A Family’s Journey From Slavery to Soldier

Fred Atwater, abt. 1910. From the Durham County Library (https://bit.ly/3yckt97)

The photo above, taken around 1910, shows a young Fred Atwater.  The 18-year-old was about to take a journey few African-Americans would experience: serving in World War 1.  He would later meet his future wife in Reading, Pennsylvania and move to her hometown of Mansfield, Ohio to raise a family.  Many African-Americans who served hoped to prove their loyalty to a segregated America, but returned to the same racism they left behind.  This helped to “create the “New Negro Movement” of the 1920s, which promoted a renewed sense of racial pride, cultural self-expression, economic independence, and progressive politics.”[1]

Fred Atwater’s grandfather, Stephen, was a former slave in North Carolina.  A list of African-American cohabitation certificates from Orange County, North Carolina in 1866 state that, “the following freedmen together with their wives lately slaves but now emancipated appeared before (___) Atwater an acting justice of the peace and declared that they now live and cohabitate together as husband and wife.”  The certificate goes on to list a number of couples, including “Stephen Atwater and his wife Penting (Pentina/Peutina), 1861.”[2]  1870 and 1880 census records show the couple living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and having a number of children, including Fred Atwater’s father, Felix, born about 1861.

Freedman Marriage Record for Stephen Atwater [2] 

Felix Atwater would marry Jennie Moore on December 8, 1881.  Felix, like his father, was listed as a farmer throughout census records and also, like his father, had a number of children, eight being listed on the 1900 U.S. Census.  One of these eight children was eight-year-old Freddie Atwater. His Veterans Compensation Application from 1934 list Durham, North Carolina, March 15, 1892 as his place and date of birth.  Fred Atwater grew up during the Jim Crow Era, where laws were created to keep races separated and would have been six-years-old when the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 happened.  On November 10, 1898, 2,000 white men overthrew the biracial government of Wilmington, destroying property and businesses of African-American citizens and killing anywhere from 60-300 people.  This was the most successful coup in American history resulting in no African-American citizen of Wilmington serving in public office again until 1972.[3]

Fred Atwater would soon make his way to Reading, Pennsylvania where he was inducted into the Army and served in the 803rd Pioneer Infantry.  “More than 350,000 African Americans served in segregated units during World War I, mostly as support troops. Several units saw action alongside French soldiers fighting against the Germans, and 171 African Americans were awarded the French Legion of Honor.”[4]  Atwater participated in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, one of the attacks which brought and end to the war.  Atwater served overseas from September 10, 1918, to July 18, 1919, and was honorably discharged at Camp Dix, New Jersey on July 20, 1919.[5]

The U.S.S. Philippines returning from France. Fred Atwater was on this ship returning home. Courtesy of Library of Congress, “803rd Pioneer Infantry Band, No. 16,” 1919

After the war, Atwater returned to Reading, Pennsylvania. In the 1920 census, he is shown as lodging with the family of Andrew Rudolph, including his wife Catherine and daughter Julia.  Catherine Cline had married the Jamaican immigrant in Manhattan, New York on July 28, 1917.  In a 1990 interview in the Mansfield New-Journal, Catherine says Andrew deserted the family[6] and she moved back to Mansfield.  The 1922 Mansfield city directory lists her as living at 193 North Franklin with Fred Atwater.  In December 1922, Catherine officially filed for divorce from Andrew Rudolph and, on February 3, 1923, Catherine marries Fred Atwater in Cleveland, Ohio.  The couple had three children: Frederick Jr., James, and Mildred.  Fred Atwater died on February 12, 1943, in the Veterans Hospital in Brecksville, Ohio.[7]

Mansfield News Journal, 12 December 1922

Fred Atwater and Catherine Rudolf Marriage, 03 February 1923.

Shortly after Atwater’s death, his son, Fred Jr., enlisted in the service and served in World War II.[8]  His grandson, Fred Atwater III, worked for the Mansfield City Schools for 32 years, retiring on July 31, 2000[9] and helped to revitalize John’s Park.[10]


  1. https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/naacp/the-new-negro-movement.html
  2. Ancestry.com. North Carolina, U.S., Marriage Records, 1741-2011 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.
  3. https://time.com/5861644/1898-wilmington-massacre-essential-lesson-state-violence/
  4. https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/african-american-odyssey/world-war-i-and-postwar-society.html
  5. Ancestry.com. Pennsylvania, U.S., World War I Veterans Service and Compensation Files, 1917-1919, 1934-1948 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.
  6. Mansfield News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio). 12 March 1990, p 9.
  7. Mansfield News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio). 15 February 1943, p 2.
  8. Ancestry.com. U.S., World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2005.
  9. Mansfield News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio). 11 June 2000, p 11.
  10. Mansfield News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio). 05 October 1999, p 1.

