Thursday, February 24, 2011

What happened to President's Island Contraband Camp?

Aerial View of President's Island today via Google Satellite Image

When my gr. gr. grandmother Amanda Young Barr applied for a Civil War widow's pension, she told many parts of her life to prove that she was the widow of Berry Young her first husband, who left to join the Union Army.  Other witnesses spoke on her behalf, including a sister Mary Paralee, whom she had not seen for 50 years.  It was from this gr. gr. aunt's testimony that I learned how she and others lived in a contraband camp, called President's Island.

At the time of the Civil War, President's island was truly an island sitting in the Mississippi River, just outside of Memphis. With the shifting soil and the passage of over 150 years, it is now a peninsula outside of Memphis and only a few minutes away from downtown.

It is from that gr. gr. aunt's testimony that I learned about the enlistment of black men as soldiers from Tippah County Mississippi. Berry Young, my gr. gr. grandfather, his son John and how she and many other slaves fled for freedom from Ripley, Mississippi.

There would have been a degree of safety for the newly freed slaves on the contraband camp, and hopefully they did not suffer the terror that newly freed slaves in Memphis endured. There was a reign of terror heaped upon the freed slaves, by angry whites who hated to see freedom given to people that they  had been taught were lesser forms of humanity---and now with their new freedom, they were immediately hated by the classes that once considered themselves superior.

Some of these images were captured in 1860s publications.

Source: Harper's Weekly May 26, 1866

It is therefore understandable that many freed slaves were not rushing to live on the mainland, preferring to live for many years on the island. Small schools were formed and a cemetery was once there on the island as well.

I took me a long time to find out information about President's Island.  But I learned that during the era of the Federal Writer's project in the 1930s, a survey and brief history of President's Island was written in the book "Tennessee. A Guide to the State".

Cover of WPA Guide to Tennessee written in 1939.

So apparently according to this article at least 1500 slaves actually lived on the island. In the spring of 1865 the Freedman's Bureau established labor contracts on the island. This suggests to me that there are some records that I might find at the National Archives. So, my next trip to the Archives will involve looking at the Memphis Freedman's Bureau records to see if I can find some people who were still living on the island at that time.  And unfortunately the cemetery that was once there was washed away as the Mississippi changed its course.

While searching for more information on President's Island, I learned that well into the 20th century, there were still inhabitants of President's Island.  A teacher at East High School in Memphis, Mr. Mark Scott has devoted a project form one of his classes in history---to preserve what remains of the old one room schoolhouse from President's Island.  This may be the once artifact that reflects the presence of a community that last almost a century.

Old Schoolhouse on President's Island. School closed in the 1960s.

The teacher at East High School also created a blog about the school and the community that once resided there.  Students in his AP history class conducted an oral history of the are, and he created a small blog about the old school house.  The people interviewed were all born after 1930, so they won't be in any 1920 census, however, I did see the name of one of the teachers, Mrs. Elnora Devers. I found Mrs. Devers in the 1930 census living in Memphis, on Louisiana Street.

1930 Federal Census, Memphis TN

Her occupation was indicated as teacher, County School
1930 Federal Census, Memphis TN

I still have many questions about President's Island and its residents. One of my goals will be to go through records at the National Archives to see if early labor contracts can be found.

The residents who lived as contrabands in the early years of freedom are not forgotten. I am committed to learning more about them.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

What Happened to Private Pryor and the 44th US Colored Infantry?



 The image of Private Hubbard Pryor reflected the honor and dignity given to those slaves who escaped and who joined the US Colored Troops and in many cases received their first full set of clothes for the first time.
A visitor to the blog pointed out that there seems to be no knowledge of what his fate was at the end of the war. Upon reading that, I decided to take a look to see what may have happened to Private Pryor.

Private Pryor enrolled in the 44th US Colored Infantry and had enlisted in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Military Service Record of Hubbar Pryor

It is noted that in October 1864, many of the soldiers in this regiment were assigned to Garrison Duty near Dalton GA. The soldiers of the 44th were overcome and an offer was made to surrender. The officers of the 44th requested that their men be treated equally to all prisoners. The Confederate soldiers had vowed to take no one prisoner if captured which would surely mean death for the black soldiers if captured. (It should also be noted that the massacre at Ft. Pillow had already taken place earlier that year.)  But they were overcome when an army of over 40,000 confederates overpowered them.  Many of the black soldiers were willing to fight to the death, knowing that either death awaited them or a return to slavery--a fate for many equal to death. But the officers ordered them to surrender nevertheless.

The official records of the War of the Rebellion reflect what took place when men of the 44th were captured:

Reading the account of the treatment of these soldiers one realizes that Private Hubbard Pryor's fate was doomed. He may have been one of those returned to slavery, or he may have been one of the many who stripped of clothing and shoes and sent to work. He may have also been injured when white confederates tried to rush the black prisoners. The very sight of these men, instilled rage in those who thought of them as inferior.

