Artillery: General Davis Tillson

Six men who suffered the loss of a limb before the American Civil War—Joseph A. Haskin (U), Philip Kearny (U), William W. Loring (C), James G. Martin (C), Thomas W. Sweeny (U), and Davis Tillson (U)—overcame their handicaps and rose to the rank of brigadier general or major general during the war. Of these six generals, Davis Tillson was the youngest and the only one not to have had a limb amputated as a result of being wounded during the U.S.-Mexican War. He also made the greatest climb in rank of his fellow invalids, beginning the war as a lowly captain of artillery, and ending it as a brevet major general and commander of the District of East Tennessee.

The son of William and Jane Tillson, Davis Tillson was born in Rockland, Maine, on April 17, 1830. In July 1849, Davis received an appointment to United States Military Academy (the same year as John B. Hood, John M. Schofield, and James B. McPherson).

Cadet Tillson suffered a puncture wound to his leg during an accident the same month he arrived at West Point. He continued to have problems with his leg during the summer and into the winter of 1849. When his condition grew worse, the surgeon decided it was necessary to amputate the infected portion of his leg. The procedure was conducted at the U.S. Hospital at Governors Island on March 23, 1850.

CDV of Davis Tillson (Courtesy of Steve Meadows,

Tillson returned to the academy at the end of April but was never the same. He could only walk with the aid of crutches, making it nearly impossible for him to march, drill, or ride a horse. He must have felt embarrassed and humiliated. He resigned from the academy by September 1851.

Tillson returned home to Maine after his resignation. But he did not wallow in despair. He served as a civil engineer for a while before turning to politics. He was elected to the Maine legislature on the Republican ticket in 1857. The next year, he was appointed as adjutant general of the state. President Abraham Lincoln appointed him as the collector of customs of Waldoboro, Maine, in July 1861, the same month as the Union defeat at Bull Run.

Tillson did not intend to sit back in a comfy desk job while his fellow Mainers fought and died on the battlefield. He could have (and probably should have) remained at home. He earned a reputation in the community as a “gentleman of military taste and culture” and helped to drill Captain (later general) Hiram G. Berry’s Rockland City Guards (a local military unit) in the years before the war. He knew a thing or two about soldiering, and despite his disability, Tillson resigned his position as a collector of customs and organized the 2nd Maine Battery.

He feared that he would be rejected when he showed up to be mustered into service. The famed prohibitionist, Neal Dow, then serving as colonel of the 13th Maine Volunteers, said that Tillson had anxiously come to him before going to the mustering station. “I am afraid I cannot pass muster with that officer,” Tillson said to Dow. “He was a classmate of mine at West Point and knows my defect, which no stranger would suspect.”

But Dow tried to reassure his friend that his handicap wouldn’t be detected. “He had been so admirably fitted with a cork substitute and had become so wonted to its use,” Dow wrote, “that no one unacquainted with the facts would have suspected his ‘unsoundness.’” Tillson had been wearing an artificial leg under his slacks since 1852.

Neal Dow (Courtesy of Heritage Auctions).

Dow accompanied him to the mustering station in case he needed to intervene on Tillson’s behalf. He soon discovered it wasn’t necessary. “I found that no word from me was needed,” Dow recalled. “They recognized each other instantly, and upon Captain Tillson expressing his fear of rejection his old classmate replied: ‘Tillson, I know you. I would pass you if you had lost both legs and arms.’” Tillson was mustered into service as a captain of the 2nd Maine Battery in November 1861.

During the winter of 1861-62, the regiment was stationed at Fort Preble in Portland, Maine, during the Trent Affair. Tillson took the opportunity to drill his green command and transformed it into an effective artillery unit. In April 1862, the battery was assigned to the Department of the Rappahannock under General Irvin McDowell.

In May, Tillson was promoted to major and made chief of artillery of General Edward O.C. Ord’s division (later under the command of General Ricketts) and served in this capacity until August. He fought in the Battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9, 1862. McDowell must have been impressed with his performance because the day after the battle he made Tillson the chief of artillery of the III Corps. He served as McDowell’s chief of artillery for the remainder of the campaign culminating in the Union defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run.

Union battery in action at Cedar Mountain (Library of Congress).

After the Union defeat, Tillson applied for thirty days’ leave due to his poor health and to have his damaged artificial limb repaired. After the war in 1888, Tillson would write to A. A. Marks, a manufacturer of artificial limbs, praising his design. “For the past ten years I have worn constantly one of your rubber feet,” Tillson wrote, “It very far surpasses all others in durability, absence of disagreeable noise, and freedom from unpleasant concussion in walking.” But in 1862, Tillson did not possess Marks’ model and likely had to endure the annoyance and discomfort he described in the field with an unserviceable limb.

Tillson returned to the army in October and reported to Lt. Colonel Joseph A. Haskin (a fellow invalid and future general), in charge of the capital’s defenses north of the Potomac River. He was made inspector of artillery at Washington, D.C. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel in January and was commissioned a brigadier general in March. But unlike Haskin, who remained in Washington’s defenses for the remainder of the war, Tillson was assigned to a more active command. He was ordered to report to General Ambrose E. Burnside, commander of the Department of Ohio, in Cincinnati.

Burnside put General Tillson in charge of inspecting the defenses at Covington and Newport (Kentucky) and appointed him chief of artillery of the department. During the summer and fall of 1863, Tillson supervised the repair of the defenses of Cincinnati and the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. He was made chief of artillery to General John G. Foster, who had replaced Burnside in December 1863, and was ordered to report to Knoxville following General Longstreet’s unsuccessful campaign. He was given command of the defenses of Knoxville, Loudon, and Kingston and was ordered to supervise the improvement of their fortifications.

General Davis Tillson (Gould, Edward K. Major-General Hiram G. Berry: His Career as a Contractor, Bank President, Politician and Major-General of Volunteers in the Civil War, 1899). 

