Civil War Era Ancestors’ Service

For Memorial Day

So far, I’m aware of the Civil War service of two of my paternal ancestors — Dabney Green and Daniel W. Williams. The latter, my second great grandfather, is remembered in local church history as a member of the “battle scarred veteran” of North Mississippi. The service of his brother, my great great uncle, is documented in several places including in the Mississippi State Archives and in the 1910 Census. At age 90, either Uncle Dabney himself or his wife or son, reported his service. The 1910 Census aimed to capture the service of still surviving soldiers, and the question put to individuals and families had but two answers: UA (Union Army) or CA (Confederate Army). The answer given for or by Uncle Dabney was CA. As for his younger brother, dead a year in 1910, the answer, had Grandfather Daniel been alive, would have been UA.

While there remains a shroud of mystery surrounding African American Civil War Soldiers, there is even less understanding of the history of African Americans who served in some capacity under the auspices of the Confederate Army. Civil War researcher John Clegg has managed to crowdsource the transcription of black Union Army veterans in his African American Civil War Soldiers project. However, no comparable project exists for blacks in the Confederate Army, and also there is a great deal of controversy around black service for the Confederate Army. Some scholars would like not to refer to African American body servants or replacements as veterans at all while others see the issue as complicated by relationships between master and slave. Sam Smith, writing for the American Battlefields Trust, states:

Some black Southerners aided the Confederacy. Most of these were forced to accompany their masters or were forced to toil behind the lines. Black men were not legally allowed to serve as combat soldiers in the Confederate Army — they were cooks, teamsters, and manual laborers.

Spending most of my time over the last twenty years researching Union army veterans, in particular those organized at Memphis, Tenn., I have not thought long and hard as yet about Black Confederate service. Uncle Dabney’s case provides me an opportunity to do so.

Quite poignantly, Smith writes that every individual entered the “prism” of the Civil War from their own angle, which was refracted accordingly. Though I am not absolutely certain, my best guess is to how and why Uncle Dabney wound up in Confederate service is that he accompanied one of the members of the Herndon Hull family, large planters whose land holdings spread across the Mississippi Hill Country into the the Mississippi Delta, into the field. While his last owner of (known) record was Dabney Herndon Hull of DeSoto (later Tate) County, most sources indicate that Dabney Hull did not actually himself serve. This likely fact leaves unanswered whom Uncle Dabney might have accompanied. Dabney Hull, the same age as Uncle Dabney, was unmarried and is known to have had no children.

Dabney Hull is also known to have had many of his dealings in neighboring Marshall County, Miss., where he, as well as Uncle Dabney, had been raised albeit one as enslaved and the other soon to enslave. During and after the war, Hull’s two brothers William and John remained in Marshall County while Dabney Hull expanded eventually into DeSoto and Coahoma. John had his own plantation in Coahoma. Both Dabney and William too owned land in Tunica County apparently, Williams’s being “a large landed estate” according to John Waterhouse Herndon, one of several Herndon-Hull family historians. (The estate, located in the unincorporated town of Clayton, may have been the original Tunica County Plantation of Judge Alexander M. Clayton, William Hull’s father-in-law.)

To be sure the Herndon Hulls were land rich, and, traveling between their properties in several Mississippi counties and even into Alabama, there can be no doubt that they thought of themselves as and also behaved as landed gentry, very often absent from one plantation while at another and also preoccupied, in the case of William and his father-in-law, in their Holly Springs, Miss. law offices and beyond. This being the case, their plantations would almost have to have been run by their overseers or farm managers as the 1860 Census has it. Absenteeism also called for an efficient organization of Negro labor, highly skilled blacks accustomed to the business of growing cotton and other, food, staples.

In other words, the Herndon Hulls were hardly poor, subsistence, farmers. They were, rather, Virginia to Mississippi migrants who in the late 1830s brought with them to the deep South families of enslaved people. The Herndon Hull clan — which included Thomases and Minors as blood relatives — removed from Virginia, after the spoiling of the Chesapeake soil from tobacco farming, to Mississippi following the Chickasaw Cession.

Sponsor of her family’s migration, Elizabeth Herndon Hull, a widow, was heiress to her father Edward Herndon’s estate, as well as her to her husband Brodie S. Hull’s. She possessed on her own at least as many dower slaves inherited from various and sundry relatives going back several generations. Uncle Dabney and Grandfather Daniel, both in their youth at the point of the removal from Virginia, were among a community of more than seventy enslaved persons born in the Upper South.

