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They journeyed to Petersburg to honor Richard Poplar, a 'black Confederate'

By ELISHA SAUERS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: October 15, 2017

NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Early on a Saturday, a man with sunken cheeks and a beard put in his breakfast order at Dennis’ Spaghetti and Steak House. If Michael Armistead was going to make it from Chesapeake to Petersburg by 11 a.m., he and his buddies would have to get on the road.

The men are the 13th Virginia Mechanized Cavalry, a group of Sons of Confederate Veterans who live in Hampton Roads and a few surrounding parts. In leather jackets, they gathered around tables at the diner that morning, fueling up on coffee, some with hair still wet.

Armistead, commander of the group, corralled the 17 others to the diner’s parking lot. There they discussed the logistics of whose Harley would be up front and whose would take the rear and where they’d pick up a few more guys but not dismount because they “ain’t got time for that.”

Then they bowed their heads, praying over the memory of the man they would honor that day, the man honored every year in a ceremony at Petersburg’s historic Blandford Cemetery.

Richard Poplar. A black Confederate who, in their words, “fought in a war that was a just cause, amen.”

But did he?

The more one digs into Poplar’s story, which began about 200 years ago, the harder it becomes to tack an “amen” onto the end of it. The journey into his past, it turns out, has more twists than the road from Chesapeake to Petersburg. As the nation struggles over how the Civil War is remembered, with Confederate monuments becoming the latest battleground for racial tensions, Poplar’s legacy also is open to debate in 2017.

Fourteen years ago, two men visited the Petersburg City Council with an unusual request. Richard Stewart, a black amateur historian, and Ashleigh Moody, a white Sons of Confederate Veterans member, asked city leaders to declare a day in honor of Poplar.

Moody had already helped secure a grave marker. The National Cemetery Administration ordered an upright marble headstone for Poplar in January 2003, and it was shipped to a Petersburg funeral home later that year.

A memorial committee had formed to dedicate the headstone. Stewart and Moody wanted the council to establish a “Richard Poplar Day.” Soon followed a proclamation, signed by then-mayor Annie Mickens, who is black, declaring Sept. 18, 2004, with that distinction:

WHEREAS, Richard Poplar, a highly honored Petersburg ‘Colored Confederate Soldier’ and American veteran was buried with full military honors at Memorial Hill, Blandford Cemetery, Petersburg, Virginia in 1886 …

served in Co. H, 13th Virginia Cavalry, the famous Sussex Light Dragoons, with extraordinary distinction …

spent 19 months as a Prisoner of War at Fort Delaware and Point Lookout, Maryland, and he NEVER turned his back on the South, his beloved Virginia, or his comrades …

serves as a shining example to all Petersburg natives and all mankind …

May his life, heroism, and memory serve as a beacon to greatness for Petersburg, for our country, and for the world.

Moody, a Petersburg resident who has kept the tradition alive with the annual service, rejects the idea that Poplar is a token figure, a convenient symbol for Confederate heritage groups to fight anyone who would link them with white supremacists or racists.

Read Poplar’s obituary and death notice, he urged, referring to transcribed versions of the 1886 articles from Petersburg’s Daily Index-Appeal on an amateur website, www.craterroad.com/richardpoplar.html.

“When you are recognized by your comrades, you are a 10-times hero for that. That’s glory,” Moody said. “He was outstanding.”

It’s unclear what Mickens or Mayor Samuel Parham thinks about the motivations for the annual Poplar celebration. Neither returned calls seeking their insight into the event, which gathers in the cemetery a few steps from Poplar’s new headstone.

But Stewart, who said he helped get the proclamation after Moody approached him, has his own opinions. He has spent his retirement days and money researching Pocahontas Island, one of the oldest African American communities in the nation, which sits near downtown Petersburg. He even started his own black history museum there. Before the Civil War, the area was filled with a mix of slaves and free blacks.

Stewart believes that when it comes to Poplar, some folks have tried to “elevate his stature to hero.” In his eyes, Poplar was merely a cook, perhaps a body servant, who didn’t take up arms during the war. But he sees “Richard Poplar Day” as something that could bring people together.

