Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

First Sergeant Henry, Is that You?

Posted in African Americans, Memory, Technology by Andy Hall on May 31, 2011

You’ve seen this picture a hundred times.

It appears in almost every book and article about African Americans serving in the Union Army, and on blogs dedicated to the subject. I’ve even used it here, myself. It’s an image of Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry. I’d always guessed that this image was taken early in the 4th’s history, perhaps during its training phase; the uniforms and equipment (including polished shoulder scales) seemed too pristine, too precisely-placed (below). These are, I decided, garrisoned soldiers, not men who’ve been spending their time recently on the march or living in the field.

My reasoning was right, but my conclusion about the date was wrong. The image was not made during the 4th USCT’s working-up period. On the upper edge of the full image, available from the Library of Congress, the notation is scratched on the glass plate negative reads, “Co E 4th US Col’d Troops Fort Lincoln 11-17-65. WMS [William Morris Smith, the photographer].”:

It’s a postwar image, taken seven months after Appomattox. So they are garrisoned troops, well rested, in fresh uniforms and accoutrements. But they’re probably also all combat veterans, of hard-fought actions at Petersburg, Chaffin’s Farm/New Market Heights, and Fort Fisher. These men are not green recruits; they’re veterans, men who’ve seen some of the hardest fighting in the east in the last year of the conflict.

I had always guessed this image was a detachment of Co. E; in fact, it may be all of the enlisted men in Company E as it was at the end of the war.

We were discussing this image the other day at Coates’ blog, and I wondered if it was possible to identify any of the men in the image. There are twenty-seven men visible in the image; at least six of them are non-commissioned officers. It may be impossible to identify the others, but there should have been only a single First Sergeant on the company roster in November 1865; can he be identified?

It’s actually a straightforward, two-step process. First, the NPS Soldiers & Sailors System database allows users to search by regiment, and pull up names of officers and enlisted men assigned to it. Helpfully, the database includes each soldier’s initial and final rank, so it’s a simple matter to identify a few likely candidates. Second, cross-check those men’s compiled service records via Footnote, to confirm each individual’s duty assignment and dates in rank. Using this method, it was quickly determined that in November 1865, the First Sergeant of Co. E, 4th USCT was First Sergeant Harry Henry. You can read his service record here, via Footnote (5.2MB PDF).

Locating a likely match in the NPS oldiers & Sailors System.

Harry Henry was born about 1842 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. He was likely born free; he first appears in the 1850 U.S. Census, living with his father Jacob, a sawyer, and his wife, Mary, in or near Cambridge in Dorchester County. Harry was the third of at least six siblings; the others were Jane, born c. 1834; Jacob (Jr.), born c. 1838; William, born c. 1842; John, born c. 1845, and Ann, born c. 1848. At the time of the census, neither Jacob nor Mary could read or write, but Jacob held title to land valued at $100.

The Jacob and Mary Henry family in the 1850 U.S. Census.

By the time of the 1860 U.S. Census, most of the older children were no longer part of the household, but Harry, age 19, was still living with his parents and, like his father, earning his living as a sawyer. Ann, now aged 13, lived with them as well. As with the earlier census, none of the adults — now including Harry — were recorded as being able to read or write.

Harry Henry enlisted in Company E of the 4th U.S. Colored Infantry at Baltimore on July 28, 1863, a few weeks after recruitment for the USCTs began. He enlisted for a term of three years. At the time he gave his age as 21 years, his height as five-foot-seven, with a “black” complexion, black eyes and curly hair. His occupation was listed as “farmer.” It appears that on that same day Harry’s older brothers, Jacob and William, enlisted in the same company. Jacob would be wounded at New Market Heights on September 29, 1864, but eventually return to duty. Jacob was apparently a crack shot, as he spent much of his enlistment on detached service, away from the regiment, with a sharpshooters’ unit. Both Jacob and William would survive the war and, with Harry, muster out of the 4th USCT as a Sergeant and Corporal respectively, in May 1866.

Henry was appointed Corporal at the time of his enlistment, but his service record carries few notations that give additional details of his service for his first year in the army. There are no notices of pay stoppage for lost gear, for example (a common entry for enlisted troops), nor notation of illness or injury. Beginning in July 1864, his pay records carry the notation, “free on or before April 19, 1861,” reflecting the army’s agreement to pay black soldiers the same as white, and to award the difference in back pay to those men who had been free before the outbreak of the war.

