“By His Aid was that Flag Preserved”: The Shenandoah Valley’s African Americans’ Support for the Union War Effort

Grave marker 2001 in Winchester’s National Cemetery (photo by author)

ECW is pleased to welcome back our friend Jonathan A. Noyalas, director of the McCormick Civil War Institute at Shenandoah University. This article is adapted from portions of Noyalas’ recently released Slavery and Freedom in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War Erapublished by the University Press of Florida.

To Lieutenant Robert Gould Shaw, 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, the scene he witnessed in the Shenandoah Valley in the summer of 1861 seemed unfathomable—Union soldiers returning enslaved people who fled to Union lines to their enslavers or jailing them until enslavers could be identified. Although this practice kept with Union policy at the time Shaw believed it an obscene custom. Instead of returning freedom seekers Shaw believed the federal government needed to “make use of… the slaves” that one “instrument” he concluded  “would finish the war sooner than anything else.” Sensing the demoralizing impact it would have on the Confederate war effort Shaw wrote: “What a lick it would be at them [the Confederates], to call on all the blacks in the country to come and enlist in our army.”[1] While it would be a year-and-a-half before President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation created the opportunity for more than 600 of the Valley’s African Americans to enlist in United States Colored Troop regiments, the Valley’s African Americans did not wait until 1863 to support the Union war effort. Throughout the Civil War’s four years the region’s enslaved and free blacks contributed in myriad ways to the war for Union and emancipation.[2]

During the conflict African Americans supported United States troops by performing various labor tasks. Some, such as an enslaved male identified as “Skinner,” who bolted from his enslaver in the lower Valley, earned wages as a “waiter, cook, hostler, and errand boy,” for the regimental staff of the 13th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry during its time in the lower Shenandoah Valley in the late spring and early summer of 1861.[3]  Others, such as two enslaved males from Rockingham County, one enslaved by Jacob Strayer and the other by Samuel Hence Lewis, who fled to General Nathaniel P. Banks’ army as it moved north from Rockingham to Shenandoah County in the spring of 1862, offered their services as teamsters.[4]

Arguably the most significant role the Valley’s African Americans fulfilled, aside from military service, came in intelligence gathering. From the conflict’s outset African Americans proved a constant source of information to Union forces. For example, in the early summer of 1861 an enslaved male from Berkeley County, identified as George, bolted from his enslaver and soon encountered pickets from the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry near Darkesville. George informed the Pennsylvanians that he wished to share information with General Robert Patterson about Confederate troops around Winchester. When George arrived at Patterson’s headquarters in Martinsburg he informed Patterson that “the principal part of the Southern force was at Winchester throwing up intrenchments.” George also revealed that Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston, who occupied Winchester at the time, impressed enslaved people in the area to work on the defenses being constructed on Winchester’s northern outskirts.[5]

Similarly, throughout the opening months of 1862 enslaved people who bolted for Union lines at Harpers Ferry regularly provided information to General Banks’ command about Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s defenses of Winchester. Henry Dilworth, a twenty-five-year-old enslaved male who bolted from his enslaver who lived approximately five miles north of Winchester, informed federal troops at Harpers Ferry that Jackson’s troops had taken “R[ail] R[oad] ties, set endwise in [the] ground” around the perimeter of Fort Collier situated on Winchester’s northern outskirts adjacent to the Martinsburg Pike.[6] Dennis Taylor, an enslaved male who escaped his enslaver who lived several miles north of Winchester, provided additional information about Fort Collier’s strength. “Have seen the fort on Stine’s farm, [it contained] large guns between two banks—banks made of flour barrels with dirt thrown against them.” Taylor also informed Union officers that Confederates had also constructed earthworks “on the Berryville Pike.”[7]

Throughout the conflict untold numbers of African Americans provided a constant stream of information to Union forces, but arguably none played a more significant role that Thomas Laws. Enslaved from the moment of his birth on January 7, 1817, at the time of the Civil War, Laws was enslaved by Richard Byrd in Clarke County. When Union general Philip H. Sheridan took command of the Army of the Shenandoah during the first week of August 1864 “Little Phil” received clear instructions from both President Abraham Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant to not bring on an engagement with Confederate general Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley unless Sheridan could be assured of victory. Aware of the adverse impact defeat would have not only on Union operations in Virginia, but the negative backlash another military setback in the Shenandoah would have on Lincoln’s chances to win reelection in November, Sheridan was urged “to be very cautious.”[8]

