Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Recent Acquisitions to My Library

Having several ancestors who fought in the 37th North Carolina of the Branch-Lane Brigade, I was excited to see Lee's Immortals: The Battles and Campaigns of the Branch Lane Brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia, 1861-1865, when it was still in pre-release. Then last month at work, its author Michael Hardy spoke at Pamplin Historical Park for the anniversary of the VI Corps Petersburg Breakthrough, where Lane's brigade was defending the Cockade City. Hardy brought up a number of instances where the brigade put in hard work which I did not know about, so my interest was piqued even further. Needless to say, I bought a copy to have him sign. I look forward to learning more about the battles and campaigns of this premier brigade in Lee's army.

I'm a sucker for pretty much anything published having to do with Petersburg. The almost 10 month-long campaign is finally starting to get its just due in terms of scholarly attention. Petersburg to Appomattox: The End of the War in Virginia, edited by Caroline Janney, is a fine and diverse set of essays which adds significantly to our knowledge of the places, events, and personalities who battled to capture and defend the Cockade City in 1864-65.

Almost every one of Grant's nine offensives in the Petersburg Campaign have received individual studies. Richmond Must Fall: The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, October 1864, covers the sixth offensive, which includes the fighting at Burgess Mill along the Boydton Plank Road, just a handful of miles from where I currently live, but also the actions along the Darbytown Road, north of the James River, just outside of Richmond. With this book Hampton Newsome has produced one of the best battle treatments of any Petersburg action available. I highly recommend it and am pleased to finally have a copy now in my personal library.

I came cross My Brother's Keeper: African Canadian and the American Civil War by Bryan Prince, while I was doing research on Alexander T. Augusta. Many fugitive slaves made their way to Canada in the years before the Civil War, and when blacks were finally allowed to serve in United States Colored Troop units, many of them or their sons joined Union units to help put an end to slavery and prove black men were fully worthy of citizenship and equal rights. This book will fill a large void in my knowledge about African Canadians and their service to the Union cause.

Inglorious Passages: Noncombat Deaths in the American Civil War by Brian Steel Wills is another book that was on my wish-list long before it was released. Last week Wills spoke about this book at the Petersburg Civil War Roundtable meeting, and the stories he included in his presentation were compelling tales of men who served but died in an unexpected manner. Wills describes soldiers who drowned, who committed suicide, who were killed in train derailments, in steamship explosions, in capsized ships, and in may other ways. This book covers an aspect of the Civil War that has long been begging for examination. Now we have a quality book that explored this fascinating yet sad topic.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Sgt. William H. Thomas, 5th USCT: Writing with a Left-Hand and a Voice

In my current re-reading of Brian Matthew Jordan's Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War, for our book club at work, I came across a reference to an African American soldier, named William H. Thomas, who was only one of two black soldiers who participated in a left-handed writing contest for men who had lost their right hand or arm in battle.

The contest, began in 1865 and organized by William Oland Bourne, a poet, editor, reformer, and Civil War hospital chaplain, sought to encourage right-hand amputees to practice writing with their left to gain skills needed for gainful employment now that the war was over. The contest offered monetary prizes, and eventually 257 men submitted samples. 

As mentioned above, one of the contestants was Company I, 5th USCT soldier William H. Thomas. Thomas was a free man of color from Ohio. He appears with his family in the 1860 census for Monroe Township in Madison County, Ohio, which is just west of Columbus. The census listing unearths some intriguing information. 

The head of the Thomas household was William's father, Alexander, who is listed as a 51 year old "mulatto" "farm hand," who was born in Virginia. Alexander's wife, Rebecca (48), also described as mulatto, was born in Ohio. What is so intriguing is that Alexander and Rebecca's first child, Harriet (23) was born in Canada. Was Alexander a fugitive slave from Virginia, who met Rebecca in Ohio and continued on to Canada and freedom and had their first child in the 1830s? Could be! All of the other Thomas children were born in Ohio: Sallie (20), William (17), Samuel P (15), Benjamin F (13), Charles (9), and Walter S. (7).

William H. Thomas's soldier service records indicated that he was 21 when he enlisted on September 23, 1863 at Delaware, Ohio. The young man was listed as a student and described as "brown" in complexion, and standing 5 feet, 11 inches tall. Thomas must have shown military ability, as he was promoted to sergeant on October 18, 1863, after less than a month in service. He may have been wounded in the first attacks on Petersburg in June 1864, as a brief notation indicates such, but it appears that he did duty in the trenches that summer, and probably participated in the desperate fight at New Market Heights on September 29, 1864.

