slaves

Following his marriage to a wealthy widow named Virginia Mason, Wilmer McLean moved onto her small plantation in Manassas Junction, Virginia. The property was beautiful, and a small stream called Bull Run ran through it. Fourteen slaves tended the fields of Yorkshire, named for the home county of English native Richard Blackburn who had established the plantation in the early 1700s. Little did Wilmer know at the time of his marriage, that in a mere eight years, their plantation would be the center of the beginning of the American Civil War.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, McLean was too old to serve on the Confederate Army, but that did not prevent his involvement in the war. When I think of the Civil War, I somehow think of two armies coming together out in the middle of nowhere in an open field. Of course, war isn’t that simple. War takes place in towns and villages and city streets too. When the two armies, the Union and the Confederates came to the place of their first battle, it would just happen to be ight in the middle of McLean’s plantation. The battle, the first major engagement between Union and Confederate forces, taking place in July 1861, would be remembered as the First Battle of Bull Run…fought right there at the stream on the McLean plantation.

As Union forces approached on a 30-mile march west from Washington DC, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard took over the Yorkshire Plantation farmhouse in Manassas as his headquarters. Soon, McLean took his family to safer ground, and the next day, July 18, 1861, during the Battle of Blackburn’s Ford, a Union shell tore into the fireplace of McLean’s detached kitchen and ruined the dinner being prepared for Beauregard and his staff. Three days later came the Civil War’s first major encounter, the First Battle of Bull Run. The barn quickly became a makeshift military hospital, housing both wounded Confederate soldiers and captured Union fighters. The men all shared the floor of the barn, which had become, in addition to the hospital, a prisoner of war jail, as well.

Yorkshire was ravaged in the battle, and when McLean had safely tucked his family far away from the battle, he returned alone to survey the damaged plantation. I’m sure it must have been a devastation blow to McLean, but he stayed worked as an unpaid Confederate quartermaster through February 1862, before reuniting with his wife and five children in the spring.

Back at home in Yorkshire in August 1862, McLean could not believe what he was seeing when the Second Battle of Bull Run began on the Yorkshire Plantation. It seemed that he just could not outrun the war and keep his plantation too. When the Union and Confederacy clashed once again in Manassas at the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862, McLean began to plan on a way to better protect his family from the war. In the fall of 1863, McLean moved his family 120 miles southwest to the quiet little town of Appomattox Court House on the other side of the state of Virginia. He purchased a beautiful house, originally built as a tavern in 1848, along the Lynchburg-Richmond State Road and regularly traveled on the nearby Southside Railroad to tend to his business supplying sugar to the Confederate army.

McLean thought he had finally managed to move his family to a place where they could live in peace and quiet, but little did he know that even in Appomattox, he could not outrun the Civil War. Once again, the Civil War came calling at his door again. On April 9, 1865, Confederate Colonel Charles Marshall rode into Appomattox Court House and asked the first man he spotted, who just happened to be McLean, to help him find a suitable home to hold a meeting between the Union and Confederate commanders. McLean showed him a place, but it was a pretty dilapidated, unfurnished brick house, and Marshall quickly rejected it. Reluctantly, McLean offered his own comfortable, well furnished home…hoping that this would not be a repeat of the beginning of the war, when his home was pretty close to being destroyed.

That afternoon, in pretty much the same place it had started…the McLean parlor, history was made as Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, marking the beginning of the end of the Civil War. McLean’s homes had become a “pair of bookends” to the long four year war. Like the first meeting between McLean and the army, this one would also not end well. As General Lee departed on his horse Traveler to break the news to his troops, the Union officers launched their final raid of the war by ransacking McLean’s parlor for souvenirs of the historic meeting. According to Civil War historian, Shelby Foote, “Something close to pandemonium set in. As McLean protested, the Union entourage walked out with the tables and chairs used by Lee and Grant, a stone inkstand, brass candlesticks and even the favorite rag doll of his 7-year-old daughter, Lula. They tore apart McLean’s cane-bottomed chairs and cut upholstery strips from his sofas as mementoes. As compensation, the soldiers shoved money into the hands of the unwilling seller and threw it onto the floor when he refused to accept it.” War is an ugly thing, and men don’t always act in a gentlemanly way to the losers, or the winners. Nevertheless, the losers are often treated far worse than the winners, as has been seen in many a war.

