Marriage certificate of Pvt. Esau Bowers and Lucy B. Williams. Portsmouth, Virginia, 1876.
“Til Death Do Us Part” – The marriage certificate of Pvt Esau Bowers, (ca. 1837-1877) Company B, 2nd Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry, and Lucy Brownley Williams, Portsmouth, Virginia, April 5, 1876. The minister who performed their marriage, Rev. John H. Offer, was also a Civil War veteran. Born in Maryland, Rev. Offer was a Sergeant with Co. H, 30th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry, and served as the pastor of historic Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Portsmouth from 1871 to 1877.
Pvt. Esau Bowers was born enslaved, in Portsmouth, Virginia. According to marriage records, he was the son of Esau and Charlotte Bowers. When he was about twenty-six years old (as indicated in military records), he enlisted on July 6, 1863, at Portsmouth, Virginia, under (then) Col. William Birney, and mustered six days later at Arlington, Virginia. During the Battle of Natural Bridge (Florida), on March 6, 1865, Pvt. Bowers was hit by grapeshot on his lower right leg. Left on the field of battle, he was presumed captured by Confederate forces. Bowers was later returned to his company, or “exchanged,” according to George Connor, a fellow member of the 2nd Regiment, on March 8, 1865. Due to the severity of his injury, Pvt. Bowers’ right leg was amputated below the knee, and he spent awhile recuperating in Hicks General Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, before being discharged from service in 1866.
Hicks General Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland. Library of Congress
Lucy was Esau’s third wife. She was born on Easter Sunday, 1836, in Mathews County, Virginia. Lucy and her parents, William and Sally Brownley, were slaves on the Willow Grove plantation, owned by Thomas Smith, a wealthy scion of a prominent colonial family.
Map of Gloucester and Mathews counties, Virginia, 1862. Library of Congress
Lucy and Esau weren’t married very long before his health took a grave turn for the worse. Upon his return to Tidewater, Virginia, Esau continued to suffer from the complications of his amputation during the war. Often in pain, he tried to work as hard and often as he could, out of economic need, with the use of a prosthetic, then commonly known as a “cork leg.” Like many African American families in the region, Esau and Lucy were poor, and struggled daily to make ends meet. A foreman of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard noted that despite his determination and fortitude, Esau often had to take breaks, physically unable to work because of the consistent pain in his leg. Not being able to afford a doctor, Esau and Lucy depended on help from their neighbors, and those that tried to fill the void prepared salves for Esau’s leg.
Gravestone of Pvt. Esau Bowers, Co. B, 2nd U. S. Colored Infantry. Mt. Olive Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex). Photo: Nadia K. Orton, October 10, 2010
Pvt. Esau Bowers passed away on January 5, 1877. His headstone, in Mt. Olive Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex), was provided by the Gross Brothers of Lee, Massachusetts. After Esau’s death, Lucy continued working as a washerwoman, and was a resident of Portsmouth’s Lincoln Park by 1900. She passed away soon after. The location of her grave in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex is currently unknown.♦