My latest research project has me and a history partner looking into a nearly-forgotten Union army camp that existed near Philadelphia in 1864-65. We’ve unearthed some memorable tidbits. Let me share several.
Out of Andersonville. It turns out that almost a third of the Pennsylvania soldiers who went through the camp were fresh survivors of Andersonville, the hellacious Confederate prisoner of war stockade. As I’ve boned up generally on Andersonville, I’ve also been alert for indications of the black experience there. Writing Embattled Freedom has left me “woke” in that way. And the evidence is there. For instance, one soldier-survivor we’ll be profiling recalled that when he arrived at the prison in Georgia, one of the first things he saw was a collection of slaveholders’ torture devices at the ready. His prison diary, published later in life, described “thumb-screws, barbed iron collars, shackles, ball and chain” and three kinds of body-breaking stocks. “These instruments of torture were brought from where they had evidently been used to hold slaves in obedience,” he wrote. “Our prison keepers seemed to handle them with familiarity.” Slave gangs had already been forced to clear the pine woods for the Andersonville grounds. Then they’d constructed the stockade walls around it. And as northern prisoners died of starvation and pestilence there day by day, by the thousands, slaves were made to haul the infected corpses away and bury them.
Out of Gettysburg. Because many of the soldiers we’re researching had been in the thick of the fighting at Gettysburg, we’ve delved into that battle, too. Along the way I stumbled on references to a fellow named Dr. Rufus B. Weaver. He was a youngster living in Gettysburg when the battle happened. Soon after the war Weaver’s father was contracted to exhume the bodies of slain South Carolina soldiers for reburial in the South. When his father died suddenly, Weaver took on the task himself since he knew the location of the mass graves. By then he was a young medical professor in Philadelphia, but he managed to juggle the tasks — and in the end identified and repatriated the remains of over three thousand individual soldiers! That’s not all. Later in his career, Dr. Weaver gained renown as the first person to completely dissect and expose a human “cerebrospinal” nervous system. The good person who donated her body to science to allow the dissection was one Harriet Cole — a black scrubwoman who had cleaned Dr. Weaver’s lab before dying from TB in 1888. Harriet’s nervous system went on display at the world’s fair in Chicago in 1893, and still can be seen at the Drexel medical school in Philadelphia. Want a look? Click here.
From Slavery to Waverly. For those of you who live in the Scranton area, there are two notable events to put on your calendars. One is a special performance of Sandra Burgette Miller’s “Tell ‘Em: One Man’s Struggle from Slavery to Waverly, Pa.,” on Feb. 8 and 9, 7:30 p.m., at the Scranton Cultural Center, 420 N. Washington Ave. Miller describes the show as a “performance poem” about her great-great-grandfather, Thomas Burgette, who fled north on the Underground Railroad and began a new life in Waverly. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster. Also, the Black Scranton Project, a new archival and activist undertaking, is showcasing the city’s African American heritage with a Black History Month exhibit at the Marketplace at Steamtown, 300 Lackawanna Ave. Glynis M. Johns, the project’s founder, aims to “give recognition and reinstate two centuries of discounted contributions put forth by black residents” of the region. Information is at blackscranton.com. I plan to attend both shows. Hope to see you there.
Book Talks. Two events are coming up for me in the next month. First is an author panel on Jan. 30, at 7:30 p.m., at Congregation Beth Am Israel, 1301 Hagys Ford Rd., Penn Valley, Pa. Then I’ll be presenting to the large Delaware Valley Civil War Round Table, on Feb. 19, 7:30 p.m., at the Radisson Hotel, 2400 Old Lincoln Highway, Trevose, Pa.