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.

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