Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Slave Dwelling Sleep-In



As part of work's "Reflect and Respect" African American history event this past weekend, I had the opportunity to stay the night in an original slave dwelling (shown above) on Saturday night. It was an experience I will not soon forget.

I had contacted Joe McGill of the Slave Dwelling Project to see about his interest in doing a sleep over a couple of years ago. However, at that time, budget constraints did not make it possible. When funds did become available for the "Reflect and Respect" event, I contacted Joe again and this time we made it happen. 

Now, I've spent many a reenactment or living history night on the hard ground in all kinds of weather situations, but something about this night was much different. After a nice conversation with Joe, and two of his board members, Prinny and Don, we made our places on the heart of pine floor boards. 

As I lay there in the pitch dark, all kinds of thoughts filled my head. I was exhausted from an early start to the day and from the day's previous events, so I thought about my sore legs, shoulders, and back. Then my train of thought shifted tracks to how the cook who once worked in that very kitchen we were sleeping in must have felt after working what was probably a good fourteen hour day (if not longer), stooping over heavy pots, sweating from a scorching hot fire, and keeping a vigilant eye to avoid catching clothes ablaze.   


My thoughts then turned to the following day's events. I ran over the schedule in my mind and wondered how things would go and if we would have good audience attendance. As those images floated away in a seeming fog, I focused back on our scene and imagined what enslaved individuals must have worried about in terms of their tomorrows. Likely they fretted over whether they would be in their present situation or if something might arise to change it drastically. Would they be sold because their owner was in debt? Would their children be sold? Would this week's rations be plenty or would they be scarce? Would the master be in a good mood tomorrow, or would he be in a furor? My concerns paled in comparison and suddenly a grateful mood washed over me,

Being thankful for my present life situation and employment condition set me to thinking about how only several generations back one's life situation could often be closely defined if one's skin was not white. Solely based on race, one's options were extremely limited or seemingly limitless. People of color were assumed to be enslaved in Virginia in the first half of the 19th century. It was up to that person to show proof of their freedom if they claimed to not be a slave.  Racial prejudice, the lack of opportunity, and the subsequent economic, social, and political limitations, not only in slavery, but through Jim Crow and up to the present has left an indelible mark on our nation. Recognizing this and educating oneself about this history is a good first step in correcting the problems of race in our country. Is it easy to process? No. Can it be emotionally exhausting? Yes. However, recognizing the legacy of slavery on America is vital.

Some people think that if we do not talk about race, racial issues will go away naturally. I am not of that mind. I think we need to seek out opportunities to talk about the past so we can navigate the present, and hopefully offer a more equitable future for the greater good of all. I feel fortunate that I had this opportunity and recommend it for everyone.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Remember Fort Pillow!!!

The phrase has been used across the ages. In the Texas Revolution it was "Remember the Alamo." In the Spanish-American War it was "Remember the Maine." In World War I it was "Remember the Lusitania." In World War II it was "Remember Pearl Harbor." And, in our most recent conflicts, it is "Remember 9/11." These phrases helped both soldiers and civilians to remember notorious acts by enemies and inspired determination and action to avenge such wrongs.

In the Civil War, for the United States Colored Troops, "Remember Fort Pillow" was the battle cry more than once or twice.

Fort Pillow, fought on April 12, 1864, on the Mississippi River in West Tennessee, involved a garrison of white Unionist Tennesseans and black troops, who were requested to surrender to forces under the command of Confederate cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest. Not being a patient man, Forrest allegedly used a truce period to move his men closer to the fort. When surrender was refused, Forrest's men stormed the position, overtaking the troops inside. In a congressional investigation held later about the action, it was reported that the Confederates refused to allow a large number of the black troops inside to surrender, maliciously killing the capitulating defenders.

The word spread rapidly about the atrocities at Fort Pillow. At the Battle of Resaca, Georgia, in May 1864, in the terrific fighting that occurred there, white Wisconsin soldiers overran a Confederate artillery position and happened upon a Confederate with "Fort Pillow" tattooed on his arm. Instead of taking him as a prisoner of war, the leaped upon him bayoneting and shooting him.

Fort Pillow's legacy was especially strong among the rapidly expanding USCT regiments in the spring and summer of 1864. Three and a half months after Fort Pillow, at the Battle of the Crater, black troops of the IX Corps yelled "Remember Fort Pillow," and "No quarter to the Rebels," in the fierce maelstrom that raged around them. However, at the Crater, the Confederates gained the upper hand in a fierce counter attack and reversed the cry of "No quarter" to many of the black troops, taking the phrase to heart and carrying out brutal acts against their black opponents.

To help motivate and encourage the African American soldiers of Gen. Charles J. Paine's division before the desperate fight at the Battle of New Market Heights, on September 29, 1864, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler (pictured above) implored the men to "Remember Fort Pillow!" In his memoirs, published in 1892, Butler claimed his words to them were:
"At half past four o'clock I found the colored division, rising three thousand men, occupying a plain which shelved toward the [James] river, so that they were not observed by the enemy . . . . They were formed in close column of division right in front. I rode through the division, addressed a few words of encouragement and confidence to the troops. I told them to go over and take a work which would be before them after they got over the hill, and that they must take it all hazards, and that when they went over the parapet into it their war cry should be 'Remember Fort Pillow!'"

As at the Battle of the Crater, the Confederates had an advantage. They were ensconced behind breastworks. The Southerners, after they shattered the attack by Col. Duncan's Brigade, consisting of the 4th and 5th USCI regiments, and just before the attack of Col. Draper's Brigade, comprised of the 5th, 36th, and 38th USCI regiments, came over the earthworks and dispatched many of the wounded black soldiers. The Rebels also took equipment, uniform parts, and rifles from the dead and wounded, which they used against Draper's attackers.

A combination of a Confederate withdrawal order and a resurgent attack by the Draper's USCT regiments powered the black men over the works pushing out the remaining defenders. As they continued, they did as Butler had earlier requested, they yelled "Remember Fort Pillow!"

