Tuesday, September 20, 2022

“Here I am . . . a Prisoner:” The Capture of Walt Whitman’s Brother

George Washington Whitman was a captain by the time of his capture.

Siblings sometimes produce interesting relationships. In many cases, the younger moves through childhood and into the teen years aspiring to be like the elder. I know that, personally, although my older brother and I fought like cats and dogs growing up, a large part of the conflict was due to my petty jealousy of his abilities and successes. It was not until I came to realize that I had useful talents of my own that we truly became close. However, in the relationship between siblings Walt Whitman, and his younger brother George Washington Whitman, the older appeared to revere the younger, especially during the Civil War years. 

Walt Whitman, born in 1819, was in his forties when the American Civil War began. Younger brother George, born a decade later, was much closer to the age for service in the United States army. George, still single at the time, enlisted in the 13th New York Militia (a three-month unit) in the weeks following Fort Sumter, leaving Walt as the primary caregiver to their aging mother Louisa in Brooklyn. When George’s brief enlistment ended, he joined the 51st New York Infantry.

Growing up, George Whitman received part of his formal education from his older brother. George then learned carpentry from his father, building houses and working long hours in the family trade. George never seemed impressed with older brother Walt’s literary ability or his seemingly deficient physical work ethic. Years later, George explained that, “We were all at work—all except Walt. But we knew he was printing the book [Leaves of Grass]. I was about twenty-five then. I saw the book—didn’t read it all—didn’t think it worth reading—fingered it a little. Mother thought as I did—did not know what to make of it.”

Walt, however, seemed to idolize his younger brother, especially after George committed to going off to war to fight for the Union. George often wrote to his mother and brothers while campaigning with the 51st New York. Entering as a private, George attained the rank of major by the time he mustered out in 1865. Walt later wrote admiringly of his brother’s enlistment: “Like many other young men, he then knew almost nothing of military discipline or practical soldiering; but the great Union call sounded, and he quietly but promptly put away his tools, locked up his chest, put the key in charge of the boss, and betook himself to the field.” 

George and the 51st fought valiantly as part of Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s expeditionary force to the North Carolina coast. Then, as part of Burnside’s Ninth Corps, they fought at Second Manassas and Antietam. At the Battle of Fredericksburg, George received a facial wound. Walt read about George’s wounding in the newspaper, and under deep concern, immediately went to Washington, and then to the Fredericksburg area Federal camps to check on his younger brother. “When I found dear brother George, and found that he was alive and well, O you may imagine how trifling all my little cares and difficulties seemed—they vanished into nothing,” Walt later wrote.

George Whitman’s 51st New York was one of the most traveled regiments of the war. Following Fredericksburg, they were transferred to Kentucky, and then to Vicksburg and Jackson, Mississippi, then back to Kentucky. In the spring of 1864, the 51st returned to Virginia and as part of the recombined Ninth Corps, fought in the Overland Campaign alongside the Army of the Potomac. Finally moving to Petersburg in the summer of 1864, the 51st New York battled in the trenches, and participated in the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864.

As part of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s late September 1864 offensive, the Ninth Corps, now under Maj. Gen. John G. Parke, moved to the left end of the Union line to work in cooperation with Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren’s Fifth Corps. Combined with Federal offensive efforts north of the James River, which resulted in significant victories by the Army of the James at New Market Heights and Fort Harrison on September 29, the Fifth and Ninth Corps received orders to push north from near Poplar Springs Church, just southwest of where the Fifth Corps succeeded in cutting Weldon Railroad (Globe Tavern) back in August.

Maj. Gen. John G. Parke commanded the Ninth Corps.

In the battle that resulted in being called several names—Poplar Springs Church, First Battle of Jones Farm, Squirrel Level Road—but most popularly, Peebles Farm, on the morning of September 30, Warren’s Fifth Corps moved out first. Meeting little resistance from cavalry, they breeched the Confederate fortifications at Squirrel Level Road and then captured Fort Archer (later renamed Fort Wheaton) and began digging in. Parke’s Ninth Corps then moved just to the left of the Fifth Corps and pushed forward with the goal of cutting the Boydton Plank Road, one of the Confederacy’s last two supply lines coming into Petersburg from other parts of the South.

