1861: Philip Henry Powers to Roberta (Smith) Powers

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Henry Philip Powers, 1st Virginia Cavalry

This incredible July 4, 1861 letter from Philip Henry Powers (1838-1887) of the famous 1st Virginia Cavalry to his wife, Roberta Macky Smith (1831-1919), recounting his experience in the Battle of Hoke’s Run (also termed first Battle of Falling Waters) two days earlier. Though small, this battle represented the first use of cavalry in the Civil War. Powers enlisted as a private but was a good friend of JEB Stuart and eventually became Stuart’s Quartermaster. Many of Power’s letters (including this one) were included in Robert Trout’s 1995 book: “With Pen & Saber; the letters and diaries of JEB Stuart’s staff officers.”

What makes this letter particularly interesting is Power’s noting that during the skirmish “one fellow [about to be captured] was creeping away under cover of a fence when he was shot dead by the only negro in our party.” The validity of this recounting is confirmed in the battle’s report by the unit’s Brigade commander (and other sources). The Negro was James Humbles (1834-1906)—a free ‘mulatto’ from Lexington, Virginia, who was the only Negro on the roster of the 1st Virginia Cavalry at the time of this skirmish. Humbles enlisted on April 18, 1861 and was identified on the roster as a “bugler.” Of interest and relevant importance is the fact that Humbles’ mustering roll document states “free negro. Mustering officer thinks this man should not be mustered.” It is assumed that Humbles was accepted as a Confederate soldier because he was known and liked by certain members in the unit. It’s possible that Humbles was not even a “bugler” but only identified as such on the roster merely to make his presence there as an equal somehow more palatable to his comrades. It may also have been done because Confederate law prohibited blacks from bearing arms in the war, though Humbles clearly did.

Black Confederate soldiers (as opposed to slaves who accompanied their owners to war and sometimes bore arms when necessary) were extremely rare and probably confined to Virginia which had the largest numbers of free negroes among the Confederate States. Readers are referred to Kevin M. Levin’s excellent (2019) publication entitled, “Searching for Black Confederates, the Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth.”

Humbles left the unit after an indeterminate time, likely within a year or so after entry, possibly as it became even less acceptable for blacks to be considered true confederate soldiers. Public records indicate that prior to the Civil War, Humbles was employed as the operator at Lexington’s waterworks. In 1860 he was living with Frances (“Fanny”) Brooks, a Black woman who took in laundering. The couple were married in 1863 and by 1866 he was employed as a stable keeper. In 1880, Humbles was listed as a general merchant and he rented a few acres one which he raised hay, oats and corn. He owned a horse and employed help. After Fanny died, he married Eveline Myers who ran her own restaurant and employed two people.

[Note: This letter is from the personal collection of Richard Weiner and is published here by express consent.]

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TRANSCRIPTION

Camp at Big Spring
July 4th

My dear wife,

Though within 2 miles of the enemy who are in Martinburg and just this side, I seize the first leisure moment for two days to write you a line merely to assure you of my safety this far. We have had a stirring and exciting time for the 2 days past. Tuesday morning we heard that the enemy were crossing at Williamsport. Col. [J. E. B.] Stuart instantly had us in the saddle and marched down to meet them keeping on their flank. Almost before we knew it, we came upon their lines. And finding one company ¹ of about fifty men detached and resting under a tree, we charged them, surrounded and captured every man of them except four who ran and were killed. One fellow was creeping away under cover of a fence when he was shot dead by the only negro in our party. However, we made a most narrow escape for we had hardly started our prisoners when a whole regiment of infantry came up to the place where this skirmish had taken place and pursued us. We were too fast for them and got off with all the prisoners, their arms and accoutrements. ²

About this time, Col. [Thomas J.] Jackson’s command met the enemy and a skirmish ensued. We could hear the firing but could not see the engagement. As we were on the flank and most of the time in the woods. Col. Jackson retired in a short time and we continued to watch the enemy until they went into camp on the ground we occupied the night before. We camped just outside of Martinsburg—sleeping on this ground without blankets or food—our baggage being at Bunker Hill. You may imagine the comfort of our position. However, I managed to sleep some though I had a terrible headache.

Yesterday morning the enemy ³ advanced upon Martinsburg and we retired before them keeping just without range of their guns. They are in large force, though we cannot exactly estimate their numbers. They marched upon the place in battle array, their glistening [bayonets] gleaning in the sun as their lines hurried through the fields, their main column in the road. We retired through Martinsburg. Sadly—I assure you—I could hardly refrain from shedding tears when I saw weeping women, hurrying out, and all in alarm. God will yet vindicate the right and enable us to drive this invader from our soil. I imagine General Johnston wishes to draw them from the river before he gives them battle. What our movement will be today, I cannot tell. We are now resting and our pickets watching the enemy.

I had expected to come home this week. Of course you will not expect or desire it now. Had I time I might write you many incidents worth mentioning that have occurred, but the man who is to take this is waiting. I only ask you not to be uneasy about me. I am well and shall take care of myself and discharge my duty to the best of my ability. God bless your my dear, and protect you and my little children. I heard from you through some of Morgan’s company.

Ever yours, — P. H. Powers


¹ The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1861-1865, states that the casualties were: 14th Pennsylvania: 12 Captured (the 1st Virginia Cavalry took 47 prisoners from Co. A, 14th and Co. I, 15th Pennsylvania).

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The Mustering Record of James Humbles, a “Free Negro” into the Confederate Service. Includes statement, “mustering office should not be mustered in.”

² In a history of the 15th Pennsylvania Volunteers, the following account of the skirmish was published: “On the morning of the 2d of July, the army crossed the Potomac, the 5th Brigade having the right of the 2d Division and passing Major General Patterson in review. About one mile from the ford Negley’s Brigade diverged from the line of march of the main column, and moved by a road leading to the right, having Co. A of the Fourteenth regiment, and Co. I of the Fifteenth thrown forward to right and left as skirmishers. Scarcely expecting to meet the enemy, the skirmishers—about three hundred yards in advance of the column—were suddenly confronted by a battalion of Colonel Ashby’s cavalry, dressed in blue blouses, and having the general appearance of Union troops. Emerging from a thick wood in the direction of Falling Waters, they rode leisurely forward and halted at a fence. The skirmishers, mistaking them for our own cavalry, obeyed the order of Colonel Ashby to “let down the fence.” No sooner was this done, than the rebel leader, followed by some forty of his men, rode into the field, surrounded the unsuspecting party, shot down the First Sergeant, and demanded the surrender of the entire body, consisting of the Second Lieutenant, John B. Hutchinson, and thirty-four men. Before they had time to fire, or hardly to comprehend their situation, they found themselves in the clutches of the enemy, and were quickly ‘hurried:” away. The skirmishers on the left were prevented from firing, for fear of shooting their captive comrades. The column was at once thrown into line, and marched in pursuit of Ashby; but, having no cavalry, the pursuit was vain. Ashby escaped with his prisoners, and the result of his strategy was heralded through the South as a brilliant affair. But among honorable men, stealing up to an enemy in the disguise of companions in arms, has always been regarded as an act of cowardice.”  I suppose the truth of this affair lies somewhere between these two widely varying accounts.

³ The Union troops were under the command of Maj.-General Robert Patterson’s division who occupied Martinsburg but eventually withdrew to Harpers Ferry rather than keep Jackson’s army engaged, thus enabling Jackson to march to support Beauregard at First Bull Run.

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