EASTVILLE, Va. (Tribune News Service) — That Arthur T. Carter is spearheading an effort to build this Civil War monument sounds about right. Especially when folks consider his lineage.
His grandfather was born enslaved in Eastville, the seat of Northampton County and where Carter and a newly formed group want a towering statue to honor African American and white Union soldiers in its historic square. So many remembrances, particularly in Virginia, are typically one or the other.
His grandfather fought for the Union’s Colored Troops, survived one of the war’s most notorious battles, and later befriended the Confederate general who tried to slaughter his unit. Peter Jacob Carter worked as if it were never too late, nor chasms too wide to breach, to try to do the right thing.
The memorial his grandson is proposing is a compromise. Carter and the racially diverse committee he leads haven’t been the ones urging Northampton County to remove Eastville’s Confederate monument. Ironically, the actions of the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. — several bearing Confederate flags — impelled the board on Jan. 12 to vote to remove the rebel sculpture.
Carter’s group wants a memorial erected near the Confederate, on figurative and literal equal ground. It would be the same height. It would be reflective black granite, and its soldier’s facial features would be that of an African American man. That’s because nearly 88% of the Virginia Eastern Shore Union soldiers were African American, according to a Shore history text. The memorial, however, would include the names and races of 2,300 Union and Confederate soldiers and sailors.
Carter said it doesn’t matter that the Confederate might not be around much longer. He isn’t perturbed that the board on Jan. 12 deadlocked 2-2, with one member absent, to not hear a formal proposal from his group, the Union Soldier Monument Advisory and Implementation Committee. It doesn’t want public money. But it would like a very public stage like the Confederate one has enjoyed for more than a century. It will be the fuller, more accurate story of the Eastern Shore’s Civil War history. Finally, Carter said.
To continue without, he said, “is a lie.”
The Union monument idea isn’t Carter’s. He’s resurrecting it from when he served on the board of supervisors in the 1990s and a colleague suggested it. It went nowhere, though. Carter thought it was brilliant and long overdue. However, he was new to the board and didn’t know what to do with it except tuck it into the back of his memory.
Carter, a retired doctor, then spent years keeping busy with organizations to reduce the Shore’s poverty rate, promote social justice and racial reconciliation. Several years ago, he started reading “Civil War Soldiers & Sailors of the Eastern Shore Union & Confederate,” by Barry W. Miles and Moody K. Miles published in 2006. It is a thick roster of men from Accomack and Northampton counties and culled from an extensive store of resources including census and military records, memoirs and newspapers.
The authors state up front that it isn’t complete. There are too many holes in 155-years-old-not-always-preserved history. Still, they pulled together an ample roster that includes enlistment and discharge dates, locations, units and race, when they could find it.
They offer a brief recall of the Eastern Shore’s inclusion in the war. Shortly after Virginia joined the Confederacy in April 1861, rebel forces rallied that summer and formed the 39th Regiment Virginia Infantry. By Christmas, however, federal forces reclaimed the peninsula and stayed put. Confederates who escaped the Union’s blockade joined other units in Norfolk and elsewhere. White Eastern Shore men in support of the Union became the 1st Regiment Loyal Eastern Virginia Volunteers. Once President Abraham Lincoln authorized African American troops, hundreds of free Black and enslaved men joined the 7th, 9th and 10th United States Colored Troops in 1863.
Arthur Carter’s grandfather, Peter Carter, was 18 when he joined the 10th in October 1863. Records show that in February 1864, he was arrested for mutiny. Arthur Carter doesn’t know why or what his grandfather did, but laughs at the possibilities. He knows Colored regiments were led by white officers, who could be cruel.
The troops were paid less than their white counterparts. While the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed some enslaved in the South, it excluded those in areas such as the Eastern Shore and other parts of Hampton Roads that were under Union control.
Peter Carter’s sister, brother and mother were still in bondage five miles from where he was camped.
“He was a man who had pride in himself and his family, and his Africanness,” Arthur Carter said. “He was arrested not for desertion but mutiny, he and five or six others. I’m sure he was the leader.”
Peter Carter was imprisoned, released in May and later sent to the stalemate that had coalesced in Petersburg. What commenced on July 30 would become known as the “Battle of the Crater.” Union forces had tunneled beneath enemy lines, planning to pack the burrow with explosives, ignite them, and then attack a dazed and wounded Confederate force.
Hardly anything went to plan, though. The blast did leave a hole 170 feet long and 30 feet deep and killed at least 278 Confederates instantly. It left Union soldiers disoriented, too. Scores of federal troops advanced into the cavity instead of around, making themselves easy targets. Confederates, led by William Mahone, sought out African American soldiers and showed no mercy, even when they tried to surrender.
Years after the war, however, Peter Carter and Mahone met again as both became involved in state politics, Carter serving in the House of Delegates. They worked together in the short-lived, biracial Readjusters Party of the late 1870s and early 1880s. Among the achievements of the party was the creation of what is now Virginia State University, which is just outside of Petersburg. Carter served on its first board and was its first rector.
Carter had a son in 1885, whom he named William M. Carter after Mahone. William Carter grew up, changed his name to Peter and became a physician. In his early 60s, he and his second wife had a son, Arthur Carter, in 1946. Arthur Carter’s mother, a nurse, thought the racism of the Eastern Shore so bad that she moved the family to Alabama. The family lived there from the time Arthur Carter was a toddler to a young teen, then he went to a northern boarding school.
Mom was the one who often drove to Virginia to visit family, though. Yet she refused to stop at gas stations that would take Black people’s gas money but wouldn’t let them use the bathroom.
“Never lower yourself and let people treat you that way,” Carter recalled her saying.
It broke his heart when she had to find a remote place to park and he’d turn away while she relieved herself outside in a bottle.
So, the issue now to get a Union monument and better representation is just part of his — and his family’s — life’s work.
Last summer boiled with demands to remove relics of racism like Confederate monuments, and Carter saw it as time to move forward with the proposal. He had spent months going through the Eastern Shore Civil War book and counted each name. He tallied 943 African American Union soldiers, almost 90%t. He submitted the idea to the board of supervisors in August. The board set up a public hearing in October with people speaking for and against removal, but several were in favor of Carter’s suggestion. The board then tabled the issue.
At January’s board meeting, however, Supervisor John Coker said that the debacle of Jan. 6 compelled him to address the monument matter. The news footage of rioters tearing through the Capitol left him nauseated. “I absolutely have no tolerance for civil war,” he said.
He asked for a motion to remove the statue. It passed 3-1, with one member absent. The county administrator will now seek proposals on a new home for it, but no time frame has been established.
Meanwhile, people had been contacting Arthur Carter in support of the Union memorial. David Scott, who is a member of the Northampton Historic Preservation Society, was one of those who reached out and said he’d like to help. Scott is also a retired physician who practiced with Carter. They’ve known each other for decades.
Scott doesn’t want to see the Confederate monument go. He said it isn’t an homage to a particular person like Robert E. Lee but rather the common man. Having both is “a nicer, more elegant, a more civilized solution to the problem.”
The committee includes historians, Civil War buffs, retired doctors, former supervisors and business owners. Carter is in discussion with a nonprofit organization to be the group’s fiscal agent. Carter said it hasn’t looked at costs yet but he really isn’t concerned. He’s hearing from people in the community who like the idea. He also has been compiling the names of businesses, foundations and corporations that might not mind backing such a project.
“It’s only a matter of decimal points and zeroes,” he said.
Carter knows of a sculptor with Eastern Shore ties for the actual artwork. If the board of supervisors doesn’t take up the cause, the group can find other suitable spots, including private land, Carter said. He believes that at a time when the world is screaming “Take it down!” or “Keep it!” that the Eastern Shore has found a way civil way to end this war.
“Northampton County has the opportunity to show to ourselves, the Eastern Shore, the commonwealth, and the world that we have a better way.”
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Arthur Carter, right, and David Scott, both retired doctors and residents of the Eastern Shore, pose outside the historic courthouse at Eastville Court Green in Eastville on Jan. 8, 2021.
HANNAH RUHOFF, THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT/TNS