MOUNT VERNON -- What I love about history is that very human moments emerge when you dig out the stories. I recently wrote a two-part column about the Maplehurst murder which took place in Mount Vernon in 1905.
This week's column is a corollary to that.
The initial suspect (later exonerated) in that crime was 18-year old George Copeland of Mount Vernon, the son of a widowed black woman named Elizabeth. They lived in the house at the corner of McKenzie Street and Ann Street on the north side of Mount Vernon.
Only briefly mentioned in the article was George's father, David Copeland, who had died in 1897. But I noted that he was listed as a veteran of the Civil War and has an official army headstone — the only stone on the Copeland family plot in Mound View Cemetery.
In my preliminary research, I decided to go full bore and ordered David's pension file from the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The archives keep a great deal of military paperwork, but they only charge for copies of the documents if they find something, because there are naturally many incomplete collections of papers.
After a couple months of waiting, I assumed the National Archives hadn't found anything, and I went ahead and presented the Maplehurst columns. Just this week, though, I suddenly discovered an $80 charge to my bank account from the archives, which meant they had found something and were about to send it.
It was exciting, though nerve-wracking: sometimes they only find a couple pieces of paper. When I received the email download link, I was startled to discover that David Copeland's pension file was 85 pages long.
I have spent much time this week delving into these papers and related sources, and have used it to tell a little bit of David's story.
David Copeland was born in 1835 in Norfolk, Virginia. We know nothing about his life before the Civil War, but as a black man in the South, it is highly probable that he was born into slavery.
As the Civil War developed, free blacks and runaway slaves offered to join the fight on the Union side, but the North was slow, at first, to accept their help, fearing that black soldiers might provoke some of the border states into seceding and joining the Confederate States of America.
But in 1863, Abraham Lincoln made the Emancipation Proclamation, pronouncing all the slaves in the South free. More quietly, Lincoln's government also began setting up regiments of African-American soldiers.
The 45th Regiment of United States Colored Troops was created in 1864 in West Virginia, a part of the state of Virginia that had refused to join the Confederate States of America.
According to standard histories of the regiment, its infantry soldiers consisted of runaway slaves and a few free black men, commanded, as was customary at the time, by white officers. Considering his birthplace, it seems likely that David Copeland fled from slavery in Virginia and made his way across battle lines to Wheeling, West Virginia, where he joined the 45th U.S.C.T. on Feb. 16, 1865.
As part of the regiment, Copeland was sent back into Virginia, this time as a soldier. The troops were stationed in the trenches surrounding Richmond, the Confederate capital, where the fighting was continuous.
On March 27, the 45th was moved to Hatcher's Run, where they participated in a three-day battle. Two days later, they were present for the fall of the city of Petersburg, before moving on toward Appomattox Court House, which was soon to become famous as the site of General Robert E. Lee's surrender, and the end of the war.
But David Copeland's joy at that turn of events was probably undercut by pain. Somewhere during that whole campaign — witnesses 25 years later, including David himself, were uncertain about which battle it was — David Copeland got wounded by an enemy shot.
His fellow soldier Elisha L. Rogers, testifying in an affidavit in July 1890 thought it happened in one of the skirmishes near Richmond.
Former officer Thomas B. Dewees said he couldn't clearly remember Copeland at all, but he had a vague feeling there was a casualty at that point.
There was one witness, though, who either kept a diary or had a photographic memory. Captain Julius H. Stewart, reached in Goodland, Kansas, in 1888, provided a personal recollection with his affidavit supporting Copeland's request for a disability pension.
He said that at the time, the 45th was attached to General Philip Sheridan's army. Stewart was in the front part of the column on the right side of the force, just in front of the 45th U.S.C.T as they were doing a forced march to Appomattox Court House on April 9.
Their cavalry advanced, but were driven back by a counterattack. The Union troops fought hard to hold the line and stop the Southern charge.
General Sheridan, an Ohio native, sent an order for the troops on the corner to make a right flank attack on the enemy line. Captain Stewart wrote:
"We executed the movement and came out of a wood into the edge of an open field where the flag of truce was in plain sight. We were halted and were lying down, for a good many bullets were flying. A colored soldier was leading the colonel's horse in front of this line when one of the enemy's shot struck him in the left leg below the knee. I was not more than 30 feet from him."
