Saturday, January 30, 2021

Women and the United States Sanitary Commission


In the last 25 years or so a tremendous amount of scholarship has appeared discussing the roles of women during the Civil War. Trailblazing studies on women who disguised themselves as men and soldiered in camp and in combat now inform us, as do those on women who served as spies and scouts. Other scholarship focuses on more traditional female roles such as ladies’ aid and memorial societies and those who served in nursing and caregiving activities.

One specific organization that emerged during the Civil War and that offered women new opportunities to make an impact on the war effort was the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC). The USSC was the largest and best organized Union soldier benevolent institution during the Civil War. And although headed by males, women were the backbone of the organization. Outside of the relatively small number of women who broke traditional female roles and served as soldiers and spies, other patriotic Union women sought to make significant contributions to the war effort. Once in the USSC or similar organizations, women used these opportunities to learn, apply, and grow new skills sets like networking, clerking, managing, and organizing.

Some women came into the ranks of the USSC with these skills already well in hand from working in pre-war social movement organizations such as women’s rights and abolition societies. Largely composed of women from upper and middle-class Northern families, female USSC workers toiled diligently to bring comforts to soldiers in the field, and support to their families on the home front. Women USSC workers organized to fund the printing of tracts meant to give soldiers advice about how to prevent diseases. They solicited donations from individuals and corporations to buy food, shelter, and medicines to supplement that provided by the U.S. military. And they tried to help soldiers transition back into civilian life after their enlistments expired, especially those suffering from extended illnesses or war-related disabilities.

After the war, many women who gained skills serving in the USSC continued their activist ways. Some utilized their grassroots organizing talents to work for women’s suffrage and campaign against child labor. The effect that these initiatives had on American society reached far beyond the four years of America’s tragic conflict, but they illustrate the power and influence individuals possess to create change.  

Monday, January 25, 2021

Is that You, Lt. Hoag?


When I first saw a photograph that captured a group of officers in the 4th United States Colored Infantry (USCI) at Fort Slocum in the fall of 1865, I quickly noticed Sgt. Maj. Christian Fleetwood, proudly displaying his Medal of Honor and Butler Medal, both pinned to his chest. The second thing I noticed was a man seated on Fleetwood’s right side who had something different pinned to his chest, an empty left sleeve. I immediately wondered, who is this man, can I possibly identify him?


Later, while constructing a list of casualties from the Battle of New Market Heights for the 4th USCI by using the soldiers’ Complied Military Service Records, I came across Lt. James Murray Hoag, an officer in Company E. 

Before receiving a commission in the United States Colored Troops, Hoag served in the 9th New York Heavy Artillery in 1862 and 1863. Hoag joined the 4th USCI shortly after it formed in the late summer of 1863. The 20 year old 2nd lieutenant endured a two-week period of illness in the spring of 1864. However, it appears that Hoag recuperated in time to participate in the 4th’s first taste of battle at Baylor’s Farm and along the Dimmock Line at Petersburg on June 15, 1864.

Hoag received promotion to 1st lieutenant and reassignment to Company B on September 21, 1864. A week and a day later he helped lead his company into the fight at New Market Heights. During the battle, Hoag received a wound to his right shoulder and another to his left arm. His left arm injury required amputation above the elbow. Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler mentioned Hoag’s courage in his October 11 message to the Army of the James. Butler wrote of Hoag, “although on the sick list, and suffering from the effects of fever, insisted on leading his company, until he fell, wounded in two places, at the enemy’s lines of abatis.” 

Forwarded to the general hospital at Fort Monroe, Hoag endured a rather lengthy recovery. While healing, he received a promotion to captain of Company C, filling the vacancy of William V. King, who was killed on June 15 at Petersburg. Receiving a furlough to go back home to New York state, Hoag also planned to use the leave time to search for a prosthetic limb.

