Remembering Willis Howcott: a Civil War monument to a Mississippi slave

Howcott-memorial copy
Monument in Memory of Colored Servants of Harvey Scouts. Canton Miss. Erected by W. H. Howcott Click here for a larger image.
Per here: Monument erected by William H. Howcott, a veteran of Harvey’s Scouts, a Confederate cavalry unit. The base reads “To the memory of the good and loyal servants who followed the fortunes of Harvey’s Scouts during the civil War.”
Image Source: Howcott Memorial, from the blog Finding Josephine; photo courtesy Joel Brink.

The blog Confederate Digest – which claims to provide “historically accurate” commentary about the Confederate States – has a blog entry about a rare type of monument in Canton, Mississippi: it was erected in honor of a Confederate slave.

The monument honors Willis Howcott, who was the slave of William Howcott. William Howcott was a member of Harvey’s Scouts, a Confederate cavalry unit from Mississippi made up of around 128 soldiers. A history of Harvey’s Scouts, written by John Claiborne and published in 1885, is here. While the names of the Scout’s soldiers are listed, neither the names of the slaves who were with the soldiers, nor a count of those slaves, is indicated in Claiborne’s history.

The Confederate Digest blog entry says that “William was 15 years old when he joined Harvey’s Scouts in 1864. Willis, his childhood playmate was only 13 but would not be dissuaded from going off to war with his friend. Willis was, tragically, killed in combat sometime in 1865 at the age of 14.” This is based on family memoirs and memories.

This same blog entry makes the claim, which is largely discredited, that an “estimated 65,000 or more African American men, both free and slave, were Confederate soldiers.” Was Willis Howcott one of these black Confederate soldiers?

First, some quick background. During the Civil War, many masters took their slaves with them as they went off to war. These slaves performed a number of tasks: they cooked, foraged for food, washed laundry, cut hair, cared for animals, etc. These slaves were not enlisted in the army; slave enlistment was prohibited by the Confederate government until March 1865. (One month later, Confederate general-in-chief Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia.)

I read through Claiborne’s history of the Scouts, and found no mention of Willis Howcott. Claiborne’s list of the unit’s dead (12 men in all) does not include Willis Howcott’s name. If Willis Howcott did die in battle, it is not recorded in this history, which was developed “out of a considerable amount of material furnished by different persons, and placed at his (Claiborne’s) disposal.”

In fact, Claiborne’s history of Harvey’s Scouts makes no mention of the unit’s slaves at all. Interestingly, Claiborne does document an encounter the Scouts had with a group of US Colored Troops, black men who enlisted in the Union army. Claiborne writes that the “Scouts fell in with a long wagon train from Natchez, guarded by a colored regiment. A desperate fight ensued. The negroes had been taught that we would show them no quarter, and fought like devils.” But there is no mention of the negroes who were with the Scouts. In Claiborne’s history, the slaves are not soldiers, but rather, invisible men.

Regardless of Willis Howcott’s role in his master’s army unit, there is no doubt that his death was heartfelt by William Howcott: in the 1890s, William paid for a 20-foot high granite obelisk monument to the memory of Willis in Canton, MS. While there are hundreds of monuments to Confederate soldiers, monuments recognizing slaves who accompanied Confederate military units are quite rare. (Consider the monuments here and here.) The inscription on the monument William Howcott dedicated to Willis Howcott poignantly reads, “A tribute to my faithful servant and friend, Willis Howcott, a colored boy of rare loyalty and faithfulness, whose memory I cherish with deep gratitude.” Of note is that Willis Howcott is identified as a servant who was loyal to his master, not as a soldier who was loyal to his country. And there is no mention of how Willis died. In any event, William Howcott was clearly hurt by the loss.

Did William Howcott ultimately blame himself for the loss of his slave and friend? Should he have?

The monument raises the question: how should we, today, look at the death of Willis Howcott? When soldiers fight and die for a great cause – such as the independence of their country, or liberation from bondage – we thank the soldier and honor his sacrifice. But Willis Howcott died a slave. He died because his master chose to bring him into a war zone, for the master’s convenience. In death, Willis Howcott paid the highest price that could be paid by a slave in his service to his master. Is it honorable or right that a slave master should put his slave in that position? Beyond his master’s respect and gratitude, what did the slave stand to gain by being placed in such hazardous conditions… is what the slave stood to gain “worth” the loss of his life? Is the death of this exploited laborer much more tragic than it was possibly heroic (assuming that the 14 year old Willis did die in battle)?

