Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Finding Uncle Sephus

    Uncle Sephus.  Sephus Bass was his full name.  He was my gr. grandfather Mitchell Bass's brother. But like many of my family, with roots in Tennessee, I never heard his name until the 1990s.  At a family reunion in 1989, his name came up as one of our Tennessee ancestors from Giles county. I would not hear the story until 1995, when one of the cousins related the story that he had heard at the family reunion years before.

     Our Arkansas patriarch in Horatio Arkansas, was Louis Mitchell Bass born in Giles County Tennessee. He was taken from his family in Tennessee never to see them anymore.  Oh he was not sold, but instead, he was "given" as a "wedding gift" when the slave owner's daughter married a man from Arkansas.

Louis Mitchell Bass
Patriarch of the Bass Family of SW Arkansas

     When freedom came---he would spend the rest of his life in Horatio, the small Arkansas town, having married a  young woman whom he loved, and with whom he started his own family. Not long afterwards, he farmed for himself, acquired land, and made a name for himself in the community of former slaves in Sevier County. He often longed for his family back in Tennessee, but never had the chance to travel, and, as the years passed, he received no word of their fate.

It would be decades after the war, before he would learn the story of what actually happened to his family left behind. Among those left behind were his parents, and brothers---one of whom was Sephus--Sephus Bass.

As I said, Grandpa Mitchell Bass would never see most of them ever again.  However late in life he did get a chance to meet a younger brother, John Silas Bass, who had moved to Kansas in the 1900's. And years later when the two met---John Silas, the younger brother told his brother Mitchell, the story of what happened to the family on one fateful night in 1888.

     Night riders---klansmen---visited the home of the Bass family in Elkton, and in one of the many acts of terrorizing black families in the county----- they attacked the Bass family.  To shorten a long and tragic story----in an effort to protect the family---a shoot-out took place. The younger members of the family were put on the roof of the house, and the shooting began.  The patriarch of  this family---Irving Bass---the father----and also my gr. gr. gr. grandfather would lose his life in that struggle to protect his family.

     One of the sons----Josephus (Sephus) was a marksman and he shot at least one of the night riders. After the incident---he, Sephus as he was called, had to leave. It was said that he left for Texas, and no other details about his life were ever known.

     Over the years the same story was told about him----he shot a white man and ran away to Texas. 
     Part of  this story involves the fact that even for many years---his name was never uttered. Finally at a family reunion in the 1980s, the only person living who ever heard the story about Uncle Sephus was there---my great uncle, George Bass. At this reunion, someone asked about the story of  the event of 1888. Uncle George shared the few facts that he had heard about the tragic end to Irving Bass's death and how the family defended itself. And he did mention the uncle who shot the white man and who fled to Texas.

     But Uncle George did not mention his name at least not at first. And when asked by one of the cousins---who was it who fired the shot----he replied simply and cautiously---"well, we are not supposed to talk about this."

     Finally----at the urging and prodding of our cousin Buddy---he pointed out the obvious ,"...but...they are all dead! This is the 1980s.  Nobody can argue with you for saying his name...what was his name?"  

With much reluctance, he finally said, "well, his name was Sephus."

     There it was---his name was Sephus Bass. Could I find additional information about Sephus Bass?  He was from Tennessee and ran away to Texas.

     But WHERE in Texas? Texas is huge! And did he actually make it to Texas? Or was he just headed for Texas? There were no stories of anything that happened to him when and if he arrived.

     Did he write back to the family? And since he was on the run---could he have written back to communicate where he was?  Chances are---no. A letter arriving at the post office for this family, coming from a wanted man---they would never have been allowed to even receive it, and warrants would have been put out immediately for his arrest. Could that possibly have happened?

     And  if 100 years later, Uncle George was still cautious about even telling the family his name---surely in the days and years when the terrible incident happened, chances are, he could not have made contact at all.  And the fear lasted for 100 years! But---could I find out what happened to Uncle Sephus and how his life turned out?