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Personality Spotlight: Christian Fleetwood


One of the many heroic soldiers I got to know much better while researching my tour of the New Market Heights battlefield was Sgt. Maj. Christian Fleetwood (shown above standing behind the boy). Born in 1840 to free parents in Baltimore, Maryland, Fleetwood earned both the Medal of Honor and the Butler Medal for his courageous actions at New Market Heights.

Fleetwood appears in the 1860 census as a nineteen year old mulatto. His parents are shown as Charles Fleetwood, a forty-five year old mulatto waiter, and Maria, a forty-four year old mulatto with no occupation listed. Also in the family was Averick, a twenty year old black female, Christian's older sister. Additionally, Maria was noted as being unable to read and write, and Christian is shown as having attended school. Charles is listed as owning $100 in personal property. The family is also shown in the 1850 census, but all are described as mulatto.

Charles and Maria Fleetwood must have appreciated that education could provide better life opportunities for Christian, and Christian must have shown academic potential, because he was afforded a quality education from dedicated teachers and later graduated from Ashmun Institute in Oxford, Pennsylvania, in 1860. Before enlisting, Christian worked for an African American newspaper, the Lyceum Observer, in Baltimore, as well as for the American Colonization Society.

Christian enlisted in Company G, 4th United States Colored Infantry on August 11, 1863. His service records show he was twenty-three years old, five feet four and a half inches, with a "brown" complexion, with the pre-war occupation of clerk. The regiment must have noticed Christian's potential right off as he was made sergeant upon joining and promoted to sergeant-major eight days after enlisting.

Almost 40,000 African American soldiers in the Union army died during their service. The vast majority, like white soldiers, died from disease. Christian seemingly lived a blessed life. His service records show that after the war he was admitted to a hospital Alexandria, Virginia, in October 1865, for an intermittent fever, for which he received quinine. But he apparently he checked himself out without permission and rejoined his regiment. Perhaps Christian felt hospitals were not the most healthy places to heal oneself. 

Christian received good fortune in battle as well. Despite being in the thick of the fight and attacking in an unsupported battle line formation on September 29, 1864, at New Market Heights, the 4th showed its steel will. Attacking the Confederate breastworks after navigating through battlefield obstacles, the 4th suffered over fifty percent casualties. Christian braved the storm of shot and shell. When all of the unit's color bearers went down killed or wounded, he snatched up the U.S. flag and continued forward, rallying and leading his men forward until they were finally, mercifully withdrawn. For his bravery Christian was awarded the Medal of Honor on April 6, 1865. Two of Christian's comrades in the 4th, Alfred Hilton and Charles Veal, also were recognized for conspicuous gallantry with Medals of Honor.

After the war Christian married Sarah, a teacher born in Pennsylvania, and they lived in Washington D.C. Christian held positions both inside and outside of the federal government in the years following the conflict. In 1900, Christian, Sarah and their sixteen year old daughter Edith lived on Spruce Street. Suffering from heart failure, Christian died on September 28, 1914, nearly fifty years to the day he braved the fire at New Market Heights.  

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Recent Acquisitions to My Library


Too long pushed to the margins, and often ignored for their historical contributions, enslaved African American men and women cooks finally get a focused study with Bound to the Fire: How Virginia's Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine, by Kelley Fanto Deetz. 

I heard Deetz speak on this topic last year at a lecture Stratford Hall and was happy to see this book released through the University Press of Kentucky last week. Of course, I snatched up a copy which arrived yesterday.


How better to learn about Civil War soldiers' experiences than to read their own thoughts put to paper. Your Brother in Arms: A Union Soldier's Odyssey, edited by Robert C. Plumb, gives us the diary entries of George P. McClelland of the 155th Pennsylvania Infantry, along with significant editorial interpretation. Part of the V Corps during the Petersburg Campaign, I'm looking forward reading McClelland notes on the fighting and camp life that that corps endured.


The Secret Life of Bacon Tait, a White Slave Trader Married to a Free Woman of Color, by Hank Trent, is probably the best book that I've read this year. This fascinating story of a Lynchburg businessman who ended up becoming one of the most prominent slave traders in antebellum Richmond is a fascinating look into the complex world of the domestic slave trade and the impact it made on the lives of those that participated in it. Bacon Tait's participation in the business apparently limited his marital options to such an extent that he developed a relationship with a free woman of color in Richmond and established a second home in Salem, Massachusetts, with her and their four children, all while retaining the trading business in Richmond. Trent's research is thorough and his writing style is easy to read and thought provoking. I highly recommend this one. 


After finishing the Bacon Tait book, I searched out other works on individual slave traders and came across The American Dreams of John B. Prentis, Slave Trader by Kari J. Winter. Prentis was a few years older than Tait, but apparently followed a similar path to prosperity through exploiting others through the domestic slave trade. I'll be reading critically, searching for similarities and differences to Tait's life story.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Dying Far, Far From Home: Pvt. Robert Jackson, Co. K, 109th USCI


As we approach Veteran's Day, I thought I'd post another story of one of the Kentucky United States Colored Troops soldiers I've found buried at Poplar Grove National Cemetery. This one is Robert Jackson, who served in Company K, of the 109th United States Colored Infantry.

Like so many of Kentucky's black soldiers, Jackson enlisted in the summer of 1864. Jackson signed up in Louisville on June 20. He was born in Shelby County, Kentucky, and was described as having black hair, black eyes, and a black complexion. Jackson stood five feet, ten inches tall and was eighteen years old when he enlisted. He was mustered into U.S. service the same day.

Apparently Jackson was enslaved in Shelby County at the time of his enlistment, as he is credited toward their quota, but his owner is not named in his service records. His occupation was given vaguely as "farmer" on one record, and "farm hand" on another.

