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1st Sgt. Samuel Gordon Morse was born enslaved on July 25, 1832, in Harris Neck, McIntosh County, Georgia. He was the son of Richard Morse, also born enslaved. The family was owned by William H. Bennett (ca. 1824-1884), a prominent planter in McIntosh County, Georgia.1
1st Sgt. Morse married Patience Mary Rice in 1850, by consent of their owners. Patience was born about 1830, the daughter of June and Catherine “Katy” Rice (b. ca. 1810), McIntosh County, Georgia.2 Patience and her family were owned by Margaret M. Harris.3 The couple had one son, Samuel Benjamin Morse, born on December 6, 1852, Darien, McIntosh County, Georgia.
1st Sgt. Morse enlisted with the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, later redesignated the 33rd U. S. Colored Infantry, at the age of thirty on December 19, 1862, Port Royal, South Carolina. At the time of his enlistment, he was described as five feet, four inches tall, with brown complexion and eyes, and black hair. By occupation, Samuel was a coachman. .
Samuel Morse was appointed 1st Sergeant on December 21, 1862, likely due to his ability to read and write. In June, 1864, his enlistment record notes that he was entitled to an increase in pay. Though never involved in any major battles, Samuel and the other enlisted men of the 33rd survived a particularly harrowing incident in South Carolina, an attempted conspiracy to kill the men of the 33rd U. S. Colored Infantry, in a racially motivated ambush by Confederate sympathizers during their return to Charleston, South Carolina.
There Federal authorities had sent the 33rd U. S. Colored Infantry under Lt. Col. Charles T. Trowbridge to occupy and keep in the peace in Pickens and Anderson counties. Trowbridge knew he was in for a rough tour of duty when he learned that Anderson County alone had voted almost unanimously for secession and had had1,800 of its men killed or wounded in the Confederate army. Much to the colonel’s delight, his stint was brief, and the regiment received orders to return to Charleston via train for mustering out of the service. Before leaving for the coast, South Carolina politician James L. Orr, whom Trowbridge had befriended, warned the colonel that locals had a plan to annihilate the entire regiment. To ensure safety, Trowbridge ordered his most trusted enlisted man, Sgt. Fred Brown, to take four privates, ride on the engine, and shoot the engineer if anything strange happened. As darkness fell the train moved along nicely until it reached a high trestle bridge, some one hundred feet above the water. Near the middle of the bridge, someone pulled the coupling pin and the engine sped on while the rest of the train, carrying the officers and men of the 33rd U. S. Colored Infantry, slowed to a halt, suspended above the water. Volleys of musket fire then began crashing into the cars, as locals tried to pin down the regiment and set fire to the span. Trapped inside, the troops could neither return effective fire due to the darkness nor abandon the cars. After a few moments, though, their sense of desperation ended. Above the rattle of musketry they heard the engine backing over the trestle. When the two sections connected and someone replaced the pin, Trowbridge noticed that Sergeant Brown had his pistol cocked and nestled up against the back of the engineer’s head. Apparently Brown had threatened to blow the man’s brains out if he did not back the engine up immediately, and his swift action had saved the entire regiment.Glatthaar, Joseph T. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. New York: The Free Press, 1990, pp. 215-216
1st Sgt. Morse mustered out with the surviving members of his regiment on January 31, 1866, Charleston, South Carolina.
After the war, Samuel Gordon Morse settled in Savannah, Chatham County, Georgia, with his wife and son. I couldn’t locate him in the 1870 Census, so I used a combination of other records to fill in the gaps.
