30 January 2015
Adeline Hoffman: From Slave to Servant, A Family Tradition
Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:
Adeline Hoffman: From Slave to Servant, A Family Tradition By Ken Robison
For The River Press
January 28, February 4, 2015
This is the thirty-fourth installment of a monthly series commemorating Union and Confederate veterans of the Civil War who came to Montana during or after the war. In Honor of Black History Month, Adeline Hoffman’s unusual story is featured as she transitioned from slave to servant serving generations of the same family. In addition story of Union Private Alfred Skaggs is featured—Adeline lived for decades with the Skaggs family in Montana. Descendants of Montana Civil War veterans are encouraged to send their stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For Adeline Hoffman, the Civil War and Emancipation never happened. From slavery to freedom, Adeline served the same Southern family, passing from generation to generation and locale to locale. She was born a slave in 1848 on the plantation of Daniel Rhyne in Gaston County, North Carolina. The Rhynes were a large, prominent family of German descent, and later at least thirty-two Rhynes served in the Confederate Army from North Carolina. In the era of slavery, slave marriages were not permitted in the South. Adeline’s mother was a slave belonging to Rhyne while the nearby Ford family owned her father.
The North Carolina Slave Census of 1850 recorded Daniel Rhyne’s slave property holdings: five adult males; two adult females, one 55 years old, and the other 35 years old and likely Adeline’s mother; and three children, two girls four and two years old (the latter likely Adeline) and a male baby. While later dates recorded for Adeline’s age vary, the predominant evidence is that she was born in May 1848.
As a household slave, young Adeline served the Rhyne family until the death of her master in 1856. Rhyne’s will allocated his slave children to his sons and daughters. Margaret “Peggy” Rhyne, wife of farmer Jacob S. Hoffman, became Adeline’s new owner. At that time the Hoffman family lived on a plantation in Madison County, in southeastern Missouri, after moving west several years earlier from Gaston County, North Carolina.
On receiving news of Daniel Rhyne’s death, Jacob Hoffman drove by wagon to the Rhyne plantation to bring Adeline and her younger brother and sister to Missouri. The two younger slave children were destined to join other Rhyne relatives living in the Middle West. Hoffman with the slave children headed west in the summer of 1856.
Later in life, Adeline recalled that trip, “I sure must have cried all the way back. I remember that grandpa (Jacob Hoffman) gave me candy and tried every way to make things nice for me but I just wouldn’t listen. I wanted to stay with my mother. Grandpa said he almost made up his mind to turn around and take me back to her only she (the mother) had gone to join my father.
“When we reached the Mississippi and the ferry at Cape Girardeau I just closed my eyes and wouldn’t look until we were over. I never saw the river just thought that once we were over, I would be gone from home for good.
“Grandpa promised me.” Adeline recalled, “that I never would be whipped and that no one ever would run over me in general dealings. He always kept his promise.” As she got used to life in the Hoffman family on the Missouri plantation, Adeline lived in a sea of Hoffman children, thirteen of them. She became attached to the second youngest, a girl of four named Rose Angeline or Rosie. Amazingly, for the next 83 years, Adeline would work for Rosie, first as slave and after the Civil War as servant, becoming in some ways a member of the Hoffman family.
Then came the Civil War ripping Missouri apart. In October 1861, Brig. Gen. M. Jeff Thompson led a 1500-man Missouri State Guard (secessionist) force into southeastern Missouri wrecking havoc to the Iron Mountain Bridge. Brig. Gen. U. S. Grant commanded loyal Union forces in the District of Southeast Missouri at that time. In response to the threat of the Missouri State Guard, Gen. Grant ordered two Union columns, one under Col. Joseph B. Plummer with 1,500 men and another under Col. William P. Carlin with 3,000 men in pursuit.
The Union force engaged Col. Thompson’s men in the Battle of Fredericktown on October 21, 1861. Fredericktown was the county seat of Madison County and located near the Hoffman farm. Outnumbered and outmaneuvered, the Missouri State Guard was defeated and forced to withdraw. Some Union soldiers believed that locals assisted Thompson in the engagement and that the State Guardsmen mistreated Unionist citizens in the area. This resentment led to retaliation against the town with at least seven homes burned and other buildings damaged before Union officers regained control of their men. The victory at Fredericktown consolidated Union control of southeastern Missouri for the duration of the war.
