Who Was Williams Carter Wickham?

The christening of the U.S.S. New Mexico at Newport News Shipbuilding. Why is this illustrating a post about Williams C. Wickham? (And BTW, I’m in the photo sitting next to Ralph Northam on the front row.  My Dad, too. Look closely for his brown rain coat.)

By Steve Haner

Willams C. Wickham had his memorial in Richmond’s Monroe Park torn down a few nights ago. It was an Edward Valentine statue (will we burn the Valentine next?).  Like many, I had walked by it in ignorance. As he passes from sight, a few facts about his life if you are interested.

Williams C. Wickham, b.1820, d. 1888

Without Wickham, there might not be that mighty naval shipyard on the James River in Newport News, where I worked 12 years with 20,000 others. That shipyard has probably been the most powerful engine for growing the black middle class on the Peninsula, with generations of families earning good livings and financing college educations. Maybe Wickham would have been proud of that, maybe not.

It came about because Wickham, according to this, enticed Collis P. Huntington to start investing in Virginia railroads – which led to the founding of the shipyard by Huntington at the Newport News coal terminus. Wickham served as vice president and then president of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. Huntington, of course, was one of the Big Four who built the Central Pacific Railroad and linked the continent at Promontory, Utah.

Wickham had been a delegate to Virginia’s convention on secession and voted to stay in the union. He was on the losing side of the vote, but like many stayed with Virginia and rose to be a general of cavalry in most of the Virginia campaigns. By the end of the war he was in the Confederate Congress and was part of the Hampton Roads conference seeking a negotiated peace with Lincoln before Grant crushed Lee’s lines at Petersburg.

Post war he was politically a Republican and a presidential elector for Ulysses S. Grant. (Did they meet at that peace discussion?) Presumably, that would indicate support for the 15th Amendment on voting rights and the election of large numbers of black state legislators and congressmen during the Reconstruction period.

Wickham died at 68 in 1888, just as the first iteration of the shipyard was being founded by Huntington, mainly to repair the colliers visiting the C&O coal piers.  But as a major business and political leader rebuilding the South’s economy for two decades, and a founder of the C&O, his story involves more than the war. He also served in the State Senate (never crossing Huntington, I’m sure). Having posed him postmortem in the uniform for the statue instead of a suit, of course, Valentine sealed his eventual fate.

In 2017 after the Charlottesville debacle, descendants of Wickham called for the statue’s removal, saying his success was built on slavery. That charge certainly was true of the pre-war period, with his ancestors including some of the most notorious leaders of Plantation Virginia. Perhaps his post-war politics and management of the C&O were also tainted, but slavery was gone. When they fenced up Monroe Park for renovations, I expected the statue to disappear quietly. It would have been simpler.

Now about this Christopher Columbus fellow… still doubt we’re just getting started with this?

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44 responses to “Who Was Williams Carter Wickham?

  1. Steve,
    Of course the details of his actual legacy are irrelevant. Only the feelings of groups who are favored by the left actually matter. In a post truth world, facts don’t matter, only opinions and feelings.

  2. Having written a book on Wickham’s Virginia regiment and his biography for an encyclopedia at the request of Dr. Bud Robertson, I will be asking Virginia Tech to remove my book from its ‘Special Collection’. I can no longer allow my historical research to trigger students into feeling threatened, disparaged, or marginalized. The written word is dangerous – I now realize this. I hope all authors and historians will follow my example and demand all such offensive reading material be removed from the stacks and burned. It is the only way forward…..

  3. “That which is not nailed down is mine. That which I can pry up is not nailed down.”

  4. We have descended into madness, and are fast heading toward anarchy. Seriously, does anyone think that any of this will actually better the lives of African-Americans?

    • One more indicator of the madness:

      The Wall Street Journal
      HBO Max removed “Gone With the Wind” from its platform amid growing concerns about racial injustice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

      The first Black woman to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel for Gone With The Wind. Now her work is removed from view in the name of being anti racist?

      • I suppose you miss Heckle & Jeckle as well as Amos & Andy, too?

        I may be wrong about its position, but the first movie with a black protagonist with an otherwise all white cast was Dawn of the Dead, and we all know how that ended.

