Samuel H. Harrison, of Charles City County, Virginia, is my third great-grandfather. He was born about 1843 and at the age of 23, he signed up for duty in the Civil War in the 1st U.S. Colored Troops.
Co. C 1st Reg’t U.S. Col’d Inf.
Appears on Company Descriptive Book
of the organization named above
Age 23 years
Eyes Blk Hair Blk
Where born Charles City Co. Va
By whom Capt Rich
When May 16, 1864
By whom Capt Rich; term 3 yrs
Where Wilson’s Lnding Va
Remarks (single) Father + Mother living in Charles City County Va/Deserted Aug 14 at Point of Rocks, Va 64
Larusse ?, Copyist
Pvt, Co C 1 Reg’t U.S. Col’d Infantry
Company Muster Roll
for July + Aug 1864
Joined for duty and enrolled:
When May 16, 1864
Where Wilson’s Landing Va
Period 3 years
Present or absent absent
Remarks: Deserted. He took with him 1 Springfield Rifle 1 set of accoutrements, 1 knapsack 1 Haversack 1 canteen + 1 shelter tent
Wm H Scott, Copyist
Priv Co C 1 Reg’t U.S. Col’d Infantry
Descriptive List of Deserters
Dated Sept 15, 1864
When Aug 16 1864
Where Point of Rocks, Va
Remarks: Owing to the active campaigning of the regiment at the time of and after his enlistment his descriptions never recorded. He took with him one gun and complete set of equipment one knapsack one haversack and one canteen and one shelter tent
Tolliver H, Copyist
So let me get this straight. The action was so hot and heavy (of course, this was the War Between the States, the Civil War) that Samuel’s deeds, potentially heroic, were not able to be recorded. However, down to the knapsack, “y’all” reported what he did “wrong.”
The situation is so black and white, it begs for gray. While it’s true that I have a vested interest in seeing that my ancestor is recorded in the best light, I have to let you know that there is no brighter nor greater light than the truth.
It seems to me that the facts that are presented in Samuel Harrison’s USCT military record seem to be half-truths whole-omissions, at best.
Let’s see how many documented heroes of color we can locate in the USCT. Here are some examples:
Per an article in The Atlantic,
No fewer than 14 African-American soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism in what came to be known as the Battle of New Market Heights. Five of them were for leading the troops forward after their officers fell. Four were recognized for taking up their regimental flags from wounded or killed bearers, a job that turns a man into a clear, slow-moving target. One soldier, according to his Medal of Honor citation, urged his men forward as he managed to load and fire his weapon with only one arm, the other having been so badly mutilated it needed immediate amputation.
For all that, New Market Heights is little more than a footnote in Civil War history—a battle, scholars agree, that deserves better.
My sentiments exactly. These efforts were extraordinary, and yet, has anyone outside of the USCT research world heard tell of these feats?
This is not to say that Samuel Harrison performed the same acts of bravery or anything of the like. But that’s just the thing. We don’t know what he did outside of “deserting.”
It is not lost on me that for plenty of soldiers and their families, deserting is all one needs to know. It is the ultimate act of shame in the military and as an Army Brat, I totally understand.
Still, there’s something that really makes me question what happened in Samuel’s instance.
This topic is discussed by Gettysburg College in their session, Desertion and The United States Colored Troops. From that discussion, Jonathan Lande, a doctoral candidate in History at Brown University, and professor of courses in American and African American history at Tougaloo College, posed:
Lande: As in all regiments in the war, whether they were white or black, discipline played a crucial role in making soldiers and ensuring that soldiers followed military orders. At times, officers indeed foisted coercive discipline. … The harsh discipline often led to desertion.
Also attributed to Lande: thousands of men thought the army and certain white officers recreated aspects of racial bondage, including not just whippings but also denying opportunities to the men to enjoy their families or even to take a few hours to relax at a fishing hole.
Without the actual accounts of what happened, written or oral history, who can say what Samuel or any of the soldiers who left were thinking?
Mr. Lance offers compelling perspective on what may have very well been a motive to move on for many who signed up for duty, not bondage.
On the website, fortpocahontas.org, Leonne Hudson writes:
In an article that appeared on May 10 in the Christian Recorder, Sergeant George W. Hatton of the 1st U.S. Colored Infantry, stationed at Wilson’s Wharf, described the irony of the black Federal post’s location. It was “a few miles above Jamestown, the very spot where the first sons of Africa were landed” in 1619. The sight of former slaves coming ashore at Wilson’s Wharf must have worried local planters; many of the troops had once been held in bondage in the surrounding region.
Samuel Harrison was here at the Battle of Wilson’s Wharf, also known as Fort Pocahontas.
At least five other local residents, including Samuel Braxton, Samuel Harrison, Robert Lewis, Robert A. Waters, and Oliver Williams; joined the 1st Regiment, USCT during 12-23 May.
This battle was on the heels of the April 12, 1864 Massacre at Fort Pillow. There, 200 USCT soldiers were butchered rather than be held as prisoners of war. There would be no repeats of that at Wilson’s Wharf. The very place where Samuel had enlisted into the USCT just days earlier.
Victory at Wilson’s Wharf. A victory that was noted in the briefest of measures with the broadest stroke concerning the soldiers of color who fought and won it.
Where are the individual USCT accolades? Where are the accounts of either bravery or cowardice? Aside from the outcome, what happened?
…Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s dismounted cavalry attacked on May 24, 1864. His force of about 2,500 Confederates was repulsed by the 1,100 or so USCTs who courageously defended the fort. Casualties numbered over 100 for the Confederates and approximately 20 on the Union side.
There is a reenactment of The Battle of Wilson’s Wharf every year.
Concerning the Battle, fortpocahontas.org has an account based primarily on the research of Edwin Besch and his paper, Valor at Wilson’s Wharf.
According to the paper and website:
Lt. Simonton stated: “The account in the Richmond Examiner was a gross exaggeration of the actual facts which amused us not a little at the time. No mention was made that Gen. Lee was defeated and driven back by Union forces consisting nearly all of colored troops.”
Ain’t that just how history does?
Do you have ancestors who fought in the USCT during the Civil War? What have you been able to learn about them?
Let’s continue the search and find…
The Genealogy Situation Room