When General Ulysses S. Grant visited Knoxville during the winter of 1863, Tillson requested permission to raise a regiment of colored heavy artillerymen. General Foster issued an order on January 6, 1864, granting Tillson’s request to recruit a colored unit to defend Knoxville: “All able-bodied colored men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five within our lines, except those employed in the several staff departments, officers’ servants, and those servants of loyal citizens who prefer remaining with their masters, will be sent forthwith to Knoxville, Loudon, or Kingston, Tenn., to be enrolled, under the direction of Brig. Gen. Davis Tillson, chief of artillery, with a view to be the formation of a regiment of artillery, to be composed of troops of African descent.” The unit was designated as the 1st U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery and remained under Tillson’s command for the remainder of the war.

He wrote to the adjutant general of Maine, John L. Hodsdon (he had replaced Tillson when he accepted Lincoln’s appointment), from Knoxville on April 2, 1864, expressing his confidence in the improvements that he had made since Longstreet’s campaign. He also spoke of General William T. Sherman’s approval of his work and his devotion to his new assignment:

Since my arrival here, I have been very busy in constructing the fortifications about this city. It is not too much to say that I have made them at least one hundred fold stronger than they were at the time Longstreet made his attack. A few days since Major Gen. Sherman, commanding Military Division Mississippi, accompanied by his Chief of Artillery, Gen. Barry, examined the works, and both expressed themselves highly gratified with the plan and execution of the line. Have some 4,000 troops of all kinds under my command, and work some 1,000 every day…I take some little pride in the works here, and mean to make this the best fortified town in this country.

View of Knoxville from the south bank of the Tennessee River (Library of Congress).

In January 1865, Tillson assumed command of the District of East Tennessee (Department of Cumberland) from General Jacob Ammen. He led Ammen’s old Fourth Division of the XXIII Corps during General George Stoneman’s raid from March to April 1865. His two brigades played a crucial role during these operations, protecting Stoneman’s rear during his advance into North Carolina and Virginia.

Receiving intelligence in April that President Jefferson Davis fled from Goldsboro and was headed west with his treasury wagons, General Stoneman gave Tillson orders to push on to Asheville and hold the pass in the Blue Ridge in order to cut-off Davis. “If you can hear of Davis,” Stoneman wrote to Tillson, “follow him to the end of the earth, if possible, and never give him up.” Davis was finally captured by Union cavalrymen on May 10, 1865. Tillson was brevetted major general at the close of the war.

Tillson submitted his resignation when the war ended but it was not accepted. Instead, he was appointed to serve as acting assistant commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Georgia, with his headquarters in Augusta. General Oliver Otis Howard, the Freedmen’s Bureau commissioner, praised Tillson for his “faithful work” and “great purity of administration” during the time he filled this role. Howard wrote to President Andrew Johnson telling him that Tillson was a man of “highly commended by the inspectors, and is known to be a man of integrity and good judgment.” He remained on duty with the Freedmen’s Bureau until December 1866.

Tillson’s grave in Achorn Cemetery,
Rockland, Maine (Find A Grave).

Tillson’s service as an administrator translated well to his business career after the war. He purchased Rockland’s Hurricane Island for $1,000 in January 1870 and organized the Hurricane Island Granite Co. to develop its granite quarries, employing an army of 1,400 European workers. He invested in a handful of other business ventures, including a lime quarry and orange groves in Florida (where he liked to vacation). He took a risk and built what became known as the Tillson Wharf in 1881—it cost him $200,000 to construct—but it turned out to be his greatest financial success. Tillson died in Rockland from heart complications on April 30, 1895, at the age of 65 years old.

He may not be as well-known as his fellow generals from Maine, but Davis Tillson quickly rose through the ranks and held a number of important commands during the war. By the age of 35 years old, he commanded a district. He was an excellent artilleryman, administrator, and builder of fortifications. While he would have been justified staying home, Tillson chose to volunteer his services despite his handicap and admirably served his country.


Annual Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Maine, for the Year Ending December 31, 1861. Augusta, ME: Stevens & Sayward, 1862.

Annual Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Maine, for the Year Ending December 31, 1863. Augusta, ME: Stevens & Sayward, 1863.

A Treatise on Mark’s Patent Artificial Limbs With Rubber Hands and Feet. New York: A.A. Marks, 1888.

Dow, Neal. The Reminiscences of Neal Dow. Recollection of Eighty Years. Portland, ME: Evening Express, 1898.

Executive Documents Printed by the Order The House of Representatives During the Second Session of the Thirty-Ninth Congress, 1865-66. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1866.

Executive Documents Printed by the Order The House of Representatives During the Second Session of the Thirty-Ninth Congress, 1866-67. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1867.

Gould, Edward K. Major-General Hiram G. Berry: His Career as a Contractor, Bank President, Politician and Major-General of Volunteers in the Civil War. Rockland, ME: Press of the Courier-Gazette,1899.

Hartley, Chris J. “Major General George Stoneman Led the Last American Civil War Cavalry Raid.” America’s Civil War (May 1998). Accessed June 2, 2018.

Howard, Oliver O. Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard, Major General U.S. Army. Vol. II. New York: Baker and Taylor Company, 1908.

“In Memoriam: Davis Tillson.” The Maine Bugle (Rockland, ME), October 1895.

“Island History.” Hurricane Island Foundation. Accessed June 2, 2018.

Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States of America From December 6, 1858, to August 6, 1861, Inclusive. Vol. XI. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1887.

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series I, Vol. XLIX, Part II (Correspondence, Etc.) Washington: Government Printing Office, 1897.

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series III, Vol. IV. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1900.

Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964.

Welsh, Jack D. Medical Histories of Union Generals. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1996.

‘Citizen Archivists’ and Civil War Documents

NARA microfilm

National Archives microfilm Photograph by author)

by Kelly Mezurek

When I began my research on an Ohio African American Civil War regiment, the 27th United States Colored Troops (USCT), the only option I had if I wanted to read the soldier’s compiled military service records and pension files was to visit the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C. Although I loved the experience of holding the nineteenth-century documents in my hands while sitting in the Archival Research Room on Pennsylvania Avenue, those multiple trips over the years were an overwhelming financial burden for me as a graduate student and later adjunct professor.

