Family Ledgers

I posted a somewhat whimsical article on April 1st about family trees, and today’s news item is a more sombre followup.

My mother is a genealogist, and delights in tracing our family tree (which consists mainly of failed farmers or drowned fisherman – unlike their lucklessness, I have not inherited her enthusiasm). It involves painstaking detective work, investigating Scottish and Irish church records, municipal rolls and clerical receipts, but the links are there for anyone who wishes to find them.

I wonder, if we were black Americans, if genealogy is something she would even attempt to undertake. The records, where they exist, would be so muddied and complicated – involving sales across distance, informal family arrangements and unofficial marriages – as to make this detective work impossible.

While not decreasing the difficulty in such a search, the Virginia Historical Society has provided some intriguing new records to pore over.

So using a $100,000 corporate grant from Dominion, one of the nation’s largest producers and transporters of energy, society researchers began examining some of its 8 million manuscripts that Virginia residents have been giving to the historical society since its founding in 1831.

Those Virginia families found the old, handwritten papers in attics, basements or desk drawers, Levengood said. The society stores the documents in an archive spanning thousands of square feet, he said.

The antique papers turned out to mention slaves.

“Often they appeared in the records of the owners who owned slaves as human property, which to us sounds so obscene and alien,” said Levengood, who’s also a historian. “But these people were writing down their inventory as if you would for insurance purposes. That’s the kind of things that owners did with slaves. This was the most valuable property they owned, and they wanted to make sure it was recorded.
“Often there was a human connection, and they grew up with these people, and they recorded their birth dates and deaths. It’s an incredibly complicated and tragic institution that we’re just beginning to understand the dimensions of,” Levengood said.

The Society is offering workshops on using the databases. Budding genealogists are already exploring the data.

Amateur genealogist Crasty Johnson of Richmond said she hopes the sites will help her trace her roots back to the 1800s.

“I need to know my history,” she said, adding the site may help her prove or disprove many of the things she’s heard about her family’s past. “I wanted to really know. I wanted to be able to see and connect the dots.”

Giving Money as Well as Thanks

Yesterday I posted about the idea of giving thanks to those volunteers and researchers in often thankless preservation jobs.  Today, I follow up with a different kind of giving, but one that is just as appreciated.  The Washington Post created this list at the close of 2011, encouraging readers to get last-minute charitable donations in under the tax-year deadline. I’m sure the organisations in question would happily take them at any time of year.

Like everyone else, I have been reminded repeatedly in the last week that my money is needed to help Civil War preservation efforts and an end-of-year donation or at least becoming a member would be a good thing. Here are a few to consider. They are all authorized 501c3 organizations and donations are tax deductible as allowed by law.

The Christian Commission

The New York Times’ Disunion feature scores again, this time laying out the history and role of the United States Christian Commission.

Over the next four years, the 12-member commission, a private organization wholly separate from the Army’s overworked chaplain corps, provided soldiers in the field with regular access to chapels, religious reading materials and preaching. It served Northern and Southern soldiers equally; it even offered special religious services for African-American camp workers and soldiers, a group largely neglected by other spiritual leaders.

It was an astounding success. As one observer, a surgeon attached to the Headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, acknowledged in a November 1864 letter, “If the Christian Commission fails to do the work it contemplates it will be left undone.” The commission, though largely forgotten today, played a central role in the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. And its story reveals how critical religion was to both the soldiers’ morale and their commitment to fight for the Union.

Black Troops in the Confederacy

NPR unearthed an interesting story on a very rare, newly-inducted United Daughter of the Confederacy.

Mattie Clyburn Rice, 88, spent years searching through archives to prove her father was a black Confederate. As she leafs through a notebook filled with official-looking papers, Rice stops to read a faded photocopy with details of her father’s military service.

“At Hilton Head while under fire of the enemy, he carried his master out of the field of fire on his shoulder, that he performed personal service for Robert E. Lee. That was his pension record,” Rice says.