By DeWayne Wickham
For much of the next four years this nation will relive the Civil War. It was 150 years ago this month that rebel gunners opened fire on U.S. military garrison at Ft. Sumter, S.C. That brief fight launched America’s bloodiest conflict, a war that raged from 1861 to 1865.
Historians usually talk about the Civil War in broad terms. They view it as a fight that pitted this country’s industrial North against its agrarian South; a clash between free and slave-holding states, or a war fought by the proponents of a strong central government and the advocates of states’ rights.
I see it in a far more personal way.
While I’m convinced the underlying cause of the Civil War was the South’s determination to perpetuate slavery, in a narrower sense it is, for me, a family matter in which the central figure was my grandfather, Trevillian Wickham. He didn’t fight in the Civil War, though nearly 200,000 blacks served in the Union Army. He wasn’t born until 1890.
The son of a slave named Casius Wickham, who was born in 1847 in Hanover County, Va., my grandfather is my most enduring history lesson on the Civil War. He was named Trevillian after a train depot not far from the plantation where his father once lived. Called Trevilian Station (the spelling was changed to Trevilians or Trevillians after the war); it was the scene of a major cavalry battle in 1864.
Among the Union generals in that fight was George Armstrong Custer, whose Michigan cavalry unit clashed with Virginia cavalry troops commanded by Gen. Williams Carter Wickham. The Confederate general was the patriarch of Hickory Hill, a 3,200 acre planation in Hanover County, a short distance from the Louisa County battleground. At its peak the plantation had 275 slaves. One of them is believed to have been my great-grandfather, Casius Wickham.
Knowing all of this connects me – and my family – to the Civil War in ways that are far more personal than the view many historians have of this great conflict. It also helps me make sense of my grandfather’s fascination with Camden Station, a railroad hub in Baltimore where he worked as a porter when I was a young boy.
Once, when my grandfather took me there I heard him and some of the other black men who worked menial jobs at the station talk about how “Abraham Lincoln used to come through here.” It was for them a matter of great pride that the president who set off a series of events that ended slavery had been in the same space that they occupied.
While my grandfather talked about how his work at Camden Station connected him to Lincoln, he never mentioned his linkage to the Wickhams of Hanover County, or his connection to the Battle of Trevilian Station, which Union troops lost. And he never said anything to me about another chapter of the Baltimore station’s history that unfolded shortly after Lincoln was sworn in as president.
On April 19, 1861 a mob of Southern sympathizers attacked federal troops marching through Baltimore. They were on their way to Camden Station to take a train to Washington, D.C. to reinforce the capital. The first casualty of this clash – and the Civil War – was Nicholas Biddle, a black man who was the personal aide of the unit’s commander.
Maybe my grandfather didn’t know this bit of history. But his connection to the place where it happened – and my family’s connection to one of the South’s wartime commanders – makes the memory of the Civil War more of a personal reflection than a sterile journey down history’s lane.