Cases from the Asylum Archive
Eli Hill (1832-1877)
Robert C. Allen
The notation of Isaac’s supposed cause as “the War” and the timing of his admission in April 1865 leads us to wonder if he might have been a soldier. In the spring of 1863, the U.S. War Department began recruiting African Americans for what became known as the United States Colored Troops (USCT). Some 175 regiments, more than 178,000 freed slaves and free persons of color served during the last two years of armed conflict, more than 5000 of them from North Carolina. But a review of the regiment that wound up in Raleigh in April 1865 (the 37th Regiment—more later) in Fold3 reveals no one with only a first name and no one named Isaac would could have been “our” Isaac.
In our attempt to determine if any of the African American men admitted to the hospital had served in the USCT, we had to look beyond Isaac. Among the 26 African American men we researched was Eli Hill. He was admitted on January 27, 1870. The notation “(colored) was written beside his name. He was the only African American patient admitted between July 1869 and March 1870. His age is listed as 25 years, and his occupation as laborer. The supposed cause of his attack of insanity is listed as “self pollution” (about which more later). He was from Onslow County, North Carolina, a rural, coastal county midway between Wilmington and Morehead City, NC. The right hand side of the ledger revealed that he was a patient at Dix until his death in 1877.
This was enough information to begin our search for Eli in Ancestry.com. A search for him in Fold3 produced a rare trove of records. There were copies of his enlistment document from August 1864, when he joined Company F of the 37th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops, in New Bern, North Carolina. To historians, the most valuable feature of Fold3 is its collection of Civil War compiled service records for Union, Confederate, and U.S. Colored Troops, and at the heart of that collection are muster roll cards for each soldier. Muster roll cards document each soldier’s service every 30-60 days—from the time of their enrollment until their death or discharge. They note whether or not the soldier is present or absent, and, if the latter, usually the cause: hospitalization, visiting family, taken prisoner, deserted, discharged, or death.
Fortunately, the Civil War is one of the most documented military conflicts in modern history: once you establish the name of a given soldier, where he was from, and the company and regiment in which he served, it is often possible to track his movement and condition throughout his service, matching up muster roll cards with accounts of the campaigns and battles in which the unit participated. Furthermore the academic literature on the military history of the war is voluminous. We were lucky enough to find Professor Richard Reid’s monograph, Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2014), a detailed history of the three regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops raised in North Carolina, including the 37th Regiment in which Eli served from 1864 to 1867. The circumstances of his service provides insights into the military role of freed slaves and free persons of color in North Carolina during the after the war.
We have no direct information about Eli prior to his enlistment in the summer of 1864, but it is likely that he was one of thousands of escaped slaves in eastern North Carolina who fled farms and plantations. Union troops launched a campaign to secure the North Carolina coastline early in the war. By the spring of 1862 Union troops effectively controlled much of the coast and coastal plain north of the Cape Fear River.
New Bern was captured in March 1862, and remained under Union control for the remainder of the war. It quickly became a hub for former slaves escaping Confederate areas of the state. There was already a sizable African American population in New Bern, particularly of free-born artisans. Fleeing slaves came to New Bern in hopes of locating family members, to gain an education, and to make new lives for themselves. Even before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, slaves who were still technically not free but who found their way across Union lines could be declared “contraband,” given protection of the Union army, and assurance that they would not be returned to slavery. By the spring of 1862 there were some 10,000 such contrabands in the Union-occupied areas of eastern North Carolina—three quarters of them in and around New Bern, making it the largest black refugee destination in North Carolina. The Union Army established a settlement for the refugees along the Trent River, which had more than 3000 residents by 1865. We do not know the journey Eli made from slavery to freedom and from being a farm laborer in Onslow County to being a refugee in in the city of New Bern. Might he had found a temporary place to live in the Trent River settlement?
The presence of so many freed slaves in New Bern also made it an army recruitment center. Recruitment of former slaves and free persons of color for the U.S. Colored Troops in North Carolina began in the spring of 1863. The Union Army was in need of fresh troops. Placards in New Bern called for 4000 men to join North Carolina’s first colored regiment. The successful recruitment of African Americans in the South was allow to count against Union units’ quotas. Recruiters, who earned a fee for each enlistment, competed against each other. The inducements were several: enlistees received pay (although less than that received by white soldiers), support for their families, and, by 1864 a recruitment bounty. (Reid, p. 129)
By August 1864, pressure on recruitment in New Bern intensified. There was an immediate need for laborers to support military campaigns in Virginia. General Ulysses Grant reportedly saw a newspaper article stating that there were many African American men in the New Bern area who had still not been persuaded to enlist. The redoubled recruitment efforts were successful: in August and September more than 90 men enlisted, the equivalent of an entire company. (Reid, p. 173). One of these was likely to have been Eli Hill.
The decision to enlist would not necessarily have been an easy one for these men. In addition to the possibility of injury, disease, capture, and death faced by all soldiers, members of the U.S. Colored Troops faced particular threats. In a place like North Carolina, capture could mean that they would be returned to slavery or pressed into labor gangs. There might be reprisals against their families. There were stories of Confederate officers adopting a “no prisoners, no quarter” policy against African American troops.
For Eli and his fellow recruits, these threats had been borne out only a few months before and not 75 miles away. In April 1864, Confederate forces seized the town of Plymouth, an important town in northeastern North Carolina, from Union defenders. There were some 1000 African American refugees there, and Plymouth had been an important Union recruiting station. The Union troops there included several hundred “Buffaloes”: local men who had enlisted in the Union Army. There were also some 200 recently enlisted African American soldiers from the 37th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops: the unit Eli would join in August. Soon after, stories circulated throughout eastern North Carolina and beyond of a massacre of Buffaloe and African American prisoners, with black soldiers being particular targets. There were reports of some being hanged, shot, or beaten to death. Several hundred African American women and children were reported to have been returned to slavery. (Reid, p. 160) Ironically, the fall of Plymouth and the collapse of recruiting efforts there (it was occupied by the Confederate Army until October 1864) intensified recruiting pressure at New Bern.
We do not know Eli Hill’s motives for joining the U.S. Colored Troops in the summer of 1864, nor do we know the family he might have left behind. What we do know is that on August 12, 1864, a twenty-year-old laborer from Onslow County, described as being 5′ 3″ tall, with black skin, hair, and eyes, enlisted in the 37th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops in New Bern, N.C., for a period of three years. The following day he was mustered into service by Lt. Col. Rogers. He was due a bounty of $300.
Proceed to next chapter.