Sgt. Maj. Christian Fleetwood saves the 4th USCT’s colors at New Market Heights, September 29, 1864. Harry Henry’s brother Jacob was wounded in that action, and Co. E’s First Sergeant, Isaac Harroll, was killed. Image: “Field of Honor “by Joseph Umble, © County of Henrico, Virginia. Via The Sable Arm blog.

Company E’s original First Sergeant, Isaac Harroll, was killed at Chaffin’s Farm/New Market Heights on September 29, 1864, the same day Jacob Henry was wounded. Four other men of the 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, including Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood, would earn Medals of Honor in that action.The 4th took terrific casualties that day — 97 dead, 137 wounded and 14 missing.

Corporal Harry Henry was promoted to take Harroll’s place as First Sergeant of the company two weeks after the action, on October 14. He would remain First Sergeant of Company E for the remainder of the regiment’s time in service, including in November 1865 (right) when the famous photo was taken. There are few further notations describing his service through the end of the war; he mustered out with the regiment on May 4, 1866 in Washington, D.C.

I’ve found few solid leads on Harry Henry’s life after the war. There was a Harry Henry of about the right age living in Snow Hill, Maryland — about 40 miles from where the sawyer’s son Harry Henry had grown up — at the time of the 1900 U.S. Census. That later Harry Henry was married to a Sally M. Henry, age 51, with the notation that they’d been married for 35 years. It’s not certain, though, that these two Harry Henrys were in fact the same man. After 1900, the trail grows cold, and I really don’t know with certainty what became of Harry Henry after his discharge in 1866.

So that’s the circumstantial case for the man in the photo being Harry Henry. Does the photo itself yield any clues? Yes, it does.

Looking at the overall image, the First Sergeant at first appears substantially taller than the other soldiers. But that could be a trick of perspective; he’s also closer to the camera than any of the others. Fortunately, he holds in his hands a tool we can use to estimate his height, what appears to be a U.S. M1840 Non-commissioned officer’s sword. The M1840 had a blade variously described as being between 31 and 31.5 inches long; because he’s holding it close to the vertical, we can use that blade as a rough scale to determine the First Sergeant’s height.

At left, a six-foot scale has been aligned and adjusted to match the blade on the sword. (The left side of the scale is marked in inches, the right in feet.) At right, that same scale has been moved to align with the approximate location of the bottom of the man’s heel. The scale suggests the man’s overall height at around five-foot-six, very close to Henry’s recorded height of five-foot-seven. While this estimate is only approximate — neither the bottom of the man’s foot not the top of his head are visible — it’s very consistent with the man in the image being Harry Henry.

Can we definitively prove that the First Sergeant in the famous photo is Harry Henry? No. But both the documentary record and careful analysis of the photo suggest strongly that it is.

If anyone out there has additional information on Harry Henry, either his service with the 4th USCT or his life afterwards, I’d love to know it.


39 Responses

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  1. Wilbur said, on June 1, 2011 at 7:56 am

    Most original piece of research I’ve seen in a long time- almost chilling to see it all come together.

    I found an ancestor of my own on in an online document about the Pennsylvania Militia, after using online census records to confirm it was the right person. His military career seems a little tame in comparison though.

    Have you tried tracing the siblings, in order to get closer to finding out what became of him? There’s probably an east-coast Henry family somewhere unaware of the significance of one of their own.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 1, 2011 at 8:27 am

      Thanks. I have not tried yet to trace the siblings, but it’s a good opportunity to follow up, though.

  2. Jared Frederick said, on June 1, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    Great article and detective work!

  3. Richard said, on June 1, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    Could William be in this photo? He would have had two strips on his arm and been about 13 years older.

    William Henry-Pension Index Card
    E4 USC Infantry
    Date of Filing (May 19, 1910 and Aug 18, 1890)
    Application Number 897193
    Law (O Age J)
    Certificate No. 647769

    Died Dec. 22, 1922 at Baltimore, Md.

    Age 24 height 5 feet 6 1/2 inches
    Eyes_Black Hair_Curly
    Where born_Cambridge Md
    Enlisted_July 28, 1863
    By Whom_Col. W. Birney for 3 years

    Nov. + Dec. 1864
    Promoted to Corporal H. Henry made 1st Sgt.
    Free on April 1861

    William was promoted to Corp on Nov. 1, 1864
    Harry was promoted to 1st Sgt on Oct. 14, 1864

    • Andy Hall said, on June 1, 2011 at 6:56 pm

      Richard, thanks for a great comment, and additional information.

      As you’re aware, determining exact age of persons from census or other contemporary records is often a difficult business. Census records often contain contradictory evidence; I’ve seen one person who “aged” more than 20 years in a single, ten-year census cycle.

