‘The Soldier’ from Sussex County: A long overdue story
Dianne Cross’ curiosity grew about the portrait of the black man in blue uniform that hung in her grandmother’s home. As a youth, Diane had simply identified him as “The Soldier.” According to family oral history, someone had captured this person as a small boy, and he ended up as a slave on David Hall’s plantation in Sussex County, Del.
Nancy Jennis Olds tells a remarkable and heartwarming story in the October 2012 issue of Civil War News about Cross, who began an investigative journey that would lead her to the identity of “The Soldier.”
Cross was especially motivated in 1990 after viewing Ken Burns’ documentary film “The Civil War” that broke all previous records for PBS programming and ignited latent interest in that period of American history throughout the United States.
As Cross told her story to Olds, she learned from the U.S. Census records of 1850 that plantation owner David Hall had two slaves, including a 13-year-old male slave. From records in the National Archives and other sources, she discovered a man named Isaac Hall who joined the Union Army from Sussex County in 1863, with the approval of his slave master. This came about after the War Department enticed slave owners with $300 compensation to permit their slaves to enlist.
Isaac Hall also directly benefited from this transaction when David Hall signed a Deed of Manumission and Release of Service in return for the $300 payment that officially made Isaac a free man. All this came about in March 1864.
Hall apparently put his newfound freedom to good use, because he quickly rose to the rank of sergeant in Company K, 32nd U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment. This unit was formed and trained at Camp William Penn in Philadelphia. Because of the racial divide that existed at that time, no U.S. Colored Troop (USCT) regiments were formed in Delaware. Black Delaware citizens who wished to join the Union Army were required to travel to another state to do so.
In November 1864, the 32nd USCT fought in South Carolina, alongside the famed 54th Massachusetts USCT — the first black unit to be formed in the North. These units were part of Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s forces.
As the war neared its end in 1865, the 32nd was engaged frequently in skirmishes with the enemy. When the Confederates surrendered in May, Isaac Hall and his unit performed garrison duty in Charleston, Beaufort and Hilton Head, S.C.
When Hall mustered out of service in August 1865, he took his wife and two children to Camden, N.J. A third child, Rachel, arrived in 1880. Rachel would be Cross’ great-grandmother. This meant that Isaac Hall was Cross’ great-great-grandfather. Isaac passed from this earth in 1902, a year after his wife, Louvinia, died.
Olds, in her Civil War News article, relates that Cross feels “a real connection with Isaac Hall’s spirit and that he wants his story to be told.” His great-great-granddaughter is proud that he served in the Union Army. This pride is manifested in her YouTube appearance, called “Long Overdue Story.”
Cross established a Web site, at www.longoverduestory.com, that includes Hall’s records. The Web site’s mission is “to tell the long overdue story of one of the 209,145 African-American Civil War soldiers. My great-great-grandfather fought … to preserve the Union and abolish slavery. This is an American history story that must be told.”
The saga of Isaac Hall and his descendants has a local connection, given that William Oliver of Frankford served as a corporal in Hall’s Company K, 32nd USCT, during the Civil War. Oliver’s descendants live in Frankford, and the Union soldier’s remains rest in the local Antioch African Methodist Episcopal Church cemetery. His name, rank, company and regiment appear on a United States Civil War gravestone within a sunken shield design and the inscription in bas-relief.
In answer to my query about her experiences since learning about her ancestor’s history, Cross said the responses “have been overwhelming.” She has spoken at the African-American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C., been interviewed by a local PBS affiliate and received positive comments about her You Tube appearance. She advises others who have curiosity about their ancestors’ role during the Civil War to contact the National Archives as a starting point.
In “Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers,” Joseph T. Glatthaar related, “For black soldiers, donning the United States Army uniform … signified their elevated status, their treatment as near equals.” For one elated former slave, “This was the biggest thing that ever happened in my life. I felt like a man with a uniform on and a gun in my hand.” Another rejoiced, “I felt freedom in my bones.”
Isaac Hall and William Oliver are two of the nearly 1,000 black men from Delaware who joined the Union army to help re-unite this country and to secure freedom for those still in bondage. Their stories illustrate the sacrifice individuals are willing to make to achieve liberty and equality.
Thomas J. Ryan is a Civil War author and speaker and former president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table in Dover. He lives in Bethany Beach. Contact him at email@example.com.