Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Fallen, but not Forgotten – Sgt. John Grinnell, Co. E, 38th USCI

In the Border States of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri the process of emancipation and enlisting formerly enslaved men played out under unique circumstances. Unlike the seceded slaveholding states, those who remained loyal to the Union and claimed ownership of the enslaved eligible for United States service believed they deserved compensation for their loss in human property. Some received payment if they could prove their allegiance. It appears that enslaved man John Grinnell fell under Maryland’s enrollment act and thus left bondage under his enslaver, William J. Edelen, Sr. of St. Mary’s County. Due to his military service, Grinnell experienced the sweet taste of liberty, if only for a brief time.

John Grinnell enlisted at Leonardtown, St. Mary’s County, on March 1, 1864. Less than a week later he officially mustered into United States service at Norfolk, Virginia. St. Mary’s County sent hundreds of men into the ranks of the United States Colored Troops. Two St. Mary’s County men, William H. Barnes and James H. Harris, both 38th USCI comrades of Grinnell, received the Medal of Honor for their valor at the Battle of New Market Heights. In addition, another 38th soldier, Edward Ratcliff, a Virginian, also received the honor.

John Grinnell's enlistment form

Records indicate that John Grinnell was a native of St. Mary’s County, 26 years old, five feet three inches tall, and possessed a “dark” complexion. In less than two months after signing up, Grinnell received promotion to sergeant. By the time of Grinnell’s enlistment, he was a family man. John married Jane Lee on Christmas Eve, 1862. The couple’s union produced a daughter named Emily (Emma), who arrived on November 1, 1863.

It is unknown if William Edelen, Sr. also enslaved Jane Lee, or if she and John Grinnell endured an abroad marriage, which was not uncommon. William Edelen, Sr. appears in the 1860 census for District 3 of St. Mary’s County, as a physician and farmer of considerable wealth. Edelen’s family consisted of his wife Ellen and their seven children ranging in age from 22 to three. Much of Edelen’s $49,000 in personal property was due to his claiming 57 human laborers, who lived in five slave dwellings. Two of Edelen’s sons, Philip F. (1st Battery, Maryland Artillery), and William, Jr. (2nd Maryland Infantry Battalion) served in the Confederate army. Ironically, both soldier sons lost their freedom for time while confined at Point Lookout prison in their native St. Mary’s County.

The 38th USCI initially trained and served in the Norfolk, Portsmouth, and northeastern North Carolina area. However, as operations heated up around Petersburg and Richmond in the summer of 1864, the regiment transferred and eventually became part of the 3rd Division of the XVIII Corps. Despite being an eight-company regiment, the 38th soon proved they were more than worthy of joining Col. Alonzo Draper’s brigade, which also included the 5th USCI, recruited primarily in Ohio, and the 36th USCI, recruited in northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia.

Located at Deep Bottom landing on the James River by the night of September 28, the 38th USCI and their brigade comrades moved out before daylight to a staging area where they formed and then awaited orders. After receiving a word of encouragement from Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, who encouraged the men to “Remember Fort Pillow!,” Draper’s Brigade went to ground while Col. Samuel Duncan’s small brigade, consisting of the 4th USCI and 6th USCIs, attacked the Confederate earthworks along New Market Road. Duncan’s Brigade received devastating fire from along the Confederate front held in large part by the famous Texas Brigade. Unable to completely break the defensive line, and reeling after taking over 50 percent casualties, Duncan’s Brigade, or what was left of it, fell back to reorganize.

Col. Alonzo Draper’s Brigade received orders to attack next. Division commander, Brig. Gen. Charles J. Paine, ordered that Draper’s Brigade attack in column with the 5th USCI leading, followed by the 36th USCI, and finally the 38th USCI. Like Duncan’s Brigade, the 5th USCI met extremely heavy fire from the Confederates. During the time between the assaults, the Southerners had come out in front of their earthworks and collected the rifles of the killed and wounded in Duncan’s Brigade for Confederate use. While assaulting, the 5th and the rest of Draper’s Brigade halted at a line of abatis. After a pause, a cheer by the surviving officers and non-commissioned officers rallied the momentum of the brigade who surged through the abatis, up to and then over the earthworks, driving out the defenders.