In 1866, the Daily News and Herald (Savannah, Ga.), reported that Samuel had “a horse stolen from his stable.” The family was then living about fourteen miles north of the city. Several records of the Freedman’s Bank document Samuel’s occupations during the period, as a teamster, in 1866, and “planting and farming” in 1869. Beginning in 1867, Samuel appears in documents as a qualified voter in the County of Chatham, a provision of the Reconstruction Act of 1867. And a Savannah city directory from 1870 lists Samuel Morse as a “colored” wagoner, who lived on Arnold near Broughton Street, Savannah. On July 25, 1873, Samuel applied for a liquor license for a saloon, located at the corner of Price Street and Perry Lane.5
Samuel’s saloon, his most profitable business venture, would prove to be short-lived. On November 24, 1875, Samuel passed away from complications of consumption, and was interred in Laurel Grove South, the segregated section of Laurel Grove Cemetery set aside for African Americans, on November 26, 1875.6
I first visited the grave of 1st Sgt. Samuel Gordon Morse on a crisp, mid-December morning in 2014. 1st Sgt. Morse doesn’t have a typical military headstone. His grave is marked by a large family monument, enclosed by wrought iron fencing. Laurel Grove South Cemetery has no shortage of impressive monuments, uncommon in the majority of African American cemeteries, but I was especially struck by the inscription on Samuel’s grave.8
Samuel Gordon and Patience Mary Rice Morse Monument
Samuel Gordon Morse – Born in – McIntosh Co. – July 25th, 1832 – Died in this City – Nov. 24, 1875 – He, one of the first of his race to bear arms for freedom, was – appointed on Jany. 1, 1863, 1st – Sergt. Co. I, 1st Co. Ca. Vol. lately known as Co. I 33rd. U. S. C. T. – He served as such till mustered out at Fort Wagner in – March 1866.
Another side of the gravestone bears an inscription for Samuel’s wife, Patience Mary, who passed away on November 30, 1903.
Here Lies Patience Mary Morse – The Devoted Wife of – Samuel Gordon – And the Affectionate Mother of Their Son – Samuel Benjamin Morse – Born in McIntosh County in 1830 – And Died at Savannah, GA – Nov. 30, 1903.
Samuel and Patience’s family monument was purchased by their son, Samuel Benjamin Morse. Samuel had become quite successful over the years. In 1868, he attended the Beach Institute, established in 1867 for the education of African Americans. Later, he enrolled in Atlanta University (est. 1867), graduating in 1877. He later attended and graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, After his return to Savannah, Georgia, Samuel Benjamin joined the faculty of the Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth (now Savannah State University) as head of its new music department in 1894.9
Samuel Benjamin Morse passed away on March 30, 1909, and was interred In Laurel Grove South Cemetery in the Morse Family plot next to his parents.
Grave of Samuel Benjamin Morse (1852-1909)
I had a lingering interest in Samuel’s story: just how did he escape slavery, and join the 1st SC Volunteers? Census, city directories, and similar records can only provide so much. so I ordered Samuel’s pension file from the National Archives in hopes of discovering more about his life.
Patience Mary, Samuel’s wife, filed an approved pension claim in 1891. In order to receive her pension, Patience had to prove her identity as the lawful widow of Samuel Morse. Her testimony contains very interesting detail on her marriage to Samuel, their life experience in McIntosh County, Georgia, and other activities prior to the Civil War.
Deposition of Patience Mary Rice Morse, June 4, 1896, Savannah, Chatham County, Georgia. Widow’s claim number 323196.
I am 65 years of age, housekeeper and my city add. is 26 Gwinnett St. I am the identical Patience M. Morse, who is a pensioner under ctf no 323196, Act June 27, 1890 – in my own right as widow of Sam’l Morse, late Sgt. Co. “I” 33rd U. S. C. T.
I was born at Harris Neck, McIntosh Co. Ga., about the year 1831. I was a slave woman and owned by Mrs. Margaret M. Harris, with whom I lived until about 1854, when I was sent to live with Dr. E. L. Baker, Darien, Ga., but my ownership was not changed.