     All I had was his name----Sephus.  It was supposed to be short for Josephus. We all know that "Spelling dusn't cownt"*  And there were many ways to spell Sephus.  Sephus, Sephas,  Cephus, Cephas----and even more ways to misspell his name.  

     But I wanted to find him, somewhere in the records---just to know that he survived.  All I knew was that he shot a man and fled to Texas.

     I had to used some logic. The incident took place in 1888.  Since there is no 1890 census to use, could he possibly have been found in the 1900's?  And would he have possibly be in Texas, if he lived that long?  Well, my mind kept dwelling on the possibilities-------he might have died along the way, or never made it to Texas.   But,  I decided to look anyway. A search of Texas census records reflected a lot of people with the surname of BASS.

       In the 1910---there was a Sephus Bass.  He was an older man, living with a married daughter and her husband.  He was living in Fayette County Tennessee, AND he had Tennessee roots.  But-----was this MY Sephus Bass?

1910 Federal Census Image of  Fayette County TX. "Cephas" Bass listed with married daughter & family.

Luck again!!  In 1900, there was also a Sephus Bass----and this one had to be mine!!  He was enumerated with a brother----Napier Bass!  Wow---Napier----this was a surprise!  I was delighted to see this, because I recognized the name Napier as a family name.  Uncle George---the one who revealed the name Sephus to the family---his middle name was Napier.  He had a son called Napier Bass.  And John Silas Bass---the man who moved to Kansas, he too had a son called Napier But wow----this man--brother to Sephus--might have been the first of the many Napier Bass's around!!  This HAD to be the family!!

     But how could I know?  I needed something to really connect a Texas-based Sephus with a Tennessee-born Sephus (or Cephus).  Then----came a hunch---I wonder if he fought in the Civil War.  Were there soldiers from Tennessee named Bass? And one named Sephus?

     Well, this was years before the NPS Soldiers &  Sailors online database was created. I would have to make a trip to the National Archives to find out more.  I planned a trip, and my task was to look up on microfilm, the alpha index of US Colored Troops.  I found out the BASS surname was not unique---there were hundreds of soldiers called Bass who served in the Union Army.  

     So I cranked the microfilm.  I was being careful to note spelling C-E-P-H-U-S,  C-E-P-H-A-S,  C-E-P-H-I-S- and on and on. I looked for Josephus Bass as well. Nothing came up.  I kept cranking and then I got to the letter S and there was----SEPHAS BASS.  Hmm...........could this have been MY Sephus?  The index file simply said that he was a private who had served in the 111th US Colored Infantry.

     Well, I had 3 things to do:
     1) I had to learn something about that regiment.  Where was it organized and where did they serve? If this was a regiment from Virginia, or Maryland, he would most likely not be connected to my Giles County Tennessee-based Bass family. )
     2) I had to learn if the Private Sephus Bass whose name I found, had possibly survived the war, and filed   
       for a pension.  
    3) I had to connect the Texas-based Sephus with my Tennessee-based Bass family.

So, first, what could I find out about the 111th US Colored Infantry?

     At the National Archives in the 1990s, on the 4th floor there were several reference rooms. There was a copy of Frederick Dyer's Compendium of the War of the Rebellion. This is a wonderful reference book to have and a great way to learn about the history of the various units that served in the Civil War. I turned to the section where the US Colored Troops were described.   I found a listing for the 111th US Colored Infantry.

     It stated:Organized June 25, 1864, from 3rd Alabama Colored Infantry. Attached to garrison at Pulaski, Tenn., District of North Alabama, Dept. of the Cumberland, to February, 1865. Defences of Nashville & Northwestern Railroad, Dept. of the Cumberland, to March, 1865. 3rd Sub-District, District of Middle Tennessee, to July, 1865. Dept. of the Tennessee to April, 1866. ** 

SERVICE.--Duty at Pulaski, Tenn., and Athens, Ala., District of North Alabama, until September, 1864. Action at Athens with Forest September 23-24 (most of Regiment captured). Sulphur Branch Trestle September 25 (Detachment). Duty at Pulaski, Tenn., until January, 1865. Guard duty on Nashville & Northwestern Railroad and in Middle Tennessee until April, 1866. Mustered out April 30, 1866. 

