“Blowed to Freedom!”: Abraham and the Vicksburg Mine

Every February ECW does a series of posts about African Americans and the Civil War. There are many from which to choose, but I have made it my mission, as it were, to find those who are not as well known as, say, Frederick Douglass. This first offering is a story verified in several places about a slave who was forced by the Confederate army holding the fort at Vicksburg to work underground, digging a mine emplacement. Readers, meet Abraham.


June 26, 1863—

Captain Andrew Hickenlooper

“This isn’t looking good.” Confederate Major Samuel Lockett, Chief Engineer of the Confederate Army, made his assessment concerning the geological mess made by Union Captain Andrew Hickenlooper in his attempt to dislodge the Third Louisiana Redan. “I’d use that 500-pound, black powder thunder keg. It’ll loosen that soil until it’s like sand.”[1]The day before, June 25, Union engineers had exploded a massive mine under the Redan, creating a crater into which Federal troops poured. Hand-to-hand fighting ensued, but the breach of the Rebel line was not permanent.[2]

What Major Lockett did not know was that Union sappers had dug much further under the Vicksburg fortifications than he expected. His thunder keg went off with a tremendously loud “bang,” but did little damage, although it was more than the  Rebel hand grenades and rolling shells had done so far.[3]Not that the Confederate sharpshooters were not doing their jobs; the Union men facing the fort made a game out of placing a kepi on the tip of a ramrod and raising it tentatively above the trenches. Bets were made on the number of times the cap would be hit within a given time.[4]

It was decided that the Confederates would sink a countermine in an attempt to thwart the Union efforts to dig beneath the fort and blow up the southern works. Rather than risk the lives of white southerners, eight black slaves who accompanied Pemberton’s forces were pressed into service to place the mine. They were under the command of a white corporal, and one of those slaves was known as “Abraham.” The slaves, including Abraham, dutifully entered the Confederate tunnels, becoming the unwitting victims of the second Vicksburg Mine.

July 1, 1863—

The Second Attempt

From the crater left by the first explosion on June 25, Union miners worked at digging a new mine site. On July 1, this second mine, packed with 1,800 pounds of black powder, was detonated by the Federals. This attack caught the Confederate slaves within their own tunnel and killed seven of them instantly. Abraham, however, was blown into the air and landed behind Union lines. According to one Yankee who witnessed the event, “One Negro was thrown 150 feet, lighting on his head and shoulders, scarcely hurting him.”[5]

Apparently, the Yankee quoted above was correct in his assessment of damage done to the man, as Abraham was helped to his feet, bruised but otherwise unscathed by the explosion. One of the blue-clad men asked him how high he thought he had gone. Abraham replied, slightly stunned, “About three miles!” Abraham became an instant celebrity—some would say he was “trending.” The enterprising, if insensitive, Union soldiers who rescued him put up a tent and installed Abraham, wearing his slave rags which had further deteriorated due to the bomb blast. For the remaining few days of the Vicksburg Campaign, the men charged their fellow soldiers a few cents admission to see the slave who was literally “blowed to Freedom.”[6]He recovered from his ordeal, got new clothes, and remained with the Union troops, eventually becoming a cook on General James McPherson’s staff.[7]

I hope this anecdote does not sound tone deaf. I have touched it for over a year, and have not been able to find out any more about Abraham than what I have indicated above. I wish I could have written that Union soldiers were sensitive caregivers to this formerly enslaved person, but they were not. I hope that, after his time as a cook for McPherson, he went further North and found a better life for himself than what he had in Vicksburg, but I have no indication at all of his future. My only reason for the inclusion of this story is that the war was made up of a great many stories, and we should not forget them whenever possible. When I first read about Abraham, I found him memorable. I share this with our readers in hopes that they will do so as well.









[7]Smithsonian Magazine and information from Smithsonian in the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D. C.

23 Responses to “Blowed to Freedom!”: Abraham and the Vicksburg Mine

  1. Meg
    Thanks for providing “the rest of the story” to the Vicksburg mine detonation. In my study of the Vicksburg Campaign, much mention is found of the blowing up of the Fort Hill mine (in Logan’s area of responsibility) on July 1st, but the identity of the “Rebels” launched skyward changed from report to report. The Chicago Daily Tribune of 10 July 1863 page 2 has first mention of the incident (describing the enemy victims merely as “Rebels.”) . And the edition of 14 July page 2 col.3 “From Vicksburg — The Rebels Blown Up” has details most closely matching your report.
    Thanks for inspiring me to track down the contemporary record, as my understanding was flawed… until today.

