Sunday, June 19, 2011

1861: Henry B. Church Joins the 2nd Florida Infantry

In the Belvidere Cemetery one can find the graves of generals, well-known politicians, veterans of many wars, and ordinary citizens.  The grave stones range from the super elaborate, like the miniature copy of Prince Albert's grave monument which marks the graves of Edmund Carhart's family, to the simplest of markers.  Some stones tell of heroic deeds and high offices achieved by the people interred beneath them. 

The stone of Henry Burnett Church tells little of the adventures and cruelties experienced by the man in his youth.  The marker lists two Pennsylvania Civil War regiments but does not show he served on both sides of the war under two names nor that he sailed the high seas in the British Merchant Marine. Sometime during his travels, Church came to Belvidere and stayed to raise a family.  He died in Belvidere in 1931.  Until 1999/2000, there was no veteran's marker noting Church's Confederate Army service.

In 1986, Warren County Cultural & Heritage Commission member Richard Matthews researched archives and military records to construct a biography of Henry Church for Church's family.  In 1998, Church's granddaughter, Alice Wilhelm, gave me a copy when I was writing More Bugles, Battles & Belvidere: Warren County Civil War Letters to Home, 1861-1865.   In 1916, Church gave a deposition during his legal battle to get his veteran's pension.  Some of the 1916 transcripts were used to give Church's first-hand account.  Warren County Veterans Interment Supervisor Leo Becker and I filed the necessary papers to get a veteran's marker installed at his grave for his Conferate Army service.

This article will deal with Church's early life until he enlisted in the Confederate Army.  His story from the Battle of Williamsburg to his presence in Appomattox Court House in April 1865 as a Pennsylvania soldier named Charles Gardner will be told in a future article.

From the time of his birth until 1856, when he ran away to become a sailor, Church was known as Airewitt William West.  Church recalled, "I was supposed to be born on October 16, 1845, can't say where, I don't know.  It was said that I was taken from an orphan asylum by some.  My aunt, Maria Reynolds, sister of Mrs. West, told me once that Mrs. West had been gone from Fairhaven [Massachusetts] for nine months, and when she came back there, she had me with her, but she, the sister, did not know where Mrs. West got me. I heard I was taken from the orphan asylum in Taunton, Mass.  I don't know what was my father's or my mother's name.  Don't know anything about either one of them.  I don't know whether I ever had any brothers or sisters."  Church would tell his grandchildren that relatives of the Wests told him they believed he may have been stolen from his real parents by the Wests during the period that they had been away from Fairhaven.

Church recalled, "I was supposed to have been adopted by a Jeremiah West and Ardelia T. West of Fairhaven, Mass.   I don't know whether any adoption papers were ever made out or not.  Parties named Taylor, a Selectman, who was married to a daughter of Blucher Hallett, and a man named Tabor were interested in me on account of the abuse I experienced at the hands of the West family, and tried to make West produce papers showing that I was bound to them or adopted by them.  But he would not do it, and they never forced him to do so."

In 1856, Airewitt West escaped from his abusive "parents."  Taking the name of Henry Burnett Church, the eleven-year old  signed on as a cabin boy on a merchant ship commanded by Captain Blucher Hallett. The life and duties of a cabin boy were not to Church's liking so he waited for the ship to anchor in Pensacola, Florida to make his next escape.  

Church recalled, "After I reached Pensacola, I deserted Captain Hallett and went aboard a 'lumber lighter' and went up the Blackwater River to Milton and stayed there until Captain Hallett left, and then I returned to Pensacola.  I made my home in Pensacola during that time but worked out from there on ships like the schooner MAY, bound for Mobile hauling lumber.  I boarded with a party named Ainsworth, the mother of George and James Ainsworth, who served with me in the 2nd Florida Infantry.  I stayed there four years.  I saw a number of Northern people roughly handled for expressing Northern sentiments [in 1861]. I had myself been arrested because I had a boat at the head of Little Bayou.  I and some friends got storm-stayed.  Before I had the opportunity to get my boat, Pensacola was placed under martial law, and a permit had to be issued.  In the meantime, an enemy, one Charles Sara, had me arrested, saying I wanted to take a lot of Negroes to Santa Rosa Island - to Fort Pickins.  I happened to be lucky to get out of that scrape all right.  After that, a friend, a Spaniard, one Joe Reabo, told me that Captain E. A. Perry, of Company A, 2nd Florida, was there for recruits and that I had better enlist and take my chances of getting away and that about the last of the boys in town were going, and we sure were boys! I, with several others, were not 16.  Reabo said he was too old to enlist.  He said, 'You know they are on to you now, and if you enlist, they will not be so watchful over you.'  I enlisted in Captain Perry's Rifle Rangers in August 1861."

Matthews researched the Florida regimental archives and found Henry B. Church enlisted in Captain Edward Aylesworth Perry's company, Company A, of the 2nd Florida Infantry Regiment, Confederate Army.  Church was listed on the company rolls from August 29, 1861 through April 1862.  The company records state Church deserted to the enemy on May 26, 1862 [during the Battle of Williamsburg, VA].          

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