While maneuvering through the fields and woodlots of the Peebles, Pegram, Albert Boisseau, and Robert Jones farms, the First Brigade (Col. John I. Curtin) of the Second Division (Maj. Gen. Robert Potter), Ninth Corps, received a major counterattack by four Confederate brigades, two each from Maj. Gen. Henry Heath’s and Maj. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox’s divisions, who advanced south down Church Road. With Curtain’s Brigade’s first line, consisting of the 51st New York, 58th Massachusetts, and 45th Pennsylvania’s attention drawn toward the brigades of the Confederates to their right, other Rebel regiments under Brig. Gen. William MacRae hit the right flank of Curtin’s second line composed of the 48th and 21st Pennsylvania, and 36th Massachusetts, throwing the whole brigade into confusion.

The historian of the 58th Massachusetts explained, “the enemy discovering our failure of connection, took advantage of it, and completely surrounded the troops in that locality, and closing every avenue of escape.” He reported that 8 commissioned officers and 91 enlisted men of the regiment became prisoners, leaving only two officers and 75 enlisted men. The history of the 36th Massachusetts tells that, ”the regiment could hold its ground but a short time under the demoralizing effect of a sharp fire from three sides. . . .” Also losing heavy numbers in captives was the 45th Pennsylvania. Their history reports that the regiment “lost 8 officers and 170 enlisted men out of about 200.” A count of the 48th Pennsylvania enumerated 43 captured or missing soldiers.

Capt. Whitman’s 51st New York seems to have come out of the battle the worst for wear in terms of numbers captured. The Confederates captured 332 officers and men, almost the whole regiment. In effort to dispel the fears of his family, Whitman wrote home as soon as he could. In a letter to his mother dated October 2, and still located in Petersburg two days becoming a captive, Capt. Whitman explained his current situation: “Here I am perfectly well and unhurt, but a prisoner,” he wrote. To reassure his loved ones, he stated, “I am in tip top health and Spirits, and am tough as a mule and shall get along first rate, Mother please don’t worry and all will be right in time if you will not worry.” George requested that Walt or another brother write to Lt. Babcock, who apparently escaped capture, and “tell him to send my things home by express, as I should be sorry to lose them.”

Although Capt. Whitman’s letter does not specify, it was a common Confederate practice during the Petersburg Campaign to detail a regiment, or more, to guard and transport captured enemy soldiers from the battlefield to the rear and then on into Petersburg where they were kept. Sometimes temporarily held in old tobacco warehouses, and sometimes on Merchant’s Island in the Appomattox River, prisoners briefly waited before moving on to Richmond and Libby prison where Confederate authorities processed captured Union soldiers.

Capt. Whitman apparently wrote a letter from Libby prison that did not make it home. He wrote again from Danville, Virginia, on October 23, where he reiterated much of his October 2 Petersburg letter, reassuring his mother that he was well and to have Lt. Babcock send his personal possessions home. George sent another letter home from Danville on November 27. The Whitmans received the slow traveling letter in January 1865, but it appears to no longer exist. George’s trunk of personal possessions arrived the day after Christmas 1864. Walt wrote in his diary, “It stood some hours before we felt inclined to open it.” Walt then wrote beamingly to the Brooklyn Daily Union that his little brother was well and proudly included that George had been in “genuine fighting service in all parts of the war.”

George Whitman arrived at Annapolis, Maryland, on February 23, 1865, for a prisoner exchange involving 500 officers. He soon received a 30-day furlough that he used to go to Brooklyn and visit with family that he had not seen in over three years. Due to poor health, George received an extension on his furlough, but he returned to his regiment in Alexandria, Virginia in May 1865. The 51st New York Infantry mustered out that July. Walt honored his little brother with a biographical sketch in the August 5, 1865, Brooklyn Daily Union.

Walt Whitman in 1864.

A civilian again, George went back to work as a carpenter. He moved to Camden, New Jersey, and married in 1871. He then worked as an inspector of gas pipes in Camden. George and his wife Louisa took in mother Whitman until her death in 1873. Then when Walt suffered a stroke, he came to live with his younger brother’s family for 11 years. In 1884, George and Louisa moved to a country house George built in Burlington, New Jersey. Walt did not go with them. Apparently, the move fractured the brothers’ relationship. Walt died in 1892, and Louisa passed away about six months later. George died in 1901, and is buried Burlington.     

