Prince Greer: Slave, Freedman, and Entrepreneur

Prince Greer

One of the issues facing newly freed men and women was how to make a living in a world that had never paid them a living wage for their contributions. Even the USCT initially were paid less than white soldiers, and contraband labor was not paid at all. One of the African-American men who not only contributed to efforts during the Civil War but was instrumental in developing the African-American-based business model was simply known as Prince Greer.

Slaves burying the Union dead at Antietam

What we might recognize as proto-modern embalming techniques were introduced during and after the Civil War. Embalmers often followed both armies, hoping to profit from the misfortune of others. A number of Union soldiers or their families pre-paid for embalming and shipment back North in the event of a soldier’s death in the war. After a battle, especially in the East, black soldiers were recruited to bury the dead and keep records of burial sites for soldiers killed in combat. Black assistants to doctors were trained in embalming and conducted much of this work.[1]

One particularly interesting example is that of Prince Greer, America’s first African American embalmer.  He was the personal slave of a Confederate cavalry officer who was killed in Tennessee.  Greer took it upon himself to return the body of his former master to his estate and contacted a Nashville undertaker, Dr. W. P. Cornelius, for help in this endeavor.  Cornelius embalmed the officer, and his body was shipped back to Texas, but during this time Cornelius’ current assistant, a Dr. Lewis, decided that embalming was not quite the job he wanted.  Upon the departure of Lewis, Prince Greer stepped forward.  He offered to learn the embalming trade in exchange for room and board, and Cornelius was glad to have him. Greer became the first recorded embalmer of color in the United States.[2]

William R. Cornelius, Greer’s employer, was an interesting man in his own right. Originally from Pennsylvania, he was apprenticed as a carpenter and furniture maker. During this time he also learned how to make coffins. By 1849 he had moved to Nashville, TN and had become the sole proprietor of the firm McComb and Carson, which focused exclusively on undertaking. He won a contract to bury the Confederate dead and when the Union army arrived in 1862, he got a contract to bury the Union dead at the same terms.  He opened branch establishments in Murfreesboro and Chattanooga, Tennessee, as well as Stevenson, Huntsville, and Bridgeport, Alabama, and Rome, Georgia.  He claimed to have buried or shipped to their homes over 33,000 remains by the end of the war:

                        I suppose I embalmed and had embalmed some 3,000-3,500 soldiers and   employees of the U.S. Army. Embalming was not introduced until after the  Confederate Army left, so I did not embalm any Confederates.  I embalmed and shipped General McPherson, General Scott and General Garesché.  The latter  had his head shot clear off.  I shipped nearly all of the Anderson cavalry to Philadelphia at one time.  After the fight at Stones River, I shipped colonels,majors, captains and privates by carloads some days.[3]

Staged Union embalming enterprise

The work was overwhelming for one man and the addition of an eager pupil such as Prince Greer was a welcome boon. Cornelius trained Greer to perform the arterial embalming method perfected by Dr. Thomas Holmes, of Washington.[4] Cornelius bragged about his star pupil:

Prince Greer appeared to enjoy embalming so much that he himself  became an expert, kept on at work embalming during the balance of the war and was very successful at it.  It was but a short time before he could raise an artery as quickly as anyone.  He was always careful, always . . .  coming to me in a                         difficult case.  He remained with me until I quit the business in 1871.[5]

Once the Civil War was over, embalming remained an intrinsic part of the burial process. Undertaking now required a higher level of skill, and trade schools and universities began offering mortuary science as a concentration. Along with learning embalming techniques, morticians were also taught how to touch up bodies for viewing and how to counsel grieving families. Undertaking evolved from a skilled trade to a profession, and with this came economic and social status, making it a promising opportunity for blacks as well as whites. Almost at once, these services became segregated. While socially despicable, this was sometimes economical for black undertakers, who were able to corner the market on African American burials. It also meant that undertaking became one of the few professions open to blacks at a time when they were largely relegated to unskilled labor. With white undertakers unwilling to care for black bodies in more than a passing way, grieving families turned to their own in the hopes of a dignified homecoming. By the turn of the century, Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League tried to work against these beliefs by encouraging blacks to keep their money within the black community.[6]

Horses & Carriages in front of C. W. Franklin Funeral Home

The combination of experiences with slave funerals, Civil War burials, and embalming prepared African-Americans to become pioneering funeral service professionals. Prince Greer was an expert embalmer during and after the Civil War and was the first historically recorded African-American to hold such a position. Funeral parlors were among the first businesses opened by blacks after slavery was abolished and undertaking was a promising profession for any aspiring black entrepreneur. The funeral director was a well-respected figure, and the funeral home was a place of safety for the black community, away from prying eyes and ears. It is not known when Prince Greer discontinued his business, but without his example, there may have been many fewer African-American undertakers, morticians, and embalmers making their living through Reconstruction and into the future.