Jackson appears "present" for duty until November 16, 1864, when he reported sick to a hospital at Point of Rocks on the Appomattox River in Chesterfield County near Petersburg. It appears that Jackson went back on duty in the Petersburg trenches sometime during the winter, but fell ill again on March 26, 1865.


While the 109th participated in the chase of the Army of Northern Virginia and its eventual surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Jackson was still sick. At some point he was was moved to Fairgrounds Hospital (shown above) on the west side of Petersburg. Fairgrounds Hospital had been a Confederate treatment facility during the war, but was used by the Union occupation forces after the city fell on April 3, 1865.

It was at Fairgrounds Hospital where Jackson expired, on June 3, 1865, from typhoid fever. Jackson was likely buried on the grounds of the hospital, where many Confederates had also been interred, but he was moved when Poplar Grove National Cemetery was established. The Confederates buried on the grounds of the hospital were moved, too, but to Petersburg's Blandford Cemetery by the city's Ladies Memorial Association after the war.

Fairgrounds Hospital image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Pvt. Jackson has since received a new upright standing headstone at Poplar Grove when the cemetery recently completed a thorough restoration project.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Negro Man Who Gives His Name as Henry


I stumbled across the above advertisement several months ago as I was browsing through issues of the Abingdon Virginian newspaper published during the Civil War. This particular notice appeared in the May 15, 1863, edition.

As happened so often during the war an enslaved individual was captured and held in a jail. And, as was often the case, the jailer was required to post a notification for the owner to come retrieve their property and pay for lodging expenses. The distraction of the war provided unprecedented opportunities for enslaved individuals to stake their claim to freedom, and many took advantage of those opportunities.

William W. Barker, the jailer of Washington County, located in the far southwest corner of the Old Dominion, stated that this particular man had been incarcerated on May 10. The captured man (being the only possible source for information) stated his name was Henry and said "he belongs to Dr. Edward Jones of Tuskeege [sic], Ala[bama]."

A quick search on Ancestry.com of the 1860 and 1850 censuses did not turn up a Dr. Edward Jones in Tuskegee or Macon County, Alabama. Now, that does not mean that such a man did not exist. He could have moved there after the 1860 census was taken or perhaps the census taker missed him. But, it is just as likely that Henry made up an owner's name and provided it to the jailer so that he would not be claimed immediately.  

Another common feature of these advertisements is a provided physical description. Henry was described as "black" and stood five feet five or six inches tall. The jailer believed Henry to be 26 or 27 years old. And although Henry was clearly of manhood years, Barker referred to him as a "boy." Henry's distinguishing marks were a scar on his left eye and "some scars on his back." It doesn't take much inferential work to surmise that Henry was probably whipped at sometime by whoever previously owned him.

Barker ended with the typical language of capture ads for the owner to come claim the slave, prove ownership or "he will be dealt with as the law directs." The laws of the various slave states stipulated a duration to hold these individuals if their owners did not come claim them; then they could be sold. For example, in Kentucky, the original law was to hold the slave six months before they could be offered for sale, however, during the war the jails were so full of runaway slaves that the state legislature shorted the term of incarceration to one month before advertising them for sale.

I do not know what happened to Henry, if that indeed was his name. I am speculating here, but he probably was not claimed and ended up being sold to the highest local bidder. Henry likely worked in some capacity until the end of the Civil War, or perhaps he ran away again and made his way to Union lines. We will likely never know. However, we do know that his individual, who ever he was, decided to make an effort at freedom, something that he certainly knew would be risky, but apparently worth the possible severe repercussions.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Zooming in on USCTs at Fort Harrison


Following fierce combat during Gen. Grant's Fifth Offensive north of the James River, a number of the United States Colored Troops, who had battled at New Market Heights and Fort Gilmer on September 29, 1864, and then held off a determined Confederate counterattack on September 30, settled into garrison duty in captured Fort Harrison. Renamed Fort Burham by its new occupants, the black troops, who became part of the XXV Corps during the winter of 1864-65, held the position until they pushed into Richmond on April 3.

The photographer probably unknowingly captured a number of things happening in this image. This photograph  provides some impressive scenes of men at rest in the fort, while others are on picket duty in rifle pits in the background.


In the left center stand two soldiers. The one at the left rear is standing still and appears to be wearing an oversize fatigue blouse. The one on the right front has his hands in his pockets and moved, which blurred his image. He seems to be wearing a shell jacket, as it only comes to his waist.
 

Behind the main structure are a couple of rows of canvas-topped winter quarters. Standing behind one of the quarters are four men. One without a jacket stands on the stick chimney getting a good view, while two others stand on the ground to left and right sides of the chimney. Another soldier looks toward them.


In the background near the tree line is a line of rifle pits. Several black soldiers man the pits as another stands to the right. 


In the far distance the Confederate obstacles and earthen fortifications can be seen. In addition, a Confederate sentry appears to be standing on the rampart in the center. How many Civil War photographs show belligerents in the same view? Not many that I've seen.


A group of three soldiers stand beside or sit on what appears to be a hitching rail. I would guess that the structure behind the men served as the regimental or brigade officers' headquarters. All seem to be enlisted men, as no NCO insignia are visible and all appear to be aware that their photograph is being taken. 


While one common soldier punishment was to ride a rail for a set period, this man only appears to be using it as a temporary place to rest and chat.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Bacon Tait - Richmond Slave Trader



Yesterday I received the latest addition to my personal library in the mail. I'm presently working my way through another volume so I have not yet dived into it, but the title had me hooked from my first reading it: The Secret Life of Bacon Tait, a White Slave Trader Married to a Free Woman of Color, by Hank Trent, and which was published just this year from LSU Press.

I won't write out a biography of Tait, as that has been completed well by the folks at the Encyclopedia of Virginia. However, I thought I'd share a couple of advertisements that it took me only a couple of minutes to find in the Richmond Daily Dispatch in the August 27, 1852, edition.

