James W. Stovall
Cook-Servant, Company F

There were a number of African-Americans associated with the Fifty-First Illinois Infantry, in either formal or informal capacities. James Stovall fell between those categories. Stovall was not officially mustered as a member of the regiment, but he had ongoing tasks with the regiment and traveled with the regiment at regimental expense. Peter Hudson and William Johnson, two men of "African descent", as regimental records refer to them, were mustered as "under cooks" in Company E. Stovall was the cook of Company F.

Stovall was born in 1837. He was a slave owned by Peter Stovall of Decatur, Alabama. Peter Stovall was not only James master, he was also his father. James' mother was a slave woman, the house mistress of his father. James was a sickly child. Erin Christenson, who has written the most complete sketch of Stovall's life, wrote that on one occasion a coffin was made for him, but he escaped that—at least for another seventy or seventy-five years. James was raised as a house slave and learned domestic skills—washing clothes, cooking, weaving, and tending to the personal needs of his master and father. In his teens he began also to work in the fields, and he grew in strength. When the Civil War began, according to the 1899 Winona newspaper article (below), Stovall accompanied his master to the field; it was a common practice for soldiers, especially officers, to be so accompanied by a trusted slave. (We have not been able to confirm or disconfirm the presence of a Major Peter Stovall in the Confederate army; we're trying. "Major" could certainly be an honorific title used after the war.) Erin Christenson said that James Stovall's Civil War service for the Confederacy consisted in helping fortify the area around Decatur. This would have been during the summer of 1862, subsequent to the evacuation of Corinth, when Federal forces spread out eastward to guard the Memphis & Charleston Railroad.

The Fifty-First Illinois, looking to its own portion of the railroad, coming across northeast Mississippi, coming across northwest Alabama, in the seeming serendipity of time, was about to effect its rendezvous with James Stovall. Four companies of the regiment, under Lt. Col. Bradley, marched into Decatur on July 29. They set about to occupy and fortify a sector of town. Bradley wrote in the regimental journal, "Repaired stockade on the bank of the river and moved into it Aug 1st and occupied railroad depot for Head Qrs. Other stations occupied by detachments of the Regt. Built secure forts of earth and cotton bales to enable them to resist an attack in force which was daily threatened." On Sunday morning, August 3, with Federal troops freshly in his town, Stovall secured permission to attend service at a nearby parish (Christenson); instead of going to church, he crossed the Federal lines.

With the Fifty-First Stovall soon found a situation as cook and servant to men of Company F, which was bare of such staff, having joined the regiment in the field and on the march less than a week earlier. John McBride wrote home on August 18, 1862, "Last night orders were read authorizing all soldiers and officers to employ negroes both in the service of the government and for private use in cooking and washing and all slaves so employed are free and those who can prove themselves loyal are to be paid." And, so Stovall's situation with the regiment was regularized. He served with the men of Company F through the Tennessee campaign that exploded at Murfreesboro, the endless maneuvering of 1863, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge (where George Bellows, captain of Company F, was killed), and then East Tennessee. He arrived by train in Chicago in February 1864 with the men of the regiment on their reenlistment furlough. Stovall's friends in the regiment, "the boys", encouraged Stovall to stay in Chicago, to start making his own beyond-slavery life.

He did. He was twenty-seven years old, a free man, living in a growing city—full of possibility. For a dozen years, Stovall lived and worked in Chicago. His past experience as a cook stood him in good stead, and he found work in Chicago restaurants—and then he started his own restaurant business in Chicago. Stovall's brother John had migrated to Winona, Minnesota, and, in 1877, James followed. In Winona Stovall rented space and opened a restaurant. A few years later Stovall bought property and expanded, eventually building a new building altogether for his restaurant. The 1883 Winona City Directory listed Stovall's "Dining Hall where meals are served in a first-class style" at 4 East 2nd St. The business prospered; the 1892 city directory listed Stovall's "fashionable restaurant" at 74 West 2nd St.

After the war, Stovall educated himself, learning to read with newspapers as his reading texts. He became something like a man of the world, according to "Winona's Cultural History". Understandably, he was Republican (the party of Lincoln and halting emancipation—at the far end of the spectrum from Copperheadism). He attended the inauguration of President Grant. He was present at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (as were others of the 51st Illinois) and other world fairs. He wintered at Hot Springs, Arkansas. He donated money to civic organizations and to the churches of Winona. He participated in Grand Army of the Republic functions. He returned, on more than one occasion, to Decatur, Alabama where he visited the Stovall family that had once owned him as a slave. Stovall was on "very friendly terms" with the Alabama Stovalls; he said, it was "as though I had never been a slave on their plantations."