Every time I learn anything about Adolf Hitler, I am stunned that so much evil could exist in one man. World War II technically started when Adolf Hitler invaded Poland. Hitler told his men that “it did not matter who was right or wrong, that in fighting a war, coming out triumphant is the only thing that counted.” He urged his men to have no sympathy for their opponent. On September 1, 1939, Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland, by ordering the attack of defenseless civilians. In this way, they put the citizens in a state of shock. The sky was dark and there were dead bodies everywhere. Once Germany invaded Poland, it opened a door to allow the Soviets to also invade Poland. Of course, this was not exactly what either country wanted.

Before the end of the month, on September 29, 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union agree to divide control of occupied Poland roughly along the Bug River, with the Germans taking everything west, and the Soviets taking everything east. The people of Poland were given away like slaves. In addition, as a follow-up to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which was also known as the Hitler-Stalin Pact, a non-aggression treaty was created between the two huge military powers of Germany and the USSR. The German foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop met with his Soviet counterpart, VM Molotov, to sign the German-Soviet Boundary and Friendship Treaty. Of course, the “friendship” did not extend to the Polish people.

As in normal in any contract, there was “fine print” in this agreement too. The fine print of the original non-aggression pact had promised the Soviets a slice of eastern Poland. It was to be a small part, simply a matter of agreeing where to draw the lines. Joseph Stalin, Soviet premier and dictator, personally drew the line that partitioned Poland. He originally wanted it drawn at the River Vistula, just west of Warsaw. In the end, he agreed to pull it back east of the capital and Lublin, giving Germany control of most of Poland’s most heavily populated and industrialized regions. In exchange, Stalin wanted Lvov, and its rich oil wells, and Lithuania, which sits atop East Prussia. Germany was fine with that, because now they had 22 million Poles, “slaves of the Greater German Empire,” at its disposal…and Russia had a western buffer zone.

On this same day, the Soviet Union also signed a Treaty of Mutual Assistance with the Baltic nation of Estonia, giving Stalin the right to occupy Estonian naval and air bases. What was thought to be a buffer zone, seems more like a land grab to me. A similar treaty would later be signed with Latvia. These nations really didn’t seem to realize what they were getting into. Eventually, Soviet tanks rolled across these borders, in the name of “mutual assistance,” placing the Baltic States under the rule of the USSR for decades to come. These so called treaties were once again merely the realization of more fine print from the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, giving Stalin more border states as buffer zones, and protecting Russian territory where the Bolshevik ideology had not been enthusiastically embraced from intrusion by its western neighbor, namely its non-aggression partner Germany. The highly vulnerable Baltic nations had no say in any of these arrangements. They were merely annexed…by force in a huge Soviet land grab.

On January 30, 1933, President Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor of Germany. It wasn’t because of any election, but rather by a constitutionally questionable deal dreamed up by a small group of conservative German politicians who had given up on parliamentary rule. Little did they know that they were party to appointing one of the worst dictators in history. Their attempt to return Germany to conservative authoritarian rule, backfired miserably when, within two years, Hitler and the Nazis outmaneuvered Germany’s conservative politicians to consolidate a radical Nazi dictatorship that was completely subordinate to Hitler’s personal will. I wonder if President Hindenburg wished he had never met Hitler, much less appointed him to be chancellor.

Within days of taking power, the Nazis called for Germany to boycott all Jewish businesses. This unexpected anti-Jewish propaganda was the first of many. Hitler hated the Jewish people. He had no reason for his hatred. The Jewish people had done nothing to warrant Hitler’s hatred and rage. One theory is that Hitler had decided that the Jewish people were an inferior race. That is not such a new thought. It had happened before, to the African slaves in history, who had often been referred to as mud people. The Jews, as with the slaves, were treated horribly.

