Civil War Trails: Connecting the Dots

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Photograph showing a Union army guard and other men in front of a building designated Price, Birch & Co., dealers in slaves, at 1315 Duke St., Alexandria, VA. Before that, the premises were owned by the slave-trading firm Franklin & Arm-field. The Union army used the former slave jail to house Confederate prisoners. (courtesy LOC)

Photograph showing a Union army guard and other men in front of a building designated Price, Birch & Co., dealers in slaves, at 1315 Duke St., Alexandria, VA. Before that, the premises were owned by the slave-trading firm Franklin & Arm-field. The Union army used the former slave jail to house Confederate prisoners. (courtesy LOC)

by Drew Gruber

A first glance, the iconic brick “Price, Birch & Co.” building in Alexandria, Virginia doesn’t seem to have much in common with the stately, Federal style “Spring Haven” plantation in Sumner County, Tennessee. Today, the “Price, Birch & Co.” building is much as it was in the period, surrounded by a bustling urban landscape. In comparison, “Spring Haven” retains much of its integrity as a plantation, tucked behind well-manicured bushes, with a sprawling lawn dotted by dependancies, large sycamores, and a meandering creek. I have seen the images of the infamous slave pen a thousand times, and yet as I unwrapped the new “Spring Haven” Civil War Trails sign, it jumped out at me as if I was seeing it for the first time.

During the 825 miles from our office in Richmond, Virginia, I had time to reflect on why this image appears on a sign, which would be placed in middle of Tennessee.

While “Spring Haven” is recognized by regional historians and by local betrothed couples, (yes, they do weddings) the site’s geographic and societal significance and its association with America’s human marketplace is not widely broadcast. Thats where Civil War Trails comes in. Our goal is to connect the physical and intellectual dots between the conflict’s better- and lesser-known events, people, and places. It is a large task, and despite the seemingly innumerable skirmishes, anecdotes, resources, and photographs, connections like this one somehow make the War seem so small.

The oldest building on the “Spring Haven” campus is a modest cabin which was likely constructed around 1800 by Edward Sanders. The Sanders family was close with Andrew Jackson, who is said to have planted several trees on site in addition to providing the inspiring design for the main house. Sander’s daughter would marry prominent local doctor John Wagnon in 1818 ,and the main house, known then as “Hard Times,” was likely finished in 1825.

Spring Haven. Cabin is seen at right.

Spring Haven. Cabin is seen at right.

About this time, Sumner County native Isaac Franklin established a new slave trading business with John Armfield of North Carolina. This venture brought the partners to Alexandria, Virginia, where they renovated a home on Duke Street into the now infamous office building and slave pen. Their ever-expanding network of purchasing agents and the increasing demand in the Deep South for cheap labor proved to be a profitable paradigm. In 1834, one visitor to their Alexandria office noted that there were roughly 100 slaves, including children, who were in prisoned here, waiting sale. At its peak, the firm may have sold more than 1,000 persons per year. Today, historians rank the Franklin and Armfield firm as one of, if not the, largest and most profitable slave trading firms of its time.

It appears as if Armfield and Franklin sold the business by 1836, eventually passing onto “Price, Birch & Co” by approximately 1858. Isaac Franklin, who was a neighbor of the Wagnons, owned a plantation called “Fairvue,” and after his successful bid as a businessman, moved home, was married, and began his life as a planter, keeping his friend and business partner close by: John Armfield would marry Franklin’s niece and subsequently purchase “Spring Haven.” The Armfields would oversee many of the additions and alterations which are apparent today—having been lovingly preserved, interpreted and curated by the Michael and Cara Hogan, the current owners of “Spring Haven.”

After completing several more days’ worth of sign installations and refurbishments, and another 800+ miles of driving, I made it back to Virginia, intent on highlighting the connection between these two seemingly disparate places. The enormity of the slave trade, and its omnipresence across the American landscape and in contemporary society, is epitomized when you connect these dots. However, history, in all of its mysterious and addictive forms, derailed my initial blog post on the subject when it brazenly waived another connection at me.

(Bishop Leonidas Polk. Oil on Canvas C. 1905. In the collections of Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville TN.)

(Bishop Leonidas Polk. Oil on Canvas C. 1905. In the collections of Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville TN.)

Sewanee, The University of the South, was established in 1857 by delegates from several southern states. On July 4 of that year, Bishops Leonidas Polk (yes, that Leonidas Polk) and James Otey were elated to see that this new university would “materially aid the South to resist and repel a fanatical domination which seeks to rule over us.”[1] This new institution was being funded in large part by—you guessed it—John Armfield.

I will leave it up to one of you to fire up the coffee pot and to dig deeper into this connection and the legacy created by Armfield and Franklin.

*     *     *

[1] Deyle, Steven. Carry Me Back: Domestic Slave Trade in American Life. Oxford Press, 2005. Page 206.

This entry was posted in Battlefields & Historic Places, Slavery, Ties to the War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Civil War Trails: Connecting the Dots

  1. Armfield was also prominent in founding the 19th Century summer resort of Beersheba Springs, several miles north of the U. of the South. Several of the original buildings of the resort, as well as several period summer homes, still stand. The Beersheba Springs resort buildings are now owned by the United Methodist Church and are used as a conference center/youth camp facility.

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