By David Bearinger
Elizabeth “Betty” Ann Pitts was born into slavery near Onancock, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. In 1853, she married Parker Pitts, a free man, although the state did not legally recognize their union. Parker Pitts was killed in 1864 while serving with the 9th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops, and defying the conventions of the time, his widow later sought (and won) a pension from the federal government.
In the spring of 1861, Anne Parker Thom was managing a household near Eastville that included thirty enslaved men, women, and children. But as the war dragged on and her fortunes dwindled, she took in boarders and borrowed money to pay for her daughter’s burial. When Thom’s husband returned home after four years as a Confederate surgeon, she wrote, “[he] thinks I look very old. He little knows the load of care which has rested upon me for the last four years …”
These women, and eight others, are the focus of a recent effort to bring the Civil War voices of Eastern Shore women to light. A VFH grant to the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society supported the project, Stronger Than Steel, which culminated in an exhibit that ran from March through June 2016 and a dramatic performance that was held on May 20, 21, and 22.
The script for the performance was drawn largely from public records and the women’s own diaries and letters. Based on the research of Kellee Blake, the retired director of the National Archives, Mid-Atlantic Region, it was written by her in collaboration with a team of local historians and advisors.
The Eastern Shore was occupied by Union troops beginning in November 1861. There were no major battles there, but the war’s impact was keenly felt, by women in particular. It’s a complicated and heretofore largely hidden part of Eastern Shore history, one that required an unusual combination of sensitivity, imagination, and meticulous research to uncover.
Among other things, the play and exhibit show how the lives of so-called ordinary people can emerge vividly from archives and public records.
They also demonstrate the importance of preserving private documents—the kind often found in shoeboxes, drawers, and attics; in bundles at estate sales; or, tragically, in trash bins when someone dies or a family moves.
Anne Thom left behind a trove of letters now at the Virginia Historical Society. The stories of Betty and Parker Pitts are documented in the National Archives Pension Files and Accomack County’s Order Books. There are other examples, too.
Mary Graves came to the Eastern Shore in 1860 to teach at the Locustville Academy, which was closed by Union troops after she refused to take the Oath of Allegiance to the Unites States. Her challenge to the oath’s legitimacy sparked a colorful exchange of letters with the Union general Benjamin F. Butler. Parts of her story are found in Butler’s papers at the Library of Congress.
A woman known only as Miss Lizzie B. ran a “house of entertainment” that was patronized by Union troops, including a Lieutenant Moore of the 2nd Delaware Regiment. He showed up at Miss Lizzie’s one night “quite drunk,” threatened her with a pistol, ransacked her belongings, and rode off with an armload of dresses. The next morning, Lizzie went to the headquarters of General Henry Lockwood, commander of the occupation forces, and reported what had happened. Moore was eventually court-martialed and an account of Lizzie’s story is found in the National Archives.
“The Civil War story of Virginia’s Eastern Shore is like no other. Long silenced voices literally spilled forth as I untied the ‘government red tape’ binding them since 1865. There are still countless equally remarkable stories waiting to be told.” – Kellee Blake, Archivist, Author Stronger Than Steel
At the opening performance of Stronger Than Steel, at Onancock’s North Street Playhouse not far from where Betty Pitts had been enslaved, many in the audience were moved to tears. The actresses were all cast from the local community. The staging was simple, but the impact was strong and immediate, as if those whose lives and voices were being honored had found a way to speak again.
The success of Stronger Than Steel is a tribute to Kellee Blake and the other members of the project team. It is also a testament to the richness that lies hidden or sometimes hiding in plain sight in archives, libraries, and historical societies; and to the importance of preserving primary documents in a culture defined by rapid change. It is, furthermore, a testament to the power of women’s voices as keys to a full understanding of the past.