Peter D. Thomas
Database Record Change Request
|Name at Enlist
Peter D. Thomas
8 Apr 1847 – 11 Dec 1925
near Tiptonville, Lake County, TN
|Resident of Muster-In
Lake County, TN
|Company at Enlistment
|Rank at Enlistment
8 Apr 1862
|Cause of Death
Racine, Racine County, WI
Mound Cemetery, Racine, Racine County, WI
17 May 1879
Cook County, IL
Peter was born a slave. He grew up on a 1,000 acre plantation in Lake County in northwestern TN near Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River. Both of his parents were born in VA. Dabney was the surname of his master/owner. Peter was 14 years old when the American Civil War began. Together with other slaves, he was forced to help Confederate forces construct fortifications on the island. These eventually became quite extensive, housing some 80 large-caliber cannons. In an interview published in the Racine Journal newspaper on February 22, 1922, Peter shared his memories of what happened when Union forces came down the Mississippi River and attacked the island in the spring of 1862:
“The Yankees came down the river with gun boats and attacked the forts on the island and mainland. But it could not be taken by direct assault. So the gun boats ran past the fortifications one dark night so as to make an assault from the rear by moving troops across the river. The next morning the gun boats attacked the forts near Tiptonville. Everyone hurried to the river bank to see the fight. The cannon balls came so close to us that I said ‘Uncle I want to go home.’ ‘They are not shooting at colored people’ he said. A little while later he said, ‘Come on son. We will go home.’ I was very glad.”
On April 8, 1862, some 6,000 Confederate soldiers on and around the island surrendered to Union forces, which included the 15th WI. In the same article Peter described how this led to his first meeting with the 15th — and gaining his freedom:
“After the capture of all the forts the Yankees came to our plantation and told us we were all as free as they were and could go where we pleased. It seemed too good to be true. But as our owners said nothing, we knew it must be true. At this time they were not enlisting colored men in the army so I went with Captain Charles B. Nelson, Company G, 15th Wisconsin Infantry as his servant.”
‘Captain’ Nelson was at that time a Sergeant, but was promoted to 1st Lieutenant of Company G on June 11, 1862, and later commanded the company for a time in 1863. Nelson was a 35-year old married farmer who resided in Beloit, Rock County, WI, a place where Peter would later live, work, and go to school.
At the time, Peter began his employment as an officer’s servant, Company G consisted of 3 officers and about 80-90 enlisted men. They were overwhelmingly of Norwegian birth, and had been recruited from Scandinavian communities in Belleville, Blue Mound, and Primrose in Dane County; Dodgeville in Iowa County; and Beloit and Clinton in Rock County — all in WI. The men of Company G called themselves the “Rock River Rangers” in honor of the river that runs through the county of that name.
The 15th was known as the “Scandinavian Regiment” because its officers and enlisted men were almost all immigrants, predominantly from Norway, but also from Denmark and Sweden. While men from these countries served in many different Civil War units, Federal and Confederate, the 15th was the only ‘all Scandinavian’ regiment on either side. Many in the 15th, especially amongst its officers, were anti-slavery, and the regiment actively engaged in freeing slaves during its war service. Some of those freed were subsequently hired as servants, cooks, laundresses, and even nurses. Later, when permitted by the Army, a handful of ex-slaves were actually enlisted in the 15th, with each assigned the official title of “African Under Cook.” Peter, however, apparently remained a private employee of Lieutenant Nelson.
Starting in June 1862, 8 of the 15th’s 10 companies departed the Island No. 10 area. Companies G and I remained behind on extended guard duty. They would not rejoin the other companies for some 15 months. During that time the rest of the regiment participated in several grueling campaigns, which included bloody battles at Perryville (Chaplin Hills), KY; at Murfreesboro (Stone River), TN; and at Chickamauga, GA.
Initially Captain Nelson and the men of Company G were camped across the Mississippi River from Island No. 10 on the TN side, at what was called New Madrid Bend. There they were engaged in capturing Confederate soldiers who had escaped when the island was captured, and hunting down, sometimes on horseback, local groups of rebel guerrillas who were resisting the Union occupation.
In early October 1862, the Union camp, which consisted of some 150 soldiers, was attacked just before dawn by about 300 Confederate Cavalry. The attack was badly managed, and the Union troops repulsed it quickly repulsed with virtually no loss of life. However, afterwards the Union camp was moved over to Island No. 10. There the 15th soldiers were safe from attack behind the fortifications that Peter Thomas had helped to build. A drawing of the 15th’s camp on the island can be viewed by clicking HERE.
In December 1862, a curious incident threatened their safety and caused the 15th’s soldiers to repeatedly refuse orders. U.S. Brigadier General Thomas E. Davis sent an order to the island instructing the soldiers to spike the cannons and throw their ammunition into the Mississippi River in order to keep them from being captured and used by Confederates. In reality the 15th’s soldiers were safe from attack on the island, so they repeatedly refused to obey the order. Finally the General sent an officer to the island to force the men to obey. The 15th’s soldiers managed to save a great deal of the ammunition and destroy the cannons in such a way that they could be repaired. Nevertheless, for 3 days afterward the island was almost completely defenseless. Once U.S. Major General U. S. Grant heard of these strange orders he relieved General Davies of command and life returned to normal at the island.