Although Sgt. Grinnell’s regiment was last to attack, they sustained significant casualties. The horrific tally was 21 killed in action, 12 fatally wounded, and 75 surviving wounded. Those who fell killed in the fight included John Grinnell. In Gen. Butler’s October 11, 1864 report, the commander of the Army of the James commended Grinnell’s 38th USCI comrades Ratcliff, Barnes, and Harris, as well as white Sgt. Maj. Martin Weiss, and commissioned officers Lt. Samuel Bancroft, and Capt. Peter Schlick. Sgt. Grinnell went unmentioned, and thus, unfortunately, largely forgotten to the history of the Battle of New Market Heights.

Three of Sgt. Grinnell's 38th USCI comrades received the Medal of Honor for valor at New Market Heights. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute.

Jane Grinnell appears in the historical record immediately following the Civil War. It is unknown if she relocated to Norfolk, Virginia, during the war or afterward, but pension and Freedman’s Bureau records show her and Emily living there at Taylor’s Farm and having an account with the Freeman’s Bank. However, mother and daughter were not located in the 1870 census or records thereafter.

William Edelen, Sr. filed a compensation claim in 1867 for the loss of John Grinnell to the United States army three years earlier. In it Edelen swore he maintained loyalty throughout the war and that he never gave “any aid, countenance, counsel or encouragement to any person or persons engaged . . . in insurrection, rebellion or armed hostility against the United States,” despite having two sons in the Confederate army. Edelen also had two fellow citizens vouch for his war-time allegiance. Nothing in Sgt. Grinnell’s service records positively indicates that Edelen received compensation, but chances are good that he did. Had Sgt. Grinnell lived he probably would not have cared one way or the other. Ultimately, he broke his bonds of slavery by enlisting, and his service helped abolish slavery for others forever.

William Edelen's compensation claim for John Grinnell


The location of Sgt. Grinnell’s grave is unknown. His remains may be among those unknown soldiers reinterred at Fort Harrison National Cemetery or at City Point National Cemetery. Regardless of Grinnell’s ultimate resting place, we honor his courage in making the attack at New Market Heights, and we remember his sacrifice in service to the United States and for the causes of citizenship, liberty, justice, and Union.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Help Save An Invaluable Piece of History

Guest post courtesy of Joshua Lindamood and the Appomattox Petersburg Preservation Society

Today, if you found yourself driving along the St. James Road in Amelia County, Virginia, you might very easily miss the home known as “Bachelors Rest.” Tucked away at the end of a dirt drive and surrounded by planted corn, it sits back far enough that the cedars lining the road almost completely obstruct it from view. The home shows signs of early construction dating to the mid-18th century, but lack of records have made it difficult to determine exactly who built it and when. 

Though serene now, April of 1865 would have looked quite different. One thing was for certain, this home and landscape would never be the same after April 6. As Truely Vaughan began his morning routine, the scene may have looked something like this. 

The bitter and cold sounds of war were permeating the darkness and no doubt into Mr. Vaughan’s bed chamber. The vanguard of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia passed through the stillness, and the sounds of some 50,000 following him would reverberate for hours. Horses and mules worked their way through the ever deteriorating condition of the St. James Road while cannon and limbers laden with munitions eagerly anticipating their opportunity to engage in a host of battles hurriedly swept on. Soldiers and footsore civilians alike trudged their way through the mire just trying to follow the figures in front of them. Exhausted men and beasts the marched through the night in a desperate attempt to concentrate outside of Farmville per General Lee’s orders. They were an army on the run. 

There was no mistaking that Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s forces were close on their heels, and soldiers on both sides knew it was only a matter of time before the two armies would collide. Where was Lee headed? Which intersection would Union Cavalry commander Phillip Sheridan attack? How close was the Union Army of the Potomac? Where was Grant’s Army of the James? Those answers would come soon enough for the combatants on both sides. 