“I think it’s good because I want to get on with the future,” he said. “Can’t there be a day of atonement, that we can live in peace? Can’t we live in peace and let bygone be bygone?”

With blue skies overhead and buttercups dappling the highway shoulders, the 13th Virginia Mechanized Cavalry rode in two columns toward Petersburg, flying two Confederate national flags from their motorcade.

The group’s name holds special meaning; their Harleys symbolize their regiment’s horses. They ride to historic battlefields, treading the paths of their ancestors.

When they arrived at the cemetery Sept. 16, “Biker Bob” Grimes, who is in the Suffolk band Virginia Dare, searched for a hiding place among the trees to change clothes. He had brought a Confederate uniform.

“I got a 5-gallon bucket with all my junk in it – tambourines, spoons and washboard, and all that stuff,” he said. “You got to take a picture of me when I get my uniform on.”

A crowd milled around the cemetery gazebo, decorated in patriotic bunting as if it were Independence Day. While they waited for the program to begin, some jaunted a few steps down the hill to see Poplar’s headstone.

Then the music began and the all-white crowd assembled, with two black speakers and two black singers sitting in the gazebo among the guests. Programs, which said the event coincided with National POW/MIA Week, were distributed, along with black ribbons.

A memorial candle was lit and a wreath presented, and Armistead spoke for a half-hour on the history of the 13th Virginia Cavalry.

Then Terry Barfield read from Poplar’s obituary, the same version that appears on the Crater Road website. He prefaced by saying it had run on the front page of the Index-Appeal in 1886.

“Most obituaries you don’t see on the front page unless they’re famous people,” he said.

There died in this city Saturday morning at the residence of Mr. James Muirhead, a Virginian who cast his fortunes with the Confederacy, and endured many months of weary imprisonment rather than desert his friends and comrades in their misfortune. He was an honest, industrious man, highly esteemed by old Confederate friends and comrades…

The obituary includes details on Poplar’s 19 months as a war prisoner, his resistance to taking the oath of allegiance in exchange for his release and the white, ex-Confederate officers who acted as his pallbearers.

Barfield also read from the death notice, which said a “great number of white people (were) in attendance, including many ladies.”

Teresa Roane, who is black, gave a speech on how technology has allowed the public to learn about black Confederates. Roane, who once was an archivist for the Museum of the Confederacy, now handles the same role for the United Daughters of the Confederacy. She says her great-great-grandfather, whom she declined to name in a later interview, was a free man when he did fortification work for the Confederacy.

“Finally, history that was swept under the rug is resurfacing,” she said during her speech.

As the event drew to a close, Mike Evans, a Courtland resident who rode along with the Sons of Confederate Veterans but isn’t a member, seemed moved.

“Nice ceremony, isn’t it? Do it justice,” he said to a reporter. “We need more of this. This is the kind of stuff that they need to be doing at the monuments. Peaceful stuff.”

Then the band played out on “Dixie.” A young girl in glasses bopped up and down in the crowd, making her stuffed dog in a Confederate flag sweater dance to the music. It ended with taps and the punctuating blasts from a Suffolk musket team, The Virginia Volunteers.

But a question lingered that couldn’t be addressed by the day’s proceedings.

How much of Poplar’s story is real, and how much is legend?

It’s difficult to piece together the life of a man who was born two centuries ago. But old census records, city directories, newspapers and burial ledgers provide some clues.

Poplar doesn’t seem to be in the 1860 census, according to records accessed from Norfolk Public Library’s Sargeant Memorial Collection, but a Dick Poplin and Richard Poplin appear in the 1870 and 1880 logs, respectively. Researchers say it’s not unusual for variations of names to show up in the historic records, particularly for uneducated people.

Poplin was identified as a cook, which matches information in the 1882 city directory, describing him as head cook at the Bollingbrook Hotel.

In one census, he is described as “mulatto,” the antiquated term for biracial, and in another as black. He was a widower, the records show, and his age varies. He couldn’t read or write.

The National Archives also has some records on Poplar. An undated roll card listed him as a “private” for Company H, 13th Virginia Cavalry. His race wasn’t indicated. A Prisoner of War roll card said he was captured in Greencastle on July 5, 1863, and held at Point Lookout in Maryland.

