Sunday, December 29, 2013

Fossils, Race, and the U.S. Military

Fossils can be revealing about aspects of deep time, but, as I’ve often discovered, they can cast light on somewhat more contemporary history.  In the past several weeks, fossils have served as a bridge to two episodes, new to me, involving African Americans and the U.S. military.  One is from the Civil War; the other dates from World War II.  At first I found these episodes both disturbing and fascinating.  Ultimately, they have come to be a source of inspiration.

Dutch Gap Canal and Potomacapnos apeleutheron

The first of these occurred during the U.S. Civil War.  At its heart was General Benjamin Butler, a decidedly controversial figure, known as “Beast Butler” when he commanded the Union troops controlling New Orleans in 1862.  Butler, a politician and attorney in his pre-war life, played a significant role early on in structuring the official policy of the U.S. military toward slaves who had fled to Union lines.  While in charge of Fort Monroe, Virginia, in 1861, he declared fugitive slaves to be “contraband” which meant they would not be returned to their masters as Union forces had been doing.  This policy was quickly endorsed by the Lincoln Administration.

In what I would characterize as an expedient step, but also a humanitarian one, Butler directed that rations be given to all of the refugees under his control, and that the able-bodied among them be employed and paid wages, though their wages would be reduced to compensate for the cost of the rations given to the unemployed.  (Patricia C. Click, Time of Trial:  The Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony, 1862-1867, 2001, p. 36-37.)  (Admittedly, Butler’s motives in this and nearly any other action he took were, and still are, more likely to be questioned than not.)

This overall approach of employment and care for former slaves was explicitly followed elsewhere as stated policy, including in the freedmen’s colony on Roanoke Island, North Carolina,which is somewhat ironic given how Butler and these Roanoke Island freedmen intersected later in the war.  The colony had been established by the military after the Union launched a successful assault on the island in 1862.  Its history, ably described and analyzed by historian Patricia Click, is a sad tale of generally good intentions foundering on the shoals of racism, extensive needs, misunderstanding, and mismanagement.

In 1864, there was no love lost between Ulysses Grant, General-in-Chief of the United States Army, and Butler who at the time led the Union Army of the James.  Charged with putting pressure on the Confederate capital of Richmond from the south while Grant fought his way from the north, Butler had only managed to get his army bottled up in Bermuda Hundred, a large peninsula formed by the James River.  Historian Bruce Catton asserted that “[p]robably no campaign in all the war was as badly mishandled as that of the Army of the James in the spring of 1864.”  (A Stillness at Appomattox, 1953, p. 209.)

Frustrated by Confederate artillery batteries which maintained control of a long and critical section of the river, Butler decided to avoid the batteries altogether by digging a canal across Dutch Gap, a narrow neck of land created by a loop of the James River.  He reasoned that, once finished, this canal would enable Union gunboats to bypass that portion of the river under Confederate guns and move toward Richmond.  On the map below, a completed Dutch Gap Canal is shown (at the arrow I added) and a portion of Butler’s lines appears in blue, while Confederate lines are colored red.  Several artillery batteries (abbreviated “BTTY”) of both armies are also identified.  (The full map, from which this section was taken, was prepared in 1867 under the direction of General Nathaniel Michler.  I worked with the version of this map published by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1883 as #32 in a collection titled Military Maps of the United States.  It is available from the Library of Congress.)

In early August, 1864, African American troops under Butler’s orders began digging the canal which was to run for 500 feet, at a depth of 45 feet and a width of 60 feet.  In typical fashion, the Army turned largely to its black soldiers for this thankless and extremely dangerous assignment.  Soldiers of the U.S. Colored Troops, under white command, were asked to volunteer for extra pay to undertake this hardship duty (described to them as “hard digging” under enemy fire).

Early on progress was rapid, the soil was easily dug, but, in time, “the cutting got down through the top layers of soil and loose clay to the tougher hard-pan,” enemy fire, particularly mortars increasingly took a toll, and disease moved through the ranks.  The canal had become a “horror.”  (As described by Colonel John W. Ames of the 6th U.S. Colored Troops in an article titled Dutch Gap Canal which appeared in The Overland Monthly, January 1870, p. 33, 35.  I have ascribed the article to Colonel Ames based on material appearing in Noah Andre Trudeau's Like Men of War:  Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865, 1998, p. 283 et seq.)

