The Bizarre Life of States Barton Flandreau

Few Civil War soldiers have a story quite like States B. Flandreau. The New York native first fought in a Confederate regiment, switched teams across the Rappahannock, and was separately wounded and captured while serving in both armies. Throughout his life he also had up to eight wives (and at least as many names), though he never divorced any of them, seeming to carry on multiple family lives simultaneously across state lines.

My introduction to Flandreau’s life came several years ago when I last paid a research trip to the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. During my two-day visit I frantically (but gently) copied as many documents as possible relating to the Petersburg Breakthrough. Flandreau wrote two long letters in 1917 that explained this battle to a young boy he had met on the train near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He had resumed using his birth name by that point, but his story in the intervening years proves entirely complicated.

On February 19, 1842, William and Ophelia Flandreau welcomed a new son into the world. They named him Staats Barton Flandreau, though his first name was eventually anglicized to States. William worked as a shoemaker in New Rochelle, Westchester County, New York. States lived in the state until 1859, when according to one family story, he “got itchy feet” and left home, briefly changing his name to Flatbush along the way.[1] He reemerged in Louisiana, marrying East Feliciana Parish native Azenath (or Alzenith) Ann Hendrix on September 27, 1860.

Despite his Yankee roots, at the outset of the Civil War he enlisted into Company I of the 8th Louisiana Infantry on June 12, 1861, under the name Stephen Flandreau. A few of his records show that he was promoted to sergeant and he remained with his company until captured on June 2, 1862 in a skirmish near Strasburg, Virginia. After a two-month stay at Fort Delaware, he was exchanged on August 5, 1862, listed at the time as “S.B. Flanderson.” Rejoining his regiment, Flandreau fought in the battle of Kettle Run, near Bristoe Station, on August 27, 1862, where he was wounded. His wife Alzenith died that October and States’s enthusiasm for the Confederate cause began to wane.

The 8th Louisiana spent time along the Rappahannock River during the winter after the battle of Fredericksburg. They engaged in the common pastime of chatting with Union sentries on the opposite side and trading newspapers and the typical tobacco for coffee swap done with small unmanned boats. Corporal Jacob B. Evans, 102nd Pennsylvania Infantry, was opposite the 8th Louisiana one day in March when a letter arrived in the boat.

“Federal Soldier: Sir—I wish you would accommodate a rebel as much as to send a note to his father. I have an old father living in New York, and I wish that the soldier into whose hands this may fall would write to him and tell him that you saw his son States; that I belong to the 8th Regiment La. Vols.; that I am well, and hope to see him on the closing up of this war. Please send my love to all inquiring friends. By sending a note to Wm. Flandreau, New Rochelle, New York, you will confer a lasting favor on a friend in war. States B. Flandreau.”[2]

Evans faithfully forwarded a letter to William Flandreau. During the Chancellorsville Campaign, the 8th and 102nd fought at Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church but not directly opposite one another. The Louisianans resumed picket detail on the Rappahannock after the battle. Whether due to his experience of that bloody battle, a general homesickness, or discontent with the Confederacy, States chose to desert his unit. He swam across the river on May 22 and surrendered to members of a Brooklyn regiment. A correspondent for the New York Herald, who noted States’s northern birthplace, commented on his interrogation.

“Mr. Flandreau represents that the rations of the army consist of one pound of flour and half a pound of bacon daily, though it has been only a quarter pound of the latter. Their shoes are chiefly imported from England, and the supply is quite ample. Most of the troops have very comfortable clothing.

“From what he can learn, he thinks there are 130,000 men in the rebel Army of the Rappahannock. The men and officers are quite confident of success, provided we do not take Vicksburg. If that point is wrested from the rebels, they admit that it diminishes their strength and renders their cause almost hopeless.

“It is claimed by the rebels that the battle with General Hooker was the most complete victory that the South has had during the war. But notwithstanding this they were not in so good spirits after as before the battle.

“Since as well as before the battle of Chancellorsville the rebel army has been reducing its transportation and sending extra baggage to the rear. As Mr. Flandreau expresses it, they seem to be making the same preparations as were made before the advance into Maryland last year.”[3]

New York Herald, May 31, 1863

Aside from overestimating the Confederate strength, these camp rumors that Flandreau shared are the most reliable testimony I found from him during the course of my research. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reprinted the “Story of a Louisiana Deserter” with no additional comment, but any implications of being exposed did not matter, as by that point Flandreau had put the Bayou State behind him.[4] He married Elizabeth Seidel that year in Pennsylvania, going by the name Stephen Alexander Flatbush.

