Secrets of the Sword
Courtesy of the Charlotte Observer
My journey into my family's past began 25 years ago. My mom said: You need to know, your great-grandmother was black. Finding information is easier than ever. Here are some ways to do it.
I held the sword for the first time last month.
The brass hilt has darkened with age. A filigree of twisted wire wraps the sharkskin grip. The steel blade curves gently to a point, etched with vine leaves and grape clusters and the letters “USC,” for U.S. Cavalry.
At the bottom of its scabbard is a brass fitting. On each side is engraved a name: E.D. Morrill.
It was the sword he carried through the Civil War, and it was finally coming back to his family. Until five years ago, I didn't know it existed.
The sword stayed with E.D. and his son for years, a silent witness to their public and private trials. It disappeared almost a century ago, about the time my grandfather did. Recovering it is a story of lost and found history, played out over three generations and shrouded in racial taboos and family secrets.
Searching for that history became a small obsession. Over the years I combed through genealogies and courthouses, pored over census records and microfilm. There have been discoveries and dead ends and moments of pure serendipity.
Finding the sword was one.
Last month I drove up to the snowy Appalachian town of Princeton, West Virginia, to buy it from a collector. The trip took three hours.
Getting there had taken years.
An unexpected ancestor
When I was about 30, my mother confided a secret: My great-grandmother — the mother of my dad's father — was black. Growing up with blond hair and blue eyes in a Midwestern family of Germans and Swedes, it was not something I'd suspected. I thought it was interesting, but to mom it was serious business. She thought I should know before I got married, lest some stray gene pop out of the family pool and surprise us.
My dad refused to talk about it, and I knew not to press. He died three years later, before I was curious enough to ask again.
By then there were no other relatives to ask. So I set off to find out myself.
Around that time, my uncle had given me a copy of E.D. Morrill's regimental history. A typewritten sheet inside gave a brief sketch of his life and the story of his Civil War unit, the 15th Battery of Massachusetts Light Artillery.
Edward Danforth Morrill was born on the Illinois prairie on July 29, 1837. His family had migrated from New England but soon moved back. He was a 25-year-old mechanic in Lowell, Mass., when he enlisted in 1862. E.D. stood 5 feet 7 with brown hair and a beard that framed his gray eyes and broad forehead.
He was the quartermaster sergeant in the 122-man unit commanded by a Lowell attorney who also happened to be his brother-in-law. In March 1863, they left Boston by steamer for New Orleans, captured by Union forces under Admiral Farragut the year before.
To Northern eyes, the Crescent City was exotic but trying.
“This is the land of loose morals and easy virtue, hot weather, mosquitoes, alligators, secessionists and other such vermin,” wrote an officer named Lorin Dame.
The 15th Battery saw 25 desertions the first month. Some blamed the captain, described by Dame as a man of “ignorance, mulishness, vanity and folly.” E.D. was arrested after a dispute with an officer. Still, he was promoted to second lieutenant that September, a commission that allowed him to buy a shiny new officer's sword with a sharkskin grip.
The battery spent the rest of 1863 and most of 1864 in and around New Orleans. For the last six months of the war, E.D.'s unit crisscrossed the South from Little Rock to Memphis to Pensacola. In April 1865, it took part in the siege of Fort Blakely outside Mobile. The fort fell April 9, six hours after Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Then the 15th Battery sailed up the Alabama River and helped capture Selma.
Their war was over. The men returned to Boston and were mustered out.
Six months later, in January 1866, E.D. joined a new army of Northern carpetbaggers who rushed to the conquered South in search of riches and adventure. He took his wife back to Alabama and settled near the town of Camden, in a bend of the Alabama River.
History in a sleepy town
More than a century later, in 1993, I drove down to Camden, halfway between Selma and Monroeville, setting for the fictional trials of Boo Radley and Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird.” A sleepy town in the heart of the Black Belt, Camden is far removed from the antebellum prosperity that once came from cotton and paddle-wheelers.