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Fallen, but not Forgotten - 1st Sgt. William Henry Hazzard, Co. K, 6th USCI

On August 4, 1864, Capt. Henry F. Young, 7th Wisconsin Infantry, wrote home to his wife sharing his sentiments about Black troops in the wake of the Battle of the Crater. “My opinion is that negro troops with white officers will not do . . . ,” he wrote. In his view—one shared by many White Federal soldiers, as well as their Confederate foes—it was only necessary for the enemy to shoot the White officers to throw the Black enlisted men and non-commissioned officers into a panic.

At the Battle of the Crater, according to Capt. Young, “the enemy shot nearly all their white officers knowing that the negroes would be worth nothing without their officers and so it proved as soon as their officers were not there to lead them the negroes were no better than a lot of scared sheep.” Two days later, Young wrote to his father-in-law restating what he informed his wife and pinning blame for losing the battle on the performance of the United States Colored Troops. There were many reasons for failure in the July 30, 1864, battle at Petersburg, but the Black troops was not one of them. Prejudice clouded the thinking of many White soldiers on both sides.

Despite earlier evidence to the contrary at Milliken’s Bend, Battery Wagner, Port Hudson, and closer by at Wilson’s Wharf on May 24, and at Petersburg on June 15, White soldiers continued to express skepticism about the ability of Black men in combat. It took additional examples, like the Battle of New Market Heights, to start to change some minds. Sadly, some never changed. At the Battle of New Market Heights, Black non-commissioned officers, and even enlisted men, stepped into leadership roles and gained victory, in many cases after numerous White officers fell killed and wounded. Fourteen Black men received the Medal of Honor at New Market Heights as proof. Many other men, like 1st Sgt. William Henry Hazzard, Co. K, 6th United States Colored Infantry, fell while fulfilling their duty.

According to information in his compiled military service record, Hazard was born in New Castle County, Delaware, however, other sources state he was born in Pennsylvania. Information from several sources indicate Hazzard was born about 1840. Census records show that Hazzard’s father, Solomon, moved to Thornbury Township in Delaware County, Pennsylvania by 1840. What is not so clear is when William Henry Hazard and his sibling(s) came to Pennsylvania or if they were born soon after Solomon Hazzard arrived. The 1840 census only indicates two adult individuals in Solomon Hazard’s household. Regardless, by the 1850 census, the Solomon Hazzard family of four, consisting of wife Mary and sons William and Solomon, lived in Thornbury Township. Solomon Hazzard’s occupation is listed as laborer, and he owned $650 in real estate. The census shows that Solomon and Mary were both born in Delaware, and sons, William and Solomon, Jr., were born in Pennsylvania.

A decade later the family was still together, except Solomon, whose age in 1850 was 74, and had apparently died. Mary, 70-years-old in 1860, is listed as a widow with only $20 in personal property. William’s age is 20 and Solomon, Jr. is 17. William and Solomon both were both laborers.

Pension file records for William Henry Hazzard state that he married Louisa Gooden on December 8, 1859, in the Methodist Episcopal Church in West Chester, Pennsylvania, by Pastor J. M. McCarter. One wonders why Louisa is not included in the 1860 Hazzard family household in Pennsylvania since she and William married about nine months before the census taker made his count. The pension records also state that William Henry and Louisa’s union produced a son named Isaac, who was born on September 20, 1860, in New Castle County, Delaware. Louisa appears in the 1860 census in her parents’, Isaac and Margaret Gooden’s, household in New Castle County, as a 19-year-old. Louisa would have been pregnant with baby Isaac at the time of the census.

On March 9, 1863, William Henry’s Hazzard’s younger brother, Solomon, enlisted as a private in Company B of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry in Readville, Massachusetts. His service records state that he received a wound at that regiment’s July 18, 1863, assault on Battery Wagner, South Carolina, the battle depicted in the motion picture Glory.

William Henry Hazzard's brother, Solomon, served in the 54th
Massachusetts Inf., and was wounded at Battery Wagner. From Harper's Weekly. 

