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Did he or didn’t he?
This is still the question I ask myself on a story passed down in our family lore. To this day our lore has been very accurate. Doing this research I expected to find a few tall tales as you would assume are in the family lore somewhere.
There is one story that still has me shaking my head, the story of my great grand uncle Joseph “Joe” Henry Herndon and the Battle of Mansfield. This story was told by Joe directly to my grandfather Dave Tyson and in turn has been passed down in the family. Joe Herndon was born free in 1840, the son of a white man John Frederick Herndon and a freed slave Lou Patsy. He was the older brother of my great grandmother Fannie Herndon.
The story is that Joe and his father John Frederick Herndon both participated at the Battle of Mansfield which took place on April 8, 1864 in De Soto Parish, Louisiana. They both fought for the south the story says. There was no information passed down in the story on what they actually did, just that they participated. When the battle was over it is said they rode mules back to Caddo Parish. This is the story.
When I first heard the story I thought, OK here’s one of those tall tales. I did not believe it at all. I’m thinking…. why in the world would a free black man fight for the confederates? It made no sense to me at all. Then I found out that a cousin Stan Armstrong had produced a documentary on this subject “Black Confederates: The Forgotten Men in Gray”. Stan’s great grandmother was Katie Herndon, another sister of Joe Herndon. See Stan’s films here: http://www.desertrosefilms.com/
Stan had heard the story from his family and he also had met a few of my aunts and uncles who knew the story. My uncles David and Tyrone have told me the story a few times and I just never believed it. I have found no military records for Joe or John Frederick Herndon. A possibility is that they volunteered and are not on record. I looked and looked for records to confirm this story and came up cold.
One day while going through a family law suit I stumbled on a clue. Joe Herndon was called as a witness in a case concerning inherited family land. The case had nothing at all to do with the Civil War but the attorney asked Joe Herndon these questions:
Question – “Joe, did you go to war?” –/ Answer – “Yes, sir”
Q. “Did your brothers go?” / A. “One of them did, yes, sir”
Q. “Which side did you go on — the South or the North?” / A. “South”
Q. “You fought on the side of the Confederacy” / A. “Yes, sir”
OK so now I’m thinking this story may be true after all. This statement by Joe says that his brother went, but no name is given. The brothers that would be of age were; John Jr. born in 1842, Jacob born in 1843, and maybe James born in 1848. Joe’s father John Frederick Herndon was born in 1796 and would have been 68 years old at the time of the Battle of Mansfield in 1864.
Could a white man volunteer with a Negro? How would this work? It seems to me that Joe, even though he was a free man, would still have been with the colored troops and John Frederick with the whites. I’m still shaking my head on this one but that statement by Joe in this case does confirm the lore to a degree. Joe does say that he fought for the Confederacy, just doesn’t say which battle.
My question has always been WHY? I had to do some reading up on the Civil War and the Battle of Mansfield and get an understanding of what role Shreveport played at that time. At this time Shreveport was a main center for the Confederacy and was a prime target to be taken. Shreveport to this point had been spared from any battles and I can understand why a free man would fight to protect his family and property. John Frederick Herndon was a large land owner and Joe Herndon was named in his father’s Will and received a good inheritance of land and money.
I wonder…..did John Frederick persuade Joe and another son to participate in the battle with an assurance that they would be named in his Will? OR, is this just a tall tale….
Thanks for reading
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