Mayhem and murder in Georgia

Members of the Searsport GAR post gather in front of the Searsport Civil War monument in the late 19th or early 20th century. The men are (from left to right) Ed Merrithew, J. B. Ames, J P Sweetzer, Enoch Robbins, Cliff ?, James Colson, James Whittum, James Parkes, G. Prescott, G Stevens, Fred Porter, Will Whittum, Frank Coldcord. and Ben Gerry. (Courtesy of Cyndi and Peter Dalton)

Members of the Searsport GAR post gather in front of the Searsport Civil War monument in the late 19th or early 20th century. The men are (from left to right) Ed Merrithew, J. B. Ames, J. P. Sweetzer, Enoch Robbins, Cliff ?, James Colson, James Whittum, James Parkes, G. Prescott, G Stevens, Fred Porter, Will Whittum, Frank Coldcord, and Ben Gerry. Enoch Robbins was partially aided in his promotion to captain in the 33rd United States Colored Troops after a brutal murder involving a former regimental officer. (Courtesy of Cyndi and Peter Dalton)

Joining the 8th Maine Infantry Regiment took Enoch Robbins of Swanville to some popular tourist haunts along the Southeast coast.

And a brutal murder in Georgia opened a door to a long-sought promotion.

From Cyndi Dalton of Northport comes a tale of interracial love (and possibly sex), a jealous lover, murder, courtroom intrigue, and a scrubbed hanging. Enoch Robbins was her great-great-grandfather, and while the salacious saga that she uncovered on New Year’s Day 2015 does not directly involve him, the tale certainly affected his chances for promotion.

Enoch Robbins was born in Swanville in Waldo County to Jonathan and Thankfull (Ellis) Robbins on Saturday, March 21, 1829. Family lore — and Cyndi Dalton readily concurs — alleges that great-great-grandfather Jonathan was not Enoch’s actual father; after the baby’s birth, Jonathan denied paternity and vanished out to sea (and into history).

The 1850 census identifies Enoch as an “Ellis,” but by 1861 he had changed his surname to Robbins. He was living on a Mt. Ephraim Road in Searsport when he enlisted in Co. H, 8th Maine Infantry Regiment, on Sept. 7, 1861.

Along with the 9th and 11th Maine infantries, the 8th Maine deployed to the Southeast coast. For Enoch Robbins, that meant duty at Hilton Head and Beaufort in South Carolina and Jacksonville in Florida, all locations that 21st-century Maine snowbirds would describe as great places to spend the winter.

Rather than tee off on manicured golf courses, catch the rays on a Carolina beach, or sample the local cuisine at swank restaurants, the 8th Maine boys dealt with sand fleas, droning mosquitoes, malaria (Enoch caught it, to his lifelong suffering), snakes, alligators, summer heat and humidity, and wintry cold and damp.

Duty at Hilton Head was no touristic walk in the park in 1862 and 1863.

Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. David Hunter got the bright idea of organizing escaped slaves into the 1st South Carolina Regiment in May 1862. He asked (more likely ordered) an aide, Col. James Deering Fessenden of Westbrook, to help form the regiment.

Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln reacted diametrically to the appearance of the 1st South Carolina on Union rolls. The regiment was formed with escaped slaves from St. Augustine and St. John counties in Florida and was commanded by white officers.

Davis thundered that captured black soldiers would be restored to slavery and that captured white officers would be executed. Aghast that Hunter could be setting national policy without permission, Lincoln disbanded the 1st South Carolina in early August 1862; only Co. A remained in uniform.

Four members of the 33rd United States Colored Troops stood for a portrait sometime in 1864 or 1865. The three soldiers on the left are wearing Hardee hats. Enoch Robbins transferred from the 8th Maine Infantry to the 33rd USCT and ultimately became a captain. (Courtesy of Cyndi and Peter Dalton)

Four members of the 33rd United States Colored Troops stood for a portrait sometime in 1864 or 1865. The three soldiers on the left are wearing Hardee hats. Enoch Robbins transferred from the 8th Maine Infantry to the 33rd USCT and ultimately became a captain. (Courtesy of Cyndi and Peter Dalton)

Antietam gave Lincoln the excuse to issue his Emancipation Proclamation and breathing room to constitute black regiments. That November the 33rd United States Colored Troops coalesced around Co. A of the 1st South Carolina Regiment.