Information in Hoag’s service records states that he received a disability discharge in April 1865, but Hoag was back in the ranks by about that time. In the summer and fall he served on detached duty with the Freedmen’s Bureau in North Carolina. Back with the 4th, and assigned to the Washington D.C. fortifications that fall, Hoag and the other officers apparently sat for the photographs at Fort Slocum shown here.

Another photograph, apparently made at the same time as the one with Sgt. Maj. Fleetwood, shows the officers of the 4th at leisure. Some of the officers are playing cards, some are enjoying drinks, and some are playing musical instruments. Curiously, Fleetwood is absent in this particular shot, but Hoag (or who appears to be Hoag) wears the same distinctive cap and still has his sleeve pinned to his chest as in the other photograph. His then rank of captain shows with his shoulder straps.


The 4th mustered out in the spring of 1866, but Hoag remained in the service and later received brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel. He soon reported to Freedmen’s Bureau duty in southeastern Georgia. While in Savannah, Hoag met his future wife. The couple soon married and later moved to Iowa where they lived for many years raising Shetland ponies.

A few years into the 20th century, Hoag moved to Washington D.C. and then Buffalo, New York, to recruit for the army. His return to military life proved rather short though due to poor health. Hoag then moved to California where he passed away in 1917. A final return trip east brought Hoag’s remains to Arlington National Cemetery where he received a soldier’s burial.

Images courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Union Camp Servants


On May 23, 1861, Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker, and James Townsend, three enslaved men working on Confederate fortifications at Norfolk, Virginia, rowed a boat to Fort Monroe. They were seeking freedom. When their former owner heard reports that the men were at Union occupied Fort Monroe, he demanded their return under the Fugitive Slave Act. The fort’s commander, Gen. Benjamin Butler, refused to turn the men over. Butler cited Virginia’s present claim of independence from the United States as reason for not enforcing the law. In doing so, Butler devised the term “contraband” as a reference for African American refugees seeking freedom within Union lines.

As the Union army increasingly occupied parts of the Confederacy, thousands of enslaved people took great risks to gain their liberty. Historians estimate that over 500,000 individuals were ultimately successful. These migrations called the U.S. Congress to action. They passed the First Confiscation Act on August 6, 1861, and the Second Confiscation Act on July 17, 1862, to encourage the enslaved to run away, and thus damage the Confederacy’s manpower supply.

During the first couple of years of the war—until the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect—where an enslaved person fled to, and who commanded that area, made a huge difference on how the confiscation acts were enforced. In loyal slaveholding border states like Kentucky and Maryland, enslaved people were sometimes returned to owners staking claim. In other areas, like southeastern Virginia or coastal North and South Carolina, their chances of remaining with the Union army were much greater.

The Union army helped themselves to this new source of labor. They employed freed men, women, and children in various duties. They cooked, they did laundry, they drove wagons, they dug fortifications, they laid railroad track, they took care of horses and mules, and eventually, some enlisted as soldiers. Some worked as personal servants to Union officers.

Many primary sources such as photographs, mentions in white soldiers' letters, and army reports bear evidence to the service of camp servants. Some Union camp servants later enlisted in the United States Colored Troops. Andrew Jackson Smith of the 55th Massachusetts Infantry ran away from his Kentucky owner and became a camp servant to a major in an Illinois regiment. When the opportunity to enlist came he took it and served gallantly. At the Battle of Honey Hill, South Carolina, Smith’s brave actions in saving the 55th Massachusetts flag earned distinction. In 2001, Smith’s descendants accepted the Medal of Honor in his behalf for his heroism.  

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Beef on the Hoof


More often than not Civil War soldiers received rations that experienced an extended period of “shelf life.” Items such as salted pork, corn meal, flour, or hardtack crackers were all common foods due partly to their ability to keep for weeks, and perhaps months. However, soldiers sometimes also received rations of fresh meat.

John Billings, who served in the 10th Massachusetts Light Artillery, in the Army of the Potomac, shared some thoughts about what the soldiers often called “beef on the hoof” in his famous book, Hardtack and Coffee. Billings wrote: “When a hold was made for the night, some of the steers would be slaughtered, and the meat furnished to the troops upon presentation of the proper requisitions by the quartermasters.”

