Many people remember the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment from the popular film “Glory” (1989) and their courageous stand at the Battle of Fort Wagner in South Carolina. Organized in Boston, MA and commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the son of a wealthy, abolitionist family, the 54th were the first “colored” regiment of the Civil War. The regiment was composed of a diverse set of men – some were free born, some had been enslaved, some were from the North, and some were from the South. But they all shared a common goal of abolishing slavery in the Southern states. Though most of the soldiers of the colored regiments were primarily of African descent, there were “colored” men of other mixed ethnic backgrounds, including Native Americans. In fact you will find many tribes from up and down the East Coast had tribal members who enlisted in the colored regiments. Granville’s Native American community can proudly claim a connection to the 54th regiment because of Varnell Mayo’s (1837-1900) military service.
Varnell Mayo’s Granville Roots:
Varnell W. Mayo was born around 1837 in Granville County, the eldest son of William Mayo (1805 – before 1850) and Joyce “Joisey” Chavis (1816 – abt 1906). William Mayo and Joyce Chavis were married 12 Jun 1834 with Joyce’s brother William Chavis as the bondsman. Her brother William Chavis (1801-1854) married Delilah Guy (1819-1860) a few months later. I suspect that Joyce and William Chavis were children of Jesse Chavis (1766-1840) based upon Jesse Chavis’ household numbers in earlier censuses and location. William and Joyce were likely half siblings because Jesse Chavis later in life married Nancy Mitchell (1775 – before 1870) in 1812 and so Nancy was Joyce Chavis’ mother and William Chavis’ step-mother. I’m unsure who William Mayo’s parents were, but he almost certainly descends from the people who were formerly enslaved by a man named Joseph Mayo who left a 1780 will that freed them. By 1789 Joseph Mayo’s slaves were freed in neighboring Mecklenburg Co, VA and most intermarried with Native Americans/”free people of color”.
In the 1840 census, Varnell’s father William Mayo is shown living next to his brother-in-law William Chavis in Granville County and among members of the Harris/Dew, Anderson, Pettiford, Evans, Richardson and Mitchell families.
In the 1850 census which is the first census in which every household member was enumerated by name, we see Varnell Mayo age 13 years, listed with his parents and siblings:
On June 7, 1858 in Caswell County, NC, Varnell Mayo married Sally Chavis:
In the 1860 census, we find Varnell and his wife Sally (“Sarah”) living all the way out in Hamilton, Ohio. During the decades leading up to the Civil War, many “free colored” families from North Carolina moved to Ohio because of hostile conditions from local whites. In 1835, due to an increased fear of growing abolitionist movements and slave uprisings, North Carolina passed a new constitution that disenfranchised all “free people of color” including Native Americans who fell under this social category. This new constitution took away the right to vote, the right to hold public office, the right to own firearms, and the right to move freely in and out of the state. Even though both Varnell and Sally were free born people, there was still the threat of being stolen and illegally sold into slavery. In Ohio, Varnell would find a growing abolitionist community with people who were committed to ending slavery.
Varnell Mayo Enlists in the 54th Regiment:
The next time we find Varnell is on April 28, 1863 in Boston, MA when he joined the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. He was enlisted by a ” R. P. Hallowell” – this is Richard Price Hallowell (1835-1904) who was in charge of recruiting soldiers for the 54th regiment. His brothers Edward Needles Hallowell (1836-1871) and Norwood Penrose Hallowell (1839-1914) were officers in the 54th. Edward was a lieutenant-colonel and second in command of the 54th (actor Cary Elwes’ portrayal of Major Cabot Forbes in “Glory” was based upon Edward Hallowell). Norwood left the 54th and commanded his own colored regiment – the 55th. The Hallowell brothers came from a prominent Quaker family in Philadelphia who dedicated their lives to abolishing slavery and fighting for equal rights.
In the remarks section we see that Varnell was listed as wounded in action at Morris Island on July 18, 1865 (this should read 1863). Additional muster roll pages clarify these remarks.
In the July/August 1863 muster roll, we see Varnell Mayo was absent because he was “wounded in the attack at Fort Wagner, July 18, 1863”. There it is, Fort Wagner! Just three months after enlisting in the 54th, Varnell Mayo fought in a major battle that would earn the 54th a distinguished place in history noted for their bravery, heroism and sacrifice.