And there were many trips.

Researchers are limited to four “pulls,” or individual files, six times a day (the numbers of which have changed since I began in 2001; the days and hours for the research room have also been cut). For regimental research, the time required to study the records of over 1,000 men can be daunting. Even after microfilm copies of the compiled military service records became available, which presented new problems of readability and access to microfilm machines if you could obtain copies of the microfilm rolls, the pension files remained available only at the National Archives.

This has changed drastically with the massive high-quality scanning projects that have made millions of Civil War military documents available online from the comfort of our own homes. Fold 3, a commercial website affiliated with, includes the complete set of the compiled military service records for the 27th USCT, as well as almost every other black regiment. All other Union and Confederate troops have various levels of records scanned, from index cards to full compiled military service records. The site is in the process of scanning all widow pensions, with 11 percent completed, and offer a variety of other administrative military records. As of today, the site includes 91,045,934 Civil War records. It is absolutely amazing how much research can now be completed at little cost; and it is impossible to describe how much easier it is to decipher the documents when I enlarge them on my 24” monitor!

Koffler POW Record

From the Civil War Service Records of David Koffler, a private in the 9th Maryland Infantry (

Of course we need more than the official military records to research the men, regiments, and communities that participated in the Civil War. Newspapers, letters, and diaries provide evidence of the lived experiences in the participants own words. We are fortunate to have access to multiple online sources for nineteenth-century newspapers, through subscription or free of charge, including the Library of Congress site, Chronicling America, and just to name a few. And a Google search for “online Civil War diaries and letters” brings up over 2,300,000 hits. While the typed content of nineteenth-century newspapers is relatively easy to read, transcribing the scribbled, punctuation-starved, sometimes cross-hatched handwriting of the soldiers and their loved ones is a different story.

Reynolds Obit Clipping

Report from Gettysburg, clipping from The Ohio Democrat, July 17, 1863 (Chronicling America,

Fortunately, a growing number of organizations are working to increase our access to Civil War-era personal accounts and correspondence, as well as to additional official records. Through a growing number of crowdsourcing programs, or online forums that bring together a community of volunteers who collectively contribute to a defined project, people from around the world are helping to make some of the countless manuscript and archival materials held in repositories available online by transcribing valuable and interesting documents.

The impetus for many of these projects began on the eve of the Civil War sesquicentennial, with the goal of providing the general public with access to resources that had been previously limited to academic researchers or those known about only by the valuable archivists who protect our written records in local, state, and federal repositories. Unfortunately, budgets often fail to adequately provide for the multiple projects that museum professionals, archivists, and historians would like to do. The tools developed by early contributors to the digital history field, especially the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, provided the solution for many of the groups who sought to share Civil War primary sources online where they could reach larger audiences.

Three-Step graphic

From the Smithsonian Digital Volunteers: Transcription Center “Instructions for the Transcription Center” page (

Today there are several established online projects that provide a platform for “citizen archivists” to help transcribe these Civil War documents. Each site provides clear and simple instructions that allow participants to get right to work. Once completed, institutions place the transcriptions online for people who are curious or seek to become more informed, and for researchers who have limited time and financial means to visit archival repositories in person. Many stories have been written about the various projects and transcribers’ experiences, including this recent article published by the online version of The Christian Science Monitor—released while I was writing this post—“Wanted: Volunteers who like history . . . and can read cursive.”

Crater Diary Page

Page 1 from the Lewis Crater Diary, 1864-1898, part of The University of Iowa Libraries DIY History Civil War Diaries and Letters project (

If you would like to become a transcriber for one of these wonderful projects and help to expand our understanding of the experiences of Americans during the most pivotal time in our history, here is a list of some of the projects related to the Civil War era. And if you know of any others, will you please share in the comments section?

Smithsonian Digital Volunteers: Transcription Center  The Smithsonian has multiple topics to choose from, but those specifically related to the Civil War era include the Douglass’ Monthly and North Carolina Assistant Commissioner, Letters Received.

National Archives: Citizen Archivist Dashboard  A variety of manuscript collections selected from the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, examples from the Civil War include the case files for former Confederates seeking pardons and amnesty, approved pension files, and The Adjutant General’s Office, Letters Received.

The University of Iowa Libraries: DIY History – Civil War Diaries and Letters  This project is almost complete with over 9,100 of 9,154 pages from over 90 manuscript collections transcribed.

African American Civil War Soldiers  This project seeks to transcribe the soldier’s military service records held by the National Records and Administration and available on Fold3 to create a database of the almost 180,000 black men who served in the United States Colored Troops.

The Newberry: Transcribing Modern Manuscripts  This project has several topics that include the Civil War era, including Family Life in the Midwest: Letters and Family Life in the Midwest: Diaries.

Mapping the Fourth of July: Exploring Independence Day in the Civil War Era This project includes speeches, newspaper articles, diaries, and letters from a variety of American citizens who lived throughout the country during the Civil War.

Digital Maine Transcription Project Search under “Browse by Tag” to see a number of Civil War documents by topic, regiments, and battles.

USCT Captain Richard Etheridge Memorialized

Emerging Civil War welcome guest author George W. Hettenhouse

The Northern Outer Banks, a narrow strip of sand that extends from the Virginia/North Carolina border to Hatteras Inlet, NC, roughly 120 miles to the south, is full of history. The first English child born in the colonies, Virginia Dare, began her life on Roanoke Island. Hatteras Inlet was the location of the first Union victory in the Civil War, the first step in the Anaconda strategy to control the inlets and sounds on the Southern coast. After Burnside’s 1862 capture of Roanoke Island, the island became a thriving Freedman’s Colony. Some 40 years later the Wright Brothers would achieve powered flight from the sand dunes south of Kitty Hawk.