(The Confederate Digest post says “Willis, his childhood playmate was only 13 but would not be dissuaded from going off to war with his friend.” Really?… a 13 year old slave boy had the authority to dictate that he would join his young master in a military unit? Willis Howcott’s presence in the unit was surely not his decision to make, and probably not solely William Howcott’s decision; William’s parents or guardians at least would have approved it. The parents/guardians of William no doubt felt better about William’s military service with servant Willis at his side to help out with the rigors of camp life. And it’s not unlikely that young Willis wanted to accompany his master. The idea of going off to war might have been a thrill for both these young teenagers. It is unknown if Willis’s parents approved, or had veto power over, the taking of their son.)

The black man in the above picture is unidentified. He stands almost like a sentinel, as if he was guarding the memory of Willis Howcott itself. Was he a relative of Willis?  African Americans, in Mississippi and elsewhere, typically lacked the resources to erect their own such monuments. So the family’s feelings about Willis’s death were not etched in stone, for us to see. This possible relative might well have been thankful that Willis received due recognition for his sacrifice, no matter what the circumstances of his death. This, as opposed to so many unnamed and unnoticed black men and women, who did the very best they could do under trying times, and yet have nothing in the commemorative landscape to show for the lives they lived. Willis Howcott’s death is worth remembering. As to how that death should be remembered… that is another question.

EDIT: As noted in a response from Francis Howcutt (see comments below), the Willis Howcott monument was moved a few years ago from the site shown in the picture to a burial ground near the Old Jail at Canton, Mississippi.

“Bid Em In” – A Video for Oscar Brown Jr’s Biting Riposte on Slave Auctions

This video is based on Oscar Brown Jr’s song “Bid Em In.” This was the subject of one of my first posts when I opened this blog four years ago. I find the video moving even after numerous views.

Thanks and congratulations to Neal Sopata for his excellent animation work.

Toy Soldiers

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Figurines of United States Colored Troops from the American Civil War.
Image Source: United States Colored Troops Living History Association, added on January 18, 2015.

These are pictures of some very cool figurine displays that were posted to the Facebook page of the United States Colored Troops Living History Association. Unfortunately, the site of these displays is not clearly identified. Too bad; I’d love to see them in person. If anybody knows where these are, please drop me a line.

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Figurines of soldiers from the American Revolutionary War. The figure to the far right is wearing the uniform of the First Rhode Island Regiment, which fought with the Patriots.
Image Source: United States Colored Troops Living History Association, added on January 18, 2015.

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I suspect this scene is based on the story of Henry “Box” Brown, a 19th-century Virginia slave who escaped to freedom by having himself mailed in a wooden crate to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania abolitionists.
Image Source: United States Colored Troops Living History Association, added on January 18, 2015.

North meets South, Zouave meets boy: Winslow Homer’s Contraband

Contraband Winslow Homer
Contraband, by Winslow Homer. Watercolor, 1875
Source: Wikipedia Commons. Click here for larger size.

The American Civil War made for new and unexpected encounters between North and South. One of those is captured in Winslow Homer’s poignant 1875 watercolor painting Contraband, which features a Union soldier in a Zouave uniform and a runaway slave boy.

What did these two see in each other’s faces? This might be the first time that the white soldier sees a slave in the flesh. Understand that in 1860, less than 2% of the North’s population was of African descent; millions of northerners went their entire lives without ever seeing a negro. Slaves had been much talked about, but hardly seen except for press illustrations which typically represented them as big-lipped, dark-skinned caricatures. But as this soldier gazed upon the boy, he may have seen, not a cartoon image, but rather, the face of humanity. And so he was moved to this act of kindness, of sharing his water with the boy.

And what did the child, whose enslaved family had sought refuge behind Union lines, make of this man with the garish uniform and the funny accent? During the war, thousands of slaves heeded the advice of the grapevine telegraph that the United States army offered them freedom, if they could escape to Union lines. Having survived his family’s sojourn from bondage, the thirsty and exhausted boy with the curious and almost trepidatious look may have tasted not just water, but also, liberation and hope. Perhaps the boy thought that he might be a soldier himself one day. (Many black men who escaped bondage did become soldiers, and maybe even some boys.) Continue reading

Remembering the Emancipation Proclamation

Viewing the Emancipation Proclamation
In 1947, former slave Sally Fickland views the Emancipation Proclamation
The Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863.

Photo Source: National Archives

From the National Archives:

This photograph shows 88-year-old Mrs. Sally Fickland, a former slave, looking at the Emancipation Proclamation in 1947.

She would have been 3 years old when Lincoln signed the proclamation in 1862.

The document was in Philadelphia that day on the first stop on the Freedom Train tour. The Freedom Train carried the Emancipation Proclamation and the Bill of Rights across America. During the 413-day tour, 3.5 million people in 322 cities in 48 states.