I was married to Samuel Morse in 1849 – or 1850, at Harris Neck, McIntosh Co. Ga., by a Baptist preacher named Mark Baisden.10
We were not required to procure license to marry – simply permission of owners. Minister Baisden pronounced a ceremony – and I remember Margaret Gordon and John Cherry were present & witnessed the marriage. My maiden name was Patience M. Rice – Rice being my father’s name. Samuel Morse and myself knew each other from childhood. He was owned by William H. Bennett of Harris Neck, Ga. – about 5 miles from my place. I saw him often up to the date of our marriage. As soon as he was old enough he was made coachman for his owner William H. Bennett, and followed that business until his enlistment in the army. During the time after our marriage, until about 1854, when Wm. H. Bennett moved to Chatham Co., Samuel Morse & myself lived together as husband & wife. He spent quite a good deal of time with me – would come from his owner to the residence of my owner, after the days work was done. As stated above, Wm. H. Bennett moved to Chatham Co. – Ga. – 14 miles on the Ogeechie Road south of the city of Savannah – not far from No. 1 – S. F. D. Ry – he brought Sam’l Morse with him as his coachman. I remained with my mistress, Ms. Margaret M. Harris for a year or so – after Sam’l Morse was moved to Chatham Co. – Ga. – about the year 1855. My husband obtained the consent of my mistress to hire me out in Savannah, Ga. so that I could be with him – and I did go to Savannah & staid there in service for about 2 years, during which time my husband spent as much time with me as the duties of coachman for Mr. Bennett permit – At the end of 2 years my mistress sent me to her nephew – Dr. E. L. Baker – at Darien, Ga. – as above indicated. After I returned to Darien, Ga., my husband remained with the Bennetts, until about 2 months before he went to the Yankees in 1862. He hired his time out in Darien Ga with the view of taking me and my child to the Yankees – serving the time after I left Savannah to return to Darien. I would see my husband every 2 or 3 months, and he wrote to me regularly – When he took us to the Yankees, we went by way of gunboat to St. Simons Island, Glynn Co. Ga., & remained under the protections of the gunboats until the latter part of Dec. 1862. During our stay on St. Simons Island, Capt. C. T. Trowbridge came down & organized a colored company of which my husband was a member. In Dec. 1862, my husband, my child and myself was taken on board a U. S. transport, & carried to Beaufort S. C., arriving there near Xmas time. On Jany 1st 1863, at Camp Saxton, S. C. the 1st S. C. Vol – afterwards 33rd U. S. C. T., was organized, and my husband was made ordly Sgt. Of Company “I” of said Regt. From that time on, until my husband’s discharge on Jany 1866, my child & myself accompanied my husband all through the service. We were with him at all stations – except the 3 or 4 days while he was in the engagement at Honey Hill, S. C. I was passed as a laundress, and I used to bake pies and cakes – & my son, Sam’l Benjamin, sold them to the soldiers. After my husbands discharge we came to Savannah, Ga., and took up our residence on Taylor St. near Price St., staid there for 3 or 4 months – and we moved to Liberty St. – Lane next, staid there 2 months, and next we moved to Broughton St. Lane & remained there for over two years – next we moved to Arnold St – staid there perhaps a year – & finally my husband built on Randolph St. – was President – when he died, Nov. 24/75, For the 4 years, immediately following my husband’s discharge from the service, he was engaged in farming – first renting land from William H. Miller – near station No. 1 S. F. & W. Ry – lastly from Wm. A. Jordan Esq., a resident of this city, in 1870, my husband began the business of keeping a woodyard – in the S. T. & W. Ry – and in 1873, he started a saloon on the corner of Price St. & Perry St. Lane – this city – which was the last business in which he engaged – he died here in this city, Nov. 24, 1875.
Deposition of Samuel Benjamin Morse, June 4, 1896, Savannah, Chatham County, Georgia. Widow’s claim number 323196.
I am about 43 years of age, professor of music, and my cty add. is 26th Gwinnett St.