[3] Ibid.


[5] Ibid.


An Unusual Valentine: Elmer E. Ellsworth, Esquire

Elmer Ellsworth about 1860

Every biography or biographical article about not-yet-colonel Elmer Ellsworth says the same thing: It is not known if Ellsworth passed, or even took, the Illinois State Bar Examination. I know this is not a bombshell issue for most people, but some of us care. I care. And, I am working like a madwoman to finish up my biography of Colonel Ellsworth before the next full eclipse of the sun. So imagine my surprise when . . .

March 30, 2017–the news breaks. “Joint Secretary of State & Supreme Court Restoration Project of Illinois Attorney Oaths Complete” is the headline of the For Immediate Release memo from the desk of Jesse White, Secretary of State for the great state of Illinois. This, apparently, had been a long-term project that sought to discover, restore, and preserve the attorney oaths for the Illinois Supreme Court. “Approximately 142,000 oaths, some preceding the Civil War, have been restored,” according to White. As explained in the memo, signing the Attorney Oath is the final step a newly minted lawyer takes before practicing law in Illinois. One must pass the bar exam before signing this oath.

The project was begun in 2009 and took until last year to complete. The Illinois Supreme Court was preparing to completely restore their building and needed a place to keep the court records while this was happening. Carolyn Taft Grosboll, current clerk of the Court stated, “Among the records were these historic oaths, so we contacted the State Archives. The State Archives graciously agreed not only to store the oaths for the Court but also to restore them.”[1] Most were in good condition, but some had been affected by mold or deteriorated by water damage. The amazing archivists in Illinois were able to restore almost all the badly damaged oaths using modern techniques, including the digitalization of some of the badly eroded signatures.

Clarence Darrow

Among the oaths in the Supreme Court’s collection are those for famed attorney Clarence Darrow, former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Robinson Obama, former U.S. Supreme Court Justices John Paul Stevens and Arthur Goldberg, 12 U.S. Senators, 12 Illinois governors, 59 Illinois Supreme Court justices and five Chicago mayors. Oaths from attorneys licensed before the Civil War, such as Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, were incorporated into the law license itself; therefore, no separate oaths for Lincoln and Douglas are included in this collection.[2]

And whom else did they find? Yes. Elmer Ellsworth. In 1860, Ellsworth began studying law with Abraham Lincoln, although he had studied with a couple of other men in Chicago before leaving with the Chicago Zouave Cadet Tour in the summer of 1860. Lincoln asked Ellsworth personally to study in Springfield at his law office. During the time he worked there, he became friends with Lincoln secretaries George Nicolay and John Hay, Mary Lincoln, the Lincoln children, and many of the movers and shakers in the Illinois political scene. Ellsworth worked the Republican Convention in Chicago for the Lincoln supporters, he walked with Mr. Lincoln to cast his vote in the presidential election, and he celebrated with the Lincolns on the night of Lincoln’s election.

History left an Ellsworthian blank between November 6, 1860, and February 11, 1861,

Lincoln in Illinois

when Elmer Ellsworth accompanied Lincoln on the Inaugural Express train from Springfield to Washington. We know that before Ellsworth left, he presented a bill for the organization of the Illinois State Militia to the state legislature. It passed several reviews and committees, but was never brought to a vote because within weeks of Lincoln’s inauguration, Fort Sumter had been fired on, and all available militia members were being asked to go to Washington.

Now, the blank has been filled in–between November 6 and February 11 Elmer Ellsworth was passing the bar exam in Illinois, and we have proof! A letter was found from Judge Pickney Walker to the Clerk of the Supreme Court William Turney that said to create a law license for Ellsworth. On the back of the letter is a note by Turney saying that the license was sent. Elmer Ellsworth’s documentation allowing him to practice law in Illinois became official on February 14, 1861. Now we know.