Although one is for a family of three and the other is for a woman on her child, the two advertisements have a commonality in that both notices state that the enslaved individuals are not to be removed from Richmond. Apparently, Tait had no compunction with participating in the interstate slave trade in other instances, but for whatever reason, these bond people were apparently not to be removed from the city.

Perhaps the former owners had sold them to Tait with that strict stipulation, or perhaps Tait was serving as the selling agent for the owners who only agreed to sell them under that condition. We cannot know for certain.

The end wording of the first shown advertisement is interesting: "all of excellent character, strictly honest and sold for no fault." This domestic enslaved family's sale was only enhanced by such a description. Having honest servants was something all masters desired. A statement of "excellent character" only increased Tait's chance of a successful sale.

The other notice, for a forty-two year old woman and her eight year old child (interestingly no gender given), who were also domestics, seems to have a bit of conditional statement on the non-movement request: "if early application is made." Does this mean that if the woman and child do not quickly sell, they are not subject remain in "Richmond or the neighborhood?" With domestic house skills such as "plain cooking and washing and the dairy," one suspects that in an urban environment like Richmond, a new owner could be quickly found. But, that just a suspicion.

I'm looking forward to reading the Trent book to see if any insight is given into advertisements like these two posted by Tait and learning more about his relationship with free woman of color Courtney Fountain. Isn't history just fascinating?

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Milton Holland - Promotion Denied

Men in the United States Colored Troops faced a plethora of obstacles. How they dealt with them all and still fought as well as they did is difficult to understand. It was bad enough that these men were required to fight in segregated regiments, sometimes with inferior weapons, and for part of the war, receiving inferior pay. To top it all off, gaining advancement beyond the rank of sergeant major was nearly impossible, despite the best of combat performances.

An excellent example of a promotion denied is that of Sgt. Major Milton Holland (pictured left). Holland was born enslaved in 1844 in Texas. His African American mother, Matilda, was owned by Spearman Holland, the brother of his white father, Bird Holland, as were Milton's two brothers, William and Johnson. Bird Holland purchased Milton and his brothers, freed them, and sent them to the free state of Ohio to learn a vocation at the Albany Manual Labor Academy in Athens County.

Bird Holland appears in the 1860 census as a forty-five year old clerk in Austin, Travis County, Texas. He was born in Tennessee and owned $500 in real estate and $10,000 in personal property. Holland is shown as owning a thirteen year old mulatto boy, likely another son.

Milton apparently learned the skill of shoe making because he is listed in the 1860 census in the household of John J. Shots, who was apparently a thirty-five year old white shoe and book maker. Milton is not listed as black or mulatto and was the only non-Shots in the household. He is listed as a sixteen year old and born in Texas.

Milton enlisted on June 22, 1863 in Athens, Ohio in Company C of the 5th  USCI. He had previously attempted to enlist in a white unit, but was denied admission due to being of mixed ancestry. His enlistment describes his complexion as "yellow." Milton was five feet, eight inches tall. He was mustered in at Camp Delaware. Milton earned the position of 1st Sergeant on July 23, 1863, was reduced to private on April 4, 1864, promoted to 1st Sergeant again on July 1, then to Sergeant Major on September 6, 1864, and finally reduced to 1st Sergeant on November 6.

During the desperate charge at New Market Heights on September 29, 1864, the 5th USCI, as part of Draper's Brigade, Paine's Division, attacked the position held by the Texas Brigade and took terrible casualties. Although wounded in the fight, Milton did not leave the field of combat and was later recognized for talking "command of Company C after all the officers had been killed or wounded and gallantly led it." For his courage, Milton received the Medal of Honor. Any white man would likely have received the opportunity of a commission to lieutenant or captain for a similar action, but Milton was denied because he was not fully white.

However, Milton's army limitations did not hold him back as a civilian after the war. In an environment without the rigid rules of of the military, Milton went on to graduate from Howard University, become an attorney, banker, and business man. He died in 1910 and was buried in Harmony, Maryland.

Milton's father, Bird Holland, who had been the Texas Secretary of State at the time of the state's secession, served as adjutant of the 22nd Texas Infantry and died fighting for the Confederacy on April 9, 1864 at the Battle of Pleasant Hill, Louisiana.

Image in the public domain.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Corporal Miles James - A Superior Soldier


The last few weeks I've been spending the time I normally fill with reading by doing some research on the Battle of New Market Heights for a tour I will be giving on Friday. In the September 29, 1864 battle fourteen African Americans in Brig. Gen.Charles J. Paine's Division in the XVIII Corps earned the Medal of Honor.

To fill in these men's stories I've been searching their service records for information that tell something about their Civil War experience. Most of the fourteen soldiers' records only contain basic data and dates. However, when I paged through the records of Corporal Miles James, who served in Company B of the 36th United States Colored Infantry, I was surprised to find more.  

As for the basic information, James was a thirty-four year old farmer when he enlisted in his regiment. He was five feet, seven inches tall, and was described as "black" complexioned. He was born in Princess Anne County, Virginia, and had enlisted in Norfolk on November 16, 1863. James was officially mustered into service at Fort Monroe on December 28, 1863. No mention is made if he was free before the war, so he was likely enslaved prior to the conflict and Union occupation of southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina.

The 36th USCI was originally designated the 2nd North Carolina Colored Infantry Volunteers. Miles James must have exhibited soldierly qualities early on, as he received his promotion to corporal on February 15, 1864.


James was listed as always present for duty until that fateful September 29, 1864 day. During the charge made by Col. Alonzo Draper's brigade (5th, 36th, 38th USCI), Miles James was shot in the left humerus (upper arm) as he got within thirty yards of the Confederate breastworks. The minie ball that stuck the bone shattered it. Despite this grievous wound, James continued to load and somehow discharge his rifle with one arm, all while urging his comrades onward. The courageous soldier received a field amputation and was sent to a hospital facility at Fort Monroe for recovery. For his bravery James received the Medal of Honor on April 6, 1865. He also received a promotion to sergeant on April 27, and the "Butler Medal."  

