Thursday, February 27, 2020

Pvt. Samuel Johnson's Unusual Death

Recently, while browsing through the compiled service records of men in the 43rd United States Colored Infantry (USCI), I happened across those of Company H's Samuel Johnson. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Johnson was only 18 years old when he enlisted in the 43rd USCI on April 28, 1864, in Philadelphia. Listed as 5 feet 3 inches tall, and having the ambiguous occupation of "laborer" before joining the Union army, Johnson's regiment suffered significant casualties at the Battle of the Crater, on July 30, 1864. One source put their losses at "one officer killed, ten [officers] severely wounded, and two [officers] taken prisoner." As far as the enlisted men: "twenty-eight men killed, ninety-four wounded, and twelve missing."

Pvt. Samuel Johnson's service records show that it was just over two weeks after the Battle of the Crater that he "deserted on the march near Petersburgh [sic] on August 18, 1864." Johnson's muster card for July and August also states that he owed $23.75 for ordnances (probably for his rifle, cartridge box, and cap pouch) and $6.59 for garrison and camp equipage that he apparently discarded when he fled.

So, why did Johnson desert? Did the horrors of battle and seeing fellow black soldiers massacred at the Crater shake the patriotism of the young man to the core? Was he mistreated in some way by his comrades or officers? Did he suddenly realize that army life was not what he thought it would be? We will likely never know.

Pvt. Johnson's service records show he was "apprehended from desertion on October 30, 1864," just three days after his comrades had battled near Hatcher's Run, southwest of Petersburg. He was placed "under arrest, awaiting trial." However, Johnson would not face a courts martial, because two days later, on November 1, he "Died at Camp near Peebles House." Peebles Farm is shown in the center of the map below.

If you have read Brian Steel Wills's book Inglorious Passages: Noncombat Deaths in the American Civil War you know that Civil War soldiers died in all manner of ways. Some drowned, some fell off railroad cars, some were struck by lightning, some were stuck by felling trees, some were killed by kicking mules, and others were victims of pranks gone bad. Curious to see if I could find out how Pvt. Johnson passed away, I continued to read through his records.

Many Union soldiers who died in service have a set of "Final Statement" papers in their service records. Sometimes these give vague reasons for the death, others make it quite clear. Pvt. Johnson's are quite clear and due to a cause I had not encountered before. It states that he was entitled to a discharge from his service commitment by reason of "Death by resulting from exposure (having deserted and remained in the woods for six weeks) at Camp near Petersburg, Va., on the first day of November 1864." Johnson's "Inventory of effects" sheet reiterate his cause of death: "Exposure incurred during desertion," and claims he "died possessed of no effects."

Being that Pvt. Johnson died so nearby, I thought I might find him resting in peace at Poplar Grove National Cemetery. Many soldiers who died in their Petersburg environs encampments were buried immediately and then reinterred after the war when the government established its area national cemeteries. Unfortunately, his name did not appear on a list of USCT soldiers buried there.

Monday, February 24, 2020

43rd USCI Casualties on October 27, 1864

About three years ago I shared the stories of a couple of 43rd United States Colored Infantry (USCI) soldiers who were killed fighting near Hatcher's Run on October 27, 1864. This coordinated movement by the Union army to try to capture the Boydton Plank Road, and if possible the Southside Railroad, involved three corps (II, V, IX). The IX Corps included Gen. Edward Ferraro's Division, in which the 43rd USCI fought.

The two men who I covered in those posts, Company A's Pvt. Joseph Gatewood and Company B's  Pvt. Joseph Crossman, were both killed in the fighting. Gatewood's service records indicate that he was born in Alabama (likely formerly enslaved), and Crossman's show he was a freeman of color from Maine. I was interested in learning more about some of the other men killed, wounded, and missing in the October 27, 1864 action, so I dove into their service records.

Pushing from east to west, and skirmishing against Confederates across the Smith farm (see bottom center of map), several men fell in the fighting. In Richmond Must Fall: The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, October 1864, historian Hampton Newsome notes that 28 men from the 43rd USCI became casualties. While looking through the service records of some of the other men who I was able to identify, I was surprised by the diversity of their origins. Knowing that the 43rd USCI was raised in Pennsylvania, I assumed that they were pretty much all free men of color. That was not necessarily the case.

Of course, their self-emancipation and enlistment in the Keystone State meant that they were free at the time they were mustered in, but many of the men were born in various slave states and thus were likely enslaved before making their way north.