Among the first orders of the day from headquarters of the Union Army of the Potomac, stated that the Second Corps, Fifth Corps, and Sixth Corps, would start out towards the enemy from Jetersville at 6 a.m. If found in position at Amelia Court House, the Sixth Corps would attack. The Fifth Corps moved along the South-Side Railroad, and the Second Corps took position to the left of Fifth Corps. Due to the uneven ground and nature of the terrain, at around 8:45 a.m. the 1st Division of the Second Corps found itself straying off course. Near Flatt Creek, elements of that command found a column of Confederate infantry and wagon trains working their way westerly. Upon seeing it himself, Second Corps Commander Union General Andrew Humphreys ordered his 1st Division under General Miles to open artillery fire on them. In his after action report, Humphreys states “I directed General Mott (3rd Division, Second Corps)… to send a brigade across and feel the enemy.”1 The chase was on. Orders from headquarters then changed, directing the Second Corps to move on Deatonsville, the Sixth Corps to move through Jetersville and take up the line to the left of the Second Corps, and for the Fifth Corps to swing around to the right. 

General Humphreys placed his 3rd Division under General Mott to move past the Amelia Sulphur Springs and pursue the Confederate column on the left of the St. James Road, and his 1st Division under General Miles to cross Flatt Creek above Mott and to take up the line of march on the right of the road. The 2nd Division under General Barlow would be in support of Miles. Humphreys continues in his report stating, “A sharp contest with the enemy commenced at once, and he was driven rapidly before us… every foot of which a running fight was kept up, and several strong partially entrenched positions carried…. The country was broken, consisting of open fields alternating with forest with dense undergrowth, and swamps.”2 One such Confederate entrenched position was on the little rise at Mr. Vaughan’s home. Near here General Mott received a severe wound in the leg and General DeTrobriand assumed command of the 3rd Division. Confederate Captain J. C. Gorman of General John Gordon’s command wrote “The wagons were hurried forward, regardless of their contents, which, whether it remained in or was spilled out, was a matter of perfect indifference to the demoralized and badly scared drivers who, with straining eyes and perspiring bodies plied their whips vigorously and put their jaded beasts to their best.”3 

General Gordon deployed his three divisions under Generals Grimes, Walker, and Evans, into successive lines and had them rotate to check each Federal advance. Gordon later wrote that, “Here, in one direction, a battery of artillery became involved; there, in another, a blocked ammunition train required rescue: and thus came short but sharp little battles which made up the sideshows of the main performance…”4 After General DeTrobriand took over the 3rd Division, he noted that the enemy made a “stand behind hasty breast-works erected around a farmhouse.”5 Presumably the farmhouse mentioned here is Truely Vaughan’s. The Confederates were to defend this line of breast-works with several pieces of artillery and some cavalry and proceeded to deliver very accurate shelling on the Federal advance. 

As the Federals pressed further west on the St. James Road, Private John Haley of the 17th Maine wrote, “We are jubilant. We have them on the run and victory is in the air.”6 A soldier in the Richmond Howitzers recalled, “the enemy… made a bold dash upon our column near Deatonsville… our guns were rapidly brought ‘into battery’ and for a time we thought a heavy fight would take place. After a half-hours {sic} engagement we drove them off and resumed our march.”7 General DeTrobriand later wrote of the retreat in this area “When a ship threatens to founder, they throw the freight into the sea… Lee’s army refused to lighten itself in this way and was engulfed with its cargo.”8 

Charles Page, U.S. Surgeon and Medical Director for the Second Corps set up the temporary 1st Division hospital at Amelia Springs, and the 3rd Division hospital was established at Truely Vaughan’s house. In his official report he mentions treating 170 men at the Truely Vaughan hospital.9 As the armies moved out of the vicinity of “Bachelors Rest,” those who were able and could muster the strength to carry onward left with them. Those more grievously wounded were left hoping and wondering if or when they would be able to leave. 

For many years stories had been passed on that there were signatures and soldier’s graffiti on the walls of the home left over from the wounded men who had remained there in the building and on the grounds. For Michael Meehan, founder of the Appomattox-Petersburg Preservation Society (APPS), and Patrick Schroeder, National Park Service Historian of Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, their chance to confirm these stories came in June 2021. Michael and Patrick were given permission to enter the premises and verify the existence of the soldier’s graffiti. They discovered the graffiti and were able to cipher four names from a wall located in the attic. 

As soon as they returned home, work began to assemble a research team. Joined by Gary Whitla, APPS board member, and Joshua Lindamood, a Park Ranger at Sailor's Creek Battlefield Historical State Park, they were able to develop a preservation outline and launched a Gofundme in order to raise funds to save the soldier’s graffiti. The structure itself was threatened by dilapidated conditions, so a race against time was underway. This effort can be supported here: Truely Vaughan Graffiti Wall. 