Until mid-September, Sheridan’s and Early’s commands maneuvered between Harpers Ferry and Fisher’s Hill, located just south of Strasburg. While various elements of Sheridan’s and Early’s armies clashed during the first month of Sheridan’s tenure in the Valley, nothing of significance occurred. Although Lincoln might have been pleased that Sheridan proceeded cautiously as originally instructed, Lincoln likewise understood that a lack of any significant activity from the largest Union army ever assembled in the Shenandoah Valley might also prove detrimental to his chances for reelection.[9] After Lincoln urged Grant to encourage Sheridan to take more decisive action, Grant summoned Sheridan to a meeting in Charles Town, West Virginia, on September 17. When Sheridan received the note on September 13 he knew he needed to have a strategy in hand to defeat Early. If he did not, Sheridan surmised Grant might give him a plan he had no desire to implement, or worse risk being removed from command.

In order to develop a plan Sheridan needed two things, an informant behind Confederate lines and someone to serve as the messenger between that person and Sheridan. General George Crook, Sheridan’s longtime friend and commander of the army’s Eighth Corps, recommended a twenty-four-year-old Quaker teacher in Winchester, Rebecca Wright, as the potential informant.[10] Major Henry K. Young, commander of Sheridan’s scouts, urged Sheridan to use Laws as the messenger. Regarded by Young and his scouts as “both loyal and shrewd,” Laws possessed a permit signed by Confederate authorities that allowed him to enter Winchester three times per week to sell vegetables to the local inhabitants.[11]

Grave of Thomas Laws in Milton Valley Cemetery, Josephine City, Berryville, Virginia (photo by author)

When Laws arrived at Wright’s home on Loudoun Street in Winchester around noon on September 16 he pulled a capsule from his mouth, removed the carefully wadded message penned by Sheridan, and presented it to Wright. Initially, fearful of what might happen to her if discovered as a spy for Sheridan’s army, Wright informed Laws that she would not help and “did not have anything to do with the rebels and knew nothing about them.”[12] Laws could have accepted Wright’s initial decision, but instead he persisted. He urged Wright to take several hours and reconsider. Laws’ refusal to take no for an answer paid off. When he returned around 3:00 p.m. Wright passed along information that an infantry division commanded by General Joseph Kershaw and an artillery battalion commanded by Major Wilfred Cutshaw had left the Shenandoah Valley to join the Army of Northern Virginia near Petersburg.[13] The information Wright provided to Sheridan through Laws proved critical in the development of Sheridan’s plans to strike Early.

While Laws, who died in 1896, is arguably the most significant African American to support Union intelligence-gathering operations as the information he carried to Sheridan helped launch the Union campaign which finally wrested the Shenandoah Valley from Confederate control, countless others rendered important service to the Union war effort even after Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah secured victory in the Valley at Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864. Throughout the final months of 1864 African Americans, as they had throughout the conflict, proved useful allies in reporting the activities of Colonel John Singleton Mosby’s Rangers.[14] For example, about two months after Laws’ carried messages between Sheridan and Wright, a young African American boy, about nine or ten years old, alerted Captain Richard Blazer, who commanded a contingent of scouts in Sheridan’s command, of the approach of a portion of John Singleton Mosby’s partisans. Henry Pancake, one of Blazer’s scouts, wrote that soon after crossing the Shenandoah River at Jackson’s Ford in Jefferson County and stopping to cook some breakfast, “a colored boy came up and said about 300 of Mosby’s Guerillas had crossed the ford and taken position in the woods, half way between the ford and Cabletown [sic], and were watching us.”[15] Whether the young boy was enslaved or not is unknown, but the information he offered proved reliable. After Pancake and Lieutenant Thomas Coles confirmed the report, the boy, fully expecting Blazer’s command to defeat Mosby’s contingent, remained with the scouts. However, outnumbered by more than two-to-one, Mosby’s men bested Blazer’s troops. After the fight evidence indicates Mosby’s men seized the young boy. According to Blazer, who was captured during the fight at Kabletown, the Confederates hung the boy and left him on the field. Based on burial records and additional research conducted by Darl Stephenson, the foremost expert on Blazer’s command, it is highly likely that the unidentified boy who brought information to Blazer and was murdered at Kabletown on November 18, 1864, is buried in grave 2001 in the Winchester National Cemetery along with seven other members of Blazer’s command killed in the fight.[16] The tragic death of this unidentified boy underscores the reality that the Shenandoah Valley’s African Americans, young and old, were not passive participants in our nation’s defining moment.

