“Plain Justice”

"Camp Denison, above Cincinnati O., on the banks of the Miami River, first used by General Cox as a recruiting camp, and later in the war as a permanent camp of instruction in the West." Etching by Frank Leslie, "Leslie's Weekly Illustrated" (1862). Image from Wikipedia Commons.

“Camp Denison, above Cincinnati O., on the banks of the Miami River, first used by General Cox as a recruiting camp, and later in the war as a permanent camp of instruction in the West.” Company C, 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry trained at Camp Dennison from May 6 to June 26, 1861, before departing by train for the eastern border of Ohio and what was then Virginia. Etching by Frank Leslie, “Leslie’s Weekly Illustrated” (1862). Image from Wikipedia Commons.

“Congressman S. H. Williams has introduced a bill in the house of representatives to correct the military record of N. Huckins of Oberlin. Mr. Huckins served more than ninety days, while the record does not show this fact” (Oberlin News, 7-19-1916, pg. 5).

I first came across this brief notice very early in my research on Canadian Noah Huckins. At the time, I knew virtually nothing about his life prior to settling in Wellington, Ohio. I had located his name in the 1890 United States Census of Union Veterans and Widows of the Civil War. (Most of the federal census documents for that year were destroyed in a later fire, but some veterans’ data for approximately half the states–Kentucky through Wyoming–survives.) That entry told me that Noah Huckins was a musician in Company C, 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Date of enlistment was given as June 20, 1861 and date of discharge September 20, 1861, for a total service time of three months.

Noah Huckins, ca. 1860. Image used courtesy of Baldwin Wallace University Archive.

Noah Huckins, ca. 1860. Image used courtesy of Baldwin Wallace University Archive.

Huckins was a private in Company C, also known as “Monroe’s Rifles.” The company was comprised almost entirely of Oberlin College faculty and students, and was nicknamed in honor of Ohio state senator James Monroe (1821-1898), a professor at the college and ardent abolitionist and reformer. Because of its strong ties to the school and the local community, “Monroe’s Rifles” received extensive coverage in the Oberlin newspaper, the Lorain County News, as its young soldiers made their way to training camp and thence into conflict.

I had so many questions about this period in Huckins’ life. Why did a student from Baldwin University join an Oberlin College company? Why did he join at all, given that he was from Canada and had not been in this country very long? Was he truly a musician, or was that a clerical error? (I found this mystery particularly interesting, given that his daughter, Ibla, later attended the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music.) The brief period of service indicated on the census schedule always struck me as strange; I am not an expert in military history, but three months seemed like too brief a time to train, let alone utilize, a raw recruit. When I first saw the 1916 notice at the top of this post, I  thought perhaps it was the answer to that particular question, i.e. Huckins did serve longer than three months, but the military record was somehow incorrect.

Recently, I learned about a company called American Civil War Ancestor. They conduct research at federal, state and local records facilities in the Washington D. C. area, including the National Archives and the Library of Congress. I sent in a request form and within a few weeks I was sifting through nearly 170 digital files, all the paperwork associated with Noah Huckins’ Compiled Military Service Record and his Pension Record. What an interesting and complicated tale they tell.

Huckins was just twenty-one years old when he left his junior year at Baldwin University to enlist. He was mustered into Company C at Camp Taylor in Cleveland on April 25, 1861. The company’s term of service was three months, as no one believed that the rebellion would last very long. According to his official service record, Huckins was mustered out at Oberlin on August 18, 1861. The remarks field indicates, “Declined entering 3 years service. Was furloughed at Camp Dennison. June 14, 1861.” That short, hand-written notation would cause Huckins a great deal of trouble a half-century later.

Physical description of Noah Huckins from his Compiled Military Service Record. Throughout the documents, Huckins eyes are listed as blue, grey and hazel; his height estimates vary by some four inches.

Physical description of Noah Huckins from his Compiled Military Service Record. Throughout the documents, Huckins’ eyes are listed as blue, gray and hazel; his height estimates are equally inconsistent.

