And Then What Happened?: Abraham After 1863 (pt.4)

The “Great Showman” P.T. Barnum

Wait just a moment! A letter from P. T. Barnum? Really? And no discussion?

Have no fear. Two topics need to be looked at in depth before the subject of Abraham is exhausted, and one of them is Barnum’s letter. Here is one transcription:

Barnum’s American Museum

New York, Dec. 31, 1863

My dear Genl Logan

I claim to be a great “blower”, but you took the wind out of me when you blew up Abraham. I have felt inclined to reach under (out?) to you, for that “blow” shriveled the biggest hurricane down to the mildest zephyr. Still a sort of feeling of jealousy prompts me to the desire to have a puff at colored Abraham. When you think you can share your Abraham (and I hope it will seem consistent to you to let him off, long before you are called to the ORIGIN? Of his name for he is considerably higher up than the big wind. I should feel flattered to get the latter “culture” from you for a while with such a letter of notification & identification as you would permit me to publish. I hear from one mutual friend T H Davis Esq.  that Abraham can tell his story and do a thing or two, and if you should feel like ship him along by Express C. O. D. I will be most happy to take charge of him & use him well & make him satisfied. I shall also be most happy to reciprocate your kind help if ever opportunity offers—if not I’ll do it for some other clever fellow.

I have a niche in the Museum for Jeff Davis if you will only catch him. For that attraction I will pay high—in fact if I could exhibit Jeff in the Museum six months, I would give more than this whole Confederacy will be worth until he leaves it.

Wishing you a happy New Year & health & happiness as well as a glorious success in squelching this worse than damnable rebellion. I am with sentiments of the highest regard

Very Truly Yours, P. T. Barnum

 A close reading of this find uncovers jokes, puns, and smart, delightful wordplay. Barnum continued to entertain even in his letter, written on New Year’s Eve. Like most successful entrepreneurs, he saw Abraham as a viable business asset and promised General Logan that “colored Abraham” would be well taken care of. The real surprise comes in the middle paragraph. I never thought of Barnum as having political leanings, but his comments on Jefferson Davis are priceless. Here is the real value in this letter: Barnum needs more researching. Has anyone written about P. T. Barnum and his relationship with Lincoln? Has Barnum’s support of the Union war effort been explored? New York City is a treasure trove of riches when it comes to the Civil War. Maybe this letter will lead Civil War historians in Barnum’s direction.

Barnum’s Circus

The other topic is . . . what happened to Abraham? So far, there is concrete evidence concerning the formerly-enslaved man known as Abraham up to the Fall of 1863. It is at that point that information begins to conflict or does not exist at all. There is official information about Army cooks and undercooks. The 45th Illinois Volunteer Infantry was the first regiment to make use of black men to do the cooking, doing so after the Siege of Vicksburg. The 45th Illinois used the services of seven or eight men. These men were assigned to companies A, G and K. Two men were recorded as having been promoted from Undercook to Cook. None of them are Abraham.

General Sheridan and his officers with their cook

Did Vicksburg Abraham transfer to one of the Mississippi U. S. C. T. regiments? A check of the roster of the 66th Regiment United States Colored Infantry finds five men with the first name of Abraham and last names of Handman (or Hendman), Jacob, Nelson, Wilson, and Vaughn (or Voghn or Vohn.) There is no record of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, or 6th Regiment of Mississippi Infantry, which were organized at Vicksburg in December 1863. However, upon investigation, the Sixth Mississippi Infantry (African Descent) was renamed 58th Regiment U.S.C.I. Perhaps the other units were renamed as well. After exhaustive searching, Mike and I agree that although possible, Abraham probably stayed with his newly found Union friends.

Oddly enough—because it is usually Confederate records which are incomplete— the Confederate generals have their Staff members, officers and enlisted—including black cooks and undercooks– recorded at the National Park Service Soldiers and Sailors Database. A search for similar lists for Union Generals Logan, McPherson, and Grant turned up nothing. The NPS has not yet responded to an email of inquiry concerning this discrepancy.

