Several weeks ago, I began working with Thomas Seabrook, the education and programs specialist for the Hanover Tavern Foundation, on a refresh of their Civil War Trails sign. Sitting with Tom for more than an hour, we naturally thought of enough material for a dozen signs and, over the passing weeks, we have continued to hone the story down to our requisite 250 words.
Such is the plight of public historian: what anecdotes, quotes, media, and thesis will create empathy, educate, and inspire visitors to seek more information? Perhaps the greatest trap is to fall back on passive voice, data dumping, or a recitation of units and commanders, which provides no springboard for a visitor’s imagination.
Thankfully, Tom’s grasp of the war, the Tavern, and the community that surrounded it put us on the right path.
The revised sign will still cover Stuart’s illustrious ride around the Union army in June of 1862 but will highlight the stories of the Chisholm and Wight families who weathered the storm of conflict under the Tavern’s roof.
About a week into our revisions for Hanover Tavern, I received a phone call from Dr. Saundra Cherry in Newport News regarding another Civil War Trails sign in need of maintenance. The Trails team unarchived the PDF of the sign Dr. Cherry referenced, and I began reading: “born into slavery in Hanover County…Fields and his brother George escaped to Hampton….”
The distinctive sound of a new email interrupted my concentration as Tom answered a previous question I had concerning any slaves known to work or live in the Tavern during the war years. Martha Anne Fields, he described, was the cook for the Tavern and lived across the street with her two sons, James Apostles and George Washington.
Then it dawned on me. It clicked.
George, who authored the incredible autobiography entitled, Come On, Children, attended the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) and went on to Cornell, becoming the first African American graduate in 1890. James graduated in 1871 and went on to sit in the Virginia House of Delegates and received his law degree from Howard University in 1882. Sadly, the house and grounds around which James and George grew up was significantly altered this past May when the primary dwelling, Nutshell, was razed. However, the building in which both brothers practiced law in the post-war period is open to the public and carefully stewarded by Dr. Cherry.
I knew about George and James Fields, and I’ve been on a tour of Hanover Tavern. However, as I read the signs, I was being introduced to this connection for the first time. They inspired me to reference their websites where, yes, the information was readily available. It goes to show you, no matter how deep you wade into the minutia of a campaign or battle, how closely you follow a roster or order or battle, there will always be obvious connection hidden in plain sight.
The next time you need a break from I-95, or you want a beautiful drive in eastern Virginia, check out Hanover Tavern. They not only offer tours and education programs but live music, shows, and even $5 burgers on Wednesday nights! Follow Stuart’s Ride or even the Washington-Rochambeau Route.
The James A. Fields house is open by appointment, so the next time you are planning a trip to the Peninsula, be sure to email or call ahead of time. It is one of more than thirty Civil War Trails sites in the Newport News and Hampton area (not to mention the Mariner’s Museum and Fort Monroe).