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Noah Thornton, From Page County slave to Union soldier

March 30, 2009

A December 1921 issue of the Page News & Courier reported the death of Thornton, stating

Noah Thornton, whose age with exactitude it would be hard to tell, was found dead at his home in West Luray last Friday morning, December 23rd. He has been ill only a short time, his wife having noticed that he was alive a short time before death. Where he came from and when there is not a person living in Luray who is able to say. He was a colored man who was highly respected, and had many friends, was genial, and in his younger days was one of the hardest working men of his race that has ever been known in this place. In former years a threshing machine outfit in this county with Noah Thornton absent from the straw carrier, wearing over his mouth and nose a sponge to prevent the inhalation of dust, was an oddity. He was never satisfied with any other place about the machine, and even when he was sixty and seventy years of age he took delight in this dusty post. During the war he took sides with the Federal army, traveling with and being the body guard of many distinguished men on that side. At one time he was able to call the names of many men with whom he came in contact during that unhappy period. Residents of this town say that the old man had all the marks of age fifty years ago that characterized him at the time of his death. There are men living in Luray who place his age anywhere from 85 to 95 years. For years he had been a pensioner of the Federal government. The old man was a noted butcherer [sic] in his younger days, and it is recalled that he was a familiar object in these parts in every hog killing season. About twenty years ago he was injured by the bite of a hog in the hand and ever since that time his physical powers have been waning, his great age then making him unequal to cope with his rough experience.

A little more research into the life of Noah Thornton yields a bit more than what appeared in the PN&C article of 1921.

According to marriage records, pension records and his death record, Noah Thornton was born in Page County – as Thornton himself later stated in one document of his pension papers, “about a mile south of Luray.” He was a son of Abram and Betsey Thornton – Abram perhaps being descended from another slave owned by the Francis Thornton family in Rappahannock County at some earlier point in the 18th century. Noah’s exact year of birth is in question as different sources reveal different years that span from 1836-1844. However, in one of his pension applications, he does state that his birthday was May 3. Regretfully, the circumstances surrounding his life as a slave or who owned Noah Thornton are lost to history. However, he did, at one time cite his occupation in prewar as a slave laborer on a farm.

While it is unclear whether he was a runaway slave or was emancipated at some earlier time, by June 29, 1863, he was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and had enlisted in the 10th Regiment, Corps de Afrique. Thornton was soon elevated to the rank of sergeant, but, by the time of this regiment’s official organization, on September 1, 1863, at Port Hudson, Louisiana, Thornton was reduced to ranks as a private. Later, on April 4, 1864, the 10th was reorganized as the 82nd United States Colored Troops – one of thirty Corps de Afrique regiments formed in Louisiana to be redesignated as United States Colored Cavalry, United States Colored Heavy Artillery and United States Colored Troops (Infantry).

The 82nd USCT was commanded by Col. Ladislas L. Zulavsky, a Hungarian who had served in Garibaldi’s Legion. Ladislas was also one of the four Zulavsky brothers to come to America from Hungary – all of whom received significant financial help from wealthy Boston businessman and noted abolitionist, George Luther Stearns. Stearns was also known as one of John Brown’s “Secret Six” and was instrumental in forming the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. No doubt, such ties with Stearns brought Ladislas Zulavsky to the command of one of the regiments of the U.S.C.T. Ironically, Stearns two draft-aged sons never entered military service.

Not long after reorganization, the 82nd United States Colored Troops was moved to Fort Barrancas, Florida and remained on duty there until March 1865. However, from Fort Barrancas, the 82nd, as a part of various commands along with other U.S.C.T. regiments, participated in a number of expeditions, including one of significance to Marianna, September 18 – October 4, 1864. Most significant in the history of the 82nd U.S.C.T. was there part in the assault and capture of Fort Blakely, Alabama on April 9, 1865. The regiment also later took part in the occupation of Apalachicola, Florida. The regiment was mustered out on September 10, 1866.

