In the two years following the start of the Civil War in 1861, African American activists and their allies engaged in a sustained, strenuous crusade to persuade the white northern public—and, by extension, the Lincoln Administration—to support black military enlistment. Their untiring efforts, in combination with larger military developments, ultimately shifted the tide of public opinion, helping bring about a national policy of black military service by 1863.
William Kurtz's blog
When the Civil War began in April 1861, it was far from a foregone conclusion that Albemarle County natives like Jesse Cowles and Mathew Gardner would end up serving in the Union military. Over the first two years of the war, African American abolitionists fought an uphill battle against a reluctant Lincoln administration and a prejudiced Northern public to allow black enlistment. Only through their strenuous efforts, alongside the exigencies and political calculations of the larger conflict, did their dream of military service eventually become a reality.
In December of 1915, the black community of Jefferson County, Arkansas gathered to bury the esteemed black Virginian in blue Mathew Gardner (alias Berry). Gardner had been born a slave in Albemarle County. Forced by the slave trade to move to Arkansas on the eve of the Civil War, Gardner fled bondage during the conflict, enlisting as a member of the United States Colored Troops (USCT).
In 1915, a prominent African-American newspaper, The Chicago Defender, reported on a memorial gathering of the St. John’s A.M.E. Sunday school in Cleveland, Ohio. The current school superintendent, the article noted, began by invoking an address given fifteen years earlier by his predecessor, Frank Lee. Born into slavery in Albemarle County, Lee had escaped bondage and entered the Union ranks during the Civil War. In the decades after his service, he established himself as one of the leading members of Cleveland’s black elite.
In the 1860 presidential election, only one person in all of Fauquier County, Virginia, voted for President Abraham Lincoln: a wealthy slaveholder named Henry Thomas Dixon. Five years later, after serving as a paymaster in the Union army, he was gunned down in a duel with a former Confederate surgeon on the streets of Alexandria. Dixon, a former student of the University of Virginia, a Southern “gentleman,” and a Unionist, was, like many men of his time, driven by the concept of honor. Historian Joanne B.
In late summer 1861, Sallie Strickler confessed her befuddlement at recent events. “Wars seem so strange to me,” she recorded in her diary, “although I’ve been reading about them all my life.” Strickler, who lived in Madison County, Virginia, wrote this entry four months shy of her sixteenth birthday and only four weeks after the Confederate victory at Manassas. All of her life she had read of war. All fifteen long years of it. Yet, although she might have stretched a point, it turns out that she had read of war.
Every evening, students recalled, the hills around antebellum UVA resounded with the music of La Marseillaise, the anthem of the French Revolution. Joseph d’Alfonce, the university’s gymnastics instructor, began the call to arms in his “splendid baritone,” and soon hundreds of students’ voices filled the air. For d’Alfonce, the anthem’s promise of “cherished liberty” triumphing over tyranny carried special meaning. He had fought in one revolution and lived through another, and twice he had been forced to flee from arrest.
Following the disaster at the Crater in the summer of 1864, Lieut. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant planned for another offensive late in the following September. Grant ordered Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler to lead an attack towards Richmond north of the James River with the goals of taking the city and diverting Robert E. Lee’s forces away from Petersburg.
Of the Union veterans who attended the University of Virginia, nearly a dozen pursued military careers after the Civil War, including Wray Wirt Davis, George Worth Woods, Joseph Cabell Breckinridge, Charles Eversfield, John Fox Hammond, Stephen Dandridge, John Edward Summers, Charles Irving Wilson, George Lea Febiger, John Thornley, and William Evelyn Hopkins. This blog will discuss the lives of Wray Wirt Davis and George Worth Woods in depth. While Davis was a southerner and a cavalry officer, Woods was a navy physician from the North.
Most UVA Unionists—men like William Fishback, James Broadhead, and Albert Tuttle—viewed themselves as conservative men trying to preserve, rather than transform, their world. They rejected political radicalism, sought compromises to avert secession and Civil War, and often accepted post-war reconciliation with former Confederates. New York lawyer Robert Henry Shannon, however, embraced the possibilities of progress. As a Whig and a Republican, he insisted that government action could solve society’s problems and protect Americans’ liberties.