John Lupton

I will be interviewing John Lupton of the Illinois Supreme Court Historical Preservation Commission in the next couple of months for Mr. Lupton worked with me to get all the right documents signed that permit me to tell this story, and it is only because people like Mr. Lupton exist that the tiny-but-strong unifying threads of the past are able to be teased out of the huge historical knot we love so well. Stay tuned!


Happy Valentine’s Day.


[2] Ibid.

Not the Same African Americans We Always See

Civil War Medal of Honor

I was watching a television show a couple of weeks ago, and the subject of Black History Month was mentioned. One of the characters complained that America always trots out the same four African Americans every year to stand in for all the other African Americans about which no one knows anything. I immediately realized that this also applies to the African Americans we celebrate from the 1800s. This year, I think we
should give Mr. Frederick Douglas, the 54th Massachusetts, Ms. Harriet Tubman, and Ms. Sojourner Truth a break, and learn about some other men and women who made significant contributions to the American Civil War. For instance, Andrew Jackson Smith.

On September 3, 1843, in Grand Rivers, Kentucky, a baby boy was born to a slave mother, Susan, and her master, Elijah Smith. Susan named him Andrew Jackson Smith. When young Andy was ten years old, his father put him to work on a ferry that transported people and supplies across the Cumberland River. Andy worked at this job for eight years.[1] When the Civil War broke out, Elijah Smith joined the Confederate military and planned to take Andy, who was now 19, with him as a personal body servant to make the rigors of campaigning less odious–less odious for Mr. Smith, anyway.

Smithland, KY

Andy was having none of it. He convinced another slave to run away with him, through pouring rain, to a Union regiment camped at Smithland, Kentucky, twenty-five miles away. At that time the Union First Confiscation Act of 1861 was in place. This act directed that slaves not be returned to their masters if those masters were in Confederate service. Major John Warner, of the 41st Illinois Regiment, hired Andy as a servant and took him along when the 41st returned to the regiment’s post in nearby Paducah, Kentucky.[2]

Major John Warner

On March 19, 1862, the 41st moved from Paducah to Pittsburgh Landing, in Tennessee. A month later the regiment took part in the Battle of Shiloh. During the fighting at the Peach Orchard, Major Warner had two horses shot out from under him. Although it placed him under fire, young Smith brought one and then another mount to Warner. As he helped Warner into the saddle, Andy was struck in the head by a “spent Minié ball that entered his left temple, rolled just under the skin, and stopped in the middle of his forehead.”[3] The regimental surgeon removed the ball, and after the battle was over, Warner obtained a personal furlough to bring Andrew Smith home with him to Clinton, Illinois. There Smith recovered from his wound and continued to work as Warner’s personal servant until he heard the news that President Lincoln was allowing black troops to join the Union Army.

Andrew Jackson Smith

Major Warner gave Smith the money necessary for the trip to Boston, Massachusetts to enlist with the Massachusetts Colored Volunteers. On May 16, 1863, Private Andrew Smith was mustered into the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, Company B. Along with sister regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, they fought in five military engagements. Smith was in the army when the black soldiers found out that they would be paid less than white soldiers, and would have to pay a “clothing allowance” as well. Colonel Alfred Hartwell of the 55th protested all the way up to Secretary of War Stanton himself. Hartwell threatened to resign unless the pay issue was resolved. It was settled in August 1864 and by October everyone was paid fairly.[4]

By November 30, 1864, Smith had been promoted to corporal in the color-bearing unit of the 55th Massachusetts. On that day both the 55th and the 54th Massachusetts participated in the Battle of Honey Hill in South Carolina. Andrew Smith Bowden, Smith’s grandson, spoke of this at his grandfather’s Medal of Honor service in 2001:

                        When the battle began, you kept your eye on those flags.  And when the  flag went forward, you went    forward. And when the flag went back, you went back. Those men who carried those flags were extremely important, and as you might expect, were prime targets.[5]

The two units came under heavy fire while crossing a swamp in front of an elevated Confederate position. Rebel fire killed or wounded over half of the officers of the 55th and at least a third of the enlisted men in the full regiment of a thousand men. When the 55th’s color bearer was killed, Andrew Smith took up the Regimental Colors and carried them through the remainder of the fight. Smith’s regimental commander, Colonel Alfred Hartwell, recommended him for the Medal of Honor almost immediately after the battle. However, it was not until Smith’s family made a concerted effort that the medal was awarded to him posthumously, 137 years later.

