February 6, 2005: Headlines: COS - Togo: Genealogy: African American Issues: Charlotte Observer: As a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo in the 1970s, Jim Morrill lived along West Africa's Slave Coast among people whose ancestors had been sold off in chains

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Togo: Peace Corps Togo : The Peace Corps in Togo: February 6, 2005: Headlines: COS - Togo: Genealogy: African American Issues: Charlotte Observer: As a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo in the 1970s, Jim Morrill lived along West Africa's Slave Coast among people whose ancestors had been sold off in chains

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As a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo in the 1970s, Jim Morrill lived along West Africa's Slave Coast among people whose ancestors had been sold off in chains

As a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo  in the 1970s, Jim Morrill lived along West Africa's Slave Coast among people whose ancestors had been sold off in chains

As a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo in the 1970s, Jim Morrill lived along West Africa's Slave Coast among people whose ancestors had been sold off in chains

Secrets of the Sword

My journey into my family's past began 25 years ago. My mom said: You need to know, your great-grandmother was black.


Staff Writer

Caption: Jim Morrill holds the sword that his great-grandfather, an officer in the Union Army, wore at his side during the Civil War. Photo: TODD SUMLIN, Staff


I held the sword for the first time last month.

The brass hilt has darkened with age. A filigree of twisted wire wraps the sharkskin grip. The steel blade curves gently to a point, etched with vine leaves and grape clusters and the letters "USC," for U.S. Cavalry.

At the bottom of its scabbard is a brass fitting. On each side is engraved a name: E.D. Morrill.

My great-grandfather.

It was the sword he carried through the Civil War, and it was finally coming back to his family. Until five years ago, I didn't know it existed.

The sword stayed with E.D. and his son for years, a silent witness to their public and private trials. It disappeared almost a century ago, about the time my grandfather did. Recovering it is a story of lost and found history, played out over three generations and shrouded in racial taboos and family secrets.

Searching for that history became a small obsession. Over the years I combed through genealogies and courthouses, pored over census records and microfilm. There have been discoveries and dead ends and moments of pure serendipity.

Finding the sword was one.

Last month I drove up to the snowy Appalachian town of Princeton, W.Va., to buy it from a collector. The trip took three hours.

Getting there had taken years.

An unexpected ancestor

When I was about 30, my mother confided a secret: My great-grandmother -- the mother of my dad's father -- was black.Growing up with blond hair and blue eyes in a Midwestern family of Germans and Swedes, it was not something I'd suspected. I thought it was interesting, but to mom it was serious business. She thought I should know before I got married, lest some stray gene pop out of the family pool and surprise us.

My dad refused to talk about it, and I knew not to press. He died three years later, before I was curious enough to ask again.

By then there were no other relatives to ask. So I set off to find out myself.

Around that time, my uncle had given me a copy of E.D. Morrill's regimental history. A typewritten sheet inside gave a brief sketch of his life and the story of his Civil War unit, the 15th Battery of Massachusetts Light Artillery.

Edward Danforth Morrill was born on the Illinois prairie on July 29, 1837. His family had migrated from New England but soon moved back. He was a 25-year-old mechanic in Lowell, Mass., when he enlisted in 1862. E.D. stood 5 feet 7 with brown hair and a beard that framed his gray eyes and broad forehead.

He was the quartermaster sergeant in the 122-man unit commanded by a Lowell attorney who also happened to be his brother-in-law. In March 1863, they left Boston by steamer for New Orleans, captured by Union forces under Admiral Farragut the year before.

To Northern eyes, the Crescent City was exotic but trying.

"This is the land of loose morals and easy virtue, hot weather, mosquitoes, alligators, secessionists and other such vermin," wrote an officer named Lorin Dame.

The 15th Battery saw 25 desertions the first month. Some blamed the captain, described by Dame as a man of "ignorance, mulishness, vanity and folly." E.D. was arrested after a dispute with an officer. Still, he was promoted to second lieutenant that September, a commission that allowed him to buy a shiny new officer's sword with a sharkskin grip.

The battery spent the rest of 1863 and most of 1864 in and around New Orleans. For the last six months of the war, E.D.'s unit crisscrossed the South from Little Rock to Memphis to Pensacola. In April 1865, it took part in the siege of Fort Blakely outside Mobile. The fort fell April 9, six hours after Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Then the 15th Battery sailed up the Alabama River and helped capture Selma.

Their war was over. The men returned to Boston and were mustered out.

Six months later, in January 1866, E.D. joined a new army of Northern carpetbaggers who rushed to the conquered South in search of riches and adventure. He took his wife back to Alabama and settled near the town of Camden, in a bend of the Alabama River.

Stumbling onto the sword

Five years ago, when I first asked the Veterans Administration for E.D. Morrill's records, I was told they'd been checked out to St. Paul, Minn., for research by a man named Gary Bettcher. I didn't know him. So I called.Why are you interested in my great-grandfather? I asked.

"Because I have his sword," he said.

Bettcher, who lives near Minneapolis, got the sword years ago after trading a few World War II guns to another local collector. He's not sure where it was before that. Our guess is it was sold by either Sam or the family he left behind.

