Cases from the Asylum Archive
Eli Hill (1832-1877)
Robert C. Allen
The War After the War
In one of the many ironies we find in our case studies, it is possible that Eli was in Raleigh at the same time Isaac was admitted in April 1865; indeed he might have been encamped on or near the hospital property (Reid says it was a few miles south of Raleigh). It is around this time that Eli was transferred from Company D to Company F of the 37th Regiment. It moved to eastern North Carolina. By September, Eli was attached to a teamster unit in Wilmington, and in December he moved north to Fort Hatteras on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where he seems to have remained for 1866. His “muster out” card shows that he was demobilized with the rest of his unit in Raleigh on Feb. 11, 1867. A final card notes that although he had been paid only through April 1866, he still owed the army $84.46 on his clothing account.
The record of Eli’s service leads us to ask why he continued to serve some 22 months beyond the surrender of Confederate troops and the cessation of military conflict? Most Union troops were eager to return to their homes as soon as possible, and the army wanted to reduce the army to peace-time levels. On May 1, 1865 there were one million men in the Union Army, by the end of November, more than 800,000 had been discharged. (William Holbarton, “Demobilization of the Union Army: 1865-1866,” MA Thesis, Lehigh University, 1993).
One of the exceptions to the rapid demobilization plan was the need for army units to serve a constabulary function in the states of the defeated South, ensure that Federal policy was carried out, and protect freed slaves and free persons of color. Although most African American soldiers were mustered out in this expeditious fashion, some black units were a part of the occupation force assigned to the South. Richard Reid estimates that one-third of all occupying troops were African American, and in some states the ratio was higher: of 14,000 Federal troops in South Carolina in the immediate post-war period, some 11,000 were black. (Reid, p. 255). Among those USCT regiments that continued to serve in the South for several years after the end of the war was Eli’s unit: the 37th Regiment.
These black troops were placed in an invidious position. Some white southerners were enraged by the very sight of a black man in uniform carrying a weapon. Others refused to acknowledge his authority to enforce the law. Especially in cities, Eli and his comrades quickly became, as Reid puts it, “symbols of Confederate defeat.” In Wilmington, where Eli was posted in the fall of 1865, there were five recorded instances of violence against black soldiers in the first year after the war. By November there were rumors of a black insurrection against local whites in North Carolina cities. This explains Eli’s deployment to Fort Hatteras in 1866: army commanders feared increased racial violence in urban areas, and moving black troops to much more lightly populated areas along the coast reduced their social visibility.
Such a strategy was urged in newspapers. In what we would now call an editorial, Raleigh’s Daily Progress of August 5, 1865 under the headline “Colored Troops,” suggested that it would be in the Federal government’s best interest to remove “the negro troops from our towns and villages.” There had been “nothing but trouble,” it claimed, wherever “negro” troops had been posted. The author of the article admitted that African American troops were well-disciplined and conducted themselves well. The danger was from “the demoralizing influences of their presence on the negro population,” leading whites to feel that they were endangered. In other words, the example of African American soldiers—many of whom had as slaves been subservient to whites—to effectively protect civil society in Southern cities might further challenge the authority of the Antebellum white power structure. The remedy was to remove black troops to remote forts along the coast and replace those in towns and cities with “white men.” Otherwise, it suggested “serious outbreaks will occur.”
In January 1867, Eli and other dispersed members of the 37th Regiment were ordered to assemble in Raleigh for the impending demobilization of the unit. Even though they were sequestered in a camp outside the city, clashes between black soldiers and embittered whites increased. All weapons, including those of camp guards, were seized, making it easier for black soldiers to come and go. On February 11, the unit was officially demobilized, and after two and a half years, the war was over for Eli.
Some 4100 North Carolina veterans of the USCT survived military service. Reid attempted to follow them through 1890. Around 40 percent could be located in 1870 and 15 percent in 1890. Most of those who stayed in North Carolina returned to the area of the state where they were born—over half of them to the counties of the coastal plain.
We know that Eli did not return to Onslow County upon demobilization. On the third page of the May 21, 1867 edition of the Raleigh Sentinel under “Mayor’s Court” are listed two items: in the first: “J. H. Jimeson, white, and G. Sadler, colored, charged with a misdemeanor, were fined $5.” In the second: “Eli Hill, colored, charged with assaulting Ann Williams, colored, was returned to the county court.” Southern newspapers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century devoted regular coverage to what was called variously the Magistrate’s Court, Recorder’s Court, or, in this case, the Mayor’s Court. Here misdemeanor level cases were heard and most decided by the official acting as judge. These cases might include theft, violation of various public ordinances, affray, drunk and disorderly, etc. Vagrancy was a catch-all “crime”—the analogue today of “driving while black.” It particularly applied to women (black and white) who were suspected of prostitution. Sentences included fines, brief jail terms, and, especially for African American men, working on the “chain gang.”
The journalistic convention of identifying the race of the accused—if that race was other than white–in all levels of criminal trials in the South is taking root here and would persist for a century. It had several effects. One was to associate African Americans with criminality of all kinds, particularly at the level likely to be adjudicated by a magistrate or mayor. Alleged crime where both perpetrator and victim were “colored” could be dismissed as unimportant and to be expected. It confirmed comic tropes developed and globally circulated by white performers in minstrel shows from the 1840s. However, accusation of any type of physical crime by African Americans upon white women was incendiary—an excuse for vigilante “justice” and lynching.
The fact that Eli’s case involved a black man alleged to have assaulted a black female explains why it occupies but a single sentence in a single newspaper as well as why the resolution of the case is left unreported. I am not a lawyer, but I suspect that the fact that it was not adjudicated at the level of the Mayor’s Court, but rather returned to county court, might mean that that the seriousness of the assault rose above the level of trivial injury. Deeper research into county court records might shed light on the relationship between Eli and Ann and the circumstances that led to his arrest.
Who was Ann? She deserves our attention. How would her story unfold to illuminate the plight of African American women in the immediate post-war period?
Proceed to next chapter.