About the same time Solomon was fighting in South Carolina, William Henry Hazzard’s was drafted and he enlisted in Company K, 6th USCI on August 12, 1863, in Smyrna, Delaware. Perhaps William had moved to Delaware to be with Louisa and toddler son Isaac before or early in the war. William’s enlistment records describe him as 25-years-old, five-foot ten-inches tall, and having a “Black” complexion. He officially mustered into service on September 12 and received the rank of first sergeant four days later.

First Sergeant Hazzard endured the heavy marching that the regiment experienced on the York River/James River peninsula in the spring of 1864 while his regiment sharpened their soldier skills. However, the unit transferred to the Petersburg front in early June. It appears he survived the regiment’s initial combat at Baylor’s Farm and along the Dimmock Line on June 15 without injury. It is unclear if he was among the soldiers who labored on the Dutch Gap Canal in the summer of 1864, but it is likely he did while the regiment was stationed there.

Ordered to travel the short distance by boat to Deep Bottom Landing, Hazzard and the 6th USCI arrived at their destination on the night of September 28, 1864. Given little time to rest and eat their rations, the regiment was up and moving to get into position well before daybreak. Ordered to carry only their blanket roll, three days of rations, and 60 cartridges per man, they lined up near the Buffin House, just north of Kingsland Road. With their brigade mates, the 4th USCI in position in their front and offset a little to the right, two companies of the 6th USCI received the unenviable job as skirmishers. Company A, and Hazzard’s Company K, were ordered to handle the assignment.

When White officers like Capt. Charles V. York (Co. B, 6th USCI)
fell in great numbers at New Market Heights,
Black soldiers continued to perform well under fire.

In skirmish formation, Hazzards’s non-commissioned officer rank was of great importance due to the dispersed style of fighting and the challenge of commanding and controlling the enlisted men while under fire. During the skirmish fighting, Capt. Robert Beath of Company A received a leg wound severe enough to cause him to leave the field and undergo an amputation. Also wounded in Company A were Privates James Cooper, David H. Irons, and John Wright. Hazzard’s Company K fared much worse. William Lewis and Albert Waters were killed. Wounded were Charles Berry, David Coston, Isaac Gales, Joseph Gales, Sgt. Charles Garner, Corp. Alexander Henry, Isaac Hubbardton, Isaac Lee, James Manlon, Edward Mills, Isaac Purnell, Corp. Edward Raner, Isaac Robinson, John Short, William Snowden, and Corp. William Williams. Those fatally wounded were Perry Hamilton, and 1st Sgt. William Henry Hazzard. Hazzard received a gunshot wound to his left leg.

Dispelling the myth that Black men could not endure combat,
two of Hazzard's African American 6th USCI comrades
(Sgt. Maj. Thomas Hawkins & 1st Sgt. Alexander Kelly) received the Medal of Honor
for heroism at the Battle of New Market Heights. Image courtesy of Don Troiani.

Removed from the field, Hazzard underwent an amputation and then traveled by a hospital transport ship to the Point of Rocks hospital at Bermuda Hundred near Petersburg. Among the papers in Hazzard’s minor son’s pension file is an affidavit made in June 1867 by Hazzard’s company commander, Capt. Girard P. Riley, who was then living in Clermont County, Ohio. In it Riley states that Hazzard was wounded in the leg while on the skirmish line at New Market Heights and that he was “carried back to the rear, and his leg amputated, from thence removed to Base Hospital at the Point of Rocks.” Details do not exist about the complications that developed from Hazzard’s amputation and sadly resulted in his death on December 30, 1864, but it was probably due to an infection.

Point of Rock hospital complex. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Unfortunately, Louisa Gooden Hazzard died on January 8, 1865, only surviving her soldier husband by about a week. Little information in the records reveal the facts of her death, but an affidavit from Louisa’s parents, Isaac and Margaret Gooden, state that she died at Mill Creek Hundred in New Castle County, Delaware, and “that they knew of her last sickness and attended her in the same, That her death occurred in their house and they attended her funeral.” One wonders if she had even received the news of her husband’s death before her own.