In 1844 at the death of Elizabeth H. Hull, the enslaved brothers — along with others in the community — were separated from the group and sent to live with their respective “new” masters. It seems sensible that the most able-bodied bondsmen and women were divided fairly and equitably among Elizabeth Hull’s children, and, in this respect, Uncle Dabney, given to Dabney Hull, would seem primed to take on the role of slave driver, or some other such task. Whatever the case, Uncle Dabney would remain in DeSoto County his entire life, possibly leaving there only during the war years.

Family historian John W. Herndon claims Civil War service for both William and Dabney; however, while William is found to have enlisted in the 1st Mississippi (Co. A) as a corporal, I have found no service record for brother Dabney. And even with Williams enlistment, he spent at least the first two years of the war, likely much longer, growing corn and wheat to sell, it would seem, to the Confederate Army. He in fact sold hundreds of bushels of grain to the army while brother Dabney sold only a small fraction of that.

The Confederate States to William Hull. Confederate Papers Relating to Citizens or Business Firms, 1861–65. Courtesy Fold3.
The Confederate States to Dabney Hull. Confederate Papers Relating to Citizens or Business Firms, 1861–65. Courtesy Fold3.

Somehow, for William, if not in the exact same way for Dabney, life during the war may not have gone on as usual but, on a personal level, wartime agricultural production went unabated.

It was within this context then of well-to-do planters such as the Herndon Hulls, living in North Mississippi, as hot as any region in 1862 and 1863, that Uncle Dabney and Grandfather Daniel would contemplate their own moves. North Mississippi was a constant battleground, with forces exchanging control throughout most of the war. Despite William Hull’s Greenwood Plantation having been occupied in 1863 and possibly earlier, he continued growing corn there while his neighbor and brother-in-law William Crump, a locally-despised Unionist, applied to sell 1,000 bales of cotton to the U.S. Purchasing Agent at Memphis. That Crump managed first to produce and then to retain such a quantity of cotton in at least part-of-the-time Union-occupied county is perplexing, suggesting on the one hand continuity of available labor and, on the other hand, the likelihood that there were many other Unionists in Marshall County.

Application of William Crump, Sr. to sell 1,000 bales of cotton to the U.S. Purchasing Agent in 1864.

Much like with the Union army, many black soldiers were enlisted in garrison units. This was the case with Grandfather Daniel’s 63rd Regiment. Stationed at Fort Pickering in Memphis right along the Mississippi River, the duty of these troops was to guard the fort, “contraband” camps, and abandoned plantations, where thousands of blacks were being sent to work, or, in a few cases, to farm. Blacks also worked in the sawmill on President’s Island in the Mississippi River off Memphis, served as regimental cooks, and as teamsters delivering supplies for the Quartermaster’s Department. These various occupations taken together create a picture of African American mobility in North Mississippi and Southwest Tennessee during the war. Likewise, blacks in the service of the Confederacy, did so as “cooks, teamsters, and manual labor,” Smith writes.

One unassuming and unofficial teamster, Cato Govan, former slave of Mary Pugh Govan of Marshall County, hauled cotton to Memphis between 1863 and 1865 for whomever would pay his price. He states so in a Southern Claims Commission case in which he asked for $1,600 compensation for property commandeered by the Union Army while it was at Holly Springs. Govan’s ingenuity raises the question of how many other African Americans were navigating Mississippi and Tennessee roads to get cotton to Memphis. It seems highly unlikely that Crump would have hauled his own cotton.

As for William Hull, he makes delivery on corn to the CA sometimes at his farm and other times at Holly Springs, seven or so miles distant while his brother has his delivered to Senatobia, Miss., a similar distance. As Southern gentlemen par excellance, both men would have called upon plantation managers or enslaved men to perform this necessity. Perhaps then, it was into this very service that Uncle Dabney would find himself.

I am left to wonder how Uncle Dabney would have felt about performing such duties. Maybe this is not really a question to be asked. If Grandfather Daniel’s status was unclear when he in the fall of 1863 enlisted at Memphis in the Union Army, Uncle Dabney’s, ironically, was maybe more certain, for in fact Uncle Dabney would for the duration of the war continue in what was perhaps the same role he had come to know since 1844 if not earlier.

Maybe for our family and for others, there was strangely something to be gained from staying put. While I am inclined, as others surely must be, to view Uncle Dabney’s decision as unfortunate, I cannot know what all went into the making of it. What I do know is that after the war, Dabney Hull would assist blacks in buying land in Tunica County and, while it wouldn’t appear he had any role in our family’s land purchases in DeSoto, a strong case can be made that a number of factors came together to make landownership there possible fifteen years after the war’s closing. Uncle Dabney’s service was likely one of the factors.

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