As a member of Company F (Captain Alden’s company), 82nd U.S.C.T., Noah Thornton never appears absent from duty. He was promoted to corporal on June 26, 1864 but was again reduced to ranks on August 25, 1864, by order of Col. Zulavsky. It is unclear when the 82nd was on duty at East Key, Florida, but according to Thornton’s application for a pension in 1889, he claimed that while on duty there, he first began to suffer from rheumatism “by laying out on wet grounds at night.” During the march from Pensacola, Florida to Fort Blakeley, Alabama (March 20 – April 1, 1865), Thornton also made note that he was on duty without clothes, which is striking considering he had been in the service for nearly two years by this time. According to his military record, in July 1865, he was next ordered to serve as orderly for Col. Zulavsky and later, on December 28, 1865 was detailed to guard prisoners. He was discharged at New Orleans, Louisiana on September 7, 1866.

Following the war, Noah Thornton returned to Page County where, on February 4, 1870 in Luray, he was married to Harriet Jefferson by Preacher John W. Watson. Harriet was the daughter of Maria or Martha Jefferson and was listed as a widow having been born in Rappahannock County. Her age at the time of the wedding was 26. He was listed as being 28. Two children were born to this marriage, including Abram L. Thornton (born 7/16/1871 or 7/27/1871) and Maria or Betsy V. Thornton (who was born either on 10/7/1872 or 11/15/1874). According to one of Noah’s later pension applications, his son Abram was living in Atlantic City, N.J. in 1915.

Later the same year of Noah’s first marriage (1870), he was listed for the first time in the Page County census – as a farm laborer on the farm of Samuel J. Lionberger in Marksville – listed, interestingly, at the age of 32 – four years older than he had just listed himself a few months before for the marriage license. Harriet was listed a “Domestic” age 35 at the home of Amanda Richardson in Luray. As an interesting note from the 1860 slave schedules for Page County, Samuel J. Lionberger had been listed as owning one slave at the time. Additionally, S.J. Lionberger’s father, Samuel, had also been listed as a slave-owner since the 1850 slave census. At that time in 1850, as slaves of Samuel Lionberger, there was a 47 year old male slave, and three children, aged 5, 2 and 1. While a closer look at the 1860 slave schedules might reveal the approximate age of the slave owned by S.J. Lionberger, it may well be that Noah Thornton had returned to his former owner (or son of) for employment in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Regretfully, nothing can be found of Noah Thornton’s life as a slave before the Civil War to confirm or refute this hypothesis.

Noah Thornton made his first application for a soldier’s pension in 1889. The application was subsequently rejected, citing that there was no evidence of medical attention given or hospitalization during his term as a soldier. This was Noah’s first encounter with the long hard road to obtaining a pension from the Federal government. However, Thornton was still determined to get his Invalid Pension and began obtaining affidavits from friends who had known him since before the war. Friends in Page County who offered affidavits included Eliza Ann Dogan, Nimrod Bruce (knew Thornton since 1848), William Campbell, Thomas R. Campbell, and Caroline Bumerly.

On October 25, 1889, Noah Thornton filed a second application for a pension under the general law, and based on his service in 1866. On Feb 6, 1890, a comrade of his, George Wilford (from Louisiana), executed an affidavit to the effect that while the command was at Dry Tortugas, Thornton contracted rheumatism in his legs and that he had the same disease while at Barrancas and Tallahassee, Florida in August 1866. Despite little success in obtaining concrete proof of his infirmities, it appears this application was finally approved, but not for rheumatism. Subsequently, his claim was dropped on May 31, 1896 on the ground that he was not ratably disabled under the act of June 27, 1890. Sadly, Noah’s wife, Harriet, had died only the day before on May 30, 1896 in Luray as a result of tuberculosis.