Owing to the nature of the home and its current deteriorated state, the owner was willing to donate the wall to the APPS organization. The money raised will help the team safely secure the signatures and have them removed from the home where they hope to preserve them for many years to come for future generations. 

The soldiers listed are from two regiments of the 3rd Division that were engaged in front of the house. 

Their names are: 

Corporal John Shivler, Company K, 105th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. 

Private Luther Calkins, Company K, 105th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. 

Private Cornelius Mahorn, Company K, 105th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. 

Corporal George B. McKechnie, Company I, 1st Maine Heavy Artillery. 

Corporal John Shivler, an Indiana County, PA, native, enlisted in October of 1861 as a private at the age of 18.  He received his corporal stripes in 1864. Serving as a member of the regiment’s color guard during the fighting on April 6, he received a gunshot wound to the face. The bullet entered next to his right nostril and exited behind his right jaw. As he tried to regain his footing and attempt to make his way to the rear, witness’s say he was then run over by a mounted orderly by accident, thus further injuring him. He is listed as arriving at Burkeville Station on April 30, 1865. 

Ohio born Private Luther L. Calkins hailed from Crawford County, PA, and was drafted into the 63rd PA Infantry in 1863. In 1864, he suffered a wound in the right arm at the battle of the Wilderness. While charging the Confederate breastworks near Deatonsville, he received a gunshot wound to the left foot. The bullet entered between his second and third toes, and then turned up the foot to the base of the ankle. Three days later on April 9, 1865, he was transported from the Vaughan house to the division hospital at City Point. He received his discharge from the service on Independence Day- July 4, 1865. 

Corporal George McKechnie enlisted at age 18 in 1862 in Alton, Maine, as a Private and received a promotion to Corporal in 1864. He served in support of a battery near “Bachelor’s Rest,” his command, having “made six assaults” on the enemy at different points driving them each time from their position. During this action, he received a gunshot wound in the left hand. The bullet entered between his pointer finger and middle fingers, only to exit through his thumb knuckle. He was moved a few days later and arrived in Annapolis, Maryland, on April 15, 1865. On June 22, he received his discharge from service. After the war, he settled in Danforth, Maine. 

Private Cornelius Mahorn joined the 105th Pennsylvania as a substitute in 1864. His records do not show him being wounded, if he was injured, it was not serious. Perhaps he remained behind to look after his wounded comrades from Company K.  

What caused these soldiers to write their names on the walls of Truely Vaughan’s home? After being wounded, were they struck by boredom? What was convalescing like there in the attic of a Central Virginia farmhouse with Lee’s army on the run and your comrades leaving you? Did they have gloomy thoughts of not recovering and possibly being left there and forgotten? We may never know the true reasons for these soldiers penciling their names into the horsehair plaster wall over 156 years ago, but I am glad they did. Experiencing these names along with the others that are not legible, and connecting with the stories of each individual is a special project and undertaking that I am honored to be a part of. The wall that holds up this window to the past must forever be preserved and protected for future generations. Please help us protect this vital part of the Appomattox Campaign by donating today. 


1 Humphreys, Andrew. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Published under the direction of The Honorable Daniel Lamont, Secretary of War. Washington: Government Printing Office; 1894. Note: Page 681. 

2 Humphreys, Andrew. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Published under the direction of The Honorable Daniel Lamont, Secretary of War. Washington: Government Printing Office; 1894. Note: Page 682. 

3 Capt. Gorman, J. C. Lee’s last Campaign. Raleigh: Wm. B. Smith & Co.; 1866. Note: Page 31. 

4 Gordon, John B. Reminiscences of the Civil War. Arlington, VA: Time Life Books. Inc.; 1981. Note: Page 423-424. 

5 DeTrobriand, Regis. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Published under the direction of The Honorable Daniel Lamont, Secretary of War. Washington: Government Printing Office; 1894. Note: Page 778. 

6 Private Haley, John. The Rebel Yell & The Yankee Hurrah: A Civil War Journal of a Maine Volunteer; Capital City Press, Ruth Silliker; 1985. Note: Page 259. 

