Thomas Bembry of the U.S. Colored Troops

My 4th great-grandfather, Thomas N Bembry was of course, a Confederate soldier, serving with the 5th Florida Infantry. For years, when I searched for my Thomas Bembry, another Thomas Bembry kept coming up. This second Thomas was African-American and was the only Bembry to serve in the Union Army! So, I thought I’d investigate a bit further.

Thomas Bembry’s service record pops right up on Fold3 and provides several details. He enlisted on 1 May 1865 in Macon, GA and served as a private with the U.S. Colored Troops 136th Regiment, Company H.

Thomas stated his age as 24 at the time of enlistment. He was a farmer, born in Dooly County, Georgia.

Click to enlarge.

Thomas mustered into service in Atlanta on 1 July 1865 and served until 4 Jan 1866. The 136th was a unit assembled by General Sherman to enforce law and order in Atlanta after the surrender. It must have been very difficult duty for black federal soldiers among a hostile white population. Some more information here.

So, where did this Thomas Bembry come from? He may or may not be an actual relative, but it is certain that he at least had a historical connection to my family, as all Bembrys do.

There were four Bembry slaveholders in Dooly County. One was my 5th great grandfather, Thomas Bembry, father of Thomas N Bembry, the Confederate. I believe I have accounted for all the slaves he held, though, and there is no Tom or Thomas among them. He also left Dooly County well before the war.

Thomas’ sister-in-law, Maria Wiggins Bembry,  listed all of her slaves in a series of court documents and sales in the early 1840s. Again, there is no Tom or Thomas listed. She had two sons who continued to live in Dooly County after her death, John B and Kenneth, both of whom also held slaves.

John B Bembry lived until 1877, so of course there are no slaves listed on his estate record. He also (unusually for a Bembry) managed to stay out of the courthouse and the newspapers before emancipation, so I have no record of names of any of the people he held as slaves.

John’s younger brother, Kenneth “Cannie” Bembry, died in 1863, and among his estate there is a Tom Bembry valued highly at $1,800. This likely indicates a man of prime working age.

Kenneth’s 1860 slave schedule entry also shows a man who is 17 years old, or born in 1843. Thomas Bembry said he was 24 in 1865 or born in 1841. In 19th century census terms, this counts as an exact match.

So, I think it is close to certain that Tom Bembry, Union soldier, was held by Kenneth Bembry until he died at Gettysburg in 1863. Kenneth’s widow, Ann Bembry, probably held him after that. I can find no record of any estate sale, so it seems that she had no need to sell off property after her husband’s death as many widows did.

Thomas Bembry would have been emancipated by Union troops by the spring of 1865. Shortly after the surrender at Appomattox, he traveled to nearby Macon to enlist with the U.S. Army.

I also found an indexed entry for a widows’ pension. There are several records that show Thomas Bembry “alias” or “now” Smith. I am not sure whether this means that Thomas changed his own name to Smith, or that his wife Mary remarried after his death. I have not been able to locate the actual pension files: they are probably not available online yet.

In 1869, and on the 1872-1877 property tax digests, Tom Bembry is listed as living and working as a farm laborer in Hawkinsville.

In 1870, he is on the census in Pulaski County, Georgia as Tom Bembry, with his wife Mary and children Martha, Smith, Amanda, and Aaron. On this census he lists his birth year as 1837, but again, that is a close match by 19th century standards. And his wife has the same name as Thomas Bembry’s wife does in the pension files. So, I believe this is the same person.

And that is the story of the only Bembry to wear Union blue!

U.S. Colored Troops (not the 136th). Photo from Library of Congress.
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