She doesn't know when the map went missing. Veronica A. Davis just knows it's gone — and recalls that day she saw it.
It was late May 2002, says Davis, a Hampton-based independent historian, when she showed up at the administrative offices for Richmond's cemeteries, then managed by a woman named Patricia Taylor. Davis, who is black, was researching the city's African-American burial grounds for a book, “Here I Lay My Burdens Down.” She says Taylor showed her a 19th-century map of Oakwood Cemetery.
“And on it, it said ‘Colored Confederates,'” Davis says.
They were buried in the valley of the hill that crests at Oakwood's gates, near the intersection of Stony Run Road and East Richmond Road, Davis says, in the forest abutting overgrown Evergreen Cemetery.
If only she could prove it.
Davis hasn't seen the “Colored Confederates” map of Oakwood since that day in Taylor's office, and in subsequent run-ins with cemetery management, no map matching Davis' description has turned up.
She refuses to consider that the map just doesn't exist. And the strange, caperlike back-and-forth between Davis and others about the allegedly missing map of Oakwood underscores confusion shrouding not just Civil War burials but also the controversial concept of black Confederates — a firebrand term defended by some and dismissed as a myth by others.
“Definitely there were black Confederate soldiers,” says Maureen Elgersman Lee, a historian of African-American history and executive director of the Black History Museum. “It's very likely that there are black Confederate soldiers buried in Richmond,” she adds.
“This idea of black Confederate soldiers has been hotly debated among historians and amateur historians and, you know, people interested in the Civil War memory,” says Andrew Talkov, a curator with the Virginia Historical Society who is working on the museum's Civil War exhibit scheduled for the 150th anniversary of its beginning in 2011. “I think that a lot of the way the debate is framed is, you know, what actually constitutes soldier?”
It's known that enslaved blacks accompanied the Confederate Army as cooks, personal servants and laborers. According to Ervin Jordan, an associate professor and archivist at the University of Virginia who wrote the 1995 book “Black Confederates,” accounts exist of blacks working as Confederate servants taking up arms in the heat of battle.
Talkov says the idea of enlisting black troops in the Confederate Army was floated throughout the war. But it wasn't until mid-March 1865, with the backing of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and as part of a desperate attempt to raise troops, that the Confederate Congress passed a law allowing the enlistment of freed or enslaved black soldiers. A battalion of black Confederate troops was soon seen parading in Richmond's Capitol Square, but “for all intents and purposes the war is over in Virginia two weeks later,” Talkov says. Jordan says there were black Confederate casualties before and during 1865, but not in huge numbers.
“It's an extremely controversial subject,” says Bob Krick, a U.S. Park Service historian at Richmond National Battlefield Park. “Regardless of what side of the argument you fall on, the long and the short of it is there were only just a couple of companies raised at the end of the war, and the war ended before they really had a chance to do much.”
Still, Krick says there's enormous mystery surrounding burials in Richmond's Oakwood Cemetery — where almost every Confederate soldier who died at the hospital at Chimborazo Hill, and as many as 17,000 Confederate soldiers total, lie buried. For example, Krick says, Union soldiers also were once buried in Oakwood, but it's uncertain where they were interred before being removed for reburial in Richmond National Cemetery off Williamsburg Road.
Krick also points to Michael B. Chesson's 1981 book, “Richmond After the War,” in which Chesson writes of an 1866 incident in which “soldiers, blacks, and Freedmen's Bureau officers forced their way into Oakwood Cemetery and buried patients from Howard's Grove [then operating as a hospital for blacks] in shallow graves, on high ground near the Confederate dead.”
But according to U.Va, professor Jordan's research, no accounts of labeled black Confederate cemeteries exist. “Something like that would have been a major find,” he says.
Krick suggests Veronica Davis may have confused some of the labels on her Oakwood map, but Davis is certain of the map she says she saw. She alleges former cemeteries manager Patricia Taylor refused to give her a copy of it. There's no evidence that it exists other than Davis' word — and that of a female centenarian, now deceased, who Davis says mentioned Oakwood's black Confederates during a conversation with her at the woman's 100th birthday party.
