“I Dearly Loved Him:” A USCT Soldier Sends a Condolence Letter

In my ongoing search for information about the Battle of New Market Heights and the United States Colored Troops regiments who fought there, I am trying to explore every possible lead for sources that might provide additional insights. Recently I happened across a fine collection of letters written by Capt. Charles Oren, Co. E, 5th United States Colored Infantry, and self-published by a descendant.

Capt. Oren received a mortal wound at Petersburg on July 28, 1864, while helping construct a mortar position, two months before the Battle of New Market Heights. His letters home to his wife, Sarah, who he called “Sattie,” unfortunately do not provide the depth of detail one would hope for when seeking insight into the relationship between a White junior officer and the Black non-commissioned officers and enlisted men under his command. Capt. Oren’s letters briefly describing the regiment’s various movements and combat are just that, mere mentions. As so often happens when reading soldiers’ letters, they leave the reader wishing for much greater detail and unanswered questions. One wonders if Sattie felt the same way as she read them so long ago.

Thirty-years old at the outbreak of the Civil War, Charles Oren came from an abolitionist family in Clinton County, Ohio, who aided self-emancipated individuals and families on a line of the Underground Railroad. A strong proponent of the advantages of education, Charles taught school and became the principal at the high school in Martinsville, Ohio. He married Sarah Allen on New Year’s Eve 1857, and the couple named their first child, a boy, in honor of educator Horace Mann. The couple eventually had two other children.

John Mercer Langston presented colors to the 5th United States Colored Infantry at Camp Delaware, Ohio.

Unlike many of his fellow officers who served in USCT regiments, Oren had not previously served in the army before enlisting. Apparently taking his officer’s examination in nearby Cincinnati, Oren passed it in July 1863, and received appointment in Ohio’s first Black regiment. Initially designated the 127th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, and later renamed the 5th United States Colored Infantry, the unit assembled at Camp Delaware, Ohio, for organizing and training. In November 1863, the 5th USCI transferred to the Norfolk, Virginia, area for duty.

Enlisting in Highland County, Ohio, at about the time that Charles Oren was taking his officer’s examination, Dillon Chavers received assignment to Company E, the company that Capt. Oren would soon command. Chavers, born in Fayetteville, North Carolina around 1839, does not appear in the 1860 census in either Ohio or North Carolina, so it is possible that he was previously enslaved and either self-emancipated or received a manumission and settled in Ohio just before the war. His service records do indicate that he was a free man of color before April 1861. Draft registration records for Union Township in Fayette County, Ohio, indicate he was living there by 1863, unmarried, and working as a barber. Corroboration of Chavers’ occupation comes via his service records. He received an immediate appointment to sergeant at enlistment.

Sgt. Chavers was always present for duty at each of the company’s musters, but for some undocumented reason he received a demotion to private on September 3, 1864. Chavers must have soon regained the confidence of his officers as he received promotions to corporal on New Year’s Day 1865, and then again to sergeant in August 1865.

Along with their brigade comrades in the 22nd USCI (pictured here), Chavers and the 5th USCI stormed Petersburg’s defenses on June 15, 1864.

The 5th USCI participated in operations in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina in the fall and winter of 1863-64, and then on the James River/York River peninsula in the spring of 1864. Arriving at City Point in early May as part of the Eighteenth Corps, Army of the James, they were among the troops who successfully stormed the Petersburg Dimmock Line defenses on June 15, 1864, earning wide recognition for their brave assaults. Detailed afterward to the Petersburg trenches, by July 1864, they were serving in that uncomfortable and dangerous environment.

On July 17, Capt. Oren wrote one of his longer letters to Sattie. It was his last. He ended it by writing: “Now dearest Sattie, I will close this letter but I will not cease thinking of you and of home. Let us bear our separation as heroically as we can, hoping that a better and happier day approaches. I feel that we yet shall be happy in the enjoyment of each other’s society, rendered doubly dear by the trying separation. Good by, kiss all.” Sattie and the children would not receive the comfort of Capt. Oren’s company again.

Writing on the day of Capt. Oren’s death, Lt. Peter Stomats informed Sarah of her husband’s death and that he had Oren’s body embalmed and sent home. Only giving a few details, Lt. Stomats explained that Capt. Oren received a wound about six in the morning and died at three in the afternoon. “His wound was through the hips. He was on the front line in charge of a party constructing a Mortar battery at the time he was struck,” Stomats informed the now widowed Sarah. Apparently, in a hurry to get the information to her, Lt. Stomats did not offer any consoling words.

The high esteem for Capt. Oren comes through from this fellow officers’ words. Lt. Joseph Scroggs, Co. H, wrote in his diary of Oren, “His death is deeply regretted by his brother officers and his place will not be easily filled. An efficient officer, a genial companion, a faithful friend and honorable man. None dare cast an imputation against his character.” Lt. Elliott F. Grabill, who served as adjutant for the regiment, wrote to the Lorain County News that, “Yesterday our hearts were grieved by the death of Captain Charles [Oren].” In addition, in a letter from the 5th USCI’s lieutenant colonel, Giles W. Shurtleff, attempting to console Sarah, the officer praised Oren as a man, an officer, and for his religious convictions. “He was my friend: I had come to love him, to admire him, and to trust him as a confidential friend and advisor. I have scarcely met a more thoroughly earnest, energetic and determined officer, or a more upright, honorable and patriotic man,” Lt. Col. Shurtleff wrote in part.