        • Never saw Dawn of the Dead. Wasn’t interested. However, Hattie McDaniel was the first Black woman to win an Academy Award. As to your Amos and Andy & Heckle and Jeckle snark, it must be painful to be as perfect as you seem to think you are. Given your assertions about your giant intellect, I have been looking for something beyond snark from you. I am still waiting.

  5. X41, and O69 for 1 summer and 6 months in the early 70s. The group of about 20 in X41 was all white. The office for USS.California and USS South Carolina had one black clerk, no black planners or engineers.

    BTW Jeff Davis worked that railroad too.

    • 1st class helper summers of ’78, ’79, ’80 and a Production Engineer in the Mold Loft 1982-84. In August of ’80 I was arrested coming out of Jef’sons after my going away celebration of sausage sandwiches and beers with my two mates — the reason for the arrest: being a white boy hanging with two blacks in East End. One cop was black, the other white. Racism is not solely directed at blacks.

    • O20, for me. From my arrival at NNS in 2006 onward, I noted in the annual groups of new “Master Shipbuilders” reasonable diversity. To be named a Master Shipbuilder they would have to have worked continuously 40 years. Was it a big percentage? Was the place perfect? Did top ranks reflect that diversity as much as one might hope? Probably not. But I met and counted as close colleagues or friends several black directors, managers, and a couple of VPs. Women too! (Probably even more scarce in the early 70s). Was just with a retired black director last week.

      • Hen’s teeth.

        The two cruisers lasted until the Sheffield. Aluminum superstructure, ya know. Saw the ships before then and the hulls looked like waffles. The hull plating was a wee bit thin.

        “They still made a profit”. Slogan or no.

  6. Interesting piece. Was more familiar with Huntington from Wva days

  7. lots of twisting and turning here/

  8. “We shall build good ships here. At a profit if we can. At a loss if we must. But always good ships.” That was Huntington’s famous vision statement, which I’m stunned you forgot, Nancy.

  9. 100% taxpayer money – and it all going to do good things for black folks.. eureka! tax money for jobs for black folks … lordy

  10. Say guys, are you interested in Virginia history? Civil War history? Or just Confederate history?

    How come no mention of Belle Boyd? What? No statue to George Thomas?

    Or that George McCellan married A.P Hill’s girlfriend? Or that Colonel Custer’s USMA roommate got married in Richmond while Custer was in Hampton, and Custer changed into civilian clothes, crossed the lines to attend the wedding?

    So many interesting stories and all you have are Confederates? I think you are just Apologists and Whatabouters.

    • I’m sorry. Who mentioned Winfield Scott yesterday? No one will be reading this stuff going forward. All the fascinating stories…My library goes next to the trash heap, I’m sure. Foote, Nevins, Sandburg, “A Stillness at Appomattox.” Grant’s autobiography. “Lee’s Lieutenants.”

  11. actually two separate things – real history that will never go away – and physical memorials that do a curated snapshot version of history.

  12. The problem with Larry’s last statement is, at one level every statue is a “curated snapshot … of history.” But on the whole, Wickham is one of those who ought on balance to be remembered in spite of his war-time association with the Confederacy. He believed there was an economic future in war-devastated Virginia and fought hard to achieve it, notably by attracting the attention and investment dollars of that New Yorker (and later Californian) Collis Huntington to the rebuilding of the Virginia Central Railroad the purchase of the JR&K Canal right of way as the C&O Railway’s main coal line from the mining country, and extension of the railroad from Richmond to Newport News. He contributed enormously to Richmond’s rebuilding as a transportation hub and the City’s consequent economic health after the War. As noted by others, he voted against secession, too.

    I’m not defending the many mostly-military statues erected by the Lost Causers decades after the South’s military defeat as an in-your-face snub to remind southern blacks that even if they were citizens now they must “stay in their place.” But life did go on in the South after the War; and those who helped rebuild the ruined economy of Virginia deserve mention for it. Even a statue or two.