7 White, W. S. Stray Leaves from a Soldier's Journal. SHSP, Vol. XI 555. 

8 DeTrobriand, Regis. Pursuit to Appomattox, The Last Battles. Time Life Books. Inc.; 1987. Note: Page 116. 

9 Page, Charles. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Published under the direction of The Honorable Daniel Lamont, Secretary of War. Washington: Government Printing Office; 1894. Note: Page 700

Unfortunately, this house is not preserved. These signatures may disappear and their names may be lost to history. Future generations may not be able to find the same connection to their past if we do not act.

Please help us to raise the $3,500 needed to preserve this historical treasure. You can donate to this cause at:  https://gofund.me/b71cd94e

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Massaponax Church "Then and Now"

While there are numerous challenges in making a move, there are advantages, too. A new area provides new opportunities to see and learn about local history. Recently, a career change has set in motion events my relocation to Fredericksburg. Spotsylvania County was one of the most fought over areas of the Civil War, and thus it is extremely rich in its history of the conflict. 

The photographs made at Massaponax Church during the Overland Campaign are familiar to most Civil War enthusiasts, but many do not realize that the church still stands, as it has for generations. Today, I stopped to get a "now" picture to go with one of those famous "then" pictures. 

Massaponax Church, March 2022

Massaponax Church, May 1864

I hope to do many more "then and now" posts in the near future since Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County received significant photographic documentation during the war. 

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Unidentified XXV Corps Soldier

 Note XXV Corps badge on chest. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Sister Lydia Penny - “Like a Ministering Angel”

We are fortunate that several United States Colored Troops (USCT) soldiers chose to write from their camps to newspapers who were supportive of their efforts, relating their experiences in the Union army during the Civil War. Without these public missives, we would know far less about numerous aspects of their service. Newspapers like, The Anglo-African, the New Bedford Mercury, and particularly the Christian Recorder—a sheet published in Philadelphia by the African Methodist Episcopal Church—all printed soldiers’ letters.

Quartermaster Sgt. James H. Payne of the 27th United States Colored Infantry (USCI), a regiment raised in Ohio, wrote to the Christian Recorder on December 21, 1864, telling the brief biography of Lydia Penny, the wife of a 5th USCI (also recruited in Ohio) soldier who ministered to the wounded in the wake of the Battle of New Market Heights. The Christian Recorder printed Payne’s letter in their January 7, 1865 issue.

Lydia Penny probably told Payne her story after the formation of the XXV Corps in early December 1864. Previously, the 27th USCI was in the IX Corps of the Army of the Potomac, and the 5th USCI was in the XVIII Corps, part of the Army of the James. While in separate armies, these two regiments did not serve together. However, after the creation of the XXV Corps, the USCT division in the IX Corps transferred to the Army of the James.  

Surviving historical records corroborate details of Lydia Penny’s story. Sgt. Payne’s service records confirm that he indeed served at that rank in the 27th USCI. Payne was born just across the Ohio River from the Buckeye State in Mason County, Kentucky. His records indicate that he was free before April 19, 1861, but do not state whether he was born a free man or if he emancipated himself. He was apparently living before and during the early part of the Civil War in Wyandot County, Ohio, where he enlisted on March 5, 1864.

In his letter to the Christian Recorder, Payne (also sometimes spelled Pain in his records) explains that Lydia Penny, who he referred to as “our very worthy and eminent sister and mother in the army,” was born enslaved in 1814 in Blount County, Tennessee. Penny labored for her East Tennessee enslaver as a cook. Unfortunately, her situation was like that of so many other enslaved women. Payne related that “she was at the time only a girl; but . . . subsequently became the mother of children whose companionship she had long been deprived of through slavery, and that she was left a widow to suffer the torments of cruel oppression.”

From those comments, one can infer that Lydia’s children were either sold from her or rented away, leaving her unable to see and mother them. Lydia herself became a victim of the internal slave trade when a German butcher in faraway Memphis purchased her. After “a falling-out with her Dutch mistress,” Lydia informed her enslavers that she intended to run away. She successfully fled and hid among friends in Memphis until the Union army occupied the city, probably during the summer of 1862. Lydia eventually made her way into the Union army’s lines and became a cook for the soldiers. While fulfilling that role, “and having no one in particular to befriend or protect her, prudence dictated the propriety of making selection of a companion.” Traveling with the Union army in Memphis was Thomas Penny, a Black man, who was working as a servant in a three-month White regiment.