I am the son of Samuel Morse and Patience M. Morse. I was about 10 years old when my father Sam’l Morse enlisted in Co. “I” 33d U. S. C. T. at Camp Saxton, S. C. – I remember the fact of living with my mother at the residence of Dr. Baker, in Darien, Ga., and further remember that my father, on several occasions, visited us at Darien, Ga. – also wrote numerous letters to my mother while she was there. I further remember the fact that he, my father, came to Darien G., and took us to St. Simon’s Island with the view of joining the federal army. I remember going on the boat to Camp Saxton, S. C. I further remember when my father enlisted in Co. “I” 33d U. S. C. T., and was made orderly Sgt. of said Company, I have heard him call the roll hundreds of times. Knew that he could read & write before the war. My mother & myself even, I think, at every camp, and accompanied the company throughout its service and until its discharges, Jany 1866. After discharge my father, together with my mother and myself, came to Savannah, Ga. & resided here until his death Nov. 25th 1875. I was absent when he died, but came to the funeral.
Two comrades of Samuel Gordon Morse, Pvt. Joseph Green, and Pvt. John Judge, also testified in support of Patience Mary Rice Morse’s pension claim.
Deposition of Pvt. John Judge, Company I, 33rd Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry. June 4, 1896, Savannah, Chatham County, Georgia. Widow’s claim number 323196.11
I am 78 years of age, laborer, and my cty add. is cor Anderson & Randolph St.
I am the identical John Judge who enlist3ed in Co. “I” 33d U. S. C. Inf., in the latter part of 1863, & served continuously with said rank, in said company & Reg’t until Jany 31/66, at Morris Isalnd, S. C., when I was honorably discharged.
I was personally acquainted with Sam’l Morse, the deceased soldier in this case. He was mustered into Co. “I” 33d U. S. C. T. at the same time that I was, and served continuously in said Co. and Reg’t until he was mustered out Jany 31/66. He was a man, bright ginger cake color, could not say how old he was when mustered in, he was about 5 ft. 5 inches in height, dark hair – could not tell you how much he weighed, nor the color of his eyes. I knew Sam’l Morse before the war, he was living then at Harris Neck, Ga. He was a coachman for Wm. H. Bennett, & used to sleep with me when he drove Mr. Bennett’s coach to our house. I did not know him at the time, of his marriage to Patience M. Rice. The first time I knew the wife, was when she and the son, Sam’l Benj., came to the Yankees with Sam’l Morse. She did laundry work for the officers, cooked pies, cakes & doughnuts, & the son sold the cakes to the soldiers. She and the son went with Sam’l Morse to all the camps during the entire service.
As above states Sam’l Morse was ordly Sgt. of my company. He called the roll every morning and kept a list of all the members of the company. He could read & write, learned to read and write before the war.
Deposition of Pvt. Joseph Green, Company I, 33rd Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry; June 4, 1896, Savannah, Chatham County, Georgia. Widow’s claim number 323196.12
I am going on 62 years of age, laborer, and my city add. is 45 Broughton St. Lane
I am the identical Joseph Green who enlisted in Co. “I” 33d U. S. C. V. Inf. as a private soldier – at Camp Saxton, S. C. on or about Jany 1st 1863 – and I served continuously with said rank, in said company and Reg’t, until Jany 31/66 – when I was honorably mustered out with the company and reg’t at Morris Island, S. C.
I was not absent from my company for any reason, except on the occasion of my having the small pox at Beaufort, S. C., the date I cannot give.
I was personally acquainted with Sam’l Morse. I knew him when he was boy. I knew his wife. She was called Patience M. Rice. I heard of the marriage of Samuel Morse to Patience M. Rice. I was not a witness to the marriage, I do not remember when Samuel Morse came to Darien, Ga., & took his wife & boy child to go to St. Simon’s Island to join the Yankees. I remember seeing Samuel Morse and his wife and child on St. Simon’s Island and I went on the same boat with them to Camp Saxton, S. C. when Samuel Morse and myself enlisted. Samuel Morse enlisted at the same time that I did in Co. “I” 33d U. S. C. T., and was made ord’l Sgt. of the company – and be, Samuel Morse, served with said rank in said company and Regt. until the company and Reg’t was mustered out at Morris Island, S. C., Jany 31/66.
