Births Deaths Marriages, Civil War, Enslaved People, Other Documents, Photographs, Virginia

Has the old fuss died out yet?

Here’s another account of Joseph Holmes‘ murder, presented as a pivot point in the romanticized life of the author’s father:

When Jim Wilkes rode into Raft River Valley in 1870, he had two pasts behind him though he was barely twenty-one. His real name was Griffin Seth Marshall. He had called himself Jim Wilkes only since a spring evening in 1867 when an incident in a Virginia village had sent him into exile as a fugitive from the law.

I heard the story from Mother — I am the daughter of Kate Parke and Griffin Marshall. Father wouldn’t have considered it suitable for a little girl, but Mother had no such qualms. Mother had a strong sense of drama, and for her the story was the thing.

“Your father changed his name,” she told us, “because he got in trouble back home and had to leave the country. He never done anything. No indictment was ever found” — Mother was careful to insert the formal, exonerating phrase — “but he was in a crowd one night with his brother John and this colored man was killed. He’d been a slave of your grandfather’s before the war, so when he was shot they thought the Marshall boys had something to do with it. There were soldiers there, northern soldiers, but your father and his brother got away. They left the country that same night — without even saying goodbye to their mother. That was when they changed their name. That’s History,” Mother would add, as she usually did when she told us a story about the early days. “Do what you will with it.”

The time came when I visited the Virginia village. And I discovered not only that every word of Mother’s account was true, but that the full story was adorned with details and a couple of postscripts that would have delighted her.

THE NAME of the village is Charlotte Court House and it is the seat of Charlotte County. It’s the courthouse, built in 1823, is a handsome building of red brick, with a white portico and four white columns overarched by venerable trees. Before the courthouse on an evening is the spring of 1867 a crowd had gathered to listen to a speech. The speaker was a Negro, who was able to make a speech only because Federal troops were camped in a grove of trees across the street. His name was Jo Holmes. He had been a slave, the butler of Judge Hunter Marshall whose plantation Roxabel was five miles from the village. Now Jo Holmes was not only a free man but also a member of the Virginia legislature. Jo Holmes’ podium was the slave block that still stands at the point where the walk from the courthouse joins the street. According to the local story, he was advocating mixed marriages. He didn’t get very far with his speech. A shot was fired and Jo Holmes fell dead. The bullet, I was told is buried in the front wall of the courthouse.

In the crowd were my father and his older brother John who were home on vacation from Clifton Academy in Fauquier County. John had been in the Confederate cavalry. (Their oldest brother Hunter had been killed in the Civil War — four days after Appomattox.) Griffin, who was only seventeen, had been too young to go to war. With them was cousin David Morton, actually a second or third cousin, and a friend named Fred Beal.

The shot that killed Jo Holmes came from the part of the crows where the four young men were standing. One of the four did fire the shot — then slipped the gun into the hand of a friend who threw it into the creek that runs through the hollow beside the courthouse. The Federals came running, but before they could get to the scene the four boys had made their escape with the help of relatives and friends. They were hidden for several hours in a house in the village. Before dawn they were driven to Pamplin, the nearest station on the Norfolk and Western Railway, and put on a train headed west.

The four fugitives soon parted. A letter from Griffin to his older sister Mary dated May 29,1867 — I got it from the daughter of Father’s sister — shows that he and John had been commended to the care of people named Taylor in country that might be Texas. There is no mention of the other two boys. The letter is written on a piece of stationery embossed in the upper left-hand corner with the head of an Indian and, beneath it, the legend “N.P. Co.”; but there is no place name on the letter and the envelope is missing. It reads as follows:

May 29, 1867

My Dear Sister: You must really excuse me for not writing to you sooner but I have been sick nearly ever since I have been here and the other part of the part of the time I didn’t feel like writing. I haven’t had anything to do at all- we have been waiting for Mr. Taylor’s son to come down here- but he has been sick and is now worse and probably never will be able to come. The old man said that he (his son) could get better situations than anyone else and advised us to wait for him and of course as we are under his care we took his advice and are now waiting to see what is going to turn up. Mr. T. Sr. went up to see about his son yesterday and we are expecting him back every day. Morgan is well and in pretty good spirits, but I am not in good spirits. I am getting tired of doing nothing and paying board.

This is the hardest country I ever saw; there isn’t a tree of any consequence in two hundred miles of this place. One day it is hot as five hundred (this was a simile my father often used) and the next day you can’t wrap up and keep comfortable-now today it is very hot. I wrote to Ma some two or three days ago; tell her to write to me and that often. Has the old fuss died out yet or not? I am very anxious to know the effect that thing produced. I haven’t got anything to write about and I am going to stop. Give my love to Bee Jim and all at Roxobel and regards to all of my friends and write soon to your affectionate Brother

The handwriting is the same that appears in two letters Griffin had written to his mother a few months before from Clifton Academy, but the writer signs himself not “G. S. M.” or “G. S. Marshall” as in the earlier letters but “J.T. Wilkes.” The “Morgan” he refers to can only be his brother John. “I never understood,” said my cousin Sarah when she handed me the worn sheet, “what a letter with that strange signature was doing in Mother’s papers.”

I once asked my father who killed Jo Holmes. He replied only it was not he.

— An American Memoir, Margaret Marshall, originally published in The Hudson Review, volume 24, number 2 (1971).

—–

Gawd.

I could pick at the details of this account — starting with the date of the letter, a full two years before Joseph Holmes was actually killed — but what’s the point? It is so obviously unconcerned with Joe Holmes — “delightful postscripts”? — or his life that accuracy is too much to ask.

This photo is found among literary editor Margaret Marshall’s papers in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University:

Roxabel Margaret Marshall papers

It is labeled “Roxabel.”  This is either a photograph of the back of the house, which has been much modified if it is, or is mislabled. It certainly does not match Marshall’s white portico-and-columns description. (That’s a shed roof porch with posts.) Further, Roxabel is still standing, and I’ve been there. It’s used primarily as the background for tasteless plantation-themed weddings these days, but was mercifully still when I drove up with Kathy Liston, a Charlotte County archeologist-cum-genealogical researcher who opened many a door, literal and figurative, for me in my quest for Jasper and Joseph’s roots. With a wing added long after the Marshalls left, here is Roxabel today:

IMG_9982

If Joseph R. Holmes was enslaved here, was his brother Jasper as well? Or had they been separated early, Jasper perhaps sold locally as excess or to settle a debt. I don’t know. But I do know that, emancipated in 1865 and at least free to build a relationship on their terms, the brothers’ bond was sundered forever by a rash pistol shot.

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