Shrouded Veterans: Ex-Confederate Appointed USCT Colonel Dies in Indiana Prison

We boast of our democracy — a people’s country! There is but one democratic institution in the world — the graveyard. There Thomas Jones and Thomas Jefferson are alike food for worms. — Quote from Colonel James Trimble while an inmate at the Indiana State Prison South, Evansville Daily Courier, April 29, 1880

Newspaper clipping from the Ashland Times (Ashland, Ohio), October 24, 1872.
Newspaper clipping from The Ashland Times (Ashland, Ohio), October 24, 1872.

Captain Reuben D. Massey refused to muster in James Trimble, an ex-Confederate private, as colonel of the newly raised 14th U.S. Colored Infantry. How did a former Confederate soldier end up being granted permission to raise a colored regiment and appointed colonel in the first place? The answer may lie in Trimble’s gift of gab. The short-lived U.S. colonel teetered between flashes of brilliance and the depths of depravation, dying as a petty thief ruined by alcoholism in an Indiana state prison.

Trimble blamed his upbringing and Southern social norms for leading him down a path of vice and self-destruction. “By the time I was 10 years old, I had learned the fine arts of walloping negroes, rolling nine-pins, playing at cards, fighting chickens, and lastly, but not least, of putting an enemy into my stomach to steal away my brains in the shape of split-head, rot-gut, tangle-foot whisky,” Trimble claimed. He loafed on his father’s plantation until the age of 15, when his father sent him to college in Nashville. Trimble drank away his education, so his uncle took him under his wing to study law. He fell in love with his uncle’s daughter, but she refused his marriage proposal, which only caused to deepen his dependence on liquor. By the age of 20, he was a drunkard, albeit a respectable one.

On May 20, 1861, Trimble enlisted as a private in the 20th Tennessee Infantry. “[W]hen the storm that swept over this benighted country in 1861 had gathered to its full force, I was mad enough and coward to follow after such leaders as John Bell, Geo. D. Prentice, Ed. Ewing & Co. I voted for Bell and seconded his advocates,” he recalled. “They said, I suppose, under the influence of terror, the only way to save the Union is armed neutrality. Under fear in a storm I joined the Tennessee forces, with the express stipulation I should not go out of Tennessee, and never serve Jeff Davis or any of his crew.”

However, the regiment was transferred to the Confederate service in August. Trimble sought and procured a discharge for disability the following month. The real reason for seeking the discharge wasn’t disability, but supposedly “Unionism.”

Cell No. 3 at Indiana State Prison South, Circa 1890. (Souvenir of Indiana State Prison South, Jeffersonville, Ind.)
Cell No. 3 at Indiana State Prison South, circa 1890. (Souvenir of Indiana State Prison South, Jeffersonville, Ind.)

In November 1863, Trimble raised the 14th U.S. Colored Infantry in Gallatin, Tennessee, with what money he had and could borrow, and was appointed colonel of the regiment. When he arrived in Nashville in January 1864, the mustering officer, Captain Mussey, objected to mustering him in because of his past rebel service and information that he had made secession speeches. Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas supported Mussey’s decision, adding, “I object entirely to the muster of this person. I have seen Mr. Trimble and am satisfied that he should not be placed at the head of a regiment.”

Trimble objected and went over both of their heads, writing a letter to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton providing an explanation for his service in the Confederate Army and dismissing the rumors about him giving secession speeches. He also included endorsements from several prominent pro-Union Tennesseans who vouched for his character, among them Andrew Johnson, Tennessee’s military governor, and Adrian Van Sinderen Lindsley, Nashville’s postmaster. However, the colonelcy of the 14th went to Thomas Jefferson Morgan, later brevetted a brigadier general, who makes no mention of Trimble in his memoirs.

“I doubt not the propriety of the military order declining to commission me Colonel, and revoking my appointment as such,” Trimble wrote. “I have no complaints to make. If I have done the Government, established and defended by Washington, Jefferson, Webster, Clay, Jackson, and all the tribe of our patriotic forefathers, any service, I rejoice at it. If in future I can stir up negroes to run away from their rebel masters, or to go out to fight rebels in arms, I shall take great pleasure in doing so. Further, on the broad principle of right against wrong, I am in favor of universal emancipation.”

Ostracized by his family and friends for his Union sentiments and views on emancipation, and blacklisted by the U.S. Army, Trimble embarked on a life as a wandering lecturer, which continued until his death. He painted himself as a persecuted Unionist in support of President Abraham Lincoln and Vice President Andrew Johnson, denouncing Democrats as secession sympathizers. Copperheads disrupted one of his speech’s in Cincinnati, Ohio, by hurling stones and rotten eggs at him from dark alleys and behind homes. One stone stuck a woman in the chest, inflicting serious injury, and another hit a man in the head, stunning him. Trimble somehow escaped the barrage of projectiles.

Modern view of the Indiana State Prison South. (Author's photo)
Modern view of Indiana State Prison South. (Author’s photo)

Trimble continued to drift from state to state after the war, speaking about how alcohol poisoned his mind. Every attempt to break his addiction resulted in failure, dragging him deeper into despair. He resorted to stealing to quench his insatiable thirst, and spent time in different prisons. In 1880, Trimble was arrested for larceny and sentenced to two years hard labor at the Indiana State Prison South in Jeffersonville, Indiana. In March 1882, he died and was buried in the prison’s cemetery since no one came forward to claim his body.

The town of Clarksville, Indiana, currently is in a legal battle with the property owner of the former Indiana State Prison South site to gain ownership of the historical location. Shrouded Veterans and local historians and archivists are compiling a list of prisoner deaths dating back to the mid-19th century and hoping to uncover the location of the original cemetery, which is now lost, in order to memorialize those unclaimed patients, such as Trimble, buried in unmarked graves.

Shrouded Veterans is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to rescuing the neglected graves of 19th-century veterans, primarily Mexican War (1846-48) and Civil War (1861-65) soldiers, by identifying, marking, and restoring them. You can view more completed grave projects at facebook/shroudedvetgraves.com.



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