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.

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