My husband would set a wine glass on the mantle only to find it later on a side table. Doors opened themselves, and periodically books just up and went somewhere. H blamed it on me initially and, fair enough, I’ve been known to put things away with too much enthusiasm. His theory fell apart when my work took me out of town for weeks at a time, and it was just H and our dog in the house.
The dog would sit still as a statue for long stretches in the kitchen doorway, laser focused on the hall beyond, looking at something or someone, tracking them as they stirred.
I was not there, and things kept moving.
Captain John Pollard died a few days before Christmas 1864 in Petersburg, Virginia. Since battles still raged right down the road, burials were suspended at Blandford Cemetery. So, into the backyard he went, swallowed at last by his beloved Virginia.
The Siege of Petersburg ground the city down to its knees, depriving it of food and supplies, of its sons, and of peace. After nine months and sixty thousand dead, the Confederates withdrew from Petersburg, limped west to the Appomattox Courthouse to surrender, and that was that. Depending on who you asked, if they were Black or White, Petersburg was where the Civil War was won or lost. It is no surprise there are ghosts there. It’s the south, rising again.
In the early 2000s, we owned the house on Adams Street where Captain Pollard lived and died. We learned of the captain’s demise from his great, great grandson. Surely, this Pollard had a first name, but everyone called him Judge. He first voiced the idea that the place might be haunted.
“Y’all ever feel like there’s ghosts in the house?” Judge Pollard asked one day while talking with H. Like this was a normal thing to say over sweet tea.
We moved from Chicago to Petersburg settling into a Greek Revival with so much history it had its own name: the Syme-Pollard House. The imposing slate blue home, built in 1842, had dozens of soaring windows with black shutters to either side and a massive porch spanning the front from which to appreciate the park beyond. Out back were box turtles, pecan and cherry trees, and a terrifying array of perennials and boxwoods unlikely to survive my tenure. Equally old houses flanked us on all sides, obsessively patrolled by the local historic preservationists. Neighbors greeted our arrival with curiosity and pies, eager to explain the provenance of the house, suss out our particulars and, occasionally, bless our hearts.
Wander or drive in any direction and dozens of historical markers compete for your peripheral vision. Here was the old headquarters of Robert E. Lee, and there lay the remains of the bridge he ordered destroyed as his troops retreated. The sign at Corling’s Corner informs the reader about the spot where, every January, enslaved people (“the backbone of the city’s workforce”) were leased out, mainly to tobacco firms. Not fifty yards from the house, the Poplar Lawn historic sign describes the soldiers who assembled at this park for the War of 1812, and the Civil War hospital erected later.
In July of 1864, a procession of sorts would have marched right past the Pollard house into this same park. After a failed assault known as Battle of the Crater, over one thousand Union soldiers including US Colored Troops were paraded through town while Petersburg’s citizens hurled spit and abuse from their streets and grand porches. Wounded Black soldiers were stripped and beaten, and a few weeks later, dozens were listed in local papers so slave owners could claim them. The Poplar Lawn marker politely omits these details.
The house held artifacts to keep its own history alive. People couldn’t wait to tell us about the cannon ball that once tore through the brick and plaster of the living room. We discovered cracked brown beer jugs in cabinets, fading maps and original plans for the property, and a small fancy pair of black shoes sloughing off leather one flake at a time. Arrows scratched deep into the wooden planks of our kitchen were instructions for someone. Here, they said, the nails go here.
Upstairs, yellowed ledger pages for Pollard’s accounts lined the walls, glued horizontally to insulate the attic. Their fancy script made the sale of nails and lye look like the Declaration of Independence. I spent long hours with my head cocked sideways reading these pages, hoping to find no names and ages on those lists, no prices for people.
She whispered: Keep looking. And then opened the door to go back downstairs.
The attic windows looked right down at the garden where, every few weeks, I battled weeds and ivy, cursing and yanking things out that desperately wanted to stay. More than once, I plunged a hand spade into the dirt to dislodge a tangled mess and hit a hard knot of something.
“Cap’n? That you?” I’d ask, demoting him to the rank of cereal captain, before unearthing what turned out to be rocks, roots, and once, a shard of ammo. But no Cap’n.
We loved the idea of Pollard seething when Black people moved into this house. We filled the yard with our friends and spicy food. We danced under the tallest tree in the neighborhood, stomping extra hard to disturb our resident dead rebel. I imagined him shaking an old, angry fist, veins popping out on either side of his neck.
“Ahhhhh knew this would happen,” he would drawl.
