Native son of the colonial elite, Decimus Et Ultimus Barziza fulfills his family’s legacy of prominence with his career in the Civil War. Historian Drew Gruber describes with passion the path of this “average” Civil War soldier, a story that includes a wound at Little Round Top, a prison break, and a boisterous post-war career in Texas politics.
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area is rich with evidence of the Revolutionary era, but hidden among and even within these colonial sites are stories and artifacts of another history: a Civil War history. Drew Gruber is our guest today, and he brings us an exciting story of a confederate soldier who traces his roots to some of Williamsburg’s first families. Drew, thank you for being here today.
Drew Gruber: Thank you for having me.
Harmony: Tell us a little bit about what you do here at Williamsburg.
Drew: I’m an administrator for the Public History Department, which ends up meaning that I schedule all of our Revolutionary City programming. So I’m in charge of allocating thirty some odd actor interpreters throughout the Historic Area; a variety of different scenes that they portray, variety of different buildings that they go into and things like that.
Harmony: And yet you came to specialize in the story of this confederate, Civil War soldier. How did that come about?
Drew: Well with a name like Decimus et Ultimus Barziza, it attracts attention almost immediately after reading it. So I’ve had no problems getting lectures because of his name. Deciumus’ story was presented to me by Carson Hudson, who works for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. He’s a historian and author of “Civil War Williamsburg.” While flipping through Carson’s book, of course, you turn the page and there’s this man with this intense name and read what Carson had written about Decimus and then have just now for the last four years been following Barziza’s story and trying to suss more of it out.
Harmony: Tell us about this name and the story behind it.
Drew: Decimus’ name is very interesting and in fact it’s been told several times throughout the course of history and everybody tends to change it to morph it a little bit. But, long story short, Decimus’ father Phillip or Phillipo Ignatius Barziza has his tenth and last child in September 1838. And as the story goes -- in an audio recording, in fact, of a man who is alive when we started the restoration of Colonial Williamburg -- apparently Phillip walks into Doctor Peachy’s office and says, “I’ve just had a child,” and he asks how many that’s been, and he responds, “Ten.” And Dr. Peachy says, “Well, name him Decimus et Ultimus.” And so he was christened that in Bruton Parish.
Harmony: Because obviously the translation of that would be tenth and last.
Drew: That’s correct.
Harmony: Tenth and last. So we’re talking about a confederate soldier of Civil War history. What is the Williamsburg connection?
Drew: Well, when he’s born on the Duke of Gloucester Street he’s literally born into a very entrenched traditional Tidewater society and hierarchy. In fact, one that most maybe first families of Virginia would be proud to have this very same heredity. He’s the fourth great-grandson of Phillip Ludwell of Colonial Virginia celebrity. Essentially has a daughter who then marries John Paradise, and this is where we get the Ludwell Paradise House on the Duke of Gloucester Street.
So he has this heredity, and in fact his father is in the process of trying to gain rights to that estate actually with the help of Thomas Jefferson in about 1814 and 1815 and they lose their litigation for the rights to this very large colonial estate in the early 19th century. And in doing so, in the process of trying to get this, they lose what little money they did have. So as the Barziza family grows, eventually to the number of ten, they’re also in the process of trying to gain these acreage, to gain these slaves that they have that are all locked up into this.
At the end of the lawsuit, when they have lost, the vast majority of the males of the Barziza family, are actually working at another Williamsburg institution: the Eastern State lunatic asylum. So the family grows, ironically as they tend to lose ground in this court case. They increase the number of slaves that they own here in town, but most male members of the family do go on to the College of William and Mary and then during the Antebellum period push west to places like Texas.
Harmony: So you’ve called his story a typical story of a confederate soldier. What does his story encompass and what makes it typical? Why do you introduce it that way?
Drew: Well it’s fascinating to people to hear about his story because it is full of a lot of color and fervor and energy, almost enough to kind of make it a drama or soap opera if you would. But in the same turn, it is very typical and ironically being about 150 years from the Civil War as we sit here today and talk about Barzia, it’s only within the last couple years that we’ve gotten some good scholarship about who the average confederate soldiers were.
So as we develop Barziza’s story, it’s easy to kind of fit him into this box of what average was. What I mean by that was while Barziza himself does not own slaves like the vast majority of confederate soldiers, he does live in a slave-holding household like the vast majority of confederate soldiers.
Now for somebody like Decimus, he’s raised in eastern section of the United States, here in Williamsburg and in Tidewater and as we’ve just discussed part of this very large heredity; this upbringing in Williamsburg, the seat of the revolution. And after he’s educated at the College he moves west and he moves west to be part of this larger movement. In fact, Texas grows by something like 500% in real estate taxes within 10 years because of young men like Barziza, taking themselves, their family, their ideas and institutions -- like slavery -- and pushing west, which is why we have problems in the antebellum period like Kansas and Missouri.
So he’s part of this larger movement, and he’s also a part of this group of confederates who does come from this background. Now to bring that back to the first part of your question, one of his peers, a man with an equally interesting name, but we’ll just shorten it to Val Giles. Val walks down the Duke of Gloucester Street in 1862 with Decimus near him. They were in the same regiment, and Val comments that they pass through Williamsburg and this is a place where Patrick Henry got his idea for independence. Not necessarily where Patrick Henry got his idea, but Val then comments that it’s the exact same thing they were then struggling for. So these notions that Barziza is raised with, in and around Colonial Williamsburg, he brings west with him. And those kind of perforate the rest of his life, especially during his post-war career.
Harmony: So there’s a real echo of Revolutionary sentiment that carries through the Civil War, which is nice because I always think of the Civil War as the legacy of the Revolutionary War, of the compromises that were made to ratify the Constitution. A lot of that comes to bear during the Civil War. So it’s a nice tie that that history comes together.
One of the things we talked about as we were preparing for this interview I was looking for a way to kind of excuse Decimus for being a confederate soldier. I was thinking, “He ends up on the wrong side of history, but can we look at his motivations and see that they were genuine, that he was earnest.” And you said, “Really it’s not that simple.” What do we know about what would have motivated Decimus and what he tells us about his goals and his participation in the confederate side?
Drew: Looking at Decimus, or in fact any Southern soldier during the Civil War, we need to take them on a case-by-case basis. But we can put them into larger terms and larger boxes as well. So as we’ve already established, he comes from this very traditional background. He’s familiar with these discussions about the role of government, independence, freedom, but also what property is and what constitutes property -- or in this case, who constitutes property.
And while, in all of his writings, he doesn’t necessarily come right out and say that he’s fighting for the institution of slavery, we need to step back 150 years later and realize that that is essentially analogous to this discussion of property. And there’s context to be had there. So he doesn’t necessarily come out and say it, but we know that he’s part of, or rather slavery is part of, his upbringing. He’s around it and these things are inherent in the discussion that he receives at the College of William & Mary, inherent in the discussion he receives at the dinner table, up and down the Duke of Gloucester Street, and obviously when he pushes west to Texas he’s taking that motivation with him.
However, the one thing he does comment about, which is what we see as America develops from the American Revolution on, is that there is a growing divide between the northern states and the southern states. In fact, when Decimus writes his narrative about being a prisoner, which he completes before the war is over, he literally spends several pages talking about his interactions with the Northern populace and how they were so completely different from the Southern populace.
In fact, one of the things he says is that they and their descendants will always be our enemies. They’re completely incongruous, is the term he used, to them. So he sees this divide between the Northern populace and the Southern populace as literally being two entirely different countries. So that’s part of his motivation here is, he’s bringing these ideas of this very established South with him trying to make them progressive pushing them west and then his bid for essentially a confederate independence drives that home. If that’s not enough after the Civil War is over, he continues to push for a lot of these very same social and political institutions that he grew up with here in Williamsburg.
Harmony: So he’s trying to just preserve the status quo, sort of preserve the order of society that he’s lived in and been brought up with?
Drew: Preserve order, definitely. I believe that to be a social order and that’s made clear in a lot of his writings, especially about this divide between the Northern and the Southern populace. But also keep in mind he’s young. So by the time he’s wounded at Gettysburg in 1863 he’s only about 24-25 years old. So the year before when he walks through Williamsburg, even younger, the same age as the continental solders who walked on the Duke of Gloucester Street on their way to Yorktown, using the very same words, using that very same fire and brimstone.
In fact, many people comment that Barziza was fiery and impetuous, but yeah, absolutely, he’s preserving that, but pushing west he’s also taking with him the idea of a new South. For example, he doesn’t move out West, and like his older brothers for example, start a plantation. He becomes a lawyer. And that could be for a variety of different reasons he becomes a lawyer, but his career in law really takes off after the war is over. So he’s preserving a social order, absolutely, and he’s also pushing west and this bid that he throws in with the confederacy is for a very progressive South, absolutely.
Harmony: We’ve said he’s a typical confederate soldier, but he’s got a really wonderful, colorful story. What are some of the highlights of Decimus’ career and life that make his story so much fun to share?
Drew: Well, I usually start with the name, but we’ve covered the name. So there’s a few other parts of his story that are absolutely fascinating. The first would be what I call Deci’s odyssey. He’s captured at Little Round Top in Gettysburg, July 2, 1863. In fact he’s shot down in the right thigh. He says he feigns dead, but then he’s captured and he’s brought to a prisoner of war camp in Johnson’s Island which is in Sandusky, Ohio.
While he’s there, he writes that the only place he does not want to go is Point Lookout, Maryland. So in February the following year, 1864, when they put him on a train heading for Point Lookout, Maryland, he escapes. He jumps out of a moving train in the middle of Pennsylvania roundabout the Huntington area. He makes his way from the middle of Pennsylvania sitting next to a Union soldier on a train to Philadelphia, from Philadelphia to New York, New York into Canada where he stops. He comments about ice skating; has his picture taken and makes his way through Canada and eventually ended up in Nova Scotia.
Ironically, while he’s there, he bumps into other Williamsburg residents. He says, “by happens.” However we know that it’s very concerted. In fact, Beverly Tucker, one of his professors from the College of William and Mary, is up there and he’s aiding confederate POWs. So we kind of see Williamsburg rearing its head is involved in this war several times.