Normally such a wound provided a soldier with his ticket home. But Miles James was not an ordinary soldier. His service records contain a letter written by his brigade commander, Col. Alonzo Draper, on February 4, 1865, to the chief surgeon at the hospital at Fort Monroe. It reads:

"Sir - 
Sgt. Miles James, Co. B, 36th U.S.C.I. writes me from your Hospital to urge that he may be permitted to remain in the service.
He lost his left arm in the charge upon New Market Heights, Sept., 29, 1864.
If it be possible, I would most respectfully urge that his request be granted.
He was made a Sergeant and awarded a silver medal by Maj. Gen. Butler, for gallant conduct.
He is one of the bravest men I ever saw; and is in every respect a model soldier.
He is worth more with his single arm, than half a dozen ordinary men.
Being a Sergeant, he will have very little occasion as a file closer to use a musket.
He could be Sergt. of my Provost Guard or Hd. Qtr.Guard, and could do full duty in many ways.
If consistent with your views of duty, I shall be greatly obliged if you can make it convenient to return him to his Regiment.
I have the honor to be 
Very Respectfully
your Obt. Svt.
A. G. Draper
Bvt. Brig. Gen. Comdg."

One might think that the surgeon would dismiss such a request, but it appears that it was honored, because another letter appears in Miles's file. In it Draper issued a special order from "near Petersburg" on April 18, 1865. It reads:
"The following named enlisted man is hereby detailed for duty at these Hed. Qrs. and will report at once - The commanding officer of the 36th U.S.C.I. will furnish him with a sergeant's sword instead of a musket.

Sergt. Myles [sic] James 36 USCI"

Miles James continued to serve until he received a disability discharge on October 13, 1865, at Brazos Santiago, Texas, where his regiment was serving out its enlistment.

As the fictional character Silas Trip, played by Denzel Washington in the film Glory claimed, the USCTs had to prove themselves and "kick in like men." Miles James kicked in like a man, and then a great measure more. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Helping Make Ancestor Connections


If you are like me, too often, you receive those emails from unfamiliar senders that makes one wonder if your spam catcher is up to date or not. But, yesterday I received an unrecognized email in my mailbox that put a genuine smile on my face.

I did not remember seeing the sender's name before, but the title certainly rang a bell. "Corporal Harrison Graham." I figured the email was in relation to my blog, so I searched it and found this post I made back in May 2015.

This lady's email read: "Hello I am Harrison's great great great granddaughter. My mother and I have been wanting to know more about our family and your article took our breath away. I was wondering if may have had any pictures or any information about his wife Sara and their children. Thank you so much!!!"

Finally! One of my objectives for posting these soldier-focused USCT stories was now happily realized. I replied and returned her thanks with appreciation of my own for letting me know that I had helped with a piece of the historical puzzle. And I explained that, unfortunately, I did not have further information on Corp. Graham or his family. Of course, another objective was to bring a measure of attention to these largely forgotten men who gave their lives for the United States. Its seems that I achieved both goals with at least one reader. My day was made. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Recent Acquisitions to My Library


The ties between the Civil War and the Reconstruction eras and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950-60s are indisputable, and fascinating . Curious to learn more about the attempts to restrict integration in nearby Prince Edward County led me to purchase this book. For a time, the county's schools closed their doors rather than allow African American students to attend. This looks to be an educational and inspiring story of the perseverance of the black community in effort to achieve an equal learning opportunity for their children. 


Sgt. Marion Hill Fitzpatrick of the 45th Georgia Infantry was mortally wounded on April 2, 1865, during the Union VI Corps breakthrough, not a couple of stone throws away from where I live. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting Fitzpatrick's descendant and one of the co-editors of this collection of letters when he came to visit the Park for a custom tour. In appreciation, he kindly gifted me a copy. I am sure reading these "Letters to Amanda" will better inform me of yet another common soldier's experience.    


Dr. Stephen Rockenbach of nearby Virginia State University presented a talk on September 16 at the Park on his recently published book. This work examines and compares the experiences of the Ohio River Valley border region communities of Frankfort, Kentucky, and Corydon, Indiana. Having lived in Frankfort for six years I am sure to find many familiar names and issues. While there I developed a fondness of border region scholarship and this book promises to add to that growing field.


I have not posted much the last few weeks or so due to much of my time being consumed with research for a special tour of the New Market Heights battlefield that I will be giving on October 20. I've tried to read as much as I could find on the fight (both primary and secondary sources) which brought distinction to fourteen African American Medal of Honor recipients. This book covers the 5th USCT, which was part of Col. Alonzo Draper's brigade and who made the second and ultimately successful charge of the Confederate earthworks at New Market Heights. Raised in Ohio and made up largely of free men of color, the 5th served in the XVIII Corps and then XXV Corps.


In Tennessee, William G. Brownlow is either hated or loved. In Unionist East Tennessee he brazenly criticized the state and national Confederate governments and often found favor with his fellow natives of the hills. In Middle and West Tennessee, not so much. Brownlow went on to become governor of the state during the early Reconstruction years and then served as a U.S. Senator from the Volunteer State. His hatred toward secessionist for breaking up the Union knew few limits. I've not read much of Brownlow's own writings, so this should be an excellent opportunity to look into the mind of this Southern Unionist. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Different Points of Views Result in Different Accounts


As shown in my last post, there was a great deal of skepticism concerning the black man's combat ability within the Union army. Despite showing well in earlier fights at Battery Wagner, Milliken's Bend, Port Hudson, and the first days of the Petersburg Campaign, many were still not convinced that when faced with fighting Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia' battle-hardened veterans, the USCTs would be measured and found wanting. Others, however, were thoroughly convinced the black soldiers would fight when given an equal chance and were properly led.

Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, commander of the Army of the James, was in the later camp. In fact, in his memoirs, Butler claimed that the fight at New Market Heights was placed almost wholly on the back of the USCTs to show they could take hot fire and not wilt. Butler wanted to prove to the white Union soldiers that they need not worry when fighting alongside blacks.

The United States Colored Troops were of course fighting to abolish slavery. Many of them, even free men of color, felt their race would not advance with the weight of the "peculiar institution" slowing them all down. Many were also fighting to preserve the Union. Black soldiers, especially those from loyal border slave states, were fully aware to the fact that slavery remained in those regions, but with Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, and the Radical Republicans in control of Congress, progress in the United States was slowly being made. But, many black men enlisted, chanced death, and braved shot and shells to prove they were the equal to any man. If they could prove they were men, citizenship and its accompanying political and social rights should come next.

With skepticism rife in the Union army, one can imagine what most Confederate soldiers thought about their African American adversaries and the motivations or (perceived lack there of) of the USCTs. An interesting example of how preconceived notions can cloud one's interpretation of events comes from the Battle of New Market Heights, where fourteen black soldiers showed such courage that they received the Medal of Honor for their actions.

Before the USCT attacks the morning of September 29, 1864 kicked off, they were instructed to fix their bayonets, load their rifles but not prime them with percussion caps. They were instructed to keep moving forward, not matter what happened, not stopping to fire less they break their formations, and take the Confederate earthworks, driving out the defenders.

First, the 750 or so men of 4th and 6th USCT regiments which made up Steven A. Duncan's small brigade went in. They took horrific casualties when they encountered a line of abatis and then a line of chevaux de frise, which broke their formations, slowed them down, and made them perfect targets for the Texans defending the position. Despite losing over 50% killed, wounded, and captured, some continued on up the works, apparently only a few firing occasionally in desperation; most following orders to the end. After about half an hour the handful of white officers no killed or wounded ordered the men to withdraw. Five black soldiers in Duncan's Brigade received the Medal of Honor for their heroism shown in rescuing their flags or rallying men.

The Texans, however, interpreted the black troops's lack of firing differently. Some of the Confederates, not believing that African American men had the steel in their nerves to attack such a fortified position believed that the USCTs were being forced forward by white soldiers. Pvt. Benjamin Fitzgerald of the 5th Texas stated: "When the men learned who were advancing, scorning the use of of breast works, they mounted them and quietly waited their approach. Goaded by the bayonets of the white troops in rear they advanced with great desperation and were slaughtered like sheep." The problem with Fitzgerald's account is that there were no white troops "in rear." The attacking black troops were only later supported by other black troops. I'm sure he could not fathom black men, who he had only known as slaves, could fight like the men at New Market Heights did.

Another interesting statement comes from Thomas L. McCarty of the 1st Texas. He noted about that morning: "Up in our line at break of day, about 5 1/2 o'clock. In a few moments we were heavily engaged, the negroes crossed the second line of abatis, and into the first, when the fight raged for a few minutes, men firing on them at about 25 steps. They soon broke and fled with heavy loss." So far McCarty's account appears to match other accounts, but then he saw something from his view point. McCarty wrote, "They [USCTs] seemed as if they did not know how to use their guns. . . ." The Texan, naturally, did not know the black soldiers had been ordered not to fire, but instead of thinking of that possibility for why they were not shooting, he likely reasoned they had either not been trained properly or were too scared to work their rifles correctly.

During the Civil War the USCTs found themselves in a unenviable position. Doubted by many on their own side and often put in difficult situations to prove their manhood and ability, they were also despised by their enemies, who found any other reason than black bravery to justify USCT displays of courage.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Theodore Lyman's Early View on Black Soldiers


United States Colored Troops faced an enormous uphill battle to gain the respect of some of their white officers. Preconceptions of racial inferiority clouded the ability of many whites, both inside the army and out, to give them a fair chance to prove themselves in battle. When they finally got their opportunity they fought not only to end slavery and preserve the Union, they also sought to wipe away the stain of prejudice and stake a claim to acceptance and equality as men and citizens. One perfect example of this prejudice comes from Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman (pictured on the far right), who served on Maj. Gen. George G. Meade's staff  from the late summer of 1863 to the end of the war.

As the Army of the Potomac kicked off its attempt to destroy Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and capture Richmond, Lyman noted some brief thoughts on a group of black troops he observed following the Battle of the Wilderness. To give Lyman some benefit of doubt, he had yet to see USCTs in combat, as they had not been afforded the opportunity with the Army of the Potomac as yet. He wrote:

"A division of black troops, under General Ferrero, and belonging to the 9th Corps, marched up and massed in a hollow near by. As I looked at them, my soul was troubled and I would gladly have seen them marched back to Washington. Can we not fight our own battles, without calling on these humble hewers of wood and drawers of water, to be bayonetted by the unsparing Southerners? We do not dare trust them in the line of battle. Ah, you may make speeches at home, but here, where it is life or death, we dare not risk it. They have been put to guard the trains and have repulsed one or two little cavalry attacks in a creditable manner; but God help them if the grey-backed infantry attack them!"

Lyman's preconceived thoughts, and probably his limited experiences with African Americans, formed his belief that black troops could not be trusted in battle. Their limited opportunities as free men of color and as enslaved individuals, their imposed subservient status as "hewers of wood and drawers of water," as he referred to them, kept Lyman from thinking that they could stand up to a fierce fight from veteran Confederate infantry. He could not fathom depending upon a black man to stick in line of battle when the bullets and shells started flying and the rebel yell was released.

The Lt. Colonel's doubts proved false when black troops were finally given the chance, and when provided with competent leadership. African American men fought just as well as white soldiers, often while laboring under disadvantaged circumstances like less pay, sometimes with inferior weapons, and often put in unenviable situations, time and time again. The historical record proves it.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Black Barber Who Received the Medal of Honor


On this date 153 years ago, Col. Charles Paine's United States Colored Troops division of the XVIII Corps attacked a fortified position at New Market Heights just southeast of Richmond. Coldly greeting the USCT attack was the famous Texas Brigade, under the command of Gen. John Gregg.