Pollard belonged to a specific class of Virginia gentlemen, whose lives, public service, and homes were memorialized for posterity. He had a saddlery and harness shop downtown and, by 1860, recorded property and wealth of nearly $30,000, just shy of $1 million in today’s terms. These “good and lawful men of the town,” as court documents labeled them, were property owners, city leaders, and deciders of life, money, and truth.
Pollard’s signature appeared over and over on official Petersburg records in the 1830s and 1840s, a confident sweeping P flourished with an extra swirl underneath. The signature expanded when Pollard was Mayor of Petersburg in 1844, the “r” in mayor claiming the extra space he no doubt felt he deserved. His name affirmed the truth of witnesses on matters of property. He declared how much to pay for property losses and decided who got what from estates. When called upon to compensate owners for the loss of slaves executed who struck White people, he routinely lowballed the value on their lives, keeping the government’s payout to a minimum.
Then there is his service record, as a militia lieutenant, and of course, captain. This latter title came from his service to the Water Street Patrol. Such patrols proliferated across the south to capture fugitives and suppress resistance. Petersburg’s went into overdrive after Nat Turner’s rebellion just a few hours away in Southampton. Slaveholders and other lawful men were granted the honorific title of captain and charged with deploying and motivating slave patrols. His title and service on the Water Street Patrol are the first words on his grave marker. Before the names of his kin, before mayor. Captain John Pollard.
Below the recitation of his achievements, the granite gravestone lists the lesser Pollards, including his wife, their kids, and spouses. John’s son Peyton died before him, having followed the call to invade Mexico in defense of Texas, slavery, and cotton. Three dead infants are memorialized. The Pollard family marker is fairly new, and when captured for the posterity of the internet, a small Confederate flag rests at its base.
We were long gone when we learned that Pollard’s body had been removed from the backyard before we ever arrived. Once the war was over and the road to the cemetery re-opened, Pollard and others were dug up from their miscellaneous locations and reinterred in a mass grave of 30,000 Confederate dead in Blandford Cemetery. While most of those bodies and parts are unidentified, there is a list of some 2,000 persons known to be buried there. Pollard is number 1,520. There is no unit affiliation or battle next to his name. He was 79 years old when he died, not even a Civil War soldier. A true believer, and city father, he was granted the privilege to rest with his people, his glory by association.
Just past the graves stands Blandford Chapel, luminous with its stained-glass panels venerating the Confederate dead as saints, one for every rebel state. Some forty years after the war, the daughters and wives of the south commissioned the Louis Tiffany Company to create this shrine for their fallen heroes.
Bless their hearts, she says.
In the 1850s, a trader set a big price upon George Freeland, offering to buy him for $1,500. Instead, George, “a spare-built man, about twenty-five years of age,” liberated himself before John Pollard could sell him off.
Between 1850 and 1860, a frenzy of speculation and greed shot through the south. The US domestic slave trade peaked during that decade. So did the yield of cotton, which doubled by 1860 to 2 billion pounds. Traders bought and sold Black bodies, and whips flayed millions of Black backs, arms, legs, and children to fuel this massive harvest.
To get enslaved people to the deep south and southwest, where the cotton was, the first stop was often the slave pen in downtown Petersburg or Lumpkin’s Jail up in Richmond. From there, some were chained together in coffles and walked the million steps to Alabama or Mississippi. Traders sent others by boat to New Orleans, and from there, deeper into Louisiana, or to Georgia or Texas.
On a different boat, George fled from Petersburg to Richmond and then on to Philadelphia. Once there, he reported to the Vigilance Committee of the Underground Railroad (UGRR) that Captain John Pollard was a monster, the kind who wrung “every drop of blood” from your body, who “thought no more of his servants than if they had been dogs.” George’s testimony included this detail: in ten years, he was allowed “one pair of shoes,” though Pollard, the saddler, had leather and money to spare.
Escaping meant George left his “mother and father, and two brothers behind.” Imagine this long night of whispered goodbyes: wrenching, hopeful, terrified. Or maybe a morning when his mother awoke and George was gone, having run without warning to spare his family pain for a few hours. At dawn, instead of George, she would find only the wrath of the former Captain of the Water Street Patrol.
George didn’t really have a choice. His fate would have been obvious: flogging, chains, cotton, and more cotton. Eventually, a letter back to the UGRR related that he made his way to western Canada. What a bitter triumph to be free, alive, and alone.
The 1850 Census listed eight enslaved people in the Pollard household. Whether or not they were all blood, the records suggest they had grown up and survived together at that house for decades. By 1860, two young men in their 20s were all that remained.
