Wednesday, April 10, 2013

History Mystery Solved: Kager Mays, 108th USCI

I just love it when I can answer historical questions by doing a little research and using the information that I learned through reading books. Those two tools came in handy when trying to find out some information about a USCT photograph that I recently came across browsing through the Gladstone Collection in the Library of Congress.

The image (above) shows a proud looking African American Union soldier with his cap bill turned up and in a regulation army blouse. A necklace of some type rests on his chest.

The online Library of Congress image description did not give a name to this man, it only stated "African American soldier, half-length portrait, facing front."

The reason this soldier was not identified was due to the terrible handwriting on the back of the photograph. The photo's backside also provided me with a clue. It said it was taken by "Shepherd and Smith, Post Artists, Camp McClellan, Iowa and Rock Island Barracks, Ill." All that is legible of the handwritten portion is "Corp." (Corporal) and what looks to be Kager, the last name seems virtually unreadable. Then, legible again, is "Co. C" (Company C). But, the Company C is almost useless information without his regiment number, as every Civil War regiment had a Company C.

Here is where my reading came in handy. A number of years back I read Rebels at Rock Island: The Story of a Civil War Prison, by Benton McAdams. I read this book mainly because I had discovered through some genealogy work that I had a Confederate ancestor captured at Missionary Ridge (Chattanooga), Tennessee and was sent to Rock Island, a Union prisoner of war camp in the Mississippi River between Illinois and Iowa. In the book it mentioned that the 108th United States Colored Infantry served as prison guards at Rock Island at one point of their service.

Then, recently, I read Ronald Coddington's African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album. In African American Faces Coddington highlighted a number of soldiers in Company E of the 108th who served at Rock Island.

Putting two and two together, I reasoned that the soldier pictured was probably in the 108th too, but as the back indicated, in Company C, not E. I tried to find a roster of Company E soldiers online to no success. But then I checked the Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Kentucky. Since the 108th was raised in Kentucky the soldiers of the regiment were all listed. I went to Company C and looked for a Corporal Kager "something." At first I did not see it, but then under the listing for "Died" was this soldier, "Corp. Kazer Mays." I knew this had to be my man.

"Kazer" Mays was actually Kager Mays. Mays was the illegible last name on the back of photograph. It even looks like Mays, now that I know that is what it is. His first name was even spelled Cager on one of his forms.

Looking up this soldier's service records gives us some insight into his life before joining the army and his experience during the Civil War and the first months of Reconstruction.

Mays was born in Adair County, Kentucky. When he enlisted on June 22, 1864, he was 40 years old. His is shown as 5 feet 4 1/2 inches tall and black complexioned.

Mays must have performed his duty well as a soldier, as he was promoted to corporal on December 1, 1864. Sadly, while serving in Mississippi in the months after the Civil War, Mays died of "remittant fever;" likely malaria or yellow fever, on August 12, 1865.

It appears that Mays was owned by an Eliza Mays of Adair County, and enlisted without her consent. He enlisted at nearby Lebanon, Kentucky, for three years. Unfortunately, I was unable to locate Eliza Mays in the 1860 census.

Although Kager Mays died in service, the 108th continued to serve until they were mustered out in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on March 22, 1866.

I was hoping I would find Mays among the interments at the Vicksburg National Cemetery, but alas he was not listed. His discharge papers, processed three days after his death, show that he had received $74.74 worth of clothes from the government since his enlistment. It also lists "one shelter tent" worth $2.90." Among his service papers was an inventory for personal effects. Sadly, it listed "no effects."

Mays died like so many other soldiers that served in the Civil War - by disease, rather than bullets. But now this previously "unknown soldier" has a name and story to go with his amazing photograph.

Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Mays service records courtesy of the National Archives.


  1. Probably buried as Unknown Soldier Vicksburg National Cemetery

  2. Excellent work! Thank you for sharing

  3. Great example of why we continue to learn so much more... Most of the story remains to be told!