      Knowing that Harry Henry had brothers in the same company — and assuming that is Harry in the photo — I suspect that the man standing immediately behind and to his left may be Jacob, at that time a Sergeant. (His chevrons are obscured in the image.) He stands in the senior position, and I really think the two men look a lot alike. I mean, a lot. Or maybe William. But probably no way to establish that beyond speculation. As noted to the comment below, the sort of measuring I did with the First Sergeant is pretty crude, and cannot reliably differentiate between men of close to the same height.

  4. Richard said, on June 1, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    Correction to my earlier post. Footnote had William listed with (34) beside his name when it should be 24.
    Henry, Harry (21)
    Henry, William (34) should be (24). Closer to the census.

    William is 1/2 inch shorter than Harry. Wonder what the length of the rifle is with bayonet affixed?

  5. said, on June 1, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    Could you use a similar tool to triangulate the proximate soldier as well?

    • Andy Hall said, on June 1, 2011 at 6:46 pm

      Yes, using a known length for the weapon (an M1863 Springfield, maybe?). But it would be only a very crude estimate of height — enough, say, to distinguish between one man 5-foot-6 and another one 6-foot-even, but there are too many unknowns to make it much more precise than that. Using it on the First Sergeant doesn’t confirm the identity so much as provide an opportunity to question it, if he turned out to be substantially taller or shorter. (Does that make sense?)

    • Andy Hall said, on June 1, 2011 at 10:29 pm

      Estimation of the height of a non-commissioned officer of Co. E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, November 1865.

      1. Identification of rifle, a Model 1863 Springfield, 56 inches long. Rifle image from here.

      2. Setting a vertical scale to match the known length of the rifle.

      3. Transferring that scale to the soldier, giving a (very) approximate height of 5 feet, 6 inches — exceedingly average for that day. This is a “ball park” number; actual height could be somewhat different.

      This technique is not precise, and requires a standard of object of known length, held with its long axis at right angles to the photograph, at essentially the same distance from the camera as the subject’s body. It gives, at best, a rough approximation of height. It is the photometric equivalent of the height strip pasted on the inside of doors at convenience stores — better than nothing, but only a little so.

  6. Neil Hamilton said, on June 1, 2011 at 11:11 pm


    Impressive research and effort!

    I do hope you pass on such research to the man’s ancestors, if in any way possible. What a bit of pride and history you would pass on!

    Thanks again for a wonderful bit of hard work and excellent research.

    It is appreciated.


    • Andy Hall said, on June 2, 2011 at 1:14 am

      Thanks. It’s good to be able to match a likely name with a face in an image as ubiquitous as this one.

      • Richard said, on June 2, 2011 at 6:15 am

        Wish you were here teaching in my sons HS. This would definitely keep their attention and show them investigative techniques plus learn history at the same time.

        • Andy Hall said, on June 2, 2011 at 8:17 am

          Thanks. This is a case that could easily be done by a HS student — at least on the documents side of it. It’s very linear — 1, 2, 3. The key is (1) understanding how online tools like the S&S database and Footnote compliment each other, and (2) looking at a very familiar image and realizing there’s a question there that can be asked and answered.

    • Mike Musick said, on June 2, 2011 at 9:23 am

      I join Neil in heartily applauding Andy’s wonderful feat of research and analysis. However, even Andy’s remarkable abilities are unequal to the task of passing this information on to Sergeant Henry’s ancestors. “Ancestors” are those from whom someone is descended; that is, the forefathers. “Descendants” are that person’s offspring, and presumably the word that was meant. This misunderstanding has become alarmingly widespread of late, notably among journalists, who should know better. I don’t wish to be snarky, but would like to make folks aware of the confusion that these words now cause.

      • Andy Hall said, on June 2, 2011 at 9:32 am

        So far I’ve been entirely unequal to the task of informing Henry’s descendants, as well. 😉

        In my poking around online I did find someone who also seems to be looking for material on Harry Henry; whether that person is a relative, or is aware of his CW military service, I don’t know. I’ve sent a message to that person, but have not heard back.

        I’ve also found that sometimes the people you’d expect to show an interest, just don’t. A while back I did a long, multi-part profile of another USCT veteran, and passed that profile on to several folks in his town who, while not relatives, were involved in local history and heritage groups, people (as I thought) would be happy to get that, and likely could exchange further information back with me. But in response I never got so much as a pro-forma acknowledgement that the material had been received. People are funny that way.