Billings relates that the cattle “were sent by the hundreds and thousands on rail and shipboard to the various armies. On their arrival they were put in a corral.” Soldiers detailed from regular regiments drove, tended, and slaughtered the sometimes massive cattle herds that followed the armies. These men were excused from all of their frontline duties while detailed as such.

In order to avoid clogging the roads, and to leave the byways open for marching men, supply wagons, ambulances, and artillery, when on campaign the army’s cattle herds traditionally traveled overland, through the fields and forests. Billings explained that to keep the herds contained, and to get them to follow in a group, a lead steer came in handy. “Every herd had a steer that was used both as a pack animal and a leader. As a pack animal he bore the equipments and cooking utensils of the drovers. He was docile as an old cow or horse, and could be led or called fully as readily. By day he was preceded in his lead by the herdsman in charge, on horseback, while other herdsmen brought up the rear,” Billings noted. 

Shot and slaughtered when needed to supplement the soldiers’ rations, thousands of beeves filled their stomachs and provided the necessary energy to fight the Civil War. Each animal provided approximately 500 one-pound meat rations.

Billing also explained the army’s herd categories: “The fresh meat to accompany the other three days’ rations, which [soldiers] stowed in their knapsacks, was driven along in division herds.” There were corps herds, too, which provided meat for up to 16 days if the corps expected to be absent from a central base of supply for an extended period. “In addition, to these there was a general or army herd to fall back upon when necessary to supply the corps herds, but this was always at the base of supplies,” Billings added.

The saying that an army marches on its stomach is attributed to earlier conflicts in Europe, but the American Civil War proved that it was applicable on this side of the Atlantic, too. However, sometimes the meat did not come in barrels, often it marched with the soldiers.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Dying Far From Home – Corp. James A. Kane, Co. C, 6th USCI


Drafted! Imagine getting word that the government demanded your service in its military. Since the Civil War millions of Americans have received that call, and thankfully, answered it. However, conscription, a new practice at that time, operated differently then. First, not all eighteen year old males had to register for the draft as our selective service requires today. If congressional districts were unable to meet soldier quotas through recruiting efforts, a draft involving an age range of men potentially brought more soldiers into the ranks. Second, at least initially, drafted men who were wealthy enough could pay a fee to get an exemption, or purchase a substitute to serve in their place. Obviously, those individuals not as economically advantaged had fewer options.

Among the men conscripted from the Third Ward of Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, in the summer of 1863 was James A. Kane, a free man of color. Kane, a native of Allegheny County, worked as a laborer in the decade before the Civil War erupted. In 1850, the 19-year old lived in a full Ross Township household of 11 people, including his 20-year old sister, Sarah. A decade later 28-year old John lived as a boarder in Allegheny City, worked as a “River man,” and claimed no real estate or personal property of value. The head of the household in which John lived, Alexander Sigler, also African American, claimed only $25.00 in personal property. Kane was apparently in no financial position to avoid the draft.

Regardless of whether James Kane viewed his conscription into the army as an opportunity or an undesired obligation, he went. It is quite likely that Kane was aware of the draft riots that roiled New York City two weeks before. In that unfortunate event the poor whites of Gotham, particularly the Irish, took out their frustrations on African American men, women, and children of the city, who they perceived as the cause of the war. The 30-year old river boat steward enlisted on July 31, 1863, and mustered into service a week later at Camp William Penn in Philadelphia. His officers must have noticed potential in the newly drafted soldier, because within a month after enlisting he received promotion to corporal. Kane’s officers’ trust was apparently well placed, as he fulfilled his commitment, demonstrated by his continual presence in the ranks. He fortunately survived the fighting at Petersburg on June 15, 1864, unscathed, as well as later duty in the trenches at the “Cockade City.”