 A majority of the prisoner were stripped of their uniforms---the ultimate insult to these men.  It is clear that the act of removing the clothing was the removal of dignity from these men who dared to stand equal as men. Noting also that this was October---it was autumn and the removal of their clothing made them  immediately exposed them to the elements, completely vulnerable, and removed all semblance of dignity from them.  Some were immediately sent to work to take apart a piece of railroad track---with no shoes---perhaps to limit their capability of running away.

Whatever the fate of Hubbard Pryor---it would have been one that was painful.  His taste of freedom would have been brief at best.  Hopefully, he might have lived  however, the lack of a Civil War pension application suggests that had he lived, that he did not live long enough to apply.

Pvt. Hubbard's Service Record. No discharge ever furnished

He was mustered out "on paper" and there does not appear to be anything about him, from the time of capture onward. He is, most likely one of the many who paid the ultimate price for freedom. 

If he died while a prisoner, his grave is most likely unmarked, and he was probably simply discarded for his body was no longer of value to anyone.   

But he was a man, who should not be forgotten.  I place this image for him in his honor.

 Thank you, Private Hubbard Pryor, for your bravery and your service and may you rest in peace. 

You died not, in vain.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Impact of the US Colored Troops on the Civilian Population

The 20th US Colored Infantry was presented with colors.
Source: Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper March 26, 1864

One of the stories not often told is the effect on the local community when seeing black Union Soldiers for the first time. Many of the soldiers, particularly those that enlisted in the south, had been slaves themselves.  They had spent most of their lifetime laboring for others.  Many suffered not only the indignities of forced labor, but also suffered from neglect, in personal care, health, and even clothing.  Many men, when they enlisted in the army, received well made clothing for the first time. The uniform transformed the man from a slave, considered property of another, to that of a man, will dignity.

Hubbard Pryor an ex slave who later joined the 44th  US Colored Infantry

Private Hubbard Pryor 44th US Colored Infantry
(This photograph was enclosed in a letter. Original caption: Private Hubbard Pryor After Enlistment in 44th USCT.)
This is the NARA Internal Exhibit Tracking Number. Agency-Assigned Identifier: M750 CT 1864,  ARC Identifier: 849136 

The secondary impact of these men enlisting, was the effect of seeing these men for the first time. This had to make an impression on their wives and families, and it had to have an effect on the entire community from which these once enslaved men had come.

The image of the 20th US Colored Infantry (see above) receiving their colors, is impressive, and the illustration that was captured in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Magazine, in 1864, reveals the joy that this event had on the community.

Townspeople reacted with enthusiasm as the local Colored Troops assembled.

As simple as it may seem, the aspect of having decent clothing, added to a sense of pride and dignity for not only the man, for those who saw the  man, but also for those who knew the man, and who loved the man.

The fact that most of the regiments that formed the US  Colored troops were from the south and the vast majority were at one time, slaves, suggests that the empowerment of these men had effects beyond the shooting range of their muskets.  

The dignity finally given to the men, also poured into the once enslaved population, a new level of self respect and dignity, along with the promise of what could someday be for all.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Identifying the Headstones of US Colored Troops

Headstone of Black Civil War Union Soldier
Photo taken by Tonia Holleman

In a recent post I shared information on the need to honor US Colored Troops---black Union soldiers that go unnoticed and their graves remain undecorated every national holiday that passes. In many cases, the families have died or descendants have simply moved out of the area.

But in more cases, many are not familiar with Civil War headstones and how to determine whether a soldier served with black regiments.A good resource is the Department of Veteran's Affairs website. However it is important to get a good image in one's mind of the design of Civil War veteran's stones.

The original Civil War headstones consist of raised letters inside of a recessed shield. The stones of Black Union Soldiers Consisted of the following abbreviations:

U.S. Cld Inf - United States Colored Infantry
U.S. Cld. HA - United States Colored Heavy Artillery
U.S. Cld. LA - United States Colored Light Artillery
U.S. Cld. Cav - United States Colored Cavalry
U.S. Cld. Troops - United States Colored Troops
U.S.C.T. - United States Colored Troops

Note that the shield is recessed and the letters are raised.
This  soldier served in the 57th U.S. Colored Infantry
Photo taken by Tonia Holleman

In many cases such as the image above, the soldier's unit is reflected with the letters U.S. Cld. Inf. ---meaning United States Colored Infantry.

In some cases the stone will say U. S. Colored Troops, instead of Infantry:

This image bears the designation U.S. Cld. Troops
Photo by Tonia Holleman

When a soldier served in an artillery such as Light or Heavy Artillery, it was reflected on his stone as well.

Thomas Conner's stone reflects his position as a Bugler for the 
2nd US Colored Light Artillery
Photo taken by Tonia Holleman

Adam Westfield was a 1st Sgt 
in the 1st US Colored Heavy Artillery
Photo: Tonia Holleman

In some cases when the soldier died the unit was not always represented on his stone and it was simply noted that the soldier had served with the US Colored Troops.

Headstone of Henry Laton. No regiment was listed on his headstone.
However, Henry  Laton enlisted with the 2nd Kansas Colored which was later
re-designated as the 83rd US Colored Infantry
Photo: Tonia Holleman

Like the soldier above it is also common to find a soldier who was buried with simply the USCT designation on the headstone.  In such cases one has to research the roster of Union Soldiers to determine the regiment.

