Sunday, May 30, 2021

Corp. James Gray, Co. E, 4th USCI

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, so I thought I'd share some information I was able to locate on another USCT soldier who is buried in a local cemetery. 

Although evidence is limited, James Gray may have been a free man of color before enlisting. The 1850 census shows an eight-year old James Gray living in Calvert County, Maryland, which is southeast of Washington D.C., Corp. Gray's place of birth according to his service records. In the census, that Gray is in the household of Levin Harrison, a white man and Caroline Gray, an African American woman. James Gray, listed as a "mulatto," was likely the son of the mixed-race couple. Also in the household is four-year old brother Ben, described as "mulatto," too.

Whether free or enslaved before enlisting, Gray worked as a waiter before joining Company E, 4th United States Colored Infantry. The young man stood almost five feet, nine inches tall and enlisted on July 28, 1863, in Baltimore. During the winter of 1864, Gray received a promotion to corporal. 

Gray's time in uniform proved short. Less than a year after enlisting, he received a wound on June 15, 1864. It is not know known whether Gray suffered his wound at Baylor's Farm early that morning or in the attacks on the Dimmock Line later that evening. Taken to the field hospital back at City Point, Gray succumbed to his wounds three days later. 

Today, Corp. Gary rests in peace in City Point National Cemetery. His rather nondescript headstone only indicates he served in the United States Colored Troops. It does not let us know his rank, when he died, or what was his cause of death. To find those details, one has to do a little research. But, it is certainly worth the time and effort to do so in order to show a small measure of gratitude and to acknowledge Corporal Gary's sacrifice. Rest in peace.


Monday, May 24, 2021

Sgt. Harrison Snead, Co. I, 36th USCI

With Memorial Day approaching, over the next few days, I thought I'd share a few photographs of Civil War soldiers buried in national cemeteries around the Petersburg area. Today's post is about Sgt. Harrison Snead. 

Snead, apparently born enslaved in Baltimore, Maryland, enlisted in Company I, 36th USCI in Portsmouth, Virginia, on September 17, 1863. Lt. James Backup, the subject of my last post, served as Snead's enlisting officer. The 20-year old Snead was a baker prior to enlisting. 

Promoted to sergeant, young Snead assumed some important responsibilities within the company. The enlisted men looked to their non-commissioned officers to learn the basics of soldier life, but it must have been a challenge when everyone was relatively new to army life.

Snead's youthful life was cut short while serving in the trenches of Petersburg on August 20, 1864. No details are provided in his service records about whether he was killed by a sniper's bullet or an exploding shell. Buried originally "near Petersburg," Snead was later reinterred in Poplar Grove Cemetery, where he rests in peace today in grave number 4465. 

Sunday, May 16, 2021

"Displayed the Greatest Courage:” Lt. James B. Backup, Co. I, 36th USCI

Too often, when viewing battlefield maps, we forget that the blue and red blocks intended to represent the participating regiments, brigades, and divisions, were actually real living, breathing, thinking, and feeling people. Like us they had good days and bad days, hopes, aspirations, and frustrations. After victories morale soared, after setbacks or bad news it plummeted. Reading the soldiers' letters and viewing their photographs helps give us a more thorough appreciation for the human side of the Civil War.

Almost three million men served in the Union and Confederate armies during our nation’s greatest struggle. Historians estimate that about 750,000 soldiers died in the four year conflict, while hundreds of thousands more received wounds that ranged from minor to severely debilitating. However, many amazing medical recovery stories emerge from the ranks of the Blue and the Gray. One of those stories belongs to Capt. James B. Backup of the 36th United States Colored Infantry.

The son of Scottish immigrant parents, James B. Backup was born in September 1844. The 1860 census shows the 15 year-old living with his brother, 12 year-old William, in the household of James’s sister Jane, and her husband William Spear in Boston, Massachusetts. The census gives James’s occupation as clerk, the same as William Spear’s.