In the vicious fighting that evolved in the early morning hours attacking regiment after attacking regiment went forward only to get shot to pieces. Displays of courage by the black troops were common this day. Eventually fourteen men of color earned the Medal of Honor for their bravery at New Market Heights.

One of the recipients, James H. Bronson, the 1st Sergeant of Company D, 5th United States Colored Infantry was a barber before the war. Bronson's citation states that he "Took command of his company, all the officers having been killed or wounded, and gallantly led it."

Bronson was 25 years old when he enlisted on Independence Day, 1863, at Trumbull County, Ohio. His service records state he was born in Indiana County, Pennsylvania. He was five feet, nine inches tall, with grey eyes and "dark" hair. His complexion is listed as "mulatto." He was promoted to 1st Sergeant on August 23, 1863. However, two months after the fight at New Market Heights he requested to be reduced to the ranks "in order to become a member of brass band of 5th U.S.C.T." Bronson was mustered out of the service on September 20, 1865, at Carolina City, North Carolina.

I was not able to locate Bronson in the 1860 census, but did find him in the 1870 census. In that listing, Bronson still held the occupation of barber. He was 29 and living with his 20 year old wife Ellen, who was born in West Canada. Both are listed as mulatto. They resided at that time Columbiana County, Ohio in the Perry township. No values were listed for the Bronson's real estate or personal property, but no values were for any of the individuals on their page. Interestingly, another mulatto barber, named Thomas Caldwell, lived only a few doors away from Bronson.

United States Colored Troops soldiers came from all walks of life. It did not much matter what they did before the war when it came to combat. On the field of battle men were only judged by what they did or did not do. Bronson and his comrades stood like men on September 29, 1864.

The painting "Three Medals of Honor" by Don Troiani actually depicts men in the 6th USCT who were awarded the Medal of Honor.

Monday, September 25, 2017

"Coloured Barbers" Excluded From Apprentice Prohibition


I've been reading through Drift Toward Dissolution: The Virginia Slavery Debate of 1831-1832, by Alison Goodyear Freehling. This book focuses on the legislative discussions that occurred among the Virginia delegates in the wake of Nat Turner's rebellion. Proposals were issued for different ideas and arguments on gradually phasing out slavery, compensating owners, and colonizing (some for voluntary and some for non-voluntary) free people of color out of the state and nation. A rather strong divide between those in western Virginia and those in the tidewater was clear on the issue of potential gradual emancipation. The westerners were mainly for, and the easterners largely against developing a plan for ending slavery in the Old Dominion.  

One result of all the debate was Bill 18, which was "a bill to amend 'an act reducing into one, several acts concerning slaves, free negroes, and mulattoes,' and for other purposes." In Bill 18 are a number of itemized regulations which sought to further limit African Americans' already highly controlled lives. Just a few examples are:

"No slave, free negro, or mulatto, whether he shall have been ordained, or licensed, or otherwise, shall hereafter undertake to preach, exhort, or conduct, or hold any assembly, or meeting for religious purposes, either in the day time, or at night . . . ."

And

"No free negro or mulatto, shall hereafter be capable of purchasing, or otherwise acquiring title to any real estate of any description, in fee, for life, or for a term longer than _______ year."

And

"No free negro or mulatto, shall be suffered to keep or carry any firelock [firearm] of any time, any military weapon, or any powder or lead; and any free negro or mulatto, who shall so offend, shall, on conviction before a justice of peace, forfeit all such arms and ammunition, to the use of the informer, and shall, moreover, be punished with stripes, at the discretion of the justice, not exceeding thirty-nine lashes."

But, the one that caught my eye was, "no such free negro, or mulatto tradesman, or mechanic, shall, under any circumstances, be hereafter allowed to take apprentices, or to teach their trade, or art, to any other person, except that coloured barbers may take apprentices."  

It is interesting that out of all the occupations that free people of color held, barbers were the only ones excepted from an apprentice ban. This work was of the type that required teaching it to someone before that person gained proficiency, but so did blacksmithing or brick masonry. However, barbering was viewed at that time, and particularly in the slave states, as unsuitable for whites. Although skilled work, it was a servant-type job. Blacksmithing or brick masonry were acceptable for white workers, but not barbering. Thus, it was excluded from apprentice prohibition.

As has been discussed here on many occasion, many black barbers made the most of their slim situation. They turned shaving faces and cutting hair into personal property and real estate assets, and often respected social positions within the black community, before, during, and after the Civil War.      

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Alexander Stephens Gets Grilled, Then Gets Real, Again


In March 1861, Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the newly formed Confederate States of America gave an unplanned speech in Savannah, Georgia. In the speech, the Georgian exclaimed that:

"The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution [slavery] while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the equality of the races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the 'storm came and the wind blew.'

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundation is laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery - subordination to the superior race - is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth." 

Here, early on, Stephens put it our there. He made it clear, at least in his view, what the new Confederacy was based upon. In modern terminology he "kept it real." And, at this point, why not? There had not been a defeat. Shoot, at this point there was barely a Southern army. Military victories and ultimate defeat were in the unforeseen future.

Some five years later, in 1866, Stephens was called before the U.S. Reconstruction Committee, where he was grilled with a series of questions and provided sworn testimony. He was asked at one point what the people of his region thought concerning the justice of the rebellion. Stephens answered that "the exercise of the right of secession was resorted to by them from a desire to render their liberties and institutions more secure, and a belief on their part that this was absolutely necessary for that object." What Stephens was saying here in other words is that Georgians left the union to protect their right to property in slaves. 

Stephens was asked if the people of Georgia have had a change of opinion on the right to secede since the end of the war. The former Confederate vice-president sort of beat around the bush, saying in effect that they had learned their lesson. When asked to clarify if they still believed if they had a right to secede. Stephens said that, "I cannot answer to that." 