Although the stories of many of these African Americans have fallen into obscurity, which was part of the impetus for my book Slavery and Freedom in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War Era, the Valley’s African Americans did all they could to keep green the memory of their service and sacrifice in the Civil War’s aftermath. For decades after the war African Americans in localities throughout the Shenandoah Valley held annual emancipation celebrations. At the gathering in Shepherdstown in 1869, before a crowd of approximately 2,000 people, one of the speakers, W.U. Saunders, attempted to capture the significant contributions African Americans made to the Union war effort. Saunders noted that the “sacrifices of that war were shared” by the Shenandoah’s African American population. “That when rebel hands dared violate” the “flag” of the United States the Valley’s African Americans “answered to a Nation’s call, and by his aid was that flag preserved.”[17]

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Jonathan A. Noyalas is director of Shenandoah University’s McCormick Civil War Institute and a professor in the history department at Shenandoah. He is the author or editor of fourteen books including Slavery and Freedom in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War Era. Noyalas is the recipient of numerous awards for his teaching and scholarship including the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia’s Outstanding Faculty Award—the highest honor which can ever be bestowed upon anyone teaching at a college/university in Virginia.

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Notes

[1] Russell Duncan, ed., Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992), 123.

[2] For further discussion about the service of the Shenandoah Valley’s African Americans in USCT regiments see Jonathan A. Noyalas, Slavery and Freedom in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War Era (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2021), 115-122.

[3] Rev. A.M. Stewart, Camp, March and Battle-Field: Or Three Years and a Half with the Army of the Potomac (Philadelphia: Jas. B. Rodgers, Printer, 1865), 19.

[4] Rockingham Register, July 7, 1862; Lewis F. Fisher, No Cause of Offence: A Virginia Family of Union Loyalists Confronts the Civil War (San Antonio, TX: Maverick Publishing, 2012), 37.

[5] William Henry Locke, The Story of the Regiment (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1888), 28-29.

[6] “Refugees, Deserters & Contrabands, 1862 Gen. Banks’ Intelligence Reports,” Record Group 393, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Philip H. Sheridan, Personal Memoirs of P.H. Sheridan (New York: Charles L. Webster, 1888), 1: 499-500.

[9] Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 7: 548.

[10] General George Crook to Colonel Theo. W. Bean, September 26, 1886, quoted in The Loyal Girl of Winchester: September 1864 (n.p.: n.d.), 7; New York Times, July 28, 1912; Sheridan, Personal Memoirs, 2: 4. For additional details surrounding Wright’s role see Noyalas, Slavery and Freedom, 127-131.

[11] Thomas Laws to James Taylor, September 26, 1894, quoted in James E. Taylor, With Sheridan up the Shenandoah Valley in 1864: Leaves from a Special Artists Sketchbook and Diary (Dayton, OH: Morningside House, Inc., 1989), 355; Sheridan, Personal Memoirs, 2: 3.

[12] Rebecca Wright to Charles Carleton Coffin, May 3, 1890, Charles Coffin Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

[13] For further discussion of the motivations for Wright to make the decision see Noyalas, Slavery and Freedom, 129-130.

[14] Robert Hunt Rhodes, ed., All for the Union: The Civil War Diary and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 179; Taylor, With Sheridan up the Shenandoah, 83.

[15] Ironton Register (Ohio), November 25, 1886; Darl L. Stephenson, Headquarters in the Brush: Blazer’s Independent Union Scouts (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2001), 170.

[16] A roster of the Union dead buried in the Winchester National Cemetery denotes that the individual buried in grave 2001, killed on November 18, 1864, was “Colored.” For further discussion see Roll of Honor (No. XV): Names of Soldiers Who Died in Defence of the American Union, Entered in the National Cemeteries at Antietam (Maryland), and at Arlington, (Additional), Culpeper Court-House, Cold Harbor, Winchester, Staunton, and Various Scattered Localities in Virginia (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1868), 236.

[17] Shepherdstown Register, September 4, 1869.

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3 Responses to “By His Aid was that Flag Preserved”: The Shenandoah Valley’s African Americans’ Support for the Union War Effort

  1. Rod says:

    This is another article that, while it is masterful at remaining true to the politically correct narrative, implies much that begs for objective balance. The modern academic History discipline is, according to multiple surveys, skewed Left by a 33:1 ratio in its faculties. This has infected the popular historical narrative with politically correct lens that has more to do with modern political agenda and is far out of focus regarding historical reality. To step out of line with that required narrative is to be the target of pejorative labels and a loss of academic standing. Hear the testimony of two distinguished academics who warned of this loss of objectivity. The late Dr. Ludwell Johnson, Professor of History Emeritus, at the College of William and Mary stated:

    “Various theoretical “isms” arriving from Europe in the 1960’s still endanger the very existence of what has so long been thought of as history… Of all fields of scholarship, history is perhaps most attractive and vulnerable to Political Correctness. It decrees that some things should be accepted without question – otherwise the elaborate machinery of academic control and social hostility will exact their full measure of retribution on the dissenter… Readers with special interest in the period of the Civil War need to be particularly alert because the South and Southerners offer many tempting Targets to the holier-than-thou.” From the forward of his book North Against South.

