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Freedmen Warriors, Civil Rights Fighters

By Charles Joyce 

On the morning of Aug. 9, 1864, a transport with grim cargo arrived at a military hospital in Alexandria, Va., bearing 350 soldiers wounded in the recent Battle of the Crater. Most of the wounded were U.S. Colored Troops (USCT).

An impressionable 21-year-old pacifist, Frank Snow, was there to assist in treating the broken men. Snow wrote in his journal that day that he “witnessed some of the most soul harrowing scenes which a terrible war can possibly furnish.” The black soldiers, who had their baptism of fire in this sanguinary encounter, were “almost exhausted by the intensity of their suffering,” and soon, hospital hallways echoed “with cries and groans of anguish.

Albumen photograph by an anonymous photographer. Author’s collection.
Albumen photograph by an anonymous photographer. Author’s collection.

Snow, a United States Christian Commission volunteer, ministered to the physical sufferings and spiritual wants of the wounded in the wards of Alexandria’s L’Overture General Hospital.

Named after 18th century Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Overture, the hospital specifically cared for the sick and wounded colored troops. As a “delegate” to the Christian Commission, Snow was duty-bound to follow the instructions of the hospital’s chaplain, Rev. Chauncey Leonard. The venerable clergyman, one of just a dozen or so black ministers commissioned by the U.S. military, had been assigned to this post only in late July.

The two men apparently worked well together. When Snow’s service at L’Overture ended in early September, the convalescents flocked around him, and he “found it hard to get away.” He left $20 with Leonard “to lay out for the boys.”

At some point after his duty, Snow acquired this unique albumen photograph of 11 African-American soldiers that featured a diminutive corporal, a tall, gaunt fifer, a young drummer boy and eight privates, standing with Chaplain Leonard. Snow carefully penciled the names of each man onto the photograph’s cardboard mount.

Who they were, or how they came to be at L’Overture, and the circumstances that brought them together for this portrait, entails a larger story of the hospital’s origins, and one of the earliest civil rights protests in American history.

Group at L’Overture Hospital, Alexandria, Va., about December 1864-April 1865, from left to right: Tobias Trout, 31st USCT, Wounded, Crater; William DeGraff, 22nd USCT, Sick; John H. Johnson, 27th USCT, Sick, diarrhea and rheumatism; Jerry Lisle, 28th USCT, Wounded, Crater; Leander Brown, 30th USCT, Wounded, Crater; Samuel Bond, 19th USCT, Sick; Robert Deyo, 26th USCT, Sick, pleurisy; Adolphus Harp, 19th USCT, Wounded, Crater; Stephen Vance, 30th USCT, Wounded, Crater; George H. Smith, 31st USCT, Wounded, Crater; Adam Bentley, 19th USCT, Wounded, Crater; Chauncey Leonard, Chaplain, USCT, Assigned to hospital. Author's collection.
Group at L’Overture Hospital, Alexandria, Va., about December 1864-April 1865, from left to right: Tobias Trout, 31st USCT, Wounded, Crater; William DeGraff, 22nd USCT, Sick; John H. Johnson, 27th USCT, Sick, diarrhea and rheumatism; Jerry Lisle, 28th USCT, Wounded, Crater; Leander Brown, 30th USCT, Wounded, Crater; Samuel Bond, 19th USCT, Sick; Robert Deyo, 26th USCT, Sick, pleurisy; Adolphus Harp, 19th USCT, Wounded, Crater; Stephen Vance, 30th USCT, Wounded, Crater; George H. Smith, 31st USCT, Wounded, Crater; Adam Bentley, 19th USCT, Wounded, Crater; Chauncey Leonard, Chaplain, USCT, Assigned to hospital. Author’s collection.

In Emancipation’s Wake, a Hospital Is Constructed

The occupation by Union troops of Alexandria, Va., in May 1861, transformed the city into one of the earliest safe havens for escaped slaves, or in the military vernacular of the time, “contrabands.” A makeshift “Contraband Hospital” was established for them about January 1863, but it proved inadequate to address the health care needs of thousands of displaced black women, children and elderly men. By May, one white aid worker deemed it a “loathsome place” where “poor women [were] dying from neglect.”

