1865 letter from a Black Soldier caring for his brother who was dying of scurvy For Sale

1865 letter from a Black Soldier caring for his brother who was dying of scurvy

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1865 letter from a Black Soldier caring for his brother who was dying of scurvy:

1865 letter from a Black Soldier caring for his brother who was dying of scurvy 1865 letter from a Black Soldier caring for his brother who was dying of scurvy

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Exceptionally scarce, poignant, and historically significant Civil War letter from a well-educated African-American soldier who served in the U. S. Colored Troops informing family at home that he was ministering to a brother who was about to die from scurvy.  William Trail to Barzil Trail.  Corpus Christi, Texas to Knightstown, Indiana: 1865. 

This four-page letter is datelined “Corpus Christi Texas, September 20th 1865.” Its accompanying envelope is postmarked “New Orleans LA / 16 Oct 65”. The letter is in nice shape; the envelope has been roughly opened along its left edge. A transcript will be provided.

In this letter, William reports that

“I am quite lame in the left leg with the scurvy but I still go about a little. I went to see James yesterday evening he seemed to take more note of things than he has for a while past, but I tell you I can’t see how he can ever possibly recover he mouth is perfectly rotten one cheek is rotted clear through. I . . . see to having his clothes changed and washed, but that is about all I can do. . . . It is quite an undertaking for me to walk [to the hospital] and back. . . . I will tell you . . . long before this letter reaches you he will be gone to his long home.” (James, in fact, died several days later and his passing is recorded in the Descriptive Logbook of the 28th U. S. Colored Troops which is held by the Gettysburg College Musselman Library.)

William continues his letter with a discussion about receiving both his and James’s final pay (a total of $250), attempting to send some money home, local pies and other foods being sold at vastly inflated prices by locals (and presumably sutlers), and his hope to receive mail and postage stamps from home. 

This is an important letter from a prominent and educated family of African-Americans from Knightstown, a vibrant and thriving community in Henry County composed of former Southern free blacks and escaped slaves who settled in Indiana before the war. In total, there were eight Trail brothers, who lived on their parents’ 160-acre farm. Four of the brothers enlisted in the 28th Regiment of Colored troops which was composed primarily of men from Indiana. Benjamin, a school teacher, was the first brother to enlist, and he rose to the rank of regimental sergeant-major, the highest-ranking black soldier in the unit. He was killed in action at the Battle of the Crater. After his death, two other brothers, William and James joined the 28th and following General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox deployed with the regiment to the Texas border in response to the French establishment of a monarchy in Mexico. (For more information about the Trail Brothers, see “The Trail Brothers and their Civil War Service" in the 28 USCT online at the Indiana Historical Bureau).

Like many Civil War soldiers, William and James both suffered from scurvy, which is caused by a lack of vitamin C, and results in “emaciation and bloating with excessive diarrhea, unhealed wounds, jaundice, . . . dropsy with swelling and severe pain in the feet, . . . ulcerations with frequent bleeding of the gums . . . hemorrhages of the skin [and] bowels, [and] gangrene.” 60% to 75% of the Trail’s unit in Texas were severely afflicted. (See Hertzler’s “Scurvy-American Civil War” in Nutrition Today, Vol 41, No 1. The regimental chaplain noted, "I have spent a great portion of my time at hospitals, and I never witnessed such fearful mortality in all my life. I have not seen a lemon, peach, apple or pair . . . over all that part of the country which we have passed. . . .” (See “The War in the West” in The Indiana Historian, Feb 1994.)

The fourth Trail brother, who was drafted late and survived the war, served in another unit.

An important historical letter from a well-educated African-American soldier at a time when few members of the Colored Troops were able to sign their name with more than an “X.”

While mail from white officers serving in Colored Troop regiments is scarce; letters from literate black enlisted men are truly rare. As of 2019, nothing similar is for sale in the trade, and OCLC shows only two similar letters, one of which was also written by William Trail. Rare book hub reports that only two similar letters have been sold at sale. In 2017 a post-war letter from a literate former African-American soldier to his old commander sold for $8,612 at a Christie’s sale, and in 2013 a wartime letter from another literate African-American soldier in the 28th Regiment of Colored Troops sold for $38,400.  This price of this letter splits the difference between those two sales.


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