On View Now: “The Aviator: Remembering James Rogers McConnell”

When students arrive at UVA, they learn about Thomas Jefferson, the Rotunda, and the academical village through the art and architecture on grounds. In between Alderman, Clemons, and the Special Collections libraries, there is a sculpture of a winged man, leaping into the sky, called “The Aviator.”  In their rush to classes, students often pass by the statute without noticing. However, “The Aviator” is an important part of UVA’s history. It is a memorial to alumnus James Roger McConnell, who served in the American Ambulance Corps and the Lafayette Escadrille in France during the World War I. A new exhibition at Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library commemorates McConnell’s legacy and serves as tribute to his brief life. The exhibition tells the story of the real person behind “The Aviator”: the man who gave his life in a brutal war that left 17,000,000 dead and that radically transformed international politics.

A 1937 image of The Aviator, with the UVA Chapel in the distance on the right. The sculpture has been somewhere near its present site since it was first placed in 1919 (University of Virginia Visual History Collection).

McConnell matriculated at UVA in 1907. He spent two years in the College and one in the Law School, withdrawing at his father’s request in the spring of 1910 to enter business. While at Virginia, he led what appears to have been a dazzling social life. He was a member of Beta Theta Pi, Theta Nu Epsilon, O.W.L., T.I.L.K.A., the New York Club, and the German Club. He was King of the Hot Foot Society (precursor to the Imps); Editor-in-Chief of the yearbook, Corks and Curls; Assistant Cheer Leader; and founder of the Aero Club.

In 1915, McConnell left his position as a land and industrial agent for a small railroad in North Carolina to enlist in the French service. Through the spring and summer of that year he drove for Section “Y” of the American Ambulance, in the thick of the fighting on the Western Front around Pont-à-Mousson and the Bois-le-Prêtre. He was cited for conspicuous bravery and awarded the Croix de Guerre. He was one of many young men from UVA who served the French in the early years of the war.

McConnell was given a Croix de Guerre for his bravery while driving ambulances on the Western Front. This particular Croix de Guerre was awarded to UVA alumnus George Brasfield, who also served in the Ambulance Corps (Section 516).

In 1916, McConnell left the Ambulance Corps to join the Lafayette Escadrille, a newly formed flying corps of Americans serving under French military command. He completed his flight training in February of that year and participated in the squadron’s first patrol in May. Later, he would take part in aerial actions during the great German offensive at Verdun in June and the Allied counteroffensives in July and August, with the symbol of UVA’s Hot Foot secret society on the side of one of his planes.

McConnell used his UVA education to urge the United States government to join the war. He published articles and letters about the Ambulance Corps, the Lafayette Escadrille, and the sacrifices of allied forces in The Outlook and The World’s Work. Later, his articles and letters were gathered into Flying for France, a book that joined the stream of popular war volumes appearing in American bookstores for readers of all ages. McConnell’s articles in The Outlook and Flying for France are some of the many treasures in the exhibition.

Shown here is a copy of The Outlook containing McConnell’s articles on the Ambulance Crops and the Lafayette Escadrille.

March 19, 2017 marked the one hundredth anniversary of McConnell’s death. On that day in 1917, McConnell was shot down by German enemy planes as he flew a patrol mission high in the clouds above France. He was last seen by a fellow pilot as they split up to battle German planes they encountered on patrol. When his plane was discovered, it had crashed at full throttle. Several bullets were found in his body, and it was likely he died before the plane hit the ground. His body had been stripped of identification and valuables by the time it was discovered by the French, but a piece of his airplane’s fabric fusilage was recovered, and appears in the exhibition. McConnell was the last American of the famed Lafayette Escadrille to die in combat before the United States entered the war on April 6 of that year.He was the first of sixty-four men from the University of Virginia to give their lives in World War I.

The exhibition features artifacts from McConnell’s time in the ambulance corps and the flying corps, as well as a section on monuments and memorials to his and UVA’s service to the French cause. The exhibition will be on view from until May 30th.

One of the two galleries of materials on display.



Patron’s Choice: Letters from Liberia and American Postal Policy

This week we are pleased to feature a guest post by Christy Pottroff, who was in residence at the library last year as a Lillian Gary Taylor Visiting Fellow in American Literature, Mary and David Harrison Institute. Christy is an Andrew W. Mellon Dissertation Fellow in Early Material Texts at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. candidate in English at Fordham University. Her dissertation is entitled “Citizen Technologies: The U.S. Post Office and the Transformation of Early American Literature.” Thanks so much to Christy for sharing with us her experience studying in our marvelous collections of letters from Liberia.

In 1833, Peyton Skipwith and his family set foot on African soil for the first time. After enduring decades of slavery in the United States, the Skipwith family was eager to start a new life in Liberia. But, after a harrowing fifty-six day journey across the Atlantic Ocean, they soon discovered the conditions were much more difficult than they had been led to believe. The Skipwiths endured disease, harsh climate, inadequate supplies, and conflict with local African tribes–experiences chronicled in a small collection of letters held at the University of Virginia Special Collection Library. These letters, addressed to the Skipwiths’ former owner General John H. Cocke, are at times relentlessly hopeful and at other moments filled with despair. This dissonance between hope and despair is in many ways representative of Liberian Colonization.

[Life Membership Certificate for American Colonization Society], ca. 1840. Certificate. American Colonization Society Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, progressive Southern slaveholders founded the American Colonization Society to promote the resettlement of free-born and formerly enslaved African Americans to West Africa. This strategy emerged, largely, because white reformers could not imagine the viability of a racially diverse society post-slavery. Most African Americans, however, did not support the colonization plan. The United States was their home and they wanted to work toward justice rather than emigrate. Despite the controversy, the American Colonization Society began sending African Americans to West Africa in 1822 where they established Liberia. By 1867, over 13,000 free African Americans, including the Skipwiths, had emigrated to Liberia through the American Colonization Society.

