My Own True (Not a Ghost) Story of the Civil War

Fog covers the battlefield at dawn during re-enactment activities on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 2013. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)
How many heroes lie unremembered under an Osage orange tree?

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE P eople seem to be having a collective conniption about monuments, but I can think of one monument that I realized five years ago should be built. I’m stubborn about it — you might even say devoted to a lost cause.

Over Memorial Day 2015, my wife and I went on a tastings tour of Virginia wine country. (The following summer, we went to Napa. I could get used to that life.) By late Saturday morning, we’d had maybe twelve carefully considered sips of various vintages and were clearly ready for lunch — so we asked an heir to the Horton Vineyard where to get the best barbecue. She pointed us down the road to Gordonsville, where the railroad crossed Stonewall Jackson Highway.

Later, we needed to walk off the pulled pork and hush puppies. So we crossed the tracks to wander the lovely Exchange Hotel and Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Location, location, location. Gordonsville has been a crossroads since colonial times, roads coming from the coast and the mountains, with the railroad connecting northern Virginia to the Carolinas. As soon as the trains came, enslaved people in the area began selling baskets of food — fruit and fried chicken — to the passengers. It was the perfect place to build a hotel; the Exchange opened for business in 1862.

Bad timing. The sovereign state of Virginia immediately seized the Exchange as a hospital for the scores of thousands who fell at such places as Balls Bluff, Manassas, and Malvern Hill.

Casualties were the responsibility of each Rebel state, so Gordonsville was the first place to do formal triage. Those who could survive only with treatment (generally amputation) — if they lived to be taken off the field — would be carried into the Exchange. There was a lot of wound-sniffing when the train stopped. The rest went on to the Carolinas.

That’s why the Exchange is a Museum of Civil War Medicine, with exhibits showing the heroic as well as horrific: As we may recall, it was a particularly nasty war. (Cauterizing irons: Enough said.) The Exchange brings this home in unexpected ways. The former curator (who took pains to tell us he’s a descendant of Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy) told us that the parking lot was originally a mass grave for 600 Confederates who died in the hospital. I’d walked past mass graves before at Gettysburg; it felt weird to think I’d parked on one.

But, he explained, after the war, the United States turned the Exchange Hotel and sometime hospital into a Freedman’s Bureau. A substantial number of locals objected to their heroes interred where the literal individuals they had lately enslaved were being taught to read and write — so they dug them up and reinterred them at a Jim Crow cemetery about a mile away. The curator told us, since it was Memorial weekend, we should go see how that mass grave is decorated every year for the holiday.

But that isn’t the story I’m telling. I’m not even telling you how moving we found it to visit a Freedman’s Bureau, especially for folks who look askance at Reconstruction and think that “carpetbaggers” is an apt term of opprobrium.

While we were talking about mass graves, standing on the lovely porch of the Exchange Hotel, looking out on the train tracks and down to the BBQ joint, the curator casually explained that there’s still a hole full of human bodies on the site. He pointed at an Osage orange tree and told us that during the war 30 enslaved people were hanged from that tree and buried somewhere near the tracks, for giving military information to the United States Army.

My head snapped around. You’re telling me, I said, that enslaved people were hanged right here, and there’s no flag, no stone — no monument of any kind?

I think he was surprised at my reaction. We talked about it, and the details were motivating. Made to kneel on a bench, wrists tied to ankles . . . no broken necks; slow strangulation.

I’ve had five years to think it over. I’m stubborn. I don’t believe it is possible to conceive of a better example of Americans who died for freedom than enslaved people who were executed for helping to save the United States by abolishing slavery. Maybe the story is true but exaggerated. But even if it’s three people, not 30, I’d like to know that I did my best for their memory.

Now, to be fair: the Exchange Hotel and Museum of Civil War Medicine is not the Smithsonian. Its marketing plan (at least in 2015) revolved around ghost stories and cable-TV shows.

But I’m not really a ghost-story guy. I’m methodical, and there are four kinds of evidence for a story like this.

First, no eyewitness testimony survives. But that isn’t dispositive; it’s not the kind of thing any survivor would talk about. (There are letters from the formerly enslaved in the Freedman’s school exhibit, explaining in rookie writing that the locals tried to tell them all that the Emancipation and 13th amendment stuff weren’t real.) There was a lynching on the site — a 15-year-old African-American teenager years later — with eyewitnesses. But a large extrajudicial execution during the Civil War? That’s different.

Second, no documentary evidence proves it. Yet Robert E. Lee himself explained that, while he got invaluable intelligence from locals (recall the obscure road that Stonewall Jackson took to get behind Hooker at Chancellorsville), the U.S. Army got much of its intelligence from enslaved people. Under martial law, the summary execution of spies was legal. So it’s likely that any mission like this would have been done by irregulars, anyway: no need for a Lee order.

Third, circumstantial evidence powerfully indicates the possibility. Cornelius Boyle, the Confederate provost general at Gordonsville, reports arrests of a number of slaves and one free black man for running away from their owners, deserting Confederate employment, or helping other slaves get to Union lines. Most of the slaves were returned to their owners, in accordance with Confederate military policy; a few were sent to a higher ranking provost marshal.

These reports by Boyle are in the records of the Confederate adjutant and inspector general, in Record Group 109 (War Department Collection of Confederate Records). They do not report executions. But again: that wasn’t the practice. In Black Flag Over Dixie, the definitive collection of essays on racial atrocities and reprisals during the Civil War — for instance at Fort Pillow, Poison Spring, and Olustee (where African-American soldiers saved my wounded great-great-grandfather) — it’s clear that blood doesn’t always leave a paper trail.

Which leaves physical evidence. There’s either a hole with heroes in it, or there isn’t.

Five years ago, I told the curator that I would pay for the ground-penetrating radar necessary to test the story, for good and aye. (Turns out this is a cottage industry — rural real-estate developers fear finding country cemeteries, often just family plots, under potential subdivisions. So you can hire the equipment to look.) The museum refused. And there, the matter rests.

Paul Donnelly is a longtime advocate for legal immigration, who helped to invent E-Verify.

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