Tag Archives: Library of Virginia

The Confederacy: Partying Like it’s 1899

As you all know, I’ve been temporarily gainfully employed for a short while and so my posts have been infrequent. Though I’m working for the Henrico County Library System, I’m still trying to make my contribution to the Library of Virginia and their blog Out of the Box. I’d like to give you a peek at my latest, unedited LVA contribution. As it is somewhat professional, it does not contain my usual strains of jackassery though I did try to convince the blog’s editor that they should somehow incorporate my Prince reference in the title when it goes live.

Could you ever imagine that in 1896, here in Richmond, the heart of the former confederacy, soldiers on both sides of the bloody conflict that was the Civil War would come together and party? Well, believe it. The occasion was a reunion of soldiers who had spent time in the care of Sally Tompkins and the staff at the Robertson Hospital and the reunion register can be found here at the Library of Virginia.

The hospital reunion register records the names, signatures and sometimes military unit of former soldiers who attended a patient reunion during the Grand Confederate Reunion of 1896. Some wives’ names are also listed. A quick perusal of the document reveals that some attendees were soldiers who fought for the Union, further testimony to the respect and love that soldiers on both sides felt for the care Tompkins bestowed on all. The love was not one-sided as Tompkins paid for the entire blowout herself, renting a house and providing food and drink for the entire company.

Only a remarkable woman such as Tompkins could have engineered such a get-together. Born in Poplar Grove,Mathews City., Va., on 9 Nov. 1833, Tompkins moved to Richmond following the death of her husband and used her considerable inheritance to open a private hospital at the outbreak of the war. Tompkins opened the hospital at the corner of 3rd and Main Street at the home of Judge John Robertson, thus giving the facility its name. The quality of care at Robertson Hospital was of such a high caliber that Jefferson Davis allowed the hospital to operate after he closed all other private hospitals in the capital. In all, the hospital treated 1,333 soldiers from its opening until the last patients were discharged 13 June 1865. Only 73 deaths were ever recorded at Robertson Hospital during its entire existence. When regulations were handed down to the effect that all military hospitals must be run only by military personnel, rather than dispense with such excellent care as Tompkins provided, she was instead appointed a captain of calvary to comply with the new rules. Needless to say, Tompkins was the only commissioned woman in the Confederate Army.

Sally Tompkins was buried with full military honors after her death on 26 July, 1916 in Richmond, Virginia.

Well, that’s about it for any creative output I’ve managed lately. I’m sort of in the midst of a lot of varied career stuff right now. I’m still working on my Continuing Education survey, attempting to find permanent work, trying to write whenever I get the chance and, of course, doing what it is I’m doing now at the headquarters of the Henrico County Library System.

Oh, but I do want to mention that I managed to snag an interview this coming Wednesday at the Appomattox Regional Library System for a Reference Librarian position. Woot!

In Which Our Hero Begins to Gather Steam…

You’ll never believe it but I got another job interview today. Seriously. It is a part-time, no benefits and slightly insulting pay rate job that just happens to be in my field and which sounds like more fun than I can handle. It is as a researcher for a local museum. I’ll find out more about it at the interview on the 4th which is the same week that I’ll find out about Virginia Union University. Uggggghhhh! I can’t wait! I’m starving!

In archival news, the Library of Virginia now has another cohab register to add to its growing list. What is that, you say? What is a cohab register? Well…the cohab registers are a set of awesome nineteenth century documents that we’re working on digitizing. The actual title of each one is Register of Colored Persons of _________ County Cohabiting Together as Husband and Wife as of February 27, 1866 These documents were created by the Freedmen’s Bureau when it set up shop in Virginia after the Civil War. These documents were often the first time that a slave’s name appeared in an official record and the registers were used to legitimize marriages and children. Previous to this, slave families were considered….well, they weren’t considered at all! The supposition that black families were incidental led to later assumptions, enshrined in the well-meaning but misleading Moynihan Report that the perceived problems in black family life such as fatherlessness, desertion, etc. were the result of the hardships that slavery inflicted upon family life. Moynihan’s theory was that blacks in America would not be capable of attaining equality for a long time yet because of the enormous damage slavery had caused, in particular, damage to black families. Fairplay. I can understand that slavery put strains on family life that were not experienced by white families and that this would have repercussions for a significant amount of time as that race works for equality througout history, however Moynihan’s basic assumption was that slave families were transitory units. My reading of the evidence is different. My own admittedly rather elementary research during the time that I transcribed these registers has led me to a far different conclusion about the emotional lives of slave families. Maybe I should call it a hypothesis since, as I said, my research has been pretty basic so far. Anyway, these registers show that there was a remarkable resilience among slave families, some who were living very geographically separate lives. The registers show that many wives took the last name of their husbands, even when there was often no legitimizing ceremony which indicates that slave couples recognized the binding nature of marriage. Further, the registers are full of elderly couples who had been married for more than forty years! Some of these descriptions also contained the exact date of the marriage, even when it had occurred many, many years before. As a woman, I can formally testify that this likely shows that the couple felt an emotional bond. Would you remember the exact date that you just randomly decided to shack up with someone? No, I think desertion and casual babymaking was any more widespread as it was in white society as some scholars seem to have supposed. Furthermore, many of these babies were named after fathers or mothers, indicating yet another familial bond. Speaking of babies, another interesting piece of evidence is a set of companion registers that are often lumped together with the cohab registers. These are the “Register of Children of Colored Persons Whose Parents Have Ceased to Cohabit Which the Father Recognizes to be His”. This is pretty self-explanatory. It is a register of children from families broken by desertion, death, geographic separation, etc. It makes for sad reading but it makes a convincing case for the surprising number of intact families living in slavery. Some of the families mentioned in the records are in fact broken by desertion but it is a gratifyingly small number. The majority of parents in the record are no longer cohabiting because one of them is six feet under. Well, I do admit to being amused by one case in which the record mentions that the family in question is separated due to the “temper of wife” but most of the families no longer together were separated either by distance or earthly dimensions.

I had a fabulous time transcribing these bad boys and I really hope that someone will do a more thorough study using them. Especially since many of these registers have NOT been studied before. During the time that I was doing the transcription, I was reading one of the definitive studies of black family life during slavery, aptly titled The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 and in the notes, the author acknowledges the existence of four cohab registers. The LVA has, in fact, twenty-one; the newest being that for Smyth County which I just finished transcribing yesterday. This huge discrepancy is not an error on the author’s part but rather the result of having so many great historical documents hidden away in the various 95 county courthouses across the state. Many of these documents have just been unearthed, at least intellectually, and are now available to everyone online. What a country.

This Republic of Suffering

I picked up this poster at our front desk this morning.  Unlike certain other rather public Virginians, the Library of Virginia has, by displaying this very poster, made it known that most of us remember that once, a long time ago, we forced other people to do our yardwork.