Saturday, January 25, 2014

More about Charles Henry Gamble: USCT Freedom Fighter, Family Man

Image courtesy of

A few weeks ago I received from the National Archives the Civil War pension file I had requested for Charles Henry Gamble, my godfather's maternal grandfather, who I first wrote about last month.  Since then I have been thinking a lot about Henry, as he was known, and of all the soldiers who served in the United States Colored Troops. As Henry Louis Gates wrote in a post on, it was the pressure brought to bear by people like Frederic Douglas and Lincoln's own generals that led to the decision to authorize Black soldiers to serve in the Union Army and to bear arms. The recent vandalism at  the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington DC suggests that even now, 150 years later, some people are still uncomfortable with the USCT.

These Black soldiers were fighting for the Union, yes, but theirs was truly a fight for freedom, and for the people who would come after them.  They fought on two fronts: against the Rebel forces, but also against their own government that wanted to pay them less than White soldiers, as well as those who bitterly opposed their service, sometimes including their own officers. And then, too, they had to contend with the horrors of war.  I am grateful for their service and especially Henry's service.  Like all soldiers, he sacrificed much in serving in the USCT.

Henry was 17 when he enlisted in the 42nd regiment of the United States Colored Infantry (USCI) in October 1864.  One of the soldiers who served with Henry, James Norwood of Loudon, Tennessee, testified that just a few months after he enlisted, Henry became sick as the soldiers slogged through water on a march to defend the garrison in Chattanooga against guerrilla raids during the winter of 1865.   Chattanooga is subject to "wet and frigid conditions" during winter, and Henry's illness was compounded by having a tooth extracted and the nerve exposed to extreme cold.  He was treated in camp, but never sent to a hospital. In its informational series on Black Soldiers in the Civil War, the National Park Service notes that medical care is one area where African American soldiers fared much worse than their White counterparts, so Henry's experiences were not atypical.

Later, all three doctors who examined  Henry as part of his Civil War pension claim agreed that his exposure during the war led to disabling rheumatism, and the poorly executed tooth extraction appears to have caused neuralgia of the face, head, and neck and possibly contributed to his becoming completely deaf in his right ear.  James Norwood reported that Henry was in such extreme pain during the war that he was sometimes unable to perform guard duty.

No mention is made in the pension file of the fact that Charles Henry spent all of the fall of 1865 "in arrest" for "mutinous conduct."  I wonder if his mutinous conduct was simply being in too much pain to perform as a soldier?

The pain that began during his Civil War service haunted Henry for the next 30 years and occasionally made it difficult for him to work as a farmer or as a carpenter. Carpentry is a skill that he may well have developed while in the Army--one of the chief tasks of the 42nd USCI was building a bridge in Chattanooga.

Two of the three men who testified on  behalf of Henry's pension claim served in the USCT as well though they served in the 1st Heavy Artillery regiment (USCHA) out of Knoxville. Beginning in the summer of 1865, this regiment was  based in Chattanooga along with Henry's regiment.   Thomas Lillard and Allen Garner of the USCHA were from Maryville in Blount County, Tennessee, and I have wondered if they might have met Henry while he was in the service and encouraged him to settle in their hometown.

Among the documents in Henry's pension file was an affidavit attesting to his marriage in 1868 to Mary Lucinda Wilson. Another USCHA soldier from Maryville, Alexander Wilson, was the same age as Henry, and may have been kin to Mary Lucinda.  Allen Garner testified that he knew Mary Lucinda before the war. Perhaps Alexander or Allen introduced Henry to Mary?

I had hoped to learn something about the early lives of Henry and Mary from the pension file. Only two things were said about  Henry's life before the war: that he had been a farmer, and that he was physically healthy when he enlisted.  As I reported in my first post on Charles Henry,  the 42nd was known as an "invalid" regiment.  While none of the medical affidavits offered  on Henry's behalf in his application for a pension in 1890 and again in 1894 suggested any health problems other than his service related maladies, a military physician examining him in 1894 indicated that he had a heart murmur, which if detected in his initial military screening might have consigned him to the 42nd.  Or perhaps it was his youth.

According to a 2005 article by Becky Blankenship Darrell that appeared in the Blount Journal, the men who served in the USCT had a large impact on their community when they returned after the war. Allen Garner and Thomas Lillard were leaders in the African American community in Maryville, the former becoming a lawyer and justice of the peace and the latter leading efforts to create schools for Blacks in Maryville. Darrell, the current editor of the Blount Journal and a historian and officer in the Blount County Genealogical and Historical Society, recently revised the article.  In the revision, she notes that Thomas Lillard, another USCHA veteran named Oscar Wilson,  and Charles Henry Gamble together helped to organize St. Paul AME Zion Church in Maryville which is still an active congregation almost 150 years later. The Sunday School, which Henry was later in charge of, was organized immediately after the war in 1866, and the first church building was erected in 1886. Given his occupation as a carpenter, I  believe Henry was very likely involved in building the church.  A photo of the congregation shortly after the church was opened can be seen here. In a recent email communication, Ms. Darrell tells me that Henry, Mary, and their children would most assuredly have been in the photo. Other USCT veterans are also thought to be in the photo. These men gave much to their community as well as to their country.

On Oct. 10, 1895, the first page of the Maryville Times included this brief announcement:

Henry Gamble, a well-known colored man of our town,  died...[earlier this week].

According to the pension file and the notice in the Times, Henry died from the lingering effects of the war, and complications of exposure to "La Grippe" the previous year, when there was a last outbreak of the influenza epidemic that took the lives of many around the world from 1890 to 1894.