Meanwhile, the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation had paved the way for African Americans to enlist in the Union army. The ensuing influx of 180,000 men of color—an astonishing 85 percent of the eligible men in the Northern states—greatly increased the need for proper medical care for the colored population. As a result, construction began on a new hospital complex in Alexandria solely to treat black troops. Three months later, in February 1864, the first patients arrived at L’Overture.

The Spiritual Leader of the L’Overture Flock


Rev. Leonard, a prominent pastor of the First Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., was recognized across the North as a proponent of colonization abroad for his oppressed race. Born a free man in Connecticut and educated at Wesleyan College and the Academic and Theological Institute in New Hampton, N.H., the 31-year-old minister was at the height of his notoriety. In early 1862, he visited several places along the African coast, including the Liberian Republic, to scout out locations for settlements, despite the reluctance of many African Americans to emigrate.

Still, the colonization movement had many advocates, including President Abraham Lincoln. On Jan. 30, 1863, in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln and Leonard met to discuss their common interest. The interview ended with an assignment for Leonard. He was dispatched under the auspices of the American Colonization Society to return to Liberia, according to one historian, “with a view of making that Republic a permanent home for himself and a number of his friends.”

By April 12, 1863, Leonard was in Sierra Leone, and wrote, “The Lord has a work for me here.” Momentum for the colonization movement soon waned, however, as the full impact of the Emancipation Proclamation reverberated across the land. Military success at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863 signaled the beginning of the end for Confederate arms, and further weakened any desire by African Americans to emigrate. Leonard returned to the U.S. aboard the Mary Caroline Stevens in December 1863 without achieving his goal.

In 1864, Lincoln tapped Leonard for another mission. On July 27, he was commissioned a U.S. military chaplain, and assigned to L’Overture Hospital. Leonard’s time was soon occupied by, as he wrote in an official report, “The visiting of the sick and wounded soldiers, the burial of the dead, the distribution of religious reading, devotional exercises, and the moral and intellectual training of the convalescents.”

DeGraff and Deyo
DeGraff and Deyo.

Among the patients present when Leonard arrived were two men pictured in this photograph. William DeGraff, a free man and laborer who lived in the African-American community of Snow Hill, near Camden, N.J., served as a corporal in Company E of the 22nd U.S. Colored Infantry. In May 1864, he had fallen ill during operations with the regiment along the James River in southeast Virginia, and was hospitalized at City Point, Va. When his condition did not improve, medical authorities ordered him to L’Overture in early July for treatment of chronic rheumatism in his knee and right arm. Pvt. Robert Deyo was hospitalized at Davids’ Island in New York Harbor with an undisclosed ailment in March 1864. At the time, he was in training with other volunteers in his regiment, the 26th U.S. Colored Infantry. In late June, Deyo allegedly deserted after he received a two-day pass. He turned up at L’Overture on July 21, 1864, to be treated for pleurisy.

An Influx of Casualties from the Crater Disaster

While Leonard adapted to his duties, military events about 125 miles south along the siege lines in front of Petersburg would severely test his fortitude, and the resources of L’Overture.

On July 30, 1864, a bold Union plan to crack the Confederate defenses at Petersburg by setting off a massive explosive charge 500 feet underneath enemy fortifications went horribly awry. Two fresh and highly motivated brigades of colored troops—the only such forces in the Army of the Potomac—had trained for weeks to attack through the breach created by the detonation, and seize the key ridge of Cemetery Hill, which overlooked Petersburg. The idea was militarily sound, and held great symbolic value. As historian Kevin M. Levin noted in Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, “If all went as planned, black soldiers stood a chance of being the first Union soldiers to enter the city of Petersburg.”

All did not go as planned. Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, questioned the reliability of the black soldiers. He pulled them from the vanguard of the assault at the 11th hour, replacing them with war weary white troops. These men poured into the huge chasm created by the blast. But then they stopped. The delay afforded the rebels precious time to regroup and organize a counterattack. By the time the black brigades finally went into action, approximately three hours after the detonation, the Confederates were waiting for them.

Brown and Vance.
Brown and Vance.