Hmm........Pulaski, Tennessee.  Something rang a bell.  I had to look at  a Tennessee map because I needed to know if the unit served anyplace near the community where the Bass family lived in Elkton.

Luck!!  No WONDER Pulaski Tennessee was familiar.  It is the county seat of Giles County! 
So----this unit did operate in the vicinity where my Bass ancestors lived, and there was a Sephus that enlisted in that area. My next question was----if Sephus was a soldier, could he have fileld for and received a pension?  If so, I might be able to learn more about him and pick up some details about his life.

Luck!!!  Sephus Bass DID file a pension!  And--holy cow---this Sephus Bass was applying from the state of Texas!  (Keeping in mind the one thing that I had ever heard about Uncle Sephus: He shot a white man and fled to Texas!)

So, there on a warm summer day at the the National Archives, in the old 4th floor microfilm room---I  filled out the forms to order the Pension file to see if this man in Texas was MY Uncle Sephus. My mind kept racing......"this unit spent some time around Pulaski, the main city of Giles County.  My family of Bass's were from Giles County Tennessee.  Could Uncle Sephus have enlisted when the Federal soldiers came through, and if he did, then was THIS Sephus possibly MY Sephus?  And if the man filing for the pension was from Tennessee, and Giles County could this possibly be our ancestor found years later in Texas?

Now note-----when one visits the National Archives, and has a Civil War record pulled, one has to wait.  Staff members go into the stacks on the upper tiers, and the records are then taken to the 2nd floor reading room.  This takes about an hour.  That wait was the longest hour!

     Finally I went downstairs to the 2nd floor reading room to see what that file contained.  I approached the desk and gave them my name, and one of the staff members  presented a rather thick file to me, and I went over to one of the tables and settled down.  Unwrapping the string around the bundle I also said a small prayer, "God, please let this be my Uncle Sephus."  

     Pages upon pages came out of that file. I was astonished that I was looking at old pages many yellowed with age, and I realized that I had to handle them delicately. Some were physical reports addressing arthritis and other ailments of this aging soldier. And then I saw what I was looking for---A deposition from Sephus Bass.
Deposition of Sephus Bass
As I examined the file, an amazing story surfaced:

     What a revelation!!  So in April  of 1864, he enlisted at Sulphur Trestle Alabama---but the new revelation was that he enlisted with a brother---Braxton! Wow----he enlisted with whom???  I have never heard this name before! AND----he enlisted with two of his own sons!!!  Henry and Emanuel Bass!!  These names were never known to our family before.
   Of course---we were the Arkansas Bass   family---our gr. grandfather Mitchell Bass had never returned and rarely, if ever spoke of the folks left behind in Tennessee.  And here were the names of others in the family. Sephus mentioned a brother----Braxton. Now if Braxton was a brother to Uncle Sephus, then Braxton was also our gr. grandfather Mitchell's brother too!  Braxton Bass---a gr. gr. uncle!
Then I read more----and this was something to digest:

Deposition From Pension File of Pvt. Sephus Bass

Wait a minute!!!!   Did I see what I think I saw?   He was captured by N.B. Forrest.  The N.B. Forrest? As in General Nathan Bedford Forrest?? And wait a minute----did Uncle Sephus say that Nathan Bedford Forrest captured him and then pulled the four of them aside and then they---all four of them escaped?  From Nathan B. Forrest---the Confederate General?

This was hard to comprehend on so many levels.
     1) Nathan Bedford Forrest----a major name to those who study the history of the Confederate Army.

     2) Why would a general--of any army, in any war, care about enlisted men who were serving in the enemy forces? And why would---as Uncle Sephus said----why would he--(N.B. Forrest) have singled out Sephus Bass, his brother Braxton Bass, and his two sons---Henry and Emmanuel?

     3) AND---more than anything----if anyone has studied the Civil War---there is the story of Ft. Pillow.

