A Stop at Historic Stagville

Stagville_signHistoric Stagville, located in Durham County, North Carolina, was part of a massive southern plantation complex—one of the largest in the American south before the Civil War. Owned by the Bennehan-Cameron family, the grounds consisted of 30,000 acres, (that’s about 47 square miles!), maintained through the use of nearly 900 enslaved workers.

The use of slavery for colonial expansion, in my humble opinion, was not America’s finest hour. Stagville, nevertheless, is an informative glimpse into that hour. The Bennehan-Cameron family left behind an abundance of documents, (now in the archives at UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State), that paint a detailed picture of daily life on a southern plantation. Those documents, combined with archaeological finds, provide some of the most helpful resources available for understanding the cultural traditions practiced in an early Africa-American community.

Recently, I visited the plantation after exploring the nearby Horton Grove Nature Preserve. What follows is a “picture tour” of my recent stop at Stagville.

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In 1787, Richard Bennehan bought 66 acres of land from Judith Stagg. In those early days, he operated a store and built the original portion of Bennehan House; (pictured here). The Staggs owned the popular Stagg’s Tavern along the Old Indian Trading Path, making the Stagg name widely known. Bennehan described his location as Stagville so that it would be easily identifiable to everyone. — Historic Stagville; Durham, NC

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In 1799, Richard Bennehan added the two-story portion to the house. By this time, Bennehan was well on his way to becoming one of the wealthiest men in North Carolina. His store was thriving, as was his plantation. During his lifetime, he would serve on the committee that laid out the City of Raleigh, and he supported the establishment of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  — Benneham House at Historic Stagville; Durham, NC

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The kitchen garden behind Bennehan House is a recalling of the antebellum (pre-Civil War) south. With its drying pumpkins and late October blooms, it was one of my favorite spots.– Historic Stagville; Durham, NC

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Dominique chickens, America’s first chicken breed, roam free-range down by the barns near the Bennehan House. — Historic Stagville; Durham, NC

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Oh, you know I did! …Set about 100 yards from the Bennehan House, atop a small ridge in the woods, the family cemetery was fun to explore on a late October morning. — Historic Stagville; Durham, NC

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The cemetery’s stone wall and iron entry gate are original. The stones were quarried on Stagville land, and the wall’s design is unusual: the stones are wider at the base than the top. — Historic Stagville; Durham, NC

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Richard, Mary (wife), and Thomas (son) Bennehan are buried here in the family cemetery at Stagville. Their box tombs, ordered from Philadelphia, were standard in England and preferred by the “southern elite” in America. The cemetery is large…and largely unfilled. Richard Bennehan likely expected more of his descendants to be buried there. Many, however, are buried at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Hillsborough, NC. — Historic Stagville; Durham, NC

Just a short drive down Old Oxford Road to Jock Road is Horton Grove, where the enslaved community of Stagville resided.

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Tucked into one corner of Horton Grove is Horton Home. Built in the 1770’s by a yeoman farmer named William Horton, it is believed to be the oldest house on its original foundation in Durham–perhaps one of the oldest houses in all of North Carolina. Richard Bennehan purchased the house and over 410 acres of land (Horton Grove) from the Horton family in 1823. — Historic Stagville; Durham, NC

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The four, two-story slave quarters at Horton Grove were built between 1851 and 1860. The timber frames on the outside and brick nogging on the inside were not typical features of enslaved homes in the south at that time. These features provided insulation from the heat and cold and also deterred rodent infestation. Records reveal that Paul Cameron, (who had inherited Stagville from his uncle Tom Bennehan), personally designed these structures, (which were built by the slaves), to provide a healthier living environment for his enslaved workers. — Horton Grove at Historic Stagville; Durham, NC