    The late Dr. Eugene Genovese, Professor of History Emeritus, at the University of Rochester:

    “Rarely, these days, even on Southern campuses, is it possible to acknowledge the achievements of the white people of the South. The history of the Old South is now often taught at leading universities, when it is taught at all, as a prolonged guilt-trip, not to say a prologue to the history of Nazi Germany. . . . To speak positively about any part of this Southern tradition is to invite charges of being a racist and an apologist for slavery and segregation. We are witnessing a cultural and political atrocity, an increasing campaign by academic elites to strip young white and arguably young black Southerners of their heritage.” Massey Lectures at Harvard University.

    While it is true that the topic of this article’s stated purpose is to focus on black Southerners who betrayed their Southland in its bid for independence, the impression made is that such action was always a conscientious commitment to the Union cause and a “bolt” to freedom. While it is true that in a population of four million people, there would be some who fit this mold; especially in the border States where Northern abolitionist propaganda held thirty years of persuasion. The truth is by far the largest majority of Southern black people remained true to their Southland.

    The deception in the article, enhanced by the over used word “bolted,” is that Southern blacks eagerly fled to Union lines. The reality is most feared the yankee invaders and rightfully so. In South Carolina, Brigadier General Rufus Saxton, Military Governor, U. S. Forces at Beaufort, on December 30, 1864, reported to Secretary of War Stanton: I found the prejudice of color and race here in full force, and the general feeling of the army of occupation was unfriendly to the blacks. It was manifested in various forms of personal insult and abuse, in depredations on their plantations, stealing and destroying their crops and domestic animals, and robbing them of their money.” Official Record of the War of Rebellion series III, volume IV.

    Most who “bolted” to Union lines simply sought food in a quest to survive the displacement of Lincoln’s war of economic conquest that had no humanitarian plan or concern for refugees of his scorched earth policy slave or free. Lincoln’s words “root hog” at Hampton Roads became a reality and hundreds of thousands of displaced Southern blacks died as the book “Sick From Freedom” reveals. The reconstruction Governor of Mississippi testified that one third of the black population in his State had died as a result of the war.

    Lincoln’s emancipation was exactly what he said it was, a “war measure.” The purpose was to incite a servile insurrection behind the Confederate lines, and to prevent France and Britain from allying with the CSA. That the slaves did not revolt was testimony to their loyalty. One member of the USCT, much maligned for his honesty that didn’t fit the North’s sanitized version of the war, explained:

    “That the negroes did not revolt is one of the incomprehensible features of our Civil War. Every chance for success was theirs, nor were they ignorant of their opportunity for striking an effectual and crushing blow against their oppressors. Why was it not done? Several potent causes combined to render any widespread insurrection at that time impossible. There was in the first place a genuine affection for the white race, implanted in hundreds of thousands of negroes by amalgamation, there was, in no less degree, a race love created by the foster parental relations which negro women sustained toward white children; there was also a genuine desire on the part of the negro men to discharge worthy the duties with which they were entrusted by their absent masters. But the supreme and all-pervading influence which restrained them was rooted in their religious convictions; for the slave negro, unlike the modern freedman, was a being in whom religious fervor was intensely and over-whelmingly manifest.” William Hannibal Thomas, 5th United States Colored Troops. The American Negro, published 1901.

    A perusal of the Official Records reveals a dark side to the “enlistment” of former slaves into the USCT. It is a record that exposes the myth in movies such as “Glory.” The fact is slaves were being forced to join the USCT against their will:

    “A major of colored troops is here with his party capturing negroes, with or without their consent. Many persons in this country employed their negroes to make crops; they are being conscripted.” Source: War of the Rebellion, Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 2. p. 477.