On December 31, 1863, he reverted back to States B. Flandreau when he enlisted as a private in Company H of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery. His older brother Charles V. Flandreau joined the unit on February 12, 1864 and served through the end of the war. At the time of both enlistments the regiment occupied the Washington defenses, but the Nutmeggers joined the Army of the Potomac at Spotsylvania in mid-May 1864 and fought as an infantry regiment in the Sixth Corps for the rest of the war.

Their first major combat occurred on June 1 at Cold Harbor. At great cost they breached the position held by Thomas Clingman’s North Carolinians. Colonel Elisha S. Kellogg was killed, States afterward claiming the regimental commander “got fifty-four bullets in his body at one volley during the charge. He was in front of the colors, and was a good target for the enemy.”[5] Flandreau himself was slightly wounded in the side by a shell during the battle.[6]

Flandreau enjoyed a brief reprieve from military service in the fall. I have seen on some genealogical websites that he may have been captured in the Shenandoah and exchanged (for a second time, but with the sides reversed). Instead of returning to his wife Elizabeth Seidel Flatbush in Pennsylvania, he went home to New Rochelle, where he married Carolyn Elizabeth Underhill.

He returned to his regiment by the time they were back at Petersburg, which is where I first dove into his story. If he can be believed (and that’s a big if), there are plenty of quotable opportunities. He wrote that his brigade commander, Joseph Eldridge Hamblin, was a clown in the circus before the war. I must admit I have not seen anything to support that claim, but Flandreau nevertheless described Hamblin as “a funny sort of fellow and a good fighter, but he hadn’t much dignity. He would as soon engage in a game of marbles with the boys, as to lead a charge, but in either case he would win. He always had a grin on his face, and it was there through his genuine good nature.”

Flandreau also provided a vivid depiction of the Confederate earthworks assaulted by the Sixth Corps on April 2, 1865:

“The position we were to attack was a breastwork of earth thrown up about the height of a man’s head, and lay along the brow of a hill, say, fifty feet above the level of the surrounding country, and in front, down on the level, was a moat or ditch all along the line, form right to left, I don’t know how far, but we could not see the end. This moat was about 14 feet wide and at least 10 feet deep and filled with water. Outside of this there was a row of trees that had been cut down, and the trunks stuck in the ground with sufficient slant to allow the branches to stick up in the air and toward us; the ends of the branches and limbs had been sharpened to a point, and so thick were they, that it would be impossible for men to penetrate to the moat. Now, in front of this network of trees, was what was known as a ‘Cheve-de-frieze.’ Great trees had been cut down, and trimmed, and holes bored through them, and great stakes driven through, and sharpened to a point at both ends. Something like a tumbling hay-rake. Just imagine a tumbling hay-rake, and add another row of teeth at right angles and you have a ‘Cheve de frieze.’ These were made in sections as long as the body of the trees used, and layed in front of the network of brush, and fastened together with iron bands, and stretched along the front, as far as we could see, in both directions.”[7]

However, Flandreau’s letter completely mixed up the sequence of events during the final offensive at Petersburg. He claimed that the Sixth Corps fought alongside the Fifth Corps and Custer at Five Forks (ten miles away and twelve hours prior), specifically describing fighting he would not have seen. He also wrote in great detail about the service of the Black pioneers in his brigade during the day. I have not seen any other evidence showing such a group existing in the corps. His unit’s placement would have overlapped by the middle of the morning with U.S.C.T. regiments from the Twenty-fifth Corps, so it might be possible, upon further clarifying their movements on April 2, 1865, to attribute some of his descriptions to their role that day. Or, like much of his life, it might just be a fanciful yarn.

For now, his unfinished thirty-four-page letter to Harold is simply an amusing story that I will have to skeptically decide whether or not to quote. I regret only copying the material relevant to the final Petersburg offensive during my visit, not knowing his wild story at the time. His other letters are high on the priority list for my next USAHEC visit.

States mustered out of the army on August 18, 1865, and worked as a painter and contractor afterward. He appears to have somehow bounced among his several wives throughout the following decades. Genealogical records show that he simultaneously fathered children with Elizabeth Seidel, Carolyn Underhill, Nancy Jane Baker (married in Indiana in 1868), Sarah T. Crouch (married in Illinois in 1874), Adda May Watson (married in Iowa in 1876), Sarah Temperance Howell (married in Illinois in 1883) and Elizabeth Miller (married in Missouri in 1891). In addition to States, Staats, and Stephen Flandreau, he went by Stephen, Alexander, and Theodore Flatbush, as well as Alexander T. Barnes. He really is a research nightmare. Throughout the course of my research I found dozens of queries from descendants on genealogical message boards trying to make sense of who this person was and why his records are so plentiful, but scattered.