Andy Smith, veteran

Andrew Jackson Smith was promoted to color sergeant and left the army after the war. He returned to Kentucky where he invested in property. He died on March 4, 1932, at the age of eighty-eight. Several people tried to get Smith’s medal awarded to him during his lifetime; he was nominated again in 1916, but the politics of racial unrest denied him once again.

Smith’s daughter receives her father’s medal

Smith’s grandson, Andrew Bowman of Indianapolis, Indiana, became determined that his grandfather would receive his Medal of Honor. Bowman spent several years collecting records, conducting research and working with government officials and a history professor at Illinois State University in order to make his grandfather’s public recognition a reality.  Smith’s records were found in the National Archives, where they had been since the end of the Civil War.  On January 16, 2001, 137 years after the Battle of Honey Hill, Sergeant Andrew Jackson Smith was recognized for his actions. President Bill Clinton presented the Medal of Honor to his 93-year-old daughter, Caruth Smith Washington, along with several Smith descendants during a ceremony at the White House. I shall let Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill), who spoke at the ceremony, have the last word:

                        A wrong righted 137 years too late is a wrong righted nonetheless. This day has been a long time coming. But, with the dedication of his family and the Illinois State University History Department, Sgt. Andrew Jackson Smith’s contribution has finally taken its rightful place in history.[6]


[2] Ibid. and

[3] Quote is from medical records.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., words spoken by Smith’s grandson at Smith’s Medal of Honor ceremony on January 6, 2001.


A VMI Cadet Goes Ice-Skating

Cadet Stanard

On the evening of March 22, 1864, eighteen-year-old Beverly “Jack” Stanard huddled in his cold barracks room at Virginia Military Institute, writing to his mother. That particular evening he found plenty to complain about:

…Well, Mother I guess you will wonder why it is, that I am writing with a lead pencil. The reason is just this, we are upon the eve of freezing up. It has been one week since we had a particle of heat. (There not being a stick of wood at the V.M.I.) You know what a change has taken place in the weather – today it is snowing hard, and a cold wind blowing, and still we are having the same duties to attend to, both academic & military. It is outrageous, for the boys can’t study a bit…[i]

Ironically, just weeks before, this same cadet had expressed his enthusiasm for cold weather and winter sports. During winter break and a free Saturday, he had enjoyed venturing into the freezing air to go ice-skating, leaving readers (and maybe his mother) to wonder if the complaints were genuine or a series of excuses for his lack of interest in studying. A frequent plea throughout Cadet Stanard’s letters echoed a desire to leave the safety of Virginia Military Institute and join the Confederate army. Yet, understandably, his widowed mother wanted to keep her youngest son out of the conflict and away from battlefields. Reluctantly, she had enrolled him at the military school in Lexington, Virginia, hoping to further his education and prevent him from enlisting.

Interspersed with Cadet Stanard’s observations, humorous stories, requests for money, and arguments to enlist, some accounts of ice skating in the winter months appeared, illustrative of the popularity of this sport during the Civil War era.

Virginia Military Institute

At first the frozen river seems tragic to this teen and his friends who would be deprived of their food boxes from home, due to the forming ice. His reports on the Maury’s River conditions began on January 3, 1864:

I had looked forward before Xmas with much pleasure to the arrival of two boxes belonging to my roommates which were to have come by the packet boat but it has not as yet made its appearance. And judging from the looks of the river which I can plainly see from my window, and which is entirely frozen over, that it will not do so for some time to come…[ii]

Frozen river? Time to ice skate!

Then two weeks passed before he wrote to Mother again:

It has been so long since I wrote that I guess you have been uneasy about me again, thinking I might be sick – Quite to the contrary, for the last week have been having a good time skating. The river was frozen over beautifully for miles, as we were not doing any studying, the Examination being just over, we were all allowed to go. I wish you could have seen the river[.] It looked like a flock of black birds was on it. I never saw boys seem to enjoy themselves more, could play bandy, fox & goose and many other games, to afford us amusement. Sandy P & Sisters & some other ladies were down to see us. Sandy seemed to be a very awkward skater, and would get some pretty falls, sometimes, which added to my fun. I think he is Stuck up quite much. I hav’nt spoke to him yet. [iii]

While reporting on his “good time,” Cadet Stanard also shared some hints to the social aspect of ice-skating, noting some of the town civilians came to watch and participate. Certainly, it created a scene less formal (and probably a little more wild) than skating in New York Central Park, and it also gave Cadet Stanard a chance to laugh at a local war hero. Research reveals Sandy P’s identity; during January 1864 Major Alexander “Sandie” Pendleton, a staff officer in the Army of Northern Virginia’s Second Corps and the son of General William N. Pendleton, visited his family in Lexington as a destination on his wedding tour (honeymoon).[iv] Unimpressed with the officer, Cadet Stanard delightedly observed him slipping and crashing on the ice.