As a new regiment, the 33rd USCT theoretically needed at least 33 officers: a colonel, a lieutenant colonel, a major, and a captain and two lieutenants per company, with 10 companies in the regiment. Ambitious Union soldiers scrambled for commissions in the 33rd; from the 8th Maine came 11 such promotion-hungry men, including Enoch Robbins (named the quartermaster sergeant).

From the 100th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment came Alexander Heasley, a young soldier who became the captain of Co. E, 33rd USCT. He obviously knew Enoch Robbins, later promoted to lieutenant in the black regiment.

This past New Year’s Day, Cyndi Dalton was researching Robbins online when she came across the event that opened a captain’s vacancy to him. The sordid tale begins with elements of the 33rd USCT being transferred to Augusta, Ga. soon after the war for Reconstruction duty.

Alexander Heasley of Pennsylvania was the captain of Co. E, 33rd USCT.

Alexander Heasley of Pennsylvania was the captain of Co. E, 33rd USCT.

Alexander Heasley still commanded Co. E when it arrived in Augusta. He may or may not have been an abolitionist, but he definitely supported federal and private efforts to improve economic opportunities for former slaves.

On July 20, 1865, Heasley resigned from the 33rd USCT to take a position with the Freedmen’s Bureau. He likely had sealed his fate by that Thursday.

There lived in Augusta “a beautiful mulatto woman” (as she was later described in the Northern press) named Sarah Jane Blakeley. Cyndi Dalton exhaustively researched Blakeley on Ancestry.com and other websites, but discovered extremely little information about her.

Two facts are certain: A former Confederate soldier (ironically a Pennsylvanian like Heasley) named Frank Hight considered Blakeley to be his “negro girl” (a press term), and she lived in a house owned or rented by him.

Entering this interracial relationship from stage right was Alexander Heasley, who fell in love with Blakeley and eventually expressed his desire to marry her. Inserting himself into Hight’s love life (and possibly the bed he shared with Blakeley, assuming their relationship went that far) was a poor decision by Heasley.

The idea that a hated Yankee planned to marry his girl incensed Hight — not that he would marry Blakeley himself. Polite Southern society would have ostracized or lynched him if he had.

After sunset on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 1865, Hight took Charles D. Watkins and Joshua J. Doughty (both former Confederates) with him to Blakeley’s house. They burst inside to confront Blakeley and Heasley, who promptly ordered the trio to leave.

Armed with revolvers, Hight and Watkins pumped three bullets into Heasley. Watkins then plunged a Bowie knife three times into the helpless victim, who soon died.

Blakeley witnessed the murder. Its perpetrators fled, and Federal authorities arrested them after questioning Blakeley and finding a blood-stained Bowie knife tucked beneath a pillow on Watkins’s bed.

The Army convened a military tribunal to try the three ex-Confederates, whose extremely capable legal team included attorney A. H. McLaws, a brother of Confederate Gen. Lafayatte McLaws.

The tribunal found Doughty not guilty, despite his presence during the murder. All but two tribunal members voted to convict Watkins of murder; the evidence, especially that Bowie knife covered by dried blood, was overwhelming.

But the tribunal’s two holdouts conveniently boarded at a house owned by Watkins’s fiancee. She and a few other local belles apparently “lobbied” the Union officers about Watkins’s innocence; an intimation exists that at least one member of the fair sex may have traded sexual favors to get the desired verdict.

If so, she was successful. The holdouts argued that Watkins was not guilty; tired of the proceedings, other tribunal members finally agreed, and Watkins walked.

Hight was found guilty and sentenced to be hung. Political concerns led to his sentence being reduced to 15 years at a federal prison in Auburn, New York. Promptly shipped there, Hight emerged a free man six months later after President Andrew Johnson pardoned him.

Hight never did marry Blakeley, who testified during the tribunal. What happened to her afterwards, Cyndi Dalton could not determine.

Heasley’s resignation had already set in motion a promotion shuffle for some junior officers of the 33rd USCT. Later in 1865, Robbins became captain of Co. K, a post he held until the War Department disbanded the regiment in late January 1866.

Robbins returned to Waldo County and married Eliza Nickerson of Swanville. Their progeny weent from son Horace to grandson Arthur to great-grandson Carl Robbins (a well-known funeral director in Searsport) to great-great-granddaughter Cyndi Dalton.

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.