Adeline recalled that it was a hard struggle to live on the farm during the war. It was near a major highway so troops were passing constantly. Horses, fodder, food money, all were taken from the Hoffmans during these turbulent times. She never made clear why Union troops didn’t “free” her from slavery, although her loyalty to the family must have played a role. Later she remembered outlaw bands raiding and the family hiding “terror-stricken” children in the timber for days while “mounted gangsters raided” the Hoffman home. Adeline likely was hidden together with Rosie and the other white children.
At last the war came to an end, order was restored, and farming resumed. Union forces had freed most of Missouri’s 115,000 slaves during the war. Yet, Adeline, although no longer a slave, remained in the Hoffman household by her choice—at this point she was along and simply knew no other life. She apparently was treated well by the family, and had formed a close bond with young Rosie Hoffman. As Adeline later related, her older sister came to take her along their road to freedom. Adeline declined, saying, “I didn’t see how I could better myself with that foolishness, so I just stayed on. Grandma [Mrs. Margaret Hoffman] was needin’ me, and I’d passed my promise to my folks and I didn’t need what they called freedom.”
Life swept on in post-war Missouri. Rosie Hoffman met a young man named Alfred Ferguson Skaggs, who had lied about his age, entered the Union army at 15 years and served in the last year of the war. Private Skaggs, born October 5, 1848, enlisted in Company F, 50th Missouri Volunteer Infantry when that regiment was organized September 11, 1864. His wartime experiences are an important part of the story.
Private Skagg’s Company F was engaged heavily at the Battle of Pilot Knob or Fort Davidson, Missouri September 26-27, 1864, during Maj. Gen. Sterling Price’s invasion of Missouri. As Company F’s commander Lieut. David Murphy related many years later at a reunion at Pilot Knob:
“Maj. Gen. Sterling Price left Camden Arkansas with 14,000 cavalry in three divisions and ten pieces of artillery under Gen. Jo Shelby. The three divisions invaded Missouri marching by parallel roads with orders to form a junction at Frederickstown, 22 miles east of Pilot Knob, by the 24th of Sept. [Remember, Frederickstown was just miles from the Hoffman and Skaggs farms in Madison County.] The junction was made as ordered and immediately Gen. Shelby was ordered to move northwardly via Farmington to Mineral Point and then destroy the bridges at Pilot Knob and prevent them from reaching St. Louis, thus, as Gen. Price supposed, insuring the capture of Fort Davidson with its armament and store.
“Union Gen. Thomas Ewing, commander of the St. Louis District, was ordered to Pilot Knob with instructions to hold the place against any detached force, but his further orders were, that if he was satisfied that Price was in his front with his entire force, he (Ewing) should blow up the magazine of the fort and retire on St. Louis.
“On arrival, Gen. Ewing ordered the stores of the quartermaster and commissary department to be moved to St. Louis, and this as done on Sept. 26th. ‘On the morning of the 27th of September fighting broke out on the slopes of Shepherd Mountain and Pilot Knob. Later in the morning our troops were driven into the fort and Marmaduke’s artillery planted on the eastern face of Shepherd Mountain commanding the fort.’ [As the battle unfolded Private Skaggs and his Company F with 60 men of the 50th Missouri under 1st Lieut. David Murphy were stationed in the ditch connecting to the fort with the town of Pilot Knob along with other Missouri volunteer units and two pieces of artillery on the flank.]
“Gen. Ewing felt we were in a very precarious position, and said to me [Lieut. Murphy]: ‘Why don't you open fire, don’t you see them planting their battery up there?’ I was in charge of the artillery in the fort, and I answered: ‘Yes, I see them . . . but, you know that we have decided to hold this fort until night, and if they want to keep off their fire until night, let them do so; I am not going to precipitate this battle. , , ,’ I told him then: ‘We will let them fire the first gun, and they can’t say they are not ready; they can’t say we have taken advantage of them. But as soon as they open on us with their gun fire, then these guns from the western side of the fort shall reply.’ From Marmaduke’s guns came the first fire and in less than 20 minutes that battery was driven from its chosen position and dragged down to the shoulder of the mountain beyond there out of the way. That was the first taste of victory, because we had disposed of the most seriously threatening feature of the attack, the artillery fire from Shepherd Mountain.’