A lesser known historical figure from the area is Richard Etheridge. Born as a slave in 1842 on Bodie Island (now a part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore), young Richard was raised alongside the children of his owner, John Etheridge. Though it was illegal at the time, he learned to read and write.

During the Civil War, Union General Butler’s attack in August 1861 quickly overwhelmed the earthwork Confederate Forts Hatteras and Clark at Hatteras Inlet while Burnside’s Campaign at Roanoke Island in 1862 made Etheridge a free man. Richard and 100 of his friends joined the 36th USCT; they had secondary roles early in the war, including guard duty at Point Lookout, Maryland. Later, the regiment, with Etheridge as a Sergeant, saw action in the Petersburg Campaign at New Market Heights. He was transferred west as a “Buffalo Soldier” in 1865 and received his discharge in 1866.

Upon returning to the Outer Banks, he resumed his livelihood of fishing and farming and became interested in civic affairs. In 1875, he joined the newly-formed U.S. Lifesaving Service at Bodie Island, serving as Surfman #6, the lowest position on the crew. The sea off of Cape Hatteras is known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” because of storms and the close proximity of the Gulf Stream. (The USS Monitor went to the bottom there while being towed to Wilmington, NC in 1862.) In the early years of the Lifesaving Service, the politicized organization was criticized for its performance – 188 lives and a half-million dollars in property in a two month period. There was talk of annexing the LSS into the U.S. Navy.

A governmental review resulted in a reorganization and the appointment of the best surfmen in the service to positions of command. Etheredge was promoted to the position of Keeper at the Pea Island Station, becoming the only African American in a position of command in the service. White surfmen refused to serve under him, and Pea Island Station soon became an all African American crew.

c. 1890’s photograph of the crew at Pea Island Station. Etheridge is on the far left

Etheridge was aware of the attention his station was receiving and ran the station with military precision. On a terrible night in October 1896, the three-masted schooner E. S. Newman lost its sails and drifted 100 miles before driven aground off Pea Island in the hurricane. The captain had his wife and three-year old daughter aboard and sent up a distress signal. The station had already suspended operations because of the severity of the storm. Unable to launch a surfboat or to deploy a Lyle Gun, the situation seemed impossible. Two surfmen, the strongest swimmers, tied themselves to a line and managed to reach the wreck. With the line tied to the boat, the crewman rescued one person at a time, beginning with the child, as the crew on the beach pulled them ashore. After nine trips all aboard had been rescued.

Etheridge was regarded as the most courageous and ingenious lifesaver in the service. He served as the Keeper at Pea Island for twenty years, falling ill and dying at age 58 at the station in May 1900. The station continued to be manned by an all-black crew through World War II as German U-boats preyed on merchant vessels with supplies for European allies.

Etheridge and crew were awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal in March 1996. A 154 foot Sentinel-class Coast Guard cutter, the USCGC Richard Etheridge, was launched in August 2012. Now, in February 2018, a newly-built bridge on Pea Island has been named the Captain Richard Etheridge Bridge. He is regarded as a local hero. He and his family are buried at the Pea Island Lifesaving Station memorial on the grounds of the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island. Sometimes recognition can be slow in coming.

Slaves and Sailors in the Civil War

The enlistment of African Americans as soldiers in the United States Army during the Civil War is a well-examined topic, but less appreciated is the story of freedmen and former slaves as sailors in the navy.

Wartime experiences of these men (and a few women) are as distinct as the environments—ashore or afloat—in which they served.

Men of African descent in the sea service started out ahead of their land-bound compatriots and benefited from vastly expanded wartime opportunities.

But they did not significantly advance the conditions of service, finishing the war about where they started in better-than-slavery but less-than-equal circumstances.

In the army, African Americans achieved a monumental step forward, a tale of stoic sacrifice and daunting perseverance in the pursuit of freedom and equality as depicted in the popular movie Glory.

Starting from total exclusion—the federal Militia Act of 1792 outlawed their services—African-American soldiers sweated, bled, and died their way to broad acceptance as combat soldiers. They escaped bondage and approached equality at least in the enlisted ranks only to have that promise snatched back postwar to the muddy middle ground of segregation and circumscribed citizenship.

The navy always had been racially integrated; there were no laws like the Militia Act. African Americans hazarded their lives and freedom against the nation’s enemies in the colonial and United States navies while achieving a level of respect, relatively fair treatment, and economic opportunities generally not available ashore.

They were fully integrated into ship’s crews. Although performing primarily manual and service functions, they were not restricted to those roles. They equally manned the big guns, were trained in small arms, and performed the myriad of seamanship duties expected. With persistence and performance, African Americans could attain petty officer (non-commissioned) positions equivalent to crewman of European descent and were paid accordingly.

Through the quasi war with France, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War, economic growth and westward expansion generated continuing shortages of merchant sailors for the navy to recruit. Restrictions on enlistment of foreigners and general bias by mariners against navy service created increased opportunity for African Americans. Such service also generated controversy, adding fuel for antislavery advocates in the debates on the meaning of liberty.

Commodore Isaac Chauncy wrote of his African-American crewmen during the War of 1812: “To my knowledge a part of them are not surpassed by any seamen we have in the fleet; and I have yet to learn that the color of the skin…can affect a man’s qualifications or usefulness.” He had nearly fifty onboard and considered many of them among his best men.[1]

Commodore Oliver H. Perry praised the bravery of his many African-American crewmen after the crucial battle of Lake Erie in September 1813. Captain Isaac Hull, commanding the USS Constitution (Old Ironsides) in her desperate struggle with HMS Guerriere concluded: “I never had any better fighters than those n—ers. They stripped to the waist & fought like devils, sir, seeming to be utterly insensible to danger & to be possessed with a determination to outfight white sailors.”[2]

While African Americans faced hardship and death alongside shipmates, such service did not materially improve their lives ashore, and peacetime efforts were made to exclude them from the navy. Navy Surgeon Usher Parsons recorded that they made up a tenth of the crew of the frigates USS Java and the USS Guerrier. “There seemed to be an entire absence of prejudice against the blacks….” That was not entirely true but still it applied much more often than on land.[3]

The navy at sea was its own world with its own authoritarian structures, customized through millennia to the unique needs of shipboard life and hardly less strict in its way than slavery. Officers were immersed in a cosmopolitan service accustomed to sailors of all shades and always desperate for men.

