Civil War service almost went unmentioned

Mother’s remark alerted Springfield’s Dale Henry to his great-grandfather’s story.

Abraham Lincoln’s assassination would add a thundering exclamation point.

But the siege of Petersburg, the subsequent pursuit of Robert E. Lee and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Va., constituted the dramatic closing events of the Civil War itself.

Dale Henry still marvels that he might never have known his great-grandfather was among the U.S. Colored Troops, as they were called, to be part of all three.

Surrounded by historic family portraits in a room of his house on South Center Boulevard, Henry said that even into adulthood, he had no idea Sam Bryant had even served during the Civil War.

Henry said he was on temporary layoff from a job at General Motors about 30 years ago when he dropped by his mother’s house and she “just happened to mention that her grandfather was buried in the first row of the Civil War veterans mound in Ferncliff Cemetery.”

Within the week, he’d visited the grave, copied down the information on the headstone and written to the National Archives asking for any records they had about Sam Bryant of the 117th United States Colored Infantry.

Within a month he’d filled out forms from the archives, returned them and received a packet of pension records that helped him piece together parts of Bryant’s life.

Born in slavery at Shady Nook near Cynthiana, Ky., Bryant enlisted in the 117th at Covington, Ky., on July 12, 1864, “just about this time of year,” Henry said.

Signing with an X, Bryant said he was 18 at the time and stood 5-foot-6½ inches tall.

He trained at Camp Nelson, Ky., south of Lexington, where Henry travels as often he can to the annual celebrations organized by the United States Colored Troops Living History Association.

More than 27,000 African Americans got their training at Camp Nelson, a huge Union facility and refugee center for African Americans both freed and fleeing slavery during the war.

In October of 1864, the 117th was ordered to Baltimore, Md., then to City Point, Va., where Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Army was encamped.

Viewers of the recent movie “Lincoln” may recall it as the place where members of the Confederate Peace Delegation held preliminary talks with the general. In the movie, the negotiators filed in as black troops looked on.

Bryant likely spent time in a hospital there, “because somewhere or other, they were building this corduroy bridge across Rattlesnake Swamp,” said Henry, when a piece of bridge hit in in the back.

The records said the injury at Deep Bottom, Va., sent Bryant first to a field hospital, then a regimental hospital and then a general hospital for several months before the siege at Petersburg. It was also the reason he received an $8 a month pension after the war.

Assigned to the 18th Corps, Army of the James, the 117th participated in the sieges of both Petersburg and Richmond.

In December of 1864, the unit was attached to the 1st Division of the 25th Corps, and all-African American unit that then went on to the Appomattox campaign, fought at Hatcher’s Run, was present at the fall of Petersburg, then was part of the pursuit that led to Lee’s April 9 surrender.

“That’s powerful,” Henry said. “He was there in the last major battle of the war, and he was present at the surrender. That’s deep.”

“It was about freedom” for the black troops, he said. “I imagine that was the bottom line for them. And how proud he must have been.”

On duty near Petersburg into June, the 117th then headed to Brozos Santiago, Texas, then to Brownsville before patrolling the Rio Grande in July. The soldiers stayed in Texas until they mustered out in August of 1867.

Bryant, whose honorable discharge date was Aug. 10, returned to Kentucky, where he married Sally Gaiter Dec. 29, 1870.

“They came to Springfield in the spring of 1900 after having 14 kids,” said Henry. “Only half of them survived.”

Among them was the youngest, Henry’s grandmother, Patty.

“They probably came here because this was a booming place in 1900, a place that had a lot of jobs,” Henry said.

That would have made them the part of another signal movement in African American history, the Great Migration.

Perhaps looking for a reminder of home, Bryant, a Harrison County native, settled with wife Sallie at 348 Harrison St. The Springfield City Directory lists his occupation as fireman (likely a boiler fireman, not a firefighter).

Another detail of his story caught Henry’s eye: One of those who signed an affidavit on Bryant’s part to get a pension increase in 1907 was Rachel Watson, who lived next door to the Gammon House. A station on the underground railroad, it also was the home of Charles Gammon, who enlisted with the 54th Massachusetts, one of the nation’s first black Civil War regiments.

Springfielder Art Thomas, a long-time researcher specializing in African American Genealogy, said Bryant’s burial, along with other blacks, in the Grand Army of the Republic or GAR plot in Ferncliff raises “an interesting point.”

“Even though the GAR organizations were segregated (Bryant was a member of Springfield’s John Brown Chapter), the GAR mound itself is an integrated burial plot.”

Henry’s worry is that too many of the descendants, black and white, of the soldiers buried there are unaware of their service.

“I think about how many other families have stories like this they don’t talk about. And I always try to encourage people if they know where their relative was from and they served in the Civil war, take a shot at it like I did and send off to the National Archives.”

NEXT WEEK: A woman whose history thesis was on the more than 130 black soldiers buried in Ferncliff’s GAR Mound shares her work.

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