Due to its fragile condition—it was printed on both sides of poor-quality 19th-century paper, unlike the Constitution, which is written on more durable parchment—the Emancipation Proclamation can only be displayed for 30 hours each year.

American Esoterica: The Negro Lawn Jockey, George Washington, Christmas, and the Underground Railroad

Negro Lawn Jockey
1935 Christmas card featuring a Lawn Jockey.
Photo Source: History Of the Lawn Jockey, at LawnJock.com

The website LawnJock.com advertisers itself as “The premiere site for hand-painted Lawn Jockey statues and accessories.Estate Quality. Real. Metal. Lawn Jockeys.” The site features a history of the lawn jockey, from which I am re-blogging the following excerpts; follow the link to get the full story:

We get many questions regarding the origins and rich history of the great American Lawn Jockey statue. Many are surprised to learn that the Lawn Jockey is actually an evolution of 3 related statues and was used primarily as a horse hitching post in the 1800’s. The Lawn Jockey makes history come alive with legends of tours of duty in the revolutionary war and civil war. Like a time machine, the cultural significance of this unique sculpture has touched many areas of society in important ways and is still evolving hundreds of years after the statue first appeared.

Above is a page from JW Fiske’s 1910 catalog. Note that there were other jockey versions other than the 3 main versions. Fiske’s “Chinaman” version can be seen in the Charleston, SC photo above(the jockey on the left). There were hundreds of iron foundrys making jockeys in the 19th century but the 3 biggest manufacturers that had catalogs and marked their products were JW Fiske and JL Mott of New York City, and Robert Wood and Company of Philadelphia.

The “big 3″ manufacturers all made the 2 jockey versions as shown below in the 1902 JL Mott catalog. The “caricature” jockey version was not cataloged or manufactured by the “big 3″.

Jockeys were mainly used for residential applications in the 1800’s, but also were used for trades as well. Although they eventually were most closely associated with motels and restaurants as a symbol of “welcome” in the 1900’s, their main location/purpose in the 1800’s were to identify tobacco shop storefronts. Historical documents from manufacturers show zinc statues were made for the trade/tobacco shop applications, while iron statues were made for residences.

Hospitality – Horseracing – History

“Welcome home”, “horseracing”, and “history” are the 3 primary themes of all lawn jockey statues, reflecting charming memories of a bygone era. Many other themes are represented in this uniquely American statue, some of which are described here and on other pages on this website: patriotism, George Washington, the American revolution, slave participation in the revolutionary war, Greek influences in American art and architecture, the Statue of Liberty, Christmas, the Underground Railroad, Black Americana, ironwork and the industrial revolution, 19th century American iron toys, forgotten black jockeys of the 1800’s, the Kentucky Derby, southern hospitality, the American centennial, and the American Red Cross.

Now let’s fast forward to 1776, on the eve of the American revolution, where the Lawn Jockey legend began. Beginning as oral tradition, in the 1960’s and 70’s the source material for this legend was eventually published in book and theater play form by Washington DC insurance agent Earl Koger(see play cover below) and in news articles by Washington Post reporter Chester Hampton. CLICK HERE to read Chester Hampton’s newspaper article on September 27, 1970.

At 3am on December 26, 1776 George Washington’s colonial army in Pennsylvania crossed the Delaware river and attacked the British at Trenton, New Jersey. Legend has it Washington’s groomsman, a 12-year-old slave boy named Jocko Graves, stayed on the Pennsylvania shore taking care of Washington’s horses, holding up a lantern to mark the location. In 1776, a “groomsman” referred to “a man or boy in charge of feeding, conditioning, and stabling of horses.”


Famous painting of Washington’s “Christmas Day” crossing of the Delaware

Recorded history documents two colonial army deaths in the Battle of Trenton, which was a significant victory for the colonials. Both soldiers froze to death on the river crossing, not killed in combat.

But legend tells of one more casualty… Jocko, who was found frozen to death on the Pennsylvania shore while still holding the lantern when Washington returned at noon on December 26, 1776. Legend has it that upon Washington’s return to his Mount Vernon, Virginia home, he was so inspired by Jocko’s heroism, he commissioned a cast iron statue of Jocko holding a lantern and called it the “Faithful Groomsman”. The “welcome/coming home” theme of these statues started here, and with an ironic double meaning: “coming home” being also used as a metaphor for “dying and going to heaven” from Christian theology. The last name “Graves” associated with the statue also offers a cryptic allusion to a cemetery grave – was the original statue a grave marker for Jocko? Taking into account that very few slaves had last names in colonial America, the grave marker explanation seems plausible.