Happily for the Virginia Military Institute cadets, the Maury River froze again in February, offering an opportunity for winter fun and a little flirtation with the girls:

Since my last letter nothing much of interest has transpired to disturb the monotony of the V.M.I soldier boy’s life – or daily routine of exercises, save the freezing up of the river, which has afforded us a little fun skating. Yesterday being Saturday, it did not interfere with our duties or studies, so all could go that wished. I went down to the river in the morning myself, ‘though not with the intention of skating, as I had a sore back and then I was minus a pair of skates, mine being broken, but the ice was so beautiful that I could not resist the temptation, so borrowed a pair from one of the boys – and spent the rest of the morning on the ice. It was really elegant fun, could go down the river as far as you wished. There were a great many ladies on the ice, who seemed evidently to think there was more fun in falling down than standing up, but unfortunately in the hight [height] of their enjoyment, one of them (frisky) fell rather too hard and almost broke her nose. Poor girl, I guess it will spoil her beauty spot and I know will teach her a lesson how to run on ice again. The fall of this unfortunate lady, of course, intimidated and some what marred the pleasure of the remainder of the party. My friend Miss LP was among the no. [number] and was looking as rosy as usual.[v]

What better way to get attention than tumbling on the ice to look helpless and possibly enlist the sympathy or aid of some handsome teens? At least that seems to be the tactic employed by these young ladies of Lexington. Although Cadet Stanard did not seem impressed with the girls’ lack of skating skills, he enjoyed watching at his particular friend, Miss Hughella “Lella” Pendleton, one of Major Pendleton’s sisters. From other letters, it seems Miss Pendleton was Cadet Stanard’s crush, but it’s not clear if he ever said anything or if she was even aware of his interest.

Melting ice signaled spring and meant campaign season was beginning again.

Though ice-skating provided a pleasant reason to weather the winter cold and reduced the monotony of classes and exercises, the fun couldn’t last forever. As the ice melted, the ground thawed, and spring rains began, Cadet Standard impatiently wrote to his sister:

Do you not candidly think I ought to be in the Army[?] I am over 18. I think I have been very obedient in remaining here as long as I have, and only done so because I hated to go contrary to the wish of a fond and devoted Mother. I think Mother might very willingly give consent now, that the prospect of the war ending soon is very great…[vi]

He would not receive the opportunity to enlist. On May 10, 1864, the Corps of Cadets received orders to join General John C. Breckinridge as a reserve unit to defend the Shenandoah Valley from General Franz Sigel and his Union columns. Five days later, at the Battle of New Market, the Virginia Military Institute Cadets entered combat. After the battle, Cadet Stanard’s young comrades found him near the Bushong House.“We had come too late. Stanard had breathed his last but a few moments before… Poor Jack – playmate, room-mate, friend – farewell!”[vii]

And yet, on those freezing winter days of ’64, as the boy’s skates glided forward on the ice it was an exhilarating carefree moment. The war – even thoughts of it – seemed far away as he poked fun at a “stuck up” officer. The thought of battlefield death probably never crossed his mind as he spied on the girls and complained to home about the cold conditions for studying. However, after the ice cracked and conflict returned to The Valley, these moments of fun came to an end. The boy grappled with the reality of battle, finding courage to move forward into combat, alongside the friends who had “never enjoyed themselves more” than on the frozen Maury River, shadowed by the castle-like walls of Virginia Military Institute.


[i] Standard, B., edited by J.G. Barrett and R.K. Turner, Jr. Letters of a New Market Cadet, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1961. Letter: March 22, 1864 (page 46)

[ii] Ibid, Letter: January 3, 1864 (pages 28-29)

[iii] Ibid, Letter: January 17, 1864 –date is possibly wrong according to the footnotes in the book (pages 31-32)

[iv] Bean, W.G. Stonewall’s Man: Sandie Pendleton, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1959, pages 182-186.