Called upon to participate in the lead attack at New Market Heights on September 29, 1864, the 6th USCI followed closely behind the 4th. The Confederates seemingly targeted the white officer corps, as that group suffered about 36% casualties in the 6th USCI. In many cases non-commissioned officers like Kane stepped up and led the enlisted men who looked to them for direction. During the fury of the battle Sgt. Major Thomas Hawkins and 1st Sgt. Alexander Kelly saved the regimental and national colors of the 6th. Those two men later received the Medal of Honor for their courage, as did white officer Lt. Nathan Edgerton. Amidst the terror and confusion of battle, Kane received a wound in the leg. Although he received medical care at Balfour Hospital at Portsmouth, Virginia, Kane was unable to recover and passed away on October 13. Among the personal effects inventoried at the time of Kane’s death was a testament, a finger ring, two postage stamps, three pocket books, and five dollars in Iowa state currency. What ultimately became of these items is unknown.

Black statesman Nelson Mandela once said that, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”  Corp. James A. Kane answered his country’s call to arms, went to war, and fulfilled his duty, ultimately giving his life as a sacrifice for the promise of a more perfect Union. We acknowledge his service and pay respect to him and his final resting place at Hampton National Cemetery. Salute! 

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Just Finished Reading - Family Bonds

Wow! My 2021 reading is off to a excellent start with Family Bonds: Free Blacks and Re-enslavement Law in Antebellum Virginia by Ted Maris-Wolf.

Digging into county court records from across the Commonwealth the author provides a history that few Virginians know today. In the spring of 1806, Virginia passed a law requiring that enslaved people who were freed after that date had to leave the state within a year. Whites feared that free people of color would serve as a bad influence to the enslaved and that free people would ultimately become a burden on White society, resorting to crime when living outside the "correcting" influence of slavery. Demanding free people of color to leave the state of course often separated them from friends and family still enslaved. It also forced them to remove to an unfamiliar place, often with little to get started with. As the author shows, the 1806 law was not enforced that often, but there were times, particularly around events like Nat Turner's Rebellion or John Brown's raid when significant community crackdowns occurred. Also, sometimes enforcement of the law came when Whites became jealous of the success of hard-working, thrifty, and entrepreneurial people of color. During these times free African Americans who wished to stay in the state had to apply to the state legislature for special exemption. These petitions were often ignored in favor of other more "pressing business." It was the uncertainty of being convicted of remaining in the state, and thus being sold away as punishment, that forced some free people of color to take the drastic measure of re-enslavement. Eventually, in 1856, the state passed a law where free Blacks could apply to be re-enslaved to an owner of their choosing. This allowed them to remain in close contact with family and friends and under the ownership of someone they felt they could trust. As the author states, "For a number of free men and women in Virginia, it was the existence of enslaved family members--a spouse or child-- that made exiting the state without them unthinkable and self-enslavement, as a last resort, palatable. Petitions for self-enslavement stand as poignant reminders that free black individuals felt they belonged in their communities and believed that if they were able to explain their circumstances to authorities, their voices just might be heard."
The author shares the stories of several families through an examination of a number of county court cases. All are fascinating. He also shows how White society often tried to use re-enslavement cases to provide evidence for their belief that the just, normal, and natural condition of Blacks is enslavement; of course, not going into detail on the real reasons why they were seeking re-enslavement.
I appreciated that this book brings yet another level of complexity to race in American history. I highly recommend it!

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Dying Far From Home - Pvt. John Miles, Co. B, 38th USCI

When the Civil War began in 1861, many men enlisted under what historians term rage militaire, or “passion for arms.” During the spring of 1861, both belligerents worked themselves into a fevered pitch. Depending on their side’s perspective, citizens enlisted in mass over the enemy’s blatant attempt to break up the Union, or for having the gall to bring an army into a fellow seceded state. Many of the newly minted soldiers thought the conflict would be a short affair. When neither side seemed interested in throwing in the towel, enlistments slacked, and rage militaire receded.

