Monday, January 28, 2013

Henry Biggs alias Henry Holms, 100th USCI

One of the African American soldiers from Greenup County, KY who served their country during the Civil War was Henry Biggs. He was born in Greenup County between 1825 and 1827, the son of a man by the last name of Holmes. Henry was the slave of William Biggs who lived on a farm situated near the Ohio River, about three miles from the town of Greenup.

Once part of the William Biggs farm
William Biggs was a self-made business man who maintained a line of keel boats on the Ohio and Big Sandy Rivers and owned interests in iron furnaces in Ironton, Ohio as well as in Kentucky. In 1850, he bought a hotel in Portsmouth Ohio, which came to be known far and wide as the "Biggs House." He maintained a woodyard on the banks of the Ohio river in Greenup which was supplied from his heavily timbered farm. Biggs was also a substantial slave holder. In 1850, he owned 19 slaves and 24 slaves in 1860. He was characterized as a "kind and indulgent master" who, during the 1830's, allowed his slaves to cross the Ohio river, and work in the state of Ohio. It has been said that none of his slaves ever tried to escape. This may have been partially due to the fact that, beginning in 1856, slave patrols were employed for which the state legislature appropriated $1200 annually to Greenup County for wages.

As Henry grew to manhood, he was married to Rosa Philips, also a slave, about 1845/1846. She was born in Kentucky between 1820 and 1824. The ceremony was performed in Greenup County by Charles Howard, a "Colored Minister." After their marriage, the couple lived on the William Biggs farm and during the course of the years five children were born to this union:

Charlotte/Lottie, b. abt. 1846

Jackson/Jack, b. abt. 1850

Sophy/Sophia, b. March 2, 1851

Henry, b. May 15, 1853

Harrison, b. April 15, 1855

In addition to their five children, the couple also cared for a young slave girl named Maria. Despite her young age, being only between 7 to 9 years old, Maria was of great help to Rosa and assisted in nursing her "during her sickness resulting from her being confined" by giving birth to her last two children, Henry and Harrison.

When the Civil War began, African Americans were not permitted to enlist in the military service to serve their country. As the war progressed, attitudes began to change. The first official authorization to employ African Americans in federal service was the Second Confiscation and Militia Act of July 17, 1862. This act allowed President Abraham Lincoln to receive into the military service persons of African descent and gave permission to use them for any purpose "he may judge best for the public welfare." However, the President did not authorize use of African Americans in combat until issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

To facilitate recruiting in the states of Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky, the War Department issued General Order No. 329 on October 3, 1863. Section 6 of the order stated that if any citizen should offer his or her slave for enlistment into the military service, that person would, "if such slave be accepted, receive from the recruiting officer a certificate thereof, and become entitled to compensation for the service or labor of said slave, not exceeding the sum of three hundred dollars, upon filing a valid deed of manumission and of release, and making satisfactory proof of title." Further, every owner was required to sign an oath of allegiance to the government of the United States.

Nevertheless, open enrollment did not begin in Kentucky until Burbridge issued GENERAL ORDERS No. 34, dated April 18, 1864. It directed the assistant to the provost-marshal-general of the State, the provost-marshals of districts, and the deputy provost-marshals in each county, " to receive and regularly enlist as soldiers in the service of the United States all able-bodied negro slaves and free colored persons of lawful age who may apply to them to be enlisted, and in case of slaves whose owners may request the enlistment."

A month later, on May 22, 1864, Henry Biggs appeared at Greenupsburg and signed a declaration, that he desired to volunteer as a soldier in the Army of the United States, for the term of three years, which was witnessed by J. W. Henderson. The following day, he enrolled as a private in Capt. Hamlin Rockwell's Co. H, 100th US Colored Infantry. Henry was examined by Surgeon A. Spaulding and declared "free from all bodily efects and mental infirmity" which in turn qualified him for military service. His physical description was given as follows: Age 37, occupation farmer. He was 5' 4" tall, had black eyes, black hair, and a copper complexion.

Henry Biggs Enlistment Paper
Henry Biggs was mustered into the US service on June 1, 1864, by Captain William C. Grier, Provost Marshall, 9th Congressional District of Kentucky. The absence of any type of manumission documents in his service records seem to suggest that he volunteered without permission (or blessings) by William Biggs.

According to Col. Reuben D. Mussey, 100th USCI, Commissioner, Organization U. S. Colored Troops, "the people of Kentucky did not seem to be willing there should be armed negroes in their State." Burbridge's order specified that as soon as mustered,"and squads of such recruits are collected, they will be at once forwarded to the general rendezvous at Louisville; thence forwarded by the commandant of the rendezvous to the nearest rendezvous or camp of instruction outside of the State, for the purpose of being equipped and assigned to companies and regiments." Burbridge made note that, "recruits will, in all cases, be forwarded as herein directed with all practicable dispatch."