[v] Stanard, B., edited by J.G. Barrett and R.K. Turner, Jr. Letters of a New Market Cadet, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1961. Letter: February 21, 1864, (pages 40-41)

[vi] Ibid, Letter: April 8, 1864 (page 50)

[vii] Knight, C.R, Valley Thunder: The Battle of New Market, Savas Beatie, 2010, page 221.

January 10, 1861 in Florida

On this date in Tallahassee, Florida, the delegates to the state’s secession convention voted 62-7, in favor of secession. With that vote, after seven days of deliberation, Florida became the third state to formally declare itself out of the United States, following South Carolina and Mississippi. The outgoing governor, Madison Starke Perry and the governor-elect John Milton were both avid secessionists and were on hand to witness the outcome. The Ordinance of Secession would eventually be signed by 65-men, including two future Confederate generals; J. Patton Anderson and Joseph Finegan.

Richard Keith Call

Yet, a former governor, was certainly not in favor of that vote. Richard Keith Call, who had served two times as governor of the territory of Florida in the 1830s and 1840s, was a staunch Unionist. Although he was not a staunch Republican Call decried secession as “high treason against our constitutional government.”

Call found out about the vote when he was approached on the street by a jubilant pro-secessionist individual, who informed him;“Well governor…we have done it [meaning the vote in favor of seceding].” 

The 68-year old former governor responded;

“And what have you done?… You have opened the gates of Hell, from which shall flow
the curses of the damned which shall sink you to perdition!”

Unfortunately for the pro-secessionists and the future Confederacy, Call was right.

Unfortunately for Call, he would not live to see his prophesy come to fruition. He died on September 14, 1862, approximately a month shy of his 70th birthday.

A Conversation with Dave Ruth, Richmond’s Retiring Superintendent (part four)

(part four of five)

Earlier this week, Dave Ruth retired as superintendent of Richmond National Battlefield—a national park that preserves stories from Civil War campaigns in both the 1862 and 1864. But as Dave explains today, the park’s layers of history resonate even more deeply—and in the most unexpected of ways.

CHRIS MACKOWSKI: I’m thinking of all the different stories you’ve been able to tell and help develop interpretation for, and all the land you’ve been able to acquire. Do you have a favorite story or spot or something that sticks out for you? 

DAVE RUTH: There are a number of those. I think Rural Plains, at the Totopotomoy Creek Battlefield, brought together my role as a historian and a manager together in that story. In 1991, my friend Mike Andrus took me to the site and said, “This is an amazing house and an amazing battlefield,” and when we did our management plan, we hoped someday to place a sign out there. Acquisition of the battlefield was not even contemplated.

As it turns out, one of my tasks is serving as the NPS liaison to the Hanover County Historic Commission. One evening the commission reviewed a proposal that we received from a developer who, we came to realize, had absolutely no interest in history whatsoever. I was asked to serve as an ambassador and go talk to him about his development proposal that would impact if not destroy the Confederate infantry and artillery works on the Totopotomoy Creek battlefield. So I went to meet with the developer along with a Presbyterian minister who also served on the Commission. We asked this tall, rather gruff older individual if, together, we could with historic sensitivity explore preservation as part of his proposal. He said, “I’m not giving you a damn foot. I’m a developer, not a historic preservationist.”

Over the next few months, the Presbyterian minister met with him on his own—they were both Hampton Sydney graduates and the connection was amazing. What evolved was an enlightenment. It was almost like in A Christmas Carol with the ghosts paying nighttime visits. All three of us got back to the table and, suddenly, I realized that this developer became infatuated with the story of Patrick Henry marring the daughter of the owner of Rural Plains and Henry’s association through that part of Hanover County—that was his sudden awakening. Everything in that that part of Hanover County now represented something historically important to the nation.

In fact, he became so enlightened that he set up a foundation, worked with the owner of the Rural Plains house and the surrounding 125 acres of the battlefield, and took the lead with the county supervisors to see to the site’s preservation. One of the strategies we worked out was, for the first and only time in Hanover County, the supervisors agreed to a “transfer of density” program —where the developer was allowed to increase the density for residences on his tract, which was possible since he had a contract on the 125 battlefield acres. Essentially he transferred what development he could get on the 125 acres to his development on the non-battlefield land. That actually gave him more profits, which he moved into the foundation that eventually raised $1.1 million to buy Rural Plains and deed it to the National Park Service for $1.

This effort ensured that not only would Rural Plains and much of the battlefield be preserved but the Confederate fortifications on his 800-acre tract would also be preserved. In addition, the county supervisors made him proffer to build a 430-foot bridge to cross Totopotomoy Creek that connected the Union and Confederate positions.