Worse yet is the impact his flightiness had on the wives he betrayed. Several of his disappearances were noted by local papers. Less than six months after he married Elizabeth Miller, the St. Louis Republic observed:

“When a Republic reported called upon Mrs. Flandreau yesterday she was almost crazed with grief over the absence of her husband. She said it was hard for her to believe that her husband had deserted her. Mr. Flandreau was about 45 years of age, 5 feet 11 inches high, weight about 165 pounds, full, sandy gray whiskers about two inches long. When he left he wore a suit of dark clothes, pants badly worn. He had with him a large sum of money when he disappeared.”[8]

Second wife Elizabeth Flatbush had also moved to the St. Louis area with States just after the Civil War. He abandoned her sometime in the 1870s but briefly reappeared in her life about the same time he married and then also abandoned Elizabeth Miller. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported Elizabeth Flatbush’s sad plight in 1898:

St. Louis Globe-Democrat, February 1, 1898

In 1911 Flandreau went to live at the Soldiers Home at Camp Leavenworth. It was here that he met Harold Hennessy, to whom he wrote his numerous tales of the Civil War. At the end of his life he did occasionally visit his last wife, their son, and his grandkids.[9] He died on February 16, 1922, and was buried in Leavenworth National Cemetery. According to a family tradition he was placed on a hill so “even in death, he could keep an eye out for his many wives.”[10]

 

Sources:

[1] http://boards.rootsweb.com/surnames.flatbush/8/mb.ashx.

[2] J.B. Evans, “Did the Letter Arrive?” National Tribune, September 29, 1904.

[3] “Correspondence of Mr. Young,” May 25, 1863, New York Herald, May 31, 1863.

[4] “Strength and Condition of Gen. Lee’s Army,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 14, 1863.

[5] States B. Flandreau to Harold Hennessy, April 10, 1917, States B. Flandreau Collection, U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center.

[6] Theodore F. Vaill, History of the Second Connecticut Heavy Artillery (Winsted, CT: Winsted Printing Company, 1868), 225.

[7] Flandreau to Hennessy, April 10, 1917.

[8] “Mysteriously Missing,” St. Louis Republic, September 17, 1891.

[9] “Soldiers Home,” Leavenworth Times, June 23, 1921. “Soldiers Home,” Leavenworth Times, February 17, 1921.

[10] https://wc.rootsweb.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=flandrx-seeker&id=I94.

This entry was posted in Common Soldier, Personalities and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The Bizarre Life of States Barton Flandreau

  1. When I read about the black pioneers, my first thought was that they were from the black division from the army of the James. I believe they were right next to the sixth corps

  2. slimtimm says:

    Ed
    This story is incredible, I wonder how indicative of others somewhat the same shade?!

  3. David Dixon says:

    Terrific story Ed. I am planning to write a piece on the intersection of genealogy and history. How did you determine that all those post-war marriages were indeed the same person, given the different names? How do you know for a fact that these were aliases and not different men? Keep those obscure stories coming!

    • Edward S. Alexander says:

      Thanks David, fair question! I found on an old genealogical forum where a descendant (Sherry Clark) had found pension records from most of the wives all connected to this same person. Three of the claims were denied, as they thought he had died and remarried. I choose not to include the pension drama in the article as I haven’t seen the records for myself.

  4. armytncsa says:

    Great story. That took a lot of work Hats off!

  5. Todd Berkoff says:

    This guy sounds like the Forrest Gump of the Civil War. He is everywhere and experienced everything it would seem. I have done much research on Joseph E. Hamblin and I can assure you he was not a clown before the war! I can’t imagine Private Flandreau would have accurate insights into his brigade commander during the middle of the Overland Campaign.

    • Edward S. Alexander says:

      Yeah, I had strong suspicions about that one too. Have you seen any anecdotes on Hamblin to show he was jolly, goofy, witty or anything else to lend some validity to Flandreau’s description?

      • Todd Berkoff says:

        Hi Edward. I haven’t seen anything like that. Hamblin seemed to have been a serious militia commander and insurance broker before the war, competent regimental and brigade commander, and Adjutant General of the NY National Guard after the war. He died tragically in July 1870 at age 42 when he decided to go on a march with the NYNG during a particularly bad heat wave. He over-exerted himself during the march and died a few day later.

  6. Armytncsa says:

    Oops got caught

  7. Robert Flandreau says:

    Very interesting description of his military service. Thanks.

Leave a Reply