His widow, Mary Lucinda, received a pension  for herself and the 5 children under 16 that Henry left her to raise alone when he died at just 49 years old,  (They had 11 children altogether, one of whom predeceased Henry.)  Initially, Mary's pension was $8. per month for herself, plus  $2. a month for each of the 5 younger children, an amount equivalent to  $440. or more per month in today's dollars according to the website, The pension was critical in enabling Mary to purchase her own home, to send all of her children to school and most to college. Two of her grandsons, including my godfather, lived with Mary in her home in Maryville, also benefiting from the pension.

The pain that Henry endured as a consequence of his service was, to an extent, compensated for by the pension and the support it provided to his children and grandchildren.  But Henry left an even more important, though less tangible, legacy for those who came after him.  Learning about Henry's service in the war and to his community afterwards has helped me to understand where my godfather's great pride in his family and interest in public service came from.

While I learned much about Henry and Mary from the pension file,  I have many more questions still to explore concerning Charles Henry Gamble.  How did he get from his birthplace of Norfolk, VA to Chattanooga?  Had he been a slave (his family oral history says yes), and if so, who held him in bondage?  Who were his parents, and was one of them white (which might account for his grey eyes)?   Finally, a recent thread on Facebook has me curious about Henry's medical conditions, and whether there may be clues about genetic predispositions in descendants.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

DNA and Ancestral Affinities: Is it in the Genes?

Have you ever felt a strong affinity for a culture or nation, and then discovered a possible genetic link?  One of my DNA cousins, Maurice of Geechee Moe's Ancestry, wrote in a recent post about his long time love of all things Jamaican and his delight at discovering a Jamaican cousin. It made me think about my own experiences of ancestral affinities.

When I was a kid, I fell in love with baseball.  My hometown team had several future Hall of Famers: Willie Mays and Willie McCovey. Now I always liked these two, but I was especially drawn to the many Latin players on the San Francisco Giants.  The Alou brothers, Felipe (who would later manage the team), Matty, and Jose, from the Dominican Republic.  Orlando Cepeda, or the Baby Bull, from Puerto Rico.  And my all-time favorite, the Dominican Dandy, Juan Marichal.  
From my DNATribes Admixture Analysis
I felt a kinship with these players because, very simply, they looked like me. And even as a young kid who knew nothing about racial admixtures,  I sensed that we probably shared a similar mix of bloodlines, African, European and a bit of Native American. 
Sure enough, a DNATribes analysis of my admixture shows that the country where I would likely find the most genetic matches is the Dominican Republic.  So perhaps my affinity was in my genes!  

As a young teen, I discovered the work of Chaim Potok, who wrote The Chosen and The Promise about  two young men growing up within the confines of  a very conservative branch of Judaism.  I didn't know why I was so powerfully drawn to these stories, or the  similar books I read, but I was not surprised to learn that  I have Jewish heritage.  My maternal grandfather's paternal grandparents were Jews whose lineage goes back to Lithuania.  My great great grandfather Zorach Hirshson had a brother who became a Rabbi, while he was the first to leave to come to America.  I wonder if Zorach's experiences could have been somewhat similar to those of the men I read about; did he leave to break away from a conservative branch of Judaism?  His older children, the ones born in Latvia, remained observant, but my great grandfather, William Hirshson, married outside the faith, and his son, my grandfather Louis, never mentioned his Jewish heritage.

I have had three other experiences that demonstrated not so much cultural affinities, but what I would call deep ancestral memories.  The first occurred when I attended a PowWow while working in Michigan.  When I heard the drumming, I had an immediate experience of remembrance. I knew the sounds, the rhythms, and felt I could have joined the dance.  Though my percentage of Native American ancestry is relatively low, at just 1.5%, it seems as if it still resonates within me.
My second experience of this kind of deep remembering was standing on the Hill at Tara, in County Meath,  Ireland.  Kings were crowned there, but what I remembered were the spiritual rituals. Tara was sacred to the Druids, and that is how deep the memory was.  According to, I am 22% Irish, and I never felt it more than that day.  

My third experience of a deep ancestral memory was watching a performance of Alonzo King's

Lines ballet, The People of the Forest, with Nzamba Lela, a group of dancers and musicians  from the Aka or BaAka (also known as BiAka) people of the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Again, as with the drums at the Pow Wow, I recognized the rhythms and the moves as they danced.  And I also immediately understood some of the origins of my own short stature.  The BaAka are a nomadic pygmy group (
see this site for more information). According to one of the admixture tools on (Africa9),  I have about 5% Biaka ancestry.

What experiences of ancestral affinities or deep remembering have you had, if any, and do you believe that they could be because of genetic influences?   

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

During 2014 I Resolve to...

  1. Dig deeper in my research.  It's time to delve into the realities beyond the infamous 1870 divide in African American genealogy.  Who enslaved my kin?  What did my kin experience while enslaved?
  2. Celebrate every new discovery, no matter how small.  Each step takes me closer to knowing  my Ancestors.
  3. Branch out in my search.  I need to know more about the communities that my kin lived in. Thanks Sharon Morgan for posting in Our Black Ancestry the link to Angela Walton-Raji's video, Study Your Ancestors Community which gives great advice on how to do this.
  4. Participate more fully in the genealogy community, including encouraging the efforts of others, learning from those who have wisdom and experience to impart, and sharing what I know as well.  I'll look for opportunities to collaborate in research.
  5. Gather clues about the "Caribbean connection" I have heard about from the Ancestors. Who is the obeah woman, and what island did she live on?  I have seen the island in my "mind's eye,"  and believe I will know it when I step on it.  That is why I am bound and determined to visit as many islands as I can.  Barbados, Eleuthera,  St. John, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, here I come!

Those are my genealogical resolutions for the coming year.  What are yours?

From my last visit to the Bahamas