Family photo
Angus Chavers and his wife Melissa.

The Life of Angus Chavers, a Confederate POW

Dr. Dean Chavers
March 12, 2013

Most of the Lumbees who fought in the Civil War were in the Confederate Army. A second smaller group of them enlisted and fought in the Union Army, which meant they could possibly face their own brothers in battle. A third group was shanghaied or hijacked to work on the batteries and breastworks (temporary fortifications) around Fort Fisher near Wilmington; they were largely treated as slaves, and were assigned to do the rough work of construction. Many of them died at Fort Fisher from diseases caused by bad water and mosquitos.

A fourth group were local boys and men who refused to be conscripted to work on the breastworks, doing the work of slaves to build barriers to keep the Union soldiers out. Henry Berry Lowrie and some of his brothers refused to be enlisted; they knew they would be in the mud, dirt, and mosquitoes building breastworks; since they refused to work on the breastworks, they were cast out and labeled as outlaws by the Robeson County, North Carolina authorities.

My great-grandfather Angus Chavers had to fight with the Confederacy and was captured by the Yanks. He was one of several dozen Indian men from Robeson County who were drafted and had to fight. His dad, Thomas F. had been listed as colored, mulatto, Indian, and white by the Census, so the Confederate Army took Angus and called him white.

Angus was an enlisted man in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He was drafted in 1863 at 15 years of age as a drummer boy. Less than two years later, on January 15, 1865, Angus was captured at Fort Fisher, North Carolina in the final battle. He was in the First Battalion, North Carolina Heavy Artillery, Company D, under Capt. James L. McCormic. McCormic and his second in command, Lt. Thomas M. Argo, were both killed in the assault on the River Road gate according to Fort Fisher to Elmira: The Fatal Journey of 518 Confederate Prisoners, a book by Richard H. Triebe published in 2010. (According to another account, Argo was captured.)

The Company had 138 men in it, with 62 of them being from Robeson County. Duplin County, North Carolina sent 31 men to the Company. There were 2,289 Confederate casualties in two battles at Fort Fisher and the rest, a total of 1,121, were captured and imprisoned. A total of 518 of these troops died at Elmira POW Camp, New York, which was 46 percent. That amounts to 100 men a month.

Angus was a prisoner of war and spent the next five months in the federal military prison. The Yankees transported him along with the other prisoners by boat and train to Elmira—the prisoners called it “Hellmira.” There were 12,122 Confederate prisoners at the Elmira prison, and 2,933 of them died—the highest death rate of any Union or Confederate prison, 24.2 percent. Seven of the men in the First Battalion died at Hellmira and six died in the prison at Point Lookout, Maryland.

The diet was poor, with no vegetables and very little meat. The lack of fruits and vegetables led to the troops getting scurvy quickly. They suffered from ulcerative colitis, amoebic dysentery, and renal infection. Many who died had dysentery, smallpox, bronchitis, and pneumonia. Hundreds of the Confederate troops died from starvation.

In his book, Triebe quotes former Hellmira prisoner Walter D. Addison, who wrote in 1889:

“The customary prison diet consisted of three or four crackers, and a small slice of fat pork in the morning. In the afternoon a half pint of water in which the pork was boiled, and a piece of bread—nothing else. These were entirely insufficient to properly preserve health. The diet in the hospital was better, and answered fairly well. No vegetables, tea nor coffee were ever seen. …

No beds or straw to lie upon, only a blanket spread beneath us on the filth covered hard boards only comparable with hog or cattle pen.”

The U. S. Commissary General, William Hoffman, deliberately held back $1.8 million in supplies for food, blankets, shelter, and medical supplies, and was never punished for it.

The winter was bitterly cold, and the Confederate troops mostly only had the clothes on their back when they were captured. Most had no blankets to keep them warm at night. Sanitation was horrible, with waste draining into a nearby pond. Their drinking water had to come from this pond, and it killed hundreds of prisoners.

The farms in the area in 1865 reported bumper crops of apples, pears, peaches, beans, corn, and other vegetables. Not enough of this food got to the prisoners. Hoffman cut the troops to half rations, and then ordered them put on bread and water.

Angus was one of the lucky ones; he lived. He was in the 54 percent still alive. When the war ended he left Hellmira around June 13, 1865. He had to walk all the way home to North Carolina from near the Canadian border. His shoes wore out, so he stuffed rags into them, and when they wore out, he tied rags around his feet to substitute for shoes. He walked through part of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina, about 650 miles. It took him a month and a half to make it home. He relied on the kindness of strangers to feed him on the way. I believe Mr. Odum walked all the way home with him.

I have long imagined how his daddy, Thomas F., and his momma Avy (Avrabella Ransom) felt upon seeing their oldest son walking into the yard with his shoes tied in rags. They thought he was dead; they had never received any letters or other correspondence from him. His momma did not recognize him at first.

He had to tell her who he was: “Momma, it’s me, Angish.” She let out a wail that people heard a mile away.

“Lord, son, I thought you was dead!” she said. “It’s so good to see you alive.”

He had lost so much weight in the POW camp! His momma cried when she saw how skinny he was. She thought she was looking at a ghost. He was feeble, hardly able to walk. His uniform was in rags, too. He had no change of clothes since he left Hellmira. His hair was all matted and tangled. He was dirty and nasty looking; his momma had to help him wash up. On the walk home, he had washed at the little streams and creeks they had to cross.