Men who enlisted after 1861 did so from a multitude of motivations. Some finally came of age, some sought the pay, some took advantage of the bounties, while others were drafted. When African American men finally received the call to arms, their reasons for enlisting, or delaying enlistment, varied, too. Enslaved men often had to make it into Union lines to enlist. In many locations that took time to happen. Some free men of color from the Northern states disenchanted from the lack of benefits gained by their ancestor’s service in previous conflicts, delayed their enlistment waiting for better guarantees before risking their lives for a nation that did not yet recognize them as citizens. Black men in the slaveholding Border States ran into numerous obstacles including physical persecution and threats of selling away family members.

We do not know what motivated John Miles to enlist in Company B of the 38th United States Colored Infantry, or why he waited until February 14, 1864 to join up. Perhaps he was enslaved and his enslaver prohibited his enlistment. Perhaps he was unsure what army life entailed and took time to gather information. Maybe he heard about the many trials faced by other black soldiers who enlisted earlier from his county. Regardless, he officially became a member of the regiment, at Great Mills in Maryland’s St. Mary’s County.

Joining Company B of the 38th the same day was another Miles, George. Both John and George were age 29, both measured at 5 feet 10 inches tall, both apparently had dark complexions, and both were from St. Mary’s County. Were John and George twins?

About a week after enlisting, John and George Miles traveled to Norfolk, Virginia, where they officially mustered in to the United States army and began their training. Initially serving in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, the 38th soon reported to the scene of war at Petersburg. Both John and George’s service records show them as present for duty through the spring and summer of 1864. However, George received some detached assignments including recruiting, headquarters, and regimental quartermaster department duties. It is unknown if George’s detached duties kept him from participating in the Battle of New Market Heights. If so, John was not as fortunate.

At New Market Heights, on September 29, 1864, the 38th USCI followed the 5th and 36th in the second assault that morning upon the Confederate earthworks. The Rebel obstinacy and USCT determination is shown in the fact that although the 38th was the last regiment in the attack, two of the three men in the regiment who received the Medal of Honor are noted as being among the first to enter the enemy’s works.

Pvt. John Miles fell in the battle, his right tibia (shinbone) shattered by a Confederate bullet. Removed from the battlefield and transported to Deep Bottom landing, John went aboard one of the handful of hospital steamers and headed down the James River to the Fort Monroe hospital complex. Pvt. Miles likely endured an amputation either at the field hospital or at Fort Monroe. Sadly, unable to recover from his painful wound, he died on October 11, 1864. A contributing factor to his death may be a weakened body, as he was also apparently suffering from chronic diarrhea. Today, Pvt. Miles rests in peace in grave number 367 in Hampton National Cemetery.

Pvt. George Miles continued serving in the 38th through the end of the war and endured duty on the Texas/Mexico border, finally mustering out in January 1867. If George and John Miles were indeed twins, George’s painful loss surely continued long after his army service ended.   

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Recent Acquisitions to My Library

Much like November, December helped expand my library's titles. I am thankful for the ones that I received as gifts from friends and family.   

In The Accident of Color: A Story of Race and Reconstruction, by Daniel Brook, Charleston and New Orleans serve as the focus for this study on how Reconstruction complicated things for the mixed-race population of these two Southern cities. In some cases, having attained a measure of economic independence and social status, the mixed race free people of color faced new challenges in the post-war years.   


A book that has received a significant amount of positive attention is Thavolia Glymph's The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation. Too often Civil War women's studies center on a specific group of women. However, in this book, Glymph give us a wider look into how different women; North and South, white and black, rich and poor, free and enslaved, all played critical roles in the conflict. 

When we host guest speakers at the Petersburg Civil War Roundtable who have recently authored books, we often sell copies and have the speaker sign them. If I do not already own a copy of a speaker's book, I usually buy one. Dr. Jonathan White from Christopher Newport University was our speaker in early December and he shared with us about Our Little Monitor: The Greatest Invention of the Civil War, which he coauthored with Anna Gibson Holloway. I am looking forward to learning more about the Monitor, it's inventor, and how it has come to be remembered through the years.

