From the Pension Files: the Story of Stephen Twombley

Today’s post was written by Catherine Brandsen, Innovation Hub Coordinator at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

In the spring of 1864, a white Private named Stephen Twombley of the 1st Maine Cavalry was taken prisoner by Confederates. While being transported on train cars to Andersonville Prison, Twombley jumped from the train and escaped into the North Carolina countryside, but not before being shot in the thigh by a guard.

He hobbled a couple of miles before finding a (presumably enslaved) Black family in their log cabin. They dressed his wound, and Twombley moved on until he was unable to walk any longer. He caught the attention of another Black man, who made Twombley a shelter in the forest. That night, the man and a friend brought Twombley blankets and food, and kept looking after him for several days. Eventually they brought in another Black man, Robert Somerville, who dressed Twombley’s wound and brought him food until Twombley was well enough to walk. Then he led Twombley around the city and set him on his way toward the Union lines.

The fantastic thing is: we have the account of Robert Somerville, who gave his account as a witness in the pension file of Stephen Twombley (NAID 330408616). The examiner noted Somerville was a 65 year old farmer, whose “standing good as to truth in the community where he lives, is a property holder and the impression he made on me was most favorable.”

Deposition A, Robert P. Somerville, August 20, 1890

I do not know Twombley. I expect you mean a soldier who I looked after during the war but I never knew his name. He was here a few years after the war but as I only ever saw him at night I did not recognize him. I have forgot the time of the year but I know it was in the spring. It was a Sunday evening, about one hour by sun [?], Mathew Guy and William Lacey were out after strawberries + I met them and they asked me if I wanted to see a Yankee. I said yes. Mathew Guy said come along, + I will show you a Yankee. I went with him + found a man there wounded in his thigh, the ball went through his thigh, no bone broken. The man was under a brush arbor + laying under it on a fodder pile, that Guy and Lacey had put there. I walked up to him + he asked me if I could do him any good, I told him no. I kept him from Sunday evening to nearly daylight Thursday morning. He was not able to walk when I saw him Sunday evening. Thursday he got the last flour”

“in the world I had. I then started him on his journey towards the Yankee lines. I put Resins + mutton suet on his wound all the time he was with me. I fed him on fried meat + corn bread. Mathew Guy and Wm Lacey never looked after the man after they turned him over to me that Sunday afternoon. Mathew Guy was killed here by a rock in Mrs. Stronghill’s [?] yard near 20 years ago, Wm Lacey was in Raleigh N.C. the last I heard of him, that was years ago, I do not think he is there now. I don’t remember the year or the month, but the war was going on when I looked after that Yankee soldier. He told me he had escaped from the rebel guards off of the cars while he was a prisoner near Warrenton N.C. + was wounded while trying to escape. He looked like he was 25 or 26 years of age, thin, 5 ft 8 in tall, and had on a full suit of blue Yankee clothes, brass buttons. He was in very bad condition when I first took hold of him that Sunday afternoon, not able to walk. I thought it was his left thigh, but it might have been his right thigh he was wounded in. He was not injured in the shoulder that I know of. He offered to give me his mother’s picture as all he had when he bid me good bye, but I did not take it. I never told the magistrate who I made affidavit before that it was in 1864”

Of course, we do also have Twombley’s account:

Statement of military life and discharge, Stephen Twombley

“at Bell isle until the next March I think, many prisoners were then being transferred by cars to some prison in N.C. I made my escape by jumping from the car near Weldon N.C. on the Roanoke river. after jumping from the car I was shot through the right hip I supposed by a guard placed on the rear car of the train. It was night but moonlight, I hobbled my way through a thicket I suppose two”

“miles when I reached a cabin in which lived some colored people they dressed my wound and I traveled that night perhaps eight or ten miles when I was compelled to stop on account of lameness and soreness of the hip. I met with a black man cleaning up brush stated to him who I was and circumstances that I wished him to make me a brush shelter, in some secret place, which he knew of. He went with me for some distance, and directed me to a dense forest where I went, he could not leave his word then through fear of his overseer or master, but promised that he would come to me that night. He in company with another colored man came to my relief that night, brought me blankets and nourishment, dressed my wound and made a brush shelter where I remained for about two weeks nightly visited and faithfully nourished by those two colored men. I then started off on my journey my wound not well and very lame and stiff. My aim was to make to a place called Little Washington, I think”

Deposition A, Stephen Twombley, Aug 14, 1895

“These men are all dead.

The wound of right hip was incurred as before stated by me when a prisoner of war attempting to escape. This was in March or April 1864. I was cared for by some colored men after being wounded. I had nothing to pay the men with as my money had been taken away from me. I had nothing with me but a gold locket containing my mother’s picture which I offered the colored man but I think he did not take it. I never returned

The story is so dramatic that it’s hard to believe, and the Pension Office seemed to think the same. There are multiple affidavits from both men (Robert Somerville notes that it was specifically a possum that he brought Twombley) in the 236-page file.

In the end, the pension examiners seemed to believe both men, who are both described as truthful and in good standing in their respective communities. There’s even an affidavit from one of Somerville’s friends, who says that since the war, Somerville has been telling the story of how he nursed a Yankee back to health in the woods.

Of course it’s possible that Twombley went down to Warren County and found someone who was willing to play along, but I’m choosing to believe that this is as real as every other Civil War story.

The images in this post and the rest of the Pension File of Stephen Twombley were scanned in the Innovation Hub at the National Archives in Washington, DC. The Hub provides a space for researchers from the public to scan National Archives documents, as well as tag and transcribe records that have already been scanned. Visit the Innovation Hub page and check out the ongoing projects to learn more!

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