I went by the Wilcox County courthouse to look up old property records. Then I drove out to visit a local historian who'd helped me gather contemporary news accounts from E.D.'s era. She lived at the end of a dusty road in a large decaying house with white columns, as much a part of the Old South as she was.
She was cordial at first. But the more she talked about my great-grandfather, the frostier she got. She didn't like what she'd found.
After the war
When he moved south, E.D. bought 4,000 acres on the Alabama River and planted cotton. In 1869, his wife, Mary, died. E.D. got involved in politics, becoming education superintendent in 1871 and tax assessor three years later. In 1875 he rose to Deputy Grand Worthy Patriarch of the Sons of Temperance.
Postwar Reconstruction was a tumultuous time in Alabama. With white Democrats virtually disenfranchised, Radical Republicans like E.D. and their black allies were in control.
In the 1870s Democrats began regaining power. In 1876 Republican Rutherford B. Hayes won a disputed presidential election after promising to withdraw Union troops from the South.
The next year E.D. stopped farming. He bought a tannery that turned leather hides into boots and shoes.
One of his employees may have been a black shoemaker named John Haywood. Haywood lived in Camden with his wife, Aggie, and six children including a stepdaughter named Bellephine Palmer.
Sometime that decade, E.D. and Belle Palmer began a relationship. He was about 40 and she was some 20 years younger.
In 1879, Belle gave birth to a son, Samuel Danforth Morrill — my grandfather.
For E.D.'s political enemies, still threatened by his coalition of white and black Republicans, his relationship with a black woman was ammunition.
“The question for every intelligent and responsible white man to answer … is whether or not we should allow such a creature as Ed Morrill to name our next congressman,” Camden's newspaper, the Home Ruler, wrote in 1886. “Shall he again be permitted to throw his dark mantle of niggerism over the homes built in purety and honesty by our fathers?”
Days later the paper gleefully reported a split among Republicans that included attacks on E.D. by members of his own party.
“They denounce him as the man who disgraces the negro race by living in adultery with a black woman,” the paper wrote. “One speaker was in favor of a committee waiting on him and demanding him to skip [town]. … The power over the black race that he holds makes him a dangerous character.”
Whether E.D. got run out of town or simply decided it was a convenient time to leave, he and Belle were gone within weeks, taking 7-year-old Sam and the sword with them. They eventually moved to Washington and settled into a Capitol Hill row house.
A decade ago, I found their home, a narrow brick flat in a gentrified neighborhood not far from the Capitol. A few blocks away, in the Library of Congress, I found a genealogical chart E.D. had written in Alabama.
“The Morrills of the Seventeenth Century” traces the family back to two brothers who came from England to Massachusetts in 1632. E.D. spent a lot of time on family history. He once told somebody he'd compiled the names of 10,000 relatives.
While E.D. traced his family across an ocean, Belle probably couldn't have tracked hers beyond Wilcox County, Alabama. Years later, records from the Veterans Administration helped explain why.
In Washington, E.D. clerked for the government while Belle worked as a domestic. After he died on Christmas Day 1906 at age 69, she applied for a widow's Civil War pension. But a minor discrepancy gave officials pause.
Their marriage certificate showed E.D. and Belle were married in Washington in 1890. It gave her age as 30, which would mean she was born in 1860. She claimed she was born in 1856, but said the only proof was in a long-lost family Bible.
“There was no public record of births in the town,” she wrote.
In an affidavit, she said she lived in Camden in 1860 and 1870. Pension officials asked the Census Bureau to check. Her name didn't show up in either census.
“If the pensioner was born in slavery,” one official wrote, “her name would not appear on … the census of 1860.”
The marriage certificate identified Belle as quadroon, or one-fourth black. Recently I found Belle's mother, Aggie, in the 1870 Census. It said she was black. Born in Camden in 1828, she, like her daughter, was almost surely a slave.
A widow for 37 years, Belle lived modestly in Washington. One of her few luxuries was an old pedal organ she would later leave to her church. She died in 1943 and was buried on a hill alongside E.D. in Arlington National Cemetery.