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Inside one of the slave’s quarters, there is evidence of both architectural ingenuity, (that is, brick nogging for insulation), as well as the undeniably primitive nature overall of the dwelling. There were four rooms total, two upstairs and two downstairs. An entire family, (often 10 to 13 people), lived in one room of the house. The four families that lived there all entered through the front door and dispersed to their various dwelling spaces. — Historic Stagville; Durham, NC

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Sunday was a slave’s day off. The families often pulled their resources together–some meat here, some vegetables there–and cooked them together on the fire in front of the quarters. — Historic Stagville; Durham, NC

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The chimney on this slave shelter is original. — Horton Grove at Stagville Plantation; Durham, NC

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Bricks for the chimneys were made and fired on the plantation. If the bricks were handled while still hot, fingerprints were left behind. Can you spot the indentation of a slave’s finger in the photo on the left? How about the prints in the photo on the right? These are thought to be a child’s footprint.  — Horton Grove at Historic Stagville; Durham, NC

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Stagville Barn, referred to as the “Great Barn,” is a sturdy sight that once housed up to 80 mules. Built in the summer of 1860 by skilled slaves, the barn contains some unusual “nautical” features, particularly the way in which the roof trusses were constructed like an upside-down haul of a ship–referred to as queen’s trusses. Historians speculate that one or more of the slaves may have spent some time in shipyards along the coast. — Horton Grove at Historic Stagville; Durham, NC

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Hope and hard work: The Hart House is a bright spot in the story of Stagville. After the emancipation, the Harts were freed slaves who worked as sharecroppers and rented this former slave quarters. (The house once looked like all the rest: simple, with natural-colored, vertical timber siding.) The Hart family not only farmed the land but also used their skills as blacksmiths in the growing Durham area. As a result, they were able to purchase the house and make the renovations pictured here. — Horton Grove at Historic Stagville; Durham, NC

For a comprehensive look at the antebellum south, consider a visit to Historic Stagville. Free guided tours as well as self-guided tours are available most days.

Call for the Cavalry

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“A Lone Grave on the Battle-field of Antietam” (1862) by Alexander Gardner. [1]

Today, September 17, 2014, marks the 152nd anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. At dawn on that morning, Union forces advanced on Confederate lines along the Hagerstown Pike just north of Dunker Church, a house of worship for local farmers near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Twelve hours later, more than 23,000 soldiers lay dead, wounded or were missing as the result of the bloodiest one-day battle of the American Civil War.

The roar of the distant battle was incessant; the low, subdued, blended noise of the mingled small arms, with the frequent heavier bursts of cannon. [2]

Such was William Harrison Beach’s personal account of the Battle of Antietam (1862). In 1902, Beach published The First New York (Lincoln) Cavalry from April 19, 1861, to July 17, 1865. This eyewitness account was taken from several reliable sources: his own diary, (which he regularly kept throughout his four years as an officer in The First New York Cavalry), letters written home, as well as diaries and communications of his comrades. The result of these compilations is an intelligent, detailed picture of the Civil War through the eyes of cavalry men.

President Abraham Lincoln authorized the raising of The First New York Cavalry in 1861. It was the first call of a federally-approved volunteer cavalry, which was organized into 12 companies, with each company consisting of about 100 men. The regiment was commanded by a commissioned officer, Colonel Andrew T. McReynolds. Since ten of the twelve companies came from New York, (with Pennsylvania and Michigan furnishing the other two), the entire regiment was assigned to that state and was comprised of “worthy men and boys who promptly responded to the President’s first call for volunteers, or who rather anticipated a call for volunteer cavalry.” As a result, it became known as The Lincoln Cavalry.

In general, the cavalry’s role in the Civil War was to support the infantry and artillery by gathering intelligence, scouting, and disrupting the enemy’s communications and supply line. Additional duties included shoeing horses, re-tiring wagon wheels, and protecting the lines of transportation (such as the Baltimore & Ohio railroad) from ranging bands of soldiers. By the end of the war, the Federal (Union) cavalry had developed into a powerful, offensive force.

