He Could Not Speak Above a Whisper: The Almost Forgotten Stories of Roanoke’s USCT

by Jacob Phillips | | Tuesday, August 1, 2023 - 12:40

Histories and memories of the Civil War often exclude the region of Southwest Virginia, including my hometown of Roanoke. Because many of the war’s most significant battles occurred in Northern Virginia and around Richmond, the lack of emphasis historians place on Southwest Virginia is unsurprising. Many residents, however, still celebrate their Confederate history with pride. Some tout Confederate flags in their homes, on their trucks, and on their clothing, repeating the phrase “it’s my ancestry” to those who take offense. Confederate monuments dot the landscape, commemorating local soldiers who donned gray and betrayed the United States. One such memorial sits on the plateau of East Hill Cemetery in the town of Salem in Roanoke County. On May 30, 1935, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) engraved “TO HONOR OUR CONFEDERATE SOLDIERS” on the solemn stone that guards white tombstones of Confederates.

Beyond these tombstones, down the hill that they crown and across Route 11, lies the entrance to East Hill Cemetery North, a historic African American cemetery. In this graveyard, about seven months after the UDC placed the Confederate monument across the street, a 96-year-old Black Civil War veteran named Ellis Kile was laid to rest. His grave was dug directly across from the monument that hails the enemy he fought some seventy years before. Today, Kile’s tombstone sits in the silent shade of a tall pine tree in East Hill Cemetery North with no great military monument to mark it other than the tombstone inscribed with his unit, “Co. K U.S.COL INF. [United States Colored Infantry]” Near Kile’s grave lie the bodies of William Keaton and Larkin Burwell, two other Black Civil War veterans. These men, like Kile, fought to preserve the Union, suffered for their fight, and deserve the glory and recognition that citizens ought to render to their country’s veterans.

The people of Roanoke have not entirely forgotten these men. Today, the Salem Historical Society, which sits at the foot of East Hill North, presents a small exhibit on Larkin Burwell and possesses a collection of information on him. Next to each man’s tombstone is a marker of membership in the Grand Army of the Republic. Furthermore, in 2019, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War laid pristine white headstones for Burwell and Keaton. These acts of respect and remembrance keep these soldiers’ memories alive and prove that members of the community are not ready to forget them.

Nonetheless, there are clear indicators that Roanoke County’s Confederate soldiers shadow the memory and history of their Unionist counterparts. Confederate monuments and battle flag decals are still the primary reminders of the Civil War in Roanoke. Although African Americans constituted 33 percent of the county’s antebellum population, Roanoke’s Black population, including Black soldiers, have received disproportionately little attention. This year, I began researching their stories, and I have so far uncovered 33 Black men from Roanoke who served in the Union army.

In this blog post, I will look to the lives of some of these Black U.S. soldiers and away from the traditional focus on Roanokian Confederates. This project will provide a counternarrative to Roanoke’s, and many other Southern areas’, filiopietistic memory of Confederate Civil War history. Local historians have thoroughly studied the Confederate units formed in Roanoke, but my project will expand research on and bring back into light the stories of Black men who fought for their freedom, helped save the Union, and were born, lived, and died in Roanoke.

One of these neglected soldiers was Ellis Kile. Kile was born around 1842 in Roanoke County to Nelson and Mariah Kile. He was enslaved, but by whom is not clear; in fact, much of Kile’s early life is unclear. What is known is that he left Roanoke County in 1864, possibly following the United States army after the skirmish at Hanging Rock in the mountains of Roanoke that June. Once Kile escaped the borders of Virginia, he journeyed to Grafton, West Virginia and enlisted in company K of the 45th USCT Infantry on August 9, 1864. This assignment brought him to Philadelphia to assemble with the rest of his new regiment, including at least one other Black man from Roanoke named Jesse Brown. The 45th USCT experienced a fair amount of action throughout the war. It fought at Chaffin’s Farm in September and Fair Oaks in October 1864. After Fair Oaks, the 45th USCT spent the winter in the trenches that laid before Richmond. With the coming of spring, the regiment witnessed the fall of Petersburg and pursued General Robert E. Lee to his surrender at Appomattox. After seeing the end of the war in the East, the 45th USCT was reassigned to Texas beginning in May until the regiment was fully dissolved in September.[1]

As Kile performed his duties in the still unrestful state of Texas, he developed heat stroke under the blazing sun, which affected him for the rest of his life. He also suffered from bronchitis, which he had contracted earlier in his military career. On August 15, 1865, Kile’s term of enlistment finally expired, and he returned to Grafton, West Virginia, his place of enlistment. There, he began his life as a free veteran and, with the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868, citizen. Kile spent about four years in Grafton before moving to Ohio for ten years. In Ohio, he established himself well, built a large network of friends, and married a woman named Sophie. After several years of marriage, Sophie succumbed to illness and passed away in 1888, which led Kile to file for a pension so that he could sustain himself through his own deteriorating health. His initial applications yielded nothing, but he applied again successfully in 1890.

