Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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A place ‘powerfully stamped by history’

A small version of Timothy O’Sullivan’s moment in time: Aug. 19, 1862, at Cow Ford and Tinpot Run on the Rappahannock River, near Rappahannock Station, Va.

An extraordinary thing happened today on the watery border between Culpeper and Fauquier counties.

Hundreds of people from near and far gathered to mark the  Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation‘s sesquicentennial by visiting the little-known site of an iconic, much-published 1862 photograph of ex-slaves crossing the Rappahannock River.

John Hennessy, chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, was among the speakers, each of whom brought a different perspective to an event with deep pathos and enormous symbolism.

Somehow, Hennessy found time to live-tweet (text, video and photos) from this riverbank immortalized by Mathew Brady studio photographer Timothy O’Sullivan on Aug. 19, 1862.

Later, he wrote a perceptive post — “The incredible power of a place named Cow Ford” — on the park historians’ wonderful Mysteries & Conundrums, a blog always fresh and always worth reading.

In part, he wrote:

“The Cow Ford crossing of the Rappahannock assumes significance not because it is unique, but because it is the site of what is one of only a handful of images–and probably the only photographs–that portray slaves escaping to freedom.  That image with the place and the words of those who witnessed the event, on this day overlaid with music with deep cultural meanings for those in attendance, make for a powerful, memorable image in the mind’s eye.  There is nothing that can match it. No movie. No video game. No NatGeo spread.”


“It struck me that every school child in the region should visit that site at some point and walk across the river there. They’d remember that day’s history lesson the rest of their lives.”

Please, read the whole piece.

As usual, John says it better than I ever could.

Also worth a peek: Beautiful black-and-white photos by the blogger who tweets as SlaveryDatabase

I’ll write something for Monday’s paper,  as soon as I finish an editing shift and grab some winks.

Again, what an incredible event! It was an honor to be there.