    1. Keep me in the loop on this.I tried ancestry, etc. for more on Abraham but it is difficult to find slave narratives/information.We owe the poor guy a renaissance.

      1. Meg
        I have sent the following to US Army Corps of Engineers:
        Reference Article 1225290 published 2017 by Army Corps of Engineers Historian Terry Winschel and titled “Blasted to Freedom” — After reading this well-written and intriguing article, I am writing to extend my knowledge of the man, Abraham, blasted skyward upon detonation of explosives on 1 July 1863 at Vicksburg. Of especial interest: name of photographer and location of photographic studio responsible for CDV of “Abraham.” And identity of Union regiment that “rescued” Abraham (and names of any members of that regiment likely in contact with Abraham, on or after 1 July 1863.)
        Will let you know the response.

      2. While waiting for a response from Army Corps of Engineers, had a look at OR 24 part 1 (Vicksburg reports). On Page 113 is a telegram sent 2 JUL 1863 from C.A. Dana to Edwin Stanton SecWar: “McPherson exploded yesterday [1 July] a second mine under the main fort in his front. Six Rebels were thrown into our lines by the explosion; all dead but one, a Negro.”

      3. More on McPherson’s cook, Abraham: he was examined by Dr. Silas T. Trowbridge, chief surgeon of 3rd DIV, 17th A.C. and “found to have injured the back of his head and back, near shoulders, likely upon making his abrupt landing from a height (which fortunately saw Abraham impact soft earth).” After recovering from his ordeal, he was brought onto Major General McPherson’s staff, as cook [found in post of 3 March 2013 by championhilz — scroll 2/3 of the way down. Article includes full-length CDV of Abraham.] More details at OR 24 Part 3 pages 440 and 456 [notes]. And Papers of US Grant volume 8 pages 448 and 449 and 448 [notes] and 449 [notes].

  2. Thank you, Meg, for this terrific story from “page 2”. These are the kinds of stories that have fueled my study of the Civil war for nigh on to 50 years!

  3. Mike–this is great work. I never even thought to check “the usual suspects.” I went directly for the slave angle. We need to talk!

    1. Meg
      Was hoping to have heard back from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but will give them til c.o.b. Monday, and then send a follow-up request. Meanwhile, it appears Surgeon Trowbridge is a good lead (partly due the unusual spelling of his name) and also because one reference indicates “Surgeon Trowbridge employed Abraham for a month after the incident” [found in “Vicksburg and the War” by Gordon A. Cotton & Jeff T. Giambrone (2004) Pelican Press of Gretna, Louisiana, page 76 — partially available at Google Books.] The same reference also indicates “Theorore R. Davis of “Harper’s Weekly” sketched Abraham after witnessing the incident.” [I have access to the complete “Harper’s Weekly,” so will check that shortly. ..]
      Silas Thompson Trowbridge wrote his Memoirs in 1872. Although I have not found those yet, someone published that work as “Autobiography of Silas T. Trowbridge, M.D.” in 2004. Also, “The Trowbridge Genealogy: History of the Family in America” is available at archive.org and pages 249 – 250 have excellent brief bio, and photo of Dr. Trowbridge (who initially joined the 8th Illinois Infantry in 1861.) Another regiment that may have had a hand in digging mine exploded 1 July 1863 was 31st Illinois Infantry (so someone from that unit may have interacted with Abraham.)

    2. A sketch by Theodore Davis of “Abraham” is to be found page 501 of “Harper’s Weekly” of August 8th 1863, with brief paragraph of information describing the mine explosion and aftermath. Other good sketches by Davis of Fort Hill (before the explosion), the work of sappers in digging the mine, and Major General McPherson to be found 4 July 1863 edition (page 420); 11 July (page 436 sketch, and page 446 brief report); 25 July (pages 468 – 469 sketches of “Under Fort Hill” and “Blowing up Fort Hill on 25 June,”) 1 August edition page 492 has sketch of McPherson and his engineers.
      Review of earlier reference indicates, “Abraham was noted working as a cook for Major General McPherson near Atlanta in 1864. After McPherson was killed, Abraham disappeared from the historical record” [from “Vicksburg and the War.”]