By that point in his life, bronchitis had weakened Kile’s voice so that “frequently, he could not speak above a whisper,” according to George Ryan, one of Kile’s longtime friends and a fellow veteran of the USCT. Kile received a $12 monthly pension in 1890, and this, along with the loss of his wife just two years before, seemed to have inspired Kile to return to Roanoke. In the summer of 1891, he returned to the county of his birth and enslavement. That winter, he married his second wife, Harriet Taliaferro, and began to build a life in the town of Salem. He found a place in the community, took in Harriet’s mother, and bought a home in the northern part of town. Kile must have found it difficult to connect with his neighbors as breathing issues, an increasingly hoarse voice, developing blindness, and a steadily, if slowly, developing dementia plagued him. Nonetheless, he found a new community that would advocate for him and support his family.

Kile pursued a peaceful life in Salem, but he faced repeated tragedy in his native county. Harriet, Kile’s second wife, died in 1912 at the age of 56. To fill his home again, Kile married Lucinda Footer in 1913, but she passed away in 1918. That same year, he married his fourth wife, Rhoda, who died in a house fire in 1927. After Rhoda’s death, he married Vina with whom he remained until the end of his life. All these women acted as more than romantic partners for Kile. He developed cataracts as early as 1891 and was completely blind before 1910, which hindered him from completing the required paperwork for his pension and real estate dealings. Kile also needed an enriching day-to-day life. It seems that Kile’s wives fulfilled these needs for him, providing conversation, love, and assistance to the veteran’s life. When Kile returned to Roanoke, his wife Harriet was listed as the sole buyer of their first home. A similar situation arose in 1919 when Kile purchased a house himself and then sold it to his fourth wife, Rhoda, for $1, including in the contract that he sold with “the further consideration of the love and affection which he feels to the party of the second part, being his wife.” 

In 1908, the Kiles purchased a new home on Red Lane, which brought Ellis and Harriet to southern Salem. Harriet may have chosen this home for its reasonable price, closer proximity to downtown, and/or the value of good neighbors. Good neighbors were in no short supply in this neighborhood. The pair lived only a couple blocks from the Keaton family on Chapman Street. The Keaton family included William, Nannie, and their three children: Nannie jr., Paul, and Florence. Kile was likely already familiar with William Keaton through their membership in the Grand Army of the Republic and possibly their joint service in the XXV Corps in Texas, so Kile’s move would have brought him to the doorstep of a trusted friend.

 Keaton, unlike Kile, was not a native of the area. He was born a free man in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and worked as a laborer in his youth. When war began in 1861, Keaton was sixteen. He enlisted in the 43rd USCT Infantry in April 1864, perhaps seeing a chance to achieve equality in his life, bring freedom to Black men and women in the South, and pursue citizenship. This was no light decision, and Keaton’s choice threw him into the hottest fighting of the war.

Keaton spent most of the months of May and June 1864 guarding supply lines, a role to which many white officials’ distrust of Black soldiers often confined them.[2] However, as the siege of Petersburg began in early June, officials began to plan more involved operations for Keaton’s and many other Black men’s regiments. The 43rd USCT was one of several USCT regiments that fought in the Battle of the Crater, reinforcing white soldiers rather than leading them as originally planned. Keaton and his comrades acted bravely, picking up the U.S. flag whenever its bearer fell to enemy fire and proudly hoisting their regimental flag alongside the Stars and Stripes as they slowly pushed behind enemy lines on that scorching hot day. The 43rd USCT even captured a Confederate regimental flag before the entire army was called to retreat as casualties piled up. The regiment obeyed orders and fled the scene of massive bloodshed, but Confederate forces continued to pour shot and shell into the army.[3] As the regiment ran for its life, giving up whatever land it sacrificed so much to gain, a bullet tore through William Keaton’s back.

This wound may have brought Keaton to the ground, but whether he crawled back to the U.S/ lines alone or a comrade carried him there, Keaton made it to safety. Not all his comrades were so fortunate. Officially, Confederate policy called for the enslavement of captured USCT soldiers. In practice, however, Confederates often executed Black soldiers rather than allowing them to surrender. After the Battle of the Crater, Confederates found twelve wounded men from Keaton’s regiment and bayonetted them to death. Keaton carried these memories and the bullet wound in his back to Texas in 1865 where his 43rd USCT and Ellis Kile’s 45th USCT joined together under the XXV Corps. The bullet wound he received in Petersburg limited his ability to move and breathe and caused him kidney issues. After many painful months in Texas, Keaton was discharged in December 1865 in his hometown of Philadelphia.