James originally served in Company B of the 39th Massachusetts. However, he received promotion to 2nd lieutenant in a company of the 36th United States Colored Infantry (USCI) on February 29, 1864. The 36th began its service as the 2nd North Carolina Colored Infantry before being designated a USCI regiment. Many of the enlisted men and non-commissioned officers of the unit came from northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia.

Backup received his 1st lieutenant’s commission on April 26, 1864. It was in this position when Backup and the 36th, as part of Col. Alonzo Draper’s Brigade of the 3rd Division of the XVIII Corps, received orders to attack the Confederate fortifications along New Market Heights, just southeast of Richmond. September 29, 1864 was a day that Backup would long remember.

Col. Draper’s after action report states that the 20 year-old Lt. Backup was excused from the battle “for lameness, one leg being partially shrunk so that he could walk but short distances.” However, Backup courageously “volunteered, hobbled as far as the swamp, and was shot through the breast.” Backup’s service records show that he received a minie ball wound to the left chest that exited his body at the shoulder blade. Retrieved from the battlefield, Backup received medical attention and then the army sent him home to hopefully recover. Promoted to captain on October 21, 1864, Backup never returned to duty. He received a physical disability discharge from the army on January 23, 1865. The African American soldiers of the 36th that Backup helped lead that fateful day also exhibited extreme bravery; two of whom received the Medal of Honor: Cpl. Miles James and Pvt. James Gardiner.

Amazingly, Backup apparently lived a rather full life after his severe wounding. He shows up in the 1880, 1890, and 1910 censuses working as a mail carrier and raising a family in Boston. Backup’s pension index states that he died August 10, 1911.

Image courtesy of Pamplin Historical Park.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Dying Far From Home - Sgt. Richard Servant, Co. D, 6th USCI


Although our soldier-focused articles are often titled “Dying Far From Home,” this one may be somewhat mislabeled. Sgt. Richard Servant’s compiled military service records indicates that he was born at Fort Monroe, Virginia. He died on November 6, 1864, at Balfour Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia, from a wound or wounds received at the Battle of New Market Heights. If indeed, Sgt. Servant was born at Fort Monroe, he died just a short boat ride away from the scene of his nativity. One wonders if he pondered such thoughts as he lay in his hospital bed attempting to recover.

Richard Servant was apparently born around 1839. As stated above, his place of birth is noted as Fort Monroe. Somehow, someway, Servant ended up in Philadelphia where he enlisted in Company D, 6th United States Colored Infantry (USCI) on August 10, 1863. A search through the 1860 census did not locate Servant, so it is unclear whether he was a recent arrival to the “City of Brotherly Love,” or if he had been there for quite some time. It is also unknown whether he was enslaved or a free man of color before enlisting.

The 24-year old new recruit and former “laborer” stood five feet, eight inches tall, and was described as having a “black” complexion. He must have impressed his white officers at Camp William Penn, because within three weeks of his enlistment he received appointment as a sergeant in the company.

Capt. John McMurray led Company D. McMurray left a memoir, written in 1916, titled Recollections of a Colored Troop, which gives keen insight into the terrible damage inflicted upon his company and how they responded with amazing acts of courage at New Market Heights on September 29, 1864.

Following the 4th USCI, who led the attack, the 6th USCI immediately took heavy casualties when they reached lines of abatis, which accomplished its intended work of slowing the assault. However, as McMurray recalled, they “pressed on toward the enemy’s line, picking our way through the slashing as best we could. It was slow work and every step in our advance exposed us to the murderous fire of the enemy.”

At one point in the attack McMurray remembered: “When about half way through the slashing I came to a large oak tree that had been felled. At the same time three or four members of our color guard came to the same spot. We were close by the stump of the tree, and the way forward was through an opening between the trunk of the tree and its stump, less than three feet wide. Involuntarily, almost, I paused to let the colors go ahead of me. I followed close after, and just when the last one of the men, carrying one of our flags—we had three—was right in the opening between the stump and the tree trunk, he was shot through the breast, and fell back against me, almost knocking me over. The loss of his life there absolutely saved mine.”