Enemy cannon and musket fire swept across the open plain as the 1st Brigade, under Col. Joshua Sigfried, attacked. His men moved to the right of the Crater, toward Cemetery Hill. In the vanguard of Sigfried’s brigade charged the 30th U.S. Colored Infantry. Two privates in the regiment appear in the L’Overture portrait: Leander Brown, a free black waiter from Charles County, Md., described in his service records as griffe (a Latin American term used to classify individuals who were three-quarter black and one-quarter white ancestry); and Stephen Vance, also a free man, who had worked as a laborer in New Castle County, Del., prior to his enlistment.

Brown, Vance and their comrades waded into a storm of shot and shell. Their battle-hardened veteran commander, Col. Delevan Bates, recalled, “The brains of the Color Sergeant were spattered over the flag, but a stalwart Corporal seized the staff before the silken emblem touched the ground. The line officers all shouted ‘Forward, boys, forward!’ It was our only safety to reach the rebel lines as soon as possible. Next came a volley of musketry followed by the ‘zip,’ ‘zip,’ ‘zip,’ of the firing at will, and on every side were men falling, falling, falling like leaves in the forest in the gales of Autumn.”

The 30th and the rest of Sigfried’s brigade seized some 200 yards of Confederate trenches and rifle pits beyond the Crater in vicious hand-to-hand fighting. Indeed, it seemed to Bates that it was “just pure enjoyment to kill an opponent.”The 30th held together halfway to the objective point, as it suffered close to 50 percent casualties, including Bates, shot five times. Brown and Vance also made this grim list before the fighting ended. Brown suffered a gunshot in his left leg. A bullet struck Vance in his left thigh and a spent shell struck his back.

Smith and Trout.
Smith and Trout.

The 2nd Brigade, commanded by Col. Henry G. Thomas, next charged into the narrow blast field between the Crater, now crowded with white troops and Siegfried’s men. The compact space forced the brigade to advance in column by regiment, with the 31st U.S. Colored Infantry at the lead. The rank and file, mostly escaped slaves, had made their way to Connecticut prior to enlistment. Two of its men, both privates in Company C, appear in the L’Overture portrait.

George Smith had been born into slavery in Virginia, part of the estate of Henry Stark. He had wed another of Stark’s slaves, Christina, also called “Hennie,” in a marriage that was not legally recognized. Tobias “Toby” Trout had made his way to Connecticut from North Carolina by way of Ohio. Proficient with the musket, his L’Overture portrait also indicates his skill with a fife.

Behind the 31st marched the 19th Colored Infantry and six companies of the 28th U.S. Colored Infantry.

The 19th had been recruited largely from slaveholding Maryland. One of its former slaves, Adolphus Harp, appears in the L’Overture portrait. A private in Company F, he was once the property of Dennis and Johanna Clemson of Frederick County. Thanks to a General Order by the War Department directed at Maryland and other loyal states unaffected by Lincoln’s Proclamation, slaves such as Harp could win their freedom by volunteering for military service. Former slave masters were entitled to receive up to $300 as compensation for lost slaves, provided they could prove prior ownership and their loyalty to the federal government. Harp was likely anxious to bid adieu to his bondage. When he was 13, he had been “stripped and whipped with a rawhide whip,” which left a scar on his groin still visible to pension examiners long after the war. Another soldier from the 19th in the L’Overture portrait, Adam Bentley, was a free man, and labored as a farmer in Rock Hall before he became a private in Company B.

Harp and Bentley.
Harp and Bentley.

The 28th hailed from Indiana, a state that practiced a more restrictive policy toward blacks. Before the war, persons of color from other states and territories were barred from immigrating or laboring within the state. Even legal black residents could not testify in court or attend school. These limitations notwithstanding, a flood of refugees from Kentucky spilled into the Hoosier State after the war began, including Jerry Lisle, or Lyles, who had crossed into Indiana with his mother from Louisville. In February 1864, he enlisted as a private in Company F. His pre-Crater military career was tarnished by a court-martial for breaking his rifle over the head of a comrade during a drill in May. It remains unclear whether he was convicted, but his service record does reveal a charge against him for $20 for the busted musket. He likewise appears in the L’Overture portrait.