The 1883 H. H. Hill History of Winona County said, "Mr. Stovall has, by honesty, sobriety and industry, made for himself many friends, and in these few years acquired enough to make himself comfortable, and also to enable him to give liberally to the worthy poor." Stovall sold his restaurant business in 1901. He lived out his retirement years in Winona. He never married. He was twenty-five years a masterly slave, fifty-seven years a soldier and a restauranteur.

According to Christenson, Stovall died of Bright's Disease on December 30, 1919, at the age of 82. He was buried in Winona's Woodlawn Cemetery.

The entire text of a story that appeared in a Winona, Minnesota newspaper follows below:

"An Interesting Story: James W. Stovall Tells of the Slave Days"

Mr. James W. Stovall who gave a fine new flag to the G. A. R. of this city some time ago, recently gave a reporter for the Republican an interesting account of his life. The reporter called upon Mr. Stovall at his place of business and was invited to the elegantly furnished suite of rooms on the second floor where he resides. Mr. Stovall remarked that when he was a slave on the plantation living in a dirt floor log cabin, he never dreamed that some day he would be free and live in fine apartments with Brussels carpets.

Mr. Stovall was born in Cater [Decatur], Alabama, and his master was Major Peter Stovall. Born in slavery he was brought up to believe that slavery was proper and that the South was in the right.

When the Civil War broke out he was a small boy [he was twenty-four] and accompanied his master in the army as a servant. He never knew that the South was wrong until after the battle of Corinth [rather, Siege of Corinth, May 1862; Battle of Corinth took place October 3-4, 1862], when Mitchell’s United States cavalry took Cater [Decatur] and held it. One Sunday he was given permission to attend the Baptist church inside the Union lines, and he never returned to the rebel lines. That was on Aug. 3, 1862, and he found out for the first time in his life that he had been on the wrong side.

He joined Company F, Fifty-first Illinois, as a servant to the officers and stayed with that regiment a year and a half. In 1864 he went with the regiment to Chicago, where it went for reenlistment.

“When we landed on the lake front we met a great ovation,” said Mr. Stovall.

“Many a time I have seen the boys of our regiment when they didn’t have so much as a cracker in their haversacks and were hungry and foot-sore, but when they heard the bugle blow or the band start up ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ they would rally around the old flag they loved so and go into action with the courage that only an American soldier knows. That’s why I love the flag and all its associations.

“Many had been killed and the remainder were crippled. As we unfurled our battle worn flag, riddled with bullets and hanging in rags, the people cheered, and we said to them, ‘We have brought back the flag.’ I never realized until then what a flag was. Right then I saw what the flag meant; what it meant to see men shot down and others pick it up and carry it on; to see men rally around that torn flag and bring it home.

“There in Chicago I felt free and the ‘boys’ advised me to stay there. I got work in the restaurant business and stayed several years. In 1873 [1877] I came to Winona and opened a restaurant and have continued in it ever since.

“Later my brother, J. B. Stovall, came here and went into the same business, but he disappeared ten years ago and I never have had any trace of him.

“I have been on very friendly terms with my former owners and their families and go to Cater occasionally to visit them as though I had never been a slave on their plantations.

“I have worked very hard all these years since the war and accumulated some property and am going to retire from business some of these days and take a needed rest.

“When I saw that someone had stolen the flag belonging to the G. A. R. of this city, I thought I would give them one to replace it. I feel very loyal towards the flag that did so much for me and so just before Decoration Day I presented a new flag to the John Ball Post of this city.”


  1. Erin Christenson, "Free at Last: James Stovall," Winona Daily News.
  2. Photograph and information courtesy of the Winona County (Minnesota) Historical Society.
  3. Franklyn Curtiss-Wedge, ed. The History of Winona County, Minnesota, Chicago: H. C. Cooper, Jr. & Co., 1913, p. 911.
  4. "Winona's Cultural History," at rschoolstoday.com's http://www.rschooltoday.com/demographics/afamer/index.html, an educational site with a page of good information on Stovall and other African Americans who were important to the development of Winona.
  5. History of Winona County, Together with Biographical Matter, Statistics, etc.; Gathered from Matter Furnished by Interviews with Old Settlers, County, Township and Other Records and Extracts from Files of Papers, Pamphlets, and Such Other Sources as Have Been Available, Chicago: H. H. Hill and Co., 1883 (Chicago: Shepard & Johnston Printers), p. 812.
  6. John McBride to mother, "Monday Aug 18th 1862, Camp Decater, Alabama," John L. McBride Letters, Mohler Family Papers, Lincoln, Nebraska.