Portsmouth, Virginia, occupied by the Union army, was the scene of a wedding in November 1863.[i] The happy couple was Charles “Charley” Butler, a private in Company E, 1st Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops (USCT), and Sarah Smith. Butler’s service record at the National Archives shows that he joined the Army on 17 June 1863 at Mason’s Island (now Theodore Roosevelt Island) in the District of Columbia, and that he was a nineteen-year-old farmer born in Prince William County, five feet seven inches tall, with “Very Black” complexion, “Black” eyes and hair, and “scars on right foot and breast.” His next of kin was listed as a brother in Alexandria.[ii] Sarah later stated that she and Charles “married by consent of our respective parents, being both free born.”[iii] Sarah appears in the Norfolk County Register of Free Negroes in 1853 as a sixteen-year-old with “dark” complexion, height four feet eleven and a half inches, “born free in this county,” daughter of Nancy Smith.[iv] Charles has not been located in antebellum records but may have been the son of Flora Butler, who was listed in the 1860 census as a 55-year-old free black washerwoman in Alexandria. Living with her was 20-year-old blacksmith Alonzo Butler, who was presumably the brother mentioned in Charles’s service record.[v]
Charles had received his company commander’s permission to marry, and soldiers of Company E and Sarah’s relatives joined the bride and groom for a “wedding supper” at the home of Sarah and her mother. Charles’s captain allowed him to spend “alternate nights” at his wife’s house.[vi] Nancy later testified that Charles provided for Sarah “as husbands do and should for their families.”[vii]
Life changed for the Butlers when Charles, now promoted to corporal, left Portsmouth with his regiment in the spring of 1864, leaving pregnant Sarah behind.[viii] The couple stayed in touch by letter; a sergeant in Charles’s company later testified that “he has known the said Charles Butler to write often to his said wife … he has often with gladness shown letters rec[eive]d from his said wife when he was in the field.”[ix] Sarah must have had someone to read and write letters for her, as she signed legal documents with an “X” and was listed in the 1870 census as unable to read or write.[x]
The 1st U.S. Colored Infantry moved up the James River in May 1864 as part of Brigadier General Edward W. Hinks’s USCT division, repelling a Confederate assault on Fort Pocahontas at Wilson’s Wharf in Charles City County on 24 May. This battle was a morale booster for African Americans: outnumbered USCT units, acting alone, were victorious in their first major encounter with soldiers of Robert E. Lee’s army.[xi] On 15 June, Hinks’s division attacked the outer defenses of Petersburg. They captured several artillery batteries in brutal hand-to-hand combat, suffering over 500 casualties.[xii] Among the dead was Charles Butler, “killed instantly” by a Confederate shell.[xiii] Two of his fellow soldiers later recalled that he was killed while picking up his unit’s flag, “which had been knocked from the Color-bearer’s hands.”[xiv]
Charles and Sarah’s daughter, Mary Elizabeth Butler, was born on 9 September 1864, almost three months after her father’s death.[xv] To help support her child and herself, Sarah applied in September 1868 and again in July 1869 for a federal pension as a soldier’s widow, which was granted in November 1869. As long as she remained single, she was to receive $8 per month for herself, retroactive to the day after Charles’s death, as well as $2 per month for Mary from 25 July 1866, when the act providing for children of deceased soldiers was passed, until her sixteenth birthday.[xvi]
The family desperately needed the money. Sarah was listed in the 1870 census as an “invalid” living with her mother, a 49-year-old washerwoman. To add to the family’s problems, their house burned down sometime between Charles’s death and 1871.[xvii] Another problem came in December 1870, when a federal auditor revoked Sarah’s pension on the grounds that her marriage “was not in accordance with provisions of law.”[xviii] Witness affidavits submitted with her pension applications had made it clear that although there was no legal ceremony, the couple “were married by mutual consent” and “were regarded as husband and wife, by all their friends, and the men of the Reg[imen]t.”[xix] This is interesting evidence that just as marriages of slaves had no legal ceremony or recognition, it was also common for free African Americans to marry without the presence of a clergyman or magistrate, both before and after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Sarah’s response to the revocation of the pension was to gather witnesses again, this time before a judge instead of a notary public. On 28 June 1871 Sarah’s mother Nancy, family friend Mollie Wilson, and Charles Henderson, formerly a sergeant in Company E, all testified in Norfolk County Court that they witnessed the marriage of Charles and Sarah and that the couple were joined “by mutual consent … that being the manner of marrying by coloured persons at that time.” Next-door neighbor Alice Foreman testified about Charles and Sarah that “he always acknowledged her to be his wife and she acknowledged herself to be his wife, borne his name and was so taken and reputed by all persons.” On 29 June two “highly respectable” white citizens, grocer Peter Gallerlain and his wife Catharine, testified that Charles paid Sarah’s grocery bills and “introduced [her] as his wife every where.”[xx] Submitting official court transcripts of this testimony paid off for Sarah, although she had to wait over three years. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano personally approved restoration of the pension in September 1874, declaring that “the original allowance of Mrs. Butler’s pension was in accordance with the spirit and meaning of the pension laws” and ordering that she receive full payment for the years when the pension had been suspended.[xxi]
These documents show that even eyewitness accounts need to be checked against other evidence, especially when the accounts were written several years after the event described. In 1868, witnesses said that Sarah and Charles married in November 1863.[xxii] In 1869 and 1871, witnesses said the wedding was in July 1863.[xxiii] The history of Charles’s regiment shows that the date must have been in the fall because the 1st USCT did not arrive in Portsmouth until September.[xxiv] Witnesses also disagreed about where and when Charles died. Members of his regiment testifying in 1868 thought he had died in combat north of the James River in September 1864.[xxv] Other comrades who testified in 1869 believed he had died in the attack on Petersburg in June 1864.[xxvi] Service records prove that the June date was correct.[xxvii]
Charles and Sarah’s daughter, Mary Elizabeth, died in Portsmouth on 5 November 1881 at age 17. The cause of death was listed as “unknown.”[xxviii] Sarah disappears from the records after 1874; her name has not been found in the 1880 census, the Bureau of Vital Statistics marriage index, or the death registers of Portsmouth and Norfolk County. Still, records created for legal and administrative purposes can shed a surprising amount of light on the struggles, and sometimes the heroism, of poor and obscure people.
Commemorative stamp based on painting, dated 1892, by J. Andr_ Castaigne (painting courtesy of the West Point Museum, United States Military Academy, West Point, NY).