Thomas’ brigade charged past the massive crater, and pressed forward until it had suffered more severely than Sigfried and his 1st Brigade. About this time, privates Smith and Trout from the 31st were hit. A bullet shattered Smith’s right hand, and Trout suffered an undisclosed wound. In the 19th, Harp sustained a gunshot to his right thigh, two inches above his knee. He fell near his captain, Fredrick Fletcher.

The 2nd Brigade fell back to a position about 75 yards beyond the Crater. It pushed forward again—twice—but the rebels stopped them both times. Thomas later recalled with evident pride that, after the repulse of the second assault, his men “defended the entrenchments we had won from the enemy” against a series of bloody Confederate counterattacks, “exhibiting fighting qualities that I never saw surpassed in the war.”


The battle now descended into hand-to-hand fighting in a maze of trenches and rifle pits. Pvt. Bentley of the 19th was likely wounded here, shot by a prostrate Southerner. The ball entered the inner portion of his leg and traveled upward. The rebels slowly pushed the Union line back to the Crater. Pvt. Lisle and his comrades in the 28th were the last of Thomas’ brigade to enter, and now they were hit hard. The regiment’s color bearer had his right arm nearly torn off by a shell. Lisle sustained an ugly gunshot to the left arm.

Suffering heavy casualties, and with no sign of reinforcements, the USCT regiments finally broke, and made their way back in disorder to the Union lines. The battle was over.

Aftermath of the Battle

Lamenting the loss, Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant described The Crater episode as “the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war.” The reaction of the Northern press divided along partisan lines. The anti-war New York Herald decried in boldface the “Cowardice of the Niggers.” On the opposite side, a correspondent for Harper’s Weekly rhetorically asked, “whether any soldiers would have fought more steadfastly and bravely and willingly than the colored troops in the Union army.” Few could argue with the assessment of Capt. W.L. Fagan of the 8th Alabama Infantry, an eyewitness to the fighting. “The black men,” he confessed, “fought with desperation.”

Early view of “The Crater, or Mine, near Petersburg.” Stereoview by Selden & Co. of Richmond, Va. Author’s collection.
Early view of “The Crater, or Mine, near Petersburg.” Stereoview by Selden & Co. of Richmond, Va. Author’s collection.

The Battle of the Crater marked the first time that Confederates and African-American federals engaged in sustained mortal combat. The pent up anger of ex-slaves and free men, and the corresponding outrage of white Southerners against black soldiers in blue, ensured that neither side would give much quarter. As the literal and figurative “masters of the field,” though, the rebels killed colored troops who tried to surrender with far greater abandon. According to an after action report by the Confederate general who led the counterattack, more than 400 white troops and their officers were taken prisoner, but a mere 29 black soldiers were captured alive. The brigades of Sigfried and Thomas accounted for only 21 percent of the entire Union attack force, yet made up 41 percent of the casualties—with a markedly disproportionate number of men killed.


Wounded black troops fortunate enough to reach the safety of the federal lines initially received treatment at a colored hospital service established at City Point. Then several hundred of them, including Bentley and Harp of the 19th, Lisle of the 28th, Brown and Vance of the 30th, and Smith and Trout of the 31st, were transferred to L’Overture.

In this group was 18-year-old drummer boy John H. Johnson, also pictured in the L’Overture portrait. Unlike the others, however, he was not a combat casualty, though his 27th U.S. Colored Infantry suffered as much as the other regiments. Rather, Johnson was plagued with chronic diarrhea and rheumatism. Described in his service record as a mulatto from Ohio, he likely did not participate in the fighting.


For Snow, now occupied with the task of aiding Rev. Leonard in seeing to the needs of the USCT convalescents, there was no question about their recent battle performance.  “No visitor at L’Overture Hospital would for a moment cherish the shadow of a doubt concerning the bravery of the Negro troops on Sat. July 30th,” he observed in his official journal. “The charge is utterly false that the battle was lost on account of their ‘cowardly behavior.’” He added that officers in high command were instead responsible for this military disaster.