Below is a list of the men (in addition Pvt. Gatewood and Pvt. Crossman) that I was able to find in a limited search and who were killed, wounded, or missing in action on October 27. If I am able to locate more in the future I will amend the list and hopefully find all 28 that Newsome noted.

Company A:
Pvt. Henry Hopkins, wounded in action, 21 years old at enlistment, substitute, born in Canada

Company B:
Sgt. James A. Anderson, wounded in action (through the left knee), 22 years old at enlistment, born in Chester County, Pennsylvania

Pvt. Richard Edmonds, wounded in action (through left hand), 20 years old at enlistment, born in New Orleans, Louisiana

Pvt. Edward Stewart, wounded in action (in both thighs), 19 years old at enlistment, born in Juniata County, Pennsylvania

Pvt. Edward Stephney, wounded in action (in right arm), 37 years old at enlistment, born in Frankfort, Kentucky

Pvt. Thomas McPherson Winfield, wounded in action (through left instep), 25 years old at enlistment, born in West Indies

Company D:
Pvt. Reuben Pollett, wounded in action (right forearm & right lower leg), 18 years old at enlistment, born in Virginia

Company G:
Pvt. William Lewis, mortally wounded in action (died Oct. 28), 33 years old at enlistment, born in Virginia

Pvt. Richard Notts, mortally wounded in action (died Oct. 31) "amputation of left forearm," 19 years old at enlistment, born in Glouster, Maryland

Company H:
Pvt. Asa Augburn, killed in action ("bullet wound in the head"), 24 years old at enlistment, born in Montgomery County, Tennessee

Pvt. Jacob Hues, "missing in action near Smith home," 19 years old at enlistment, born in Fayette County, Kentucky

Company I:
Pvt. Jeremiah "Jerry" Myers, wounded in action "amputation of right index finger," 19 years old at enlistment, born in Virginia

White Officers:
2nd Lt. James Roantree, Company A, killed in action "musket ball in the head," 21 years old

1st Lt. William Palmer, Company C, wounded in action

Capt. Joseph Forbes, Company E, wounded in action, 29 years old

1st Lt. Moses Sawyer, Company G, wounded in action left lower leg, 32 years old

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Civil War Scrip: 27th USCI Sutler's Token

For some, the Civil War offered the potential opportunity to make money. A recent study shows that many more men than once thought were likely motivated to enlist due to economic reasons than from patriotic or altruistic reasons. Manufacturers, both North and South, sought out lucrative government contracts and changed their lines of products from peace time goods to equipment and weapons of war in order to cash in. Merchants, too, jumped on the military bandwagon. And some rode it for all it was worth.

In the collections of Pamplin Historical Park and National Museum of the Civil War Soldier are some artifacts that provide evidence of the greed of the era. These artifacts are in the form of sutler tokens. The example shown here is valued at $.25 and issued to men in the 27th United States Colored Infantry (USCI).

Civil War sutlers, in effect, served as that era’s base commissary and post exchange; at least a mobile version of it. These civilian traders, operating with the army’s approval, sold items that the soldiers often needed most, had a difficult time obtaining, or required quickly. Sutlers, offered a virtual general store. They sold things like underwear, socks, pens and ink, cheap books, magazines, and newspapers, razors, and various types of foodstuffs, among hundreds of other items. Sometimes sutlers vended prohibited items, such as alcohol, too. After all, their sole reason for their being with the army was to make a profit.

As one might image, soldiers sometimes resented sutler’s high prices and their questionable quality in goods. Some soldiers applied the less than complementary title of “skinners” to sutlers, due to these seller’s ability to “fleece” their patrons. It was not an uncommon occurrence for individuals and groups of soldiers to thieve or raid a sutler’s stock as a way to retaliate.

Often Civil War soldiers received their supposed monthly pay on an inconsistent basis. In order to increase the chance of soldiers purchasing items from their stock of goods, sutlers minted tokens as a way of extending credit. Since soldiers received their pay infrequently a man could go to the sutler and ask for credit. The sutler would issue the soldier tokens, and to ensure the merchant ultimately received payment, he would have the soldier sign a paymaster’s order. On payday the paymaster paid the sutlers who extended credit before the soldier finally received what remained. Issuing tokens insured that the soldier did not take his business elsewhere.

