about.

General George H. Thomas (1816-1870) born in Newsom’s Depot, Southampton County, acquired several epithets from his leadership during the Civil War: “Rock of Chickamauga,” “Sledge of Nashville,” and “Slow Trot Thomas.” Until very late in the War, the Union troops never crossed the Blackwater River to invade Southampton County, and my interlocutor suggested that Gen. Thomas may have had something to do with that. (I doubt it, for two reasons: he commanded the Army of the Cumberland in the Western Theater; and Gen. Ulysses Grant held him in low esteem.)

General William Mahone (1826-1895) once lived in Mahone’s Tavern, just across from Jerusalem Courthouse. Trained as a civil engineer at Virginia Military Institute (class of 1847), he was hired to build the railroad between Norfolk and Petersburg. (His wife, Otelia Butler of Smithfield, is credited with naming several of the stations.) During the War, he distinguished himself at the Battle of the Crater during the Siege of Petersburg. He had worked as a teacher before becoming a railroad executive, and after the War joined the biracial Readjuster Party. He was a strong proponent of education for freedmen and free blacks and helped found Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute in 1882 (now Virginia State University), the first fully state-supported four-year institution of higher learning for black Americans in the United States.

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Filed under education, slavery, travel, U.S., war

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