Photo of African American Union soldiers during the Civil War in Kentucky. Courtesy of the University of Kentucky. (explorekyhistory.ky.gov)
By Daryl Moore
Special to the AFRO
A request to the United States Army for a correction to the military record of United States Colored Soldier Thomas Fraction, who fought for the Union during the Civil War, was granted on July 7th, 2021. Fraction was a Civil War soldier who fought alongside his brother Othello Fraction for the 40th U. S. Colored Infantry out of Tennessee after escaping from slavery in Blacksburg, Virginia, as uncovered by Dr. Kerri Moseley-Hobbs, the 4th great-grand daughter of Thomas Fraction.
In her creative nonfiction book titled, “More Than a Fraction: Based on a true story,” Dr. Moseley-Hobbs describes how the brothers were two of at least four individuals enslaved on the Smithfield plantation who would escape to fight for the Union during the Civil War to gain their freedom. Thomas Fraction achieved the rank of Sergeant (a rarity for Black soldiers and especially enslaved peoples at that time). During their service, Thomas and his brother were granted a 30-day furlough at which time they returned to the Smithfield plantation despite threats from their enslaver. Upon their return, Thomas was shot by his former enslaver, Confederate soldier Robert Preston, and then jailed. After learning of the events that happened to Thomas, the Union Army demoted Thomas to Private and dishonorably discharged him. Thomas attempted to have his record corrected up until his death in Salem, Virginia in 1892.
Dr. Kerri Moseley-Hobbs petitioned the U.S. Army to review Fraction’s case and posthumously correct his military records.
In order to set the records straight, Dr. Moseley-Hobbs submitted her request to the U.S. Army, with documented evidence of the injustice, more than 4 years ago. The petition to correct Fraction’s record began in 2014 when Dr. Kerri Moseley-Hobbs and her maternal grandmother decided to research for more information about their maternal ancestors. Dr. Moseley-Hobbs said the search ended at the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and University (Virginia Tech), which was originally the Smithfield and Solitude plantations, where Fraction and his family were enslaved by the Prestons family. During Fraction’s service he would display moments of leadership that garnered him the status of a level 5 Sergeant.
According to Dr. Moseley-Hobbs, Fraction went on to become what a local Salem, Virginia newspaper called, a “well-known colored man” and land owner (an amazing achievement for the time-period).
Upon reviewing the case, on July 7th, the U.S. Army provided a Certificate of Honorable Discharge for Fraction with a letter acknowledging the correction to his military record, and the reinstatement of his rank as a Sergeant.
To celebrate this amazing victory, Dr. Moseley-Hobbs’ nonprofit, the More Than a Fraction Foundation, in collaboration with Historic Smithfield Museum, will be hosting a special event to commemorate the correction of Fraction’s military record, and the service of all the enslaved people that fought for their freedom during the Civil War on Saturday, November 6, 2021.
Additionally, Dr. Moseley-Hobbs said that Historic Smithfield is currently working on a permanent plaque on site that will not only honor Fraction and the correction of his record, but the other African people that were enslaved there who also escaped to join the U.S. Army to fight for the Union.
Dr. Moseley-Hobbs said, “the correction process was actually quite thorough and would have almost been impossible if not for all the records that we were able to piece together. That is what makes the case of someone like Fraction’s so important and uncommon. A request for a correction goes before the Army Review Board, and like one would expect, you have to have extensive documentation to prove and plead your case. In this case, it was not only complicated to go as far back as 1866, but we were also referring to a case that involved a man that was enslaved so his very being and existence was not really considered “worth” documenting. Fraction was very vocal on his own behalf and about his situation, so we were blessed to be able to refer to his military record, the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the National Archives.”
Even so, “it was an interesting case to prove,” Dr. Moseley-Hobbs said, “because all the records of that period are mostly handwritten in an old traditional version of cursive writing. I took the initiative to translate the handwriting for the board, to highlight where in the document they needed to read, and to try to make the review as easy as possible. To make things even more complicated, the only way to make the request to the board was to show that I was Fraction’ next of kin. So, I had to be able to document that as his 4 times great-grand daughter, I was his next of kin.
“I learned how important the correction of the record was to Fraction from his military record,” Dr. Moseley-Hobbs said. “Some of the last pages of his record is him petitioning to have his record corrected. I thought, if it was important to him, it is important to me.”
Dr. Moseley-Hobbs said that the correction of Fraction’s record now sets a precedent for the request to review other military records of formerly enslaved individuals. She also said that it really requires the military to consider the actual social condition and environment of soldiers who were enslaved – that their experience (even within the Union Army) can still be riddled with racism, prejudice and bias that makes slavery and second-class citizenship possible in the first place. This record correction basically signals that the U.S. Military is ready to do some self-reflection of their history.
Dr. Moseley-Hobbs has a few tips for those who would like to have their own ancestors recognized. “The advice I would give is to start online and focus on locating your ancestors by name, birthdate (even an approximate year), and location. Find out basic demographic information first and then you can use that to go digging for more precise information. For African Americans, when you get to 1870, I’m sorry to say that if the evidence indicates that your ancestors were enslaved, you’ll need to determine who they were enslaved by and where, because before 1870 you need to research the enslaver. At that point, there may be records about the people that they held in bondage, the conditions, and any reports of cases of things that happened on that plantation.”
“I would add that many records were not available online so it did take physically going to the National Archives,” Dr. Moseley-Hobbs said, “or to request physical copies of records from the military and other sources. Also, be prepared to go to small towns, or state capitals to look at archival records to find out details and other information. “
Lastly, Dr. Moseley-Hobbs noted an important aspect to consider: “I would tell your readers,” Dr. Moseley-Hobbs said, “that as they move forward reading about their history, to really question what you are reading and to try to read it in the context of your experience with your family, history, and culture. You will be able to interpret records in a way that others cannot.”