Raised mainly from free men of color from Ohio, the 27th USCI, spent the majority of their service in Virginia and North Carolina. They participated in the Petersburg Campaign as part of Ferrero’s Division in the IX Corps and were among the United States Colored Troops who fought at the Battle of the Crater (July 30, 1864) and during Grant’s Sixth Offensive (October 27, 1864). They also spent part of their duty on the Bermuda Hundred, where a soldier likely dropped or misplaced this particular token.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Capturing Black Confederate Teamsters

On October 27, 1864, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant continued his strategy to capture Peterburg by making an attempt to sever the Boydton Plank Road, and if possible, the Southside Railroad beyond; Petersburg’s last two supply lines. 

Concerting the actions of the II, V, and IX Corps of the Army of the Potomac on that day resulted in the II Corps briefly cutting the Boydton Plank Road. However, unsupported, they withdrew that evening. Part of Grant’s Sixth Offensive, the battle has been referred to by several names: The Battle of Boydton Plank Road, First Hatcher’s Run, and Burgess Mill.

Private Cornelius B. Baker, a thirty year old soldier in the 1st Maine Cavalry, wrote a letter home to his mother three days after the battle giving a view of his present condition and the results of the fight. Baker began by telling his mother that, “My health is as good as can be expected.” After a short paragraph about the capture of a man named George—perhaps a comrade or kin—Baker got to the heart of the letter, which explained his regiment’s casualties and gains.

“We had a severe battle near this place last Tuesday. Our regiment lost heavily. I think there were about 90 killed, wounded, and missing. Among those that were killed was Lieut. Collins. He was a fine, promising young man, and is deeply lamented by all that knew him. Our men captured quite a number of prisoners, ten army wagons loaded with provisions, and the drivers (all colored men). One of them is with me. . . . He says that God alone knows the suffering there is among the poor [African American] class.”

Baker continued that a number of his comrades’ enlistments expired and thus returned home. He planned to do the same in the spring, if he survived. Baker ended his letter by asking to give his love to friends and family back home. It seems that fortune smiled on Pvt. Baker, as his discharge became final on March 5, 1865, a little more than a month before Appomattox.

Pvt. Baker’s letter is part of the Wiley Sword Collection, held at Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier.

Sketch of “A Mule Driver” by Edwin Forbes, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The Butler Medal in the General's Own Words

Much like the Battle of New Market Heights is often forgotten among the Antietams, Gettysburgs, and Vicksburgs of the Civil War, the Butler Medal is little known as well. Commissioned by the commander of the Army of the James, Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, in the wake of the New Market Heights assaults, Butler's medal was given to the courageous black Union soldiers who braved the leaden storm.

In his 1892 autobiography, simply titled Butler's Book, the general explained why he had the medal struck:

"My white regiments were always nervous when standing in line flanked by colored troops, lest the colored regiments should give way and they (the white) be flanked. This fear was a deep-seated one and spread far and wide, and the negro had no sufficient opportunity to demonstrate his valor and his staying qualities of a soldier. And the further cry was that the negro never struck a good blow for their own freedom. Therefore, I determined to put them in position, to demonstrate the fact of the value of the negro as a soldier coute qui coute [cost what it may] and that the experiment should be one of which no man should doubt, if it attained success. Hence the attack by the negro column on Newmarket Heights.

After that in the Army of the James a negro regiment was looked upon as the safest flanking regiment that could be put in line.

I had the fullest reports made to me of the acts of individual bravery of colored men on the occasion, and I had it done for the negro soldiers, by my own order, what the government has never done for its white soldiers - I had a medal struck of like size, weight, quality, fabrication and intrinsic value with those which Queen Victoria gave with her own hand to her distinguished private soldiers in the Crimea. I have caused an engraving of that medal to be printed in this book in honor of the colored soldiers and of myself."  

"Freedom Will Be Theirs By The Sword"

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Bully Photograph - Signal Corps

It has been a while since I shared a "Bully Photograph," but this one caught my attention recently, so I thought I'd post it.

It comes courtesy of the Library of Congress and shows a group of men from the U.S. Signal Corps, apparently on Elk Ridge, near the Antietam battlefield. Sitting among the group are three African American young men.

The young man on the left side of the photograph rests against a small tree as he intently stares at the camera. His slouch hat sits next to the left knee. It is difficult to tell if his clothing is civilian or military, or a mix, however, his coat appears to have lapels. He wears boots rather than shoes. I wonder how he came to be with the army? Was he formerly free or enslaved? Did he come from Washington D.C., Frederick, Maryland, or was he from the country? Did he serve in a United States Colored Troop regiment later in the war?