  7. corkingiron said, on June 2, 2011 at 9:07 am

    Good work Andy – as per usual. I gotta admit I’m more than a bit jealous. Your research is both timely and valuable – a good thing. But to have the opportunity to engage in it would be a huge amount of just out-and-out fun as well – and that’s also a good thing. Until we get grumpy demanding customer’s boat out of the boatyard, I’ll have to satisfy my love of this stuff vicariously.

  8. charlie Persinger said, on June 3, 2011 at 9:09 am

    Sorry but you know Brag Bowling has written another piece on “a house divided” and its pretty bad and he has a bunch of crazy people writting nonsense on the comments.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 3, 2011 at 9:31 am

      I saw it, and the comments. Someone named “persingerce” has hammered back pretty hard, and (IMO) successfully. If you ever meet that person, give him my compliments. 😉

      Remember: in an online discussion, getting the right word is more important than getting the last word.

      If Bowling is following his usual practice, he or one of his followers sent out the Bat Signal to swarm the comments section in support of him. Based on seeing comments to stories online with the same commenters popping up again and again, I gather they do that routinely with news items, or comments to news items, they disagree with. Bowling’s essays, like everyone else’s, need to stand or fall on their own merits. It’s one thing if people, acting independently and on their own, choose to comment in favor or opposition to the essay; it’s entirely another to actively and directly solicit one’s buddies to “show their support” for your position when others call BS on you. It reflects, to my thinking, a deep insecurity about the strength of one’s own arguments, and an almost childish reaction to criticism: “They’re picking on me again!”

  9. S. Thomas Summers said, on June 3, 2011 at 8:24 pm

    Excellent piece. Brave men.

  10. Matt McKeon said, on June 3, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    You should teach a course on the research methods you employed here and in other posts. It would be damned useful.

  11. focusoninfinity said, on June 4, 2011 at 7:14 am

    Yesterday’s Wilmington, N.C., Star-News had a feature story and pictures (front page or second front?) on the N.C. state highway historic marker sign dedicated to the (600?) black Union soldiers and white officers buried there. My late double-uncle of some-sort, Willie Graham James, lived across the street from it, and it was commonly called “Thee Yankee Cemetery”. Many Southern locals in later U.S. service are buried there also.

    • Richard Phillips said, on June 6, 2011 at 5:27 pm

      I took some photos in this cemetery a few months back and saw a cluster of burials with civilian laborer on the headstone. That was something unique so I had to look it up. The VA site describes these burials below.

      Also buried in Wilmington National Cemetery are the remains of a group of Puerto Rican laborers who fell victim to the great influenza epidemic of 1918. On Nov. 14, 1918, the Wilmington Morning Star reported an outbreak of influenza on a ship docked in the Cape Fear River. The government vessel, City of Savannah, had arrived two days earlier carrying 1,900 Puerto Ricans to Fayetteville to aid in the construction of Camp Bragg. By the time the ship left Wilmington harbor, 28 of the Puerto Rican laborers had been buried at the national cemetery.
      Wilmington National Cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.

      • Andy Hall said, on June 6, 2011 at 8:41 pm

        That’s interesting. It’s surprising — and to my thinking, gratifying — what one finds in a national cemetery. At the Fort Bliss National Cemetery in El Paso, where my late father-in-law in interred, there’s a section off at one end of the cemetery where a number of German PoWs from WWII are buried.

        Fort Bliss is located near the White Sands Missile Range, and so has been the interservice training facility for surface-to-air missiles for many years. NATO were trained there, too, so for a long time El Paso has had a sizable German community, and a surprising number of Bundeswehr retirees. For a long time, and I think still today, the German community held an annual memorial service at the cemetery there.

        [Just to be clear, my late father-in-law was not a German PoW. 😉 ]

  12. Allen Gathman said, on June 6, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    At the risk of being redundant, this is a really nice piece of work. It really is a nice example of how it’s possible to contribute something new to our historical knowledge with the modern tools available to everyone.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 6, 2011 at 3:52 pm

      Thanks. As you say, the tools are readily available. The hurdle in this case is recognizing there’s a question that can be answered.

  13. Robert Welch said, on August 23, 2011 at 2:00 am

    A great article. Using the sword for a measuring device is a great move; I’ve known people to break out the calipers in order to use blouse and coat buttons to establish a scale before.

    • Andy Hall said, on August 23, 2011 at 9:52 am

      Robert, thanks for commenting.

      Making inferred measurements in old photos like this one is imprecise at best, and require a particular set of elements. Not sure I’d try it with something so small as a button.