Richland County’s First Veterans: William Bodley

Revolutionary War pension files can be a wealth of information for genealogists.  They can contain information on an ancestor’s service, their family, place of residence, and letters from others who knew the soldiers personally.  A fire at the War Department on November 8, 1800, destroyed all pension and bounty land warrant applications filed before that date, but those filed later are available through the National Archives and on sites like Ancestry.com.  Most files average around 30 pages, but some can contain as many as 200.  These records can often clear up misinformation about an ancestor, like in the case of William Bodley.  Many sources, like The Official Roster of the Soldiers of the American Revolution Buried in the State of Ohio, state Bodley served in the Virginia State Troops, but his pension file tells a much different story.

William Bodley was a young man when he decided to join his uncle in the war for independence in 1779.  Two months shy of his 15th birthday, William enlisted in Colonel Albert Pawling’s regiment with his uncle, Levi Dewitt.  After the war, William would stay in Ulster County, New York, get married, and raise a family before making his way to Ohio.  William’s war pension application details the service of the young patriot.

William’s Baptism Record (Holland Society of New York; New York, New York; Shawangunk, Wawarsing and New Hurley, Book 29)

William Bodley was born on July 9, 1764 in Wawarsing, Ulster County, New York[1] to John Bodley and Jenneke DeWitt and baptized at the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church in Wawarsing on September 15, 1764.[2]  The Dutch settlers of Wawarsing were primarily farmers, a strong religious group, and almost unanimously supported war.  William’s grandfather, Andres DeWitt, was among a group of men representing Rochester, New York at the Revolution Convention in May of 1775.[3]  These influences most likely had a strong impact on young William and his decision to enter the service.

In the pension application, Bodley writes that he marched under the command of Lieut. DeWitt to Shandaken, New York. Once there, the company fell under the command of Captain Hunter and they were attached to a regiment commanded by Col. Pawling.  Bodley recounts one interaction with Col. Pawling: after building a fort in Shandaken in August of 1779, the company began to march west in order to join Gen. George Clilnton’s brigade along the Susquehanna River.  Col. Pawling looked at Bodley and told him to head back to the fort saying he was too young and would not be able to handle the march.  Bodley returned and was discharged in January of 1780.

William Bodley listed sixth from the bottom(Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783; National Archives Microfilm Publication M246, 138 rolls)

Bodley lived in Marbletown, Ulster County, New York when he reenlisted in 1781.  During this eight month enlistment, his company was again under the command of Col. Pawling and, in August of 1781, Bodley saw action when a group of British loyalists and Native-Americans under the command of William Caldwell raided the area around Wawarsing, New York.  The attack resulted in a number of buildings being burned and the death of at least one Bodley’s compatriots. Bodley wrote, “I seen one fellow fall I believe he was shot.”  Bodley was discharged again and, again, reenlisted in 1782, this time in Captain Andew Whites Company.  His third campaign was relatively uneventful, guarding the frontier in Ulster County, New York.[4]

William Bodley’s War Pension Application (S.2093) [5]

After the war, Bodley married Belinda Bevier in 1786 in Wawarsing, New York[6] and raised a family.  In the 1820s, William Bodley and many of his children came to Richland County, Ohio settling primarily in Plymouth Township.[7]  William Bodley lived out the rest of his days in Richland County, dying on November 2, 1843.  He is buried in Hazel Brush Cemetery in Shelby, Ohio.[8]


  1. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/67914188/william-bodley
  2. Holland Society of New York; New York, New York; Shawangunk, Wawarsing and New Hurley, Book 29
  3. Clearwater, Alphonso. The History of Ulster County, New York. p. 394-396.
  4. Ancestry.com. U.S., Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, 1800-1900 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.
  5. Ancestry.com. U.S., Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, 1800-1900 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.
  6. Ancestry.com. New York City, Compiled Marriage Index, 1600s-1800s [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2005.
  7. Richland County, Ohio Original Land Purchasers Including School Lands (1999). P. 193-198.
  8. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/67914188/william-bodley