The boy in the center of the photograph appears to be the youngest of the three. It looks like he has a military forage cap on the right knee. He wears a vertically stripped shirt under an open checked jacket. Either he is too bashful to look into the camera or the shot was taken while his head was slighted bowed. He seems to hold onto the pant leg of the solider sitting to his right. This youngster cannot be more than eight or nine years old, probably even younger. Did he see the terrible sights from the Battle of Antietam? Where were his parents? Did he know the other two black young men in the photograph? What did such a little fellow do for the army?

The third young man, who sits on the far right side of the photograph has his legs crossed and is barefooted. He, like the first, stares at the camera. He wears what looks to be military jacket with epaulets, perhaps a shell jacket, with the too long sleeves rolled up to fit better. What did he do after the war? Who are his descendants? 

We'll likely never know the answers to these questions, but thanks to photography we have this amazing image to record this particular point in time.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Officer's Servant Lost!

From Raleigh, North Carolina's Daily Confederate, April 4, 1865.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Personality Spotlight - Lt. Col. John A. Bross, 29th USCI

Today's post comes courtesy of Mike Spencer, who serves as Secretary for the Petersburg Battlefields Foundation. Mike has been researching many of the Union forts that were built around Petersburg in 1864 and 1865. Many of these earthen fortifications were named for Union officers killed in the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns. You may remember his excellent article that I shared a while back on Fort DuShane. This one provides a nice biography of Lt. Col. John A. Bross.

Lt. Col. John A. Bross, 29th United States Colored Infantry

John Armstrong Bross was born on February 21st, 1826, in Milford, Pennsylvania. Bross eventually relocated to Chicago in 1848, where he would practice law. He held positions such as United States Marshall and Commissioner. He married his wife Isabelle “Belle” Mason in 1856. The couple had two children, a daughter Cora and a son named Mason. Tragically in July of 1861, just as the war was beginning, young Cora passed away at the age of 2 ½. This tragedy loomed over the remaining years of John’s life, leading him to write many letters and poetry in memoriam to his little daughter. His grief would remain strong until he met his own demise three years later while leading his men in battle.

In the early months of the war, Bross did not immediately join the ranks to fight. Understandably with his recent loss of his daughter, along with a successful career, John stayed home with his family. As the war moved into its second year in 1862, Bross finally answered the call to duty. He helped raise several units in his area of Illinois near Chicago. He would be appointed as Captain of Company A, 88th Illinois. With this command, Bross and his men saw action in the Western Theater at such battles as Perryville, Kentucky, Murfreesboro/Stones River, Tennessee, and Chickamauga in Georgia.

Once the state of Illinois finally approved the raising of United States Colored Troops (USCTs), Bross agreed to help raise and lead these men. He became Lieutenant Colonel of that unit, which became the 29th Infantry U.S. Colored Troops. We get a glimpse into this man’s dedication when we read the following quote from Lieutenant Colonel Bross that was heard at an event for the 29th as they prepared to go to Virginia.
"When I lead these men into battle, we shall remember Fort Pillow, and shall not ask for quarter. I leave a home and friends as dear as can be found on earth; but if it is the will of Providence that I do not return, I ask no nobler epitaph than that I fell for my country, at the head of this black and. blue regiment." (Various authors, Colonel John A. Bross, pgs. 10-11)
He and the 29th joined the IX Corps in Virginia as the Overland Campaign was taking place in May of 1864. They did not take part in much fighting but were with the Union Army of the Potomac as they moved south of the James and Appomattox Rivers in June in its attempt to capture Petersburg. Once the initial attempts failed to capture that city, the 29th USCT joined the rest of the Union army in its war of attrition against Robert E. Lee’s army.

In July, Bross and his men were ordered to prepare for a coming assault against the Confederate defenses east of Petersburg. He and his men were specifically trained to assault the enemy works following a mine explosion that would blast a hole in their defenses. Shortly before the assault took place on July 30, 1864, Army of the Potomac commander General George Meade decided not to use the U.S. Colored Troops out of fear of the political backlash if the attack failed. Instead other units that were not as prepared as the USCTs were ordered in first. This shift in the plan no doubt played into the coming disaster that became the Battle of the Crater.