By the time Snow left L’Overture, 10 of the 11 men in the portrait had become patients at the hospital. The last soldier to arrive, Pvt. Samuel Bond of Company C of the 19th U.S. Colored Infantry, had previously been a Maryland slave owned by Baltimore physician Benjamin Wilson. Bond received his freedom when he enlisted in December 1863, and Wilson collected his $300. Bond took sick before his regiment fought at the Crater. He bounced around various hospitals, eventually landing at L’Overture in early December 1864.

Even before the deluge of cases from the Crater, a federal Soldiers’ Cemetery established in Alexandria held 2,500 graves of troops who had perished in that city’s medical facilities. Interments at the cemetery occurred daily.

The L’Overture Protest

During the winter of 1864, the superintendent of the contrabands, Rev. Albert Gladwin, made a change that prompted a protest. He ordered that the remains of USCT soldiers be buried instead in the Freedman’s Cemetery, created in the previous year for black civilians. The move caused considerable consternation among the sick and wounded soldiers of L’Overture. On the day after Christmas, Quaker aid worker Julia Wilbur noted in her diary that the L’Overture patients were furious, and they refused to participate in the military escorts of bodies to the civilian graveyard.

The controversy reached a high point the next day. A group detailed to escort the body of Pvt. Shedrick Murphy of the 23rd USCT, a Baltimorean who had died of consumption, refused orders to divert to the Freedman’s Cemetery. Superintendent Gladwin had the escort arrested. Indignant, they returned to L’Overture and spread the news to the convalescents. Meanwhile, Pvt. Murphy was buried in Freedman’s Cemetery.

Within a day, the incensed patients circulated this petition throughout the L’Overture wards:

December 27, 1864

“We the undersigned Convalescents of L’Ouverture Hospital & its Branches and soldiers of the U.S. Army, learning that some dissatisfaction exists in relation to the burial of colored soldiers and feeling deeply interested in a matter of so great importance to us, who are a part and parcel with the white soldiers in this great struggle against rebellion, do hereby express our views, and ask for consideration of the same …

“We learn that the government has purchased ground to be used exclusively for Burial of soldiers of the United States Army, and that the government has also purchased ground to be used for the burial of contrabands, or freedmen, so called, that the former is under the control of Capt. Lee, A.Q.M. U.S.A The latter under the control of Rev. A. Gladwin, Superintendent of Contrabands. We are not contrabands, but soldiers of the U.S. Army; we have cheerfully left the comforts of home and entered into the field of conflict, fighting side by side with the white soldiers, to crush out this God insulting, Hell deserving rebellion.

“As American citizens, we have a right to fight for the protection of her flag, that right is granted, and we are now sharing equally the dangers and hardships in this mighty contest, and should share the same privileges and rights of burial in every way with our fellow soldiers who only differ from us in color….We ask that our bodies may find a resting place in the ground designated for the burial of the brave defenders of our Country’s flag.”

More than 440 patients affixed their names to the petition, including nine soldiers in the portrait: Bentley, Bond, Deyo, DeGraff, Johnson, Lisle, Smith, Trout and Vance. Only Brown and Harp do not appear to have signed. The document was dispatched to acting Quartermaster James Lee, who forwarded it to Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs. Lee added his recommendation, “The feeling on the part of the colored soldiers is unanimous to be placed in the military cemetery, and it seems but just and right that they should be.”

Meigs concurred. He ordered all the USCTs previously buried in Freedman’s Cemetery be reinterred in the Soldiers’ Cemetery. Subsequent black soldiers who perished at L’Overture were laid to rest in the same ground designated for their white counterparts—albeit in a segregated section of the graveyard. Despite this limitation, it is not hyperbole to deem the “L’Overture Protest,” as it came to be called, as one of the first successful civil rights protests in American military history.


Adam Bentley, Samuel Bond, William DeGraff and Jerry Lisle recovered from wounds or sickness, and later rejoined their units.  

Bentley mustered out with the rest of the 19th in June 1867 at Brownsville, Texas, and returned to Rock Hall on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He worked as a laborer, married in 1871, and fathered three sons, before separating from his wife. He lived until 1900.