Isaac T. Hazzard received the guardianship of Eber Sharp, a White farmer living in Chester County, Pennsylvania. The records do not detail why Isaac and Margaret Gooden did not become the legal guardians of their grandson. However, a review of the Eber Sharp household in the 1870 census shows his next door neighbor as being Lucy Hazzard, a 70-year-old housekeeper and perhaps Isaac’s great aunt. Also in her house are Joseph Hazzard (26), and Isaac T. Hazzard (12), who is the only person in the house with personal property, and it valued at $200. This money may be his pension-funded savings.   

Perhaps Isaac Hazzard used some of his money to pay for an education, as he appears as a student in the “Preparatory Department” of the Lincoln University (a historically Black school near Oxford, Pennsylvania) catalog for 1878. Another record appears indicating that Isaac married a Sarah Hillyard in 1888, and an 1890 Philadelphia city directory lists Isaac as a clerk. The following year’s city directory lists Sarah Hazzard “wid[ow] Isaac” as living at 1342 Rodman Street. Additional research did not locate the cause of Isaac Hazzard’s death.

First Sgt. Hazzard originally received burial in the Point of Rocks hospital cemetery. After the Civil War the soldiers buried at Point of Rocks received reinterment in the City Point National Cemetery at present-day Hopewell, Virginia. Unfortunately, Hazzard is not among those identified. He probably rests in peace in one of the cemetery’s 1,400 unknown graves.

We salute 1st Sgt. William Henry Hazzard and his willingness to serve the United States in its time of need. During his life he was an agent of liberty for the enslaved and a beacon of future citizenship for his son and millions of others seeking equality and a more perfect Union. We remember!

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Recent Acquisitions to My Library

Far, far from home: The Wartime Letters of Dick and Tally Simpson, 3td South Carolina Volunteers, edited by Guy E. Everson and Edward H. Simpson, Jr.

A Surgeon's Civil War: The Letters & Diary of Daniel M. Holt, M.D., edited by James M. Greiner, Janet L. Coryell, and James R. Smither

Doctor to the Front: The Recollections of Confederate Surgeon Thomas Fanning Wood, 1861-1865, edited by Donald B. Koonce

The Great "What Ifs" of the American Civil War, edited by Chris Mackowski and Brian Matthew Jordan

A War of the People: Vermont Civil War Letters, edited by Jeffrey D. Marshall

Lee and Jackson's Bloody Twelfth: The Letters of Irby Goodwin Scott, First Lieutenant, Company G, Putnam Light Infantry, Twelfth Georgia Volunteer Infantry, edited by Johnnie Perry Pearson

My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross & the Fighting Fifth [New Hampshire] by Mike Pride and Mark Travis

Fallen Leaves: The Civil Ware Letters of Major Henry Livermore Abbott, edited by Robert Garth Scott

Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U. S. Pension Bureau Files, edited by Elizabeth A. Regosin and Donald R. Shaffer

Images from the Storm: Private Robert Knox Sneden, edited by Charles F. Bryan, Jr., James C. Kelly, and Nelson D. Lankford

Your Affectionate Son, Charlies Mac: Civil War Diaries & Letters by a Soldier from Martha's Vinyard, Charles Macreading Vincent, edited by Mariam Ragan Halperin

Army Life In Virginia: The Civil War Letters of George G. Bendict, edtied by Eric Ward

The Class of 1846: From West Point to Appomattox by John C. Waugh

Civil War Time: Temporality and Identity in America, 1861-1865 by Cheryl A. Wells

The Civil War Letters of Alexander McNeill: 2nd South Carolina Infantry Regiment edited by Mac Wykoff

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Fallen, but not Forgotten – Corp. Pompey Cotton, Co. D, 38th USCI


Photo courtesy of Wisteria Perry

“Penetrating gunshot wound, ball entered three inches below right axilla, passed through thorax, lung perforated . . . .“ So reads the Surgeon General’s copied records in the 1869 widow’s pension case filed by Sarah Cotton, who was seeking to provide evidence to receive financial compensation for her soldier husband’s death over four years earlier. Although not enslaved, the circumstances that brought Sarah Cotton to this point in her life developed in large part due to the institution of slavery. A little bit of backstory will help to develop that connection further, although admittedly, many holes remain due to the lack of records.