Stewart confirmed that the soldier was David Copeland and that he personally examined the wound, which had passed through Copeland's left leg and landed in his right leg. Orderly Sergeant James Newby pulled the bullet from the wound.
Remarkably, Copeland seemed to regard the wound as minor, and he was not sent from the front for treatment. That's why there were no official records of him being wounded, and requests had to be sent all over the country to get witnesses to back up his claim.
Elisha Rogers was there and said that those present didn't think the wound would would be severe. He said that Copeland continued on duty, doing light work and getting around with the aid of a walking stick.
Rogers lived in Bridgeport, Ohio, at the time of his affidavit
Here's what he said, in his own words, without spelling or grammar corrections:
"It did not seem to hurt him at the time as he staid in camp and done light duty and after the surender of Lee our regiment was sent to Texas and at Brownsvill he got so he coudent walk and when we was ordered home Ike Smith said we must take him along and went and caried him on the boat. his legs was swelld and matter run out and i thot that he woudent never be able to walk after we landed we parted and i never seen him since."
Ike was Isaac Smith, of Wheeling, West Virginia, who confirmed that he insisted they not leave Copeland behind when they were mustered out of service on Nov. 4, 1865. Smith carried Copeland onto the boat that would take them back to West Virginia, and brought him food to keep him going.
He confessed in his 1890 affidavit that he didn't think it would save Copeland. He said that he
“had no idea that [Copeland] would ever get home, and [I] expected to bury him in Texas.”
But Copeland did survive. He may have initially lived in Wheeling, West Virginia, then at some point moved across the river to Bellaire, in Belmont County, Ohio. There he married a woman named Annie Coats, but she died around 1870.
David appears to have left Bellaire after that and made his way to Knox County, where on April 13, 1871, he married a young black woman named Elizabeth J. Lucas. Very young.
In fact, by calculation of the dates in the paperwork, Elizabeth was 15 or 16, and David Copeland was about 36 at the time of their wedding. Whatever the case, they moved to Buckeye City (now a part of Danville), where David worked as a barber.
But that minor wound David received during the war had made a permanent impact on him. His legs were weak, and had a tendency to give out when he exerted them too much. He began having trouble with severe rheumatism in the legs, and suffered dizziness from sun exposure during the war, and bladder trouble, likely related to infection, the hidden killer that took more soldiers' lives than bullets.
By 1883, just 18 years after his wound, David Copeland was having trouble supporting his family because of his physical conditions. He applied for a disability pension and received it: $6 per month to support his entire family.
Allowing for inflation, that compares to trying to live off less than $150 a month in 2018.
As the soldiers had grimly joked, the Civil War was a rich man's war, but a poor man's fight. Some things never change.
It cost David $25 in legal fees to get that paltry pension.
With the gradually accumulated testimony proving his wounds and his deteriorating condition, David's pension was incrementally raised over the next few years, until by 1893 he was drawing a whopping $12 a month. He was given that rate when a doctor explained that Copeland was completely incapable of supporting himself through manual labor and that his bladder trouble was so bad that “he is compelled to void his urine every half hour during the day and night.”
In the early 1890s, the Copeland family left Danville and moved into Mount Vernon, perhaps so that Elizabeth could also work to help support the family. They rented their home. David continued to deteriorate, and passed away on July 30, 1897.
According to undertaker Joseph McCormack, “said soldier was in indigent circumstances and the expense of his funeral was paid by Knox County, Ohio.”
Elizabeth's widow's pension was knocked back to $10. After all, there was one less mouth to feed after David died. It was just Elizabeth and her 10-year old son, George. Eight years later, George would go through the ordeal of being accused of a murder and then released.
He continued to work in Mount Vernon until 1915, when his mother died. After she was buried in Mound View Cemetery, George left for Los Angeles to make a name for himself as a singer.
What became of him, no one knows.
There is one last footnote to this story. As a Civil War soldier, David Copeland should have received a medal. In fact, a medal was cast for him. It sits today in the state archives of Charleston, West Virginia, along with many other unclaimed medals. If anyone out there is a direct descendent or a close relative and can prove that relationship, please contact the state archives of West Virginia, and the medal will be, belatedly, presented to the family.
And if you do, let me know. It would be wonderful to wrap up the story of the various struggles of this family with a proper ceremonious ending.