Within Blandford Cemetery’s historic burial ledgers, Poplar is listed as interred in a single grave in an unknown ward of the 176-acre property. His new headstone is not over his plot but in an area loosely described in his obituaries.

Then there are the newspaper articles.

Holdings at the College of William & Mary’s Swem Library include the original obituary and death notice for Poplar that appeared in the Petersburg Daily Index-Appeal.

On page 4 of the May 24, 1886, edition, the column includes lines that were left out on the Crater Road website, reprinted here in bold:

There died in this city Saturday morning at the residence of Mr. James Muirhead, the only colored Virginian, if our memory serves us correctly, who cast his fortunes with the confederacy, and endured many months of weary imprisonment rather than desert his friends and comrades in their misfortune. For many years Richard Poplar had been a familiar figure on our streets, and since the war his convivial habits had oftentimes got him into little scrapes with the police authorities. But, with the exception of this unfortunate habit, he was an honest, industrious man, highly esteemed by old confederate friends and comrades...

Another obituary exists for Poplar in The Richmond Dispatch from May 23, 1886. It claims Poplar never fought in the war:

Richard Poplar (colored), known to Petersburgers everywhere, died here this morning, aged about sixty years. He was a man of character, and of an interesting history. He was one of the sternest upholders of the southern cause during the four years’ war between the sections. While he did not shoulder a musket or fight in the ranks in that struggle, he served the soldiers of the Thirteenth Virginia cavalry, Chambliss’s brigade, with an ardor and faithfulness and patriotism that won for him the respect and affection of the whole regiment …

It concludes with a line that may reveal why Poplar, of all people, received so much newspaper ink at his death. Neither obituary elaborates on his family, career or life. He was made a symbol then:

... such evidence of respect for a colored man by the prominent white men and ex-soldiers of the city should calm all feeling in the hearts of the northern people about any hostility between the races at the south.

Ervin L. Jordan Jr., an associate professor of Civil War and African American history at the University of Virginia, said it’s common to see modern Confederate heritage groups latch onto figures like Poplar because some believe the existence of Southern black loyalists proves the war wasn’t about slavery and racism.

Jordan, who wrote “Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia,” said there are no hard numbers to back up how many blacks were involved. His intent was to document their existence and put them in the appropriate context, he said: Some free blacks wanted to make sure they retained their free status if the South won, and slaves may have hoped aiding the Confederacy would earn them their freedom.

But Jordan, who is black, said some pro-Confederate groups have used his research to ease the conscience and promote the idea that the Southern cause was noble and just – a view he doesn’t share.

“Afro-Confederates are not heroes, in my opinion,” he said. “They were people who were trying to come up with strategies for their own personal survival.”

Before the 13th Virginia Mechanized Cavalry headed home, they had one more stop to make.

They left the cemetery, riding their Harleys right past the Union’s 48th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers monument, and pulled up to King’s Barbecue, an old-fashioned restaurant where a pork sandwich costs $2.95 and is served in a bun cut down the center. The group had a room reserved in the back, which was decorated in Confederate military art.

Armistead scrolled through his phone, showing pictures of Confederate monuments he’s visited. One of them featured a line from a poem, which he attempted to recite. Not one of the statues had a racist inscription on it, he said.

“That whole Jim Crow thing just got invented over the past few months,” he said of historians who explain that monuments were erected during that era to assert white superiority. “They’re grasping at straws.”

To Armistead and his friends, the statues honor the dead, just as the annual observance for Poplar does. It doesn’t matter to them that they never met their ancestors who served in the Civil War. Armistead pointed to a vein in his arm: It’s in his blood. Slavery was wrong, he said, but that’s not what he believes the war was really about.

As they paid their tabs and headed out, Corey McWilliams, a black man who was busing their tables, listened to some of the conversation.

He wasn’t angry or critical.

“I understand why they want to preserve it. It’s the same reason why somebody wants to take it down,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a solution for it because we’re humans.”

Jakon Hays and Maureen Watts contributed research to this story.

©2017 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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A roll card in the National Archives indicates a Richard Poplar served as a private for the Confederacy.
NATIONAL ARCHIVES

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