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In a quarrel between two women claiming to be Tillman Valentine’s wife, the tiff inadvertently preserved a piece of time from a turbulent era in American history.
Valentine, a sergeant in the 3rd U.S. Colored Infantry during the Civil War, had, in fact, married multiple women and two of his surviving widows were pursuing a petition for his pension.
Annie, his first wife at home in Chester County, sent in letters that Valentine had sent her during the war as proof of their marriage and these letters stayed attached to his pension file and were preserved for 150 years in the National Archives.
“A year ago, I discovered these letters by Tillman Valentine and thought they were important enough to edit,” said Jonathan White, assistant professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. “I saw them in a footnote in a dissertation and I decided to follow the rabbit trail and see if I could get them at the National Archives.”
The letters piqued White’s interest because Valentine was from Pennsbury Township in Chadds Ford (White is a native of Abington) and he also trained at Camp William Penn (the first and largest training ground for black soldiers in the north) in Cheltenham, where White interned as a college student.
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Once White had his hands on scanned copies of the three letters in the pension file, he set to work.
“I worked with two of my students, Katie Fisher and Elizabeth Wall, to transcribe them, edit them, make sure we have the transcriptions right and annotate them and try to figure out the names of everyone we could find,” he said.
Along the way, White also was able to stumble upon Linda Rodolico, a descendant of the Valentines.
“Tillman is the cousin of my great-great-great grandfather,” she said. “I’ve been working on our family history for a couple of years. He was a rewarding research project. I learned about the family using Tillman as an entry point.”
Rodolico had no idea about the letters and was amazed when White filled her in on what he found and shared the letters with her.
“I was absolutely thrilled to see those letters from Jonathan,” she said. “It was remarkable to see that. It’s almost makes your hair stand up — he’s one of my ancestors.”
While it may not be uncommon to find writings from U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) during that time period, what is special about the letters is that it sheds a personal light into Valentine’s life.
“The thing that makes these really unique is that it’s just so rare to find private correspondence from a black soldier to his wife,” White said. “Black soldiers served as correspondents for newspapers, so most of the records that historians rely on for black soldiers are letters that were published and written for publication when a soldier wrote them.”
For descendants of Valentine, the letters offer an insight into his life and who he was as a person and family man.
“The tone of the letters is very affectionate,” Rodolico said. “He seems to have written poems to his wife, asks about the children and he tells her little incidents from his military life. It does open a little bit of a window and give a little insight into what kind of person he was. I love those letters.”
Valentine, a laborer before enlisting in 1863, painted a portrait into his life on the battlefield.
“For sum times when i am away out on picket the furthest post out and the rebels is not far frum me i look up at the stars and ask god to bless you and take care of you,” Valentine wrote in a letter to Annie from Morris Island in South Carolina on Dec. 26, 1863. “i do not walk a poste but i am sergent of the gard and have to go at the hed of my men or be called a coward so i will not give them a chance to call me that for in the grates (greatest) of danger i walk bold ly at the hed of my men knowing that god is able and willen to ancer (answer) my prayers which is for him to spear (spare) me to see my family agane.”
The 3rd U.S. Colored Infantry spent time in South Carolina and Florida and once the war ended, Valentine stayed in Florida.
Valentine worked as a carpenter and contractor in Jacksonville and, without ever divorcing Annie — who was home in Pennsylvania with their four children — remarried three times.
Once he died from pneumonia in 1895, a West Chester newspaper announced it, which brought about the fight over his pension by Annie and Edith Keys, his fourth wife. Annie was awarded the pension in the end.
After all the work White and his students did with Valentine’s letters — including writing an article to give background into his life and a brief history of the 3rd U.S. Colored Infantry — they submitted it to the “Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography” to be published.
As of the moment, White has no plans to do anything else with the research and the letters, though he is toying with the idea of writing a book on African-American soldiers in the Civil War.
Dan Rolph, head of Reference Services at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, said Valentine’s letters add an important element to the history of USCT soldiers.
“Such records are important in history, since it places black soldiers in their proper historical context along with their white counterparts,” Rolph said. “Such records by black soldiers give them a voice during the conflict. We get a feel for what life was like in the army from their perspective, as opposed to a white officer writing in behalf of them, thus contextualizing once again the role and contributions of American black men.”