Passing for White: Thomas Jefferson’s Grandson Passed and Became the Highest Ranking Black Officer in the Civil War

Among the notable Black officers of the Civil War discussed among historians includes surgeon Col. Alexander T. Augusta and recruiter and journalist Major Martin Delany. Another Black Civil War officer who is lesser known is Col. John Wayles Jefferson, the grandson of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. His father, Eston Hemings, is described as bearing a striking resemblance to Thomas Jefferson. Eston was described by one acquaintance as “light bronze color, a little over six feet tall, well proportioned, very erect and dignified; his nearly straight hair showed a tint of auburn, and his face, indistinct suggestion of freckles.”  Eston married a free woman of color named Julia Ann Isaacs, who was fair and could pass for white, and the union produced four children, their first child John Wayles in 1835. The family lived as Black Americans in Chillicothe, Ohio. The town had a thriving Black community and was active on the Underground Railroad. The family did well in Chillicothe, Eston became well known for his musical talents and was a known entertainer and caller for dances. In 1852 the Hemings relocated to Madison, Wisconsin; John Wayles was just 15 years old at this point. The move not only caused the family to change their home but the Hemings took on a new identity. The Hemings changed their surname to Jefferson, to identify more with their famous white ancestor. Not only did they change their name but they decided to live as white.

The drastic change may have been out of self-preservation due to the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act. The Fugitive Slave Act allowed bounty hunters to cross into Northern states and hunt Black Americans who had run away and emancipated themselves. Bounty hunters were not above kidnapping free people of color and selling them into slavery, as in the case of Solomon Northup. Eston and Julia may have thought the best way to protect their children would be to move from a border town where they were well known and recognized as Black and move to a town where they could start anew. The racial turmoil of the time must have taken its toll on the family especially the children. Imagine being moved from your home town when you are young, told you must change your name, race, and not talk about who you are or where you came from, ever.

As John got older he operated a restaurant in Madison’s oldest hotel called the American House. When the War of the Slaveholders Rebellion broke out in 1861, John, who was now known as John Wayles Jefferson, was 26 years old. On August 26, 1861, he joined the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, within a month Jefferson was promoted to the rank of major. He served in bloody campaigns of the western theater under General Ulysses S. Grant, and was wounded at Vicksburg and during the Siege of Corinth Mississippi. He steadily rose to the rank of colonel commanding the 8th Wisconsin. The stresses of war not only worried Jefferson, but on at least one occasion he felt his true identity might be revealed. During the war he ran into an old acquaintance who knew him from Chillicothe, Ohio. In 1902 the man recalled his interaction with Jefferson “…I saw and talked with one of the sons, during the Civil War, who was then wearing the silver leaves of a lieutenant colonel, and in command of a fine regiment of white men from a north-western state. He begged me not to tell the fact that he had colored blood in his veins, which he said was not suspected by any of his command; and of course I did not.”

On October 11, 1864, Jefferson mustered out of the Union Army in Madison, Wisconsin. And after the war, he settled in Memphis, Tennessee, where he followed in his grandfather’s footsteps as a plantation owner, and wealthy cotton broker. He died a bachelor June 12, 1892 in Memphis. It is unknown why he never married, could it have had to do with the trauma he experienced as a child due to race? Unfortunately, we may never know.

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6 thoughts on “Passing for White: Thomas Jefferson’s Grandson Passed and Became the Highest Ranking Black Officer in the Civil War

  1. The decision not to marry is easy to explain. When black people marry or black and white people marry, you never know what the children will look like. Recessive genes come in to play and occasionally one gets an offspring that reaches back 2-3 generations. A Negroid looking child would have betrayed his passing for white.

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  2. But the genes for caucasian appearance are recessive, for the most part. Still, genetics wasn’t as well understood in the 19th century, so Colonel Jefferson might have remained single out of fear that his children could appear black.

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  3. Greg, we are basically saying the same thing, I chose not to get technical. 😉 Sometimes as a physician and a genealogist, I elicit a glazed over look ;-0!

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  4. Excellent. I appreciate the knowledge you’ve shared. As a African American man having an Irish great-grandmother, and a biracial wife, I can relate to those types of choices still prevalent in the 21st century….. By the way check out former President Dwight Eisenhower’s ethinicity.

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