Payne informed the Christian Recorder’s readers that Thomas Penny was “a native of Pennsylvania.” After the regiment’s term of service was up, Thomas and Lydia traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Thomas enlisted in the 5th USCI, on July 10, 1863. Thomas Penny’s service records state that he was born in Beaver, Pennsylvania, and signed up at age 47, which made him just a couple of years younger than Lydia. Payne wrote that Lydia “felt it to be her duty to go along with her husband, not merely on account of the love she had for him, but for also the love which she had for her country—that the cause which nerved the soldiers to pour out their life-blood was her cause, and that of her race . . . .”   

According to Sgt. Payne, Lydia Penny was known by the USCT soldiers as “’the mother of the army.’” Payne claimed that “Sister Penny . . . is not tired of service, nor does she think of leaving the field until the last gun is fired and peace declared, and every slave is freed from captivity.” Payne provided a vivid practical example of the invaluable service Penny provided to the USCT soldiers: “Many of our officers and men who were wounded at the battle of Deep Bottom [New Market Heights]* will never forget the kind deeds of Sister Lydia Penny, who went among them and administered to their wants as they lay weltering in their blood on the James River, near Jones’ Landing.”

Deep Bottom Landing on the James River. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

There, Lydia Penny was, “the only woman present, like an angel from above, giving words of cheer, and doing all in her power to relieve the suffering of the wounded and dying.” As a comforter, “Sister Penny was seen, like a ministering angel, or one of those holy women who in primitive days administered to Christ and his apostles. She gave them water to drink and bread to eat, and assisted the surgeons in dressing their wounds.”

1st Sgt. Powhatan Beaty served in the 5th USCI with Pvt. Thomas Penny and received the Medal of Honor for his heroism at the Battle of New Market Heights. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

As the wounded USCTs were loaded onto hospital transports that conveyed them down the James River to Union hospitals at Fort Monroe and Portsmouth, Virginia, “she left her tent and all behind and went on board the boats to minister to their comfort.” And when the wounded “were delivered into the hands of careful nurses, Sister Penny returned to her tent, where she waits to administer to the wants of the afflicted soldier.”

Hospital boats like the Thomas Powell, shown above, transported the New Market Heights wounded USCTs to hospitals. Image in the public domain.

It is quite probable that we would never know about Lydia Penny’s story and her compassionate efforts on behalf of the USCTs without Payne sharing it through the pages of the Christian Recorder. Here was a woman, who bravely joined her soldier husband in the army, risking her health and sacrificing her comfort for a better future; a future without slavery, and with the hope for liberty, equality, and citizenship in the United States.

Thomas Penny’s service records show he mustered out with the 5th USCI on September 20, 1865 at Carolina City, North Carolina. Lydia Penny appears in the 1870 census in Cincinnati, Ohio’s 14th Ward, as 56 years old and living in a boarding house without Thomas. It is possible that Thomas Penny died between the end of the war and the recording of the 1870 census. Lydia’s birthplace—noted as Blount County, Tennessee in Sgt. Payne’s letter—was Virginia. The 1870 census also indicated that Lydia could not read or write. Sister Penny also appears in Cincinnati’s 1875 and 1888 city directories. In 1875, Lydia worked as a milliner, and in 1888, cook was her given occupation. Lydia Penny lived at least until 1890 when she filed for a pension for her husband’s service in the 5th USCI. However, after that, she disappears from the historical record.   

Just like the USCT soldiers she aided, we honor and remember Sister Lydia Penny, and all the other Black women who provided medical aid, encouragement, comfort, and service to the United States army during the Civil War.

Thousands of Black women served in various capacities for the United States military during the Civil War. Unfortunately, their stories often go untold. Cropped image courtesy of the Library of Congress.