Another reason Hitler hated the Jewish people, was because following Germany’s loss of World War I, Hitler blamed the Jews and the communists living in Germany. He felt that they were part of a huge conspiracy against the German military. He believed that had it not been for their interference, Britain and the allies would have lost the war. Another possible reason for Hitler’s hatred of the Jews was probably jealousy. After World War I, he saw that a lot of Germans were without jobs and struggling. Instead of looking at the war as the root cause of the economic problem, he blamed the Jews for the sorry state of affairs. Because Adolf Hitler was truly insane, I’m sure that his reason to hate the Jewish people made sense to him, but the reality is that his insane mind was the only place that it made sense.

I’m not sure how he managed to get so many people to agree with is ideas, but somehow he did, and when he decided that all Jewish shops were to be boycotted, and stationed his SA Storm Troopers near the shops to
ensure that his plans were carried out, they did as they were told. It wasn’t long after the boycotting of the shops that Hitler took things to the next level, and began hauling the Jewish people to the death camps. As long as he was alive, there was no end to his hatred, and that is definitely not what President Hindenburg or the conservative German politicians had in mind, and I’m sure they wished they had never done it.

Hitler 1When we look at the reasons that the United States entered World War II, we think of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and we would be correct, but there was another dictator who committed so many atrocities during and before World War II, that it seems to me inevitable that we would have had to make that decision sooner or later. Adolf Hitler was a German politician, the leader of the Nazi Party, elected Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, and Führer, or leader of Nazi Germany from 1934 to 1945. One of his worst acts as Führer of Nazi Germany, was when he initiated World War II in Europe with the invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the worst act was, of course, the Holocaust.

During the Holocaust, an insane Hitler, decided that the Jewish people were Untermenschen, or sub-human and socially undesirable, and determined in his heart to kill them. His first move in that direction was to begin rounding them up and placing them in prison camps. And one of the worst was Auschwitz. For a time, Hitler only placed the men in Auschwitz, but then on March 26, 1942, the first women prisoners arrived at Auschwitz. AuschwitzOf course, Hitler’s intent was always to put the prisoners to death, but he decided to use them in whatever capacity he felt necessary and useful, before the time came to kill them. Since he considered the sub-human, he felt no guilt making them slaves. The prisoners were forced to work long hours, and were also used for medical experimentation. When the prisoners entered the camp, they were strip searched, male and female alike, and forced to stand naked in front of the guards during that time. It didn’t matter how cold they were. They did not count in the eyes of the Germans, because they were Untermenschen…sub-human. As a woman, I can only imagine how these first female prisoners must have felt. They were already very much aware that the Germans did not respect their race, so why would they feel differently about the fact that they were women. It would have been a very scary time. I’m sure they did not know if they would be raped and then killed, or what would happen to them. Their entry into the prison camp had already proven that they were nothing in the eyes of their captors.

July plotBetween 1939 and 1945, there were many plans to try to assassinate Hitler. The most well known, Operation Valkyrie, which came from within Germany and was at least partly driven by the increasing prospect of a German defeat in the war. On July 20, 1944, Claus von Stauffenberg planted a bomb in one of Hitler’s headquarters…known as the Wolf’s Lair at Rustenburg. Hitler survived because staff officer Heinz Brandt moved the briefcase containing the bomb behind a leg of the heavy conference table. When the bomb exploded, the table deflected much of the blast. Later, Hitler ordered savage reprisals resulting in the execution of more than 4,900 people. In the end, he would take his own life, in an effort not to be taken alive. Not a bad thing if you ask me, because the world is truly well rid of him.

Jean Gracy Knox WillWhen I think of my husband, Bob’s 6th great grandmother, Jean Gracy Knox, I always think of Ellen O’Hara…Scarlett O’Hara’s mother, in Gone With The Wind. They lived in different eras, but in many ways, their lives were much the same. I can’t say, for certain, that Jean Knox lived on a plantation, but I do know that like many people in the 1700’s she owned slaves. With that in mind, I have to assume that she ran their home or plantation in much the way that Ellen O’Hara had. I don’t know much about her, of course, but her will seemed to be written by a woman who was used to being in charge. I know that she was a slave owner, because in her will, she mentions what is to be done with a young slave boy and a female slave that she owned. That and the extensive collection of clothing that she left her daughter, Mary indicates that she was a woman of wealth.