Samuel Bond, Bentley’s comrade, also journeyed to Brownsville with the regiment, but died at the post hospital on Aug. 8, 1865, from the effects of acute dysentery. He had been a free man for just 19 months and seven days.

William DeGraff of the 22nd lost his corporal’s stripes while at L’Overture, and mustered out as a private in Brownsville in October 1865. He married in 1873 and settled in his pre-war home of Snow Hill, N.J. (today Lawnside, N.J.). His name last appeared on a document on Decoration Day 1921. His gravesite is not known.

Jerry Lisle of the 28th left L’Overture, only to be readmitted a short while later for secondary syphilis. He was discharged at the end of May 1865. This is the last time his name appears in any records.

The 26th’s Robert Deyo faced a court martial on a charge of desertion while at L’Overture. A military tribunal found him not guilty in March 1865. He was last recorded living in Essex County, Va., around 1900.

Leander Brown, Adolphus Harp, John H. Johnson, George Smith and Steven Vance mustered out of the army at the hospital, insufficiently recovered to rejoin their outfits.

Brown disappeared from the record after he left the army in May 1865.

Harp tried to earn a living after the war as a hod carrier, or part of a bricklaying team, in Baltimore. But his war wound interfered with that plan. He applied for and received a pension, which he collected until his death in 1903. His wife, Mary Harp, survived him.

Johnson received his discharge in June 1865 and returned to Ohio. His name disappeared from the record in 1880.

Smith’s hand never completely healed from the gunshot wound he received at the Crater. In the photograph, it appears deformed and puckered with the scar of the bullet’s entry. After his army discharge in June 1865, he returned to Baltimore and reunited with his wife, Hennie. Notwithstanding his ruined hand, he returned to the army in 1867 as a farrier in Company I of the 10th U.S. Cavalry at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., and spent the next five years as a Buffalo Soldier. At the conclusion of his service, he settled in Washington, D.C., and worked as a waiter at the Ebbitt Grill. He died in 1879, possibly from health issues related to his frontier army days.

The bullet that tore into Vance’s thigh was never removed. He received a discharge from L’Overture in late April 1865. But just a few months later, he was readmitted to another Alexandria hospital. He finally mustered out in early 1866. The last time his name appears on federal files is in the 1880s.

Rev. Leonard’s efforts at L’Overture Hospital included the establishment of a school for soldiers, which he operated until the fall of Richmond. He mustered out of the army in October 1865. He tended to the Baptist faithful in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Active in veteran’s affairs, he served for a time as chaplain of the Grand Army of the Republic for Rhode Island. He died in 1892 in Providence, R.I., at age 69.

The precise nature of Toby Trout’s wound at the Crater was not disclosed in his service records. Unlike drummer John Johnson, no mention exists of him being detailed as a musician for his regiment. Yet, he appears in the portrait holding a small fife. Whether from complications of his wound or another cause, his health failed early in 1865. He died on April 15th—the same day as President Lincoln—and was buried in the Soldiers’ Cemetery. The army cataloged his meager effects: a watch, a pair of shoes, five U.S. cents and “one fife.” Below Trout’s name on the portrait, Snow scrawled the word “dead.”

“We are not contrabands, but soldiers of the U.S. Army; we have cheerfully left the comforts of home and entered into the field of conflict, fighting side by side with the white soldiers, to crush out this God insulting, Hell deserving rebellion.”

Snow considered his six-week sojourn at L’Overture Hospital deeply meaningful. By the time of the L’Overture Protest, he had relocated to Massachusetts. But he returned to Virginia in the spring of 1865, and followed the Army of the Potomac in the final, victorious campaign against Robert E. Lee’s army. After the war, he migrated west, where he helped found the University of Kansas in 1866, became one of its first faculty members, and went on to serve as university chancellor from 1890 to 1901. He died in 1908.

Snow’s daughter, Martha Brown, eventually came into possession of a number of his papers and this unique photograph. The documents were stored together in a metal strongbox at her home in Lawrence, Kan. In the 1950s, when Brown moved to California, she left the box and other items behind, and instructed her mover to “throw everything away.” Instead, he stashed the box in his attic and forgot about it, until his children discovered it in 2011 and put its contents up for auction on eBay. The author of this piece subsequently acquired the photo through the auction.