     (Ft. Pillow was a terrible massacre of black soldiers that occurred in March of 1864. When trying to surrender, they were brutally murdered, as the confederates under the direction of N.B. Forrest, in fact, swore to take no black soldiers prisoners. The CSA as it is told, did not see the colored soldiers as fit to be soldiers, nor considered them men, and had found their enlistment in the army to be so heinous, that their rage turned into one of the most horrific massacres of the Civil War.) But now I read that in late 1864---6 months after the Ft. Pillow massacre---the same general--makes prisoners of this regiment of black soldiers, and for some reason pulls my relatives aside, and then they escape!!!! Was this possible???)

    Well I had to study more about the history of the regiment and I had to look up records of the battle of  Sulphur Branch Trestle where they were captured.
     Sure enough, the official records do indicate that the 110th and 111th US Colored were captured!  AND they were taken prisoner.  And of course, my own curiosity extended back to N.B. Forrest and his relationship to my own ancestors.

    Why would a general pull these 4 men aside, then not watch them, and allow their escape? So I pulled the official records of the Civil War and read about the capture of the 110th & 111th.

Source: The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies Series 1, Volume 39, Part 1  Page 535.

Now this confirmed the capture of the 111th and that they were captured and not killed.  But I still had to try to comprehend, why Nathan B. Forrest had an interest in 4 enemy soldiers---enlisted men.

I also had to read about the capture of Sulphur Trestle to fully understand what took place:

SourceThe War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies Series 1, Volume 39, Part 1  Chapter VI Page 514.

Still, I wanted to know why N.B. Forrest took an interest in these 4 men---my Uncle Sephus being one of them.  I then found a letter among the official records:

Letter from N.B. Forrest in the field pertaining to the capture of the Union soldiers.

Source: The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies Series 1, Volume 39, Part 1  Chapter VI Page 521.

From this letter I understood now that Forrest wanted the black soldiers to be returned to their slave owners. But did his act of pulling aside Uncle Sephus and Braxton comply with his state goals? And I studied the words very closely uttered by Uncle Sephus again:

Deposition of Sephus Bass explaining  how they escaped from N.B. Forrest

Pulled aside by Forrest himself, Sephus Bass states, "he did not guard us very closely and we got away when near our old home in Giles County Tex(sic) and after the capture of Mobile by the Union forces our Regiment rendezvoused at Nashville Tenn."

     They "got away"!  They escaped!  From Forrest!  Back home in Giles County TN they found their way home to Elkton. And in that statement----Sephus Bass confirmed that his home was indeed Giles County Tennessee. I had connected this man now in Texas---to Giles County Tennessee!

I also could not stop myself from speculating. I wanted to know more about the relationship between my ancestor and this Confederate general. I learned in the pension file that by occupation Sephus was a carpenter. I also learned that by occupation Uncle Braxton was a blacksmith.

     Now----who were they before the war? Well, before the war, they were the slaves of Major John Bass, of Elkton, Tennessee.  They resided on the Bass estate for mostly their entire lives.  Who was Nathan B. Forrest?  He was a wealthy man, a slave trader, and he lived in Pulaski, down the road from Elkton.  Being a man of wealth---he surely knew other men of prominence in the area.  Could he have known Major Bass?  If he knew him, did he have an occasion to visit him? Or vice versa? If there had been any kind of social contact----could there have been some recognition of these 4 men?  If on any occasion, had they met, could Braxton the blacksmith have shoed horses for Forrest?  These men were slaves of a prominent man from the same county---a man who could have known Forrest.  Perhaps there was some kind of recognition.  He might have truly known them. My speculations were only just that----but I was more than amazed at what I had found anyway. And if  a majority of the members of the 111th U,S Colored Infantry were sent to Mobile, then what could be the motivation for keeping the Bass soldiers apart? But--all of this is just speculation, and those answers I will never know---but I am still pleased that I learned that I had, at last found Uncle Sephus.

