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Posts Tagged ‘Black History’

On March 6, 2020, not long before the world changed overnight and (among other things) we began to work remotely, I heard Dan Abrams talk about his new book “John Adams Under Fire” on “Morning Joe.”  Abrams recounted how his book uses a 1770 trial transcript from legal proceedings after the Boston Massacre and referred to the transcript as an “under-appreciated document.” Willie Geist, the always-pleasant host, asked him (twice!) in astonishment, “where do you get these documents?!”

I remember that I yelled at the television (yes, I do that all the time), “IN AN ARCHIVES!!!” And I wondered why Geist asked that question because of course (right?) a reporter (or a writer, historian, biographer…) knows to check archives for material relevant to their work. Still, even if you know to check archives, it isn’t always easy to find what you want, or to be lucky enough, or have time enough, to make a serendipitous discovery.

In the Amherst College Archives, we obsess (in the nicest way) about how to make things easier to find, and how to bring them to the public’s attention — how to lead a horse (you) to water (documents). Given a limited staff, there’s only so much we can do, but we always think about ways to improve.

This blog serves that purpose. And in today’s post I want bring the Archives and Special Collections to you and share an “under-appreciated” letter.

The letter came to light as part of our ongoing survey of our holdings. One of the items on my to-do list was a scrapbook album belonging to Cornelius H. Patton, Class of 1883.  I had accessioned this volume into our collection about 15 years ago, but its importance didn’t sink in until the survey allowed me to look at it closely. I expected a scrapbook of ephemera from Patton’s college years; instead, it’s a genealogical/personal scrapbook, containing both family items from three or four generations as well as items important and specific to Cornelius (including a little of the Amherst ephemera I had anticipated). It even contains documentation of how Patton came to be interested in William Wordsworth, thus explaining the origin of a collection now at Amherst College.

Among this material there were items relating to Cornelius’s father’s experience in the Civil War.  And there was that astonishing letter I mentioned above.

The Patton family in 1857. William Weston Patton is seated at left.

The letter is from William Weston Patton (1821-1889) to his wife, Mary Boardman Smith.  Patton writes from Richmond, Virginia on April 12, 1865, ten days after Robert E. Lee evacuated his troops from the city. Patton, a confirmed abolitionist, describes the city after Confederate troops left it, and shares his joy about the Union’s victory.   Here are photographs of his letter and my transcription (please pardon the quality of the photographs, taken quickly before we evacuated our offices in mid-March).

Envelope and first page, folded, of letter. Additional photographs of letter below.

[Note that the first line, beginning with “N.B.” is in the hand of son Cornelius H. Patton].

N.B. Richmond was evacuated by Lee April 2-3

Richmond, Va. April 12th 1865.

My Dear Wife,

You notice a new style of paper, such as I have never before used for my letters, sermons, or other purposes. I picked it up amid a heap of waste Confederate material in the Custom House yesterday, and thought I would put it to good use. The lettering at the head may help you to realize (as I can scarcely do myself) where I am. I write in a room in the Powhattan House near the public square. We reached Richmond yesterday at noon. I wrote a hasty line on the [river] and sent it back by the boat. I took dinner at a restaurant kept by a colored man in the office of what was a large hotel, which is occupied now by soldiers & families. During the P.M. I walked the city till completely tired out, having first seen Asst Secy. of War Dana, and persuaded him to telegraph an order to City Point for Dr. Davies to come up, who will reach here today noon.

Richmond in its best portions is a very pleasant city, on elevated ground, with good streets, tasteful but not very costly dwellings, some shrubbery, and a fine public square with admirable statuary.

Documents found on a Richmond street by W. W. Patton.

Confederate documents cover the ground and line the ditches around the square. The business part of the city is burnt (equivalent to S. Water & Lake Sts in Chicago) and presents a sad sight. The Negroes are here in immense numbers and are overjoyed at the state of things. Negro troops are on every hand, and are greatly admired by the black inhabitants. The poor whites are very acquiescent in the change of rulers, but the upper class is sour and sullen, gloomy and subjugated.

I have picked up sundry very amusing letters on the streets written to Rebel soldiers by their sisters and sweethearts–genuine articles. I shall try today to see what can be found for the [N.W.?] Fair. Offices have been opened in various quarters of the city to supply food to the poor. Large numbers are taking the oath of allegiance.

 I went and looked at the outside of Libby Prison yesterday — an old fashioned brick building of three low stories, now crowded with Rebels, who were laughing and joking from the windows where our men were shot if they showed themselves!

Patton’s lyrics to the John Brown song.

My plans are indefinite as yet, as to my stay here. I am full of praise to God as I walk about, and sing the John Brown song perpetually.