  14. edabney said, on September 5, 2011 at 9:16 am

    Love this Andy! Really makes for a good probable identification of a group of previously just Black faces from the Civil War.

    • Andy Hall said, on September 5, 2011 at 9:31 am

      Thanks. I’ve looked at that picture a thousand times, as I’m sure you have. The sleuthing in this case is not difficult; the hurdle is recognizing that there’s a question here that can be answered.

  15. focusoninfinity said, on September 5, 2011 at 11:28 am

    Good thinking on those picture measurements. National Archives has 3-D deck photos of the USS Monitor on the James River. One photo of all but one officers in chairs, shows at viewer’s left, seated before the turret, my Woollen kinsman, USS Monitor 3rd Asst. Engr. Robinson Woollen Hands, sitting atop a jury-rigged stool of two Monitor armored deck-light covers. He perished at his engine-room duty station when the Monitor foundered. His memorial stone is at Baltimore. The enlisted of the Monitor survivors group, the Starboard Watch Society, voted Robinson the most beloved of all the officers by the enlisted.. The first item recovered from the deep that identified the wreck as thee USS Monitor, and not just a monitor class vessel, was not the earlier lantern, but the armored deck-light cover. Possibly Robinson is sitting on the one first one recovered from the deep? Robinson’s brother was Capt. George Washington Hands, Jr., of the Virginia Confederate infantry who considered Robinson a traitor and never bespoke Robinson’s name again. They both had been apprenticed to become Baltimore & Ohio R.R. locomotive engineers before the war. Their father was Capt. Geo. Washington Hands, Sr., civilian master of the “River Queen” which took President Lincoln from Washington, D.C. to the Hampton Roads Peace Conference. There is a painting of Lincoln at the “River Queen’s” wardroom table. My great grandfather was Sgt. James Anderson Woollen, CSA, Co. C, 45th N.C., musician and hospital orderly, 1835-1905, buried Old Salem, Winston-Salem, N.C. he served with his father-in-law, Pvt. James Landreth Malcolm, CSA, d1895, age 79; Old Salem, same unit, musician and ambulance teamster. Sgt. Woollen and wife Mrs. Susan Caroline Malcolm Woollen are in the 1890’s book by Edmund Jennings Lee, “The Lee Family of Virginia”. The next Monitor picture comment are on my black hero, Siah Carter; escaped “contraband” from Shirley Plantation on the James Rover.

  16. […] with the record in House Divided, but also after consulting a fascinating blog post by Andy Hall at Dead Confederates.  Try to imagine yourself as one of the soldiers depicted in this detail.  What was he thinking […]

  17. Tom Link said, on May 27, 2013 at 8:48 am

    Currently researching another member of this company, Gray J. Toole from North Carolina. A barber in Raleigh, he moved to Charlotte with his wife and brother J. Henry Toole after the war. He was president of the Neptune Volunteer Fire Company and the founder of the Charlotte Light Infantry. They were activated for federal service during the Spanish-American War and he then served as an officer of the 3rd NC Volunteers. After his service, and the advent of Jim Crow and the white supremacy campaign, he moved his family to the Cross Creek region of Cumberland County, NC. Any info would be appreciated.
    Tom Link
    Battalion Chief
    Charlotte Fire Department

    • Andy Hall said, on May 27, 2013 at 9:08 am

      Mr. Link:

      Thanks for your note. Do you have Mr. Toole’s compiled service record from the National Archives? You probably do, but if not I can send you that.

      • Tom Link said, on April 15, 2016 at 7:57 am

        Thank you. I am just now aware of your offer. I do have some material, but I would appreciate what you could share. Gray Toole has a very interesting family history. He was a baseball fanatic by many accounts.

        Best regards,

        Tom Link

          • Tom Link said, on April 15, 2016 at 8:08 pm

            Thanks! Gray Toole was the first president of the Neptune Volunteer Fire Company, a position he held for 14 years. When he came to Charlotte, he partnered with another Union soldier named John T. Schenck. Schenck was a member of Stoneman’s Cavalry group. They split their partnership over political issues… Toole was a Democrat, Schenck was a Republican leader.

  18. Royal E Magnell said, on March 29, 2019 at 4:03 pm

    I love this sort of historical analysis! I have one burning question though. If Sergeant Henry could not read or write, how could he function as a First Sergeant? How would he do the paperwork? Of course, perhaps he learned to read and write by then, but it sure makes me wonder.

    • Andy Hall said, on March 29, 2019 at 7:11 pm

      That’s a very good, and very valid question. I don’t have an answer.

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