When progress slowed and the conditions became ever more dangerous and vile, the men had to be rotated out and the voluntary nature of the effort ended.  Colonel Ames wrote:
The canal was the dread of all troops liable for detail; a butt for the gibes and sneers of the doubters and the personal enemies of the General [Butler].  Court-martials even ventured to punish criminals, by sentence to the canal; one of them epitomized its opinion of the nature of the work and its probably duration, by sentence of a culprit to “two years’ hard labor at Dutch Gap Canal."  (p. 36-37)
War artist William Waud sketched the work underway at the canal in October 1864.  (This image is from the Library of Congress and titled Gen Butlers Canal at Dutch Gap.)

The demand for laborers for the Dutch Gap Canal reached deep into the ranks of black freedmen elsewhere.  In late August, 1864, General I.N. Palmer, of the District of North Carolina, ordered that any available freedman on Roanoke Island should be pulled into the effort in Virginia.  Palmer pledged that the freedmen would be paid $16 a month, though force was used if they did not come willingly.  Later, a letter of protest to General Butler from 45 of the Roanoke Island freedmen who had been impressed by the military, outlined the reprehensible ways they had been swept up by the military and mistreated.  Army guards had scoured Roanoke Island for laborers, grabbing “young and old, sick and well,” indeed, “the soldiers broke into the coloured people’s house’s taken sick men out of bed.” (The quoted text taken is taken verbatim from Click, Time Full of Trial, p. 131.)  Needless to say, the pay failed to materialize as promised.

Work on the canal continued with involuntary labor by freedmen until, on the last day of December, 1864, engineers blew up the final bulkhead that separated the James from the canal, hoping to create a channel that would be scoured clear by rushing water from the river.  Bruce Catton wrote,
[T]he fallout [from the explosion] refilled much of the canal.  An observer called it a “perfect fizzle,” but he could have been describing the whole effort.  (The American Heritage New History of the Civil War, edited by James M. McPherson (1996), p. 522.)
By that juncture, events of the war had left the Dutch Gap Canal behind and it never fulfilled its wartime purpose.  The photograph below, dated April, 1865, shows what is identified as the “completed canal.”  (The image is from the Library of Congress.  No photographer is given.)

Fossils connect to this sorry episode because, during the long months that men valiantly labored to dig the canal, they were cutting through sand and packed clay of the lower Cretaceous Potomac Formation.  Indeed, I would like to think that some of the men spotted the fossil plants the clay contained.  Nevertheless, by virtue of their labor, the canal banks were exposed.  In his 1896 publication The Potomac Formation in Virginia, geologist William Morris Fontaine wrote that, though “fine fossils are sparingly and irregularly scattered in both banks of the canal,” they were there to be found, with Dioonites buchainus “by far the most common plant.”  “Impressions of very large leaves” of the Dioonites appeared, sometimes a foot and a half long.  (Bulletin of the United States Geological Survey No. 145, p. 36)  The drawing of leaves of the D. buchainus below is from the Maryland Geological Survey (Characteristic Fossils of Maryland Formations brochure).

For many decades plant fossils have been collected from this site.  Indeed, this year, paleobotanists Nathan A. Jud and the late Leo J. Hickey published an important analysis of three fossils collected at the Dutch Gap Canal in 1971, 1990, and 1991.  They concluded that these distinctive fossils are from a previously unknown genus and species of flowering plant, making the new species among the oldest flowering plant species and the oldest eudicot (identified in part by its distinctive pollen) ever found on this continent.  Eudicots are common today.  The new species is named Potomacapnos apeleutheron.  (Potomacapnos apeleutheron Gen. Et Sp. Nov., A New Early Cretaceous Angiosperm from the Potomac Group and Its Implications for the Evolution of Eudicot Leaf Architecture, American Journal of Botany, Volume 100, Number 12, December, 2013; Evolution, Civil War History Meet in Fossil With Tragic Past, University of Maryland College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences, November 26, 2013;  Surprising Science, This Could Be the Oldest Flowering Plant Ever Found in North America, Smithsonian Magazine blog, November 29, 2013.)

