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Oatlands takes an expansive look at Loudoun’s Civil War history

Panelists Kevin Grisgsby and Pastor Michelle Thomas at an Oatlands event discussing Loudoun’s Civil War history Oct. 1. Times-Mirror/Alexander Todd Erkiletian
In a time filled with contentious debate around how to best remember and celebrate the country's heritage, Oatlands Historic House and Gardens hosted an event uncovering little-known elements of Loudoun's Civil War history.

Oatlands in Leesburg teaches 200 years of history on its historic grounds year round. On Oct. 1, the National Trust Site hosted a special history panel revisiting the Civil War in Loudoun.

At the time of the Civil War, Oatlands was the largest plantation in the county and its owner, Elizabeth Carter, was the wealthiest person in Loudoun, Oatlands Program Director Lori Kimball said. Though the Carters strongly supported the Confederate cause, Loudoun was divided in its support of the war.

The panel covered perspectives of Union and Confederate sympathizers, free and enslaved African Americans and of the pacifist Quakers in Loudoun in an attempt to tell the full story of Civil War life in the county.

Panelist Kevin Grigsby's family has been in Loudoun almost since the beginning. His ancestors worked at Oatlands. It wasn't until 2006 when he was doing research for a family project that he learned of the role of African-American soldiers in Loudoun fighting for the Union.

“I had to face the reality that this was not part of the narrative that was told,” Grigsby said. “It's important to remember that this story is not a segment of African-American history. This story of African American soldiers and sailors from Loudoun County, that is part of the overall story and culture and heritage of our county's Civil War heritage.”

At least 300 African-Americans from Loudoun served in the Union army, Grigsby said. They were of all ages and enlisted from all over the north and south – as Virginia provided slaves to states farther south. Soldiers of African descent suffered high casualty rates since the majority had very little training before fighting.

One soldier from Loudoun, Washington Alexander, had been liberated all of four weeks when he found himself fighting for the Union against battle-tested Confederate soldiers. Though his regiment won the battle, Alexander died on the battlefield.

“Many African-Americans found themselves in this situation – enslaved one day, free the next, and they exercised that freedom by ensuring that millions of others would no longer have to know the pain and suffering of slavery,” Grigsby said.

Loudoun natives were in at least one in every three U.S. colored regimens – as they were called back then. Many officers in these regiments had to be white, like Col. Abden Lee Burke, a Loudoun native and distant cousin of Gen. Robert E. Lee, Grigsby said. Like the stories of African-American soldiers, stories like those of Burke's are also seldom told.

“When Petersburg fell, Loudoun natives were there. When Richmond fell, Loudoun natives were there. When Lee surrendered to Grant in Appotmattox, there were Loudoun natives there who were on duty. Their story deserved to be told,” Grigsby said. “This is our story. Many times, the events of the past, they do help shape us today.”

Just like many stories of African-American soldiers had not been part of the mainstream narrative, burial grounds of the enslaved had also become forgotten to history, panelist Pastor Michelle Thomas said.

The mortality rate of slaves from infancy to 16 years of age was 90 percent, so burial grounds serve as a unique resource to learn about the owners of the plantation as well as of the slaves themselves. Depending on the decorations on graves and placement of graves, historians can deduce where the slaves originated or what religion they practiced, she said.

The majority of slave burial grounds and cemeteries from free African-American communities have not been documented, which has left them vulnerable to development. One such cemetery, the Belmont Slave Cemetery, was not mentioned in legal documents as part of the property until its seventh owner described the half-acre plot adjacent to a school house.

Then, in 1950, the owners of the Belmont plantation experienced plumbing issues, which required digging through the burial ground to fix. Some of the dirt that had been dug up to make a dry pond contained the remains of slaves and was saved by the owners to later use to pave Route 7 in the 1970s, Thomas said.

“Our history has been lost, but if you're willing to learn more about slave's burial grounds or African American burial grounds, it's not the easiest history to piece together, but it's possible,” Thomas said.

Another little-known fact about Loudoun: The northern part of the county was dominated by Quakers who did not believe in slavery or war, panelist Bronwen Sounders said. The largest community of Quakers were settled in Waterford and Goose Creek.

Although they were initially passive in regards to the war, many community members eventually took a more active role by running pro-Union newspapers, creating the Second Street School for African-American students and aiding in the escape of slaves.

Documents detailing the journeys of escaped slaves and the freedmen and Quakers who aided them, like Yarley Taylor, are available at the Loudoun County Circuit Court Historic Records Division for anyone to view, panelist Lee Lawrence said.

The Loudoun County Courthouse was used to try people for helping slaves escape, as well as to try the slaves themselves and return them to the slave owners, panelist Donna Bohanon said.

Although free African-Americans were no longer held in bondage, their lives were far from easy. They had to register as free every three years, carry around a certificate wherever they went and for a certain period of time freed slaves had to leave Virginia within the year, Bohanon said.

In the 1820s, free African-Americans were denied the right to have weapons and laws were passed to make purchasing their relatives in order to free them more difficult to do. They could not sell alcohol, could not live in certain areas, and if they sold agricultural products, they had to have a note from a “respectable white” farmer saying the goods were not stolen.

All aspects of life for free black men and women was restricted, from the personal to professional life.

