The steamer Dove chugged slowly south from Cairo, Ill., on the night of June 9, 1863. On-board were five companies of the Seventh Rhode Island Volunteers, part of a large Union contingent bound for Vicksburg, Ms.. That night, in the Mississippi River, the soldiers of the Seventh heard a large thud on the placid waters. They shouted “Man Overboard!,” as a small boat was lowered to search the river for the missing soldier. He was never found. The man was Private Uz Cameron, a native of South Walden.
Uz Cameron was born in Ryegate in 1811, he was youngest son of Judge John G. and Elizabeth (Stark) Cameron. His grandfather was General John Stark, the hero of the Battle of Bennington. His father, John “started the first store in Ryegate,” A native of the Scottish Highlands, Cameron, like many Scots settled in what eventually became Caledonia County. He immigrated to the United States in 1780. An ardent admirer of Thomas Jefferson, he made thousands in land speculation, “but was met with reverses,” later in life. For many years, John Cameron was a state representative, and judge in Caledonia County. Married twice, he fathered sixteen children, and died in 1837.
Of Uz’s early life, not much is known. On November 16, 1832, listing his occupation as “merchant,” Uz married Susan Farrington in Walden. Five children were born of the union, two dying young, and three living to adulthood. For a number of years, Uz served as a justice of the peace in Walden, and was elected to the town council. It is also clear that he was actively involved in town affairs, as he also served as constable for a number of years. At the August 1859 term of the Vermont Supreme Court, Uz sued the Town of Walden for not paying him money owed for his services as constable and tax collector.
How Uz Cameron came to Rhode Island is a mystery. In the summer of 1862, he was living and working in South Kingstown, Rhode Island, a large farming and mill town in the southern part of the state. He listed his occupation as “peddler.” That summer, the state recruited the Seventh Rhode Island Volunteers under President Lincoln’s desperate call for 300,000 thousand volunteers to serve three years. Military service certainly ran in Uz’s blood. His grandfather was the legendary John Stark, and his father had served years as an officer in the Vermont State Militia. More than likely, what spurred Uz to enlist was the fact that South Kingstown was offering bounties as high as 500 dollars to enlist in the Seventh for three years. This is the equivalent of $13,000 dollars today, and would have been a large incentive to join the army.
On August 11, 1862, Uz Cameron enlisted as a private in Company G, Seventh Rhode Island Volunteers. Uz’s wife Susan, and two daughters Jennie and Olivia continued to live in Walden, and they were designated as the beneficiaries should anything happen to him. Uz’s oldest son Lewis was a farmer in Walden, and was twenty-one at the time. Despite his age, he did not serve in the Civil War. After a few weeks of training in Providence, the Seventh left for the front. Assigned to the Ninth Corps of the Army of the Potomac, the Seventh was baptized in blood at Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862. Because of his advanced age for a soldier, at fifty-one, Uz did not participate in the battle, but the Seventh did. Assigned to attack a fortified enemy entrenchment, the Rhode Islanders fought with determined gallantry, but could not take the objective. Of the 570 men that went into the battle, fifty were killed, 144 were wounded, and three were captured, a loss of forty percent.
Following the disaster at Fredericksburg, the Seventh spent a miserable winter at Falmouth, Va., losing even more men to disease. A respite came in the spring of 1863, when the Ninth Corps was sent to Kentucky. After several months chasing guerillas around central Kentucky, the Seventh received orders in early June to go to Cairo, Illinois, and board steamers to go to Vicksburg, Mississippi as reinforcements for Grant’s Army.
It was on the night of June 9, 1863 that Uz Cameron met his fate, so far from the green hills of the Northeast Kingdom. Like 750,000 other Union and Confederate soldiers, he died in the Civil War. Packed aboard the Dove like sardines, the men of the Seventh Rhode Island struggled to get some rest. Drummer William P. Hopkins who served in Company D of the Seventh and later wrote the regimental history wrote about the incident that took Uz’s life:
Suddenly there was a horrible alarm. “Man Overboard!” was shouted. Uz Cameron, cook of Company G walked or stumbled overboard just forward of the starboard paddle wheel. The boat was stopped and a search instituted, but he could not be found. It was believed the wheel struck him causing insensibility. There was little rest during the remainder of the night.
