SUBMITTED BY: Pat Garber
Hilliard Gains was an African-American Freedman who marched to war with his childhood friend, Sgt-Major Newsom Edward Jenkins, and other members of the Roanoke Minutemen, CSA.
I first heard of him in stories told by my mother and uncles. “Major” Jenkins was their grandfather. Born and raised in Littleton, North Carolina, he had, along with his two brothers, fought under General Lee in the Civil War all the way to Appomattox. The stories I heard included one of a “colored” slave who fought alongside Major Jenkins, continued his allegiance after the fighting ended, and stood at the head of his grave upon his death years later.
When, in the winter of 2000, I acquired my great-grandfather’s letters, diary, and other Civil War papers, I opened the door to an amazing, personal story of the Civil War. I delved into the material and ten years later published “Heart Like a River; The Story of Sergeant-Major Newsom Edward Jenkins, 14th North Carolina Infantry, 1861-1865,” (Schroeder Publications, 2011.)
My great-grandfather had, along with his brother, Captain Wilson Jenkins, joined the Roanoke Minutemen the day after it was announced that Lincoln had won the presidency. Part of the Army of Northern Virginia, they fought through most of its significant encounters; the Peninsular Campaign, the battles around Richmond, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Petersburg. At Antietam my great-grandfather led his company in the deadliest struggle of the War, the Bloody Lane, where he was wounded, captured, and sent to prison at Fort Delaware.
After being exchanged he rejoined his company until, at Appomattox, he and 24 other soldiers volunteered to try and hold back the federal forces so the rest of the regiment could escape. They were finally captured and, upon learning that Lee had surrendered, were released by none other than Major-General George Armstrong Custer. There is a monument and a roadside sign at the Appomattox Court House National Historical Park honoring them.
One of the most intriguing parts of the story was that of Hilliard Gains. Upon reading the first-hand documents, I realized that he had not been a slave but a freedman’s son. He had lived in the countryside outside of Littleton, and had fished and played with Newsom when he visited his father there.
There are a number of quotes, recorded by my mother’s Aunt Mamie, Jenkins’ daughter, which she said were Hilliard Gains’ memories told to her upon his deathbed. Not all were legible, due to age, but I transcribed what I could and include them below.
She wrote that “these are the reminiscences of Hilliard Gains, a free negro who lived near my Grandfather Jenkins, about four miles from Littleton. He went of his own accord with Major Jenkins, Capt. Jenkins, Bradford Jenkins, Col. Johnston, and others of Co. A 14th NC Regiment to cook and forage for them. These things were told to me, Mrs. T. J. Miles, on his death-bed. When Maj. Jenkins died he came and stood at the head of his casket most of the time. His life was made up in Maj. Jenkins’ life.” (1916)
Old Joe hooker we whipped him and drove him into the river-Rappahannock…Mr Bromlar Newsom shot in hip at Gettysburg…run all day and drank out of a horse trough but thank the lord I’m here.
I’d run in ranks and take Maj. Jenkins’ and Bradford’s (indecipherable) and take their place and let them rest.
I loved Maj. Jenkins and Molly (N. E. Jenkins’ second wife) as I loved my life. I joint company with them and I was going to stay by him. We’d whip old Joe Hooker every time he stop. (indecipherable) in 1861… Bromlar Newsom carried to a hospital…I and Maj. Jenkins and Billy put lame Baldy Bunks on a plank…
Mustered with Col. Johnston at the main house…Horse named Yankee and Amy Liza…All horses some yankees (indecipherable) If they had gone in the river just as well tell me to come right on.
Bromlar Newsom in the 30th NC. Mr. John Johnston I and he marched together many a day. Bromlar Newsom was a brave man-as good as they make him and he was a pretty man.
They say Religion is Love and it must have been so. You couldn’t love humans better than I loved Maj. Jenkins and Capt. Jenkins.
I tried to learn more about Hilliard Gains, but found no mention of him in the Confederate rosters or in the census records of Littleton. It has been suggested that there may have been a different spelling of his name. I will continue to try to locate more information about him and his family. This may, however, be all the story that is left.