After his discharge, Keaton worked as a waiter and hotel worker in Philadelphia, marrying his first wife, Paulina Reed, and acquiring a pension for the wound in his back in 1871. Keaton spent his time in Philadelphia working, loving his wife, and trying to live with the scars of war. Ten years had passed since Keaton returned to Pennsylvania when, in 1875, he moved south to Roanoke. It seems that a man named Larkin Burwell influenced Keaton to make this move. Burwell was born on July 14th, 1846, enslaved by the Utz family in Fincastle, Virginia (a town near Roanoke County.) After eighteen years enslaved, the Civil War and United States army brought Burwell the opportunity for freedom in 1864. He escaped enslavement and joined company A of the 127th USCT Infantry in September. Burwell’s regiment fought alongside Ellis Kile’s in the 3rd division of the X Corps and experienced battle and General Lee’s surrender alongside Kile before being stationed in Texas with the XXV Corps. There, Burwell sustained a serious injury to his right hand while unloading railroad irons. Between his labors and duties, Burwell met William Keaton of the 43rd USCT, forged a lifelong friendship, and apparently told stories of home that stuck with Keaton after the war.

Burwell’s impression of Southwest Virginia stuck with Keaton enough to inspire him to move to Roanoke in 1875, and, around the same time that Keaton arrived in this region of the Old Dominion, Burwell returned to the area of his enslavement. The two comrades reunited and stayed close until death separated them. Keaton and Burwell maintained memberships in the Grand Army of the Republic, perhaps bonding over shared war experiences with other veterans, including Ellis Kile who returned to Roanoke in 1891. Keaton, through these connections with fellow veterans, his two children born in 1876 and 1879, and the neighbors around him, found community in Roanoke. Sadly, after Keaton had settled into this new community, his household experienced tragedy in 1889 with the death of his wife Paulina.

Keaton worked through this heartbreak while balancing taking care of his two young children, working as a school janitor, and suffering the still growing pain from the bullet he took at the Crater. Two years after Paulina’s death, Keaton married Nannie Lee Simms, surely yearning for the love and care of a partner. William and Nannie Keaton had three children: Nannie, Florence, and Paul, the latter of whom was apparently named for Keaton’s first wife, Paulina. Keaton’s family and friends kept him surrounded by loved ones. His neighbor and comrade Larkin Burwell provided an affidavit to bolster Keaton’s pension in 1907; Keaton had provided the same favor for Burwell four years earlier. Still, Keaton’s wound physically wrecked him, and it would soon overcome him. Doctors attempted surgery related to Keaton’s gunshot wound, and he died of surgical shock in July 1910.

The Battle of the Crater had taken its long-delayed, ultimate effect on Keaton. Worse, as if to taunt him, just months before Keaton’s fatal surgery, the UDC erected a monument to Confederate soldiers at the Roanoke Courthouse, about three quarters of a mile from Keaton’s home. They erected a monument to the soldiers that Keaton fought, the same men that his regiment and the armies of the United States had decimated less than fifty years earlier. Keaton was buried without a headstone in East Hill Cemetery North while the monument to the men who shot him looked out over the town his children would grow up in. Thirteen years later, 1923, Keaton’s comrade Larkin Burwell passed away and was buried in the same cemetery. Burwell’s grave was marked with a headstone that would be vandalized and not replaced until 2019. Another thirteen years after Burwell’s death, in 1936, Ellis Kile, the veteran of the 45th USCT, passed away. These three United States veterans and neighbors were all buried in the same graveyard.

Today, eighty-seven years since the death of Ellis Kile, the monument to Confederate soldiers still looms over the town of Salem in Roanoke County. These three men are but a few of the dozens of Black Civil War soldiers who called Roanoke a home. Their memories have been buried for too long, but now research is beginning to resurrect the lives of some of Roanoke’s bravest men. Ellis Kile, William Keaton, Larkin Burwell, and at least thirty others have a place in the history books, and, with time, they will take their places from their enemy that hoards the glory duly earned by Roanoke’s USCT.

Author: Jacob Phillips is a third year history undergraduate student at the University of Virginia studying U.S Civil War History. He was a 2023 Nau Center summer intern at the Fredericksburg Spotsylvania National Military Park. A resident of Roanoke County, Virginia, Jacob is researching the stories and lives of USCT soldiers from Roanoke.

Images: (1) Larkin Burwell's broken tombstone; (2) William Keaton's tombstone, erected by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War in 2019

[3] Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865, Volume 5, page 1082