By Mike Scruggs
At Appomattox Courthouse in April of 1865, an Alabama soldier by the name of Zeb Thompson stood, rifle by his side, within a stone’s throw of General Robert E. Lee when he surrendered to General Grant.
These were just a few of at least 50,000 and as many as 100,000 black slaves and freemen who served the Confederate cause in some military or naval capacity. Thompson indicated in his 1917 interview with the Birmingham Age-Herald that he had attended every Confederate reunion and was very proud of his war record.Thompson had participated in many of the greatest battles of the War during his service to the Confederacy and had been wounded three times. Thompson, like several other Confederate soldiers looking on, was a black man. Also there was Private Needham Leach, one of two blacks, and ten whites left in Company C of the 53rd North Carolina Regiment.
On May 15, 1861, Walter Bryson, a recent graduate of South Carolina Medical School in Charleston and son of a prominent Hendersonville, North Carolina, family, returned home to enlist in the Hendersonville Rifles. With him went 17-year-old George Mills, a slave belonging to his father, to serve as his body servant. Within a short time Bryson was elected by his fellow soldiers to serve as Captain of Company G of the 35th North Carolina Troops.
Unfortunately, Captain Bryson, only 21-years-old, was killed by a Yankee sharpshooter at the Battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam) in Maryland on September 17, 1862.
George Mills recovered the body of his master’s son from the battlefield and by an arduous journey obtained an iron casket and a wagon and returned Walter Bryson’s remains to his grieving family in Hendersonville, thus faithfully fulfilling a promise to the Bryson family.
Upon his return to Henderson County, George Mills served in the Home Guard until the end of the war. He eventually received a Confederate pension and was active in Confederate veteran affairs until his death in 1926. Both Walter Bryson and George Mills are now buried in Oakdale Cemetery in Hendersonville.