I was well acquainted with Samuel Morse. He was a ginger cake color, could not say how old he was, about 5 ft. 5 inches in height, and had dark hair, could not guess at his weight. He called the company roll every morning and every night, and we all answered to our names. His wife, Patience M. Morse, the present widow and pensioner in this case, was with him in camp. Throughout the entire service, his wife baked pies, doughnuts, cakes, etc., and the son, Samuel Benj. Morse sold them to the soldiers.
I purchased this original Civil War print from a little antique store in Warrenton, Warren County, North Carolina, several years ago. The inscription reads: “Company A, of the First South Carolina Volunteers (Colored), Taking the Oath of Allegiance Before General Saxton, at Beaufort, S. C. The First South Carolina Regiment was the first military organization composed of colored men in the United States service.”
Besides being a fantastic print, I decided to buy it because of a specific detail, the wives and family members of the soldiers in the background.
It was a great reminder that members of the soldiers’ families also participated in the fight for freedom, accompanying the men as they could, serving as nurses, cooks, and laundresses. The print resonates with me even more now, as I learned 1st Sgt. Samuel Gordon Morse’s story, how his wife, Patience Mary, was right there with him during most of his service with the 33rd Regiment, U. S. Colored Troops. She baked pies, cakes, and doughnuts to support the family when 1st Sgt. Morse wasn’t being paid by the Government for his service, and his little son, Samuel Benjamin. sold those baked goods to “the Yankees” while at Camp Saxton and other places.
The fight against slavery was very much a community effort by African American families. I end this post with one of my favorite quotes.
“African-American troops joined up not just to gain freedom for themselves but also to release their people from bondage. Thomas J. Morgan, a white Union officer questioning black recruits in Tennessee, discovered this fact for himself. When one man told Morgan that his motive for joining the army was to “fight for freedom,” the officer reminded him that as a soldier he might be killed. The recruit replied simply, “But my people will be free.” – After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans, Donald R. Shaffer
- In the 1850 Census, William H. Bennett (b. ca. 1824, England), was documented in District 22, McIntosh County, Georgia, as a “planter,” with $5,000 in real estate and eighty-four slaves on his estate. Source: 1850 U. S. Census (Year: 1850; Census Place: District 22, McIntosh, Georgia; Roll: M432_77; Page: 208A; Image: 80; 1850 U. S. Slave Schedule (Ancestry.com. 1850 U.S. Federal Census – Slave Schedules [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2004. Original data: United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Seventh Census of the United States, 1850. Washington. DC.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1850. M432, 1,009 rolls.
- A Freedman’s Bank record, dated February 14, 1870, indicates Patience’s parents as June Rice (deceased by 1870, and Catherine, alive in 1870, living in McIntosh County, Georgia. An 1870 Census record documents a “Katy” Rice, born about 1810, a midwife, in Militia District 22 of McIntosh County, Georgia. Source: Freedman’s Bank Records, 1865-1871, Ancestry.com, (Ancestry.com. U.S., Freedman’s Bank Records, 1865-1871 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2005.); 1880 U. S. Census, District 22, McIntosh County, Georgia (Ancestry.com – Ancestry.com. 1870 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.
- In the 1850 Census, Margaret M. Harris (b. ca. 1767, South Carolina] was documented in District 22, McIntosh County, Georgia, with $3,000 in real estate, and fifty-eight slaves on her estate. Source: Year: 1850; Census Place: District 22, McIntosh, Georgia; Roll: M432_77; Page: 208A; Image: 8; 1850 U. S. Slave Schedule (Ancestry.com. 1850 U.S. Federal Census – Slave Schedules [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2004. Original data: United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Seventh Census of the United States, 1850. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1850. M432, 1,009 rolls.