It would have been disruptive of efficiency and discipline to place some into a separate category based just on color and treat them differently, and there was no need to. While this was still very much a class system, the qualifications of race, which played such a central social and economic role on land, had little importance at sea.

The policies of the United States Navy changed drastically in the nineteenth century, eventually leading to a career enlisted service. After decades of resistance by traditionalists, including many seamen, the ancient practice of flogging was abolished in 1850. The measure to end service of alcohol or grog was passed on the day after the battle of Antietam, September 18, 1862.

These measures reflected the social crusades of the second Great Awakening. Seamen’s welfare resonated with many other issues of that socially conscious era, including slavery, and led to significant improvements in the conditions of both merchant and navy sailors.

African Americans continued to enlist in substantial numbers through the 1820s and 1830s, although regulations from the 1840’s onward limited their numbers to 5 percent of the enlisted force. Southern officers increasingly brought slaves afloat or enlisted them and collected the salaries.

As the issues heated up, Northern political backlash led to severe restrictions on employment of slaves. At the same time, economic hardship was forcing many other men back to sea taking available berths. African Americans constituted only about 2.5 percent of the enlisted force in spring 1861.[4]


As the war exploded so did the navy. African Americans recruits were mostly freedmen at first, many having naval or maritime experience.

But by September 1861, naval vessels of the blockade, along the coasts, and later up the Mississippi were inundated with fugitive slaves, many wishing to enlist.

Commanding officers desperate for recruits pleaded with Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles for authorization to take them. Despite the ambiguity of the contraband’s legal status and the secretary’s questionable authority to act, Welles permitted enlistment of former slaves whose “services can be useful.”

Recruitment of contrabands (and freedmen) was carried out quietly, out of public view, and with much less controversy than would arise concerning the army. The most recent research has identified by name nearly eighteen thousand men of African descent (and eleven women) who served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. From spring 1861 through fall 1864, the percentage of African-American sailors increased steadily from less than 5 percent to a peak of 23 percent—a significant segment of manpower and nearly double the proportion serving in the army.[5]

Contrabands made up a considerable majority of those sailors; nearly three men born into slavery served for every man born free. By fall 1865, most wartime volunteers had been discharged, but African Americans still constituted 15 percent of the enlisted force, more than three times the percentage in service at the beginning of the war.[6]

Even without formal policies, persons of African descent were broadly associated with menial labor and personal service. Class and racial prejudices could informally segregate them and constrain their opportunities afloat. But such practices varied widely, influenced by location, type of vessel, and the personalities of officers and ship’s company.

Ships assigned to stores and supply duties, in contrast to warships, were disproportionally manned by African Americans. Ocean-going warships had relatively few, perhaps 5 to 10 percent.

Blockading vessels along the Atlantic coast drew many more, and on the Gulf coast not so many, while ships of the Mississippi Squadron relied mostly on them.

Freedmen from Northern states or other countries were more likely to gain sometimes grudging respect of officers and shipmates, particularly if experienced in the profession of the sea. They spoke and acted in more culturally comfortable ways; they were more likely to be accepted as equals and advance a few rungs up the enlisted ladder.

Those from northeast port cities might have commercial maritime experience, perhaps on the burgeoning steam packet service to Europe as cooks, stewards, deckhands, firemen, or engineers. Young men from towns and villages of New England often had two- to three-year whaling voyages under their belts. Along the shores of Chesapeake and Delaware Bays and Long Island Sound, they were familiar with small craft used in oystering, crabbing, and fishing. Many others stoked the furnaces and tended the boilers of river steamers.

John H. Lawson

Former slaves, however, continued to be stigmatized by a supposition of inferiority, were more stringently segregated among the crews, routinely assigned manual labor and busy work, and rated and paid at the lowest levels. Contrabands also provided valuable labor at shore installations.

The Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia exchanged broadsides with the steam frigate USS Minnesota in Hampton Roads on April 8, 1862. Minnesota’s aft pivot gun, manned by an African-American crew, was hotly engaged and two men were wounded.

“The Negroes fought energetically and bravely—none more so,” wrote their commanding officer. “They evidently felt that they were thus working out the deliverance of their race.”[7]

As in previous conflicts, African Americans of the Civil War navy proved their valor in many hard-fought clashes. John H. Lawson, Landsman, USS Hartford, won the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Battle of Mobile Bay. African-American sailors received 8 of the 307 Medals of Honor issued by the navy during the war.


[1] Steven J. Ramold, Slaves, Sailors, Citizens: African Americans in the Union Navy (DeKalb: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002), 15.

[2] Ibid., 16.

[3] Ibid., 21.

[4] Joseph P. Reidy, “Black Men in Navy Blue during the Civil War,” Prologue Magazine 33, no. 3 (fall 2001),, accessed February, 2018.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ramold, Slaves, Sailors, Citizens, 122.

Cathay Williams / William Cathey: Buffalo Soldier

My father was a freeman, but my mother was a slave, belonging to William Johnson, a wealthy farmer who lived at the time I was born near Independence, Jackson County, Missouri.[1]

So begins the story of Ms. Cathay Williams, the first documented woman to enlist in the U. S. Army. Although her military service did not begin until November 15, 1866, Cathay made her career choice based on her experience with the Union Army, which began in late 1861 when she was “impressed” by Colonel William P. Benton of the 13th Army Corps. She and her family had moved from Independence to Jefferson City, but her master died there and his slaves were evidently cut adrift:

                        United States soldiers came to Jefferson City they took me and other colored folks with them to Little Rock. Colonel Benton of the 13th army corps was the officer that carried us off. I did not want to go. He wanted me to cook for the officers, but I had always been a house girl and did not know how to cook. [2]

Jefferson Barracks. From Valley of the Mississippi Illustrated, by J.C. Wild and Lewis Thomas. Plate XI. Lithograph by J.C. Wild, 1841. Missouri Historical Society Library. NS 28389. Scan © 2004, Missouri Historical Society.

