Captain George F. Norton had been in Confederate service since April 1861 and led the First Virginia Infantry on the Maryland Campaign, seeing combat on South Mountain and at Sharpsburg. He was in command again at Gettysburg, where he was wounded, and afterward was promoted to Major. He was with the regiment to the end of the War – which for him occurred when he was captured at Sailor’s Creek, VA on 6 April 1865.

He jumps headlong out of the distant past, though, in this brief letter he wrote to President Jefferson Davis on 28 February 1865:


I respectfully ask to be appointed Colonel of a Negro Regiment –

I am a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and accompany this application with recommendations from my Brigade and Division Commanders.

I am – Sir – very respectfully,

George F Norton
Major 1st Va. Infantry

I’ve never seen anything like this before.

In February 1865 there were no “Negro Regiments” in Confederate service, nor were any expected. So this seems like an off-the-wall request.

The idea of arming slaves had been argued before, and roundly rejected. In December 1863 General Patrick Cleburne formally floated the idea in a proposal he shared among his officers. Word got around the army, and the reaction was universally and understandably negative.  Cleburne either misunderstood or underestimated the power that slavery held in and over the Confederate States.

Most of the leadership probably agreed with Howell Cobb, Georgia politician and Confederate founding-father, who later famously wrote:

I think that the proposition to make soldiers of our slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began … If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong, but they won’t make soldiers.

When he received the proposal in January 1864, President Davis firmly rejected it and demanded the document and all copies be destroyed.

However, a year later the situation was desperate, and on 10 February 1865, and with the support of General R.E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, Congressman Ethelbert Barksdale of Mississippi introduced a bill (HR-367) authorizing arming slaves in the defense of the Confederacy. It passed the House on 20 February, and slightly amended, by one vote, the Senate on 8 March. President Davis signed it into law on the 13th.

So it may not be such a mystery that Norton wrote that letter. From a prominent Richmond family, with friends in the city, it is likely that he knew of the legislative activity. Perhaps he saw an opportunity for advancement and wanted his name in the running.

I have not found a reply from the President to Major Norton in the record.


The CS War Department issued General Orders No. 14 to implement the new law on 23 March. Notably they included these among the provisions:

No slave will be accepted as a recruit unless with his own consent and with the approbation of his master by a written instrument conferring as far as he may, the rights of a freedman …

It is not the intention of the President to grant any authority for raising regiments or brigades. The only organizations to be perfected at the depots or camps of instruction are those of companies and (in exceptional cases where the slaves are of one estate) of battalions consisting of four companies …

The war was effectively over less than a month later, and by that time only two such “companies” had actually been formed.


The image above, of Major Norton’s letter (along with the accompanying recommendations from Generals Corse, Terry, and Pickett, and Thomas Haymond’s forwarding letter) is in the US National Archives in his Compiled Service Record; I found it online from fold3 (subscription required).

The Howell Cobb quote is from a letter he wrote to then-Secretary of War James Seddon on 8 January 1865, which is online from the Encyclopedia Virginia.

The text of the approved Act of the Confederate Congress and of War Department General Orders No. 14 authorizing enlistment of black soldiers is online thanks to the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland.

George F Norton’s bio page is on Antietam on the Web.

For a deeper look at the issue of enlisting slaves for Confederate service, from an early 20th century perspective, you might consult N. W. Stephenson’s The Question of Arming the Slaves (American Historical Review, January 1913), and Thomas Robson Hay’s The South and the Arming of the Slaves (American Historical Review, June 1919), both online from JSTOR.

[Nathaniel Wright Stephenson (1867-1935), a prolific writer of history and biography was appointed professor at the College of Charleston (SC) in 1902 and at the new Scripps College (CA) in 1927.  T.R. Hay (1888-1974) was a Penn State-trained electrical engineer who became a noted historian and editor.]

With a nudge from a record in the Frederick Patient List database, I went looking for 2nd Lieutenant J. Corfro of Company I, 1st North Carolina Infantry, only to find he probably never existed, despite his shiny new government-issue marker at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, MD.

The Lieutenant lived only on paper, in Federal hospital and burial records, which have him admitted to a US Army hospital in Frederick in September 1862 and buried at Mt. Olivet after he died on the 20th.  He appears in no roster, muster roll, or other military record for the First North Carolina or any other military unit.