When asked about how well secession was supported in 1861. Stephens answered that after Lincoln's call for Northern volunteers the idea was widely supported with "very few exceptions." He claimed that before that particular event the state was very much divided on the practicality of secession. The questioner asked if the ordinance of secession was not passed before Lincoln's call for troops. Stephens answered yes, and that he had previously said the peoples' sentiment was much divided.  

Stephens was also asked if the decision to secede was put to popular vote. He answered that only in that delegates were elected to the secession convention. When asked if it would have made a difference if it had been put to popular referendum rather than delegates, Stephens claimed as things then went with South Carolina, Mississippi, and Florida going out, the people would have voted to secede, too.

The questioner soon got down to brass tacks. He asked "In what particular did the people believe their constitutional liberties were assailed or endangered from the Union." Stephens answered "It was the serious apprehension that if the republican organization, as then constituted, would succeed to power, it would lead ultimately to a virtual subversion of the constitution of the United States, and all essential guarantees of public liberty."  As a followup question the quizzer asked "To what feature of their internal social polity did they apprehend danger?" Stephens, like in 1861, "kept it real" and cut to the chase. He answered, "Principally the subordination of the African race as it existed under their laws and institutions." 

There it is. Secessionists, according to their former vice-president, feared that the then newly elected Republican Party would free enslaved African Americans. They reasoned that if slaves were freed, they would have to be citizens, and if citizens, then they would be political equals in that they could vote and hold office. This was unfathomable to those whites in the slaves states, whether they were a slave owner or not. Secession was ultimately their solution to the problem. They formed their own government where their constitution would be upheld and not subverted by a perceived rouge political party. So they dissolved the Union. And war came.

If you would like to read the full transcript of the questioning session you can access it here.

Image of Alexander Stephens courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Recent Acquisitions to My Library


With my keen interest in free antebellum African American barbers, America's Forgotten Caste, which focuses on free people of color in Virginia and North Carolina, will hopefully introduce me to some of those men I have not previously located. I am looking forward to reading and seeing if the author's interpretation of these states' free black communities are similar to studies I've read about other locations in the South.


When I read it a couple of years ago, I was very impressed with Brian Matthew Jordan's most recent book, Marching Home, which examines Union veterans' post-war struggles. Therefore, I am quite hopeful that his earlier book on the Battle of South Mountain, Unholy Sabbath, will be just as intriguing, informative, and well written.


I've been fortunate to recently receive three books to read for book reviews. The first was Steven Sodergren's recently published study, The Army of the Potomac in the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns, for the Civil War News. I must have turned an acceptable review, because I was soon after asked to read Our Good and Faithful Servant, by Joel McMahon, which looks at the life of the long-termed Georgian U.S. Supreme Court justice James Moore Wayne. Wayne was appointed by Andrew Jackson and served until his death in 1867. Unlike many other Georgians who decided to join the secession camp in 1861, Wayne did not. Southern Unionism is getting to be a rather hot topic in Civil War scholarship and I'm sure some fascinating aspects of Wayne's career will be brought to light in this work.


The most recent book I've been asked to review is Gordon Rhea's much anticipated fifth (and apparently final) volume in his classic Overland Campaign series. Titled On to Petersburg, it covers from the June 4th aftermath of the Battle of Cold Harbor to the first day of the Petersburg Campaign, June 15, 1864. I've thoroughly enjoyed Rhea's previous books on the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna River, and Cold Harbor, and I am confident that this one will follow in that fine tradition. 


If you've been reading my "Random Thoughts" for a while, you've probably noticed I have a fascination with the so-called Fire-Eaters, especially those of South Carolinia. What made the planter politicians of the Palmetto State tick? It almost seems that something was in the water that contributed to their secession fever. Madness Rules the Hour promises to give a new perspective on the state's obsession with secession in the cradle of disunionism, Charleston in 1860.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Happy Labor Day


Today, if possible, take a cue from Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler. Grab your favorite carpet slippers, find a comfy chair, all while breathing in some fresh air, and relax. There will be plenty of work to do tomorrow. Happy Labor Day.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Counting Slave Dwellings


Having some time on my hands one evening last week, I took the opportunity to do some counting. I was curious to see how many slave dwellings the 1860 Slave Schedule Census listed for Dinwiddie County and Petersburg. The 1860 Slave Schedule Census was the first, and the last, census to list the number of slave houses per owner along with slaves' age, gender, and color (black or mulatto).

For the Dinwiddie County part of the census it was quite easy. The county is divided into two districts and named as you might imagine, District 1 and District 2. Each of these districts contain a certain number of pages that enumerate the owner and the number of slave houses for that owner. The census taker for these two districts made it easy for me because each sheet has a place to total the page's number at the bottom each sheet. Simply adding the number of of slave houses on each page gives the total for each district. It came out as the following:

District 1 = 690 slave dwellings

District 2 = 763 slave dwellings

The census taker for the four wards of Petersburg was not so kind to me. He didn't take the time to total the number of slave houses on each page. Therefore, I had to total up the various number of each owners' slave dwellings. It obviously took more time, especially for those wards that had a significant number of pages, such as the South Ward. The four totaled as follows:

Center Ward = 195 slave dwellings

East Ward = 210 slave dwellings

South Ward = 474 slave dwellings

West Ward = 215 slave dwellings

The grand total for Dinwiddie County and city of Petersburg shows as 2,547 slave dwellings. The census shows that there were 12,774 enslaved individuals in the same locations. So, if one divides the number of slaves by the slave dwellings. it comes to an average of about 5 slaves per structure. Naturally, the number of enslaved people in urban slave dwellings were often fewer than those in rural structures.

Today, only a very small percentage of the slave houses listed on the 1860 census survive. It is imperative that we do all that we can to ensure they remain on the landscape. They are after all some of the best pieces of evidence we have to teach us about important aspects of the lives of the enslaved.