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Monday, December 30, 2013

Atwell Young, the Black Confederate

Western Spotsylvania, 1863

     On the eve of the Civil War there were almost 600 free black persons living in Spotsylvania County, the majority of whom lived in the incorporated town of Fredericksburg. Among some of the larger families enumerated in the 1860 census were the Cooks and the Youngs. In the detail of J.F. Gilmer's 1863 map of Spotsylvania shown above, the Cooks are seen at the lower left of the image, the Youngs are at center right. The "FN" designated them as free negroes. [Please note that all images in my blog may be clicked on for enlarged viewing]
     Humphrey and Nancy Young's farm lay on the east side of Catharpin Road just north of the Ni River. Together they had a least seven children, including three boys. Their second youngest son, Atwell, was born about 1841.
     About Atwell's early life nothing is known. Like many of the free mulattoes of Spotsylvania, Atwell's sympathies appear to have been with the Southern cause. Whether this was due to a true identification with the fate of the rebellion or to a prudent act of self-preservation is difficult to say. In 1862 Atwell Young, as well as his older brother Humphrey, worked as a teamster for the Confederate army. The receipt given to Atwell, shown below, reads: "For service of self as teamster for 1 month & 20 days, from Jany 1st to Feb 20 @ 20 $ per month." Atwell was paid by Captain John B. Benton at Brooke Station in Stafford on March 30, 1862. Atwell's mark was witnessed by his neighbor James Pettigrew Chartters, husband of Susan Phillips Chancellor, whose father built Chancellorsville.

Receipt given to Atwell Young, March 1862

     In 1864 Atwell was conscripted into the Confederate army and  with about 1,500 other free blacks and mulattoes was processed at Camp Lee. Their physical appearances were cataloged by Confederate authorities, who took a keen interest in such matters. The table below appears on page 125 of Ervin L. Jordan's excellent book, Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia, University of Virginia Press, 1995. Atwell Young's name is listed here. Jordan points out that these conscripts generally did not serve in combat units, but were assigned as guards at "ordnance and naval depots, railroads, canals and armories."

From Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia

     After the war Atwell married his first wife Betsy Schooler, also born of a free family, on November 25, 1865. Betsy died shortly after they were married and whether they had any children is not known.
     Atwell married his second wife, Ellen F. Cook, on July 11, 1868. Ellen's parents were William Cook and Catherine Acors, who were also free people before the war. William Cook owned an 80 acre farm (shown on the map at the top of today's post) near the intersection of Brock and Orange Plank Roads.
     William Cook, born about 1800, was the son of a black man, presumably a slave, and an English woman who came to America in the 1700s. William claimed to have had 26 children by his two wives. His first wife was a slave, and about her and their children I know almost nothing. In addition to William Cook and his second family the 1850 census show three other Cooks about his age - Susan, James and Lucy - who may possibly have been his siblings. William Cook and his freeborn second wife, Catherine Acors, had at least ten children together, the oldest of whom was Atwell's wife Ellen. The section of Spotsylvania where William and his many descendants established themselves is still known as Cooktown.
     Cook's farm was at the epicenter of two of the largest land battles to have occurred in the western hemisphere, Chancellorsville and Wilderness, and his experiences mirrored those of his equally unlucky neighbors. He also lost one of his enslaved sons during the war, who had been "carried off" as a servant to a Confederate soldier. During the battle of Chancellorsville, Union troops burned much of his fencing for fuel. A year later, during the Wilderness fight, his newly replaced fencing again went up in flames, but whether this happened because of the actions of Federal forces or was due to one of the many uncontrolled wildfires that blazed in the area is not clear. During the Wilderness battle William's house was used as a hospital. Northern soldiers appropriated his livestock and food stores, carrying those provisions off to the James Carpenter property, where a much larger hospital had been set up. The year after the war the First Veteran Volunteers set up camp for a time at Cook's farm during their monumental effort to locate and rebury the remains of Union soldiers. While there the "burial corps" may have pulled down an old log house and used the lumber to build beds for themselves. And, for the third time in as many years, Cook's fencing was burned.
     William Cook's sympathies during the war are somewhat of a mystery, as his statements to the Southern Claims Commission were often self-contradictory. While answering the Commission's long list of questions posed to him by M.F. Pleasants in 1873, he stated that he had always been a Union man. To be considered eligible for compensation for losses sustained during the war, Southern petitioners had to prove that they had been loyal during the conflict. William added: "I had a good many wounded soldiers in my house. I helped them every way I could. I acted as a guide for them to Spotsylvania Court House." Absalom Herndon Chewning, who owned nearby Mount View plantation, affirmed Cook's Union loyalties during the war. William and Henry Acors, Cook's father- and brother-in-law, also testified as to his loyalty.
     But when William Cook was interviewed again in 1878, this time by special commissioner John Smith, his story changed enough that he doomed his own chances for any compensation. Whether he changed his story because of the infirmities of old age - he was by then about 80 years old - or because he no longer felt comfortable being identified as a "union man" is hard to say. He now stated that he pulled down the old log house himself and used most of the lumber to build a barn. He denied that he had ever been a guide for the Union army. And this statement may have been most telling: "My sympathies during the war were with the Southern people and the Southern cause. I did not want to see the South whipped in the struggle."

     Atwell and Ellen Young had at least five children together. The 1870 census shows Atwell listed adjacent to William A. Stephens, a neighbor and friend of my Row ancestors. In addition to farming his own land, Atwell also worked at the saw mill of George Washington Estes Row. The two images below are pages from George Row's ledger books. The first shows the number of ties made by Atwell and his brothers in August and September 1870 for the Fredericksburg & Gordonsville Railroad. The second page is the provision account for the Young brothers for that same period. This was either part of their pay or were the rations provided them at the saw mill's commissary.

Railroad ties made by the Young brothers, 1870

Provision account for Young brothers, 1870



     When George Row died in the spring of 1883, my great grandmother was left with the responsibility of raising three small children, winding down her late husband's business and managing the family farm. In 1884 she contracted for some much needed help, which came in the person of Atwell Young. On February 18 that year Mary Elizabeth Houston Row and Atwell Young signed a sharecropping agreement. Atwell's mark was witnessed by William A. Stephens.

Row-Young sharecropping contract, 1884

     I hope Atwell was able to fulfill his part of the bargain. He died on September 27, 1884.



     During the Civil War Atwell's brother Humphrey also was noted for his service, although it does not  appear that he was conscripted into the army. During the war Humphrey served as body servant to Captain William Augustine Smith, who was aide-de-camp for brigadier general John G. Walker. General Walker witnessed Humphrey's mark on his receipt of payment for his work as a teamster in 1862.

Receipt to Humphrey Young, 1862

     After the war Humphrey Young was also known for his ability as a horse groom and worked for Captain Smith's son in law, Fredericksburg banker A. Randolph Howard. Humphreys' obituary appeared in the October 26, 1906 edition of The Daily Star:

Obituary of Humphrey Young


     Humphrey and his wife continued to farm the Young property on Catharpin Road for the rest of their lives. The 1900 census shows them living there with their grandson, ten year old Sam Ford. Old time Spotsylvania folks (like myself) who used to travel down Catharpin Road 50 years ago will remember Sam sitting on the porch of the small house he built for himself after his wife died. He was quite an interesting character in his own right and I may write more about him later.
     Thirty years ago my father bought some acreage off Catharpin Road and built a house on the site of the old Young place. Today it is the home of my sister. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for keeping Spotsylvania's history alive. They are great and very informative.

    ReplyDelete