I believe he was actually Lieutenant William D. Scarborough, who, incidentally, has an equally nice stone at Mt. Olivet.

The bits of available information about Scarborough, recorded under many names including Corfro, are sometimes confusing and contradictory, but I think I have made some sense of them.  Follow along and see what you make of him …

In his diary after the battle of Antietam Private Julius Rabardy wrote:

The air is full of explosions and the smell of brimstone, missiles of all kinds strike the trees and dead branches fall among the wounded. I was shot through the right thigh. A poor fellow with uplifted arm begs for water. The arm is shot off and the man speaks no more. A Confederate lies in front of me with a horrible wound. It is Hell. I close my eyes. It is probably from loss of blood, sick at the sight of such carnage. I became unconscious. When I recovered all is quiet.

The regimental surgeon amputated his leg later that day. He was not yet 30 years old and it would seem his best years were now behind him …

H.T. McKay, 26th Alabama

27 August 2020

Harley Tuttle McKay was a 27 year old shoemaker in 1861 when he left his wife and two year old son and enlisted in the Sons of ’76 – Company H of the 26th Alabama Infantry regiment.

On 14 September 1862 near Turner’s Gap on South Mountain he was seriously wounded in the leg by a “bombshell.”  Soon afterward his leg was amputated and he was sent home to Marion County, Alabama on furlough. In April 1863 he was detailed from his Company to Columbus, Mississippi to use his skills as a shoemaker for the Confederacy. He was there for at least a year, but I have no further military information for him after April 1864.

After the war he was a shoemaker and farmer, and probably a preacher; in his native county to about 1880, then in Texas.  He lived to be 84 years old.

Although his life story is not especially noteworthy for a Civil War soldier, the way it became tangled with another McKay’s after his death  is very interesting. And, for a researcher like myself, also very confusing. I’m not certain I’ve sorted it out, even now. See what you make of it …

The issues first jumped out at me through a couple of cemetery markers.

Lieutenant Richard C. Shannon of the 5th Maine Infantry was assigned as aide-de-camp to Major General Henry W. Slocum, commander of the First Division, 6th Army Corps, in March 1862. Although a well-educated young man, he was still learning his profession as a staff officer in August and September 1862.

Shannon left behind some wartime diaries which, although not especially dramatic as narrative, offer insight into his day-to-day experience in the field.

Of particular interest to me is this field notebook/diary he had with him on the Maryland Campaign.

It is a flip-page style that he probably carried in his pocket, and he used it both as a traditional diary – writing a brief summary of each day’s activity – and as a working notebook to keep orders, names, maps, and other things he needed to remember.

I’ll pull out some pages to give you a flavor, here. Click on any of them to expand for easier reading.

I should be doing something else, but got pulled off track by a trooper of the 3rd Indiana Cavalry, James Williamson, who was killed in a little-known cavalry skirmish at the Quebec Schoolhouse near Middletown, MD on 13 September 1862.

His regiment’s historian, former Corporal William N. Pickerill wrote a fascinating account of that ‘desperate little cavalry battle’ for a newspaper in 1897, and put it in his regimental History in 1906. Because of him, I’ve spent the last couple of days putting names and faces with some of the men who were there.

The Antietam Cemetery History has him as Daniel Mibbon, 18th New York Infantry (thanks Western Maryland’s Historical Library/WHILBR!). It’s Dan’l Mibbon, N.Y. on his stone.

Frederick hospital records list him as Daniel S. Milborne, 13th New York (thanks National Museum of Civil War Medicine!).

He doesn’t appear in the rosters for either of those regiments or any other New York unit, for that matter (thanks New York State Military Museum!). Nothing close.

A little more digging, though, and voilà!!

Under or near this stone in the Antietam National Cemetery lies David Spencer Milburn, late Private, Company D, 13th New Jersey Infantry. A 26 year old farmer, he was mortally wounded on 17 September 1862 just over a month after enlisting. He died in a hospital in Frederick on 2 October.

I hope his descendants can still find him!