When Pompey Cotton was born in Martin County, North Carolina, about 1840, the United States population included almost 2,500,000 enslaved men, women, and children and over 385,000 free people of color. Pompey Cotton was enslaved, and Sarah, then Smith, was a free woman of color. It is unknown how Pompey came to live in Virginia, but perhaps a former enslaver sold him. It is also unknown how Pompey and Sarah met and then fell in love, but records show that they apparently married at Deep Creek, Norfolk County, Virginia. The location was perhaps where Pompey worked at the time. It is possible that Pompey was leased out, as one of Sarah’s records states on their wedding day that Pompey went to pay his “quarter’s wages” to his enslaver Edwin Ives, so he was apparently not living on Ives’ Princess Anne County, Virginia plantation.

There is conflicting testimony in the Sarah’s widow’s pension file on when the marriage occurred. Deposed in July 1869, Miles Butt (a Company D, comrade of Cotton’s) and Timothy Moreley, agreed with Sarah Cotton that the wedding occurred on October 25, 1860, and that there was not a formal ceremony but there was a “supper and dance given at the time.” In August 1869, Benjamin Anderson and George Floyd provided testimony that the wedding happened “between new and old Christmas” [December 25, 1860 and January 5, 1861].

Regardless of the circumstances of the apparent marriage, Pompey’s enslaver, Edwin Ives, does appear in the historical record. In the 1860 census he appears as a 37-year-old Princess Anne County farmer living with this wife, Mary, and two free men of color (perhaps brothers), Hillary and Emerson Cuffee, who must have worked for Ives. At the time of the census Ives possessed $16,000 in real estate, and $8,360 in personal property, which included 14 enslaved individuals, who ranged in age from 80 to three. Among the enumerated enslaved are two 21 year old men, both of whom closely match Pompey Cotton’s age in 1860.

Witnesses in Sarah Cotton’s pension claim stated that she and Pompey “lived together in the same domicile and were regarded as husband and wife by their owner friends and neighbors until Pompey enlisted.” Cotton joined Company D, 38th United States Colored Infantry (USCI) on February 10, 1864, and formally mustered into service on February 23. Standing six feet, two inches tall, Cotton likely towered over most of his comrades. The enrolling officer noted that Cotton had a “dark” complexion. Perhaps Pompey’s intelligence, personality, or impressive height influenced his officers to assign him the rank of corporal on the day he enlisted.

Whether Sarah came with Pompey to the Norfolk area is unknown. As historian James Bryant notes, “the families of former slaves serving in the Union army not only suffered financially [due to initially receiving less pay than White soldiers], but were closer to battle fronts in Union-occupied areas of the South. Southern black families often suffered from abuse by white civilians as well as unsympathetic Union military officials.” Some Black soldiers’ wives actually braved the dangers of army life and followed their soldier husbands to the front doing camp duties. Lt. John H. Owen, a White officer in the 36th USCI, which eventually served in the same brigade as Corp. Cotton’s 38th USCI, wrote home explaining, “here are two women wives of men in the Regt. that have necessitated in following us—through shot and shell . . . They do not seem to be afraid—one is our cook.” Other soldiers’ wives earned much needed funds as company laundresses.

Commanded by Lt. Col. Dexter E. Clapp, the 38th USCI joined the Eighteen Corps, Army of the James, in June 1864, and moved to the nearest scene of action at Petersburg. That month Cotton made “color corporal.” For Capt. Peter Schlick’s Company D, and the rest of the 38th USCI, serving in the trenches at Petersburg throughout the summer proved quite dangerous. Thomas Morris Chester, a Black correspondent for the Philadelphia Press, wrote, “There is not a day but what some brave black defender of the Union is made to bite the dust by at rebel sharpshooter or picket. . . .” But Chester also noted, “They are ever on the alert to catch a glimpse of a rebel, to whom they send their compliments by means of a leaden messenger. Between the negroes and the enemy it is war to the death. The colored troops have cheerfully accepted the conditions of the Confederate Government, that between them no quarter is to be shown.”