*Edwin S. Redkey, the editor of A Grand Army of Black Men, in which Sgt. Payne’s Christian Recorder letter appears, interpreted Payne’s mention of the “battle of Deep Bottom” as the First Battle of Deep Bottom, noting the date “[July 27, 1864].” However, no USCT regiments participated in the First Battle of Deep Bottom. Brig. Gen. William Birney’s USCT brigade participated in the Second Battle of Deep Bottom in August 1864, but the 5th USCI, whom Lydia Penny served with, was not in that brigade. Sgt. Payne’s mention of the “battle of Deep Bottom” most assuredly refers to the Battle of New Market Heights (September 29, 1864), also sometimes referred to in military records as the Battle of Deep Bottom. The 5th USCI played a conspicuous part in the Battle of New Market Heights, where they endured significant casualties and four of their soldiers received the Medal of Honor for courageous actions.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Fallen but not Forgotten - Pvt. Henderson Taborn, Co. A, 5th USCI

During the mid-nineteenth century, Oberlin, Ohio, known as a “hotbed of abolitionism,” and even referred to as “the town that started the Civil War,” became a magnet of relocation for both self-emancipated and free people of color seeking a greater sense of liberty, autonomy, and equality. Oberlin College, founded in the early 1830s, and soon thereafter dedicated to providing a co-educational and interracial educational experience, produced a generation of abolitionist-minded Black and White graduates by the eve of the Civil War.

Famous—or infamous, depending on one’s period perspective—for the successful rescue of John Price, a self-emancipated man from Kentucky in 1858, and the adopted home of African American John Brown Harpers Ferry raiders, John Anthony Copeland and Lewis Leary, activist-abolitionism was a way of life for many Oberlin residents by the time of the Civil War.

The integrated Oberlin-Wellington Rescuers in 1858. Image in the public domain 

As was the case with Copeland and Leary, Henderson Taborn emigrated to Oberlin from North Carolina. And like Copeland and Leary, Taborn was born a free man of color. Despite being free, people of color still existed as basically second-class residents with precious few rights in the slaveholding states. Taborn, and many others, left upper-South states like North Carolina, seeking better immediate opportunities and a more hopeful future for their descendants. For many, Oberlin proved to be their promised land.

Henderson Taborn began life about 1823 in Orange County, North Carolina. Before relocating to Ohio he lived in the towns of Chapel Hill and Hillsborough where he honed his skills as a cabinet maker. Records show Taborn married Minerva Mayho on April 25, 1850, in Orange County. The couple’s union produced three children in North Carolina: Sally Ann, George, and Henderson, Jr. According to one source, the growing family moved to Oberlin toward the end of 1860 or early in 1861, just as the clouds of civil war began to gather. The Taborns welcomed two more additions to the family circle after moving to Ohio, sons Samuel and Thomas.

Marriage Certificate for Henderson Taborn & Minerva Mayho, 1850. Image courtesy of Ancestry.com

Most of Oberlin’s early war White enlistees viewed the conflict from an emancipationist perspective, in addition to the stated purpose of maintaining the Union. Town men such as Giles Waldo Shurtleff joined regiments such as the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry and battled to end slavery’s stain on the United States before emancipation was an officially stated war aim. A number of Oberlin’s Black men jumped at the opportunity to join the 54th Massachusetts Infantry and left for training in the spring of 1863, but Henderson Taborn was not among them.

In the fall of 1863, when the opportunity arose for Ohio to raise its own regiment of African American troops, Henderson Taborn did not enlisted in what became the 5th United States Colored Infantry. At about 40 years of age, and with a wife and five children to provide for, perhaps Taborn thought soldiering was a calling for Oberlin’s younger Black men. Maybe he also understood that African Americans had obtained few benefits from previous military service to the United States. Maybe he was disheartened by the unequal pay Black soldiers received or the lack opportunity for advancement beyond the non-commissioned officer level. By the beginning of 1864, Ohio started recruiting another USCT regiment, the 27th USCI, but again, Taborn was not among its rank and file.

However, on September 1, 1864, Henderson Taborn enlisted in the 5th USCI in Wooster, Ohio. Nothing in his complied military service record indicates that he was drafted or was serving as a substitute for someone else. Perhaps Taborn heard or read about of the performance of fellow Oberlin men who fought in the 5th USCI on June 15, 1864 at Petersburg, or neighbor men who struggled bravely in the 27th USCI at the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864. Maybe those reports prompted him to offer his service to do his part to end slavery, show that Black men could be as brave as White men, and to help the United States—now officially dedicated to emancipation—defeat the slaveholding Confederacy. Taborn did not tell us why, so we do not exactly know. All we know is that he enlisted.

