Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee signed the surrender documents that triggered the end of the war just a few hours later. So Reynolds, the only civilian to die during the battle, was thought to have died a slave.
That’s what historians believed. But a century and a half after Reynolds’s death, a few dozen words on a scrap of microfilm have transformed her from a tragic footnote of American history into a heartening symbol. According to a 1865 death register, Reynolds didn’t die until three days after the battle’s end — no longer a slave in the Confederacy but a free woman.
That discovery is thanks to Appomattox pastor Alfred L. Jones III, who had been tasked with writing a eulogy for a ceremony at the battle’s sesquicentennial that would honor Reynolds and the 4,600 other people in Appomattox who were emancipated after Lee’s surrender.
“I had heard about Hannah Reynolds about 20 years ago, and at the time I just said to myself, ‘That’s such a tragic story,'” Jones said in a phone interview with The Post Sunday. “… But when they asked me [to give the eulogy] I thought if I’m going to eulogize her I need to find out as much as possible about it.”
The Rev. Alfred L. Jones III, dressed in period clothing, delivered a eulogy for Hannah Reynolds at a ceremony at Appomattox Court House National Historic Park on Saturday.
Working on behalf of the Carver-Price Legacy Museum, which documents the history of African Americans in Appomattox County, Jones spent weeks digging through old census records and contemporary accounts for information on Reynolds’s death. Eventually, his research took him to the Jones Memorial Library in nearby Lynchburg, where a staff member pulled out a roll of microfilm containing copies of Virginia death records.
“I remember I was sitting at a computer while he put the microfilm in, and then he said, ‘There she is,'” Jones recalled. “I went over to look and just immediately I knew.”
There on the screen, in scratchy black and white print, were the words “Hannah Reynolds. Cause of death: Artillery shell. Parents: Unknown. Place of birth: Unknown. Date of death: April 12, 1865.”
“That was so exhilarating. To find out that this woman who was injured as a slave in the final battle before General Lee surrenders … actually died on the same day the Confederacy is stacking arms. It’s kind of poetic justice that this woman survived,” Jones said.
Reynolds’s life had been prolonged by two members of the Union army, a surgeon and a chaplain from Maine, who tended to her in her final hours. No one knows whether she knew that her last days were as a free woman, but Jones likes to think that she was aware of it.
It seems that Coleman, who recorded her death in the Virginia registry, was also aware. In the column for “relationship” to the deceased, he had written “former owner.”
“I thought that was so powerful. It shows the owner was able to recognize the significance of this death,” Jones said. “… Even in this evil institution there were relationships that were forged, histories that were intertwined.”
For Jones, who jokes that the answer to one genealogy question is always five or 10 more, the discovery of the death registry was the beginning, not the end, of his research. Also listed on the registry was the name of Reynolds’s husband, Abram. So he set about tracking history’s intertwined strands to their modern day conclusions — the descendants of Abram Reynolds and Samuel Coleman.
It wasn’t until last week, just days before the ceremony in honor of Hannah’s death, that he was able to talk to Abram’s great-great- and great-great-great-grandchildren (he and Hannah did not have children, but Abram remarried after the war’s end).
“Their jaws kind of dropped,” Jones recalled.
Abram’s descendants were at the ceremony Saturday. As were Coleman’s.
A wagon bearing a coffin representing Hannah Reynolds drove along a path lit by 4,600 paper lanterns, one for each person in Appomattox County who was freed at the Civil War’s end.
Coleman’s family brought another layer of symbolism to the story. The family still owned two chairs that belonged to Samuel, reportedly the only possessions that hadn’t been looted from the house during the battle and its aftermath. One of them, a wooden seat with oddly short legs, was incorporated into the sesquicentennial ceremony. After the eulogy had been delivered, one of the reenactors mentioned in an offhanded way that chairs belonging to slaves were often built low to the ground — an oblique reminder of slaves’ low status in the household. Perhaps the chair had belonged to Reynolds, who was believed to be the only slave in the Colemans’ house at the time.
“I can’t eliminate the possibility that the chair could have been damaged … but there’s a strong possibility that the chair was hers,” Jones said. “I couldn’t sleep last night, thinking that this could actually be Hannah Reynolds’s chair, that it still exists.”
Jones, a pastor at Jesus Center of Refuge and Hope Church in Appomattox, also incorporated the chair into his Sunday sermon. It’s a symbol of survival, he said, and hope for those in chains.
“I see the fingerprints of God all over this story,” he said.
Little is known about Hannah Reynolds apart from the details of how she died — a fact that Jones hopes to change with further research. But on Saturday, just a day before the 150th anniversary of her death, those few details were enough.
Dressed in period clothing, Jones delivered his eulogy to crowds of reenactors and spectators, an April sunset casting a gauzy glow over the proceedings. As the sky darkened, reenactors lit 4,600 paper lanterns — one for each Appomattox County slave who became free at the Civil War’s end— which lined the path of the wagon bearing Reynolds’s “coffin.”
“It’s very encouraging to see that the nation as a whole is speaking to African Americans and recognizing that experience,” Jones said. “It was a tremendous moment.”