The holotype specimen for P. apeleutheron appears below in a picture taken by Nathan Jud and included in the University of Maryland publication cited above.  It appears with his permission.

According to the article, the genus name, Potomacapnos, references the Potomac River “along which the fossils were collected.”  That’s curious, since the fossils were actually collected along the James River and it would seem to make more sense for it to refer to the Potomac Formation (or the Potomac Group as it is often referred to in the literature) where they were found.  Indeed, that’s what Jud is quoted as stating in the Surprising Science blog entry cited above.  Capnos is from the Greek for “smoke” which links the genus to the fumitories or “smoke worts” which its members resemble.  [Later edit:  As noted in the comment below, the article was subsequently corrected to attribute the genus name to the Potomac Formation, not the Potomac River.]

In the species name, a wonderful sense of humanity shines forth; apeleutheron pays tribute to the men whose forced labor created the banks in which the fossils were found more than a hundred years later.
The specific epithet apeleutheron is the plural genitive case of the Greek word apeleutheros, meaning “freedman.”  This name honors the freedmen who dug the Dutch Gap Canal in Virginia during the U.S. Civil War in 1864, exposing the sediments from which this fossil [the holotype] was collected.  (p. 2440)

A Coda:  Paleontologist Julia Anna Gardner and the Triple Nickles

In my most recent post on this blog, A Paleontologist Pens a Few Words for Her Alumnae Magazine , I wrote about Julia Gardner, a pioneering paleontologist.  I described her service during World War II with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Military Geology Unit and, specifically, her role in determining that the balloons carrying incendiary bombs that were landing in the northwestern United States and Canada originated in Japan.  Researching the efforts undertaken to combat the effects of these incendiary devices, I learned about the “Triple Nickles.”

The Triple Nickles (that’s the way it’s spelled) was the 555th Parachute Infantry Company which in 1945 was sent to the west coast where its paratroopers were trained as “smoke jumpers” to help the U.S. Forest Service fight forest fires.  Though constituted in 1943, this company never saw action in the war overseas because its ranks were made up solely of African Americans.  In the segregated U.S. armed forces, the value of black troops remained in doubt.  In Beyond Value:  World War II’s Ranger and Airborne Veterans Reveal the Heart of Combat (2001), Patrick K. O’Donnell writes that the Triple Nickles were instrumental in breaking the “racist standards” of the U.S. military.  The unit was among the few all-black units to have an all-black officer corps.

Walter Morris, 2nd Lieutenant with the Triple Nickles and instrumental in forming the unit, recounted later,
They [the U.S. military] didn’t know what to do with all these black paratroopers, but we got lucky because at that time the Japanese were sending over aerial balloons across on the trade winds, and the balloons were calibrated to fall on the western shore from Canada to California.  The Forest Service’s smoke jumpers were not enough to handle the amount of fires that were caused by the balloons, and the campers, and the lightning.  So the Forest Service, whose responsibility was to fight forest fires, called on the army to help and asked the army if they could spare any paratroopers.  The Army was happy to do that because they had the 555th, and they assigned us to that mission.  (As quoted in Beyond Valor.)
Though, apparently, few if any of the forest fires fought by the Triple Nickles were the product of Japanese incendiary bombs, the unit performed admirably, making over 1,000 individual jumps in this service.

In his obituary which ran a couple of months ago (Samantha Hogan, Walter Morris, Original Member of All-Black 555th Army Parachute Battalion, Dies at 92, Washington Post, October 21, 2013), Morris is quoted as having said,
We didn’t win any wars, but we did contribute. . . . What we proved was that the color of a man had nothing to do with his ability.


  1. Shortly after publication, the error stating that Potomacapnos was named for the river rather than the formation was corrected; if anyone downloads the article they will see the corrected version. Great post! I enjoyed your through account of the Canal's history. I hadn't seen the illustration of Butler's Canal

  2. Thanks very much for the comment. I added a note to the text of the post concerning the corrected attribution of the genus name.


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