The First Sons of Africa, Cont.

There was some sense, in comments, that the letter I posted might not entirely be on the up and up. All-Star commenter Andy Hall took some time to verify the authors identity, as well as verify the whipping which the author writes about. This is pretty awesome reading. Enjoy.


On Thursday, TNC highlighted a letter written by a Sergeant G.W.H. of the 1st U.S.C.T. Since then I've done a little digging on both the story and Sgt. G.W.H., and want to share that. What follows is based on Civil War service records, research in online databases like Ancestry.com, and other sources. G.W.H. is identified elsewhere as George W. Hatton. He was born in Prince Georges County, Maryland in about 1842. I think he was born free, but am not certain of that (see note below). 

In the 1860 U.S. Census he appears in the household of Henry Hatton, a 50-year-old blacksmith, and his wife Margaret (50). They hold $900 in real property and $150 in personal property, and live near Long Old Fields, Maryland. Both Henry and Margaret can read and write. Living with them are their children: Martha, 21 Henry, 18, occupied as a farmhand George, 17, occupied as a farmhand Sarah, 14 Susan, 9 Josephine, 4 Also living with the Hattons is one Henry Brent, age 75. All the Hattons are listed as "mulatto." According to his service record, George W. Hatton enlisted for a term of three years in the 1st U.S. Colored Troops on June 8, 1863. Hatton was one of the very first men to enlist in the newly-organized units. Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin tell the story in Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America:
In the nation's capital, too, Negroes were under attack. But the victims were men enlisting to fight, and their attackers were not Confederate soldiers. The first colored man in the Washington enlistment line was Catto's friend Billy Wormley. Almost at once, whites in the street, including policemen, began shouting threats at the sight of colored men being issued guns and uniforms. A man in the enlistment line shouted back. George W. Hatton dared the police to shoot him if they needed to kill a Negro for enlisting. Wormely said the same. The police glared, but no one fired.
Hatton joined the unit at Mason's Island (now Theodore Roosevelt Island) in the Potomac River that same day. He enlisted with the rank of sergeant, presumably due to his ability to read and write -- and possibly also as a result of his behavior outside the recruiting office. His service record describes him at enlistment as five-foot-six, a "dark mulatto," black hair and eyes, with "front tooth out." On October 19, 1863, Hatton was granted a two-week furlough for illness, to return on November 3. He may have gotten an extension, as his record indicates he returned to duty on November 21. A later entry in his record indicates his pay was "to be stopped [for the loss of] 1 knapsack & 1 pr Govt. Coatstraps." In the spring his pay was stopped again for three separate pair of shoulder scales (50 cents each), and on May 20, 1864 -- ten days after writing the letter TNC posted -- he was promoted to first sergeant. 

He was absent sick in hospital for a time in the late spring. First Sergeant Hatton was wounded on June 15, 1864, during the Union assaults on Confederate lines at Petersburg. As part of the 3rd Division of the XVIII Corps, the 1st USCT helped to capture a small segment of the Confederate line, but the overall attack was a failure due to disorganization and late reinforcement of Union forces, and the two sides settled into a long siege. Hatton's service record through the end of the war shows several alternate periods of being present for duty and absent in hospital. In August 1864, two months after his injury, he was transferred to the Summit House General Hospital in Philadelphia, where his medical record carries the notation "G.S.W. [gunshot wound] Left Knee." 

There is no record of an amputation, but clearly the wound was serious and caused lasting impairment. Hatton was eventually discharged for disability on June 16, 1865, while with his regiment in North Carolina, with the notation that "he is entitled to transportation from place of discharge to place of enlistment." He applied for (and apparently received) a disability pension on August 24, 1865. One interesting entry in Hatton's service record is the note that "back pay at rate of $10 per month due soldier as Sergt from date of enlistment to Feby 29.64." This notation reflects the differential pay given to white and black Union soldiers up to that date. Congress eventually corrected the inequity, but only back to January 1, 1864 for freedmen; soldiers like Hatton, who'd been free at the outbreak of the war, received back pay all the way to the date of their enlistment. Hatton appears to have returned to Washington, D.C., where his father Henry was living. In the years after the war he married a woman named Frances.

The two of them were living in Washington's 4th Ward at the time of the 1870 U.S. Census, he employed at the Globe newspaper, and Frances (age 25) "keeping house." In 1869, Hatton had served on the "Common Council" for the District of Columbia. D.C. apparently ahd three levels of governance: (1) the mayor and city department heads, (2) aldermen, and (3) the common council. This one term seems to be to only period he held public office. George and Frances Hatton next appear in the 1880 U.S. Census in Paris, Tennessee, where George is working as a preacher. By 1880 they had a daughter Mary, age 11. (I have no other information on the Tennessee sojourn, but all the data on George and Frances match previous records, and I believe they're the same individuals.) After 1880, the record is much less clear. George and Frances Hatton appear to have returned to Maryland. 


There is a notation in a 1902 Daughters of the American Revolution magazine that one of that organization's officers was approached by "an old colored man" named George W. Hatton, of Rosecroft on the Eastern Shore, who donated to the group a small set of very old newspapers dating to the period around 1800. According the note, the man "had heard much of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and said he had had in his possession when a slave and for forty-nine years some old newspapers which he wished, out of patriotism, to present. Of course, your committee realized his sole dependence for support was his pension. Therefore, there was slight embarrassment in accepting his gift until Mrs. Jay Osborne Moss, of Sandusky. Ohio, by a most generous donation to the old soldier, made these papers our property." Perhaps as a result of this encounter, 

Hatton was granted an increase in his pension by Congress that same year, to $24 per month. A similar bill (HR13832) was introduced in Congress in 1914, although the final status of that bill is not clear. It appears that Hatton died that year, as Frances applied for a widow's pension on June 15, 1914. This summary is obviously fragmentary, but it does provide a general overview of the arc of George Hatton's life - and perhaps a hint of his personality - that helps to understand the man behind the initials G.W.H. ____________________________ 

In connection with Sergeant Hatton's letter that TNC published, describing the whipping of a Virginia plantation owner by several of his former slaves, there was some question whether or not the story he told was accurate. 

It was. 

This is, upon further digging, a fairly well-known event, mentioned in a number of published works, and attested to by other witnesses that corroborate Hatton's version of events. The man's name was William Henry Clopton (not Clayton) (1810-1876), and he was the owner of Selwood House, Charles City County, Virginia. Union General Edward A Wild, a physician with a strong abolitionist bent, described the event:

[Clopton] has acquired a notoriety as the most cruel Slave Master in this region, but in my presence he put on the character of a Sniveling Saint. I found half a dozen women among our [slave] refugees, whom he had often whipped unmercifully - I laid him bare and placed a whip into the hands of the Women, three of Whom took turns in settling some old scores on their master's back. A black man, whom he had abused, finished the administration of Poetical justice. . . .I wish that his back had been as deeply scarred as those of the women, but I abstained and left it to them.
Clopton's descendants are still unhappy about that.
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in National

From This Author

Just In