    If the litmus test for retention of a public statue in Virginia is that the person remembered actively opposed the Confederacy during the War years or promoted abolition during his/her lifetime, regardless of all other achievements, we might as well forget Virginia’s entire history during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

  13. I have no background as a Southern and don’t know of anyone in my family history who fought in the Civil War. If there were some, they were likely on my Mom’s side. Some her ancestors emigrated to upstate New York from Germany in the 18th century. More came in the 1850s from Scotland and Northern Ireland. My Dad’s side emigrated from Austria in the late 19th century. I doubt that anyone was involved, but if they were it would have been for the Union.
    That said, I have always been fascinated with the South and the War since I grew up in border states or the South. What has intrigued me was how version of history got changed according to myth.
    In one story, in 1973, I was at my then home of Washington N.C. I had a month off from my college in the Boston area to do “independent study” and had an in because I had started writing for the local daily newspaper. I grew to be very fond of “Little” Washington and its people.
    Anyway, I was rummaging around the local library and came across what appeared to be an authentic diary written by a Union Navy officer. He was aboard a Union gunboat that was part of a flotilla that Lincoln sent early in the war to lock up Southern ports such as Norfolk and smaller ones like New Bern and Washington. N.C. to keep the South from getting war material from England and other places. The one port they didn’t get was Wilmington which was home to the Confederate blockade runners.
    Washington is on the Pamlico River and shallow-draft, ocean-going ships could traverse it through outlets on the Outer Banks. It was a minor, relatively unimportant port but the Union wanted it to be captured anyway.
    So, a squadron of gunboats steamed up the Pamlico. The area had a few plantations but was mostly mercantile, trading in pine tar and lumber. According to the diary, the town leaders paddled out and greeted the Yankees with open arms. They were invited to a gala dinner courtesy of the Union Navy.
    Things were calm until 1863 when the Confederates wanted to take Washington back and shelled it for a couple of weeks. They gave up. Then at the end of the war, Union occupation troops got drunk and set the town on fire.
    I was not and am not a professional historian but I tried my best to be faithful to the diary, my primary source. The paper published a series of stories I wrote. The response was awful. Local gentry who believed in the Lost Cause were very upset at the contrarian view of their ancestors’ loyalty to the South.

    • Exactly. The South was not a monolithic whole; but if your own State and the majority of your own community took a stand, it was hard to dissent, in the pre-War years and especially during the War, without consequences. The Lost Cause extended that suppression of dissent for generations, until — it would seem — today.

    • To me, Kentucky is fascinating. No major battles to speak of. Large armies traversed the State often encamped within miles of one another. Routes taken were circuitous and slow.
      There was a show on the History Channel. A couple of historians trying to explain this behavior when one of them overlaid the locations of major distilleries.
      Problem solved.

  14. My ancestors in Virginia include the surname Loving… and yep it’s in Caroline..

    One of the thing I’ve done over several decades is paddle rivers. The thing is, you don’t paddle rivers without learning a lot of history… seriously. Rivers are how this country expanded before the railroads.

    Rivers were how commerce occurred – all through Virginia and the South.

    Rivers reveal the geography that, in turn, drove commerce and settlement patterns – … fords, dams, locks… and roads..that were
    initially built and maintained by the Church.

    On a lot of river trips – a second trip to the local museum would occur and thence from that more books and knowledge…

    Rivers motivated more research into roads and how they were built and developed Virginia… etc..

    The thing is… when you follow history without an agenda…just follow it as you encounter it – you learn a lot more than if you’re limiting your search to only what you want to found out.

    • Yep. Rivers were early avenues of settlement and became avenues of commerce and transportation. The mid-Atlantic was dominated by bays and rivers, and the bulk of colonial history is along those waters. Get beyond the Piedmont, into the mountains, and rivers sometimes provide the only way past the ridges that a horse drawn wagon could manage; roads would converge at those passes and where roads converge, a town would spring up. Another destination for the early farmer was the grist mill, which ran off water power, even further upstream. All along those rivers.

  15. Hmmm, I notice no one brings up FDR and his grand little memorial on the Potomac . . .

  16. Pingback: Stop the World, I Want to Get Off – The Write Side of My Brain

  17. Now the Rhodes Scholarship namesake is under attack… that should be abolished.

    Then the Nobel Peace Prize should be done away with – how many people’s death [esp. in Africa during the colonial years] is he responsible for?

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