A Civil War cannonball that ripped through the cabin of Hannah Reynolds' master made her a footnote of misfortune, the lone civilian death at the Battle of Appomattox Court House. She died a slave at 60, hours before the war to end slavery unofficially came to a close. Or maybe not: A century and a half later, Reynolds' story is being rewritten. Newly discovered records show that she lingered for several days—long enough to have died a free woman. This new historical narrative has made Reynolds one of the central figures in commemorative activities marking Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, starting today. Friday night, a eulogy will be delivered over a plain wooden coffin representing Reynolds' remains, and 4,600 candles will be lit to represent the slaves in Appomattox County who were emancipated by Lee's surrender to Gen. Ulysses Grant.
Genealogist Alfred L. Jones III says the Reynolds story was "hidden in plain sight." Reynolds was left by her masters, Dr. Samuel Coleman and his wife, Amanda Abbitt Coleman, in their home as Union and Confederate armies headed to the fateful battle, the final one before Lee's Army of Northern Virginia surrendered on April 9, 1865. During the fighting, a Union cannonball blasted through the house, striking Reynolds and leaving a horrific wound in her arm. Jones worked for months seeking out the thin paper trail left by Reynolds. The breakthrough was finding Reynolds listed on a death registry in a public library in Lynchburg. "That was just like I struck gold," he says of the document that listed the date of her death as April 12, 1865—not three days earlier, as was long believed. (Read more Appomattox stories.)