The Petersburg Regiment in the Civil War: A History of the 12th Virginia Infantry from John Brown's Hanging to Appomattox, 1859-1865 by John Horn, is a book that I've had on my wish list since even before it was released about a year ago. This regiment's participation in many of the Army of Northern Virginia's campaigns and its close association with the Cockade City where it was largely raised makes it an important read for me. 

After listening to Evan A. Kutzler discuss Living by Inches: The Smells, Sounds, Tastes, and Feeling of Captivity in Civil War Prisons with Civil War Talk Radio host Dr. Gerry Prokopowicz, I knew I wanted to read this book. This social history, which focuses on how POWs experienced their incarcerations through their five senses is sure to shed new light on this specific area of study. Ex-POWs wrote extensively in the post war year in effort to ensure their sufferings were not forgotten. It will be interesting to see how they describe how they survived these hell-holes. 

Confederate Exceptionalism: Civil War Myth and Memory in the Twenty-First Century by Nicole Maurantonio adds to the ever-growing body of Civil War memory studies. I know some Civil War enthusiasts have tired from memory studies, but I almost always find them insightful and thought provoking. In this book Maurantonio seeks to understand, and then share, questions that deserve deeper consideration. How do proclamations of "heritage not hate" square with reverence for symbols and personalities of the past who espoused pro-slavery and white supremacist beliefs? Her answer appears to be the blending of the myths of the Lost Cause and American exceptionalism. This timely title should make for a fascinating read.

Another book that I have been looking forward to reading is Friendly Enemies: Soldier Fraternization throughout the American Civil War by Lauren K. Thompson. In fact, I was so excited to read it, that I finished it over the Christmas break. Thompson covers the topic from several different angles and explaining that fraternization was practiced at times by soldiers to gain information, get things they needed, to try to take some control over often out of control situations, and to resist their officers' authority. I was interested in reading it because of the many instances of fraternization that occurred around Petersburg due the special circumstances of that campaign. I was happy to see many examples from Petersburg included.  

When one thinks of the Underground Railroad, the route of association is typically north. The North Star, Canada, and the northern free states usually figured prominently in the escape plans of enslaved people seeking freedom. However, as Alice L. Baumgartner explains in South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War, some enslaved individuals and families fled the opposite way when that direction proved to be more beneficial and efficient. With Mexico abolishing slavery in 1837, it was more practical for enslaved people in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and similar "Cotton Kingdom" points to head southwest. Mexico's move to outlaw slavery also created political tensions that added fuel to the growing fires of sectionalism that led to the Civil War. 

Friday, January 1, 2021



When supplied in adequate amounts, a diet of composed typically of cornmeal and salted pork provided the protein and calories enslaved individuals needed for the labor intensive lives they were forced to endure. However, these staple rations alone proved insufficient in terms of complete nutrition. To supplement their issued provisions, and produced through self-initiative, enslaved people grew fruits and vegetables that they learned helped keep a body healthy.

Adding flavor to an otherwise bland diet, and receiving the benefits that we today know come from vitamins and minerals, enslaved communities on plantations often planted and grew leafy green vegetables like collards. A member of the cabbage family, collards developed into a key food that offered high levels of vitamin C and fiber. Due partly to its ability to thrive in cooler temperatures, and thus its availability more year round than vegetables that only grew in spring and summer, collards greatly enhanced the traditional corn and pork-based fare.

Although born to free parents in North Carolina, John Green Patterson recalled the significance of collards: “To the inhabitants of the country districts of the South, where there are no markets, and the daily allowance consists of salt meat, rice, potatoes, and the like . . . the collard is a very great blessing; because when boiled in a pot with a piece of fat meat and balls of corn dough . . . it makes palatable a diet which otherwise would be all but intolerable.”