(Note: I am sorry that the links in this article are, for the most part, no longer active. Chalk it up to a mistake in hosting services . . . though the text included in this article remains very relevant, even without the links and photos).
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about visiting Beaufort National Cemetery and paying respects to my father and to his next door neighbor, Private (PVT) Harris, of the United States Colored Troops, the African-American soldiers who fought for the Union in the Civil War. (In the “Beaufort National Cemetery” link in the last sentence, if you look three rows to the left of the big live oak tree in the middle of the shot, there’s an American flag on a grave; that’s my father, and PVT Harris is one grave closer to the camera).
When standing at his grave, I’ve always looked at PVT Harris’ discolored, weathered stone and read his name as “L. Harris,” but as I was looking at my pictures again after I got home, I glanced at a contrast-enhanced, close-up shot of his marker and realized that it actually said “_ Harris.”
They didn’t know his first name! He fought for his country and his freedom under the most harrowing circumstances imaginable (when black soldiers were captured by Confederate troops, they weren’t treated as POW’s, but rather as escaped slaves, and it was a capital offense for escaped slaves to bear arms; atrocities were common), died, was buried in a National Cemetery . . . and they didn’t know his first name! How crazy wrong is that? Wow!
I’ve been thinking about PVT Harris a lot since realizing that he was buried without a first name, so I decided to do little research to see what I could find. The official register of graves at the National Cemetery did, indeed, list him without a first name, as follows:
Harris, d. 11/11/1865, PVT 128 USCT, 11/11/1865, Plot: 32 3442
This tells me that he died on November 11, 1865 (which half a century later would become Veteran’s Day), and that he was a Private in the 128th Infantry of the U.S.C.T.
The 128th was one of the last U.S.C.T. regiments formed: it was organized at Hilton Head, South Carolina from April 23 to 29, 1865, served in the Department of the South, and was mustered out on October 20, 1865.
I found a roster of the 128th Infantry, and was intrigued to note that there was no one with the surname “Harris” in the unit. That’s not entirely surprising, since looking a surnames of major slave owners in Beaufort County in 1860, there were no Harrises there either. (Though, alas, my forebears Congressman William Ferguson Colcock and Colonel Charles J. Colcock are on the list, along with various Huguenins, Gregories and Heywards, also relatives of mine).
It occured to me then that “Harris” might not have been a last name: if a soldier fell and his comrades could only identify him by one name, might it be a first name instead of a surname? I re-searched the roster of the 128th Infantry and, sure enough, found two records, back to back:
Harris Deppee, Company A, (no incoming or outgoing rank listed)
Harris Deppu, Company A, PVT in, PVT out
It seems hard to believe that “Harris Deppee” and “Harris Deppu,” both in the same company, were different people. I suspect there was a record-keeping error here, and these records represent a single person. Could this be PVT Harris, my father’s neighbor?
Maybe, though there was another thing that was bothering me about this information: If the 128th Infantry was mustered out on October 20, 1865, and PVT Harris died on November 11, 1865, then why was he buried in the National Cemetery? Perhaps he had been injured before his unit was disenrolled, lingered, died, and then was buried. But if that were case, it would seem that there would have been more information available about him, from those who cared for him during his terminal injury, at least enough to provide a full name for a grave.
I began to wonder whether the National Cemetery’s records about PVT Harris were accurate with regard to his unit. There were only six Infantry regiments of U.S.C.T. troops enlisted from South Carolina: the 21st, 33rd, 34th, 103rd, 104th and 128th, so it was relatively easy to look at the rosters and dates of service for each of those units to see if perhaps PVT Harris had been posthumously assigned to the wrong unit.
The 21st Infantry U.S.C.T. was organized from earlier units of the S.C.C.I. (South Carolina Colored Infantry). They conducted garrison duty at Charleston and Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, until August, 1865 and at various points in South Carolina and Georgia until October, 1866. They had four Harrises: Cato, George, Napoleon and Simmons. It’s possible one of them is my dad’s neighbor, especially since Cato Harris of the 21st is also buried at Beaufort, having died July 29, 1864.
The 33rd Infantry U.S.C.T. was also formed from earlier S.C.C.I. units. The 33rd was at Pocotaligo, South Carolina until February, 1865, then were involved in the occupation of Charleston until March 8. They moved to Savannah on March 8, and served there until June 6. They moved from there to Augusta, Georgia and served there and at various points in the Department of the South until January, 1866. They had six Harrises: Arthur, Edward, two Georges, Isaac and William. It seems unlikely that any of them would have ended up at Beaufort National Cemetery either, since the unit had moved into Georgia by the time PVT Harris died.
The 34th Infantry was a heavily-deployed combat unit also formed from the S.C.C.I. Among many other engagements, they fought in the Battle of Honey Hill near Beaufort, in which the Confederate Troops were commanded by my ancestor, the aforementioned Colonel Charles J. Colcock. This seemed auspicious, until I noted that Honey Hill was contested on November 30, 1865, 19 days after PVT Harris died. The 34th has been in Florida until November 25, when they were ordered north, so it seems unlikely that one of the their three Harrises (Andrew, Charles and Harvey) include the one I’m seeking.
The 104th Infantry was organized at Beaufort, April 28 to June 25, 1865. They were attached to Deptartment of the South and performed garrison and guard duty at various points in South Carolina until mustering out on February 5, 1866. Like the 128th, the 104th Infantry contained no one with the surname Harris.
That leaves the 103th, with Jacob, Lewis, Ned, Samuel and Stephen Harris listed on their roster. The 103rd was essentially a sister regiment to the 128th: it was organized at Hilton Head on March 10, 1865 from scratch (not from earlier S.C.C.I regiments), attached to District of Savannah, Department of the South, to June 1865 and then the Department of the South to April, 1866. The 103rd served garrison and guard duty at Savannah and various points in Georgia and South Carolina for their entire term, and were mustered out April 15-20, 1866.
That makes the 103rd the most likely unit in which the enigmatic PVT Harris might have served: it came from Hilton Head (like the 128th), and was still on active service at the time that PVT Harris died in November 1865 (unlike the 128th). If the two units were serving in similar capacities, and both came from Hilton Head, records-keepers at the National Cemetery might not have been overly concerned with distinctions between the two groups.
Interestingly, the Cemetery records list a grave for Isaac Harris of the 103rd Infantry, died May 28, 1865, though he is not listed on the 103rd roster. This sort of confirms my hunch that the units listed for fallen U.S.C.T. soldiers might have been handled in something of a casual, estimated fashion. (Other than the aforementioned Cato and Isaac, there are four other Harrises from the U.S.C.T. at Beaufort: Benjamin of the 26th Infantry from Riker’s Island, NY; Daniel of the 32nd Infantry from Camp William Penn, PA; another Isaac of the 3rd Infantry, also from Camp William Penn;and Taylor, no unit listed).
So I still don’t know whether the fallen soldier who lies next to my father is Jacob, Lewis, Ned, Samuel or Stephen Harris of the 103rd, or George, Napoleon or Simmons Harris of the 21st, but my gut tells me that its slightly more likely to be one of the 103rd soldiers than it is to be one of the 21st, or Harris Deppee/Deppu of the 128th, who had already been sent home by November 11.
I’m going to continue researching to see if I can confirm my gut, and plan to send a letter to the National Cemetery noting the information I’ve collected above, in the hopes that they might have additional information that’s not been made public to date.
PVT Harris needs a first name. Or a last name, if Harris is what his mother called him. And I really want to find out what it is. He deserves having someone interested on his behalf, don’t you think?