Soldiers from the 26th U.S.C.T.,
with whom Barryville resident
Theodore Cotton fought during
the Civil War, parade during
training at Camp William Penn.
by John Conway
May 31, 2013
A LONG FORGOTTEN CIVIL WAR VETERAN
Fred Fries has an inquiring mind and he wanted to know more about a gravestone he had inadvertently discovered while exploring a tiny churchyard in Barryville looking for the burial site of two Confederate soldiers killed in the Great Shohola Train wreck of 1864.
Fries, a Board member of the Sullivan County Historical Society and one of the group’s most accomplished researchers, had trekked up the hill to the Congregational Church cemetery to visit for the first time the graves of John and Michael Johnson, who were among the 51 Confederate prisoners of war killed when the train carrying them – along with 128 Union Army guards, 17 of whom were also killed—collided with a coal train on the Erie Railroad tracks just north of Barryville. He found the brothers’ graves, but another stone nearby also caught his eye.
It read: “Theodore Cotton Co I 26 U. S. C. TRPS.”
“After a short pause to reflect on just what the initials stood for, I soon realized that I was at the grave of another Civil War soldier, one who served in the ranks of Union soldiers and whose story is equally interesting,” Fries says.
He soon realized that Theodore Cotton had served with the 26th U.S. Colored Troops, one of three regiments formed in New York State entirely of African American soldiers.
Armed with that information, Fries did some research and uncovered some truly fascinating information, which he has shared in the Historical Society’s newsletter, The Observer.
“The 26th U.S.C.T. served with the Union Army’s Department of the South, participating in action along coastal South Carolina,” Fries writes. “Interestingly enough, the regiment served alongside another regiment made up of Sullivan County men, the 56th New York Volunteer Infantry. During the Union Army’s military campaign along the Atlantic coast south of Charleston Harbor in the summer of 1864, the 26th U.S.C.T. engaged the Confederate Army at John’s Island. Storming the Confederate position on July 7th, the 26th broke through the works, scattering its defenders. The 26th’s push was stalled, however, when fresh Southern reinforcements passed through the retreating Confederates driving the Union regiment back over the recently captured works and inflicting heavy casualties.
“The final report submitted by Union officers outlining the battle of John’s Island and the resulting casualties, listed Theodore Cotton, who did not return from the 26th’s advance and retreat, among those who were killed in action. His personal effects were then sent to the Adjutant General’s Office to be sent home.
“But in fact, Theodore Cotton did survive, though he had wounds inflicted on his right leg during the heavy fighting. Unable to retreat with his regiment after being overwhelmed by the Rebel counterattack, he was taken prisoner.”
Fries discovered that Theodore Cotton was a prisoner of war throughout the remainder of the war.
“That was definitely not an envious position to be in, being an African American within the hands of the Confederates, many of whom held a vendetta against black Union soldiers,” he says.
Cotton survived the hardships of the Confederate prison camp and was part of a prisoner exchange with the Confederates on March 4, 1865. His leg wound remained serious, however, and his right leg was eventually amputated. Fries says Cotton was discharged from his enlistment because of the surgery.
“Theodore Cotton returned to his Town of Highland home after the war,” Fries writes. “His small five acre residence, located outside of Barryville on the highway now known as Mail Road, had been purchased by Cotton during the spring of 1862. When he left home for Goshen the following year to enlist, he left behind his wife, Eliza, to care for their family of six children, the youngest being only one year of age. Upon his return, the handicap endured by the loss of his leg apparently did not prevent him from continuing with his profession. The Federal census for the year of 1880 lists Theodore, along with his son Phineas Cotton, as being engaged with the occupation of stone mason, the work he did before the war.”
Fries says he has so far been unable to learn much else about Theodore Cotton’s life, save for the fact that he died in 1885. The Mail Road property remained in the family until 1935, when Theodore Cotton’s last surviving daughter sold it.
It turns out that Theodore Cotton was not the only African American from Sullivan County to serve with the Union Army during the Civil War. Wurtsboro brothers Henry Clay Jackson and Daniel Stanton Jackson enlisted in the 26th at the same time as Cotton. Mamakating residents John Low and Charles Jarvis were also members of the 26th, as were James Garnett, Judson Sharpe and William Neal of Cochecton. Eli Bennett Jackson, brother of Henry and Daniel, enlisted with the 20th U.S. Colored Troops, as did Nelson Hill, also of Mamakating. Guy Jeremiah fought with the 37th U.S.C.T.
“The chance finding of Theodore Cotton’s grave is a reminder that some of those who participated in the bold struggle for equality during this tragic era had roots here in Sullivan County,” Fries writes.
And the annals of Sullivan County history are richer now because of the information on these men Fred Fries has discovered and, more importantly, made available for the rest of us.
John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and teaches a class on the History of Sullivan County at SUNY-Sullivan in Loch Sheldrake, which will be during the summer semester for the first time this year. Contact the college for registration information.