On the night of Sunday October 16, 1859, twenty-three men emerged from the woods surrounding the town of Harpers Ferry, which sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers in present-day West Virginia. Armed with rifles and pikes, their mission was to successfully secure the large cache of weapons kept in the town’s armory and expel the U.S. military from the area. Led by the radical abolitionist John Brown, their overarching goal was to end slavery in the South by force, arming liberated enslaved people in Virginia with rifles and arms from the armory so that they could rise up against the white planter class.
In reviewing boxes labeled as “unprocessed ephemera,” a colleague and I came across something really cool. It is a tiny image of Abraham Lincoln framed in copper.
While his family was busy with operating the Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg, Norfolk-born Alexander Galt, Jr. (1827-1863) possessed artistic aspirations. His main ambition was to become a first-rate sculptor—and indeed he completed several sculptures in his brief life of 36 years—yet Galt’s sketchbook, housed in the Special Collections archives, is a testament to his mastery of drawing not only portraits and the human form, but also animals, architecture, and landscapes. In 1860, Alexander took the sketchbook with him on a trip to Florence, Italy to study sculpting, and in it he produced numerous beautifully detailed pencil drawings of men, women and children, many whom he names. A detailed sketch of a sitter’s hair falling above her ear reveals Galt’s careful attention to the most intricate curves and details of his subject.
On October 19, 2014 at Dinwiddie Court House, a Virginia historical marker was dedicated to Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (also spelled Keckly). Elizabeth, or ‘Lizzy’ Keckley was born near Petersburg and was a slave on the Burwell Plantation. Her father was Armistead Burwell, the master of the plantation and her mother was a slave woman. She took the name of her slave father George Hobbs. Elizabeth Keckley had a son, George Keckley, who was killed at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, Missouri, during the first year of the Civil War. As the offspring of a white father, Alexander Kirkland, who had raped his mother, George Keckley passed as white and was thus able to enlist in the Union army at a time of the war when blacks were prohibited from doing so.