Photographic Legacy

An analysis of military service, pension and other primary source documents points to L’Overture Hospital as the one location that connects all the men. Further research of the records indicates that the photograph was made between early December 1864, when the last of the men, Samuel Bond, was admitted, and April 1865, when the first man, William DeGraff, was discharged to rejoin his regiment.

No other portraits of these men are known to exist. This includes, perhaps surprisingly, Rev. Leonard, a national figure who knew and met with Lincoln.

Why was this image taken? Evidence suggests that the men could have been a burial escort. The regulations of the U.S. Army of 1861 provided that the funeral escort for a private consist “of eight rank and file, commanded by a Corporal. The escort will be formed in two ranks,” continued the regulations, “with shouldered arms and bayonets unfixed,” and “the column … marched in slow time to solemn music” until it reached the grave.

In the image, Trout with his fife and Johnson with his drum would have provided the solemn music. The other eight infantrymen would have formed in two ranks with bayonets unfixed, commanded by Cpl. DeGraff. By chance or by design, the two most recently liberated slaves, Bond and Harp, stand front row center.

At least one of the men was known to have been involved with soldier burials. A document in the pension file of Robert Deyo states that while at L’Overture, “his health was not sufficient for him to go back to his Regt,” and he was “detailed to bury the dead and was kept in that employment until the end of the war.”

The fact that all but two soldiers in the photograph signed the L’Overture Protest perhaps provides the strongest evidence that the image relates to the misdirected burial of Shedrick Murphy, which prompted the petition. Possibly, these men composed the escort initially prevented from carrying Murphy to his proper place of repose. Or perhaps they were involved in his reinterment in the Soldiers’ Cemetery after the petition was granted. We will likely never know for sure.

Plainly, something extraordinary occurred for this image to have been created, and for a copy of the photograph to end up in Snow’s hands, and scrupulously annotated by him— so that it remains an indelible testament to these men and their service, to their country and for their race.

References: Francis H. Snow U.S. Christian Commission Journal, Records of the Office of the Chancellor, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas; William R. Forstchen, The 28th United States Colored Troops: Indiana’s African Americans Go to War, 1863-1865; Julia A. Wilbur Diary, May 7, 1863, Magill Library Special Collections Division, Haverford College; George W. Williams, History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880; American Colonization Society, The African Repository and Colonial Journal; Rev. Chauncey Leonard to Adj. Gen. Lorenzo Thomas, Jan. 31, 1865; Kevin Levin, Remembering the Battle of the Crater; Richard Slotkin, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864; Adam Bentley, Samuel Bond, Leander Brown, Robert Deyo, Adolphus Harp, John H. Johnson, Jerry Lisle, George Smith, Tobias Trout and Stephen Vance pension records, National Archives; James H. Rickard, Service with Colored Troops in Burnside’s Corps; “The Colored Troops at Petersburg,” Century Magazine, September 1889; Historical Data Systems Civil War Database,; Earl J. Hess, “Andrew Russell and the Stone Wall at Fredericksburg,” in Lens of War: Exploring Iconic Photographs of the Civil War, edited by J. Matthew Gallman and Gary Gallagher; Emmanuel Dabney, “A Federal Opportunity Lost: the Battle of the Crater,” Blue and Gray Magazine, Vol. XXX, Issue 5 (2014); Harper’s Weekly, Aug. 20, 1864; Joseph T. Wilson, The Black Phalanx, A History of Negro Soldiers of the United States in the Wars of 1775-1812, 1861-65; Francis Snow Journal, Spencer Library, University of Kansas; Margaret Richardson, “Alexandria Freedmen’s Cemetery Historical Overview,” City of Alexandria, April 2007; Email from Craig Coleman to the author, April 9, 2011; Boston Journal, Jan. 5, 1892.

Charles Joyce, of Drexel Hill, Pa., has been a lifelong student of the Civil War and started collecting images about 25 years ago. He currently focuses on photographs of soldiers killed, wounded, or captured at the Battle of Gettysburg, and on original stereoviews taken of the battlefield.

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