Slave to Soldier…and Back to Slave

From Mink:

Previous posts highlighted a couple of the Fredericksburg area’s soldiers who served in the 23rd United States Colored States Troops (USCT). Their military and pension files provide us with information about these former slaves that we may never have discovered otherwise. In their own words, and those of others who knew them, we learn a little about their lives as slaves, their route to freedom, and their fight to maintain freedom.

Andrew Weaver, a slave of J. Horace Lacy in Stafford County, escaped in the summer of 1862, enlisted in the 23rd USCT in 1864 and served through the war. Abraham Tuckson, a slave of Dr. John Taylor in Spotsylvania County, also escaped slavery in the summer of 1862, enlisted in the same regiment, but fell killed at the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864. A third former local slave, Peter Churchwell, suffered a different fate at that same battle. A slave of Reuben Lindsay Gordon of Orange County, Peter escaped to freedom, enlisted in the 23rd USCT, but was captured at the Crater. In his pension file, he relates how his former owner found him in Confederate hands, claimed him and sold him back into slavery.

“I am about 74 years of age; my post-office address is 1808, 24 St. N.W. this city. Shoemaker. I was born + raised in Albermarle Co. Va. near Gordonsville. My father was William + my mother was Dicey Churchwell – dead. I was a slave of Reuben Gordon. I was married when a slave to Maria Grey, she died before the war. No children living by this marriage. I also married Julia Weaver, a year or so after the war, in this city, got a license, + I was married by Rev. Sandy Alexander Pastor Little Baptist Church Geotown D.C. She died about ten years ago in this city. No children by her. I have never married since – I have no children now living by any wife. I got acquainted with Julia Weaver at Fredericksburg Va. before the war. She was at that time the wife of Tom Weaver, + she had a son Andrew Weaver whom I knew when a boy, and he enlisted in same company + regiment and at the same time and place. During the war, Julia Weavers husband died, and she came to Wash D.C. and after my return from the army, I again met and married her. I came to Washington D.C. in August 1862 and I was a coachman for Mrs. Barber, in Geotown D.C. + I worked for her about 2 years. She was the widow of Jno. Barber – dead. I then enlisted in July 1864, at Capt. Sheets Office in Co. H 23d Reg. USCT. I gave the officer at that time the name Peter Churchwell which is my right name and I always answered roll call by that name + was so called by my comrades and I was discharged from the service by that name. They then saw how high I was – I am now 5 ft. 3 in. high (OK AWR) I was next examined by the Doctors. I got a uniform + was sent to Camp Casey Va. + was there about 30 days. My Capt. Fessenden, Burrell Mitchell Robert Green and Andrew Weaver are the only comrades that I can now remember. After we left Camp Casey Va we took boat for City Point Va, then up James River + marched towards Petersburg Va. + was at Bermuda Hundred when we had a fight + we next  had the fight at Petersburg Va. July 64 and in the charge on the Rebel lines I was captured + put towards burying the dead soldiers on the battle field for 4 days, the prisoners, my self included were then

"Battle of the Crater" by Fredericksburg native John A. Elder.