However, Thomas's good fortune ran out when the 5th was transferred to Wilmington, North Carolina, in the winter of 1865 to capture Fort Fisher. During the fighting on February 22, 1865, Thomas received a gunshot wound to the right arm, which required the amputation of that limb. It appears that young Thomas was mustered out of the service on September 25, 1865, after a lengthy recovery. Interestingly, the footnote in Brian Matthew Jordan's book shows that Thomas's left handwriting contest submission was made on September 27. Thomas's name is included with the other soldiers in a listing (shown above) of contributors.

Jordan explains in his book (page 120) that Thomas's submission was made not so much to win any of the prizes, but rather to voice the black man's point of view on the war. He included: "Since . . . we have shared alike in the dangers and vicissitudes of war, ought we not to partake in all the immunities pertaining to the rights of citizens, even, as  our Anglo Saxon brothers?" Thomas listed a number of engagements that black soldiers fought in and wanted proper recognition for African American soldiers and their important role in ultimately defeating the rebellion. Unfortunately, too often, black soldier agency went unheard and under-recognized in the post-war years, despite the overwhelming evidence of the many sacrifices they made to preserve the Union and abolish slavery.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Graves at Merchant's Hope Episcopal Church - Lt. William H. Harris, 46th Virginia Infantry

Merchant's Hope Episcopal Church is located in rural Prince George County, near Hopewell, Virginia. The congregation was founded in 1657, and their current church building (shown above) was constructed about thirty years before the start of the Revolutionary War. The building is simple, yet elegant, with its Flemish bond brick walls, arched doors and windows and is a testament to its ancient age. Sometime during the Union army's occupation of the area in the spring of 1864 through the following year, the building's interior and many of the church's records were destroyed.

Behind the church are two small fenced in cemetery plots. On my first visit to the church, I noticed from afar that one of the stones was pointed, as are many Confederate veteran's stones. Another tombstone in the adjacent plot was rounded. However, both had small flags beside them. 

The rounded stone marks the grave of William Henry Harris, who apparently died in 1918 at the age of 77. The grave marker states that Harris served as 1st Lieutenant of Company B, 46th Virginia Infantry ,"Mahone's Brigade, War of 1861-5." 

Curious to learn more about his soldier, I searched for Harris's service records on Fold3, and any for any personal information that I could find in census records. William Henry Harris apparently was not a Prince George County native, as I found him in the 1860 census in Albemarle County in the household of his mother and father. His father, Lively Harris, is shown as 40 years old and is noted as an overseer. Lively has personal property worth $50. His mother, Mary, is listed as 33 years old. William is given as an 18 year old "laborer." Also in the household was sister Sarah (15), and brothers Bernard (12), John (6), and Alfred (4). 

William H. Harris enlisted in Company D of the 46th Virginia Infantry on June 15, 1861, in Charlottesville, originally for 12 months. He was apparently captured at Roanoke Island, North Carolina in February 1862. It seems he was paroled and then exchanged, as he received promotions to corporal, sergeant, and then 2nd Lieutenant during the war. He surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse with the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865. Harris's service records include his commission to 2nd Lt. It gives a better description of his features than his other service records. It lists him as being 22 years old (in 1864), 5 feet, 10 inches tall, with a light complexion, grey eyes, and light hair. 

I did not know much about the 46th Virginia, but I was pretty sure that Mahone's Brigade did not include them. So I did some internet searching and found that the 46th was actually in Brig. Gen. Henry A. Wise's Brigade. Wise, as you may know, was the pre-war governor of Virginia and the man who saw John Brown hanged for his Harper's Ferry raid. The 46th Virginia and Wise's Brigade fought in the Seven Days Battles around Richmond after their parole from Roanoke Island and then were sent to the Department of the South and participated in the defense of Charleston, South Carolina. They were then transferred back to Virginia, where they fought in the Bermuda Hundred, Petersburg, and Appomattox Campaigns.

I am not sure why Harris's gravestone is mislabeled. His service records do not indicate that he was ever promoted to 1st Lieutenant, and he does not appear to have ever served in Company B, but was rather in Company D. Also, the engraving mistakes Mahone's Brigade, instead of actually being in Wise's Brigade. Perhaps Harris's wife or estate executor mistakenly remembered his rank, company, and brigade.

Attempting to soundly confirm the soldier buried at Merchant's Hope was the William Henry Harris from Charlottesville, I tried to search later census records. I found him in the 1910 census for Prince George County as 69 years old, and it seems the research gods were with me, as in Harris's household, it lists his wife, Pelorina. But, to corroborate his identity, it lists as well his brother Bernard, now 63 years old, who had also been listed in the 1860 census as a 12 year old. What prompted Harris to locate to Prince George County sometime after the war? I have absolutely no idea. Perhaps he saw the area during his Civil War service and liked what he saw and later became a farmer there. Regardless of his reasons, he now rests under a mis-identified grave, but hopefully, at peace.