Sunday, April 26, 2020

Two Soldiers from North Carolina - One Union, One Confederate

I find it interesting to think about what makes people who come from the same geographical area experience such different paths in life. While theoretically "all men are created equal," in practice that has never been quite so. Differences in socioeconomic status, education, family connections and opportunities all often help determine what choices we make and what we ultimately end up doing. Those differences were enhanced with people of the past, especially those of the Civil War-era, where our democratic form of government did not recognize some people as formal citizens.

Recently in my reading, I came across mention of William Davis, who served in the 36th United States Colored Infantry (USCI). Originally known as the 2nd North Carolina Colored Infantry, the men from the 36th USCI came largely from northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia. When those areas were occupied by Union forces early in the Civil War, enslaved families made their way to Union lines seeking freedom and opportunity. When African Americans were finally allowed to enlist in the U.S. army, many of the refugee men signed up. William Davis enlisted in Company E on August 15, 1863, in Norfolk, Virginia. His service records state that he was 26 or 27 years old and born in Halifax County, North Carolina. Enlisting officers wrote his occupation as "farmer," but in fact, before joining the U.S. army, Davis was enslaved.

William Davis must have shown leadership ability very early on during his military service, as he was made sergeant only three days after enlisting. In early 1864, he received promotion to 1st sergeant. Davis's leadership was tested at the Battle of New Market Heights on September 29, 1864. While many of the white officers in that fight went down with wounds, non-commissioned officers like Davis stepped in and carried the enemy's works. Davis remained with the 36th USCI through their post war experience on the Texas-Mexico border, and finally mustered out with the expiration of his enlistment on August 15, 1866.

The 1870 census shows Davis back in North Carolina. At that time he lived in New Bern with his wife Sarah, who he apparently married while enslaved. Henry Davis (15) and Lovenia Davis (19) are also in his household and may or may not have been William's children. At that time Davis's job was "farmer." It seems Davis moved back to his native Halifax County by 1880, as he is there in that census although with a different wife (Violet), and three young children. I was not able to definitively find other records for Davis or determine his death date.

Another man from Halifax County, and one who I located during my research on Petersburg Campaign prisoners, was Octavius Augustus Wiggins. Born just a few years later than William Davis, Wiggins experienced a much different life that of Davis. Wiggins's race, social status, family, and education helped determine such.

Wiggins appears as 6 years old in the 1850 census. His father, 52 year old Mason, a "farmer," is shown owning $4000.00 in Halifax County real estate. Octavius was one of ten Wiggins children in his father's household. His oldest brother, 22 year old Blake was listed as  a physician. Mason L. Wiggins owned 60 slaves in 1850. A decade later, 16 year old Octavius was still in his father's household and shown as having attended school that year. However, his father Mason had increased his real estate to $5935.00, and since personal property is also listed in the 1860 census we know that he owned $108,625.00. Of course, much of that personal property came in the form of the 68 people he owned.

When the Civil War broke out and North Carolina seceded, Wiggins was a student at the University of North Carolina. Wiggins originally enlisted as an 18 year old private in the 3rd North Carolina Cavalry on June 26, 1862. However, in January 1863, he transferred to Company E of the 37th North Carolina Infantry as a 2nd lieutenant. He fought in the Army of Northern Virginia's campaigns and  received a wound during the 1864 Overland Campaign fighting. He was allowed a furlough home to recover. Wiggins returned to his unit during the Petersburg Campaign. While defending the earthwork line southwest of Petersburg on April 2, 1865, Wiggins was again wounded by a shot so close to his face that it grazed his scalp and the black powder from the rifle blast blinded him. He was quickly captured and held at City Point before being shipped off to Johnson's Island, Ohio, an officer's prison. While enroute by train, Wiggins jumped out of the box car and eventually made his way back home to Halifax County. Killed near him on April 2 was his captain, William T. Nicholson. Nicholson was a near neighbor of Wiggins before the war, a fellow UNC student, and came from a wealthy large slaveholding family, too.

After the war Wiggins moved to Wilmington, North Carolina. The 1870 census shows him and his wife Anna living with his in-laws, the Parsley family, and working as a supervisor at a saw mill. In 1900, Wiggins was still in Wilmington. The now 56 year old Wiggins was still in the lumber business. Wiggins died on November 27, 1908 in Madison County, Mississippi. He was 64 years old.

One wonders what Davis's and Wiggins's lives would turned out like if their early life situations some how could have been reversed.

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