At the time of her death, she hadn't seen her only son in decades.
A little-known grandfather
We never knew much about Belle and E.D.'s son. I never even saw my grandfather's picture until I'd graduated from college. All we knew was that Sam Morrill attended Ohio's Oberlin College at the turn of the century. Later he lived in Minnesota, where he married Esther Anderson on Christmas Day 1909. The second of their two sons, my dad, Edward, was born in 1912.
Two years later Sam disappeared.
His wife took her sons back to her small hometown, 75 miles west of Minneapolis. She died a few years later. The boys — my father and my uncle — went to live with different relatives.
E.D.'s sword disappeared as well, falling to a succession of private collectors in Minnesota, forgotten to our family.
Sam was probably drawn to Minnesota by some distant cousins. A 1906 family newsletter reported that he was visiting relatives when he heard of his father's final illness. He got back to Washington hours after E.D. died.
He returned to Minnesota, the sword probably in tow.
In 1993, I asked Oberlin College for any records on Samuel Danforth Morrill. A college official told me they were marked confidential. I explained my search and he agreed to release them.
A couple of weeks later, a thick packet arrived in the mail. Inside were transcripts and yearbook pages that showed a husky young man in a football uniform. The files, kept in the school's African American archives, also contained notes to and from an alumni official who decades earlier had tried to track down the lost member of the class of 1906.
“When in college,” one note said, “Morrill was heavy-set, with dark complexion and dark curly hair. He had a small amount of negro blood but passed for white.”
The description suggested a man caught between two worlds. No one knows why Sam abandoned his family. But his biracial heritage may have had something to do with it. “Passing” may have been a temporary disguise.
The correspondence included rumors that Sam lived under an assumed name after leaving Minnesota. Another said he'd been shot in a card game in Detroit. A note from the Detroit police reported no such record.
Like a buried time capsule, the file also contained two letters my dad had written the school in 1939. At 27, he was looking for the father he never knew.
“Any information you have that would help in locating him would be kindly appreciated,” my father wrote.
His second letter came two weeks later. It was marked `Confidential.' It hinted cryptically at some discovery he had made.
“Please,” he wrote, “don't under any circumstances try to look up dad's mother.”
For years my dad had known Belle only through letters. My mom once told me that sometime that year, in 1939, he visited her for the first time in Washington. When he realized the black woman who answered the door was his grandmother, he nearly fainted.
Stumbling onto the sword
Five years ago, when I first asked the Veterans Administration for E.D. Morrill's records, I was told they'd been checked out to St. Paul, Minn., for research by a man named Gary Bettcher. I didn't know him. So I called. Why are you interested in my great-grandfather? I asked.
“Because I have his sword,” he said.
Bettcher, who lives near Minneapolis, got the sword years ago after trading a few World War II guns to another local collector. He's not sure where it was before that. Our guess is it was sold by either Sam or the family he left behind.
Bettcher, an amateur historian, knew the sword belonged in E.D.'s family. After years of on-and-off negotiations, we finally met at the business college he owns in West Virginia.
The sword links me to family members I've never known. It also connects me to part of American history I had no idea I was part of. As a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1970s, I lived along West Africa's Slave Coast among people whose ancestors had been sold off in chains.
On Senegal's Goree Island, I walked by old stone cells that warehoused 20 million Africans waiting to sail into slavery. I didn't know that some of my own ancestors might have been among them.
Family secrets aren't always revealed. Mysteries don't always get solved.
But now, holding my great-grandfather's sword, I know that what's lost can sometimes be found.
Jim Morrill grew up near Chicago. He came south in 1979 and has worked at the Observer since 1981.
- MORRILL, EDWARD D
- 2/LT 15TH MASS LGT ART
- VETERAN SERVICE DATES: Unknown
- DATE OF DEATH: 12/25/1906
- DATE OF INTERMENT: Unknown
- BURIED AT: SECTION SS SITE 1673 ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard