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.” 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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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.”
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.”
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. 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. 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.
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.” 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. 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. 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.” 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. 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.”
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.
 Russell Duncan, ed., Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992), 123.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 William Henry Locke, The Story of the Regiment (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1888), 28-29.
 “Refugees, Deserters & Contrabands, 1862 Gen. Banks’ Intelligence Reports,” Record Group 393, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.
 Philip H. Sheridan, Personal Memoirs of P.H. Sheridan (New York: Charles L. Webster, 1888), 1: 499-500.
 Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 7: 548.
 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.
 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.
 Rebecca Wright to Charles Carleton Coffin, May 3, 1890, Charles Coffin Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
 For further discussion of the motivations for Wright to make the decision see Noyalas, Slavery and Freedom, 129-130.
 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.
 Ironton Register (Ohio), November 25, 1886; Darl L. Stephenson, Headquarters in the Brush: Blazer’s Independent Union Scouts (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2001), 170.
 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.
 Shepherdstown Register, September 4, 1869.