For me, it became a very strange unplanned situation—how it came to be that this developer who told me he wasn’t giving me a damn foot suddenly becomes one of our greatest preservation supporters.

His work manifested itself at Malvern Hill later when the Civil War Trust was put into a really difficult position when a huge farm that stood in the killing ground of the battle was going to be sold. The family would not agree to break off the northern piece of their property and sell it to the Trust, but required that the entire farm be purchased without subdivision. Well, the Trust could not afford the entire price tag, so once again comes Andy Shield, the developer from Rural Plains, to the rescue. Andy and the Trust worked out an arrangement where Andy purchased the southernmost parcel—the least significant portion—and the Trust bought the northernmost 400-plus acres. The deal happened, and Malvern Hill was preserved.

Additionally, Andy thought about developing his half, but instead placed a conservation easement on the property. And in addition to that, he and his son worked together with the Trust to purchase the second-largest public holding at Malvern Hill that has just recently transferred to the NPS.

So not only did this evolve into the preservation of Rural Plains, but it resulted in many acres being preserved at Malvern Hill that might not have happened if the determination of Andy and the Trust had not been brought together.

I think, for me, that will always be one of the most unbelievable stories, to just have somebody turn around from their initial position of being a draconian developer and not caring a hoot about preservation to somebody who still calls me every month with new preservation opportunities.

Every one of the parcels we have acquired over the years has been a challenge for one reason or another, and there has been a story each time, but none of them has surpassed what happened at Rural Plains and Malvern Hill.

CM: I think [NPS Historian] John Hennessey once said something to the effect that there is a “political will” that will only let parks be a certain size. There’s a certain size that any park can get to, just because of politics—which of course was a major challenge in Fredericksburg because they have four major battlefields. Have you run into that same sort of mindset down here?

DR: No. The political situation is one that, I’ve found, needs nurturing along the way, so that the county’s needs and the park’s needs can hopefully be met. Our original land protection plan, as I mentioned earlier, was extremely conservative and we have already completed one minor boundary adjustment, and several more doubtless will occur in the years ahead.

I think the key for us is to at least annually do a presentation to the board of supervisors and county managers, and meet with individual supervisors more regularly. We explain to them our preservation targets and how any new lands we acquire will be made accessible to the public and why. We also talk about instances where our boundary is insufficient to protect historical important lands and seek the county’s support for any expansion. If anyone doesn’t believe the adage that all politics are local, I am here to offer proof that it is. We often find that if we can help the county to achieve their goals, they will help us with ours. Sometimes there are challenges to be sure, but as long as you are talking, anything is possible. Frankly, the county managers and I talk regularly about all kinds of mutual issues and sometimes just to check in.

And we also talk about land use once we do get a piece of property—where trails will run, where parking lots will be built, and where agriculture will be continued through leases. In most cases, we continue to lease farms back to the current farmer. This provides a wonderful revenue stream for us but also pleases counties who see some indirect revenue coming back to them. We actually purchased a 630-acre farm at North Anna and leased it back to the farmer for a period of 20 years, during which time we will oversee the operations like an easement holder and also do special programs on the property, but not pay the expensive costs of managing the property, at least for 20 years.

One of the challenges in our region has been the fact that sports tourism has trumped heritage tourism. In Henrico, most of that has gone to the western area of the county. In Chesterfield, it’s not been in the battlefield-rich zones of that county, either. In Hanover, we have to work a lot more carefully with that effort. Sports tourism has become a mega “funding source.” It’s one thing we watch carefully and will be dealing with this issue in the future, I’m certain.

As we continue to establish trails in the new areas that we acquire, we find that one of our big supporters are recreational users. And we don’t say “Recreation is against our policy”—because we have a lot of recreational use, and we find that a lot of those recreational users are local and become engaged in the historical value of the properties that they utilize for walking, jogging, or whatever.

By providing these opportunities, I find that the counties see that we help meet their needs in green and open space in a growing suburban area. Some may say that we have sacrificed the traditional mission of the National Park Service, that this is not an area where recreation should be allowed, but frankly we try to manage it extremely closely. I do believe it’s one of the reasons that we don’t come under fire when there’s a major expansion plan, because the counties know that we are an important asset to the community.


Join us tomorrow for our final segment of my interview with Dave, as we take a look ahead to the long game and a final look back at a distinguished career.