War records indicate that The First New York (Lincoln) Cavalry was present at the Battle of Antietam. Beach’s particular company or detachment, however, was not one of them. They heard the battle in the distance (as they passed over South Mountain) and arrived in Sharpsburg, Maryland, shortly after deadly silence had settled over the valley. Two days later, September 19, Beach would write:

The 19th the entire regiment marched out on the field. The dead men had been buried, but there were many dead horses swollen to an immense size. Many troops were on the field, massed in solid squares ready to renew the battle. But Lee had crossed the river.

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In 1862, the blood of soldiers Blue & Gray flowed ‘like a river’ along the Sunken Road, (pictured here, modern day), giving it the name Bloody Lane. — Antietam National Battlefield; Sharpsburg, MD

Charles R. Peterson of Company B had a brother, Lieut. Pierson B. Peterson, adjutant of the Seventy-eighth N. Y., one of the new regiments that had just come to the front. He learned that this regiment had been engaged in the battle. In his search for the regiment he heard that his brother had been wounded. …In some woods along the roadside near Keedysville many hospital tents had been set up. In front of one of these was a hospital nurse inquiring for Peterson of Company B, saying that his brother was lying in the tent, his leg having been amputated. The younger Peterson was absent from the ranks still engaged in his tireless search. A man of the company was directed to remain here, to tell Peterson, when he should find him, that he could stay and take care of his brother. This was a considerate act on the part of Colonel McReynolds. The wounded lieutenant was tenderly cared for, but he slowly failed. Finally after a period of delirium in which he seemed to be again in the front of the battle, giving orders for the line to stand firm, and then to move forward, he passed away. …This sad meeting of brothers after the battle was one of many similar incidents of the war. [3]

The Battle of Antietam left a deep mark on The First New York Cavalry. In late September 1863, a year after the bloody conflict, Beach records that the entire regiment found themselves marching below the Shepherdstown ford, over the Antietam battlefield again.

“The men were interested in identifying the places over which they had moved the year before. …The men studied the situation of Antietam, the sunken road, the cornfield, Miller’s barn, the Burnside bridge.” [4]

Among this band of brothers was a wagoner of Irish descent. Private John Sullivan, my great-great grandfather.

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The First New York Cavalry (1861-1864); re-enlisted First Regiment New York Cavalry Veteran Volunteers (1864-1865)

The career of the regiment was not an unbroken succession of brilliant charges. Nor were the officers and enlisted men all knights ‘”without fear and without reproach.” But they did good service to the country, and the record of what they did, though imperfectly made up, deserves to be preserved.” [5]


[1] This photo by Civil War photographer, Alexander Gardner, is a “picture of a picture” that I took while visiting the Alexander Gardner exhibit on display at Antietam in 2012 to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. Gardner took this photograph just two days after the bloody Battle. Gardner’s visual documentation of the Civil War (over 70 preserved images) is both priceless and a graphic reminder of the stark realities of war.
[2] The First New York (Lincoln) Cavalry from April 19, 1861, to July 17, 1865 by William Harrison Beach, page 186.
[3] Ibid., pages 187-188.
[4] Ibid., page 294.
[5] Ibid., ix.

Bennett Place: Celebrating 9 & 90+ Years

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Bennett Place in Durham, North Carolina

Today marks my ninth full year as a Durhamite. I must confess that, with the exception of Duke Gardens, I really haven’t explored Durham, North Carolina, much in the past nine years. Determined to change this, I recently set out for Bennett Place, a local landmark and North Carolina Historic Site that was fully restored in 1960 to what it looked like in Civil War-era 1865.

I parked in the lot off of Bennett Memorial Road, which is by the Visitors Center. Beside the Visitors Center is a nature trail, where I immediately spotted a whitetail deer—a herald to the nature of the trail, or so it would seem.

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A whitetail deer by the Nature Trail at Bennett Park in Durham, NC.