Seventeen-year-old Cathay learned to cook, however, and accompanied the 13th to Pea Ridge. After that battle, the command moved throughout Arkansas and Louisiana, burning cotton. Cathay went with them and was present when rebel gunboats were captured and burned on the Red River at Shreveport during the unsuccessful Red River Campaign.[3] She continued her cooking duties, following the army to New Orleans, then, by way of the Gulf of Mexico, to Savannah, and finally Macon, Georgia. Cathay claims in the interview from which these quotes are taken that she was eventually sent to Washington City, serving as both a cook and washerwoman for General Phillip Sheridan and his staff. Near the end of the war, she ended up at Jefferson Barracks, in eastern Missouri, remaining there until at least April 1865. Jefferson Barracks was the site of a major medical hospital that served soldiers on both sides of the war. In 1862 the Western Sanitary Commission built its largest hospital there as well.[4] Cathay may have stayed in Missouri, cooking and cleaning for one of these institutions until her services were no longer needed. The fact that the regimental headquarters for the 38th U. S. Infantry was located at Jefferson Barracks was probably instrumental in her future.

photo alleged to be Cathay Williams

After the Civil War, employment opportunities were scarce for many African-Americans, especially in the South. Many of them looked to military service, where they could earn not only steady pay but education, health care, and a pension. When Congress reorganized the peacetime regular army in the summer of 1866 it recognized the military merits of black soldiers by authorizing two segregated regiments of black cavalry, the Ninth United States Cavalry and the Tenth United States Cavalry and the 24th, 25th, 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st Infantry Regiments.  Orders were given to transfer the troops to the western war arena, where they would join the army’s fight with the Indians. White officers commanded all of the black regiments at that time. Cathay already had experience living in an army camp and she decided that in order to earn her way, she would enlist. On November 15, 1866, Cathay Williams joined the Army using the name William Cathey. She informed her recruiting officer that she was a 22-year-old cook. He described her as 5′ 9″, with black eyes, black hair and black complexion. An Army surgeon examined Cathey and determined the recruit was “fit for duty,” thus sealing her fate in history as the first documented African-American woman to enlist in the Army, although U.S. Army regulations forbade the enlistment of women until 1948. Cathey was assigned to the 38th U.S. Infantry, became a Buffalo Soldier, and traveled throughout the west with her unit.[5]

                        The regiment I joined wore the Zouave uniform and only two persons, a  cousin and a particular friend, members of the regiment, knew that I was a woman. They never “blowed” on me. They were partly the cause of my joining the army. Another reason was I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent on relations or friends.[6]

The muster rolls reveal that William Cathey was an average soldier. She neither distinguished herself nor disgraced her uniform while in the service. She was never singled out for praise or punishment. She was one of the tallest privates in her company, and she probably never experienced close physical scrutiny during her service, despite hospital visits. From her enlistment date until February 1867, William Cathey was stationed at Jefferson Barracks. Her time there would have been spent in training and getting used to the daily routine of army camp life. It is uncertain, though, just how long she actually was present at the installation. On February 13, Company A of the 38th Infantry was officially organized, and William Cathey, along with 75 other black privates, was mustered into that company. Shortly afterward, she was in an unnamed St. Louis hospital, suffering an undocumented illness. By April 1867 William Cathey and Company A had marched to Fort Riley, Kansas. On April 30, she was described as “ill in quarters,” along with 15 other privates. Because they were sick, their pay was docked 10 dollars per month for three months, so one might presume William Cathey was not malingering. She did not return to duty for two weeks. [7]

On July 20, 1867, Company A arrived at Fort Union, New Mexico, after a march of 536 miles. On September 7, they began the march to Fort Cummings, New Mexico, arriving October 1. The unit was stationed there for eight months. When the company was not on the march, the privates did garrison duty, drilled and trained, and went scouting for signs of hostile Native Americans. William Cathey participated in her share of the obligations facing Company A. There is no record that the company ever engaged the enemy or saw any form of direct combat during this time.[8]

                     I was as that paper says, I was never put in the guard house, no bayonet was ever put to my back. I carried my musket and did guard and other duties while in the army,[9]

In January 1868, after about eight months off the sick list, her health began deteriorating. On the 27th of that month, she was admitted to the post hospital at Fort Cummings, citing rheumatism. She returned to duty three days later. On March 20, she went back to the hospital with the same complaint. Again, she returned to duty within three days. On June 6, the company marched forty-seven miles to Fort Bayard, New Mexico. This was the last fort at which William Cathey lived during her army stint. On July 13, she was admitted to the hospital at Fort Bayard, and diagnosed with neuralgia.* She did not report back to duty for a month. This was the last recorded medical treatment of William Cathey while in the military. The fact that five hospital visits failed to reveal that William Cathey was a woman raises questions about the quality of medical care available to the soldiers of the U.S. Army, or at least to the African-American soldiers. Clearly, she never fully undressed during her hospital stays. Perhaps she objected to any potentially intrusive procedures out of fear of discovery. There is no record of the treatment given her at the hospitals. There is every indication that whatever treatments she received, they did not work.

