Under duress, people do what they must to survive: kill, eat human flesh, move to Texas. In 1861, Henry James, a black man from Chester County, even volunteered for slavery.
Fortunately, “slavery” only lasted the few weeks it took James to get out of the South. Safely back home, he enlisted in the Union army to fight the slaveholders. “Don’t read a paper,” warned the Virginia-born lieutenant who posed as James’ temporary master. “Be as stupid as possible.”
Born free in Pennsylvania, James first appeared in the 1860 census as a 21-year-old farm laborer working and living in Ercildoun. In later years, he would live in Kennett Square and West Chester. James was living on East Union Street in West Chester’s black section when a reporter for the Daily Local News heard his tale in 1891.
Sometime in 1860, James was hired as a servant by William P. Chambliss, a lieutenant in the 5th U.S. Cavalry. Chambliss was stationed at Camp Cooper, about 150 miles west of Fort Worth, Texas, but had spent the past 18 months on recruiting duty at the U.S. Army’s Carlisle Barracks, then home to its School of Cavalry Practice.
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When Chambliss was still a boy, his family had moved from southwest Virginia to Conyersville, Tenn., west of Nashville. There, as a 19-year-old in 1846, he enlisted in the First Tennessee Mounted Volunteers for the Mexican War and was promptly made a lieutenant. Chambliss participated in the siege of Vera Cruz and in the battles of Monterey—where his regiment was dubbed “the Bloody First”—and Cerro Gordo. Discharged in 1848, Chambliss tried a variety of occupations. From 1850 to 1855, he practiced law in Pulaski, Tenn., and edited a local Demo-cratic weekly newspaper, The Citizen, from 1852 to 1855. He was also a member of the legislature from 1853 to 1854.
Apparently, none of this was to Chambliss’ taste. So, in 1855, he went back to the army, much of which was on frontier duty at the time. In Texas, he and others staffed a line of forts and camps from Oklahoma to the Rio Grande. It was intended to protect the more settled eastern part of the state from the Comanche in the west.
In reality, the 20 posts were too few and too small to be effective. In 1860, they had an average strength of fewer than 90 men each. Upon observing a frontier garrison, one traveler noted that “a parade of the entire force would sometimes diminish our feeling of security.”
Chambliss spent two years at Camp Verde and Fort Mason, both northwest of Austin, before being sent to Carlisle. Upon his return in 1860, he was assigned to Camp Cooper in Texas.
According to the Daily Local, James accompanied Chambliss as a “body servant”—an employee who maintained an officer’s uniform and equipment and, in the cavalry, probably also his horse livery. Such a servant might act as a messenger and, in combat, as his employer’s personal bodyguard. Mostly, though, it was about grunt work. “I went as a free man and at perfect liberty to come and go when I pleased,” said James. “Most of the officers in the army were of Southern birth and, in those days, would take one of their slaves along as a personal attendant.”
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Camp Cooper was a hellish “collection of tents and makeshift buildings of mud, stone and wood” established in 1856 by Col. Albert Sidney Johnston, who later joined the Confederacy and was killed at Shiloh. The place was plagued by severe weather, insects, dust and irregular supply trains. Rattlesnakes were such an issue that the chicken coop had to be built well above ground.
Robert E. Lee commanded Camp Cooper for about five months in 1856, and he didn’t care for the place. Lee described the summer heat as a “blast from a hot-air furnace.” The men had planted a garden, he wrote, but “our hopes for a few cabbage-plants and roasting ears passed away” in the heat. Temperatures reached 112 degrees “in the hospital tent, the coolest place we have.” Twice Lee officiated at funerals for the young sons of his men, victims of heatstroke.
In addition to Johnston and Lee, the camp roster included Earl Van Dorn, Kirby Smith, Fitzhugh Lee (Lee’s nephew), George Cosby and John Bell Hood—all future Confederate generals. Also at Camp Cooper were George H. Thomas and George Stoneman, both of whom became noted cavalry commanders in the Union army.
