The Case of an Unknown Soldier

20 Jan

Have you ever heard the expression, “One of these things is not like the others”?  Well, if you ever watched Sesame Street, I hope you know what I’m talking about.

In the early 1970s, a longtime local resident donated a large collection of the papers of her grandparents’ families to the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society.  Along with these papers, of the Wilson and Minor families, was a unique object that is believed to have descended from the estate of Mary Venable Minor (b.1861).

View showing the front side of the hands. The stick measures just under 10" in length.

The small wooden carving is quite the interesting piece.  It was created sometime between 1861 and 1865, reputedly by a Confederate prisoner.  Measuring just under 10” long with a diameter of under an inch, one can only imagine it must have taken time and patience.  The two hands are not just clasped, they are grasped in the pose of shaking hands.  Considering that this was supposedly carved by a Confederate prisoner, what do you suppose he was trying to represent?  A dream of compromise between the Union and Confederacy?  A memory of a friend or loved one?  Unfortunately, so much has been lost that could have told a valuable story here.

A closeup showing the detail of the front-side carving. The stick measures 6/8" in diameter.

Mary Venable Minor, reputedly the first known owner, was clearly not the manufacturer.  Minor was the daughter of Colonel Charles S. Venable, a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Virginia.  According to Anna Barringer in the Magazine of Albemarle County History (Volume 27/28),

He had heavy grey hair, a resplendent beard, and a big head set on heavy shoulders which gave him a massive, impressive look.  A brilliant mathematician, he taught before the war, had served on General Lee’s staff, and after Appomattox taught at the University of South Carolina before coming to the University of Virginia…

The Southall-Venable House, owned by Colonel Charles S. Venable and his family, sat in the lot where Lee Park is now situated. The house was torn down in the early 1900s to make way for McIntire's park. Southall-Venable House, Holsinger Studio Collection, 1889 - 1939, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va.

Though much is known regarding Venable’s life and robust physical appearance, less is known about his daughter.  We do know that she married Dr. Charles Minor of Asheville, North Carolina, a man four years her younger, in December 1890.  The couple resided in Charles’ home state, and had one child, Mary Venable Minor Ball, who also stayed in the Carolinas.  The fact that the object would end up back in Charlottesville after Mary, Sr.’s death may have indicated its connection to a family member still residing in Charlottesville.  But who?  Mary’s father, the Confederate Colonel, was never imprisoned, dismissing the obvious connection.  The vast majority of the other members of the Minor and Venable families served in the war at some point, making conjecture as to a single individual seemingly impossible.

Nonetheless, this small “odd man out” piece does offer us a glimpse into the past, both of a longstanding Charlottesville family and an unknown soldier with a story to tell.

A closeup of the back-side carving detail.

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