Despite the loss of his wife, Noah Thornton continued to make efforts at obtaining a pension. In another affidavit filed March 23, 1899, Charles Dunn, a comrade, testified that claimant had rheumatism in 1864, at Fort Barrancas, and again in March 1865. In another affidavit of March 25, 1899, Joseph Dunn swore that he knew the claimant contracted rheumatism while in the service. Robert Dunn also swore to the same on 3/23/1899. Thornton tried to reinforce his claim by contacting the former surgeons of the 82nd but with no success. Regretfully, the only doctor in Page County (Dr. George W. Rust) who had regularly treated Thornton for his rheumatism regularly since his return from service in the Civil War, died in 1888. Since that time, Thornton had been treated by Dr. Keller.

In the midst of trying to obtain his pension, life moved on, and on April 26, 1900, Noah Thornton (age 68) was married in Luray by H.H. Palmer to Sarah E. Redman/Redmond (age 46). She was the widow of John W. Brown, to whom she had been married on October 19, 1875. Born ca. 1831 in Fairfax County, John W. Brown was the son of Samuel and Eliza Brown and was a widower by the time of his marriage to Sarah in 1875. The daughter of Caroline Redman/Redmond, Sarah was born a slave ca. 1857 (or December 26, 1859) at Newport in Page County. Sarah remembered her first husband later in her application as a widower of Noah Thornton and stated that Brown “cooked for some company” during the Civil War but he apparently had not received a pension – leaving it as a possibility that Brown, like one Charles Brown mentioned in a couple of issues in the Page News & Courier in the 1920s – had served as a cook for a Confederate company. John W. Brown died on September 7, 1898 of cancer of the stomach. Interestingly, as with the first spouse of Noah Thornton, Brown’s attending doctor at the time of his death was Dr. William Locke Hudson (son of James B. and Susan Varner Hudson).

Only two months after his marriage to Sarah, Noah was approved for a pension under the act of June 27, 1900 at the rate of $10 per month, commencing July 5, 1890. However, within two years, on April 2, 1902, he was again rejected on the grounds that there was no record of medical treatment in the service and his inability to furnish satisfactory evidence of origin in the service and continuance after discharge. Noah appealed on April 11, 1902 but was not granted a pension again until February 17, 1911. This time the pension was approved for $15 per month and was subsequently upgraded to $25 in July 1912 and $35 per month in June 1914.

Little more is known of Noah Thornton in his last years. In 1910, the census shows his as age 66 living in Luray with wife, Sarah E (age of 55). Others in the home included stepson (Arthur L. Brown, age 18), Step-grandmother (Fannie Redmon, age 110) and a grandson (Clement Lee Thornton, age 10). Ten years later, Noah was listed as age 86; Sarah was 60 and a granddaughter, Catherine B. Thornton, was age 10.

Noah Thornton died on December 23, 1921, according to his death certificate, possibly of Bright’s disease.

Within a year of Noah’s death, Sarah applied for a widow’s pension. Dr. W.L. Hudson was one of those who gave a general affidavit in support. Another affidavit from Andrew Jackson (age57) and Cyrus Dixon (age 73) claimed that they had known Sarah for sometime. Others providing supportive affidavits included George Dougans (aged 76), J.T. Campbell and T.R. Beahm. Sarah’s pension was approved and she began receiving $30 a month in May 1923. Sarah eventually moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to live with her daughter.

On August 27, 1927, that daughter, Mrs. Sadie Henry Henderson, wrote the Department of Interior (the agency that regulated the pensions at the time) from 512 S. Duke St. in Lancaster, Pa. and informed the government that her mother, Sarah, had died on Thursday, August 18, 1927.

While the exact location of Noah Thornton’s grave in Page County is unknown and no stone stands yet to mark his service as a Union soldier, his name (on plaque number C-89) is engraved as one of over 209,000 on the African-American Civil War Memorial at 1200 U Street, N.W. in Washington, D.C.

Source: From an article written in 2006 for the Heritage & Heraldry column of the Page News & Courier by Robert H. Moore, II

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