Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

South Carolina Flag Dispute: Heritage vs. Heritage

Posted in African Americans, Genealogy, Memory by Andy Hall on September 28, 2011

In putting together my recent post on the rancorous neighborhood dispute over a resident’s display of a Confederate Battle Flag in an historically African American neighborhood, I made a passing reference to the fact that the community itself had been founded by former USCTs. In retrospect, I “buried the lede,” as they say, and gave that aspect of the story short shrift — it likely plays a much bigger role in how that community identifies itself, and in its reaction to Ms. Caddell’s display:

Among [Brownsville’s] founding families were at least 10 soldiers stationed to guard the Summerville railroad station at the close of the Civil War. They were members of the 1st Regiment, United States Colored Troops, part of a force of freedmen and runaway slaves who made history with their service and paved the way for African Americans in the military.

At least some of the men were from North Carolina plantations. When the war ended they stayed where they were, living within hailing distance of each other along the tracks. Some of them lived on the “old back road” out of town where outrage has erupted recently over a resident flying a Confederate battle flag. Their ancestors [sic., descendants] still live there.

It’s a striking note in a controversy over heritage that has raised hackles across the Lowcountry and the state.

The community’s past is an obscure bit of the rich history in Summerville, maybe partly because for years the families kept it to themselves. They were the veterans and descendants of Union troops, living through Jim Crow and segregated times in a region that vaunted its rebel past.

The great-great-grandfather of Jordan Simmons III was among them. But growing up in Brownsville a century later, all Simmons remembers hearing about Jordan Swindel, his ancestor, is that he was a runaway slave who joined the Army. The rest, he says simply, “was not talked about.” He didn’t find out about it until he was an adult doing research on the Civil War and the troops and came across Swindel’s name.

Now he’s at work on a book about his family and the Brownsville heritage. Other 1st Regiment surnames in the community include Jacox, Berry, Campbell, Edney and Fedley.

Simmons, 64, has lived through some history of his own. He was one of the South Carolina State University students injured in the infamous 1968 Orangeburg Massacre. He too served in the U.S. Army, a 29-year veteran who fought in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne infantry and retired as a lieutenant colonel. He now lives in Virginia.

It overwhelmed him to see his great-great-grandfather’s name on the wall of honor three years ago when he visited the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Pvt. Swindel fought in four battles in nine months in 1864, from Florida — where he was wounded — to Honey Hill, S.C. Simmons wishes he would have sought out that history when he was younger.

As I said previously, neither side in this dispute seems much interested in letting go of this game of one-upsmanship. The historical circumstances surrounding the town’s founding don’t change the core legal issues at hand, but given that the Southron Heritage folks routinely dismiss criticism of the Confederate Flag as “political correctness” or as unfairly tarnishing an honored symbol of the Confederacy with its use by hate groups, it’s interesting to see a case where the protestor’s case against the flag is so explicitly based in the very same “heritage” argument that the flag’s proponents righteously embrace.  For at least some local residents, pushback against the CBF is every bit as grounded in the history of the American Civil War, and honoring one’s ancestors, as Ms. Caddell’s display of it. For them, it’s personal, and for exactly the same reasons.

I don’t know what the answer here is. What is clear, though, is that there’s an historical dimension to this case — very real and very valid, by the same “heritage” standard that the folks in (say) the South Carolina League of the South embrace for themselves — that needs much wider dissemination, and it plays a big role in how that community thinks and feels and reacts.
Image: Soldiers of the 1st USCT on parade. Library of Congress.

Sergeant George W. Hatton, 1st U.S.C.T.

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on March 2, 2011

(This material originally appeared in January as a guest post on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog at The Atlantic. It originated with Coates posting Hatton’s letter of May 10, 1864, and quickly became an exercise among followers of the blog in crowd-sourcing historical/genealogical research about Hatton himself. Special thanks goes to regular Golden Horde commenter KewHall, who found and shared critical mentions of Hatton that opened up the research on the latter parts of Hatton’s life.)

From the Christian Recorder newspaper, May 28, 1864:

Camp of the 1st U.S. Colored Troops,
Wilson’s landing, Charles City Co.,
May 10th 1864.

Mr. Editor:

You are aware that Wilson’s Landing is on the James river, a few miles above Jamestown, the very spot where the first sons of Africa were landed, in the year 1620, if my memory serves me right, and from that day up to the breaking out of the rebellion, was looked upon as an inferior race by all civilized nations.

But behold what has been revealed in the past three or four years; why the colored men have ascended upon a platform of equality, and the slave can now apply the lash to the tender flesh of his master, for this day I am now an eye witness of the fact. The country being principally inhabited by wealthy farmers, there are a great many men in the regiment who are refugees from this place.

While out on a foraging expedition we captured Mr. Clayton [sic., Clopton], a noted reb in this part of the country, and from his appearance, one of the F.F.V’s; on the day before we captured several colored women that belonged to Mr. C., who had given them a most unmerciful whipping previous to their departure.

On the arrival of Mr. C. in camp, the commanding officer determined to let the women have their revenge, and ordered Mr. C. to be tied to a tree in front of headquarters, and William Harris, a soldier in our regiment, and a member of Co. E, who was acquainted with the gentleman, and who used to belong to him, was called upon to undress him, and introduce him to the ladies I mentioned before. Mr. Harris played his part conspicuously, bringing the blood from his loins at every stroke, and not forgetting to remind the gentleman of days gone by.

After giving him some fifteen or twenty well-directed strokes, the ladies, one after another, came up and gave him a like number, to remind him that they were no longer his, but safely housed in Abraham’s bosom, and under the protection of the Star Spangled Banner, and guarded by their own patriotic, though once down-trodden race.

Oh, that I had the tongue to express my feelings while standing upon the banks of the James river, on the soil of Virginia, the mother state of slavery, as a witness of such a sudden reverse! The day is clear, the fields of grain are beautiful and the birds are singing sweet melodious songs, while poor Mr. C. is crying to his servants for mercy. Let all who sympathize for the South take this narrative for a mirror.

Yours Truly,


G.W.H. was George W. Hatton, a 22-year-old soldier from Maryland. He was born in Prince Georges County in about 1842. I think he was born free, although another, second-hand source from decades later describes him as having been a slave at some point.

George first appears in the 1860 U.S. Census he appears in the household of Henry Hatton, a 50-year-old blacksmith, and his wife Margaret (50). They hold $900 in real property and $150 in personal property, and live near Long Old Fields, Maryland. Both Henry and Margaret can read and write. Living with them are their children: Martha, 21 Henry, 18, occupied as a farmhand George, 17, occupied as a farmhand Sarah, 14 Susan, 9 Josephine, 4 Also living with the Hattons is one Henry Brent, age 75. All the Hattons are listed as “mulatto.”

At some point between 1860 and 1863, it appears that the Hattons moved from Maryland into the District of Columbia. George W. Hatton enlisted for a term of three years in the 1st U.S. Colored Troops on June 8, 1863, becoming one of the first men to enlist in the newly-created USCT units. Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin tell the story in Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America:

In the nation’s capital, too, Negroes were under attack. But the victims were men enlisting to fight, and their attackers were not Confederate soldiers. The first colored man in the Washington enlistment line was Catto’s friend Billy Wormley. Almost at once, whites in the street, including policemen, began shouting threats at the sight of colored men being issued guns and uniforms. A man in the enlistment line shouted back. George W. Hatton dared the police to shoot him if they needed to kill a Negro for enlisting. Wormely said the same. The police glared, but no one fired.

Guards at Mason’s Island inspect passes at the ferry leading across the Potomac to Georgetown, in the distance. The island, where Hatton’s regiment was formed, was a convenient site for units raised in the capital — close to the city, but somewhat isolated from it. The island was also connected to the Virginia shore by a short causeway, and then by the Aqueduct Bridge to Georgetown and Washington. Library of Congress.

Hatton joined the unit at Mason’s Island (now Theodore Roosevelt Island) in the Potomac River that same day. He enlisted with the rank of sergeant, presumably due to his ability to read and write — and possibly also as a result of his behavior outside the recruiting office. His service record describes him at enlistment as five-foot-six, a “dark mulatto,” black hair and eyes, with “front tooth out.” On October 19, 1863, Hatton was granted a two-week furlough for illness, to return on November 3. He may have gotten an extension, as his record indicates he returned to duty on November 21. A later entry in his record indicates his pay was “to be stopped [for the loss of] 1 knapsack & 1 pr Govt. Coatstraps.” In the spring his pay was stopped again for three separate pair of shoulder scales (50 cents each), and on May 20, 1864 — ten days after writing the letter TNC posted — he was promoted to first sergeant.

First U.S Colored Troops on parade. Library of Congress.

The whipping of William Henry Clopton (1810-1876) that Hatton wrote about became a relatively well-known incident in the war. Clopton was the owner of Selwood in Charles City County, Virginia, and had developed a reputation for cruelty that set him apart from other slaveholders in the region. The Union general commanding, Edward A Wild, was a physician in civilian life with a strong abolitionist bent. He described the event:

[Clopton] has acquired a notoriety as the most cruel Slave Master in this region, but in my presence he put on the character of a Sniveling Saint. I found half a dozen women among our [slave] refugees, whom he had often whipped unmercifully – I laid him bare and placed a whip into the hands of the Women, three of Whom took turns in settling some old scores on their master’s back. A black man, whom he had abused, finished the administration of Poetical justice. . . . I wish that his back had been as deeply scarred as those of the women, but I abstained and left it to them.

Clopton’s descendants are still unhappy about that.

General Wild’s USCTs liberating slaves in North Carolina. Harper’s Weekly, 1864.

George W. Hatton was absent sick in hospital for a time in the late spring. By the time he returned to his regiment, he was anxious to be in the thick of the fight, and chafing that senior white officers were still reluctant to try the USCTs in hard combat. On June 13, he mailed off another letter to the Christian Recorder:

Since I wrote to you last, our regiment has been in several engagements; the first, at Wilson’s Landing, on the 24th of May last, and the heroism displayed by the gallant boys of the 1st, needs no comment, for they have won for themselves unfading laurels, to be stamped on the pages of history. The next, was in front of Petersburg, Va., on the 9th of the present month; it was not what might be termed a general engagement, though it was quite a brisk skirmish, the boys were in hope they were going into the doomed city; but an order soon came for them to fall back. I suppose the General in charge found the odds too great against his small force, which was composed of the 5th Ohio, colored, 6th U.S., colored, and the 1st U.S. colored cavalry. The casualties were small, not worth mentioning in our letters. When marching to the field of battle, by the side of my captain, who is one of the brave sons of old Massachusetts, I feel that I am a man, fighting for a Government that recognizes me as such; but, behold, when I call my wandering mind to view facts, and the ground upon which I stand, I find that the leaders of the Government are still keeping us far behind the times. I appeal to the leaders of this great Republic to know the reason why they hesitate to give us our God-given rights. I do not expect to have all the enjoyments of home, but, undoubtedly, would not have any objection to being put on an equal footing with my brother white soldier. We responded to the call of the Government at the time when her very metropolis was threatened with conflagration, willing to stand by her until the very last drop of blood be drained from our veins, on the promise of being treated as white soldiers, but, ah, I have been a soldier for more than a year, for the small sum of seven dollars per month. I want to know if the star spangled banner represents such unjust deeds.

