On October 10, 1858, Emanuel Patterson stood beside Elizabeth Perrill in the home of William Fox, justice of the peace for Aleppo Township, Greene County, Pennsylvania. Emanuel and Elizabeth were there to be joined in marriage. At the same time the young couple was just starting to form a united life, the United States steadily moved toward dissolution over the issue of slavery. On that 1858 autumn day of joy and merriment, Emanuel and Elizabeth Patterson probably never imagined that in a few short years the whirlwind of a civil war would engulf them and change their lives forever.
More often than not pre-war biographical details about men who ultimately served in United States Colored Troops regiments are difficult to locate. Unfortunately, Emanuel Patterson follows this pattern, too. He does appear in the 1850 census living in Wayne Township, Greene County. In that record he is nine years old and residing in the household of his father, Joseph, and mother, Mary, and two-year old brother, Taylor. Also living with the Pattersons is 76-year old Nancy Perrill. The space for Joseph Patterson’s occupation is blank, and apparently he owned no real estate. Either through the census taker’s error, or some other mistake, the Pattersons and Nancy Perrill are not identified as being people of color. This is interesting because listed above the Pattersons on the same page is a household consisting of Jesse Perrill, 76 years old; Ruth Milton, 66 years old; and Clement Burgis, age eight; all noted as “mulatto.” One wonders about the relationship between the Pattersons and the Perrills, as Nancy lived in the Patterson household, Emanuel married a Perrill eight years later, and another Perrill was a near neighbor. The Emanuel Patterson of this study apparently does not appear in the 1860 census, nor does his newly wed wife Elizabeth.
Another record that provides some information about Emanuel Patterson is his Greene County draft registration, made in May and June 1863. It shows that Emanuel was living in Gilmore Township, 22-years old, married, and working as a farmer. Officials apparently soon drew Patterson’s name, as his compiled military service records shows him as conscripted. He enlisted at New Brighton, Pennsylvania, in Company D, 6th United States Colored Infantry on July 16, 1863. Enlistment records give Patterson’s age as 23 and his complexion as “light.” The new soldier stood five feet eight inches tall, worked as a laborer, and confirmed that he was born in Greene County.
Patterson’s enlistment came on the heels of a major life event. Just about a month and a half before joining the 6th USCI he became a father when Elizabeth gave birth to their daughter Nancy on June 3, 1863. One can only imagine what the brand new father felt when he received the government’s demand to enlist. Patterson likely did not have the financial means to pay the required $300.00 commutation fee, or afford a substitute to go in his place to avoid service. Providing for a family while serving in the United States army concerned many soldiers, but it proved especially challenging for men of color. As James G. Mendez convincingly shows in his work, A Great Sacrifice: Northern Black Soldiers, Their Families, and the Experience of Civil War, the initial pay inequality and its inconsistent distribution by the paymasters placed many African American families in dire straits.
The 6th USCI organized and trained at Camp William Penn, located just outside of Philadelphia. Separated from his wife Elizabeth and infant daughter Nancy on the other side of the state likely worried Emanuel. In the fall of 1863, the regiment transferred to Fort Monroe, Virginia, for duty. The 6th participated in Gen. Edward Wild’s raid into northeastern North Carolina that winter. The following spring the regiment served on raids into eastern Virginia gathering supplies and freeing enslaved people along their routes of travel. In early May 1864, as part of the Army of James’ XVIII Corps, they helped capture and hold City Point. A difficult assignment came with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s First Offensive at Petersburg on June 15. The 6th, along with the rest of Gen. Edwards Hinks’ Black infantry division fought well, and suffered significant casualties in capturing five forts and several artillery pieces at Baylor’s Farm and along the Dimmock Line that day. Pvt. Patterson’s records indicate he was present for all of these actions, and fortunately remained safe.
Patterson apparently served on detached duty in August 1864, likely working with many of the other Black regiments on the labor teams building the Dutch Gap canal on the James River. Stationed at Dutch Gap until September 28, orders then came to the 6th USCI for an operation against the Confederate defenses along New Market Road, just north of the Union-occupied Deep Bottom landing. Pvt. Patterson’s captain, John McMurray remembered years later that, “Early on the morning of September 29th we were astir, and before sunrise were on the march directly toward the Confederate entrenchments at the foot of Spring Hill, or New Market Heights. . . .” McMurry continued that, “Had I known when I rose this morning what was in store for my company, for my regiment, within the next two or three hours, I would have been entirely unfitted for the duties of the day.”
At this point in Capt. McMurray’s memoir, he mentioned Pvt. Patterson. McMurray remembered that just before leaving Dutch Gap the day before, Patterson told McMurray that he was not well. The morning of the assault, Patterson again informed acMurray he was sick, so the captain took the private to the regimental surgeon to have him excused. However, the doctor claimed that Patterson was well enough and “must go ahead.” Patterson lined up with his comrades and marched forward toward the enemy. The next time that McMurray saw Patterson was “in thick of the fight.”
Capt. McMurray sadly remembered: “As I was pushing on through the slashing I met him [Patterson] suddenly, presenting one of the most terrible spectacles I ever beheld. He was shot in the abdomen, so that his bowels all gushed out, forming a mass larger than my hat, seemingly, which he was holding up with clasped hands, to keep them from falling at his feet. Then, and a hundred time since, I wished I had taken the responsibility of saying to him that he could remain in the rear.”
Col. Steven Duncan’s Brigade, consisting of the 4th and 6th USCI regiments, went into the fray first, taking terrible causalities. They then fell back in an attempt to reorganize. Col. Alonzo Draper’s Brigade made up of 5th, 36th, and 38th went in next. Attacking in column, this force slowed at the double lines of defensive abatis due to heavy enemy fire, as had the first attack. However, the assault regained momentum when many of the non-commissioned officers took over for wounded lieutenants and captains and successfully drove the Confederates from their earthworks. The battlefield was a sea of dead and wounded. Pvt. Patterson’s Company D went into the fight with 30 soldiers. After the battle, Capt. McMurray counted only three out of those 30 men not killed, wounded or missing.
Some of the brave Black soldiers killed in action at New Market Heights eventually ended up interred in the Fort Harrison and City Point National Cemeteries in identified graves. Pvt. Patterson may rest among those comrades, too, but in an unknown soldier’s grave.
Elizabeth Patterson eventually learned of her husband’s death in battle. She remarried in December 1865 to Henry Copenhaver. Something may have happened to Elizabeth and Henry Copenhaver not too long after their marriage, because an 1868 record in Emanuel Patterson’s pension file shows daughter Nancy being assigned a guardian to receive her pension funds as she was a minor. Nancy Patterson appears in the 1870 census living in the household of William and Elizabeth Grinage. A clue that something may have happened to Elizabeth and Henry Copenhaver is that three year old Solomon Copenhaver is also in the household. From there, Nancy Patterson, Emanuel’s only child, seems to fade into history. Hopefully however, despite resting in peace in an unmarked grave, the memory of Pvt. Emanuel Patterson’s brief life and courageous sacrifice in service to the United States will never be forgotten.