Belle & Thinking About What Matters To Us All

Belle, 2013, Photo from IMDb

Have you seen the movie Belle (2013)?

Set in Georgian England and based on a true story, the movie follows the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, the daughter of a British naval officer and an African woman. Historically, very little is known about her mother or the circumstances of Belle’s birth, but her father gave her his family name and she inherited a small fortune through his will after his death.

Belle was taken to England and placed in her great-uncle’s household where she was treated as an adopted niece. Since her great-uncle was the Lord Chief Justice of England, she received a good education. However, British society could see little except her darker skin, and she faced racism and social restrictions on a daily basis at gatherings.

Lord Mansfield, her great-uncle, presided as ruling judge in the Zong Case—which decided in court of law if enslaved men, women, and children were insurable property or cargo for slave trading ships. (Historical Spoiler: his decision on this case was one of the first steps and precedents toward the abolition of the British Slave Trade several decades later.)

For years, Dido Elizabeth Belle was “lost” in history, but her uncle had paid for the creation of an art masterpiece which survived and preserved her story for future researchers.

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Guess Who’s Missing?

Remember “The Generals” books from last week? Those volumes were instrumental in grounding my love of fact-finding and thinking about history. As much as I loved those books, I got annoyed with them and I think that annoyance had helped shape my interest in “civilian studies” AKA “women’s studies.”

It didn’t take long before I realized that the snippet biographies rarely mentioned a general’s personal life or family. That bothered me. I wanted to know if he was married. If he had children. What happened to his family during the Civil War.

Looking back, I know that Ezra J. Warner’s volumes are strictly military history and they are reference books, not comprehensive biographies. And within that category, details about family life and personal relationships is rare included. That’s tradition, but is it the way it has to stay? A few thoughts on this subject:

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Sarah Bushong: A Battle Around Her Home

Sarah Bushong (Find a Grave)

She married for love and spent years working alongside her husband for the success of the family farm. She was a grandmother by the time the Civil War brought a battle to her doorstep. She looked after wounded soldiers who found shelter and medical aid under her roof.

Sarah Strickler Bushong lived on her family’s farm which because the centerpoint of the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864. She experienced a Civil War battle first-hand as troops rushed passed her home and sheltered in the cellar.

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Lydie Clinedinst: “Mother of the New Market Cadets”

Eliza “Lydie” Clinedinst

She wanted to witness history – not wait in the cellar. She helped care for wounded cadets. She helped to write New Market memory of the battle. She helped ensure that “her cadets” had their place in history. She wrote letters, and she had conversations about history.

By the end of her life, thousands knew about her and wanted to hear her stories about the Battle of New Market. Through her compassion and commitment, Lydie Clinedinst Crim became “Mother of the New Market Cadets” and guaranteed that their memory and her name would be linked in Civil War history.

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Jessie Rupert: “Though Surrounded By Enemies”

Jessie Rupert (New Market Historical Society)

She taught African Americans to read and write when that was against the law. She burned a Confederate flag. She insisted on flying a Union flag in pro-Confederate town. She was the woman who stood in a muddy street and appealed to a Confederate officer’s humanity to provide aid for suffering Union soldiers.

Yes, everyone in the town of New Market, Virginia, knew about Jessie Hainning Rupert. Brave, irrepressible, educated, and feminine – she rocked the traditional, racist, and political views of her town during the Civil War.

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