Appomattox, Virginia — A Civil War cannonball that ripped through Hannah Reynolds’ master’s cabin made her a footnote of misfortune, the lone civilian death at the Battle of Appomattox Court House. She died a slave at 60, hours before the war to end slavery unofficially came to a close.
A century and a half later, Reynolds’ story is being rewritten: Newly discovered records show that she lingered for several days — long enough to have died a free woman.
This new historical narrative has made Reynolds, along with Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Union Gen. Ulysses Grant, one of the central figures in commemorative activities marking Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, started Wednesday.
Friday night, a eulogy in period language was delivered over a plain wooden coffin representing Reynolds’ remains, a 100-member gospel choir sang spirituals and 4,600 candles were lit to represent the slaves in Appomattox County who were emancipated by Lee’s surrender to Grant, his Union counterpart.
Reynolds was left by her masters, Dr. Samuel Coleman and his wife, Amanda Abbitt Coleman, in their home as Union and Confederate armies headed to the fateful Battle of Appomattox Court House. It would be the final battle before Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia surrendered on April 9, 1865, effectively ending the war.
During the fighting, a Union cannonball blasted through the Coleman house, striking Reynolds and leaving a horrific wound. Two white men, a Union doctor and chaplain from Maine, looked over her in her final hours.
“Her arm was very large and fleshy and a concave wound was made corresponding to the size and shape of the ball,” wrote J.E.M. Wright, a chaplain with the 8th Maine Infantry. The Mainers tended to Reynolds and her grieving husband, Abram Reynolds.
“I think the Park Service always assumed, you took an artillery shell on April 9, you probably died that day,” said Ernie Price, the director of education and visitors services at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. He has worked closely with local organizers on the Reynolds funeral.
Jones worked for months seeking out the thin paper trail left by Reynolds. The breakthrough was finding Reynolds listed on a death registry in a public library in Lynchburg with a genealogical center.
“That was just like I struck gold,” he said of the document that listed the date of her death as April 12, 1865 — not three days earlier, as was long believed.
In a rare gesture by a slaveholder, Reynolds’ death was reported by Dr. Coleman, who listed himself as “former owner.”
“I think he realized the historical significance of that,” Jones said. “Obviously it meant something to him.”
Jones would like to believe Reynolds regained consciousness over those final days to realize she would die a free person.
“I just imagine, in my mind, somebody whispering, ‘You’re free, you’re free, you’re free.'”
On the Web: Slave Life at Appomattox Plantation – National Park Service