Cathay Williams/William Cathey’s Discharge papers

On October 14, 1868, William Cathey and two other privates in Company A, 38th Infantry were discharged at Ft. Bayard on a surgeon’s certificate of disability. William Cathey’s certificate included statements from both the captain of her company and the post’s assistant surgeon. The captain’s statement read that Cathey had been under his command since May 20, 1867:

                        . . . and has been since feeble both physically and mentally, and much of the time quite unfit for duty. The origin of his infirmities is unknown to me. He is of . . . a feeble habit. He is continually on sick report without benefit. He is unable   to do military duty. . . . This condition dates prior to enlistment.[10]

Cathay Williams, also known as William Cathey, served her country for just over two years. The interview she gave to the St. Louis Daily Times in 1876 gives us the only clues as to what happened to her after leaving the service:

                After leaving the army I went to Pueblo, Colorado, where I made money by cooking and washing. I got married while there, but my husband was no account. He stole my watch and chain, a hundred dollars in money and my team of horses and wagon. I had him arrested and put in jail, and then I came here. I  like this town. I know all the good people here, and I expect to get rich yet. I have not got my land warrant. I thought I would wait till the railroad came and then take my land near the depot. Grant owns all this land around here, and it won’t      cost me anything. I shall never live in the states again. You see I’ve got a good sewing machine and I get washing to do and clothes to make. I want to get along and not be a burden to my friends or relatives.[11]

At some point in late 1889 or early 1890, Cathay Williams was hospitalized in Trinidad, Colorado for nearly a year and a half. She filed in June 1891 for an invalid pension based upon her military service. Her application brought to light the fact that an African-American woman had served in the Regular Army. Her original application for the pension, sworn before the local County Clerk gave her age as forty-one. She stated that she was one and the same with the William Cathey who served as a private in Company A, 38th U.S. Infantry for just under two full years. She claimed in her application that she was suffering deafness, contracted in the army. She also referred to her rheumatism and neuralgia. She declared eligibility for an invalid pension because she could no longer sustain herself by manual labor. On September 9, 1891, a medical doctor, in Trinidad, employed by the Pension Bureau, examined Cathay Williams. The doctor described her as 5′ 7″, 160 pounds, large, stout, and forty-nine years old. He reported that she could hear a conversation and therefore was not deaf. He also reported no physical changes in her joints, muscles, or tendons indicating rheumatism or neuralgia. Most horrifying, the doctor reported that all her toes on both feet had been amputated, and she could only walk with the aid of a crutch. This did not happen during her time in service, however.[12]

Pension Requests

In February 1892 the Pension Bureau rejected her claim for an Invalid Pension. After this, Cathay Williams disappears from the pages of history. She is not listed in the 1900 Federal Census, so from this may be surmised that she probably died between 1892 and 1900, at the age of eighty-two. A pioneer even if she did not know it, Cathay Williams was the first female Buffalo Soldier. This improbable, independent, strong black woman should not be overlooked. In July 2016, a bronze bust of Cathay Williams, surrounded by a small rose garden, was unveiled outside the Richard Allen Cultural Center in Leavenworth, Kansas.

General Barbara Lynne Owens, one of two black female generals currently serving in the Army Reserve, said she learned about Williams “a long time ago.” Owens called her an early trailblazer who set the path for all black female soldiers who have followed, saying:

If she had not done what she did, I would not be standing here today.[13]

    *     *     *

[1] St. Louis Daily Times, January 2, 1876 [online version available at (accessed February 14, 2018)].

[2] Ibid

[3] United States Government Printing Office, Congressional Serial Set, (reprint, Ulan Press, 2012), 270-273. [online version available at (accessed February 13, 2018)].

[4] Jefferson Barracks Museums, St. Louis County, Missouri Parks and Recreation. [online version available at (accessed February 12, 2018)].

[5] and (accessed February 10, 2018).

[6] St. Louis Daily Times, January 2, 1876 [online version available at (accessed February 14, 2018)].


[8] Ibid.

[9] St. Louis Daily Times, January 2, 1876 [online version available at (accessed February 14, 2018)].


[11] St. Louis Daily Times, January 2, 1876 [online version available at (accessed February 14, 2018)].

[12] (accessed February 14, 2018)].

[13] Miranda Davis, “Monument to female Buffalo Soldier is dedicated in Leavenworth,” The Kansas City Star, July 22, 2016. [online version available at (accessed February 13, 2018)].


“I am a poor colored soldier…” – Finding Private Anthony Wren

ECW welcomes back guest author Jon-Erik Gilot

Several years ago the historical society in my hometown of Mount Pleasant, Ohio, received a donation of books, photographs, and papers relating to Pinkney Lewis Bone. Bone was something of a local celebrity in Mount Pleasant, having served as a drummer and stretcher bearer in the 52nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He returned home to open a grocery store in a ca. 1803 log cabin and lived into the 1930’s as one of the areas last surviving Civil War veterans. Some of the village elders still recall seeing Bone riding in the back of a car in the Memorial Day parade. Today, his cabin is owned and operated by the historical society.

ca. 1895 photo of Pinkney Bone Grocery Store, Mount Pleasant, Ohio (Historical Society of Mount Pleasant, Ohio)

Among the material donated was a print from a ca. 1895 glass plate showing Pinkney Bone standing proudly in front of his store along with his wife and several children. What struck me most about the photo was not Pinkney Bone or the store, but the slightly out-of-focus individual in the bottom right corner. It was likely happenstance that he appeared in the family photo, perhaps just walking down the sidewalk at just the right time. Thankfully, his name was preserved on the photo along with each of the Bone family members. Here’s a better look…

Though difficult to make out, the name reads “A. Wren.” Having spent more than two decades researching our local Civil War soldiers – particularly our African American soldiers – the name jumped off the page. For the first time, I could put a face to one of Mount Pleasant’s African American Civil War veterans. Armed with a name and a face, I set out to learn more about Anthony Wren.

Mount Pleasant was something of an anomaly in 1860. The small village of 1,600 residents in eastern Ohio, located just a few miles from the slave market in nearby Wheeling, had become a safe haven for runaways and freed African Americans, so much so that a full 15% of the village population in 1860 was African American. Edwin Stanton’s grandmother, Abigail Stanton, had brought her freed slaves to the area in 1800, granting each a piece of property to farm. The predominantly Quaker population was active in any number of abolitionist activities, ranging from the earliest antislavery publications in the United States (The Philanthropist, published in Mount Pleasant by Charles Osborne in 1817) to a bustling “Free Labor” store, where nothing produced by slave labor was sold. A number of local residents were likewise active on the Underground Railroad, shuttling runaways across the Ohio River and north to freedom. Many former slaves opted to remain in Mount Pleasant, feeling safe among the Quaker population. Anthony Wren could be counted among that number.