Kiss the baby for me. Love to all the big and the little.

Your loving husband
Wm. W. Patton

The title of this post, “Red Hot Abolitionist,” comes from another letter in the scrapbook, one to William W. Patton from his brother Ludlow (standing at back in family photograph above). Ludlow refers approvingly to a mutual acquaintance (probably Rev. Charles H.A. Bulkley) as a “red hot abolitionist,” but there’s no doubt that William W. Patton was also fiery on the topic, as his “John Brown” lyrics prove.  He preached and wrote about slavery and abolitionism extensively, as I learned when researching Patton for this post, an exercise that led to multiple websites. Rather than rewriting what others have covered before, here are links to some of the sites with information about Patton:

  • Diaries of W. W. Patton at the Connecticut Historical Society:  https://chs.org/2010/02/rev-william-weston-patton/
  • “President Lincoln and the Chicago memorial of emancipation” (1887), Patton recollecting a September 1862 visit to President Lincoln to urge him to emancipate the slaves:

Finally, here are more images (poorly photographed — apologies) from the album.  Click on any image to enter the gallery.

 

 

 

 

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shepard-cu-bx3-f5-silliman-memo-2-3-detail

The slaves on the sugar estates – do they appear hardworked dispirited and oppressed? Open your eyes and ears to every fact connected with the actual condition of slavery everywhere – but do not talk about it – hear and [see] everything but say little.*

1824-shepard-chas-u-1850sIn 1832, Yale’s eminent scientist Benjamin Silliman advised botanist Charles Upham Shepard (Amherst Class of 1824) on how to negotiate his visit to the South, where Shepard was to investigate sugar plantations in order to assist Silliman in the production of a report to the United States government on the sugar industry.  The investigation had begun in 1830 with a request from the House of Representatives to Secretary of the Treasury Samuel Ingham to “cause to be prepared a well digested Manual, containing the best practical information concerning the culture of the Sugar Cane, and the fabrication and refinement of Sugar, including the most modern improvements” (“Manual” preface).  Ingham’s successor Louis McLane gave the project to Silliman, and Silliman divided it into tasks for four men, including Shepard, who went to Louisiana and Georgia, “where the sugar cane is cultivated.”

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Yesterday marked the last class visit to the Archives & Special Collections for the Spring 2016 semester. The class was “Early Women Writers” taught by Amherst English Professors Amelia Worsley and Ingrid Nelson, and it was a great excuse for me to dig into our collections to see what we have in this area.

Austen 1818

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Daguerreotype of Charles Thompson by Chandler Seaver, Jr., of Boston, ca 1855

Daguerreotype of Charles Thompson by Chandler Seaver, Jr., of Boston, ca 1855

Charles Thompson, custodian at Amherst College for more than 40 years in the second half of the 19th century – do you know him?  Have you seen photographs of him before, perhaps in an old Olio yearbook?  For over 40 years Amherst students graduated and left town with a photograph of Charles Thompson in their copies of the yearbook.  Thompson was deeply connected with the College, and with the students’ experience of it, and there is no doubt that those who knew him remembered him fondly.

Most of what we know about Thompson’s life comes from a volume written to raise money for Thompson’s old age by President William Augustus Stearns’ daughter Abigail Eloise LeeI’ve looked at the book many times over the years, both for the purpose of learning about Thompson’s life and to find details about the College and town during those days.  Recently I looked at it again and this time I happened to focus on a passage in which Lee mentions Thompson’s experiences as a sailor.  I’d never noticed this information enough to wonder about it, but this time I did.

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1974 Black Studies brochure

We may not normally think of the establishment of an academic department as an event with political significance, but sometimes social change can lead directly to recognition of necessary parallel changes in scholarship and academic culture. The establishment of the Black Studies Department at Amherst College is one example of this. Amherst College Archives and Special Collections contains records, clippings and publications across several collections which together document the story of how the department came to be.

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Nearly every student who has attended Amherst College is represented in the Alumni Biographical Files collection, which documents the lives of alumni from 1821 to the present. Biographical files may contain as little as basic information about a student’s enrollment dates at the college, or may contain many folders of items related to alumni lives and careers, depending on how much material has been gathered or donated for each student. Calvin Coolidge’s “bio file” is equal in size to a small manuscript collection, while others contain just enough for one folder.

Questions and requests from researchers frequently send us to these biographical files, giving us the opportunity to learn about some fascinating Amherst alumni. Looking into these files allows us to rediscover their contributions and learn something about the social and cultural contexts for their work. One of the alumni who came to our attention this way was educator Charles Henry Moore.

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