     When I started, I had only hoped just to find him living in Texas and I ended up learning the story of a Civil War battle with a famous general and I learned that whatever happened in 1888, he survived and made it to Texas!  Oh yes----that pension file also contained one additional gem---I learned the birth date of Sephus Bass.
In this document the day and actual year of his birth is listed.

Sephus Bass stated that he was born July 12th 1833.  This was information rarely obtained about those who were enslaved.  To read this from one of the pages of the pension file, was more than moving, I felt humbled to have been one of the descendants to find it.

The file also confirmed that he was living with his now married daughter, Mary Poole, and her husband and children. So---that family that I saw in the census---that was Uncle Sephus!!

So after the tragedy of 1888 he fled and started a new life for himself while there. I could now say yes-----he made it to Texas!!  And I had found him!  

And there is much more to the family history that came from the file, and I was able to also learn more when I read the file of Braxton Bass, his brother.  But it was Uncle Sephus, whose name was not spoken for 100 years----his story led me to so much more.

I don't know much about the man he as said to have shot while defending the family---but I know that whatever took him to Texas, that he, like my gr. grandfather Mitchell, in Horatio Arkansas, they both would live their remaining years apart from the Tennessee family, but they would survive and the family would go on.

There is a wonderful Yoruba Proverb:  An ancestor never dies till there is no one left to call his name.
I thank my Uncle George N. Bass for saying our ancestor's name. I too can now say his name as well----Sephus Bass!!  May he never be forgotten.
 _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

*Lisa Lee, 10 Rules of Genealogy. (Genealogy.Com)
** Frederick Dyer, Compendium of the War of the Rebellion

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Joys of Freedom!

Sanctuary!  An illustration of slaves seeking freedom at the Union Lines

I always loved the 4th of July from my my childhood days. I recall the barbecues, fireworks and good times with the family, on a day that everyone seemed to relish.  Fire crackers, sparklers and roman candles were the norm and it was a day of just pure enjoyment.  As I got older, I learned the history lessons of independence from the British and embraced the concept of freedom and how we celebrated the nation's history from 1776.

As I got a bit older I had to then learn the painful truths that though we celebrated Freedom---many of my own ancestors, were not yet able to have this celebration, and would have to wait 90 years for their own celebrations of freedom.  And another set of ancestors had to wait an additional year when in 1866 they would be freed by Treaty.

But---there is one story that got buried in the family memory--and I found it accidentally.  I found Amanda's sister.

My ancestor Amanda Young---was the matriarch of  my mother's family.  Her husband, father and son, would leave to join the Union forces.  None ever returned. She did eventually remarry a kind and very lonely man from South Carolina, Pleasant Barr---who had lost his own family, when he was separated from them.  They then provided the structure needed for Amanda's children to grow.

But, while researching Amanda's story---I found another story.  That of her sister Mary Paralee Young. 

Paralee, as she was known by the family was Amanda's sister. Same father, same mother, and both were slaves of William Tandy Young, in Ripley Mississippi. When Gen. Rosencranz sent a raid into northern Mississippi, they reached Ripley, and the opportunity came for the men to leave and to join the Union Army. They seized that opportunity and left. 

I learned that Amanda's husband father and brother left---and she would see none of them again.  A few days after the men had left--word reached back that if those left behind could just reach the Union line---they too could be freed.  Amanda had several young children who would not have survived the journey, so she remained. But Amanda's sister---who also had a  young child, she knew her husband had left with the men and she too wanted to taste freedom, and she like many others also fled when the word came.

Amanda's sister would never return.  So other than her children---all of Amanda's family was gone.  

Freedom would eventually come--and Amanda faced her new freedom with no husband, no son, no father, no sister.

But she would survive, remarry and raise her children.

FIFTY years later-----Amanda was once again widowed---her second husband Pleas was now deceased, and her adult daughters had married and moved on with their lives. 

It was the early 1900s and Amanda was applying for a widow's pension from her first husband Berry.  She had moved to Memphis to live with her now grown daughter Frances.  There were some men in the Memphis ex soldiers area who knew of people from Ripley Mississippi. Those folks with luck, might, remember Amanda and testify for her. 