According to the 1900 census, Anthony W. Wren (an additional ‘n’ is alternately used on several documents) was born in January 1828 in Virginia. We don’t know his parents’ names nor where exactly in Virginia he was born, though it’s possible he hailed from Southampton County, Virginia, the child of or descendant of slaves freed by Richard Wrenn, a Southampton Quaker who manumitted his slaves in 1783. Richard’s son, William Wrenn, would later seek permission from the Gravelly Run Monthly Meeting to travel to eastern Ohio and view the prospects of the growing population there. Given the exploding violence in Southampton County with the 1831 Nat Turner rebellion and the subsequent slaughter of approximately 200 innocent African Americans, it’s possible that Anthony’s parents decided to head out to Ohio themselves. Whatever the circumstances may have been, we know that by 1860 Anthony Wren was living in Mount Pleasant, Jefferson County, Ohio, where he worked as a farmer.

In August 1864 an army recruiter arrived in Mount Pleasant and set up shop in the AME Church in hopes of enlisting some of the local African American population for the war effort. More than a dozen men from the village enlisted, complementing the nearly two dozen others who had earlier enlisted in the 55th Massachusetts, 5th USCT and other regiments. Among that number was Anthony Wren. These men joined nearly two dozen more enlistees from neighboring Barnesville, Ohio, and transferred to Camp Delaware, Alliance, Ohio, where they officially mustered into federal service for a term of one year.

Anthony Wren’s Enlistment Paper (Fold3)

Wren and the others waited for their regimental assignment as the camp swelled to nearly 400 men, at which point they were transferred to Nashville, Tennessee, to form the nucleus of the 9th United Stated Colored Heavy Artillery. Wren and the other men from Mount Pleasant were assigned to Battery D, and while designated as heavy artillery, would function as infantry for the duration of their service. The regiment was assigned to the Department of the Cumberland to serve as laborers.

Battery D was stationed near Nashville at Camp Foster, which had been established as a point of rendezvous for African American recruits as well as a place to gather the hundreds of contraband streaming into the Federal lines. Tasked with constructing breastworks and improving defenses, Wren became debilitated with rheumatism, the pain in his legs and arms plaguing him for the rest of his life. By December, Battery D was relocated to make repairs at Fort Houston and neighboring Fort Negley. During the Battle of Nashville on December 15 – 16, 1864, the men marched out of their winter quarters, and, exposed for more than a week without shelter from the weather, a number of men fell ill. Anthony Wren again became debilitated with rheumatism and measles. The battery spent the remainder of the winter and following spring performing manual labor around Nashville.

In a deposition found in Anthony Wren’s pension file, one of his comrades testified that during the summer of 1865 while on battalion drill in Nashville, the men were ordered to run at double-quick time. Wren and several others were overtaken with the heat and exhaustion and were trampled by the men running behind them. Wren was carried to the hospital, complaining of a rupture and pain in his bowels. He was placed on light duty until July 1865 when the regiment was broken up and the men transferred to a number of different regiments. Wren found himself in Company I 100th United States Colored Infantry, joining the regiment at Sneedsville, Tennessee. His comrade again testified that Wren continued complaining of pain in his legs and spent much of his time in the hospital, from which he would be mustered out on September 14, 1865, having served a little more than one year.

Wren returned to Mount Pleasant to continue work as a modest farmer. He married four times and fathered one son who did not live to adulthood. The 1880 census shows Wren as “sick,” a likely indication that he never fully recovered from his war service. The 1890 veteran’s schedule likewise notes him as suffering from rheumatism and a rupture. In June 1883, he filed for an invalid pension. Depositions collected from his comrades, neighbors, and associates testified that Wren had entered the service an able and healthy individual and was discharged a broken man. Several remarked how Wren was often confined to his bed, while others recalled hearing him complain of severe pain in his bowels while shoveling or doing heavy lifting. Wren said it best himself, while dictating to his pension agent – “I am a poor colored soldier and am so disabled I cannot make a living for my family.” He was rewarded with a modest pension for the remainder of his life.

In 1885 Wren became a charter member of the Jonathan Taylor Updegraff Post No. 549 of the Grand Army of the Republic, one of only two known integrated posts in the upper Ohio Valley. He participated in Decoration Day activities and enjoyed some stature within the community until his death on December 12, 1903. He was buried in a remote corner of Short Creek Cemetery in Mount Pleasant, an area today heavily overgrown and nearly one hundred yards from the nearest marked graves. His headstone makes no mention of his military service and is quickly weathering,

Nearly 180,000 African American men served in the Union army during the Civil War. Few left us with letters, diaries and photographs to document their service. Many remain faceless in forgotten cemeteries with pension files waiting to be explored. While his headstone may fade, Anthony Wren is faceless no more.

Anthony Wren – Short Creek Cemetery
Mount Pleasant, Ohio

Jon-Erik M. Gilot, Director of Archives & Record for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, is a 2006 graduate of Bethany College with a Bachelor of Arts in History and a 2011 graduate of Kent State University with a Master of Library and Information Science. Prior to his current position, he spent time working at the Library of Congress as well as a Pittsburgh-based preservation firm. A native of Mount Pleasant, Ohio – birthplace of abolitionist printing and focal point of Underground Railroad activity – Jon-Erik has spent more than two decades researching and writing on the Civil War era. He was a member of the Wheeling Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee and a contributing writer for the 2015 book “Wheeling During the Civil War.” He is a board member of the West Virginia Independence Hall Foundation; a Wheeling Historic Landmarks commissioner; and a frequent lecturer on Civil War and archival topics.