If you’ve studied the Civil War or have even seen the film “Glory”, you will remember that Fort Wagner was the site of a Confederate fort on Morris Island in South Carolina. Colonel Shaw volunteered his 54th regiment to lead the attack despite knowing they would likely sustain a high casualty rate. Though the Union Army in 1863 began organizing colored regiments, most did not see any action on the battle field because of racist views that colored troops were unfit for battle. Instead most of the colored regiments were simply used for manual labor. Col. Shaw recognized that this was an opportunity to show his peers that his troops were no less capable than any other white regiment. 600 men from the 54th lead the charge that historic day on July 18, 1863 with 30 being killed in action (including Col. Shaw), 24 later dying from their wounds, 15 being captured, 52 going MIA, and 149 being injured. This accounted for the nearly 272 total casualties out of 600 men for the 54th regiment.
We learn from additional muster rolls and discharge records that Varnell Mayo suffered a gunshot wound in his left foot at Fort Wagner and he spent the remainder of his time after the battle in a soldier’s hospital in Portsmouth Grove, Rhode Island. He luckily did not succumb to his injuries and he survived the Civil War. Varnell was discharged from active military service on May 13, 1864 at De Camp General Hospital on David’s Island in New York. In the records we see that Varnell indicates a desire to go back to Columbus, Ohio and that is where the military transported him.
I have not located any correspondence between Varnell Mayo and his family during the war. However a fellow solider in the 54th named Lewis Douglass who also survived the Battle at Fort Wagner, penned a letter to his fiancee that I think expresses the sentiment that many soldiers of the 54th felt including Varnell:
This regiment has established its reputation as a fighting regiment not a man flinched, though it was a trying time. Men fell all around me. A shell would explode and clear a space of twenty feet, our men would close up again, but it was no use we had to retreat, which was a very hazardous undertaking. How I got out of that fight alive I cannot tell, but I am here.
My Dear girl I hope again to see you. I must bid you farewell should I be killed. Remember if I die I die in a good cause. I wish we had a hundred thousand colored troops we would put an end to this war.
Lewis Douglass’ wishes for more colored regiments did come to fruition. As a result of the 54th’s actions at Fort Wagner, many thousands more soldiers enlisted in the colored regiments and are credited with turning the outcome of the war to the Union Army’s favor.
Varnell Mayo after the Civil War:
Though he had returned to Ohio, Varnell Mayo’s roots and heritage were in Granville County and he returned to marry a woman from the Native American community. On September 29, 1874 in Granville County, Varnell married Francis Howell (1842 – before 1920), daughter of Alexander Doc Howell and Betsy Ann Anderson. I’m not sure what happened to Varnell’s first wife Sally Chavis, but the last I can find her is in the 1860 census in Ohio. She likely died or divorced Varnell. I also don’t know of any children born to Varnell and Sally.
Sadly it appears the marriage between Varnell Mayo and Francis Howell did not last long because Varnell is shown in the 1880 census living back in Columbus, Ohio without Francis and listed as “divorced”. In today’s society we have a better understanding of how war can mentally and emotionally harm soldiers and have a medical diagnosis “PTSD” – post traumatic stress disorder. I don’t know if Varnell suffered from PTSD because this was not something that would have been diagnosed in the 19th century but I think it is understandable that his experiences from the war may have been too much for him to carry on normal social relations. Varnell was on the front lines of a very bloody battle in which his commanding officer and many of his comrades did not survive. I can’t imagine how he could not have been traumatized by that experience.
Varnell and his second wife Francis did have one son together named Abram Mayo (1870-1945). Abram’s marriage to Julia Harris on January 7, 1891, shows additional evidence that Varnell Mayo was estranged from his family. On the marriage record, Abram’s father is listed as “William Mayo” (Varnell’s middle name was William) and that his location was “unknown”.
Varnell Mayo passed away on March 3, 1900 in Springfield, Ohio. His tombstone is located at Ferncliff Cemetery also in Springfield, and you can see from the photo below, his service with the 54th Regiment is memorialized on his tombstone for all to see.
In 1897, highly acclaimed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens revealed his bronze relief sculpture in honor of Col. Robert Should Shaw and the 54th Regiment. The sculpture sits prominently at the edge of the Boston Common and directly across the street from the state capitol. The relief depicts Shaw and his soldiers when they departed for battle on May 28, 1863. Their march through Boston brought them to the exact same spot where the sculpture is located. One of these soldiers was Private Varnell Mayo of Granville County.
The city of New Bedford, MA on July 18, 2015 unveiled a new public mural dedicated to the memory of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. New Bedford like Boston, was a hot spot for abolitionist activity and many soldiers in the 54th hailed from New Bedford. This beautiful mural is another testament to the bravery and honor of the 54th .