Uz Cameron was never seen again. The men of the Seventh had no time to mourn, as they continued down the Mississippi to Vicksburg. Here they would participate in the Siege of Vicksburg and the Battle of Jackson on July 13, 1863, before returning to Kentucky in August. Two months in Mississippi decimated the Seventh. Diseases such as yellow fever, typhoid, malaria, dysentery, and Yazoo Fever killed nearly fifty soldiers; only three men were lost in combat in Mississippi.
On July 26, 1863, the Narragansett Times in South Kingstown published a letter from Captain Edward T. Allen who had helped to recruit Company G. He knew that Cameron “was a resident of Vermont,” and asked for help to find his family. Eventually the sad news was received in the Walden hills that Susan Cameron was a widow, and her two daughters, Jennie age 16, and Olivia, age 14 were now orphans. There was no body to send home, and no personal effects either, they having been lost when the Seventh was campaigning in Mississippi. Without the support of her husband, Susan turned to the government for assistance and filed for a widow’s pension on January 13, 1864, appearing at the Caledonia County Courthouse in St. Johnsbury.
In an age before computers and readily available technology, filing for a pension during the Civil War was a complicated affair. Susan had to fill out several declarations about her marriage and Uz’s service. Based on information that she received from several letters sent home by the men of Company G, she wrote, “He was on duty and perfectly sober on June 9, 1863.” Susan also had to provide a certificate from the Walden clerk that Uz was her husband in addition to affidavits from neighbors who knew of her marriage and two children. Furthermore, she secured letters from Captain Allen, along with Captain Thomas Green, both of the Seventh Rhode Island who served with Uz. In his letter, Captain Green provided advice on how to obtain a pension, and wrote:
I sympathize with you in your bereavement, and will here state that you[r] Husband was kind and faithful to any and all duties that was allotted him. He was one of the Company Cooks for most of the time of his Enlistment up to the time of his Death, in that capacity he was one of the most faithful in the Red, and I felt his lost more than almost any other in the Co.
Captain Allen provided an affidavit in support of the pension and stated “The said Uz Cameron while in the service of the United States and in the line of his duty was drowned by falling overboard from U.S. Transport while en route from Cairo, Ill to Vicksburg, Miss.” Susan and her two daughters began receiving the pitiful amount of eight dollars per month on March 29, 1865.
Susan lived with her only son Lewis in Walden, and never remarried. In an 1888 directory, she was listed as “widow of Uz, owns farm.” Over the years, Susan’s pension was increased until it eventually paid thirty-two dollars per month. She was dropped from the pension rolls on November 2, 1892 due to death. Lewis eventually married and fathered a son named Uz, after his grandfather who perished in the Civil War. Although his father Lewis did not serve in the Civil War, the second Uz Cameron became a veteran himself, fighting in World War I.
Today, the Cameron family rests in the South Walden Cemetery, on the Bailey-Hazen Road, with breathtaking vistas. No doubt descendants of Uz Cameron continue to inhabit the area today. No monument serves as a cenotaph to Private Cameron, and indeed no mention is made of him on any monument in Vermont. Rather, he is listed on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Providence, Rhode Island, one of the 2,183 men from the smallest state to die in the Civil War. Although a native of the Northeast Kingdom, he will forever be linked to Rhode Island, the state under whose flag he died serving in the Civil War.
Robert Grandchamp is the award winning historian of 15 books. An analyst with the government, he resides in Jericho Center, with his wife and daughter. For this article, he used several sources including documents from the National Archives, books on local history, newspaper articles and visits to local cemeteries.