“Then came the rebel assaulting column from the direction of Ironton pouring up from over Pilot Knob and Shepherd Mountain 12,000 armed men, coming in one grand body. They seemed to be drunk with the prospect of victory, as if to say: ‘We will walk right over them and sweep them out of the way.’ Oh, but they didn’t walk over us; they didn’t sweep us out of their way. We swept them back, and they never stopped until they were two miles away. All their chance of victory was gone. Their loss in battle was a little less than 1500 men killed and wounded.
“After the battle was over, and after our men had cheered themselves hoarse and were resting after their arduous work, a little incident occurred right over there where that tent stands: There was a colored man lying on his back. I knew him very well; we had treated him as the captain of the colored contingent that had helped to put this fort in condition for the defense. He lay there and says I: ‘Captain Jim, you must get up; this is no time to be lying down; get up, because we are getting ready to go out.’ He says: ‘I can’t get up, I am mortally wounded.’ I asked him where, and he said he was shot through the hips. Says I: ‘I will see that you are taken care of.’ Says he: ‘Never mind me, Major; when I look up and see the old flag floating, and victory perching over our little band, I die content.’
“That was the same sentiment, and that was the same spirit that actuated the white defenders of Pilot Knob. I took him over to the hospital, helped to carry him myself, and placed him under the charge of Dr. Carpenter, who had very hard work to keep his color from being discovered and his body taken out and mutilated by the infuriated rebels when they entered the town; but he was not discovered, and he was buried as a faithful, loyal citizen should be buried; he was given the burial of a good union soldier.
“Then, as we marched out, we went up through this gorge and on to Caledonia. There we met the terrible [Gen. Jo] Shelby coming down, all his men swearing and gritting their teeth, and imagining to themselves the number of men they were going to kill when they got down here. Well, our little advance dashing into their advance and we captured three or four of them and drove the others back, and they fell back to Shelby . . .
“Shelby was not very anxious to overtake the little command; he didn’t want to meet the men that had fought at Pilot Knob. . . they followed us for many miles; they had two mounted divisions, 7,000 strong, and seven pieces of artillery, and when Ewing would halt and prepare for battle, the pursuing force would halt, and so it was for 60 miles that they followed us to Leesburg. There we threw up some slight works. . . we built them ourselves, using railroad ties as the foundation, covering them with earth, and we stood again, just as we stood at Pilot Knob, and said: ‘Come on.’
“. . . [Yet] the great Marmaduke, and the terrible Shelby, the Napoleon of the South, marched off and left us there alone at Leesburg, with the loss of only a few men. Why? Why, it was because the soldiers of Pilot Knob had taught their men that if they made an attack upon them they would give them the worst of it. . . .
“That is the way it was with our little band at Leesburg; we were too much for the 7,000 men under Generals Price, Marmaduke, Cabell and Shelby.
“That is the way the battle of Pilot Knob was fought, and the successful retreat to Leasburg. That is the way the glorious record was made.”
Price’s invasion passed southeast Missouri and ultimately failed. For the rest of the war and until August 1865 the 50th Missouri Infantry remained on guard duty in southeast Missouri. For Private Alfred Skaggs, the war was over and he returned to his home farm in Madison County.
After his discharge, Alfred Skaggs saw young Rosie Hoffman and, when she was 16, he married her in September 1868, and the couple set up housekeeping on a farm near the Hoffman’s. Soon Hoffman needed help on his farm and the Skaggs moved there.
The Skaggs and Hoffmans continued to farm in Missouri until 1886 when they heard of the fertile valley of the Gallatin River near Bozeman, Montana Territory. Soon all of them boarded a train and headed westward to Billings and continued on to settle in that Gallatin Valley. Adeline live with the Skaggs family for the rest of her life as cook, housekeeper, and nurse.
Gold was discovered in central Montana and the town of Gilt Edge in the Judith mountains near Lewistown boomed as the Gold Reef and Whisky Gulch diggings brought rich strikes. The Hoffman and Skaggs families moved to Gilt Edge in 1896 after a decade in the Gallatin Valley.
Adeline became the community nurse, often caring for the patients of Dr. William J. Lakey who operated the Miners’ Union Hospital in Gilt Edge. She was known as “Doc” to the early miners. In addition to helping with the birth of the eight Skaggs children, Adeline was present as midwife at the birth of many of the children of the surrounding communities. By the time the ore ran out and the mines closed down, Adeline’s capable hands had brought scores of children into the world in central Montana in the days when it was a week’s ride to the nearest doctor. Her “children,” literally hundreds of them, moved to all parts of the world and had their children.
