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.