It’s possible that her “take charge” attitude came from the fact that her husband passed away fourteen years before she did, and six months before their youngest child was born. She had no choice but to take charge of things. She still had five children under the age of sixteen in her home. I’m certain that her older sons helped her out too, but from what I have gathered from her will, she was very much in control of her life, children, and property. I wish I had a picture of her, but in my mind, she probably looked much like Ellen O’Hara did, in Gone With The Wind. Beautiful, and very ladylike, and yet, she ran the household and even helped out the neighbors when necessary. Of course, I could be wrong on all that, but from what I have read of her will, she knew exactly what she wanted done after her passing. The will appears to have been written just days before her death. They assumed this from the fact that she made her mark on it, and not her signature, even though she could read and write. In looking at the will, of which I only have a word for word copy of the wording as it was written…including all the spelling errors, I at first thought that maybe she couldn’t read and write, but later discovered that it was not written by her. She just dictated it to someone else to write up and then signed it in front of witnesses, much like we would do today in front of a attorney. This could also have been an indication of wealth, and the power that one assumes to have because of it.
John & Jean Gracy Knox
I also know, that Jean was a woman of strong faith. She was a Presbyterian, and most likely left her native Ireland because of disputes between the Presbyterians, also known as Covenanters, and the Church of England. The Knox family is among those who were persecuted because of their religion, and that some had to leave their homes in the middle of the night to escape death. They came to America seeking religious freedom. That in itself would take a person of strong character, and may have been part of what made Jean Gracy Knox into a woman who was well able to handle the things that came her way. Jean’s life was not long, by today’s standards anyway, but in that day and age, she did live a long time, and it is my opinion that she also did a lot of living during her lifetime. I’m sure that I will never really know the whole story of her life, but I will always believe that she was quite a lady.

Bob and I are on a trip to Florida, Louisiana, Alabama,  and Mississippi. It is a trip I have looked forward to for some time. As I have read through letters from the past and searched for past records for my family, it seems fitting that I should travel to an area of our country in which resides so much of our nation’s past. I don’t know if any of my ancestors were plantation owners or not, but I do know that some of them came from the south, so I suppose there is a possibility.

Going through Nottoway Plantation, gave us a peek into the lives of the very wealthiest plantation owners. These were people who could not “afford” to marry for love. Every child in the family knew what was expected of them. You married to better your standing and value…even if that meant marrying your cousin, as did happen in some cases, but was not totally common. Does this remind you of “Gone With The Wind”? It did us, but that is how the wealthy lived in those days, and maybe even more than we know in today’s world.

The Randolf family completed Nottoway Plantation in 1859 after 2 years of construction. It was situated right on the Mississippi River, and that was how the family traveled…by river boat, directly into New Orleans. They new no shortage of funds, and lived extravagantly…at least until the Civil War broke out in 1861. One of their sons was killed in the war, one became ill and was sent home, and one was captured. Still, the family proved what they were made of. The father, John went to Texas to grow cotton in order to make money, and the wife and some of the daughters stayed in the family home…even when the Yankee troops showed up. A wise woman, Emily offered to let the troops camp on her property and use what they needed. They took most of the vegetables and livestock, but left the home and the women alone…mostly because one of the soldiers knew one of the Randolf boys.

The home was made of the finest Virginia Cypress wood, which resisted rotting and termites, so the home has endured through the years. The shutters made of the same wood, are simply closed when hurricanes came, and the glass is even protected. The home is beautiful, and the family held many balls there as their children came of age for marrying, because they had to make sure that their children married from the right families.

While this family was wealthy and extravagant, they were also among the few families in the South who were good to their slaves. After the harvest and at Christmas time, John Randolf roasted a pig, and the family ate with the slaves. During that party, John handed out money to his slaves as a reward for jobs well done. Because of that, when the Civil War was over, and John offered contracts to his slaves, so they could now work for a wage, most of them stayed on with him. From the pay they had received through the years, they trusted him to keep his word and pay them after the war as well.

As I said, I don’t know if my family were plantation owners or not, but I like to think that if they were, they would be like John and Emily Randolf, who treated their slaves with kindness. I don’t like the idea of slavery, but I suppose that the people of that time didn’t know any different. It was a different culture, and as far as slaves are concerned, one that I think should not have happened, but unfortunately it is a part if our nation’s past.

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