Abraham’s Fifteen Minutes of Fame (pt. 3)

Third Louisiana Redan

part three of a series

Enslaved Abraham became Free Abraham in a matter of seconds. His body arched over the line from the Confederate 3rd Louisiana Redan to the Union 81st Illinois Volunteer Infantry. As the men in blue helped him to his feet, it began to dawn on the now-former slave that his life would be different now that he had been “blown to freedom.”

Abraham had the pure luck to have landed in the camp of Brigadier General John A. “Black Jack” Logan. Although he had no military background, was an Illinois Democrat, and anti-abolition, Logan was very much against secession. He volunteered with the 2nd Michigan and fought at First Bull Run. Logan was severely wounded at Fort Donelson but returned after Shiloh as a brigadier general in command of the Seventeenth Corps of the Army of the Tennessee. He led with distinction during the Siege of Vicksburg, for which he gained promotion to Major General. His career continued its upward trajectory. At some point before early 1863 Logan’s personal politics underwent a sea change. He then supported President Lincoln and had changed his mind entirely about slavery.

General and Mrs. John Logan

One thing a political general can do is manipulate the media, and the Abraham incident was no exception. Within a month Abraham’s story had made its way to every major paper (and quite a few minor ones). Written up and illustrated for Harper’s Weekly by renowned artist Theodore R. Davis, Abraham’s story spread nationwide. Versions were also printed in the Chicago Daily Tribune (beginning July 14, 1963). From these sources, stories were distributed all over the North and Western parts of the United States. The press made Abraham and his aeronautic exploits a thing, and they did not let it go until the turn of the year.

The problem with this type of publicity is that there is often difficulty verifying everythingthat can be found. According to two Chicago papers, Brigadier General Logan had more interaction with Abraham on July 4, 1863. When the victorious Union Army marched into Vicksburg–Major General U.S. Grant and his staff officers at the head, followed by Brigadier General Logan, Abraham marched in with Logan’s Division, right alongside the general and next to the 45th Illinois. It is very likely that, while in Vicksburg, Generals Grant, McPherson, and Logan had their CDV images image taken at the Photographic Studio of Barr and Young. Abraham, likely in company with Logan or lower-level officers, also had his image struck here as well. At least two CDV’s of Abraham were made… or rather, poses, with lots of copies of those images produced, and likely made available as souvenirs for purchase. At least one image exists with “Ole Abe” written across the bottom.

Sherman’s men march in Washington

General Logan departed on leave for a speaking tour mid-July through August. Logan wanted to keep Abraham with the unit, and Abraham reportedly had recovered sufficiently for Surgeon Trowbridge to attempt to make use of him as “general hand.” in the division hospital. After about three weeks, Abraham was relieved of his duties. Personal letters tell researchers that Dr. Trowbridge expressed great dissatisfaction with Abraham’s performance. What is not known is how much of this “lack of satisfactory performance” was due to possible brain injury? How much may have been due to an uneducated man being requested to perform unfamiliar hospital duties? As a lifelong slave, Abraham had been taught NOT to anticipate orders; but instead, wait for those orders, and then carry them out, promptly. Independent thinking such as might be necessary for a medical setting would have been difficult. Mike Maxwell suggests that likely a clash of cultures occurred: Abraham vs. Surgeon Trowbridge.

A particularly exciting discovery–for so many reasons–was the discovery by Mike Maxwell of a letter in the Library of Congress. The General John A. Logan Museum, in Murphysboro, Illinois, https://loganmuseum.org/ notified Mike that there was a letter to General Logan, dated December 31, 1863, from none other than the Great Showman himself, P. T. Barnum. The museum explained that the letter requests “something… regarding the ‘former slave Abraham, blown to Freedom.'”

Annie Wittenmeyer, Union Army nurse

One more mention of Abraham occurs in Under the Guns: A Woman’s Reminiscences of the Civil War, published in 1895 by Annie Wittenmeyer:

…a slave boy, about 18 years old, was blown into Union lines as a result of the Fort Hill mine explosion. He was often seen by me at General Logan’s headquarters… and after the war, he went to Washington with them, I think, and remained some years.[1]

From August 1863 until June 1864 there is no military record of Abraham, except the claim in Vicksburg and the War that:

Abraham last appears in the records at Atlanta on the staff of Major General McPherson, as a cook. After McPherson died on July 22, 1864, Abraham vanished from recorded history.[2]

The remainder of the story yet to be uncovered. Some letter or diary entry likely makes mention of Abraham’s next assignment. Too many soldiers and officers knew about the “Vicksburg incident,” and Abraham still would possess celebrity status. Mike’s guess is that Abraham either found another U.S. Army assignment (as a cook) or joined the “camp followers” that attempted to tag along as Sherman marched through Georgia. My guess is that he stayed with the Logans. Mrs. General Logan was in camp with her husband during most of the war and writes in her biography Reminiscences of a Soldier’s Wife: An Autobiography, that several former slaves travelled with them back and forth to their home in Illinois.

Mrs. General Logan


[1] Annie Wittenmyer, Under the Guns: A Woman’s Reminiscences of the Civil War. Reprinted by Big Byte Books, 2014, 73-74.

[2] Gordon A. Cotton, Jeff T. Giambrone. Vicksburg and the War. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 2004, 76-77.

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