Discovery Gives New Ending To A Death At The Civil War's Close
For decades, the story of Hannah Reynolds' death read like a tragedy of historical circumstance.
In 1865, Reynolds was a slave in the household of Samuel Coleman in the Virginia village of Appomattox Court House. And as Union and Confederate troops fought the Battle of Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, a cannonball tore through the Coleman house.
The Coleman family had left the day before, but Reynolds had stayed behind. The cannonball struck her in the arm and, it was thought, she died that same day, as the battle's only civilian casualty.
Hours later, not far from Reynolds' deathbed, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union's Ulysses S. Grant.
The Civil War was nearly over, and freedom was coming for America's enslaved men and women. But it came too late for Hannah Reynolds.
Or, at least, that was the story before Alfred L. Jones III began looking into it.
Jones, a former schoolteacher and minister in Appomattox, had been tasked with writing a eulogy for Reynolds in connection with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Appomattox Court House and the sesquicentennial remembrances taking place this weekend.
"I figured if I'm gonna do the eulogy, I want to try to find out as much as I can about this lady," Jones tells NPR's Arun Rath.
So Jones went to the Jones Memorial Library (no relation) in nearby Lynchburg, Va., looking for any documentation of Reynolds' life.
"One of the persons on duty said, 'Well, let's look at the 1865 death register and see if [it has] anything for Appomattox,' " says Jones. "So he put the microfilm in, and lo and behold, there it is: '1865, Hannah Reynolds.' "
Next to Reynolds' name, under "Cause of Death," the ledger stated "Artillery Shell."
No surprise there.
But then there was this detail: Under "Date of Death," the ledger stated April 12, 1865.
Hannah Reynolds, Jones discovered, did not die the same day she was wounded; she had lived for three more days. Those three days meant the difference between dying in slavery, or living to see freedom.
"This lady actually lived to become a free woman," says Jones.
The ledger, Jones says, held one more key detail. Samuel Coleman, who had owned Reynolds and reported her death, listed his relationship to the deceased as "Former Owner."
"I think that's a big part of the story," says Jones. Not every slave owner reported the deaths of his slaves to the registry, so Jones says Coleman must have "realized that there's some historic importance here."
On April 11, Jones delivered his eulogy to Hannah Reynolds as part of a program held with the National Park Service called "Footsteps to Freedom," which also honored the 4,600 people in Appomattox emancipated from slavery following Lee's surrender.
Jones says he now feels a "tremendous responsibility" toward Reynolds and her story, which was reported in Lynchburg's News & Advance newspaper and later picked up by the Associated Press, which sent it to papers around the country.
"It's remarkable to me that a woman who was injured a slave, 150 years ago — that her name is known and her story has went across the United States and across the world," says Jones. "And I can just really sense the fingerprints of God on this whole story."
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Union victory. Peace. One hundred and fifty years ago, those headlines in The New York Times told the story. General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to the Union and Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. The Civil War was nearly over. It's a pretty familiar story, but this week, we read about a recent discovery that rewrote the ending of one woman's story. On the morning of April 9, 1865, Union and Confederate soldiers were exchanging gun and artillery fire. Caught in the crossfire was a slave named Hannah Reynolds. During the battle, a cannonball crashed through her master's house, striking Reynolds directly.
ALFRED JONES: She took an artillery shell to the arm. And it was just assumed if you take an artillery shell that you're going to die pretty much on the spot.
RATH: That's Reverend Alfred Jones. He's a retired schoolteacher from Appomattox and a local pastor, and he says that's how he first heard the story of Hannah Reynolds. She was the only civilian casualty in the battle, and while freedom was close, for her, it came too late. Ahead of the 150th anniversary of the battle, Alfred Jones was asked to prepare a eulogy for Hannah Reynolds.
JONES: And I figured if I'm going to do a eulogy, I want to try to find out as much as I can about this lady.
RATH: His search took him to a local library where they keep records from the era.
JONES: One of the persons on duty - they went, well, let's take a look at the 1865 death register and see if there's anything for Appomattox. So he put the microfilm in, and lo and behold, there it is - 1865, Hannah Reynolds.
RATH: One column listed her name, another where she was from - unknown.
JONES: And then another column would have cause of death, and on the cause of death, it had artillery shell.
RATH: And then Alfred Jones found the piece of information that changed the entire meaning of this story.
JONES: And then another column would say the date of death, and the date of death was April the 12th.
RATH: April the 12th. Keep in mind everyone thought Hannah Reynolds had died on April 9, still a slave. But in fact, she had held on for three more days.
JONES: This lady actually lived to become a free woman. And then another column said who's reporting the death, and that column - it had Samuel Coleman, which was her owner. And it had relationship in the next column, and the relationship was former owner.
RATH: Former owner. On Saturday, Jones delivered his eulogy for Hannah Reynolds. He says now he feels a tremendous responsibility.
JONES: It was remarkable to me that a woman who was injured a slave 150 years ago - her name is known, and her story has went across the United States and across the world. I mean, I can just really sense the fingerprints of God on this whole story.
RATH: That's Reverend Alfred Jones of Appomattox, Va., speaking about Hannah Reynolds. She died 150 years ago today a free woman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.