A black cook at a Union Army camp

In June 1864 mention is made in Vicksburg and the War as well as a Smithsonian Institute blog supporting the National Portrait Gallery exhibition “Bound for Freedom’s Light,” that Abraham joined the Union war effort.[1] “Abraham last appears in the records at Atlanta on the staff of Major General McPherson, as cook. After McPherson died [July 22, 1864] Abraham vanished from recorded history…”[2]

Here is where Mike and I differ as to a conclusion. In his words:

At the time McPherson died, some record must have been created, and yet exist of “where McPherson’s staff went.” Some letter or diary entry likely makes mention of Abraham’s next assignment (not likely he stayed in Atlanta.) Too many soldiers and officers knew about the “Vicksburg incident,” and Abraham still would possess celebrity status. My guess: he either found another U.S. Army assignment (as cook) or joined the “camp followers” that attempted to tag along as Sherman marched through Georgia.

Abraham

My theory is a little different. I think that after General McPherson died, Abraham went “home” to General Logan. The Logans were the first married couple Abraham met after the mine explosion, and Mary Logan was well known for hiring newly-freed men to work on their farm in Cairo, Illinois. Her biography speaks of this often. Additionally, Mrs. Logan traveled with her husband for much of the war.[3] General Logan succeeded Sherman in command of the XV Corps, then temporarily took over the Army of the Tennessee after McPherson was killed during the Battle of Atlanta. Logan returned to the XV Corps when O. O. Howard relieved him of command. This puts Logan and Abraham in very close proximity. After the Carolinas Campaign and a brief, abortive foray to assist George Thomas, Logan accompanied Sherman to Washington where he led the Grand Review’s second day in May 1865. And I think Abraham marched with him.

The challenges and the fun of history are that perhaps we will never know.

_______________________________________________________

[1] Gordon A. Cotton, Jeff T. Giambrone. Vicksburg and the War. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 2004, 76-77 and Miriam Szubin, “Behind the Scenes of ‘Bound for Freedom’s Light.’” facetoface blog, https://npg.si.edu/blog/behind-scenes-“bound-freedom’s-light”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mrs. John A. Logan, Reminiscences Of A Soldier’s Wife: An Autobiography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913, 122-168.

About Meg Groeling

CW Historian
This entry was posted in Civilian, Leadership--Federal, Personalities, Slavery and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to And Then What Happened?: Abraham After 1863 (pt.4)

  1. Tom Mack says:

    Meg,

    Do you have a source for your note on the 45th Illinois? I am finishing up my manuscript on the regiment and don’t have anything regarding your note.

    Thanks!

  2. Charles Martin says:

    Two of PT Barnum’s performers, three feet in height “General Tom Thumb” (Charles Sherwood Stratton) and his wife Lavinia Warren, who were dwarfs, met Lincoln at the White House on their honeymoon in 1863. If memory serves me correctly, there is a photograph of the visit.

    • Mike Maxwell says:

      And in November 1864 Confederate operatives conducted an arson attack against P. T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City, which destroyed most of the interior of the building. One has to wonder if Barnum was targeted due his manifest pro-Union stance?

    • Meg Groeling says:

      Chang and Eng, Conjoined brother who were employees of Barnum at one time, have an interesting story of their own to tell. If you know it, don’t print it here, please. I am saving it for another time.

  3. I watched a documentary on Netflix about the history of the circus and they had a good sizable chunk dedicated to Barnum. He was a character for sure. It wouldn’t surprise me if he knew Lincoln personally or had been invited to the White House at least once. If a psychic medium could make it there, a charismatic showman certainly could. Just HOW involved he was with politics, who knows. It’d be interesting to dig into.
    I’ve enjoyed reading about Abraham. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and findings 🙂

    • Meg Groeling says:

      Thanks for your gracious response! We are still working on Abraham, are going to work on Barnum, and are currently working on the Wide-Awakes. Endlessly fascinating time period, in my opinion.

Leave a Reply