Revolutionary And Civil War Sites Come Alive For Monomoy High's Rich Houston

By: Jan Sidebotham

Topics: Monomoy Regional High School

Monomoy High School history teacher Richard Houston at the site of the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, Va. COURTESY PHOTO

HARWICH – In his talk last week at the Brooks Free Library, Monomoy High School history teacher Richard Houston referred to the recent Superbowl game: “That was a North-South contest, too — New England versus Georgia...a good segue to tonight’s topic.”

The topic was Houston’s trip to Virginia to explore Revolutionary and Civil War sites, funded by the Westgate Foundation of Chatham. Created in honor of Dr. R.I.W. Westgate, a devoted educator, the fund enables teachers to further explore their chosen field in innovative ways.

Houston’s presentation reflected a vision of Virginia as a place of replications and contradictions. Many areas hosted battles in both wars. Many sites reminded him that alongside with the freedom colonialists fought for from Britain existed the continuing enslavement of Africans. Such ironies pervaded Houston’s tour.

Houston’s journey took him through the Shenandoah Valley, which served as a highway for both Union and Confederate armies. An early stop in Charlottesville took Houston to the University of Virginia, the college Thomas Jefferson founded, and Monticello, Jefferson’s home. Houston noted the contrast between the classical architecture of the forefather’s home and the humble, recreated cabins which represented slave quarters.

Moving on to Appomattox, Houston backtracked briefly to describe the fiasco at Petersburg, the Battle of the Crater, where Union forces played the “dirty trick” of building a tunnel under a field, plying it with explosives, and detonating them when the Confederate soldiers arrived. While Union soldiers could easily run into the crater, they struggled to climb out of it. Black soldiers were sent to traverse the crater and met certain captivity, and because of their low status, certain execution. From Petersburg, General Lee had hoped to retreat, but after a grueling, bloody journey, Confederate soldiers were surrounded at Appomattox, and General Lee was forced to surrender to General Grant.

At Jamestown, the first English settlement, Houston saw a fort from the 1600s, a site of a Confederate fort/battery, and a replica of a ship that would have sailed into the harbor in 1607. Houston considers Fort Monroe, further down the peninsula, a “key to the transformation of the war.” President Lincoln had initially framed the war as a conflict about unity and secession. His convictions about abolishing slavery came later. In 1861, three runaway slaves offered their service to General Benjamin Butler, in command of Fort Monroe, a Union stronghold. The slaveholder who claimed ownership of them demanded that they be returned to him. Butler refused on the grounds that this so-called property would be used to wage war on the Union. The controversy forced Lincoln and the Northern states to rethink their view of human beings as property, and some claim it led to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. In 1619, the first Africans to be sold as property arrived in ships at Jamestown. In the early 1860s, not far away at Fort Monroe, a small band of slaves launched a controversy that challenged the notion that human beings could be property.

The Battle of Green Spring in Yorktown was part of the Union’s Peninsula Campaign in the eastern part of Virginia and relied on some of the same strategic locations that colonial forces used against the British during the Revolutionary War. Here, as in other places, the Union and Confederacy contested the same ground as the British and the Patriots.

During the American Revolution at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay the Battle of the Capes, off Cape Henry, was held. Not too far away, at the Mariners Museum, in Newport News, on the north side of the James River, Houston saw the USS Monitor, which in 1862, boasted the first revolving turret for artillery and was used in a battle with CSS Virginia.

Houston’s last stop before Richmond was in Williamsburg, which, like Jamestown, has a history of Civil War and Revolutionary War conflicts. Occupied by the British, it was the colonial capital of Virginia and also saw conflicts between the Union and the Confederate armies in 1862.

Houston’s stay in Richmond, which was built around the Teacher’s Institute, included a tour of the battlefields of the Seven Days’ Battles of 1862, when General Lee drove General McClellan down the James River.

Houston called Richmond a “city of contrasts.” The Museum of the Confederacy lay near the memorial of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, a giant of the Civil Rights movement. Outside Tredeger Ironworks, Houston saw a statue of Lincoln, befitting according some Richmond denizens, incongruous to others. A statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, stood on one end of Memorial Drive while a statue of Arthur Ashe, symbol of African-American resilience and achievement, stood at the other. The city seemed torn between its identity as the capital of the Confederacy and a crucible for the Civil Rights movement.

Houston chose to tread the same route President Lincoln took in 1865 from the Richmond landing to the vacated Confederate White House. Passing the historic slave market, which Lincoln would have also passed, Houston remarked on the rich and complicated meaning of the president’s journey. Throughout his talk, Houston brought a sense of how conflicts reverberated from one generation to subsequent generations. In both American wars, each side had its passionate reasons for taking up arms. Some of the audience at the library had remarked about how history had bored them when they were children because it had been “about memorizing facts and dates.” Houston presented another kind of history — not a simple body of knowledge consisting of facts and dates, but a collection of interpretations, full of ambiguity, irony, and human complexity.

For information on the Westgate Foundation, visit sites.google.com/a/monomoy.edu/westgate/home.