Delmarva’s Oldest Living Civil War Veteran

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Our story is about was Corp. Isaiah Fassett.

Sinepuxent, Maryland is perhaps not much to speak of, as towns go. It is merely all that beautiful forest and farmland in Worcester County between West Ocean City and Berlin, south of Route 50 and north of South Point. It is known for being the birth place of two military men of great distinction. One is the great naval hero Stephen Decatur. But our story today is about the other: an amazing man who lived long enough to be the last surviving veteran of the Civil War on Delmarva. His name was Corp. Isaiah Fassett.

Isaiah was born a slave on the Sinepuxent plantation of the Bruff family March 17, 1844. As a young child his parents were sold south to Georgia and he never saw them again. He would have been forced to spend all his days working on that plantation, but fate intervened. In 1863, when Isaiah turned nineteen, the Civil War was well underway. Worcester County residents were divided between Confederate and Union loyalties.

White men who had not already gone off to war were either Southern sympathizers, Confederate blockade runners, or though committed Unionists they preferred to sit out the war and tend to their own business instead. The Union Army began looking for recruits in the area as casualties depleted their reserves. Colonel William Birney was sent to the Eastern Shore to lead enlistment raids. He enticed slaves to run away aboard a steamship which was docked at the riverfront in Snow Hill. When they arrived there they were greeted with a brass band playing in their honor. The boat’s official name was “Paradise” but blacks referred to it as the “Jesus” boat. Many free blacks had already volunteered.

Then General Order No. 329 was issued, which allowed recruiters to pay plantation owners to free their slaves, if those slaves agreed to join the Union Army. Slave owners were also allowed to pay to have a slave take their place, or that of a family member, when a draft was issued. On November 11, 1863 Isaiah Fassett’s owner Sarah A. Bruff, signed his “Deed of Manumission and Release of Service”. She did not do this because she suddenly realized it was wrong to hold another human being in bondage. She did it for the $300 she was paid for each slave that she set free.

Isaiah and his brothers, all agreed to become Union soldiers and joined the 9th United States Colored Troops (USCT). Their joyous freedom was quickly replaced with the horrors of war. They were off to South Carolina where they fought in the Wilderness campaign, and at Johns Island. Their regiment then moved north into Virginia fighting in several engagements.

At one point Isaiah did not feel like he could go on. He later told his niece Katie: “I had marched and marched until I really thought I couldn’t go a step father. I got to a place where the grass was nice and green under a large tree. I says to myself, ‘This is a good place to give up.’ Just then I looked up higher in the tree where a buddie had been hanged and was dangling. Well, I braced myself up and began marching again. I realized there was no need to stop after all and I found energy I didn’t know I had.”

It is not clear from the text of the story who did the hanging, but the Confederates had a policy of taking no blacks as prisoners. All were to be considered escaped slaves, a crime punishable by death. The account that I read of this says that Isaiah liked to tell this story with animated humor. His niece said that “He could tell it so’s to make his listeners laugh and laugh.” I guess when you have been through something so terrible, making fun of it is one way to heal and go on. They say that humor is what is left when something is too tragic for tears.

So Isaiah carried on and served in the war to the best of his ability. His unit took part in the siege of Petersburg which was General Ulysses S. Grant’s campaign to cut supply lines to the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia. This began badly. A mine shaft was secretly dug from behind Union lines to a strategic point under the Confederate encampment. On July 30, 1864 explosives were set off at the end of the tunnel creating a large crater. In the ensuing confusion the Union attacked. Major General Ambrose Burnside was ordered at the last minute by Major General George Meade to hold back the USCT regiments that were specifically trained for this mission; and instead sent in white troops that were not fully informed what to do. The plan was a disaster. There were many casualties and no ground was gained. Grant’s forces were stuck in and around Petersburg for a total of nine months engaging in brutal trench warfare.

Meanwhile General Robert E. Lee, realizing he was soon going to be out numbered, began offering slaves their freedom in exchange for military service with the Confederacy. He too was running out of troop replacements and the Southern cause was slowly unraveling. It was not long before he surrendered at Appomattox. Isaiah and his regiment were there. By the time he was done with his military service Isaiah was promoted to corporal. The 9th Regiment lost a total of 315 men during the war. 266 of those died of disease. Amazingly only 46 enlisted men and one officer died from their battle wounds.

After the war ended Isaiah’s company was sent to Texas, then shipped to Cuba, and back again to New Orleans. There was great pressure on the soldiers re-enlist for the new cavalry units being formed from their regiment. Isaiah however was ready to go home. He completed the hitch he had originally agreed to and was mustered out three years and almost two weeks after he had signed up. For the first time in his life he was free to decide his future for himself. He made his way back to Delmarva and within a year he was wed to Sallie Purnell in Berlin.

They were blessed with eight children and fifty-nine years together before she passed away. Isaiah made his living as a carpenter and taught his sons this trade. He kept up a garden until the very end of his life. Even during World War II he grew his own vegetables in a Victory Garden. In later years Isaiah was known affectionately as Uncle Zear. He was a devout Christian, active in his church. He had a great concern for his town and for those who had less than he did.

He enjoyed singing hymns, teaching Sunday school, and telling the stories of his war experience. He loved to wear his uniform and to march or ride a horse in the annual Memorial Day Parade which he did until near the end of his life. When he was too old and not well enough to take part Uncle Zear would dress up and stand at attention on his front porch as the parade passed by. He was very proud of his service not just for the glory of the uniform but because he loved his community and his country. In 1938 when he was 94 he proudly traveled to Pennsylvania to attend a reunion of his old unit at the 75th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg.

Uncle Zear was the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic Post 51 in Berlin, a precursor to the American Legion, that disbanded as Civil War Veterans died out. When the Berlin post closed he was welcomed into the last G.A.R. post in Delaware, even though he had never lived there. Eventually he outlived all the other Civil War veterans there as well. He was the last one between Cape Charles and Philadelphia, and there was only one other in Maryland when he died June 24, 1946 at the age of 102.

If you would like to learn more about this revered ancestor of the Berlin community visit the Calvin B. Taylor Museum in Berlin, Maryland,, where they have a display dedicated to him.


Corp. Isaiah Fassett - "Uncle Zear"

Corp. Isaiah Fassett
Worcester County History - Civil War Histroy Trail

Robert I. Fassett, 105; His Father, An Ex-slave, Fought In The Civil War
By Edward Colimore, Inquirer Staff Writer
January 20, 1989

Isaiah Fassett - From Sunset and Dusk of the Blue and the Gray
The Calvin B. Taylor House Museum

United States Colored Troops
From Wikipedia

African-Americans at the Siege of Petersburg
The National Park Service