Virginia was the capital of the Confederacy, but Loudoun was conflicted in which side to support. Forty percent of the county voted to stay with the Union, while 60 voted to secede, panelist Donald Cooper said. Of Union sympathizers in Loudoun, some went north to Maryland to enlist and became a small Union company, the Loudoun Rangers.

The Rangers ran small operations without the support of larger Union units, panelist Lee Stone said. They would guide other Union soldiers through Loudoun, protected other Union sympathizers, collected supplies, carried out secret missions and gathered intelligence on the Confederacy.

Captured Rangers were often treated worse than other Union soldiers as they were seen as traitors to the Confederacy. Many learned to lie about what unit they were a part of if captured by Confederates soldiers, Lee said.

Thirteen Confederate companies came from within Loudoun. Though a majority of people within Loudoun supported secession, Loudoun being the northern border of the Confederacy meant it was a crossing ground for soldiers. Local governments shut down, stores saw a shortage of goods which led to smuggling and farms were abandoned and ransacked, panelist Kevin Pawlak said.

At least 237 Loudoun civilians spent time in federal prison for siding with the Confederacy, Pawlak said. Still, residents created organizations to support Confederate soldiers, fed and supplied Confederate troops on the front lines and were openly friendly to soldiers coming through.

“Civilians could not stay on the sideline of the war while soldiers constantly maneuvered through their homes,” Pawlak said. “In the end, Loudoun's Confederate civilians and soldiers paid dearly for their support of the fledgling southern nation.”

As part of Union retaliation against the South, soldiers came to the Loudoun Valley in 1864 and stole all livestock they could, killed those they couldn't and burned barns. The soldiers did $6.4 million worth of damage to the area, according to panelists.

Loudoun residents would continue to celebrate its Confederate heritage with the dedication of a statue memorializing Confederate soldiers in 1908. Sons of Confederate veterans and the Daughters of the Confederacy petitioned the county Board of Supervisors for a site and funds for the statue.

The board told them if they could raise $2,500 in 15 months, it would give them the final $500 they needed to build the statue. That controversial statue still sits on the county courthouse grounds today.

In 2006, the Daughters of the Confederacy once again asked the board for funds to maintain the statue. One Loudoun resident went before the board, pleading against giving public money to refurbish a statue commemorating people who fought to preserve slavery. That resident would go on to be the first woman of color to be elected chairwoman at large of county government in the history of Virginia: Phyllis Randall.

This story is left out of the public telling of the statue's history, Randall said. The county eventually told the Daughters of the Confederacy they had to pay for the refurbishing itself.
“It matters so much who tells history because it matters if the full story of history is told,” Randall said.

Randall said conversations like the event at Oatlands, sharing all aspects of Loudoun's history, are vital in understanding and working with each other. She said people's unwillingness to understand people's thoughts and hearts has led to the contention across the country.

“The purpose of having a discussion is not to force someone to agree with you and not to agree with them. The purpose of having a discussion is to hear and be heard,” Randall said. “If you've done that, if you hear them and if you felt heard by them, then you've had a successful discussion.”

We don't have to agree, but we have to find respectful and appropriate ways to disagree and we have to find ways to not disrespect one another and not demagogue one another when we don't agree. And I believe that is the beauty of Loudoun County and of our board.”

Contact the writer at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or on Twitter at @VeronikeCollazo.


Virginia SGP, I recall Randall said “people in the east say stupid things”.  Real nice.

Randall says the “purpose of having a discussion is to hear and be heard”.  Yet it was Randall that blocked a constituent who criticized her on her own gov’t Facebook page.  Randall was found to have violated the same civil rights laws first passed during Reconstruction and then used to ensure rights of minorities during the 1960’s. 

I think Randall demonstrates another aspect of Loudoun County: the politicians are almost always hypocrites and cannot bear any criticism, much less actually change their ways.

westLOUDOUNERer, same goes for Waterford?  They apparently sold slaves in the the town center. That is/was OK?

Oatlands is the reason? lol. It’s a piece of history that is preserved..it wasn’t erected as a monument to something. To FactsStillMatter..I won $10 on same type of bet. LMAO

As a plantation that housed slaves, it should not be Leesburg celebrated site.  It’s just too offensive to me driving by there twice a day to see it treated as a glorified historical site.

FTA:  “In the 1820s, free African-Americans were denied the right to have weapons and laws were passed to make purchasing their relatives in order to free them more difficult to do.”

“......and the reconstruction era Congress was alarmed by these practices. A document that was published by Congress at that time recounted the following story, which is representative.  In one town, the Marshall took all arms from the returning black soldiers, and then was ‘very prompt in shooting the blacks whenever an opportunity occurred.’” - YouTube - The Battle of Athens, Tennessee, 1946

One of the best quotes I’ve read in LTM for some time now. 

“The purpose of having a discussion is not to force someone to agree with you and not to agree with them. The purpose of having a discussion is to hear and be heard,” Randall said. “If you’ve done that, if you hear them and if you felt heard by them, then you’ve had a successful discussion.”

We don’t have to agree, but we have to find respectful and appropriate ways to disagree and we have to find ways to not disrespect one another and not demagogue one another when we don’t agree.”

Yipee!  I win.  Bet $5 with a friend that the first comment would be one of Loudoun’s bitter enders beefing about people taking issue with the “ole’ Dixie” version of the Civil War…

Oatlands is the reason there was a civil war. When will the liberals demand that Oatlands be leveled and turned into a park?

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