Peter Churchwell (23rd USCT)

Peter Churchwell (Churchill, Churchville) was born into slavery in March 1826 in Albemarle County, Virginia. Before the war, Churchwell moved to Orange County, Virginia, with his master Reuben Gordon. On Christmas Day 1857, he married his first wife Maria, with whom he had a daughter named Harriet. Maria died in childbirth in 1859. In August 1862, Churchwell ran away to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a coachman for a Mrs. Jonathan Barber. 

Churchwell enlisted in Washington on July 13, 1864, as a substitute for Jacob Leonhardt, and he mustered into Company H of the 23rd USCT Infantry Regiment the same day. A little over 2 weeks later, on July 30, 1864, Confederate troops captured Churchwell during his “charge of the rebel lines” in a combat engagement near Cemetery Hill, Petersburg, Virginia. He sustained a wound to his right foot and left side by a gunshot from a rebel soldier. Officially, the army thought he was dead, and his mother, Dicy Churchwell, even filed for and received a government pension on behalf of his 8-year-old daughter Harriet at $8 dollars a month beginning in 1868. She was dropped from the rolls in early 1874 after the government discovered that Churchwell was still alive.

According to Churchwell, after his capture, he and fellow prisoners buried the dead from the battlefield for four days before the Confederates took them to Danville prison on Roanoke Island. While imprisoned, Churchwell’s former master came and claimed him as his slave. Gordon then sold Churchwell “to a Mr. Shedrick Lee, a slave dealer at Richmond, Va., and he sold [Churchwell] to Luke Powell a slave dealer who took [him] to Wilmington N.C. [and he] was there 8 days working in a shoe shop of George French’s store.” French sold Churchwell to his final master, Patrick Murphy, “who took [Churchwell] on his farm near Raleigh N.C., and [Churchwell] worked at making boot and shoes,” which Murphy then sold. After six months of working, Churchwell once again escaped, this time traveling to Wilmington, which at this time was under Union occupation.

After his second escape from slavery, Churchwell created and maintained his own economic independence. Immediately after his escape, Churchwell opened his own shoe shop in Wilmington, where he “made boots and shoes there for [his] own profit.” He married his second wife, Susannah Dean, in 1865. They had two daughters, Nancy Ann and Hetty Ann. Around 1870, after living in Wilmington for about five years, a domestic dispute led Churchwell to leave his wife and children and move to Washington, D.C. He reunited with his daughter Harriet, which caused her to lose her pension. In Washington, he married his third wife, Julia Parker Weaver, with whom he had no children. After relocating to Georgetown, Churchwell again worked as a shoe maker, eking out a living from his trade and his Civil War pension. First applying in 1890, he was unsuccessful until the late 1890s, when he received a pension of $6 per month for “rheumatism, disease of heart and senile debility.” By 1898, his pension had increased to $12 per month. Churchwell died on January 14, 1902, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


Peter Churchwell Testimony

Testimony of Dicey Churchill and T. D. Yeager in the Pension of Peter Churchwell

Testimony of Julia Churchwell

Name:Churchwell, Peter
Alternative names:
  • Churchill, Peter (alternative name)
  • Churchwill, Peter (alternative name)
  • Chruchville, Peter (alternative name)
  • Soldier
  • Substitute
23rd Regiment Infantry U.S. Colored TroopsH
Branch of service:Army
Enlistment1864-07-13Washington, DCaccepted35Slave
Muster In1864-07-13Washington, DC
Muster Out1864-07-30Petersburg, VACaptured
Residence at enlistment:Washington, DC
Rank In:Private
Rank Out:Private
Highest rank achieved:Private
Person 1Person 2NumberRelation Type
Churchwell, PeterChurchwell, Peter971164application-invalid
Churchwell, PeterChurchwell, Harriet156430application-minor
Churchwell, PeterChurchwell, Peter957639certificate-invalid
Churchwell, PeterChurchwell, Harriet119367certificate-minor
Birth date:1826-03
Birth date certainty:About
Birth place:Albemarle County, VA
Death date:1902-01-14
Death place:Washington, DC
Causes of death:
Occupations:Laborer, Coachman, Cobbler
Person 1Relation TypePerson 2
Churchwell, Peterparent ofChurchwell, Harriet
Churchwell, Peterparent ofChurchwell, Nancy Ann
Churchwell, Peterparent ofChurchwell, Hetty Ann
Churchwell, Petersubstitute forLeonhardt, Jacob
Gordon, Ruebenowner ofChurchwell, Peter
Churchwell, Mariawife ofChurchwell, Peter
Churchwell, Diceyparent ofChurchwell, Peter
Churchwell, Williamparent ofChurchwell, Peter
Churchwell, Susannahwife ofChurchwell, Peter
Lee, Shedrickowner ofChurchwell, Peter
Powell, Lukeowner ofChurchwell, Peter
French, George (Reade) owner ofChurchwell, Peter
Murphy, Patrickowner ofChurchwell, Peter
Churchwell, Juliawife ofChurchwell, Peter

Compiled Service Records for Peter Churchwell, RG94, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Washington, D.C.; Pension Records for Peter Churchwell, RG15, NARA, Washington, D.C.; Death Certificate for Peter Churchwell, accessed through