Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Looking for John Polk

   In Volume 8 the North Carolina Troops books series, on page 148, we find this:
Polk, John -----
Negro. Served as "body guard to Colonel Samuel Lowe" of this regiment.

Who was John Polk? Was he a slave owned by Colonel Lowe? A freeman? Inquiring minds want to know more.

I've been writing today about free persons of color and slaves attached to the Branch-Lane brigade. Talk about an area in which there is a total lack of research. There are, I believe, a couple of reasons for this gap. First, people seem more interested in adopting positions than actually doing the research to confirm or refute their ideas. The positions run the gambit from "There were no blacks in the Confederate army," to "There were no blacks willingly serving in the Confederate army," to "There were tens of thousands of blacks willingly serving in the Confederate army." Second - it's not easy to find good sources, especially when the "National Narrative" is already against you. Why is this? I believe the reason why we don't find more mention of black men serving right alongside white men in the ranks is this: it was not an uncommon practice prior to the war. They worked in the fields together, in towns together, often attended church together, and, given that the majority of slave owners only owned one or two slaves, often lived in the same house together.

On a couple of occasions here on this blog, I've talked about the Cozzens/Cossens/Cousins brothers. They were free people of color who voluntarily served in Company B, 37th North Carolina Troops. In one letter from another member of the 37th NCT, I have a list of men messing together. The Cozzens are included in that list. This clearly was no big deal to the writer of the letter.  While this is scant evidence of the theory that I proposed above, it is a start.

So just how many free men of color, or slaves, served in or simply served Confederate regiments? That is impossible to say. But I did a little sample. There were 139 men who served in the officers corps of the 37th NCT. Officers were, historically, better educated and wealthier and could afford slaves. I took the officers of two companies from Watauga, B and E. Out of the twelve officers in Company B, nine were from Watauga. In Company E, seven out of eleven were from Watauga. According to the slave census, only one officer in Company B owned slaves - Jonathan Horton. He owned five, and could possibly have brought one from home. Likewise, in Company E, only one man, William F. Shull, owned slaves. He owned three, and could have brought one from home. If that tally is true for every company, then there might have been one slave brought from home for each company. Of course, that slave would be attached to his master, and possibly his master's mess mates.  It is possible that this number would be greater in a regiment recruited earlier in the war. I've not written about a regiment recruited early in the war (yet), so I'm not sure. You might easily add three or four more for the field and staff. I also have some records of soldiers renting servants. But, they often do not specify whether they were renting slaves or freemen. So, maybe fifteen slaves or servants tending to their masters in a regiment?

In the Branch-Lane brigade, I have identified twenty-three men who served as teamsters during the war, a position traditionally occupied by black men. But so far, I have not been able to identify any of them as either free men of color or as enslaved. The research continues.

Back to John Polk. The scant amount of information we have simply says he was a "Negro" and that he was Samuel Lowe's "body guard." The record does not tell us if he was a cook, or teamster, or  if he was slave or free, or even how long he served.

I went and looked in the US Census. Samuel Lowe was from Lincoln County. I found a John Polk, age 35, in the 1860 Gaston County census. He is a freeman, and lists his post office in the King's Mountain area.

There is a John Polk in the 1870 US census for Cleveland County, North Carolina. He is listed as a black man, age 49, living in the home of Abe Polk, age 59. He was from North Carolina, and could read and write.

Of course, I have no idea if these are the same men, or even if this is the right John Polk. I also searched for Samuel Lowe as a slave owner on Heritage Quest. I could not find him listed.

People often mention the plethora of books about the war. Save for a literal handful, like Bell Wiley's Southern Negroes, 1861-1865; Durden's The Gray and the Black: The Confederate Debate on Emancipation; Blackerby's Blacks in Blue and Gray: Afro-American Service in the Civil War; and Barrow, Segar, and Rosenburg's Black Confederates, it appears that everyone is willing to just adopt some position, dig in, and hurl "bum shells" at those who disagree. That is a terrible shame, as men like John Polk deserve to have their stories told. 


Glenn Land said...

Hi Michael, Correct, these men deserve to have their stories told. I recently sent you (on another site,) my recent discovery of John Venable, a black man in the 21st NC. whose widow applied for a pension long before Black men were awarded them. This same John Polk you mention applied for, and I assume received, a Confederate pension. On July 5, 1926, he states at the time, he's a resident of Lincoln County. He "enlisted" in Company C 28th NC on or about 26 August, 1861. Typed in bold letters is the following :

"This Colored Man went as a body guard to Colonel Samuel Lowe. He served during the term of the war. We think he is a deserving Negro." (no clue as to who "we" may have

Glenn Land

Glenn Land said...

I recently sent you (on another site) my discovery of the pension application of the widow of John Venable, a Black Man (probably free) that served in the 21st NC.

John Polk applied for a pension on July 5, 1926. His age is 81. He states he was a resident of Lincoln County,NC. Enlisting on August 26,1861 into Co.C 28th NC. In bold letters there is typed the following :

This Colored Man went as a body guard to Colonel Samuel Lowe. He served during the term of the war. We think he is a deserving Negro.

No indication who "we' may have been.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Michael - glad you're digging into this. I've never put much stock in the "tens of thousands" (or even hundreds for that matter) of blacks fighting for the Confederacy, but I do believe there were likely more than acknowledged by one side of this debate. I too think the individual stories, considered separately, give us a clearer picture as to the motivation, circumstances and how both may have changed as the war progressed and these men interacted (both in a negative as well as a positive sense) with whites in the Confederate army. Jim Lewis and Levi Miller both make interesting studies in this regard.

I look forward to further postings.

Glenn Land said...

Michael, William C. Revels, enlisted and mustered at Surry, NC as a Color Musician, on 6/5/1861 into Company H 21st NC infantry. His record states he was: Wounded 3/14/1862 New Berne, NC. Wounded 5/25/1862 Winchester, VA. Wounded 7/2/1863 Gettysburg, PA. On his pension application, a doctor verified these wounds. He was from and is buried with a Confederate Marker at Pilot Mountain, Surry County,NC. His family is listed in the census, 1850-1860 as "mulatto." His father was named John, his mother named Polly. This link should take you to find-a-grave, and a photo of his marker, a photo of his son, and granddaughter.