    “The negroes will not go voluntarily, so I am obliged to force them. I have sent seventy-one and will send this afternoon about 150. I expect to get a large lot tomorrow. I have done all that could be done, but I am not as fortunate as you expected me to be. I shall keep working.” Source: War of the Rebellion, Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 42, Part 2. pp. 653-654″

    – Supervising Special Agent, Treasury Department: Unless some stringent measures are adopted, the oppression of these negro recruiting officers will become insupportable by all classes. These cases of cruelty are reported daily. C. P. S. [STONE.]. OFFICE SUPERVISING SPECIAL AGENT, TREASURY DEPT., Honorable B. F. FLANDERS, Supervising Special Agent, Treasury Department: SIR: I desire to call your attention to the inclosed copies of letters received from the overseers on the Payne and Taylor plantations, worked by this department; nor are these acts confined to these places alone-the Le Blane, Hermitage, Ashland, Point Houmas, and other government places have suffered severely from having the able-bodied hands forced at the point of the bayonet from the plantations for conscription; mules and carts, which you receipted for, have also been taken by officers and soldiers without hesitation, notwithstanding the order issued by General Banks that property on those places should not be interfered with.“

    “Officers in command of colored troops are in constant habit of pressing all able-bodied slaves into the military service of the United States. One communication from citizens near McMinnville on that subject I have already forwarded you. Many similar complaints have been made. This State being excepted from the emancipation proclamation, I supposed all [these] things are against good faith and the policy of the Government. Forced enlistments I have endeavored to stop, but find it difficult if not impracticable to do so. In fact, as district commander, I am satisfied I am unable to correct the evils complained of connected with the black population”. Source: War of the Rebellion, Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 2. pp. 59-60 pp. 59-60.

    His Excellency A. LINCOLN, President of the United States: “…excitement here growing out of the recruiting of colored troops, and as some of the recruiting officers are acting rather indiscreetly, I fear, by taking slaves in their recruits, and the slaves of loyal as well as disloyal persons…to enlist slaves as well as free people is creating a great deal of anxiety among the people…we ought to use the colored people, after the rebels commenced to use them against us.” Official Records, Series I, Vol. III, Correspondence, etc., pg 767-768 – “CAMBRIDGE, September 4, 1863.

    A. Lincoln, 6 February, 1865 to Lieutenant Colonel John Glenn, 120th Colored Infantry, commanding Post at Henderson, Kentucky, seventy-five miles northeast of Paducah, “Complaints is made to me that you are forcing Negroes into the military service, and even torturing them–riding them on rails, and the like–to extort their consent.” OR, vol. XLIX, pt. I: 668.

    “A major of colored troops is here with his party capturing negroes, with or without their consent….They are being conscripted.” Official Records of the War of the Rebellion volume 32, part 2, page 477.

    Southern slaves were not only forced into Union military service, but they were purposefully placed in the line against impossible odds as cannon fodder:

    “The wounded were all cared for at the wayside hospitals, and the dead white men of both sides buried; but the dead negroes were left where they fell. There had been several regiments of negroes in the Federal force, who as usual had been put into the front lines, and thus received the full effect of the Confederate fire. The field was dotted everywhere with dead negroes, who with the dead horses here and there soon created an intolerable stench, perceptible for half a mile or more. The hogs which roamed at large over the country were soon attracted to the spot and tore many of the bodies to pieces, feeding upon them. This field of death, enlivened by numbers of hogs grunting and squealing over their hideous meal, was one of the most repulsive sights I ever saw.”https://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/ford/ford.html

    “The point where I was, just about the center of our line, at the causeway, was assaulted by a regiment of negro troops; and as they got near to us I distinctly heard their officers cursing them. I heard one officer say, ‘Keep in line there, you damned scoundrels!’ and another, ‘Go on, you damned rascals, or I’ll chop you down!’ I saw the line waver badly when it got to within fifty yards of us, and on this occasion at least it did not look to me as if the negroes had the spirit to ‘fight nobly.’ I know it is a catch phrase elsewhere that the colored troops fought nobly, but I testify to what I saw and heard.” https://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/ford/ford.html

    A recent thesis entitled “Reluctant Freedom Fighters: Coercion and Negative Recruitment Experiences of African Americans in the United States Civil War” is available online and certainly is a refreshing move toward objectivity in academia! Perhaps this is a glimmer of hope for much needed objectivity in our universities. That there were USCT troops who conscientiously fought and died valiantly is not doubted. It is however a disservice to the vast majority of black people who were loyal to their homeland to imply that they all acted in a treasonous fashion, or to suggest that those in the USCT went voluntarily.

    Many readers here who are indoctrinated by the popular politically correct narrative will be offended to even consider that there is another side to this story. Such an adolescent response is typical of those whose understanding has been swayed by the superficial and skewed analysis that is our modern popular academic narrative. We must risk being offensive as truth is far more important than feelings.

  2. Jon Tracey says:

    This is some very interesting and in-depth research! I look forward to reading the whole book.

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