Troops from Camp Cooper campaigned actively against the Comanche in 1857 and ’58, but local unrest declined after 1859, when the nearby reservation was closed and its 400 residents moved farther west. By then, the site’s military career was almost over.
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Texas was the seventh Southern state to secede from the Union, charging (among other things) that Washington had failed to prevent Indian attacks. Gen. David Twiggs, the pro-secessionist commander of the Department of Texas, needed little persuading to surrender $1.6 million of government property: 44 cannon, 1,900 muskets, 400 pistols, two magazines of ammunition, 500 wagons, 950 horses and 20 military installations.
Loyal to the Union despite his Southern roots, Chambliss apparently wanted to fight on Feb. 25, when Camp Cooper and its 200 men were surrounded by 500 Texas troops demanding surrender. The post had received no official word from Twiggs. Chambliss, according to one account, “advised a rejection of the demands of the insurgents and the maintenance of the national authority.”
Accounts differ on the specifics, but Camp Cooper ultimately surrendered. The terms allowed members of the garrison to leave with their personal property, including the officers’ slaves. This presented a problem for a free black such as James.
By Confederate logic, all blacks were someone’s property. So, if James didn’t belong to any of the men, he must be federal property. Chambliss realized that his employee would likely be seized and sold. “When Lt. Chambliss found that a surrender was inevitable, he told me that there was only one chance for me to escape—and that was to become his slave,” James later related. “He could have sold me after I had once voluntarily become a slave, but I trusted him and he was true to me.”
Events unfolded as Chambliss had expected. “Every Negro found in camp was asked, ‘Who do you belong to?’ I promptly proclaimed myself as belonging to Lt. Chambliss. The lieutenant acknowledged the ownership and I was duly inventoried among the personal belongings of the lieutenant,” James recalled.
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After a brief detention, the Union garrison was ordered out of the state and released. The fastest route home was by sea, so the unarmed men marched nearly 400 miles through rebel Texas to the port of Indianola. James calculated his days in “slavery” as lasting from Feb. 25 until March 31, when he, Chambliss and the rest boarded the Coatzacoalcos, a steamer chartered by the federal government to bring them home.
Along the way, there were undoubtedly many opportunities in which James had to behave as a slave. This could not have been easy for a man who’d been born free and was not uneducated. “I had a tolerably good education,” he related. “But the lieutenant cautioned me not to display my knowledge. ‘Don’t read a paper,’ said he, ‘and be as stupid as possible.’”
It worked. The Coatzacoalcos arrived at New York on April 11. Chambliss and James likely parted there.
Later, Chambliss participated in the Manassas and Peninsula campaigns, the siege of Yorktown and the battles of Williamsburg and Hanover Court House. In June 1862, while leading his command in a charge in the Battle of Gaines’s Mill, he was wounded six times and ended up in Richmond as a prisoner of war.
While there, Chambliss’ Southern connections worked on his behalf: Discovering that his former commander had been badly wounded, Hood saw that his wounds were properly tended and that he was soon exchanged.
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“His constitution too much shattered for further service in the field, Chambliss was assigned to [West Point] as an assistant instructor of cavalry tactics,” according to a regimental history. He was later made a special inspector of cavalry and ended service with occupation forces in Texas. In the 1880s, Chambliss moved to Canada, where he was a railroad president.
James worked for a year as a wagon driver. In 1863, he enlisted in the 3rd Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, in which he was made sergeant major. “My close observance of army affairs while serving as body servant for Lt. Chambliss made me familiar with the drill,” he explained. “So I was proficient in the duties of a soldier.”
Trained at Camp William Penn in Philadelphia, the 3rd took part in operations around Charleston, S.C., including the sieges of Fort Wagner and Fort Gregg. After the war, James stayed with the Army for another 10 years, fighting Indians in Texas and New Mexico. He returned to West Chester in 1883.
James had done what needed doing. There was no more talk about him being anyone’s slave.