So from Nova Scotia he takes a boat to Bermuda and from Bermuda he runs the Union blockade into Wilmington, North Carolina. And if you were to read his manuscript it almost sounds like he goes running right back into the lines with the flag held high and fights to his dying day, but that’s not the case. Throughout this entire odyssey, and throughout his combat up to the point where he’s captured, he writes constantly for transfers home. So he talks a very good game, but down deep he’s very much like you and I and I think this idea of war loses its luster for him very quickly.
Perhaps one of the other most interesting parts of his life is his post-war career. Some highlights of his post-war career involve a duel. He’s involved with a lot of banter back and forth in newspapers. He’s eventually elected to legislature in Texas where, no surprise, there’s a variety of impasse, so he leads a re-election for another Williamsburg resident, Richard Coke, who eventually becomes the governor of Texas after being kicked out of his house here in Williamsburg.
And that’s another one of those times where politics in the 19th century rears its head with Barziza at the front. The incumbent governor of Texas had literally barricaded himself in the state house surrounded by United States colored troops and its these Texas veterans and Barziza along in tow who lay siege to this building essentially clamoring all around. Barziza leads the recount, which installs his Williamsburg neighbor, Richard Coke.
From that point in time, there are several other interesting facts of his life. He’s literally pulled out of legislature several times by the bailiff and his life is just literally marked in and out with these very dramatic pieces. And I think part of that has to do with the fact is he missed a lot of the combat that the rest of his regiment was involved with after his capture. And a lot of these discussions he has after the war really ring true to these ideas that we see here today in Colonial Williamsburg as we said before, part of his rearing and upbringing. So his life is just literally smattered with all these absolutely brilliant and colorful events, which we could go on for for quite some time.
Harmony: When we look at a story like Decimus et Ultimus Barziza’s, as we see the history of the Civil War, we see the motivation of the Confederate soldier and we even see ties to Williamsburg’s Revolutionary history. To you, and your fascination with this man and this story, what is the importance of preserving this kind of history, of examining the life of this kind of an individual?
Drew: Well I think Barziza’s story adds context to a place like Colonial Williamsburg, because people visit here and they think about the American Revolution and these ideas and these motivations and these stories. If you were to perpetuate that conversation a little bit further, tease out where these things go after 1781-1783, a story like Barziza’s gives people that very same context, that answer that they’re looking for.
And it does it in a way that’s kind of easier to understand, because he is average. And I think that, not to underestimate or really undervalue his whole story, it seems to be, like we’ve said, rather typical. He’s no general and he will become a politician so he’s a line officer. What’s his stake in Company C 4th Texas? What has he brought to this discussion and this argument? And thankfully for us, he’s well educated and he writes these things down.
So we have the story from this man who’s been cited now and again that develops literally America’s narrative a little bit further, but from the eyes of this average individual. He’s able to give us insights to what it’s like to not necessarily always be at the battle front, but to be a prisoner, to give his insights as to why somebody of his status or stature would fight for the Confederacy. Where and how the story of the Revolution is imparted on him, and how he moves forward with that very same history that we study today, and how his post war career is colored by this. So it’s very personal.
It’s colorful, it’s exciting, and as I joke, it tends to be very much like a good TV drama or a soap opera. It’s easy for us to wrap our minds around because we see a human moving through these larger political discussions, these larger economic discussions and this gigantic Civil War. So it’s trackable. And it’s an easy one to follow and it’s an exciting story to follow. So there’s a lot of substantive material Barziza, but it’s also extremely exciting to listen to them. And I think that’s one reason I’ve felt so lucky to be able to pursue the research about him, because people are very much drawn to him not only by his name but what he has to offer to us, not only as a society, but for those folks who are interested in history.
Harmony: Barziza himself was able to trace his lineage to some of the very first families of Williamsburg, but that’s a family line that continues to this day. There are surviving Barzizas in Texas that you’ve been working with. What is their role in preserving and discovering this history?
Drew: Well the Barzizas in Texas need a big shout out and a thank you. Barziza himself never had any children. When he married after the war in 1869 to a woman he met while here in Virginia convalescing from some wounds, they never had any children. Which I think is kind of comical in light of his upbringing as one of 10 in a household. But they did adopt his older brother’s son, so his nephew, Phillip Dorsey, was adopted by Decimus and Phillip Dorsey goes on to have several children and his children go on to have several children and those children have a Facebook page, which is how I connected with them.
And they’ve been very helpful in tracing down family stories, family genealogy, lineage, vetted some of the research that I’ve been doing and in fact they even helped me achieve a fellowship last year to do research on Barziza. And it’s those stories that make Barzizas even more pertinent, because there are people who have come from this line who perpetuate the Ludwells and the Paradises from colonial Williamsburg and they’re still living in Texas and places out West. They’re very much involved in the discussion about their heredity and they’re excited about it.
Harmony: Drew, thank you so much for being here today. This is a fascinating story and I hope we’ll continue to learn more about Barziza as time goes on.
Drew: Thank you for having me.