George W. Hatton, Soldier

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by Andy Hall

For my first post this week, I'd like to return to some (to my thinking) unfinished business. Some weeks back, TNC posted a letter from a USCT soldier describing the beating given to a notorious Virginia tidewater slaveholder at the hands of some of his former slaves. There was some question about the authenticity of the letter and, as a result, I and others worked to compile a rough biographical outline of the letter's author, Sgt. George W. Hatton, 1st United States Colored Troops, which I posted in the comments section. TNC was generous enough to kick that comment "upstairs," making it a post of its own, but there were still some substantial gaps in Hatton's life as described. Subsequent comments to that posts led to yet more discoveries in contemporary newspapers, directories and so on. It was actually a running commentary in the comments, putting up each new discovery, that went late into the evening. It was historical/genealogical crowdsourcing, and it was great fun. Many in the Horde probably missed that running discussion, though, and it was disjointed in any case, so I'd like to take this opportunity to put it all together in one post, with some additional material not presented before. The arc of George Hatton's life is a difficult one, but one worth knowing.

Special thanks to regular Golden Horde commenter KewHall, who found and shared critical mentions of Hatton that opened up the research on the latter parts of Hatton's life. Because it's a long story, I'll post it in three parts over the week.

___________________________

From the Christian Recorder newspaper, May 28, 1864:

Camp of the 1st U.S. Colored Troops,
Wilson's landing, Charles City Co.,
May 10th 1864.

Mr. Editor:

You are aware that Wilson's Landing is on the James river, a few miles above Jamestown, the very spot where the first sons of Africa were landed, in the year 1620, if my memory serves me right, and from that day up to the breaking out of the rebellion, was looked upon as an inferior race by all civilized nations.

But behold what has been revealed in the past three or four years; why the colored men have ascended upon a platform of equality, and the slave can now apply the lash to the tender flesh of his master, for this day I am now an eye witness of the fact. The country being principally inhabited by wealthy farmers, there are a great many men in the regiment who are refugees from this place.

While out on a foraging expedition we captured Mr. Clayton [sic., Clopton], a noted reb in this part of the country, and from his appearance, one of the F.F.V's; on the day before we captured several colored women that belonged to Mr. C., who had given them a most unmerciful whipping previous to their departure.

On the arrival of Mr. C. in camp, the commanding officer determined to let the women have their revenge, and ordered Mr. C. to be tied to a tree in front of headquarters, and William Harris, a soldier in our regiment, and a member of Co. E, who was acquainted with the gentleman, and who used to belong to him, was called upon to undress him, and introduce him to the ladies I mentioned before. Mr. Harris played his part conspicuously, bringing the blood from his loins at every stroke, and not forgetting to remind the gentleman of days gone by.

After giving him some fifteen or twenty well-directed strokes, the ladies, one after another, came up and gave him a like number, to remind him that they were no longer his, but safely housed in Abraham's bosom, and under the protection of the Star Spangled Banner, and guarded by their own patriotic, though once down-trodden race.

Oh, that I had the tongue to express my feelings while standing upon the banks of the James river, on the soil of Virginia, the mother state of slavery, as a witness of such a sudden reverse! The day is clear, the fields of grain are beautiful and the birds are singing sweet melodious songs, while poor Mr. C. is crying to his servants for mercy. Let all who sympathize for the South take this narrative for a mirror.

Yours Truly,

G.W.H.

1. Soldiering

G.W.H. was George W. Hatton, a 22-year-old soldier from Maryland. He was born in Prince Georges County in about 1842. I think he was born free, although another, second-hand source from decades later describes him as having been a slave at some point.

George first appears 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."

At some point between 1860 and 1863, it appears that the Hattons moved from Maryland into the District of Columbia. George W. Hatton enlisted for a term of three years in the 1st U.S. Colored Troops on June 8, 1863, becoming one of the first men to enlist in the newly-created USCT 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.

1stUSCT.jpgFirst U.S Colored Troops on parade. Library of Congress.


The whipping of William Henry Clopton (1810-1876) that Hatton wrote about became a relatively well-known incident in the war. Clopton was the owner of Selwood in Charles City County, Virginia, and had developed a reputation for cruelty that set him apart from other slaveholders in the region. The Union general commanding, Edward A Wild, was a physician in civilian life with a strong abolitionist bent. He 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.

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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.

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