Each new Liberian had deep roots in the United States; many left behind friends and family they would never see again. And yet, despite the strong ties between Liberia and the United States, very few letters passed between the two countries. The Skipwith letters housed at the University of Virginia Special Collections Library are special indeed.

Letter from Peyton Skipwith in Monrovia, June 25th 1846. Cocke Family Papers (MSS 640). Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. Topics covered in the portion shown here are his wish for more farming knowledge and  for books other than the Bible, which is widely available.

The dearth of letters between Liberia and the United States is curious. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the United States postal system delivered more letters than ever before, and an increasing number of those letters were from countries across the globe. The U.S. Post Office Department facilitated international mail by entering into bilateral postal treaties that guaranteed easy and inexpensive communication and commerce beyond the nation’s borders. In 1851, the United States maintained postal treaties with every country in Europe. The Postmaster General was proud to report new treaties with Algeria, Hong Kong, St. Kitts and Nevis, Beirut, and many more.

The United States did not enter a postal treaty with Liberia until 1879 (when Liberia was admitted to the newly established Universal Postal Union). Despite the special relationship between the two countries in the first half of the nineteenth century, there was no standardized way to send a letter between them. Liberia did have a rudimentary postal system, though its origins and development are difficult to track. In the 1850s, the Liberian government entered into postal treaties with Great Britain, France, and Germany. It was through these roundabout channels that the existing Liberian letters to the United States traveled. As a contemporary American Colonization Society member writes:

Great Britain…sends a weekly line of steamers to the Western Coast of Africa, which touch at Liberia. In fact, by a postal treaty, the mails between Liberia and America go by these steamers, and then by the British steamships between England and the United States!

This roundabout mail channel between the U.S. and Liberia meant that letters were twice as expensive (as they needed postage in two different postal systems) and were at much greater risk for delay, loss, or misdelivery.

Advertisement for mail transport in The New York Herald, November 12, 1844. (Source: Readex Early American Newspapers Database. Accessed: October 23, 2016)

For Peyton Skipwith and his family, the absence of a postal treaty had great consequences. They left behind their homeland, friends, and family–and had no reliable way to communicate with loved ones left behind. One of the most striking things about the Skipwith family letters is the frequent reference to lapses in communication. In an 1835 letter, Peyton writes “This is the third letter that I have wrote to you and have received no answer.” And a year later, he expresses frustration because “I write by almost every opportunity but cannot tell how it comes to pass that only two of my letters have been received.” Later, in 1839, he writes “Reverend Colin Teague should have brought [your letter] to me but he did not reach his home but died…which was a great disappointment to me…I am always anxious to hear from you all.”

Top:  Letter from Peyton Skipwith to John Hartwell Cocke, June 25, 1846. John Hartwell Cocke Papers 1725-1949 ( MSS 640, etc. Box 117).  Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.
Center: Letter from Switzerland, via France, to U.S. Schaefer Collection. (Source: Frajola Philatelist. Accessed: October 23, 2016. http://www.rfrajola.com/sale/RFSaleP6.htm)
Bottom: Letter from Judy Hardon to Howell Lewis, Dr. James H. Minor, and Frank Nelson, February 27 1858. Letters From Former Slaves of James Hunter Terrell Settled in Liberia. 1857-1866 (MSS 10460, 10460-a). Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

The absence of any American-Liberian postal treaty is perplexing. Both countries had entered into other postal treaties during the period, and the United States was sending mail steamers across much greater distances for postal purposes. This unsettled postal state was most likely the result of an ideological problem.

The same rationale for sending free African Americans to Liberia likely permeated into contemporary international postal policy. Free people of color were thought to threaten the stability of slave society, and their proximity to enslaved Americans was considered dangerous. A single letter cannot collapse geographical distance, but it can do a great deal to shrink ideological distances. With a postal treaty, new Liberians would have had the freedom to send letters to free and enslaved friends and family members in the United States. They could have shared ideas, money, or other resources with privacy, dispatch, and ease. The thought of regular correspondence between free and enslaved African Americans is very likely what kept the United States Post Office Department from opening up any reliable public channel of communication to and from Liberia.

The absence of an American-Liberian postal treaty did not solve a real problem; the likelihood of conspiratorial international communication between African Americans was quite slim. Instead, the treaty’s absence created countless problems for the Skipwiths and their fellow Liberian emigrants. Peyton, for example, tried in vain to send a letter to his brother George before his death. Another Americo-Liberian, William Douglass, desperately sought $50 that had been lost in transit between Liberia and the United States (worth over $1,300 in today’s currency). Without a reliable international postal treaty these instances of lost letters and impossible communication were dishearteningly common. In light of these institutional barriers, that these letters from Liberia ever arrived at the University of Virginia Special Collections Library is itself a small miracle.


On View Now: “Jorge Luis Borges: Author, Editor, Promulgator”

We are pleased to announce the opening of a new exhibition in the First Floor Gallery, curated by Nora Benedict, a student assistant in Special Collections. Nora is a PhD Candidate in Spanish-American Literature and Analytical Bibilography, and has recently defended her dissertation on Jorge Luis Borges. Nora’s work concerns Borges’s publishing history, and we were thrilled to have her curate an exhibition on many of the items she studied while researching in our deep Borges holdings. Here are just a few images of the exhibition to tempt you. Also, keep an eye out for an upcoming in-depth post by the curator herself.


Nora (in red sweater) tours a Spanish class through her exhibition on opening day–entirely in Spanish. [Blogger’s note: it’s hard enough to do an exhibition tour in your mother tongue. We were suitably impressed!]

The exhibition runs through July 7, 2017. Come on by and take a look!