Biographical Profile of Pvt. Abram Garvin, 108th U.S. Colored Infantry

Pvt. Abram Garvin, Company F, 108th U.S. Colored Infantry
Pvt. Abram Garvin, Company F, 108th U.S. Colored Infantry*
Abram Garvin Muster and Descriptive Roll
Abram Garvin Muster and Descriptive Roll

During the winter of 1864–1865, frigid temperatures and snowstorms made life miserable for thousands of Confederates huddled in the prisoner of war camp at Rock Island, Illinois. To make matters worse, smallpox and other diseases sickened the men, filling the camp hospital and cemetery. Union soldiers on the other side of the stockade also suffered in the harsh climate. “Many of our men froze their feet while on guard and had to be taken to the Hospital,” noted an officer.565 Others fell ill with colds, including Sgt. Abram Garvin of Kentucky.566

Prior to his enlistment, Abram toiled in bondage as a farmhand and blacksmith in Hart County, one of about nineteen people enslaved by Sinclair Garvin,567 a Virginia native in his sixties who had settled in the village of Woodsonville early in the century. In June 1864, Abram traveled about seventy-five miles north to Louisville and joined the Union army with his enslaver’s consent. He took his place in the ranks of the 108th U.S. Colored Infantry, a new regiment composed mostly of formerly enslaved men from the north and west central regions of Kentucky. He soon received his sergeant’s stripes and assumed a leadership role in Company F.568

In the fall of 1864, Garvin reported with the rest of the 108th to Rock Island for duty as prison guards. On September 26, a Mississippi Confederate captured ten months earlier after the Battle of Lookout Mountain in Tennessee wrote in his diary, “8,000 Southern men to day are guarded by their slaves who have been armed by the Tyrant,” a reference to Abraham Lincoln and his administration.569

One captain in the 108th wrote of the “butternut colored cusses” in a letter to his family in Connecticut: “The Rebel prisoners here swear that they will not submit to be guarded by d—d [n*****s].… I don’t know how they can help themselves, unless they can get away, and they will have a good time in trying to get away.” He bragged about Garvin and his comrades, “These men are the best guards I ever saw. If an order is given them to guard anything, so be it to the man who attempts to interfere with them.”570

Garvin did his duty despite the cold that settled in his lungs in January 1865. It left him with a dry, hacking cough that grew worse, even after he and the regiment were relieved from duty at Rock Island and deployed to Mississippi. A friend in another company estimated that Garvin was excused from his responsibilities about one-third of the time due to the cough. His compromised health may have caused his reduction to the ranks in the autumn of 1865.571

Garvin mustered out with the regiment in March 1866 and returned to Kentucky, where he died of “consumption” in 1879 at about age thirty-seven. He left behind a wife, Fanny, who was pregnant, and six children under age eleven. Family, friends, and his army buddies attributed his death to his army service.572

Excerpted from African American Faces of the Civil War by Ronald S. Coddington.
Copyright 2012 by Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author and Johns Hopkins University Press.

See Footnotes

565 The officer, Capt. Leroy D. House (about 1829–1875), a clockmaker from Bristol, Connecticut, commanded Company I of the 108th U.S. Colored Infantry. He served in the Sixteenth Connecticut Infantry and the Third Veteran Reserve Corps before he joined the regiment. Capt. Leroy D. House to his friends, December 28, 1864. Leroy D. House Letters, Connecticut Historical Society.
566 Fanny Garvin pension record, NARA.
567 Sinclair Garvin (1791–1866) of Rockingham County, Virginia, owned nineteen slaves, according to the 1860 Slave Schedules. He married Harriet Woodson (1803–1863) in 1821. Woodsonville is named for her father, Thomas Woodson (1772–1857).
568 Abram Garvin military service record, NARA.
569 The soldier was Lafayette Rogan (1830–1906), who served as a second lieutenant in Company B of the Thirty-fourth Mississippi Infantry. Hauberg, “A Confederate Prisoner at Rock Island: The Diary of Lafayette Rogan,” p. 46.
570 Capt. Leroy D. House to “Friend B,” September 26, 1864. Leroy D. House Letters, Connecticut Historical Society.
571 Fanny Garvin pension record, NARA.
572 Ibid.

Featured Images of Military Records 

*Photo courtesy of the Randolph Linsly Simpson African-American Collection, James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

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