Cases from the Asylum Archive
Eli Hill (1832-1877)
Robert C. Allen
Eli Hill: 37th Regiment, U. S. Colored Troops
The combination of primary source material (compiled service record) and well-researched secondary accounts (Richard Reid’s history of North Carolina’s four African American regiments) illuminate Eli Hill’s experience as a black soldier in the Civil War and its aftermath.
Eli joined the last of the four regiments of U.S. Colored Troops raised in North Carolina. What was initially called the 3rd North Carolina Colored Volunteers became the 37th Regiment in the winter of 1863-64. The unit was demobilized in Raleigh in February 1867. The 37th was beset with organizational problems, poor leadership, and internal discord throughout its history. Its troops were chronically ill-equipped and poorly trained. It participated in campaigns around Richmond and Petersburg in the fall of 1864, but commanders did not trust the regiment to play an important combat role. In December, the 37th was involved in the siege of Fort Fisher on the North Carolina coast, only to spend the better part of three weeks crammed into the hull of storm-battered ships, awaiting an opportunity to land. In February 1865 the Confederates abandoned to the key coastal city of Wilmington. In early March, the 37th participated in an advance on Kinston and Goldsboro, making its way to Raleigh by April, where it paraded in review before General Sherman on April 20. By June, Eli’s unit was in Wilmington, where he stayed until November. He seems to have spent the next year at Fort Hatteras on the North Carolina outer banks. One of his last muster roll cards records the regiment’s demobilization in Raleigh on Feb. 11, 1867. He had been paid only through August 1866, but owed $84.46 for clothing.
What was Eli’s experience of the war? Reid gives us an account of the approximately 800 men who served in a North Carolina regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops, but can we drill down further to uncover more of Eli’s story? A muster roll card from September 24, 1864 shows Eli still in New Bern, presumably training. It also indicates that his enlistment counted toward the state of Connecticut’s enlistment quota. The next card covers the period November-December 1864, when presumably his unit is in Virginia. The card records a change in rank: instead of “pvt” for private, he rank is listed as “mus.”
Maureen Manjerovich and Michael Budd’s “More Than A Drummer Boy’s War: A Historical View of Musicians in the Civil War” (College Music Symposium 42 : 118-130) helps us understand what this means. It is likely that Eli was a “drummer boy”: a member of the company’s drum corps, with the “mus” standing for “musician.” Drum Corps were a part of every unit in the Civil War. Every company had a least two musicians: a drummer and someone who played the fife or the bugle. In all there were some 40,000 field musicians, many of whom were under the age of sixteen. Indeed, boys as young as twelve could enlist as drummer boys if their parents approved. Eli was twenty at the time of his enlistment in 1864. “Musician” was an official rank roughly equal to that of private, but musicians might be paid slightly more privates.
Drum corps played a key communication role in each company every day: they awaken the unit, called them to drill and meals, assembled troops for sick call, and announced the end of the day with taps. In addition, they played important ancillary roles both in camp and on the battlefield. They helped with cooking, performed physical labor, and dug trenches. On the battlefield, they served as stretcher bearers and medics. After the battle, they removed the casualties. Particularly in the early days of the war, generals often commanded drum corps to play their “loudest and gayest tunes” during a battle to lift soldiers’ morale. Although generally considered less hazardous than serving in the infantry, it is likely that a drummer like Eli would have found himself subjected to direct fire.
The last to be organized and the least trusted by army generals, the 37th Regiment was involved in direct combat less frequently than the other North Carolina USCT units; however, Eli would have been subject to the traumas, privations, and diseases all Civil War foot soldiers were exposed to. On the muster roll card covering the period January-February 1865, Eli is noted as being absent–sick in a general hospital since January 3. He has returned to his unit (as a private) in March, 1865. At the time Eli’s unit was back in eastern North Carolina and not engaged in active combat.
We do not know the nature of Eli’s sickness, but Eric Dean’s Shook Over Hell: Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1999) provides a terrible litany of the mental and physical traumas soldiers on both sides of the conflict endured. A cloud of constant anxiety and fear would have hung over soldiers throughout their service: homesickness, the prospect of being ordered to kill other men, the very real possibility that if they survived the war, they would return home with terrible injuries or missing limbs. When it came, combat brought exposure to the death and mutilation of comrades, the unspeakable spectacle of mass slaughter, and the very real fear of death at any minute. Constant bombardment by heavy artillery reduced men to mutism and uncontrollable shaking. In between battles there was constant discomfort: the fatigue of forced marches in all weather, followed by nightly exposure sleeping on the ground with only a sodden blanket for protection. As the war dragged on uniforms were reduced to tatters and soldiers marched barefooted.
Eli’s was one of some 10 million cases of illness incurred over the four years of conflict. Dean calls the conflict a kind of biological warfare: for every combat death there were two from disease: cholera, typhoid, malaria, yellow fever (from which one of my four Confederate great-grandfathers died), small pox, measles, mumps, scurvy, diphtheria, dysentery, tuberculosis. Three quarters of all troops contracted these or other serious diseases annually. When soldiers were injured or succumbed to disease they were treated by doctors using germ-infested instruments and few effective medicinal remedies. Opium was routinely used to kill pain or control diarrhea. Calomel (a form of mercury) was given as a purgative.
Reid’s account of the 37th’s movements in the fall of 1864 as a part of Grant’s campaign around Richmond and Petersburg describes a night march in knee-high mud, following a day of constant rain: “great columns of defeated troops were floundering back home through mud and darkness.” (p. 173) One soldier, described as a hearty man before the march, was left with a cough, “bleeding at lungs,” an injured back, diarrhea, and piles.” That such a horrible non-combat experience could have lasting physical and psychological effects is suggested by a letter Reid found sent long after the war by the daughter of an affected soldier. She believed that the cause of her father’s chronic mental illness could be traced to the exposure he suffered that night. (p. 176)
Proceed to next chapter.