“Colonel Bross was about six feet in height, slender and compactly built. His features were regular and finely molded, and his countenance indicative of strongly marked character, and refined sensibilities. As an officer, his appearance was finer than that of a majority of those in command.” (Various authors, Colonel John A. Bross, pg. 23) This man of honor and dignity, known also for his strong faith in God, had his brave troops ready on the morning of July 30th, the day that many in the Union ranks had been preparing for. At 4:40 a.m. the mine under the Confederate lines exploded, leaving a huge hole in the works. After an initial shock to both sides, Union troops of the IX Corps attacked, led by General James Ledlie’s Division. These troops gained the Confederate works and drove beyond the original line some, but were not prepared for the chaos and confusion that surrounded the Crater. It did not help that their commander, General Ledlie, failed to coordinate the attack well and was somewhere in the rear of his men and, later accused of being drunk. His men did not properly secure the outer trenches and many of them lingered in the actual Crater itself. These delays allowed for the Confederates to recover and respond with violent counterattacks, most notably led by General William Mahone.

General Burnside finally ordered General Ferrero’s division of Colored Troops forward. Colonel Sigfried’s brigade managed to gain some ground and push back Confederates who had started to gain the upper hand. Colonel Henry Thomas’ brigade, which contained the 29th USCT, tried to add to this success as well. Bross was personally leading the brigade into the fight. The brigade was devastated with canister fire and volleys of musketry as it descended into the confusion of the trenches north of the Crater and in some cases into the hole itself. Ferrero’s brigades managed to push a short distance beyond the Crater before withering under intense fire and falling back to the safety of a rear Confederate trench.
Burnside soon ordered one more attack to try and gain Cemetery Hill, which lay about 500 yards beyond Ferrero’s men. It was at this point, around 9:00 a.m. that Lieutenant Colonel Bross climbed out of the trench with the regimental flag in hand, and called on his men to follow him. Approximately 200 of his troops followed their leader forward. It was at this same time that General Mahone launched another powerful counterattack, stopping this last brave attempt by Bross and the USCTs to win the day. At this moment Bross planted the regimental flag in an attempt to rally his men, but “was struck by a minie bullet, in the left side of the head, and fell dead, uttering…’Oh Lord’.” (Various authors, Colonel John A. Bross, pg. 17)

The Confederates soon pushed the Union troops back into the Crater or beyond their original trenches. Burnside ordered his Corps to withdraw, but not before a terrible slaughter took place in and around the Crater for a period of time before the firing stopped, ending this momentous and terrible battle. After the battle, the Confederates identified his body but decided to bury his body with his men.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Recent Acquisitions to My Library

Few Americans today, black or white have heard of the Christian Recorder newspaper. However, for African Americans, particularly those from the Free States, it served as a way of receiving news on how the United States Colored Troops (USCT) were faring in the Civil War. Soldiers and others associated with the USCTs wrote in regularly giving reports. One of those who wrote often was Henry McNeal Turner who helped recruit the 1st United States Colored Infantry and served as its chaplain. Freedom's Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of Henry McNeal Turner has distilled his contributions to the Christian Recorder and provided them for us to read. Edited by Jean Lee Cole, this book is sure to be an excellent and insightful read.

I've had Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union by Daniel W. Crofts on my book wishlist since it was published by UNC Press about four years ago. I recently found an inexpensive but well-kept used copy and snatched it up. Everyone know the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States when it was finally ratified in December 1865, but few know a much different 13th Amendment was once proposed, The earlier one would have made slavery perpetual in the states that wanted it as a means of compromising on the issue that was splitting the country in 1861.

The Politics of Black Citizenship: Free African Americans in the Mid-Atlantic Borderland, 1817-1863 by Andrew K. Diemer focuses on the large antebellum free black populations of Baltimore and Philadelphia and the area between these urban locations to examine their struggles for acceptance as citizens. These areas provided thousands of USCT regiments during the Civil War, so I'm intrigued to learn some of the religious, social, and political organizations that helped motivate free blacks to serve in the United States military in effort to end slavery and gain citizenship rights and equality.

Examining the lives of Civil War veterans in the post-war years has almost turned into its own special area of study in recent years. Books like Brian Matthew Jordan's Marching Home, Donald R. Shaffer's After the Glory, Paul A. Cimbala's Veterans North and South, and others, are reshaping what we thought we knew about veterans after they came home and pulled off their blue and gray jackets. Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America by James Marten is sure to make an additional valuable contribution to this growing body of scholarship.

As my shallow knowledge of how North Carolina experienced the Civil War deepens, I'm always on the lookout for studies to help me learn even more. Driven from Home: North Carolina's Civil War Refugee Crisis by David Silkenat examines how five groups who were displaced by the tumult of the Civil War in the Old North State moved to find safety and life's necessities. Silkenat looks at white Unionists, pro-Confederate whites (both slaveholding and non-slaveholding), African Americans, and young women to forge this important study. It promises to be a good one!

As always, Happy Reading!