On September 2, 1863, Companies G and I were ordered to rejoin the rest of the 15th, and Peter Dabney went with them. After a 3-week trip by steamboat, railroad train, and on foot they reached Chattanooga, TN. They arrived there on the morning of September 20, 1863, the second day of the bitter fighting at Chickamauga, GA — the second bloodiest battle of the Civil War. While the men in these companies could hear heavy cannon and musket fire in the distance, they were not ordered forward into the battle. Of the 15th’s soldiers who fought at Chickamauga, 63% were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. In fact, when the 15th was finally reunited the next morning, the 2 companies together had more than twice the number of men than answered roll call in the other 8 companies combined.
Peter Dabney and Lieutenant Nelson then served with the regiment during the Confederate siege of Chattanooga, which began right after the battle. The siege resulted in severe shortages of medicine, food, and firewood which, together with cold, wet weather, caused much suffering, sickness, and death. Starting October 13, 1863, Lieutenant Nelson was assigned to help escort a vital Army wagon train from Chattanooga over the mountains to the Federal supply depot at Stevenson, AL. It is believed that Peter Dabney accompanied him. This was by all accounts a physically challenging and dangerous trip. Lieutenant Nelson was once again with the 15th in early November 1863. The Confederate siege was finally broken by the Union Army’s victorious charge up nearby Mission Ridge on November 25, 1863, which the 15th took part in.
Starting right after Mission Ridge the 15th was engaged in almost non-stop marching and counter-marching all over eastern TN throughout the winter of 1863/1864. By many original accounts, this was the worst period of the regiment’s 3 year term of service. Poor rations, inadequate clothing and shelter, and unseasonably cold weather made these months nearly unbearable. It is believed that Peter Dabney was also with Lieutenant Nelson during this period.
Starting in May 1864, the 15th participated in the famous campaign led by U.S. Major General William T. Sherman to capture Atlanta, GA. This campaign was marked by almost daily marching and/or combat for 4 months. It is believed that Peter Dabney was along with the 15th when it took part in the fighting at Rocky Face Ridge, GA in early May; at the bloody Battle of Resaca, GA on May 14-15; and at the disastrous Battle of Pickett’s Mill (often called Dallas or New Hope Church), GA on May 27, 1864. There the 15th suffered 50% casualties, one of whom was Lieutenant Nelson. According to Buslett’s 1895 history of the 15th, Nelson “was seriously wounded in the right shoulder” and “was sent to the hospital in Nashville.” In the 1922 article, Peter discussed what happened next:
“…I took him home to Beloit and went to work on his farm. Several months later a soldier came home on furlough and said to me, ‘Why don’t you enlist?’ I told him I had tried but that they would not accept me. He told me they were enlisting colored men. ‘We can lick those fellows down there,’ said he, ‘but if you colored men will help us, we can do it much sooner. If they should happen to lick us, you would not be free, they would come up here and get you and put you back in slavery.’ I enlisted the next day…”
Peter Dabney was initially sent to Camp Randall, near Madison, Dane County, WI, where the 15th had trained. From there he was sent to Benton Barracks near St. Louis, MO. There he became part of the newly formed 18th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment. In the article Peter describes his experiences in the 18th:
“We scouted over a large part of Missouri picking up all the colored men found on the plantations and sent them to St. Louis. All those that were fit joined the army. Others were put to work for Uncle Sam. We were ordered to Bridgeport, Ala. [State of Alabama.] When [Confederate Major] General [John Bell] Hood made his raid on Nashville we were ordered to Franklin [Tennessee] and then joined [U.S. Major] General [George H.] Thomas in defending Nashville.”
Both Franklin and Nashville were bloody battles, and the latter involved heavy fighting and casualties amongst the “Colored” regiments present.
After the war Peter adopted his father’s surname: Thomas. He also returned to Beloit, where he attended school. He then taught in Chicago, Cook County, IL before returning to Beloit and finally settling in Racine, Racine County, WI. There he worked for many years as the janitor of the First National Bank and the county court house, where he also served as a juror in the circuit court. In 1887, Peter was elected to a 2-year term as the Racine County Coroner. In the 1920 Census, his granddaughter, Hattie Fite (1892) was living with him.
Peter’s death by asphyxiation at age 78 made the front-page of the December 12, 1925, issue of the Racine Journal-News newspaper:
“[He was found by his wife] lying across the large floor register directly above the pipeless furnace. The fire had been so hot that the face and hands were literally baked…”
Sources: Genealogical data from Dee Anna Grimsrud, MLIS, CGRS, from Ellen Pederson, Westby Area Historical Society, and from Charles Brewer; Det Femtende Regiment, Wisconsin Frivillige [The Fifteenth Regiment, Wisconsin Volunteers] by Ole A. Buslett (Decorah, IA, 1894); 1880 Census, Roll: 256, Family History Film: 1254256, Page: 423B, Enumeration District: 128, Image: 0852; 1920 Census, Roll: T625_2012, Page: 15A, Enumeration District: 49, Image: 61; findagrave.com.