      1. I am printing out all of your responses, Mike. At the risk of massive hacking, my email is bloodnight@aol.com. I would love to do more with this information, but not sure what direction to take. Please be in touch.

  4. The identity of Civil War Photographers and location of their studios is important for many reasons: dating CDVs; verifying the presence of a subject at a particular moment in time; tracking down “alternative poses” of the subject. And once the Photographer is identified, the search can be expanded to include members of the same regiment and significant military commanders. The firm of “Barr & Young — Army Photographic Studios” has been identified as creator of the above image of Abraham. Commencing operations at Memphis and Fort Pickering in 1862, the partners followed Major General Grant to Vicksburg in 1863, and took images there of not only Abraham (whom they labeled “ole Abe”) but also U.S. Grant, MGen McPherson, BGen John Logan and staff officer to McPherson, Colonel George Nyse Coolbaugh. The history of Barr & Young is available at historic-memphis.com (Cabinet Card Photos and the Historic Memphis Photographers) and includes an image of “Ole Abe.”

  5. The Federal mine that exploded in the afternoon of 1 July 1863 destroyed what remained of the 3rd Louisiana Redan (aka Fort Hill by Union troops.) Worst affected by the blast were “the 6th Missouri Infantry (CSA) which lost Lieutenants John Crenshaw and John Roseberry, as well as a number of privates killed and wounded. Eight negroes and their overseer working a counter-mine were also killed” [from OR 24 Part 2 pages 414 – 6 Report of Colonel Francis M. Cockrell, who commanded a Brigade in Bowen’s Division.] Unknown to Colonel Cockrell: one of the Black labourers survived the experience… Abraham.

  6. The Gibraltar of the Mississippi surrendered on Saturday morning, July 4th 1863. General Grant rode into Vicksburg at 12 meridian at the head of his victorious troops. Close behind Grant and his Staff was “Brevet” Major General Logan (with the lead regiment of his 3rd Division, the 45th Illinois Infantry, marching enroute to raise their Battle Flag over the Courthouse.) Marching in company with Logan’s Division was “the man blown to freedom,” Abraham [from “Life And Services of John A. Logan” by family friend, George F. Dawson (1887) page 44.]

    1. Mike is doing a wonderful job finding Abraham’s back story. There is not enough hardtack & coffee to thank him for everything so far. Abraham will make a comeback next February, leading his own parade–we promise. Huzzah!

  7. The Director of the General John A. Logan Museum, Mr. P. Michael Jones, has been most helpful in providing valuable links to Abraham and his story. The well-appointed Museum is located in Murphysboro, Southern Illinois… an easy drive from Cairo, or St. Louis. Thanks to Mr. Jones for helping complete “The Story of Abraham.”

  8. Hi there, I’m transcribing the diary of my ancestor who was at Vicksburg, and he has nearly a full page with the story of Abraham, in his entry on July 1st, 1863. The entry includes a few quotes from Abraham. I probably would have never found the full story behind the event if it wasn’t for your post.

    1. Steven Warneke
      There are perhaps eighty witness accounts of the mine explosion that launched Abraham into Union lines and freedom 1 July 1863. And every story is different: some recall the black man tumbling through the air; others report him jumping up and attempting to flee after hitting the ground; and still more relate the encounter of Abraham with General Logan. Congratulations on being in possession of one of those unique stories.
      Unfortunately, research has been unable to confirm Abraham’s whereabouts after January 1864: every potential lead is without verification, unsubstantiated. Abraham remains an enigma: following fifteen minutes of fame, his notoriety was overtaken by other head-turning events: the release of female spy, Major Pauline Cushman; the sea battle between Alabama and Kearsarge… And Abraham remains “lost to history.”
      Kindest Regards
      Mike Maxwell

    2. Hi Steve, Are you willing to share the diary transcription with Abraham’s words with me? I’m writing a book about images of enslaved people and would love to include as much about Abraham as possible.
      Thanks, Rachel

  9. Just stumbled upon the below photograph today [on file at Library of Congress.] Taken late 1863 or early 1864, it displays General McPherson with his Staff, posing in front of the Vicksburg mansion that likely served as XVII Corps Headquarters. Taken by Barr & Young. [Abraham would likely have worked in an adjoining kitchen and/or served meals to McPherson here.]

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