Tim Crumrin - Experience Delivery Director/Senior Historian
For many reasons, Conner Prairie rarely presents “actual” individuals from history. Instead, we research many past lives and use them to form the basis of the “people” you encounter when you visit Conner Prairie.
Such is the case with “William,” a character who will be part of our new Civil War Journey experience
. William, an escaped slave, was taken in by an abolitionist family in Corydon, captured by Morgan’s raiders, escaped once more, and eventually joined the 28th Regiment, USCT
(United States Colored Troops).
The genesis of William were brief mentions in letters written by young Attia Porter of Corydon, Indiana. She referred to “our little contraband” (a period term for escaped slaves) and wrote, “They [Morgan’s raiders] kidnapped our little negro… but he got away.” This struck us as a compelling story we might want to tell, but first we had to learn more about him and his story. It was much easier said than done.
First we had to identify “our little contraband.” Who was he? What was his name? What happened to him?
For weeks I and others searched in vain for his name and information about him. Scores of book, articles, letters and online resources were checked. We contacted Porter family descendents, but no one knew his name. Finally, five of us went to the local history library in Corydon. There, VP for Experience, Dan Freas found a single mention in a local history book. His name was Albert Cheatham.
We now had a solid starting point. Indiana Civil War records were searched. There was no “Albert Cheatham,” but there was an Albert Chatam (variations in spellings were common in the 19th century) who served in the 28th and was buried in a military cemetery in Louisville. Was this our man?
Using this information I searched through various online databases and other resources. There he was, Albert Cheatham (or Chatam, or Chatain). This gave us his service records. As he died in Louisville, I searched Kentucky census records. There he was again.
So, what do we know about Albert? Not enough, but much of that is due to the fact that African Americans during this period lived their lives on the barely acknowledged fringe of American life. Their lives were little noted or recorded. But we were able to put some flesh on the skeleton of Albert’s known life.
Albert was born into slavery in Tennessee or Alabama (he listed both states as his place of birth) in 1844. Sometime after the war began he escaped and made his way to Indiana and was taken in by the Porter family. He was “kidnapped” by Morgan’s men, but was either later released or escaped and returned to Corydon. Eventually he made his way to the Indianapolis area. He then agreed to be a substitute (those with enough funds and a disinclination to serve could pay a bounty and have another person serve in their place in the military) for a white man named James Faught of Hendricks County.
Albert was mustered into Company K of the 28th USCT on August 25, 1864. He was 5’5 ½,” nineteen years-old, and could not write his name. He went to Virginia with the 28th, but does not appear to have seen any fighting. Most of the time he was listed on the company rolls as “absent sick” as he suffered from chronic bronchitis. In fact he was mustered out in August 1865 from a military hospital in Alexandria, Virginia.
Albert is lost to us again until the 1880 census of Louisville, Kentucky. In the interim, Albert had learned to read and write, married his wife Laura in 1879, and worked in a lead and oil business. He and Laura rented a home on 12th Street in Louisville. There they lived the rest of their lives. They had a son named Llewellyn. Albert died in 1921 and was buried in Cave Hill National Cemetery. After his death, Laura applied to receive his Civil War pension.
Not much to be known about a life that lasted over 75 years, but enough to tell an important story.
Try-on clothes are a big favorite with Conner Prairie guests, so it comes as no surprise that our new experience opening in June, 1863 Civil War Journey: Raid on Indiana
, highlighting the incursion led by Gen. John Hunt Morgan, will have some, too.
There have to be uniforms, more Union, of course; this is Indiana. I looked for a fabric that was washable yet had the rough feel of the all-wool jackets worn during the Civil War. I stumbled across a thick craft felt and bought some to try out in the washer. It washed and dried with seemingly no change in appearance or texture and has an authentic, slightly scratchy feel. The buttons and trim, however, are good reproductions, made for re-enactors.
The signature look for Civil War belles is the hoop skirt. While many were made of wire and tape, ours will be petticoats with hoops threaded through tucks. Our young guests will be able to practice wearing the ever-swaying hoops skirts and will probably find sitting without showing their legs to be most difficult.
Girls up to age 14 and sometimes older often wore off-the-shoulder dresses during the Civil War and the decades preceding it. Our little girls, however, get to experience the wonderful feeling of dressing up in grown-up clothes that are just their size.
The silks and sheer cottons of “fancy” dresses of the era will be represented by synthetic fabrics and trims that shine and mimic their predecessors, each chosen because it reminded me of a picture of an original dress. Day dresses with the ubiquitous round neckline and off-the-shoulder evening dresses will be waiting for little girls when we open the new area in June of this year, as well as one cotton work dress. There will even be an adult-size dress and uniform for parents and older kids!
Will the young ladies be able to convince the soldier boys to stroll or dance with them? Or will they prefer to pick up a rifle and go to war, too?
Click the links below to view the Conner Prairie Historic Clothing Collection: