A much needed and very good thing is taking place in conjunction with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. Historians, authors, and researchers are focusing not only on the battlefields and the bios, but some are also providing us with perspectives into the experiences of enslaved African Americans.
One such person sifting through the vertical files and turning the microfilm rolls is Amy Bertsch. Previously with the Office of Historic Alexandria where she wrote the weekly series, “Out of the Attic” for The Alexandria Times, and now the Alexandria Police Department’s Spokeswoman, she gave a lecture on Thursday night at the Lloyd House. Titled, “Volusia: Civilian, Slave and Soldier Experiences in the Civil War,” her talk was the third in a series of lectures sponsored by the Alexandria Sesquicentennial Civil War Committee.
Bertsch’s illustrated presentation focused on a fairly unique chapter of local history, an untold one that took place at Volusia. Built before the Civil War, this plantation farm was situated on what is now the Foxchase neighborhood in Alexandria’s West End.
Using the maps Bertsch provided, it appears the plantation house, torn down in the 50s, was located near the intersection of N. Howard and N. Jordan streets. The 155-acre farm spread out between what is now INOVA Hospital and Duke Street.
The presentation began with a photograph showing nine African Americans – two adult ladies and seven children. Taken in an open field, the oldest adult is pressing laundry on a table. The young children pose beside wooden baskets. Shadows show a clear day. The nine are wearing winter clothes.
Several years ago, when she was working with the Office of Historic Alexandria, Bertsch lent her skills to researchers in Alexandria who came across the photograph. It came from a collection belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Leigh. The caption reads, Felix Richards’ Slaves.
Such photographs of enslaved persons are rare. As Mary Niall Mitchell (History News Network) observed:
For those of us who work with historical photographs (particularly images from the nineteenth century, when the medium was still in its infancy) there are few things more thrilling than stumbling on an image we didn’t know existed.
As another website notes:
... plantation owners and slave drivers certainly did not want to advertise and document their dark trade.
The Alexandria researchers knew they were on to something. Bertsch poured through primary sources, manumission and tax records, pension claims and the like to uncover the fascinating story behind the photograph.
Although they owned slaves, Felix Richards and his wife Amelia sided with the Union. Nevertheless, they paid a heavy price. When Federal troops arrived at Volusia in 1861, they confiscated the Richards’ farm. The boys in blue protected their property from Confederate probes, but stripped the trees for building material and fires. Monies were re-gained but the process was always a long one and required a lot of supporting documentation.
Bertsch’s presentation came in front of an audience of about 20 people in the historic building at the corner of N. Washington and Queen Street. A certain poignancy is always achieved with lectures held there. The Lloyd House belongs to that coveted club of structures built in the 18th century. It features magnificent portraits and a restored appearance that puts you back in the vanished time. Upstairs once held the local collections which were moved across the street to the Barrett Branch of the Library.
Bertsch showed over a dozen photographs and images as the story of both the Richards, their slaves and the Union soldiers unfolded. She identified the slave family name as Hughes. The lack of records stands in the way of a definitive truth, but the shadow of doubt in this case is a small one.
Like all who plunge into the past, Bertsch hit dead ends and false leads. But her persistence paid off. She found evidence that indicates the two adult women in the “laundry day” photograph are Lucinda and Kitty, daughters of Julia and Jesse Hughes.
She also illuminated the story of David Hughes and Wilson Hughes. They both served with the U.S. Colored Infantry, their names a part of the African American Civil War Memorial in the Shaw neighborhood in Washington, D.C.
We also learned who might have taken the photographs. Lt. James E. Larkin with the Fifth New Hampshire was one of many soldiers who kept a diary. He wrote about taking photos at Volusia in mid-January 1862. His handwriting seems to match that on the photos. Ever the thorough and cautious researcher, Bertsch notes in her research paper that this is not conclusive evidence. But given all the circumstances, Larkin is likely the man behind the camera.
After the presentation, a handful of folks and Bertsch discussed the main photo. Clued in by the shadows and the hills in the background, some of us were curious as to which direction the photographer faced. The evidence points towards the east.
Either way, the ridge behind the Hughes family serves as a telling metaphor. The walls of captivity were high for enslaved humans. Learning about their struggles and paths to freedom is something we need to continue to do as we look back on this 150th anniversary of the war.
Photographs are property of Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Leigh.