Taborn’s enlistment records state he enlisted on September 1, 1864, was 41 years old, five feet eight inches tall, and a cabinet maker by trade. The enlisting officer noted his complexion as “black.” Nothing in Taborn’s records indicate what transportation the army used to get him to the fighting front in Virginia in such a short period. He may have traveled partly by train to Washington D.C., and from there by boat or ship down the Potomac to the Chesapeake Bay and then up the James River to the 5th USCI’s camp.

It is clear that Taborn received little if any significant training for what he would soon face. Travel time from Wooster, Ohio, to the war’s front in central Virginia took a least a week, if not two. Taborn probably had little opportunity to make acquaintance with his comrades, learn to cook his hardtack and salt pork, boil coffee army style, or even get his brogans and new uniform broken in before the 5th USCI received its next combat assignment. 

On the morning of September 29, 1864, less than a month after enlisting, Taborn and the 5th formed a second wave of an assault by the Army of the James’ Third Division of the XVIII Corps, against the Confederate earthworks along the New Market Road defended by the famous Texas Brigade. After witnessing the terrific casualty rate the first attack wave (4th and 6th USCI) encountered, the 5th USCI received orders to lead another attack, followed in column by the 36th and 38th USCIs. The 5th USCI took advantage of holes in the two lines of abatis that the first attack created, but the firepower of the Confederates was initially too much to bear and the attack stalled. Suffering terrific casualties among the officers and enlisted men, many of the non-commissioned officers took over their companies and got their momentum going again, surging forward, and with the weight of the 36th and 38th USCIs, drove the rebel defenders out of their entrenched position.

Among those in the 5th USCI recognized for their feats of heroism were first sergeants Robert Pinn, Milton Holland, James Bronson, and Powhatan Beaty, who all received the Medal of Honor for their courage under fire. Oberlin’s Lt. Col. Giles Waldo Shurtleff, now commanding the 5th USCI and wounded twice in the attack, remembered during the battle that some of the Confederates yelled derisively to the USCTs, “’Come on you smoked Yankees, we want your guns.’” While the second attack bogged down, Shurtleff recalled, “the most murderous fire that I witnessed during the war, opened upon us.” Already wounded once, Shurtleff gave the soldiers the command to “’Forward double quick’ and they went over the abbatis with a shout, and carried the works, the enemy retreating as soon as the obstructions were passed.”

First Sgt. Milton Holland was one of four 5th USCI soldiers who received the Medal of Honor for courageous actions at the Battle of New Market Heights

Scattered on the ground before the enemy earthworks, the casualties of the 5th USCI—who lost about half their men—included newly minted soldier Pvt. Henderson Taborn. It is unknown at what point in the attack life left his body, but Lt. Col. Shurtleff, and Lt. James Marsh, who was quartermaster for the 5th USCI, provided affidavits for the pension claim of Taborn’s wife, Minerva, that they heard about Taborn’s death on the battlefield from two of Taborn’s comrades captured during the attack and who were later paroled and eventually returned to the regiment. These two unnamed enlisted men saw Taborn lying dead on the battlefield.   

Pvt. Henderson Taborn likely received a burial on the field of battle. Whether Taborn was later removed to a National Cemetery as an unidentified soldier or missed during the interment process, is unknown. Although he was a United States Colored Troops soldier for less than a month that does not in any way detract from the sacrifice he willingly made with his life to his country and for the advancement of human rights. We remember Pvt. Taborn and praise his courage and determination despite the many dangers surrounding him during the Battle of New Market Heights. May he and his comrades never be forgotten!

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Occupations Held by Petersburg's Free People of Color

Waiter in Hotel 

House Servant


Fireman (railroad) 


Train Hand

Tobacco Stemmer 

Brick Layer 



Fruit Seller


Tobacco Twister 




Cupper and Leecher 


Barber Apprentice 

Armstead Wilson






Tobacco Prizer 






Brick Moulder 



Car Hand (railroad) 


Livery Keeper 











Well Digger 

House Maid 

Stone Mason 




Baptist Preacher


Carriage Driver 

Driver Furniture Wagon 

Factory Hand 

Ostler (Hostler)