By day and night, on foot and in wagons, Adeline answered the constant appeal of those about to be born or in need of care. Snow filled the canyons or spring freshets rushed down the coulees but Adeline kept on going. Among those whose children Adeline ushered into the world were “Teddy Blue” Abbott of “We Pointed Them North” fame and Bill Burnett, who trailed north with three Texas herds, captained the first big Montana roundup, and led the Vigilantes who knew the outlaw Kid Curry.
Adeline’s activities didn’t stop with the children. She mothered cowpunchers and miners, gamblers and touts, and no one was turned down. “I can’t remember Adeline ever saying “no” to anyone,” says William Skaggs. “To all the family she was the boss and still is to most of us now. When we were hurt we went to the Doc. When we were hungry we went to her and, if she had nothing on hand, she cooked something for us. Not only us but the neighbor’s kids. After payday the miners and cowhands would come to her broke and hungry after a party and be cured of hangovers. Everyone knew her and knew she would help.” Adeline was loved and respected by all who became acquainted with her. Governor Roy E. Ayers knew her and State Historical Librarian John B. Rich, once a cowpuncher, was her friend.
After Gilt Edge became a ghost town the Skaggs family moved to a ranch near by and then, a few years later, to a ranch location near the Judith Mountain Divide where the Skaggs brothers operated the largest coal mine in the district.
“I take my time,” Adeline often said. “Young folks today could learn to take theirs and be happier. I’ve seen just lots of them rush into marriage just to get married and then bust up. I’d say folks who are going to be married ought to find out how they get along. Then there would be fewer bust-ups. Marriage is a business, not just the result of liking another person for a spell.”
“Yes sir, what folks need to know is how to take their time.”
The long life she has lived brought Adeline her own philosophy, not so much cultured as acquired without conscious effort. Bright of mind with a good and accurate memory and as she neared the century mark, Adeline had a quiet laugh and an eagerness for the new and interesting. She always showed an interest in life as she went on cooking, washing, working in the fields, nursing and mothering not only her own family but half the countryside as well.
Late in her life, Chadbourne M. Wallin visited Aunt Adeline. Of his memorable visit, he wrote, “I had Snooker, the 3-year-old [son], in my arms when I walked through the yard mud and into the big, two-story stone Skaggs ranch house in the coulee on the east slope of the Judith mountains, near Lewistown, Mont. Aunt Adeline was in the kitchen, washing dishes. She came out and I put Snooker on his feet. She saw him and said, ‘Whose boy are you?’ Snooker, as usual when startled put half his right hand in his mouth tucked in his chin and looked out from lowered brows. Then they stood and beamed at each other, the span of a century between . . .”
Adeline Hoffman lived with her Skaggs family until her death in January 1941. Her obituary read, “Beloved Negro Slave Laid to Rest Tuesday. Adeline Hoffman, 96, who was born in slavery on a plantation of the Old South 17 years before the start of the Civil War and who spent most of her life as a loyal and beloved member of the household of William Skaggs and his forebears tracking back over three generations, was laid to rest in the Lewistown city cemetery.”
In tribute to Aunt Adeline, a Skaggs family member Millie Hoves Salomon wrote these words:
“Some people say that slavery was bad
I’m sure we all agree
It was real nice of Lincoln
to set the slaves all free
my great grand parents got this little girl
when she was only nine
they loved her like their very own
her name was Adeline
When they told her years later
the slaves were all set free
she cried and said, now mam & pap
I’ll never leave thee
and so they kept her years and years
till they left this world behind
Then my grandfather & grandmother
kept sweet Adeline
My father told this to me
some years ago you see
he told me how she took care of him
when he was only three
and so you see there’s good in all
if we could only see
I’m thankful for the story told
that my father passed to me.”
Nostalgic tributes aside as well as the rewarding life led by Adeline Hoffman, slavery was far more than a “peculiar institution”—it was an evil one! God bless her white families who valued Adeline as a family member . . . but many more than “some people” say adamantly that slavery was bad.
Ken Robison is a local historian and author of Confederates in Montana Territory: In the Shadow of Price’s Army and Montana Territory and the Civil War: A Frontier Forged on the Battlefield.
1. Aunt Adeline, from slavery to freedom, serving generations of the same family. Photo by Chad Wallin.
2. The Alfred Skaggs family with Adeline present as a member of the family. [Courtesy of Kristi Lana (Reynolds) Davis, Find a Grave]