A letter that perhaps Sarah prized above all others—coming as it did from one of Capt. Oren’s soldiers rather than from his fellow officers or superiors—arrived from Dillon Chavers, penned on November 24, 1864. We do not know if Chavers wrote the letter himself or had a friend write it. By this point in the war Chavers had apparently experienced additional combat at New Market Heights (September 29) and Darbytown Road (October 27), since Capt. Oren’s death at the end of July. Written in part phonetically, and with irregular capitalization and punctuation, the letter clearly states Chavers’ admiration for his former captain and his grief over Oren’s death.

“Mis Orens this is the first Time that I ever have taken My Pen in Hand to write to You,” Chavers opened. “I am a member of Capt Orens Company the morning That He was shot. If my Brother Had of Bin shot it would Not of Hurt me any worse then It Did when He was shot,” Chavers continued. Chavers lauded Oren as an officer and explained that Oren always had the men’s best interest at heart. “I Dearly loved him. Any thing that I could Do for Him I would Do it.” Apparently, Chavers found Sarah’s name and contact information in an issue of the Cincinnati Gazette and wished to write her. Chavers related that, “Our Company Has Bin of no use Since His Deth. He was a man That Every man in the regt Like and more Especialy Company E.” Angered that Assistant Surgeon Lyman Allen had not read the letter Sarah had sent requesting the doctor to read it to the company, Chavers wrote, “I never shal like Him [Allen] for it.”

In his condolence letter, Chavers also explained that he was sending her a $39.00 loan note that Capt. Oren owed him, but stated, “I shal give that to you Be cause I love Him as a Brother.” Forgiving a loan worth three months of a private’s pay was a generous and charitable gesture. Chavers wrote that he would have penned sooner but did not have Sarah’s information and he did not want to ask Lt. Stomats for it because Stomats “was so Pore [of an] officer that I would not say any thing to Him. We [sergeants had] to take charge of the Co. After the Capt. Dide Be Cause [Stomats] was so fraid of Being shot [in battle].” Chavers requested that Sarah tell him know where Capt. Oren was buried, presumably so he could one day visit the captain’s grave. “This [letter] Is from a friend of Yours Be Cause the Capt Was one of mine And You shal remain one of mine,” Chavers closed.

As mentioned above, Dillon Chavers received promotions to corporal and back to sergeant before the 5th USCI mustered out of service in North Carolina on September 20, 1865. Sgt. Chavers is difficult track in the decades immediately following the war. However, he appears in the 1890 Veteran’s Schedule of that census as living near Richmond, in Henrico County, Virginia. City directory records also show him in Richmond in 1894. Twenty years later, in 1910, Chavers was living with a sister in Springfield, Ohio, and listed as a retired barber, but was back in Richmond the following year according to the city directory in 1911. On November 4, 1913, Chavers received admission to the Soldiers Home in Hampton, Virginia, where he stayed for about a month and a half. After that he lived again in Richmond, where he married Susanna Holmes in September 1914. The old soldier died in Richmond on October 12, 1915, apparently from a stroke. He was about 76 years old.

Sgt. Chavers rests in peace in the Richmond National Cemetery.

Sgt. Chavers, who years earlier kindly reached out to his officer’s widowed wife, providing comforting words and erasing a debt, was buried on October 15, 1915, in the Richmond National Cemetery where he rests in peace.

Sources:

Complied Military Service Record for Sgt. Dillon Chavers, Co. E, 5th USCI, accessed via Fold3.com

Joseph T. Glatthaar. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. Free Press, New York, 1990.

Lorain County News, August 17, 1864.

Tim Oren, ed. Dearest Sattie: Civil War Letters of Captain Charles Oren, 5th U.S.C.T. Self-published, Redwood City, CA, 2010.

U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995, accessed via Ancestry.com.

U.S. Civil War Draft Registration Records, 1863-1865, accessed via Ancestry.com

U.S. National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, 1866-1938, accessed via Ancestry.com

Daniel V. Van Every. “The Role of Officer Selection and Training in the Successful Formation and Employment of U.S. Colored Troops in the American Civil War, 1863-1865.” Unpublished thesis, 1999. Located at: https://mountgulian.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/caseys-board.pdf

Virginia, U.S. Select Marriages, 1853-1935, accessed via Ancestry.com.

Tim Talbott is the Chief Administrative Officer for the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust. He is the former Director of Education, Interpretation, Visitor Services, and Collections at Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier in Petersburg, Virginia. Tim is also the founding member and President of the Battle of New Market Heights Memorial and Education Association. He maintains the “Random Thoughts on History” blog and has published articles in both book and scholarly journal formats. Tim’s current project is researching soldiers captured during the Petersburg Campaign.



4 Responses to “I Dearly Loved Him:” A USCT Soldier Sends a Condolence Letter

  1. I’m working on a series of podcasts on the war in the west. I’ve run into the cemetery north of Cairo, IL and discovered a relatively large section devoted to colored soldiers. I would like to eventually use this topic in one or more of my episodes. Any advice on discovering information about these individuals?

  2. Randall, It is kind of hit or miss. As you see from my sources in this article, I’ve been fairly successful in gathering information from online sources, particularly locating their Compiled Military Service Records on Fold3.com, and census and other personal information on Ancestry.com. Fold3 also has some soldiers’ widow’s & dependent’s pensions, which are usually very informative. If the soldiers in the cemetery you mention died during the war, finding personal information on them may be difficult as I would assume that many of them were formerly enslaved and made their way there in southern Illinois to enlist. If they died after the war and put down roots there, they may have left a significant trail and their pension files may be at the National Archives in Washington D.C.

    I will say that the journey of exploration in looking for information about these men is certainly worth the work. Telling their individual stories (when possible) is important. Best of luck!

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