There are few clues for this part of the story. The other five may have been sold or traded in lieu of George for the money or out of spite. Was there a moment for goodbyes, or just a quick snatch leaving an empty space? Had anyone else breached the patrols and liberated themselves? Or did they just die there at that house?
What I do know, in my bones, is the spirit of that family stayed – or came back – to the house on Adams Street to wait.
3. Lost Souls
So many souls were brought to, owned in, sold from, left at, or last seen in Petersburg. One hundred and sixty years later, they still talk to us. Listen:
My name was George Thornton. I left my sister in the morning in the care of Henry Thornton. I left my mother in the evening at Petersburg, her name was Serlena. My father was Jasper. I was there sold to speculators…I was brought to Columbus, Miss., and sold, and I have not heard from my people since.
Mary Epps had been the mother of fifteen children, four of whom had been sold away from her; one was still held at Petersburg; the others were all dead. At the sale of one of her children she was so affected with grief that she was thrown into violent convulsions, which caused the loss of her speech for one entire month.
Do You Know Them? I desire to know the whereabouts of Beattie Giles, the mother of Susan Green. She lived in Petersburg, Va. She belonged to Billy Moody. Her husband’s name was Henry Giles. She had four other children. Their names were Joshua, Rachel, Jane and Martha.
My father was named Jackson Jefferson and my mother’s name was Franky Jefferson
Three sisters were sold from them at once, at Petersburg, Va.
My father Richard belonged to Mr. Frank Whiting of Gloucester, Va. and mother belonged to Mrs. Ellender Wyatt. My father was drowned and I had five sisters: Diana, Nancy, Lucinda. Ellender, and Susan Whiting, all scattered in different parts of the country. I was removed or sold to Petersburg, Va.
Elizabeth Keckley, who once lived in Petersburg and later became Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress and companion, remembered the day a neighbor’s child was sold to settle a debt:
Little Joe, the son of the cook, was selected as the victim. His mother was ordered to dress him up in his Sunday clothes and send him to the house. He came in with a bright face, was placed in the scales, and was sold, like the hogs, at so much per pound.
Keckley also recalled the whipping Joe’s mother received for grieving her baby boy.
Generations of Black people held their breath, hoping it wasn’t them, their child, or their husband that got disappeared next. Families were separated, left shattered, gasping for God, for their people, for a will to live or for death to come. Lying awake in empty darkness not knowing who was alive and who was dead. Day in and day out in Petersburg. And Richmond. And Alexandria. And hundreds of other cities, corners, and courthouses.
Whether or not historical markers are complete, accounts in the UGRR and other artifacts witness their yearning and grief. These stories live on in the newspaper ads families placed before, during, and after the Civil War. The ads plead for news of their people with a politeness and respect I cannot fathom. “Any information will be gratefully received,” they say. One ad appeared in 1913. Nearly fifty years after the end of slavery, still looking.
People get stuck for many reasons – waiting, hoping, and loving are among them. Mothers, most of all, want their families to be whole and would do anything to see their family again, to hold their hands and faces, leaning in until their foreheads touched.
Why would this be any less true for the dead than the living?
Years after fleeing that house and Petersburg, I’d lie awake, still haunted and unsettled. Stuck. “Write for your dead,” Alexander Chee suggests in an essay. “Let them hold you accountable. Let them make you bolder or more modest or louder or more loving, whatever it is, but ask them in, listen, and then write.”
I asked her in, the mother of this family ravaged by John Pollard.
She says: It was like I had a phantom limb. You feel it because memory tells you it’s there. You close your eyes and there’s the weight of it, like a sleeve filled with flesh and not pinned to your side. The space where our people used to be is like that.
She tells me: We promised each other, no matter what, that we would come back and find each other there. The house was the one place we could remember who we were when we were all together. Even if it was hateful.
She says: How would I know who I am without them?
I am ashamed that I fell for the obvious, the trap of white supremacy even in the afterlife. Why would Pollard stick around? He was ensconced, literally, with his confederates. His business was finished.
I say: I’m so sorry I missed the chance when I lived there to sit with you on the porch and listen to your stories. I should have set a place for you at the table or made an altar for your family.
I say: Thank you for keeping my husband company.
I think your spirit sent me down the rabbit hole to find George, to revel in his escape and freedom. You led me to the memories of husbands and mothers, of siblings and babies. You waited for me to ache with all their unknowing.
Maybe you moved on after a few years of seeing a house full of Black people. I hold tight to a vision of you all, like thousands of small stars, lifted skyward, beyond the tree line and the Appomattox. You’d head north and then east out over the Atlantic. You gather until all anyone can see is light, like a second sun rising. Carried away. Together. Finally.
I say: I hope you found your people.