He broke down at her concern and kindness, and told her how much he loved her. She filled him in with the latest news of the Henry Berry Lowrie gang. His dad got him the best bedclothes they had so he could get a good rest.

He was only 18 years old. He had been gone two years. His momma fed him immediately, and kept feeding him all he could eat for the next few weeks. As soon as he was able, he went back to work on his daddy’s farm, something he would do for the next 50 years.

My grandma’s father and mother, Angus Chavers and Melissa Jane Hammonds, were wed on January 9, 1870 by J. P. Lowry, JP. (Her name was also spelled Melitia, Melissy, Malissa, and various other ways.) Angus had been born on May 22, 1847 and Melissa was born on March 17, 1851. (The old people always pronounced his name “Angish.”) They had eight children.

My grandma was their baby daughter, Jessie Florence Chavers. She finished the eighth grade in 1910 and became a schoolteacher. She married my Grandpa William Purcell Godwin in 1920 in Dillon, South Carolina and they had six kids.

Great-grandpa Angish would not talk much about the war to his kids, grandma said. But he had a white friend named Mr. Odum, and when Mr. Odum would visit, they would talk about the war together. They both hated Yankees with a passion, and passed this hatred along to their children. All Angus’s children carried stories about their father’s mistreatment by the Yankees for the rest of their lives. The “damn Yankees” would take soda crackers to them in the prison and throw the crackers on the ground for them to pick up and eat, they said. They all hated the Yankees and some of them, the less reverent ones, called them “damn Yankees.”

Angus had never been to school a day in his life. It was illegal for Indians to go to school. He was almost 40 years old before the first Indian school started up. He learned to read and write by a coal oil lamp. The 1900 Census noted that Angus owned his own farm and could read and write some.

Angus was a member of the first Indian board of education in 1885 and served for two terms. He was a representative of the Croatan Indians. He represented Pates, along with Richard Cummings and Douglas Locklear. There were 771 Croatan Indians in the county of school age, and 444 of them could not read and write. The average number of days of attendance was 127 for white students and 87 for Indians.

My Chavers family originated in Virginia, moved to the Indian Woods Reservation of the Tuscarora Indians on the North Carolina-Virginia border in the third generation, and by the fourth generation were in Robeson County. They brought Negro, Tuscarora, English, and French blood with them. In Robeson they intermarried with Cheraw, Croatan, Eno, Cherokee, and Indians from other tribes. I have been able to trace 12 generations—some with the last name spelled Chavus, Chavers, or Chavis—nine of which were born or living in Robeson County.

Dr. Malinda Lowery says Ishmael Chavus, who was born in 1750, was one of the five founders of the Indian community in Robeson County. There is now no one with the name Chavers in the Pembroke phone book.

In the 1915 minutes of the NC Baptist Convention, Angus Chavers is listed as an official representative of Pembroke. E. L. Odum from Pembroke is also listed as an official representative, and this may be the man who used to visit Angus and talk about the war. First Baptist Church in Pembroke is called the Chavis Church; Angus and his daddy donated the land for it.

Angus died on August 21, 1918 and is buried at the Carter-Chavers Cemetery on our family farm. The names in this cemetery are spelled both Chavers and Chavis. There are nine people buried there with the name Chavers, and two with the name Chavis. Angus’s name is spelled Chavers, even though the Confederate Army spelled it Chavis.

When his daddy Thomas F. died, Angus inherited the old home place, which was 68 acres. When Angus died, his son Wardell and daughter Margarette inherited it; both never married. It is directly across the Union Chapel Road from the old tribal council offices. The Pemberton Nursing Home and the medical center are sitting on part of that farm now. I grew up on the next farm to the east, where the cemetery is.

Thomas F. owned 412 acres, from the trestle across from Locklear Funeral Home to the intersection of the railroads in downtown Pembroke, and from the Coast Line Railroad east to Moss Neck. He chopped the 412 acres into 13 farms, which went to 12 of his children and to one granddaughter.

Angus became one of the leaders of the Indian community. He was a deacon in the First Baptist Church. He was on the school board. He was a board member of the Excelsior School, where his baby daughter Jessie Florence taught for several years before she got married. He represented the tribe in a number of ways, always paying his own expenses. He served on the State Baptist convention for a number of years.

The war had left him a responsible gentleman. He could get credit to buy the things he needed. The merchants would extend credit to him for fertilizer, seed, planters, plows, disks, harness, fertilizer distributors, sweep blades, turning plows and wings, hoes, shovels, axes, mallets, flues, cotton planters, and whatever else he needed to work his farm. He soon was able to pay for what he needed, instead of having to rely on credit and paying when the crops were in.

He raised tobacco, cotton, and corn, but also raised sugar cane, beans, peas, potatoes, yams, tomatoes, and sweet corn that he sold to make extra money. He killed several head of hogs each Christmas, and had a little sausage and liver pudding to sell as well. He never got wealthy, but he became self-supporting, about as high as he could rise in the society of Robeson County. He helped his poorer neighbors with meat and meal when they needed it. He had his dry corn ground at the grist mill into corn meal, which they ate almost every day. Flour bread and biscuits were a luxury.

The war made Angus sober and wise beyond his years. He developed the manners of the well-to-do, and taught manners to his children. He told them, “You may be poor, but that doesn’t mean you have to be common. You can be civil and polite to everyone, poor or rich.”

To me, Angus Chavers has always been a hero and a gentleman.