The citizen historians of Decoding the Civil War have uncovered many interesting telegrams since the project opened on June 21, 2016. They have highlighted telegrams that discuss the Fort Pillow Massacre, the capture of Jefferson Davis, the loss of family, and messages to and from President Lincoln. Periodically one is pulled out by a volunteer that strikes a chord with them and they add a note about it that they have found through research. One example is this from Ledger 9 of the Thomas T. Eckert Papers:
Baltimore Oct 22nd 1863 240 PM
Capt. Tod Pro Mar Jno
H South or on mur
der er of 2nd Lieut
Eben White is wounded slightly
on the side of face
perhaps in Ear by mus
ket ball Wm. Birney Col
&c approved Cheseborough
(mssEC_09_226, Thomas T. Eckert papers. The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.)
Zooniverse user JustStardust spotted this telegram and added:
The first telegram announces the murder of a union officer by a plantation owner.
John Henry Sothoron, on October 19, 1863, killed 2nd Lt. Eben White who attempting to recruit the slaves of Sothoron’s plantation.
Sothoron’s name is misspelled in the dispatch.
This caught me – a plantation owner murdering a Union officer? Where, when, why? This single telegram, this All Points Bulletin or APB if you will, raised the curtain on a very interesting vignette.
The message was sent to the Provost Marshal of Washington, D.C., Capt. H.B. Todd (also misspelled in the message) by Colonel William Birney, the Recruiting and Mustering Officer for the 2nd United States Colored Troops in Maryland. Birney was under orders from Major General Schenck to find a site to build a camp for the newly recruited USCT troops as well as their instruction along the Patuxent River in St. Mary’s County.
At the time of the camp’s establishment (later named Camp Stanton), in the fall of 1863, there were still slaves in Maryland (Maryland was not covered by the Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863). The camp and recruiting stations for former slaves were authorized under orders from the War Department at the beginning of October, 1863. Those orders, preserved in the Official Records, stated:
Any citizen of Maryland who shall offer his or her slave for enlistment into the military service shall, if such slave be accepted, receive from the recruiting officer a certificate thereof, with a descriptive list of such slave, and become entitled to compensation for the service or labor of said slave, not to exceed the sum of $300, upon filing with the above board a valid deed of manumission and release, and making satisfactory proof of title, and any slave so enlisting shall be forever thereafter free.
(OR, retrieved from http://ehistory.osu.edu/books/official-records/124/0938)
The enthusiasm with which the recruiters sought fresh troops did not make the slave owners of Maryland happy. The killing of Eben White provides evidence of how resistant some of these owners were. According to a report forwarded by Birney, Lt. White had heard of slaves being tied up at John H. Sothoron’s plantation, The Plains, in order to prevent them from joining the Union Army. White went to The Plains with two privates from the 7th USCT and confronted Sothoron and his son on the porch:
Lieutenant White went up to them and said,” Is this Mr. Sothoron? ” and he answered, ” Yes ; that’s my name.” The lieutenant said,” I heard that you have some of your servants tied up.” Sothoron answered, ‘”Yes, sir; I have them tied.” The lieutenant said, “I want them.” Sothoron answered,” You can’t get ’em.” The lieutenant, “You say I can’t get ’em?” Sothoron, “No, sir; you can’t get ’em.” The lieutenant,” Well, sir, you know the law.” Sothoron, “Yes, sir ; I know it.” As soon as he said that the lieutenant turned and called me [Private Bantum], and we went by the side of the house. He told [Private] Black to come on. We started right down the fence to the barn. There we met a young colored man. The lieutenant asked him if he wanted to enlist. He answered, “Yes, sir.” The lieutenant told him to come on, then, and go with him. We went on further and found another colored man piling up tobacco. Lieutenant White asked him the same question, and he answered, “Yes, sir.” The lieutenant told him to come on and go with him, when the boy looked behind him and saw his master coming and stopped. The lieutenant said,” Come on, my friend, and go with me.” The boy said, “I’m afraid my master will shoot me.” The lieutenant said, “Never mind about that; come with me.”
(Murder of Lieut. Eben White, report from 1874 responding to request for compensation, https://archive.org/details/murderoflieutebe00unit.)
Following White and Privates Bantum and Black, Sothoron and his son protested that White was stealing their slaves: “[Lt. White] said, ‘Mr. Sothoron, I am attending to my business, as I was sent to do.’ Sothoron answered, ‘Business? Hell and damnation! I know right from wrong as well as you do.’” After a few more choice words, Sothoron and his son shot and killed White. Private Bantum fired his gun at Sothoron and then ran for the boat on which the Union officer and troops arrived. Sothoron and his son fled into Virginia.
With Private Bantum’s account the Union authorities believed that he may have been injured, and that injury would help identify him. Thus the above message. Sothoron was never caught. His plantation was occupied by the US Government and used as relocation camp for freed slaves from Virginia. After the war Sothoron returned to Maryland, and sought compensation from the US Government for the losses and damage done to his plantation. His claim was rejected.
How wonderful that a simple, short telegram can lead to such an interesting and yet largely forgotten episode from the Civil War. This telegram becomes the entry point to a larger discussion and understanding of the complexities of Maryland during the Civil War. There are many other similar telegrams throughout the ledgers. So many little entry points with similar stories to remind us that even an event as sweeping as the Civil War was composed of very complex everyday events. Such as the killing of 2nd Lt. Eben White.