Bettcher, an amateur historian, knew the sword belonged in E.D.'s family. After years of on-and-off negotiations, we finally met at the business college he owns in West Virginia.

The sword links me to family members I've never known. It also connects me to part of American history I had no idea I was part of. As a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1970s, I lived along West Africa's Slave Coast among people whose ancestors had been sold off in chains.

On Senegal's Goree Island, I walked by old stone cells that warehoused 20 million Africans waiting to sail into slavery. I didn't know that some of my own ancestors might have been among them.

Family secrets aren't always revealed. Mysteries don't always get solved.

But now, holding my great-grandfather's sword, I know that what's lost can sometimes be found.

Jim Morrill grew up near Chicago. He came south in 1979 and has worked at the Observer since 1981. Contact him at (704) 358-5059; jmorrill@charlotteobserver.com.

When this story was posted in February 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:

February 5, 2005: This Week's Top Stories Date: February 5 2005 No: 420 February 5, 2005: This Week's Top Stories
Peace Corps swears in 12 new Country Directors 4 Feb
Kenneth Hawkinson studies oral traditions of Mali 4 Feb
Tony Hall urges politicians to bring religious faith to office 4 Feb
Dodd opposes Gonzales nomination 3 Feb
Dr. Robert Zeigler to head Rice Research Institute 3 Feb
Taylor Hackford going into television with "E-Ring" 2 Feb
President Bush's past promises in State of the Union 1 Feb
Moreigh Wolf says gays cannot volunteer with partners 1 Feb
Coleman to chair Peace Corps Subcommittee 1 Feb
Vasquez assesses need in Southeast Asia 31 Jan
James Bullington says Bush Inaugural speaks to PC 31 Jan
Allen Andersson creates foundation to promote libraries 31 Jan
Joseph Opala to film "Priscilla's Homecoming" 31 Jan
Donna Shalala embarks on aggressive UM expansion 31 Jan
Thomas Dichter says Poor Countries Need Smarter Aid 30 Jan
Alberto Ibargüen to head Knight Foundation 28 Jan
Helen Sheehy organizes "Endangered Peoples" exhibit 28 Jan

RPCVs mobilize support for Countries of Service Date: January 30 2005 No: 405 RPCVs mobilize support for Countries of Service
RPCV Groups mobilize to support their Countries of Service. Over 200 RPCVS have already applied to the Crisis Corps to provide Tsunami Recovery aid, RPCVs have written a letter urging President Bush and Congress to aid Democracy in Ukraine, and RPCVs are writing NBC about a recent episode of the "West Wing" and asking them to get their facts right about Turkey.
RPCVs contend for Academy Awards  Date: January 31 2005 No: 416 RPCVs contend for Academy Awards
Bolivia RPCV Taylor Hackford's film "Ray" is up for awards in six categories including best picture, best actor and best director. "Autism Is a World" co-produced by Sierra Leone RPCV Douglas Biklen and nominated for best Documentary Short Subject, seeks to increase awareness of developmental disabilities. Colombian film "El Rey," previously in the running for the foreign-language award, includes the urban legend that PCVs teamed up with El Rey to bring cocaine to U.S. soil.
Ask Not Date: January 18 2005 No: 388 Ask Not
As our country prepares for the inauguration of a President, we remember one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century and how his words inspired us. "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."
Coleman: Peace Corps mission and expansion Date: January 8 2005 No: 373 Coleman: Peace Corps mission and expansion
Senator Norm Coleman, Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee that oversees the Peace Corps, says in an op-ed, A chance to show the world America at its best: "Even as that worthy agency mobilizes a "Crisis Corps" of former Peace Corps volunteers to assist with tsunami relief, I believe an opportunity exists to rededicate ourselves to the mission of the Peace Corps and its expansion to touch more and more lives."
RPCVs active in new session of Congress Date: January 8 2005 No: 374 RPCVs active in new session of Congress
In the new session of Congress that begins this week, RPCV Congressman Tom Petri has a proposal to bolster Social Security, Sam Farr supported the objection to the Electoral College count, James Walsh has asked for a waiver to continue heading a powerful Appropriations subcommittee, Chris Shays will no longer be vice chairman of the Budget Committee, and Mike Honda spoke on the floor honoring late Congressman Robert Matsui.
RPCVs and Peace Corps provide aid  Date: January 4 2005 No: 366 Latest: RPCVs and Peace Corps provide aid
Peace Corps made an appeal last week to all Thailand RPCV's to consider serving again through the Crisis Corps and more than 30 RPCVs have responded so far. RPCVs: Read what an RPCV-led NGO is doing about the crisis an how one RPCV is headed for Sri Lanka to help a nation he grew to love. Question: Is Crisis Corps going to send RPCVs to India, Indonesia and nine other countries that need help?
The World's Broken Promise to our Children Date: December 24 2004 No: 345 The World's Broken Promise to our Children
Former Director Carol Bellamy, now head of Unicef, says that the appalling conditions endured today by half the world's children speak to a broken promise. Too many governments are doing worse than neglecting children -- they are making deliberate, informed choices that hurt children. Read her op-ed and Unicef's report on the State of the World's Children 2005.

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Story Source: Charlotte Observer

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Togo; Genealogy; African American Issues



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