That encounter digitally documented, I made my way down a grassy road lined on both sides with snake-rail fence: the original Hillsborough Road. (I opted for a self-guided tour, but guided tours are available and free of charge. Donations are accepted.)

Meet the Family
Members of the Bennett family included James, his wife Nancy, their two sons, Lorenzo and Alfonso, and a daughter named Eliza. Both sons joined the Confederacy and died in the first years of the war—Lorenzo as a result of battle, and Alfonso from pneumonia while still in training. Eliza’s husband, Robert Duke, also died while serving.

Like the Bennetts, many other families during the Civil War experienced mortal losses and other hardships, (such as food rationing as the result of blockades). What was unique, however, was that the Bennett property would become a place for negotiating surrender–surrender that would bring with it the dawn of peace and national reconstruction.

A Meeting Place
Near the close of the American Civil War, Bennett Place became the site of a “Generals meet-up.” In April 1865, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston left his headquarters in Greensboro, North Carolina, and met Union General William T. Sherman, headquartered in Raleigh, at the Bennett Place to discuss terms of surrender. They traveled down the old Hillsborough Road toward the Durham Station of the North Carolina Railroad, each coming from opposite directions. The Bennett farm proved to be a halfway point.

Johnston was escorted by 60 troopers of the 5th South Carolina Cavalry Regimen. Sherman had with him 200 men from the 9th and 13th Pennsylvania, 8th Indiana, and 2nd Kentucky Cavalry. Sherman brought with him the news of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination only days earlier.

The generals’ private discussions began on April 17th. They met again the following day and terms of surrender were signed; however, the the terms were rejected by government officials in Washington with claims that they were more generous than previous terms (that General Ulysses S. Grant had given to General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865). The generals met a third and last time at Bennett Place on April 26, 1865, and signed the final papers of surrender for Southern armies in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida–a total of 89,270 soldiers, making it the largest group surrender during the Civil War.

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Bennett House and the original Hillsborough Road (between the two snake-rail fences): Confederate General Johnston and Union General Sherman traveled the Hillsborough Road from opposite directions, (Johnston coming from the direction on the right; Sherman from the left), and convened inside Bennett House. — Bennett Place, Durham, NC

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The Bennett House as it stands today is a replica constructed of materials from another Durham farmhouse of the same period. The original house burned down in 1921. All that remained was the chimney (still intact and pictured here on the left side of the structure). The Bennett House consists of one large room on the first floor and a small room on the second floor.

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The wooden well on the Bennett Farm: Reportedly, the Civil War generals tied their horses under a large oak tree near this well while they discussed terms of surrender inside the Bennett House. — Bennett Place, Durham, NC

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The Bennett family gathered in the kitchenhouse, (picture here), while the two Civil War generals negotiated terms of surrender in the main house. The reconstructed kitchenhouse was built on the original foundation. — Bennett Place, Durham NC

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Furniture and kitchenware of the 1800s provide a glimpse into American Civil War-era life, as seen through the window of the kitchenhouse at Bennett Place in Durham, NC.

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The smokehouse on Bennett Farm was used for curing meat and storing food and supplies. (This reconstructed smokehouse was erected where the original once stood.) — Bennett Place, Durham NC

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Inside the smokehouse, tools of the period (Civil War/late 1800s) are on display. — Bennett Place, Durham NC

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From the rear of the Bennett Place: the replica 1800s garden in the foreground, the kitchenhouse just beyond the fence, the smokehouse to the right, and Bennett House in the distance. — Bennett Place, Durham, NC

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A Unity Monument was erected at Bennett Place on October 12, 1923, as a symbol of national unity. The monument, which turned 90 years old in 2013, consists of two columns, one representing The Confederacy and one representing The Union. The columns are joined at the top by a bridge bearing two shields and the word UNITY. (Durham, NC)

Inside the Visitors Center, there is a gift shop, a research library, and a three-room museum containing information and artifacts relating to both the Bennett Family and the events that put Bennett Place on the Civil War Tours map and in the history books.