- Marker text: “The 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment was raised from sea island slaves living around Port Royal. Elements of the regiment were formed on Hilton Head in May 1862. In August 1862, the regiment was reorganized near Beaufort at the Smith plantation. It was commanded by the noted abolitionist Thomas W. Higginson who led the regiment on raids along the Georgia coast. On Jan. 1 1863, the regiment was formerly mustered into the United States Army. The regiment saw extensive service on the South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida Coasts. On Feb. 8, 1864, the regiment was redesignated as the 33rd Infantry Regiment of the United States Colored Troops. The regiment assisted in the occupation of Charleston, Savannah, Augusta and other points until it was mustered out on Jan. 31, 1866.”
- Sources: The Daily news and herald, June 19, 1866 (https://gahistoricnewspapers.galileo.usg.edu/); Savannah, Ga. City Directories ( Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011); Georgia, Returns of Qualified voters, and Reconstruction Oath Books, 1867-1869 ( Ancestry.com. Georgia, Returns of Qualified Voters and Reconstruction Oath Books, 1867-1869 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012); U. S. Freedman’s Bank Records, 1865-1871 (Ancestry.com. Georgia, Returns of Qualified Voters and Reconstruction Oath Books, 1867-1869 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012); Savannah, Georgia, Licenses and Bonds, 1837-1909 ( Ancestry.com. Savannah, Georgia, Licenses and Bonds, 1837-1909 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016)
- Source: Ancestry.com. Savannah, Georgia Vital Records, 1803-1966 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011. Original data: City of Savannah, Georgia Records – Health Department, Vital Statistics Registers. Savannah, Georgia: City of Savannah.
- Laurel Grove South Cemetery historical marker text: “In 1853, the city reserved 4 acres in the new Laurel Grove Cemetery for Savannah’s African-American community. This new burial ground replaced an older black cemetery located near Whitefield Square. Pastors Andrew Bryan (First Colored Baptist Church) and Henry Cunningham (Second Baptist Church) were among those whose bodies were moved to the new location. Here are buried many of Savannah’s prominent black leaders – educators, civic/community leaders, Masons, politicians, entrepreneurs, and religious leaders. Later increased in acreage by the city, it continues in use today. Erected by The Georgia Historical Society and the Friends of Laurel Grove South Cemetery – 1999. Laurel Grove South Cemetery historical marker. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, December 13, 2014. All rights reserved.
- The Morning News (Savannah, Ga.), offered a contemporary, condescending observation of Laurel Grove South Cemetery: “A MORNING NEWS reporter paid a visit to Laurel Grove colored cemetery yesterday and read epitaph and inscription, some quaint, some illiterate almost to unintelligibility, but all, from the humblest headboard to the costly marble, concurred in love and affection for their dead.” The Morning Post, May 14, 1888.
- The Atlanta Journal Constitution, September 27, 1894.
- Rev. Mark Baisden (1779-1882), African American, is buried in Gould Cemetery, Harris Neck, McIntosh County, Georgia. Source: FindaGrave ( https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/99285455/mark-baisden)
- According to his enlistment record, Pvt. John Judge was born about 1825, Liberty County, Georgia. On November 1, 1862, he enlisted at the age of thirty-seven at St. Simon’s Island, Glynn County, Georgia, for a term of three years. He mustered in on January 31 1863, at Beaufort, South Carolina. He mustered out on January 31, 1866, at Charleston, South Carolina. He may be the John Judge who passed away on October 31, 1899, Savannah, Georgia, and may be interred in Laurel Grove South Cemetery, Savannah Georgia.
- According to his enlistment record. Pvt. Joseph Green was born about 1838, Bryan County, Georgia. He enlisted at the age of twenty-four on November 1, 1862, at St. Simon’s Island, Glynn County, Georgia, under C. T. Trowbridge, for a term of three years. He mustered in on January 31, 1863, at Beaufort, South Carolina, and mustered out on January 31, 1866, Charleston, South Carolina. Pvt. Joseph Green passed away in 1911, Savannah, Georgia, and may also be interred in Laurel Grove South Cemetery, Savannah, Georgia.