He didn’t have long to wait. Two days after posting his letter, First Sergeant Hatton was wounded during the Union assaults on Confederate lines at Petersburg. As part of the 3rd Division of the XVIII Corps, the 1st USCT helped to capture a small segment of the Confederate line, but the overall attack was a failure due to disorganization and late reinforcement of Union forces, and the two sides settled into a long siege.

An amputation at Fortress Monroe. Probably a staged photograph, but illustrating the procedure. Library of Congress.

Service records show that Hatton received a “G.S.W. [gunshot wound] Left Knee.” There is no record of an amputation, but clearly the wound was serious and caused lasting impairment. He was several months in various hospitals, where he discovered that the discrimination he’d experienced as a recruit carried over into the medical wards, as well. He was transferred to the military hospital at Fortress Monroe a few days after being wounded, and upon his arrival wrote to his father Henry, to come and take him home to Washington where he could recover with his family. The scene that followed, he wrote the Christian Recorder, was more hurtful to him than the wound to his knee:

My father complied with my request, and arrived at Fortress Monroe on the 30th. I was overjoyed to see him. Today, he departed with a hung-down head, leaving me with an aching heart. I must here state the cause of my trouble. It is as follows:

On my father’s arrival at the hospital he stated the object of his visit to the doctor in charge, who, very short and snappish, referred him to Dr. White, one of the head surgeons. Father immediately proceeded to Dr. White’s office, where he expected to receive a little satisfaction, but to his heart-rending surprise, received none. After making every exertion in his power to get a furlough, he failed in so doing, without receiving the slightest shadow of satisfaction.

All of this I was willing to stand, as I had discharged my duty as a soldier from the first of May, 1863, up to the time I was wounded, for the low United States’ degrading sum of $7 per month, that no man but the poor, down-trodden, uneducated, patriotic black man would be willing to fight for. Yes, I stand all this; but the great wound I received at the hospital was this: A white man, whose name I did not learn, came from Washington with my father for the same purpose, to see his son and carry him home. His success needs no comment; let it suffice to say that he was white, and he carried his son home.

Such deception as that I thought was crucified at the battle of Fort Wagner; buried at Milliken’s Bend; rose the third day, and descended into everlasting forgetfulness in the Appomattox River at the battle of Petersburg.

Mr. Editor, when, oh! when can one of my color, and in my Position, at this time, find a comforter? When will my people be a nation? I fear, never on the American soil; though we may crush this cursed rebellion.

Hatton’s service record through the end of the war shows several alternate periods of being present for duty and absent in hospital. In August 1864, two months after his injury, he was transferred to the Summit House General Hospital in Philadelphia, where his wound was treated with “cold water dressing.” He was returned to duty in late November. Hatton was eventually discharged for disability on June 16, 1865, while with his regiment in North Carolina, with the notation that “he is entitled to transportation from place of discharge to place of enlistment.” He applied for (and apparently received) a disability pension on August 24, 1865. One interesting entry in Hatton’s service record is the note that “back pay at rate of $10 per month due soldier as Sergt from date of enlistment to Feby 29.64.” This notation reflects the differential pay given to white and black Union soldiers up to that date. Congress eventually corrected the inequity, but only back to January 1, 1864 for freedmen; soldiers like Hatton, who’d been free at the outbreak of the war, received back pay all the way to the date of their enlistment.

To be continued. . . .


United States Colored Troops Support Amendment 62

Posted in African Americans, Media, Memory by Andy Hall on July 30, 2010

Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry.
Library of Congress.

I don’t like to get too much into present-day politics on this blog, but when folks drag historical figures (real or imagined) into the fray, it becomes fair game for commentary. Personhood Colorado, an anti-abortion group looking to amend that state’s constitution to designate a fetus a “person” under law, has a new radio ad in which an actor portrays a runaway slave who joins the Union Army to fight in the Civil War:

I’m George Stevens and I’m a person. I was held as property as a child. Even before my birth I was called a slave in an America you wouldn’t recognize. But folks like you helped me escape North to freedom and in 1864, I joined the infantry to fight for my country. I fought so all slaves would be recognized as persons, not property. And we won. But today in Colorado, there are still people called property – children – just like I was. And that America you thought you wouldn’t recognize is all around you and these children are being killed. This November, vote “yes” on Amendment 62. Amendment 62 declares unborn children persons, not property. And that’s the America I fought for. . . .