The toll on the 6th USCI was high, and particularly so for Company D. Falling back, “As we soon as we passed over the hill a sufficient distance to be protected from the rebel shells, we began to reform the regiment, as the men were all mixed up. As I could find but three of my company it did not take me very long to form them in line, and I turned to assist in getting the men of other companies in line,” said McMurray.   

It unknown when during the attack Sgt. Servant received his wound or wounds. And his service records do not specify where on his body they struck. Removed from the field and transported by hospital steamer, he ended up receiving care at Balfour Hospital in Portsmouth. He survived for what were likely five excruciating weeks before he finally succumbed.  

Today, Sgt. Richard Servant rests in grave number 4419 in Hampton National Cemetery with scores of USCT comrades, only a couple of miles away from where he entered life. All honor to you Sgt. Servant for your service and sacrifice.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Recent Acquisitions to My Library

As I often do, I am kicking off a new month's set of posts with recent additions to my personal library. This month's crop of books includes some brand new titles, while others have been hanging out for a while on my "wishlist."

The newest release in this group is James P. Byrd's A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood: The Bible and the American Civil War. This is yet another study that makes one wonder why didn't someone think to write this specific topic earlier. Yes, there are a number of books about religion and how certain religious denomination weathered the Civil War, but I'm not aware of many (if any) that deal specially with the Bible and the Civil War. This should be a fascinating read!

In a somewhat similar vein to the above title, Luke Harlow's Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky, 1830-1880, is a book that I've been wanting to read for several years now. My fondness of Kentucky history has not diminished since leaving there in 2015. I found Anne Marshall's book Creating a Confederate Kentucky to be such a compelling read. And this book appears to branch off of Marshall's and show how religion and slavery shaped the state's response to emancipation and its post-war alignment with Lost Cause.   

I've mentioned on here before how I am trying to find just about everything I can get my hands on related to the Battle of New Market Heights and the United States Colored Troops who fought there. Recently I became aware of The Colors of Dignity: Memoirs of Civil War Brigadier General Giles Waldo Shurtleff, edited by Catherine Durant Voorhees. Memoirs always need to approached with a degree of caution due to time lag between when the events being described happened and when they are being written about. However, memoirs can also provide invaluable insights and should be judged after reading them and not before. At the battle of New Market Heights, Shurtleff served as lieutenant colonel of the 5th United States Colored Infantry. Raised primarily in Ohio, and formerly known as the 127th Ohio, this regiment saw significant action around Petersburg and Richmond. I'm eager to read how he remembered his service and the men he fought with.

There are certain historian authors that I particularly enjoy reading. Brian Steel Wills is one of many for me. Wills has covered a diverse array of topics and personalities during his career. One of those people is someone I know little about--although he is the subject of several biographical studies. Wills' Confederate General William Dorsey Pender: The Hope of Glory will hopefully provide me with a much richer understanding of this young general's personality and his life. I've encountered Pender's voluminous wartime correspondence with his wife while reading other books, but I'm looking forward to reading those references within the context of his life story. 


I often have people comment to me about my eclectic reading within the field of Civil War-era studies. I am guilty as charged. I don't seem to have just one niche interest in Civil War studies. When I come across mentions of books like Brandi Clay Brimmer's Claiming Union Widowhood: Race, Respectability, and Poverty in the Post-Emancipation South, there is a strong sense of curiosity and something in me that wants to know about it. Reading books concerning the struggles of USCT soldiers to obtain pensions for their service after the war makes me wonder how even more difficult it must have been for their widows, who perhaps did not have the immediate connections of comrades and white officers that their soldier husbands did. I'm fascinated to learn more!

The 1863 months following the Battle of Gettysburg are traditionally the least studied in the the histories of the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia. However, historian Jeffrey William Hunt is currently making that period a definite focus of his research and writing. To go along with his previously published book, Meade and Lee at Bristoe Station, which appeared in 2018, now available is, Meade and Lee at Rappahannock Station: The Army of the Potomac's First Post-Gettysburg Offensive, From Kelly's Ford to the Rapidan, October 21 to November 20, 1863. This book will go a long way toward filling yet another "pot-hole" of my knowledge and will hopefully help me better understand the months leading into the Overland Campaign.