In 1915, the now-elderly hardware salesman was living in Oberlin when he was notified that he was being dropped from the veterans’ pension roll “on the ground that he did not render ninety days service during the Civil War.” In an attempt to reduce the swelled ranks of pensioners from the Civil War (the largest such cohort in American history) and the Spanish-American War, the government passed a bill saying that veterans were required to have served a full ninety days to receive monies, and that any furlough time did not count toward that ninety days. They then set about reviewing files and canceling the pensions of many “three month” veterans.

Both Huckins and his classmate John Baldwin, Jr. had been members of Company C’s regimental band. When the company’s three-month enlistment was drawing to a close in 1861, it was reorganized as a three-year company and all the soldiers were asked to reenlist. Most did, but some–including Huckins and Baldwin–did not. Those who did not choose to “re-up” were furloughed in June and allowed to return home, because the rest of the company was about to start marching into what is today West Virginia.

Noah Huckins fought the revoking of his pension fiercely. His argument was simple: he had served more than his alloted ninety days, because he and Baldwin had remained with the company after the other “three month” soldiers went home. The two men were detailed with the band to accompany “Monroe’s Rifles” as they left Camp Dennison by train for a long march from Bellaire, Ohio through Clarksburg, Weston, Glenville, and eventually Sutton, Virginia. (The western portion of Virginia did not became a separate state until June 20, 1863.) It was only on August 2nd, at Sutton, that Huckins and Baldwin were finally allowed to leave military service and make their way back to Ohio. They were officially mustered out at Columbus on August 18th.

Example of Huckins and Huckins hardware store letterhead, from Noah Huckins Pension Record correspondence.

Example of Huckins and Huckins hardware store letterhead, from Noah Huckins Pension Record, Case #1080455.

Huckins wrote repeatedly to the Commissioner of Pensions, and submitted at least six sworn affidavits from former comrades-in-arms (four of whom were also classmates at Baldwin University), as well as character testimonials from Oberlin business associates. He even had the Adjutant General of the State of Ohio write to the pension review board to avow that Ohio had no record of any furloughs granted to Private Huckins during his period of service. Huckins went so far as to note in one letter, “I was paid in full for ninety days service, although I had in fact served ninety-eight days” (2-13-1915, pg. 2). By my calculation, he served 116 days from enlistment to discharge, or 100 days if his time after leaving Sutton is subtracted. The pension review board believed that Huckins had been furloughed and “subsisted himself from and after June 14, 1861, and never thereafter returned to duty” (Statement of Facts, 4-9-1915, pg. 1). By their count, he had served just fifty days. The cancellation of benefits was upheld.

Even after the final decision of the review board had been rendered, Huckins continued to pursue the correction of his military record through the legislative process. What he wanted, he wrote in a letter to the Commissioner of Pensions dated May 15, 1915, was “plain justice in this matter.” The latest correspondence in his Pension Record dates to May 1920, a little more than a year before his death at age eight-two. If the matter was ever resolved in his favor, there is no evidence of it in his military files.

This is a thorny issue. On the one hand, I do not believe it is right for the government to rescind benefits it has pledged to supply, particularly to veterans. The justification for the cancellation seems particularly suspect. On the other hand, even if Huckins was telling the absolute truth about his tour of duty, he served a little over three months of his life in the Union Army. Two-thirds of that time was spent training on Ohio soil. So far as I can tell, Huckins never came near any actual fighting; Company C did not have its first engagement of the war until three weeks after he left Sutton. The aged veteran acknowledged that he was paid the going rate of $13 per month for his military service, for a total of $39. Prior to the pension stoppage, he had received steadily increasing checks for 128 consecutive months, or nearly eleven years. During that time, when he had a very successful hardware business and was living in a house described as “one of the handsomest” in Oberlin, he collected something like $1,600 in “invalid” benefits, describing himself on one form as “unable to earn a support by manual labor by reason of: general disabilities attendant upon old age and eye sight” (Declaration for Invalid Pension, 4-1-1904). Whether this was a deliberately misleading claim on Huckins’ part, or simply the verbiage required of all applicants, I do not know.

Even after immersing myself in this man’s life for so long, I often still feel like I know nothing about him.

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