I’m sure “George Stevens” was chosen as a sufficiently common name to allow the producers to avoid having to answer for pinning any specific individual, even a long-dead one, to this cause. According to the National Park Service’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, there were at least ten “George Stevens” serving in black U.S. regiments during the war, and at least one more among state troops, in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry.

There seems to be a lot of this going on lately, latching on to specific historical figures for a sort of endorsement-from-beyond-the-grave. I’m not talking about your run-of-the-mill, homage to leaders of the past in a gauzy, feel-good sort of way, but taking actual (or in “George Stevens” case, fictional) historical figures and presenting them as explicitly endorsing a particular candidate or position. In many of these cases, it seems, the pairing of the candidate and known, established positions of the historical figure are dubious, or even amusing. Rand Paul, the GOP Senate candidate in Kentucky who has questioned the propriety of the Civil Rights Act and has defended the right of private businesses to discriminate based on race — though he’s also said “it’s bad for business” if they do — published an editorial in the Bowling Green Daily News in which he wrote that “when I read history I side with abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglas,” apparently forgetting the spelling of “Douglass.” Rick Barber, running in the GOP primary for a congressional seat in Alabama, famously ran an ad where he sits in a bar, surrounded by colonial revolutionaries like Sam Adams and Ben Franklin and asserts that the American Revolution began as a protest over taxes, seemingly unaware that it was about taxation without representation, a legitimate problem that Barber’s own candidacy would seem to disprove on its face. Not quite satisfied with that bit of whiplash-inducing logic, Barber followed up with an ad in which he asked Abraham Lincoln (“Hey, Abe!”) the Great Emancipator’s view on federal income taxes, to which the sixteenth president ominously intones, “slavery!” As with his previous ad, Barber’s history here is a little off, given that the Lincoln administration imposed the first income tax in U.S. history. Oops.

I don’t mind it so much when modern politicians make reference to historical figures, when the parallels actually, you know, make sense, when the current issue or policy position shows a clear and logical lineage. But these recent examples are just silly, made more so by the dissonance between the positions actually taken by the historical figures whose mantles they claim and the modern-day political positions they’ve been exhumed to endorse. Does anyone actually believe that, in their own day, Franklin and Adams would have been considered to stand on the “conservative” side of the political spectrum, or that Douglass favored the federal government keeping out of civil rights issues? Did George Washington really support the idea of violent overthrow of a republic’s elected government? (“Gather your armies!”) And remind me again — what does the historical record say about Private Stevens’ (Stevenses?) position on abortion? I hate to generalize, but I’ve never got the idea that the political forebears of the Tea Party movement — prime backers of both Rand Paul and Rick Barber — were big fans of either Lincoln or strident abolitionists like Douglass, neither of whom were shy about using the force of the U.S. government to pursue their objectives. Is it worth noting that at the same time Personhood Colorado is making a direct and explicit parallel between itself and the abolitionists of 150 years ago, its allies in Washington D.C. are lynching their opponents in effigy?

This is all pretty ridiculous, over-the-top political theater, and I suspect that the vast majority of people see it that way, including those who happen to agree with the candidate in question on the issues. But I’m skeptical that it wins elections. There’s some evidence of that; for all the cable-news airtime and YouTube play Barber’s ads got — over 380,000 views and counting for the “gather your armies!” spot — he got a thumpin‘ a couple of weeks ago in the primary runoff with Montgomery City Councilwoman Martha Roby. And Personhood Colorado may need an entire regiment of “George Stevenses” to pass their constitutional amendment — the last time it came up for a vote, in 2008, it got crushed almost three-to-one.