I looked for but didn’t see any signs stating that I could not take pictures, (my bad if I missed them!), so I turned off my flash and took just a few.

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A Confederate soldier’s uniform and typical effects on display in the museum at Bennett Place in Durham, NC.

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This Civil War-era home remedy kit is quite interesting…and quite exhaustive, it would seem. — Bennett Place museum in Durham, NC

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Copies of the surrender documents between General Johnston and General Sherman are on display in the museum at Bennett Place. (North Carolina)

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The Bennett family lost two sons and a son-in-law in the Civil War, leaving no males to work the farm. James Bennett (Bennitt) ceased farming at about age 70 and signed a sharecropping agreement with his in-laws. He died in 1878. Nancy and Eliza Bennett moved into the growing city of Durham.

Places like Bennett Place serve as reminders that disagreements, hardship, and loss are the sad realities of life. Places like Bennett Place can be a bit depressing. It’s little wonder, then, that some thought it important to erect a monument there to symbolize unity. One Nation. Under God. Indivisible.

Riches and Honor: The Putting On of Peonies

With his penknife, Dad cut the top off the empty, plastic milk carton.  He then arranged rocks in the bottom before filling the carton with water from the outdoor spigot.  A man of few words, he walked over to the row of pink and white peonies that lined the turn-around of our long, gravel driveway.  With the use of his trusty penknife, he snipped an equal number of pink and white fragrant stalks from the blossom-laden bushes. Mom arranged them in the milk jug.

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Dad, Mom, my two sisters, and I then piled into our old, Chevy pickup truck.  It was a snug fit as we drove down Route 67 to the cemetery in Pleasant Valley, Maryland; but more than this, it was a Memorial Day tradition, this putting of peonies on my grandmother’s grave. We did it every year from the time that I was little until the time that I left home.

I never knew my Grandma Sullivan, but her reputation was as large as life.  She loved people–even (especially) the less than lovely ones.  She was strong in spirit, despite a long-term lung disease that slowly killed her, and she was persistent in her mission to tell (and to show) her community about God–the Creator, Sustainer, and Savior of the world.  Well into my twenties, I would encounter people who said their lives has been forever changed by her charity.  Now her soul is in heaven and her bones are at rest for a time in the grave. During my growing-up years, we preserved her memory with peonies, which are traditionally symbols of riches and honor.

This past week on Twitter, the Eisenhower Library tweeted about a 1955 Memorial Day initiative by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in which he urged the nation to “slow down and live.”  It reminded me of two 1961 photographs that bear my Grandmother’s handwriting.  The photos are of Eisenhower, whom Grandma Sullivan refers to as “General Ike.” The pictures were taken by my grandparents when General Eisenhower visited Hagerstown, Maryland, on September 3, 1961. Eisenhower, who had completed his two-term presidency earlier that year, was in town to speak at the rededication of the Washington Confederate Cemetery, (which is a graveyard for soldiers killed during the Maryland campaigns of the Civil War).  Eisenhower had traveled to Hagerstown from his farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, less than an hour away. Also at the rededication was General U.S. Grant III, grandson of Civil War Union General (and 18th President of the United States) Ulysses S. Grant.

I hope that you enjoy these snapshots from America’s past, and I wish you a safe and happy Memorial Day.

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General Dwight D. Eisenhower gives the peace sign during his visit to Hagerstown, Maryland, on September 3, 1961, for the rededication of the Washington Confederate Cemetery.

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General Dwight D. Eisenhower smiles for my grandparents’ camera during his visit to Hagerstown, Maryland, for the rededication of the Washington Confederate Cemetery on September 3, 1961. Seated to the far left of Eisenhower is U.S. House of Representatives, (6th Congressional District of Maryland), Charles “Mac” Mathias, Jr; and beside General Eisenhower is J. Millard Tawes, Governor of Maryland from 1959-1967.