“When I research I don't just sit behind papers and books and stuff,” Davis says. “I go to the horse's mouth.”
Richmond parks and recreation spokeswoman Christy Everson writes in an e-mail to Style Weekly that “we are not the custodian of the document that Ms. Davis has requested” and suggests trying the Virginia Historical Society or Valentine Richmond History Center.
But those museums report no such map. A librarian in the city's records department refers to a collection of Oakwood-related documents held by the Library of Virginia, but a review of the state library's Oakwood maps, large hand-drawn linen sheets spanning the years 1892 to 1940, finds no “Colored Confederates.”
Nor is Davis' map the one dropped off at Style's offices by Cliff Troutman, a black-vested, patch-and-bead wearing Marine Corps veteran and member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Troutman teamed up with Davis a few months ago in search of the mystery map, firing off hotly worded e-mails to city officials. In one of the e-mails, Troutman alleges that Taylor took the map when she retired from city cemeteries in 2007.
Troutman's map, apparently dated 1923 by the city's Department of Public Works, also is a photocopy. It includes a topography of Oakwood Cemetery and sections with labels such as “White Single Graves,” “Confederate Women,” “Confederate Soldiers,” “Unrecorded Single Graves” and “Colored Paupers.”
But no black Confederates.
“This is not the map that I saw,” Davis says after scanning it.
“There are numerous layers of uncertainty that surround all aspects of Oakwood Cemetery,” says Krick, the Park Service historian. But as for black Confederates, he's skeptical: “I don't know who would be buried in that section if there was such a section.”
On a recent Thursday morning, Davis goes with a reporter to the city's cemetery offices on Randolph Street, where cemeteries manager O. Wayne Edwards and William Newcomb, a cemeteries administrator, hold court. Both sport mustaches, glasses and salt-and-pepper hair. They deny knowledge of the map — and are visibly annoyed with Davis' efforts.
Edwards says he's checked with Confederate interest groups on the subject and turned up nothing; as if to pacify Davis, he contends that another burial site in the area has been adequately spruced up. Newcomb says he's contacted former cemeteries manager Taylor about Davis' map, “and she said there's no such map.”
“This is strictly 100 percent speculation as far as I'm concerned,” Edwards says. “Why do we have to believe you?”
Davis presses. “I'm telling you what I saw,” she says.
“But nobody has any record of it,” Edwards responds.
The conversation gets heated.
“I have nothing to gain from any of this,” Davis tells Edwards and Newcomb. None of her family is buried in Richmond cemeteries, she tells a reporter several times.
Newcomb ultimately brings out three maps to show Davis. Two appear to be facsimiles of Troutman's 1923 map, a copy of which he says he gave Troutman. Another, produced by the department of public works, carries a large label that proclaims “Incomplete Plan.”
None of them is the map.
“I could care less about that map,” Davis demurs as she drives toward Oakwood on a recent morning. Davis lurches her car in and around the cemetery, braking to show things such as a cemetery road that ends at some woods.
She says the real story is the neglected, overgrown portions of Evergreen and Oakwood cemeteries that she's worked for 13 years to clean up. Full-grown trees and brush and still obscure many tombstones despite cleanup efforts by volunteers.
Few could protest the continued cleanup and commemoration of these burial sites. It's just that for Davis, in some of them, black Confederates may lie buried.
There is one last map that might shed some light. It's a laminated, apparently photocopied, undated map of Oakwood lying in the Chimborazo Park offices of Richmond National Battlefield Park.
Krick says it's been in his office since before he arrived 20 years ago. This Oakwood map, like Cliff Troutman's photocopied map, has labeled sections for burials. Like Troutman's, there's a section for “Unrecorded Graves” just beside Confederate burials. On about the same area of Troutman's Oakwood map that denotes “Colored Paupers,” the battlefield park Oakwood map shows a section for “Strangers.”
But no black Confederates.