Thomas Morris Chester

In September 1864, while some of the soldiers in the Third Division of the Eighteenth Corps labored on the Dutch Gap canal project, others moved to Deep Bottom landing on the north side of the James River to man the bridgehead defenses and to serve picket duty. Yet others served at some of the forts down river on the James. However, at the end of the month, other than the 10th USCI, the division’s regiments consolidated at Deep Bottom for a planned assault. While the White divisions of the Eighteenth Corps attacked at Fort Harrison about three miles to the west, the Black Third Division was ordered to assault the Confederate defenses along New Market Road. The Tenth Corps was to provide support for the Black division if needed.

Early on September 29, Col. Stephen Duncan’s Brigade (4th and 6th USCI) made a desperate and valiant attempt on the Confederate works. Some made it to the earthwork line, but the majority fell attempting to navigate the double row of abatis, losing half of their force killed, wounded or captured in the effort. Col. Alonzo Draper’s Brigade (5th, 36th, and Cotton’s 38th USCI) attacked next, after Duncan’s Brigade, or what was left of it, fell back to reorganize. But instead of advancing in lines of battle as Duncan’s Brigade had attacked, Draper’s Brigade went forward in column. Enduring heavy casualties also, the second assault ground to a halt, but through a spirited cheer, and led largely by the Black non-commissioned officers after many of the White officers went down, momentum picked back up and the attackers went over the works pushing out the famous Texas Brigade defenders. White officers from the 38th USCI who received recognition afterward were: Capt. Schlick, of Corp. Cotton’s Company D, and Lt. Samuel Bancroft, also of Company D, “for daring and endurance. Being shot through the hip at the swamp, he crawled forward on his hands and knees, waving his sword and cheering his men to follow.” In addition, Sgt. Maj. Weiss, a White non-commissioned officer, elicited comment “for courage, gallantry, and good conduct in the attack.” More notably, three of Cotton’s Black comrades also garnered mention and received Medals of Honor for their heroic actions:  1st Sgt. Edward Ratcliff, Company C; Pvt. William Barnes, Company C; and Sgt. James Harris, Company B.

Capt. Peter Schlick, Co. D, 38th USCI, courtesy of the Huntington Library

The cost of victory came at a high price. From their starting point hundreds of yards away, up to the defensive earthworks, hundreds of killed and wounded men from the five main attacking regiments covered the ground. Writhing in pain, Corp. Pompey Cotton was among the wounded. His regiment suffered 21 killed, 12 mortally wounded, and 75 who were wounded but survived. Fortunately, since the Federal force held the field, medical help transferred the wounded from the battlefield to boats a mile away at the James River. Records are not clear, but Corp. Cotton may have received initial treatment at the Point of Rocks hospital near Petersburg. However, perhaps when surgeons discovered the true severity of his wound, he ended up at Balfour Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia.

If Corp. Cotton’s wound had been limited to the right axilla (shoulder/arm joint), it is likely that he would have recovered with little complication, but since the minie ball traveled into his chest instead of traveling straight through, it resulted in damage to his right lung. Recovery cases from lung wounds did occur during the Civil War, but it was more the exception than the rule. Unfortunately, Corp. Cotton was not an exception. Medical knowledge of the time dictated that there was little surgeons could do for internal organ injuries. Cotton died at Balfour on October 3, 1864. He received an interment at Hampton National Cemetery where he rests in peace today. Company D’s Lt. George Everett filled out Corp. Cotton’s final paper work which included the statement that Cotton had “served honestly and faithfully in the field. . . .” Corp. Cotton’s inventory of last effects only listed three things: one pair of trousers, one half of a shelter tent, and a haversack.

Lt. George Everett, Co. D, 38th USCI, courtesy of the Library of Congress

In an 1869 document in Sarah’s pension file she states that she did not learn about her husband’s death until six months later. However, an 1873 document appears to show that she lived with another man and that she went by Jane Mitchell after Cotton’s death. Her previous testimony said she had not remarried. Perhaps she viewed her relationship with John Mitchell, a sailor who served on a government steamer, and who died in 1867, as something other than a marriage. Regardless, Sarah’s pension payment of $8 per month stopped with this discovery by the Pension Bureau in 1873. 

We remember Corp. Pompey Cotton, and honor his service and sacrifice. He enlisted and fought to abolish a labor system based on supposed inferiority. In doing so he helped change many people’s minds and became a respected non-commissioned officer in the United States army. Well done soldier!