James VcVay & Sons

4 August 2020

James McVay was an “old man” in the 14th Connecticut Infantry. He had enlisted as a Private in Company K with his sons Michael and Francis in July 1862.  He died of “exhaustion” at the end of the regiment’s first day’s march on what became the Maryland Campaign.

His was the first death in that brand new regiment.

His name’s on a familiar looking monument in Norwich, CT.



The clip above is from Charles D. Page’s History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Connecticut Vol. Infantry (1906).

The picture of the Soldiers’ Monument in Norwich, CT is online from Waymarking.  You’ll notice the statue’s similarity to “Old Simon” in the Antietam National Cemetery.

Modern headstones

19 July 2020

I recently tweeted about adding a new bio page for a Georgia soldier, Andrew W Poarch and, somewhat as an aside, noted that his modern headstone has some problems.

He was buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, MD in October 1862 and at some point given a basic headstone, now heavily worn.

Much more recently, I’d guess in the 1980s or 90s, well-meaning persons got him a new headstone from the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Probably because of transcription errors in his original burial records, they got his name terribly wrong. Apparently the applicant for the new headstone didn’t dig any deeper – into the soldier’s service records, muster rolls, or family genealogies, for example – to verify his information. Although, to be fair, it’s much easier to do that today than it was 30 or 40 years ago.

But now the errors are literally carved in stone.

I’ve seen dozens of markers like these with errors large and small over the years of researching my soldiers, but had not thought to make a list or keep a log of them.

The day after Private Poarch’s, though, I found another such case – the stone for Louisianan Volney L. Farnham at Elmwood in Shepherdstown, WV. It has his first initial/name and his regiment wrong.

And this afternoon a third popped-up: Private William T. Curry of South Carolina. This is his modern VA marker in Dials Cemetery, Gray Court, SC. Minor things, to be sure, but his middle initial and his year of birth are probably wrong.

So taking these 3 stones as huge cosmic hints, I’m starting a visual list here, and I’ll add to it as I find more. I can’t fix them, but I can provide a virtual erratum.

Let me know if you find any more cases like these, won’t you? Or if you have any information that corrects errors I’ve made.


Gravestone pictures via Findagrave.


[32] additions after the break …

I have had a great time pulling a research “thread” this evening and thought both of my readers might like to share in the journey.

Looking into Sergeant John Martin Rushton (1837-1889) of the 7th South Carolina Infantry.

I started with Glen Swain’s excellent roster in The Bloody 7th (Broadfoot, 2014), based mostly on the Consolidated Service Records (CSRs) from the National Archives.

Those records say Rushton was wounded at Sharpsburg in 1862. In November – December 1864 he was in a hospital in Richmond, VA with a gunshot wound in the shoulder, then served as an attendant in another hospital there. He retired in March 1865, presumably for disability, and was paroled at Augusta, GA in May.

Nothing unusual here; it seemed like a typical soldier story until I looked at his gravesite on Findagrave, which refers to him as Dr. Rushton. Not so many enlisted men were later physicians, so I thought I’d find out when and where he trained.

A little digging online with various forms of his name, and up popped an announcement in the Richmond Dispatch that J.M. Rushton of Edgehill [sic], SC graduated from the Medical College in Richmond (now part of Virginia Commonwealth University).

In March 1865.

Oh-ho! Now we’re having fun: did our man attend medical school while still a soldier and patient/hospital aide in 1864-5?

That would be unusual.

Then I got really lucky. Thanks to the digital archives at VCU, I found an October 1864 letter John Rushton wrote to Levin Smith Joines, the Dean of the medical school. In it, he requested admission to the Winter 1864-65 course, noted he’d had previous training in Georgia 1860-61, and best of all, described what he’d been doing since Sharpsburg.

So, in contrast to the tale of the CSRs, it turns out he was furloughed home after he was wounded in the shoulder at Sharpsburg and I don’t think he ever returned to his unit. By January 1864 he had been judged disabled and was teaching school in Edgefield, SC.

He was admitted to the Medical College for the 1864-65 winter session and graduated in 1865. The day after he’d been “retired” in the Army records, coincidentally.

Long story short – I got to see part of the man’s story in his own hand, in real time. Rare, but very gratifying. And a lot more exciting than the basic and sometimes confused service records.

…. on to the next story.