In 1811, President James Madison of the United States appointed Dr. Lewis Heermann, a Surgeon, as superintendent of the Naval Hospital at New Orleans. In establishing suitable quarters for the Naval Hospital, Heermann encountered a variety of obstacles: the intransigence of local landlords, pervasive disease, interracial society, and what he considered an unhealthy climate.
In 1814, Heermann purchased for himself property in the Faubourg Marigny and began spending his own money to renovate the premises and construct new buildings for the hospital. He bought three enslaved people to labor as a cook, a carter, and an orderly. Heermann also used his vast medical expertise to profit on the sale of medicines to the Navy.
Heermann's actions aroused the suspicion of Robert Morrell, a junior officer, who wrote a series of letters to the Board of Navy Commissioners (the secretaries of War, Treasury, and the Navy) seeking to expose Heermann's financial and operational improprieties.
Thinking through the distinctions between a historical subject being anonymous and being unknown can further our understanding of archival power and erasure. Additionally, we can use archival thinking to help us recover the identities of enslaved men, women, and children.
The sources in this Exhibit help to illuminate the erasure of enslaved men and women from the history of urban development in New Orleans and offer clues to restoring them to their rightful place in the archive.
By applying Trouillot’s method to address archival power and account for the erasure of enslaved men, women, and children from the documentary record, historians construct narratives that recover the identity of individuals whose enslavement justified their exclusion from the archival record.
Robert Morrell, the anonymous whistleblower, had his identity protected by the Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Crowninshield. Crowninshield refused to divulge Morrell's identity to Dr. Lewis Heermann or Commodore Daniel T. Patterson, the commanding officer of the New Orleans station. Morrell's status as a free, white man gave him access to the privilege of anonymity.
The enslaved men or women who toiled as "the cook, the carter, and the orderly man" did not enjoy such privilege. Their anonymity, like their enslavement, was involuntary and not within their immediate control. The fact of their enslavement transformed their bodies into different forms of archival data: numbers, statistics, vital statistics.
Greg A. Beaman