Jockeys and Christmas

Although Christmas was not an elaborate celebration at the time, the “Christmas” theme of the Jockey also started here… making Jockey statues with lanterns the first “Christmas Lights”. Even today, more Jockeys are sold at Christmas than at any other time. Continue reading

Black Boys in Blue: A Gallery of Young African Americans in Union Military Dress

African American Soldier Boy
Nathan Jones, Camp Metcalf, Va.
Photo of an African American boy with Union army cap and belt, probably pants as well. Camp Metcalfe was a fort in northern Virginia, not too far from Washington, DC. Nathan Jones was probably an escaped slave (often called “contraband” by Northerners) who lived near the Camp or did servant duties there.
Photo Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, Reproduction Numbers: LC-DIG-ppmsca-11192, LC-DIG-ppmsca-11193

“With the United States cap on your head, the United States eagle on your belt, the United States musket on your shoulder, not all the powers of darkness can prevent you from becoming American citizens. And not for yourselves alone are you marshaled — you are pioneers — on you depends the destiny of four millions of the colored race in this country . . . If you rise and flourish, we shall rise and flourish. If you win freedom and citizenship, we shall share your freedom and citizenship.”

– Frederick Douglass January 29, 1864, Fair Haven, Connecticut; address to the 29th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry regiment (African descent)

During times of war, it is not uncommon to see boys dressed in the garb of soldiers. And if times are hard enough, boys might even take the role of soldier. In the American Civil War, African American boys had varied experiences which would dress them in the raiments of the armed services, or place them close to, or even into, the Union army and navy. (According to the National Archives, more than 10,000 troops under the age of 18 enlisted in the Union Army. About five percent of the Confederate Army troops were under the age of 18.)

This is a gallery of male youngsters in Union military dress. Some might have put on military dress simply to take an interesting photograph. Some might have been escaped slaves who lived near Union army camps, and did odd jobs or such for the soldiers, and were given uniforms to wear. Some might have been enlisted drummer boys. But all of these pictures indicate that many African descent boys were aware of, or even close to, the military conflict that involved their fathers or brothers or friends. How this affected them cannot be told from these pictures alone. But these photos give us pause to consider the effect of war on children and their families.


Taylor, a drummer boy for the 78th Infantry Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops
This is an iconic picture in various Civil War texts.
The 78th regiment of the USCT was organized in April 1864 and served primarily in Port Hudson, Louisiana, until mustered out in January 1866.
Photo Source: National Archives

In some texts, the boy in the image is named Jackson. And he is sometimes seen in a photo wearing tattered clothing; refer to the images below:


Before and after images of drummer boy “Jackson”
Photo Source: US Studies Online;
see also here, page 7.

What’s going on here? According to Corbis Images, the boy in the “Portrait of ‘Contraband” Jackson,’ (is) supposed to look like many of the runaway slaves that flocked to the banners of the Union Army during the American Civil War. Used in combination with a photograph of Jackson as a drummer in military uniform, this was circulated to encourage enlistments among African Americans.” Indeed, the photographs make a poignant appeal to the conscience of black men: if a young boy was willing to serve, then why shouldn’t you?

Boy on Mount
Gen. Rawlin’s horse taken at Cold Harbor, Va.
This photo of an African American boy on a horse is described in the first edition of the book “Photographic History Of The Civil War, Volume IV, The Cavalry.” The book, published in 1912 and edited by Theo. F. Rodenbough, states:
“It is a proud little darkey boy who is exercising the horse of a general – John Aaron Rawlins, the Federal brigadier-general of volunteers, who was later promoted to the rank of major-general, U.S.A., for gallant and meritorious services during the campaign terminating with the surrender of the army under General Lee. The noble horse himself is looking around with a mildly inquiring air at the strange new instrument which the photographer is leveling at him.”
Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, Reproduction Numbers: LC-USZ62-131082


Robert Walker, a young African-American “First Class Boy” dressed in a sailor’s uniform, has “Our Bob” written on the bottom.
From Trans-Mississippi Photo Archive (ozarkscivilwar.org): “First Class Boys” in the U.S. Navy were generally young men under 17 years of age. They were paid $9 per month and performed various sailor duties, including serving as servants to the ship’s officers, standing watches, helping with work parties and serving on damage control parties.
Photo Source: Trans-Mississippi Photo Archive, from Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield (WICR 32071-L)

Sailor Boy African Anerican
Full-length portrait of an African American boy in nautical clothing
Photo Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, Reproduction Numbers:LC-DIG-ppmsca-10904, LC-DIG-ppmsca-10905


Unidentified young African American soldier in Union uniform with forage cap
Photo Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, Reproduction Numbers: LC-DIG-ppmsca-37079,LC-DIG-ppmsca-27079
Continue reading