Was My Ancestor the Only Civilian Killed at Appomattox?

Tracing Your Roots: Family tree research pulls up records of a slave named Hannah Reynolds.

Federal soldiers at the Appomattox courthouse in April 1865
Federal soldiers at the Appomattox courthouse in April 1865 Wikimedia Commons

Dear Professor Gates:

My great-great-grandmother Leah Ballard Ancrum Williams was born circa 1840 and died in 1917 in Camden, Kershaw County, S.C. It was said that she bore 18 children, some before and some after slavery ended. We recently discovered her 1917 death certificate listing her mother’s name as Hannah Reynolds. This was great news to us, since we’d searched for her mother’s name for years.

On a hunch I did a Google search for “Hannah Reynolds slave,” and I came across the story of a Hannah Reynolds who was the only civilian casualty at Appomattox. She was enslaved by Dr. Samuel Coleman, who, realizing that his house sat on the periphery of the battlefield, took his family and fled, leaving Hannah to mind the house. In the final battle, a volley of bullets pierced the wall, striking Hannah. She died several days later, but after the Confederacy had surrendered. We like to think she died a free woman.

We’d like to know: Is this Hannah Reynolds our Hannah Reynolds? —Sharon Harper

Researching female ancestors can be a challenge for anyone, and it can be even more difficult when researching female African-American ancestors before the Civil War. Fortunately, you have already found out that your third great-grandmother was named Hannah Reynolds. To determine if she was the same Hannah Reynolds who was the only civilian casualty at the infamous battle that ended the Civil War, you can approach this question by working in two different ways: first by researching the Hannah Reynolds of Appomattox and second by searching for even more records of your ancestor of the same name. As you gather information on each of these women, you’ll want to look for any similarities—such as age, place of birth, location of relatives and the use of common family names—to see if there is any evidence that links your ancestor to the Civil War. Here is how you can get started.

Research Hannah Reynolds of Appomattox, Va.

Find out as much as possible about the Hannah Reynolds who was fatally injured at the Battle of Appomattox on April 9, 1865. From a variety of books on the battle, we found that Hannah was about 40 years old at the time of her death and was the only slave owned by Samuel H. Coleman and his wife, who owned the house where she was shot. It’s said that Samuel’s father-in-law gave him the house after he married.

If Hannah was, in fact, 40 years old when she was killed at Appomattox, she was probably born circa 1825. The records you shared with us show that Leah Ballard was probably born between 1836 and 1840. From this it seems that Hannah Reynolds might be a little too young to be the mother of Leah Ballard, but the information we found so far about Hannah was just an estimate of her age. Finding documentation of her actual age will help you determine whether or not it is feasible that she was Leah’s mother.

To learn more about Hannah’s life before the Civil War, you’ll want to research the family of Samuel Coleman to see if you can find records of any slaves he had. For example, the 1860 U.S. census record for Samuel H. Coleman shows that he was living in Appomattox County, Va., with his wife, Amanda, and working as a farmer. The record also shows that he was born in 1837 in Virginia. Since he had his own house at the time, it is possible that he owned slaves.

We looked him up on the 1860 Federal Census Slave Schedules and found an entry for his household. We see that he owned only one slave in 1860, but it’s not quite what we expect, since the census record lists that the slave was a 14-year-old boy. This means that Hannah was enslaved by this family between the years of 1860 and 1865.