taken under guard to Danville prison on Roanoke Island, and I was kept there until Major Reuben Gordon, my old Master, heard I was in prison, and he came there and claimed me as his slave + sold me to a Mr. Shedrick Lee, a slave dealer at Richmond, Va., and he sold me to Luke Powell a slave dealer who took me to Wilmington N.C. + I was there 8 days working in a shoe shop of Geo. French’s store, + then sold to Patrick Murphy who took me on his farm near Raleigh N.C., and worked at making boot + shoes for him, + he sold them. I worked for him for 6 months on his place. I ran away from him + came to Wilmington N.C. and I had a little shop of my own + I made boots and shoes there for my own profit. I sold the boots + shoes + kept the money. The Union troops had by this time captured Wilmington N.C. and I remained in Wilmington N.C. I continued to keep this little shoe shop, cor. 7th and Chestnut Streets in Wilmington N.C. Simon Lanton and Henry Dudley both worked with me in the show shop for two or three years. I taught them both the trade. Susannach Dean lived with me but I was not married to her, we lived together in the same house where the shoe shop was + we lived together for two or three years, had three children by her, Nancy Ann – Hetty Ann, they were the only children born by this Susannah Dean. Yes she called herself Susannah Churchwell and the two girls always went by the name of Churchwell. This woman and my two daughters were alive when I left Wilmington N.C., while she was living with me we had a fight and she cut me on third finger of my right hand – with a knife + I have the scar now (shown Examnr.) + my finger is bent + cannot straighten it out, its all drawn up. I had her arrested by the police, she was taken to Court + she was fined $5.00 + they made me as her husband – pay the fine. She was living in Wilmington N.C. 3 or 4 years ago. Henry Hare storekeeper Wash Lewis, shoe shop on C St. near River, Ephraim Bishop bricklayer + Ned Hill bricklayer. David Statu, drove cart + was well off – these men all new me well when I lived in Wilmington N.C. I remained in Wilmington N.C. for 4 or 5 years after the war. I then went to Gordonsville Va. + was there two months with my sister, Keziah Robinson dead – and then came to Washington D.C. I then went to live with my father + mother + sister, all dead – on R St. btwn 18 + 19, + I opened a shoe shop in Georgetown on Water St btwn High + Congress, down on Water, south side, ——- this shop in my own name – from Sam Smith dead. George Naylor came to work with me, he worked with me about 2 or 3 months, + then went to work for himself. Where my shoe shop was a Cooper shop now stands. After I came to Wash DC after the war, I hunted up Julia Weaver, whom I afterwards married. I found her in this City after I had been here about one year + a half, and about 6 or 7 months after I found here, we were married, and I first met Andrew Weaver about 1 ½ years after I had returned to this City after the war. I got a license from the City Hall for my marriage to Julia Weaver and I lived with her until her death + after that I continued to love with her son Andrew Weaver.

Julia Weaver my wife was married first to Tom Weaver before the war, he died. She next married Henry Parker when both were slaves. Henry Parker died, then when I Married her after the war, she went by the name of Julia Weaver + by that name we were married, as our certificate shows. In 1892 I applied through Walter Middleton Atty for my back pay and after some delay I was paid by the Treasury Dept or War Dept $134.53 by check, which I got cashed + got the money, and I was given this certificate of discharge (shown to Examiner) Burrell Mitchell + Robert Green were both in my company, and they both identified me at the War Dept and made affidavits in my claim for pension as to my identity.

I first made a claim for a pension through Walter Middleton Atty about ten years ago, and I have paid him nothing for his services in the prosecution of my claim, + I paid my witnesses nothing.

I did not serve in the military or in the Naval service of the United States except as stated. I have my pension certificate + my blank voucher at home. Have never borrowed money on my pension certificate + I have never signed nor sworn to my quarterly voucher before the 4th day of the month that it is due.

I was taken prisoner at the battle of Petersburg Va, July 1864, + was a prisoner of war – after I had been sold to Patrick Murphy + went with him to his farm I ran away from him and came to Wilmington N.C. Genl Lee had not surrendered – the war was still going on, and when I got to Wilmington N.C. the City was full of Union troops, and the river was full of Union gun boats. The rebel troops were then at Raleigh N.C. and the Union troops remained at Wilmington N.C. from the time that I got there until the close of the war.

The 26 Reg. U.S. Col. Troops were encamped on Nigger head road – about the boundary of the City of Wilmington N.C. while I was in that place they were there when I got to the city + they remained there until the close of the war. When I got to Wilmington N.C. I did not report to the Union forces, that I had been a soldier + a prisoner of war. When I made up my mind to apply for a pension, I went with a colored man that I was talking to about it, don’t know his name – to Walter Middleton’s Office + I told him my name and my company and my Regiment + I told him I had been a prisoner – and he took my claim + got it through.

I have heard you read to me the foregoing deposition and it is correct. I have thoroughly understood your questions and my answers are correctly recorded.

Peter “X” Churchwell

Peter’s deposition was taken in 1900 and some of the facts are fuzzy. His owner, Reuben Lindsay Gordon, was a prominent landowner in the eastern section of Orange County. Although Peter refers to him as a major, there is no indication that Gordon ever held any military rank. Danville Prison was not located on Roanoke Island, North Carolina, but was in the town of Danville, Virginia. Peter’s last name appears in a variety of spellings: Churchwell, Churchville, Churchill, etc. Peter claimed that Churchwell was the correct spelling of his last name.