Accordingly, within a few days of muster, Henry Biggs, along with a detachment of other recruits, boarded a steamboat for Louisville. As they departed Greenup, the recruits may have felt a sense of relief. While in camp and without weapons, the raw recruits manifested, "some alarm lest the guerrillas should come in and massacre them after the manner observed at Fort Pillow." On June 4, 1864, the Portsmouth Times (OH) reported that a "Boat-Load of negro soldiers passed down the river on the Market Boy, yesterday morning." The Market Boy was not a fancy boat by any means. It was formerly in use by the Kanawha Salt Association to transport salt. The recruits arrived at Louisville on June 6, 1864, and were quickly loaded onto a train to Nashville, Tennessee.

Ohio River at Greenup, near the steamboat landing
Henry Biggs was among the first several hundred African American recruits from Kentucky thus received at Mussey's headquarters in Nashville. Military authorities were encouraged and decided to expand their recruiting efforts in Kentucky. By mid-June, the number of recruiters were increased and eight camps were authorized to receive US Colored recruits which would include Camp Swigert in Greenup County. The Ironton Register (OH) reported that, "The negroes of Greenup and adjoining counties in Kentucky are enlisting into the United States Service very rapidly. At last accounts one hundred and fifty of them were encamped near Greenupsburg." When the 100th USCI was organized at Nashville, recruits from Greenup as well as a number from neighboring counties accounted for most of the rank and file of Cos. F and H through K, 100th USCI.

The regiment was immediately assigned to guard duty on the Nashville & Northwestern Railroad where it was involved in a skirmish on Sept. 6, 1864. The regiment saw action at Johnsonville on November 4-5, particpated in the Battle of Nashville, TN, December 15-16 and Overton Hill, December 16. Immediately therafter, the 100th USCI took part in the pursuit of Hood to the Tennessee River, from December 17-28, 1864.

Their hard service as well as a lack of tents and blankets and exposure to the elements led to widespread sickness among the soldiers in the regiment. It was during this time, that Henry Biggs contracted a severe cold which quickly turned into pneumonia. He died from the effects on Christmas Day 1864, while on a train between Huntsville and Stevenson, Alabama. Sadly, his burial site could not be ascertained by the writer and seems to be lost. Henry Biggs' name is displayed on the African American Civil War Memorial, Plaque Number C-99.

Henry's enlistment did not automatically free his family who remained in servitude until Congress passed a resolution on Mach 3, 1865, that freed the wives and children of U.S. Colored Troops. It can only be speculated how Rosa and the children were treated during their remaining days in Greenup County. By the time the Civil War was over, they had left the Biggs farm and were living in Circleville, Pickaway County, Ohio. On Sept. 6, 1865, Rosa applied for a widow's and minors' pension before Probate Court Judge John Walker.

Rosa applied under the surname Holms, rather than Biggs. In order to explain this discrepancy, two of Henry Biggs' former comrades, Corporal Harvey Kouns (listed as Karnes on the regimental rolls) and Richard Johnson, both Co. H, 100th USCI,  testified on July 13, 1866, before William Corum, Greenup County Clerk, that Henry enlisted with them and was mustered into the service, "under the name of Henry Biggs, the Surname Biggs being the surname of his master and by which he was known here, that after he became free, he assumed the surname of his Father which was Holmes and called himself Henry Holmes and that the said Henry Biggs alias Henry Holmes continued with them in the service till his death."

After producing supporting affidavits in regard to her marriage to Henry and the birth dates of her children, Rosa Holms alias Biggs was granted a pension for herself and sons Henry and Harrison at the rate of $8 per month, beginning Sept. 21, 1866 (Cert. # 83.944).

Rosa Holms' Widow's Claim for Pension
Rosa never re-married and continued to live with her children in the 3rd Ward in Circleville. According to census records, she owned  her own home. Also living with her for some time were Maria and her husband James Rollins. In 1872, she applied for an increase in pension which was not granted. Rosa died on Nov. 29, 1882. Her last known residence was 254 Canal Street, 3rd Ward, Circleville, OH, which was in close proximity of the Ohio & Erie Canal.

Links of Interest
Resolution Freeing the Families of Black Soldiers
Published by Freedmen & Southern Society Project

THE BLACK SOLDIERS OF KENTUCKY: Over Twenty Thousand Negroes Furnished to the Armies of the Union More than a Hundred Thousand Slaves Made Free.
Article by the New York Times, published August 10, 1865.

Freedom by the Sword- U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867, by William A. Dobak.

African American Civil War Memorial
Photo Gallery (NPS)

Article researched and written by Marlitta H. Perkins, January 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication without express written notice by the author is strictly prohibited. © 2013. All Rights Reserved.