One of them did and she eagerly came forth to testify on Amanda's behalf.  She was Amanda's sister---and they had not seen each other for fifty years!  Mary Paralee Young.

The year was 1914. Amanda was an old woman, and still wondered in those years---what had happened to the people she had loved.  Well, Paralee told some of that story.

They learned that if they followed the men----they too would be free!  So she decided along with other young women to go and to try to follow the men. They had but one goal----to get to the Union Line!! There they would find, sanctuary!

(Historically this was true. Gen. Benjamin Butler, in 1861 had declared that all property seized (including human property) would be considered "contraband".  This led to the establishment of the many contraband camps throughout the south.)   

There was a contraband camp in Corinth, but they were re-directed to Saulsbury Tennessee. Corinth was now full and Tennessee was now their destination.

After several days of travel---which one can only imagine such a journey on foot, to Saulsbury Tennessee. There had to be fear, even though they were following Federal soldiers for they were now runaway slaves, and Saulsbury Tennesse was a great distance away.  They were then put on a train and sent outside of Memphis to President's Island.

 She did not describe what she saw, but civil war illustrators and photographers have depicted the camps---tent cities and refugees---hundreds of refugee slaves suddenly free---with need for shelter, food, and care.  

Images of Contraband Camps during the Civil War

I also learned that in northern Mississippi, Corinth Contraband  Camp, is known for being one of the more organized contraband camps---even during a time of crisis when a measles epidemic had hit the camp.

Corinth is now an historic landmark in Northern Mississippi

But Paralee, was not to be there----it had been decided, as more and more refugees poured into Corinth---that they could not accomodate them adequately. They went to Saulsbury and then as she stated "when I got to Memphis they sent me with the whole others to the Contraband Camp at President's Island. She remained there nearly a year and a half.  Afterwards, she eventually found her husband in the area around Memphis and she and her husband remained there after the war---never returning to Ripley, where they had lived as slaves.  

Fifty years later a woman came to her home and asked her if she had ever known a woman called Amanda Young. The woman was her niece--Amanda's daughter.  Of course she had---her sister was Amanda Young!

Amanda, now living in Memphis had told her story and a man who knew many women who were Civil War widows, recalled that Paralee had said she was once a slave in Ripley Mississippi.  Would Paralee be willing to testify for Amanda so that she could get a pension for her husband?  Of course she would----after 50 years---she would finally see her sister again! Her daughter went to find her in Whitehave, now a neighborhood in Memphis.  

I was so amazed to read this story from the  pages of Amanda's Civil War pension file.

I had so many questions----one of which was: President's Island---where was this place?  

I learned that it was an island in the middle of the Mississippi River---just off the river banks---near Memphis. President's Island was a large contraband camp and a rare one to be so close to a major city!  Paralee had lived there until 1866.  

What was life like in that camp?
Who ran the camp?
How did they survive?

So many questions and many of those answers I still seek.

But----I have come to appreciate the courage it took to flee to the unknown, seeking freedom.  I appreciate the fact that steps were taken to provide shelter for these newly freed slaves, and to give them refuge.  I admire the fact that they survived and did manage to move ahead---scarred, but not defeated by the legacy of having once been enslaved. 

I also appreciate Amanda---who continued to ask the questions----what happened to my family?  

After 50 years, she still sought answers---and 140 years later I can find the paper trail that she left---where some of those answers lie.

They wanted what all people want---to be free, to have the independence of choice and to make their own decisions. 

I often refer to summertime as a Season of Freedom. In June, many of us celebrate Emancipation as it came to Galveston and beyond.  

In July--we celebrate the Freedom of our country---OUR country---it belongs to us as well. 

And in August in Oklahoma---we celebrate Freedom and emancipation from the slave holding tribes----Freedom--how sweet the song!

For me----I have a special feeling in my heart---for those who sought sanctuary---and who found it!  
From the contraband camps, to the military enlistment units to the places within their heart----all longed to tasted the sweetness of Freedom!!

Happy Birthday America!  

It is wonderful to be free!!