This soldier has a generic U.S.C.T. designation on his headstone.
There were 77 soldiers in the Union Army with the name of Thomas Chambers. 
(Of the 77 soldiers, 4 of them were part of the U.S. Colored Troops)
Photo: Tonia Holleman

Today many are discovering that their ancestors served with the United States Colored Troops. New stones can be ordered from the Veteran's Administration.  The stones created today by the Veteran's Administration resemble the old Civil War markers, with the shield, however, the letters are not raised and the shield is not recessed.

This stone for John Tuckington, is a stone created in recent  years.
John Tuckington 's name is engraved as is his regiment.  On this new stone
the letters are engraved and painted a darker color, and the shield is not recessed.
Photo: Tonia Holleman

All of these stones are official headstones of US Colored Troops. Many are buried in National Cemeteries, however, there are so many more who are buried in civilian cemeteries, around the country with loved ones as well. 

Look for them, research their lives and tell their stories. 
Perhaps those long forgotten soldiers, can have a flag placed at their graves on the next national holiday.

We owe these men, these freedom fighters, so much and it is our duty to honor them. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Remembering the USCTs Where they Rest

Hampton National Cemetery on the Campus of Hampton University


Several years ago I had an appointment to meet some students at Hampton University for a recruitment event.  I was excited to visit the campus as I knew some details about the campus that I wanted to see. Several students were assigned to walk with us to take us to the appropriate building on campus.   While walking with the student guides, I could not help but see the cemetery right on the campus and interestingly, this was a national cemetery---military headstones, standing in their crisp marble precision, erect, and bright in the sun.  
I mentioned to the student that I was curious as to who was buried there and wanted to take a detour through the cemetery---to see how old the headstones were.  She agreed and we wandered into the area. I found what I hoped to find!  The headstone of a black Union Army soldier. And there were more, and more and more!!

Stone of Alfred B. Hilton, Company H, 4th US Colored. Hilton is buried at Hampton. 
He was also a recipient of the Medal of Honor

I had to express my excitement---and remarked---"Oh goodness look at this---this man was in the Civil War----in an all black regiment organized in Maryland!"

She was rather astonished, and only said,   "Really?  How can  you tell?"  I pointed out to her some brief facts about the US Colored Troops and how so many came from the MD, and Virginia area, and she was amazed. I pointed out to her how to recognize Civil War era soldiers and how to tell if they were black Union soldiers.

She said to me, "I have been on this campus for three years and have passed this cemetery every day. Nobody ever told me about this history and who these people were. This is amazing!"  

Of course I was not surprised at how she didn't know, but her next statement was even more interesting: "You know I never liked history---it never pertained to me, but what you just told me makes me want to know some more. I never knew this!"

Of course what she said was no real surprise---but this was different.  This cemetery rests on a university campus. The university has a history department. I wonder how many (or how few) students ever looked at the cemetery as a map to the history of the very region where it rests! (I also wonder how many professors ever spoke about it.)

Then again----I thought about my hometown---Ft. Smith Arkansas. Few residents are aware of the 106 black soldiers from the Civil War who are buried at the National Cemetery there.  And how many in Little Rock are aware of the dozens of black soldiers buried at Little Rock National?

Soldier Buried at Little Rock National. Photographed by Tonia Holleman

There are so many incredible stories of these men lying in cemeteries waiting to be told!  How many are even curious as to what Alfred Hilton (whose stone is in an image above), what did he do to receive the Medal of Honor?  And how many are aware that several other black soldiers also received the Medal of Honor from the same battle?  

Incredible stories lie quietly in those national cemeteries---yet we pass them every day oblivious to who they are, what they did, and how their actions brought us to where we are today.  Perhaps it is because we don't know who they are. But---not even on the Memorial Day events do these soldiers get recognized! We need to open our eyes to the richness of our own history!

I was happy to here that ASALH, (Association for the Study of African-American Life and History) has chosen as the National Black History Theme to be African Americans and the Civil War.  The Civil War is not just something that white men who enjoy reenacting pursue.  Perhaps our own discomfort with a history immersed in slavery makes so many of us uncomfortable. But only by looking at that  history, can we be released from that pain and that discomfort. 

By looking at that history, and at the Civil War that did bring about freedom at the end---we can also become empowered by that knowledge.  In addition, many more will come to the amazing fact that they have a Civil War ancestor in  their own family history!! What a source of pride and dignity and what a story to pass to the next generation!!

I ask all who read this post, is there a national cemetery where you live? 

Have you ever driven through it and taken a look at the history that is there? 

Let's not ignore those cemeteries---rich histories lie there, and communities have countless stories to uncover. We need to visit them, find our ancestors buried there, and then document their stories! By doing so, we will find details about their lives, their families, and seeds from which a community has grown.

William H. Barnes, Medal of Honor Winner is Buried at San Antonio National Cemetery
Source of Photo (click link)