Through the various documents in Peter’s file, which can be downloaded here, much personal information can be gleaned. He married Maria Beal on the Gordon plantation around Christmas 1857. Two years later, Maria died giving birth to their only child, Harriet. After escaping to Washington, D.C. in 1862, Peter found work as a coachman. He enlisted in the 23rd USCT on July 13, 1864 and two weeks later was captured in battle at the Crater. His former owner reclaimed him, sold him back into slavery, from which he escaped a second time. He never notified the army that he was alive, and as such his daughter drew a dependent’s pension on his name, believing him dead.  In North Carolina, Peter started a new life, opening a shoe store and fathering three children with a woman whom he lived with, although the two never married. After a few years, Peter moved to Washington, D.C., where he reunited with his mother and daughter, but never informed the pension bureau of his return, thus allowing his daughter to continue to receive benefits. The ruse was eventually discovered and the pension cancelled in 1874. He remarried, to Julia Weaver, the mother of his comrade Andrew Weaver and lived out the remainder of his life in Washington. He died  January 14, 1904 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

A full reading of the depositions in Peter’s file provides a fascinating, and unfortunate, story of his road to freedom. Here was a man who escaped slavery and found freedom in the nation’s capital, enlisted to fight for his freedom and the freedom of others only to be captured and sold back into slavery, before escaping a second  time.

The John J. Wright Educational and Cultural Museum in Spotsylvania County recently opened an exhibit highlighting Spotsylvania’s contributions to the USCTs. The displays are very informative and worth a visit to read.

Eric J. Mink


10 thoughts on “Slave to Soldier…and Back to Slave

  1. Eric,
    A fascinating and extensive look into this man’s life. Thank you for all the work you have put in to researching and typing out the material. This certainly enriches our understanding of the 23rd’s history and that of the men who came to validate their freedom and position in society, via the battlefield.

  2. I can only concur with my friend John. Thank you for this wonderful detail! Certainly adds to our understanding of what happened to some people after the Battle of the Crater.

  3. Eric,
    Thanks again for the historical articles on the soldiers in the 23rd USCT. These articles give me valuable information about the lives of the soldiers who served in the 23rd.

  4. Great article and research. We need to tell more of these stories at this time in our history. Check out ‘Generations Beyond the Glory” on Youtube…. This program will make it possible to place a idenity on as many as 100 U.S.C.T. men who are buried in unknown graves in the Marietta National Cemetery. We can not let these men down again. Brad
    [Note from John H: While we normally don’t post items intended to promote projects, books, or films, I checked out the video, and it seems like a worthy effort.]

  5. A run of on, I found a 59 year old lawyer, Patrick Murphy living in Sampson County, N.C. in 1860. Murphy owned 114 enslaved people in 1860. He was the only person I found in my search explicitly written out as Patrick Murphy who was a slaveholder in North Carolina in 1860. Sampson is east of Fayetteville and southeast of Raleigh.

    I don’t proclaim to know if Peter remembered Murphy’s property incorrectly or if Murphy had property closer to Raleigh.

  6. Hi My name is
    Gene Sansbury and I am a volunteer at Richland County Public Library in Columbia, SC. I have recently been researching “colored union troops” from Columbia and I am almost sure the Burrell Mitchell in this account is the same one I have been working on. He was born in Columbia in 1844 to Isham and Julia Mitchell and had a younger brother Isham b. 1849. He enlisted out of Washington, DC in July 1864 and rose quickly to sgt. He married Anna Rebecca (Taylor) in 1868 and they had three children; Gilbert in 1869, Charles in 1870 and Mary in 1880. Burrell, Rebecca, Charles and Mary appear on the 1900 census living in DC. Gilbert had married Mary (?) in 1890, lived in DC and had a family of his own: Irene–July ’91, Rebecca–Jan’94, Gilbert S.–July ’96, Burrell–Mar ’98. All appear in the 1910 census except Irene who wuld have been 18. Gilbert dies before the 1920 census and Mary appears as a widow with Rebecca still at home as is Burrell (spelled Burrew in the census) along with Jacob Smith a roomer, age 30, and a grandaughter Maria Wilkenson. Gilbert S appears in the 1930 census with wife Rosie age 32 and son Gilbert Jr. b. 1914 and daughter Doris b. 1925. It is entirely Doris could still be alive. Isham, Burrell, Gilbert and Gilbert Jr. were all carpenters. This is where my reserch stands now. Would be appreciative of any help anyone has to offer. Gene

    • Gene: This is one for Eric, and he is out of the office until Friday. I’ll make sure he gets back with you as soon as he returns. Thanks for reading…. John H.

  7. Fabulous story Eric. Just now read it and had to chuckle as I read parts of it. Thanks for the post..Frank Trent/Locust Grove

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