Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Curious Case of Pvt. Isaac Smith, 6th USCI. Son of Lydia H. Smith, Housekeeper of Thaddeus Stevens

If you've seen the movie Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and featuring Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, you might remember a scene at the end of the film. In that scene Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, comes home with the just ratified 13th Amendment and shows it to his African American housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith as they are in bed together. Lydia Smith was a real life person and was indeed Stevens's housekeeper in his residences in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and in Washington D.C. while Stevens was in session as a congressman.

Lydia Smith was born in 1815 in Adams County (Gettysburg), Pennsylvania. She was one quarter African American, as her mother was free woman of color and her father was white.

Although, as the above photograph shows, she could potentially pass for white, she married a free man of color named Jacob Smith and the couple had two children, William and Isaac Smith. Apparently with Jacob Smith somehow unable to support the family properly, Lydia and Jacob separated, Lydia left Adams County and became the housekeeper and eventually business manager for attorney, businesswoman, and congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who had previously moved from Adams County to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Jacob Smith apparently died in 1852.

Lydia's son William died in 1861 from a pistol accident, but Isaac became a barber and banjo player and eventually ended up drafted during the Civil War into Company D of the 6th United States Colored Infantry, a regiment raised primarily of free men of color from Pennsylvania.

Pvt. Isaac Smith's service records indicate that he enlisted on July 13, 1863, just at the same time that draft riots were starting to rage in New York City. Smith was 26 years old, born in Adams County, Pennsylvania, 5 feet 3 inches tall, and was described as having a dark complexion. Smith was officially mustered into service on August 14, 1863. 

Smith's muster roll returns show him present for duty, until the April 1864 return. On that document he is listed as "absent without leave since April 29, 1864." However for the May and June return he is listed back as present. Smith apparently participated in the 6th's fighting at Baylor's Farm and the initial attacks on Petersburg on June 15, 1864, as well as the 6th's desperate combat at New Market Heights on September 29, 1864. He seems to have missed the Fort Fisher fighting in mid-January 1865, as on the January and February 1865 return he is marked as "absent without leave since Dec. 24, '64." Interestingly, Smith had been listed on his previous cards as a private, but with the January and February card his is noted as "mus.," for, I assume, musician.

On the April and May 1865 return card it states, "Deserted. Due ref. 1 N.C.O. & mus. sword, 1 sword belt & [belt] plate, 1 mus. waist belt and plate. Reported absent without leave till April 30, '65."

The 6th mustered out of service at Wilmington, NC in September 1865, apparently without Isaac Smith. So what happened?

On into Smith's service records is a deposition taken in 1866 in Washington D.C. In it the justice of the peace, remembered that on April 12, 1864, a resident of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Hugh Kennedy, stated that he knows Isaac Smith from living in Lancaster and that "said Smith is subject to paralysis." Kennedy related a story that once in 1860 while he was being shaved by Smith the barber, Smith was "seized with a fit of palsy." Smith was so temporarily paralyzed that he was unable to finish shaving Kennedy. Kennedy went on to say that he had witnessed Smith have similar fits at other times that "forced him to suspend business for a time."

 Also in Smith's service record file is a handwritten and a printed copy of Special Order 37, dated January 24, 1865. It states: "By direction of the President, Private Isaac Smith, Company D, 6th U.S. Colored Troops, having been illegally drafted will be discharged the services of the United States. on the receipt of this Order at the place where he may be serving. By order of the Secretary of War, E.D. Townsend, Assistant Adjutant General."

What to make of this document find? Did Smith go absent without leave on December 24, 1864, as his service records indicate? Had Smith perhaps seen enough combat horror, did he grow tired of the hardships of field service, or did his illness flare up causing him to go home to Lancaster, or to Washington D.C. and use his mother's connections through Congressman Stevens to get President Lincoln to release him from his service? Was the reason of being illegally drafted connected to his history of "fits of palsy, or was there another issue that made his being drafted illegal?"  If he had received a release from service in January 1865, why was a deposition taken in 1866 that remembered back to 1864? If he was suffering palsy, why wasn't he able to get a medical release earlier?  So many questions.

With all of these questions and too few answers it makes inquiring minds like mine want to know.  Does anyone out there have more information on this situation?


  1. Hi Tim,
    This is an intriguing post. I am attempting to research and write a book about Isaac's mother, Lydia. I'm still in the early stages, but I had not seen any mention of Isaac's military "problems" before I came across your work. Where did you find the military records? How difficult is it to access them? I live in Lancaster where Isaac moved with his brother and mother around 1847(1848?). When Isaac came back to Lancaster after the war, he apparently was living with his mother and Stevens in Stevens's house.In 1867, the year before he died, Stevens wrote Isaac a letter banning him from his house in Lancaster. The letter does not give the reason for Stevens's anger against Isaac, just makes it clear he is to be gone. I'm hoping to learn more about the expulsion as I continue digging. Thanks for any help you can provide in accessng those military records. If I come across any info relating to the discharge and AWOL issues, I'd be happy to let you know.
    Mark Kelley
    Lancaster, PA (

  2. Hi Mark,
    I'm glad to hear someone is researching Lydia. I found Isaac's service records through the database. You have to have a subscription but once in the database, they are easy to find. Good luck in you search. I'd be happy to hear about anything you find.

  3. seems unlikely that we'll ever know why Issac's de facto step-father banned from the premises where he continued living with his mother...the odd thought occurs that it might relate to some superstition about epilepsy unlikely as that seems...

  4. ...banned ''Isaac'' that is from the premises etc.