'Old Shady': Civil War vet who died in GF was cook for Gen. Sherman

This year is the 150th anniversary of the start of America's Civil War, and perhaps a good time to remember the veterans of that war who played important roles in the early history of Grand Forks.

Blakely Durant
This image of D. Blakely Durant, "Old Shady," is from The Midland monthly magazine, Volumes 1-2, published in 1894 by J. Birgham.

This year is the 150th anniversary of the start of America's Civil War, and perhaps a good time to remember the veterans of that war who played important roles in the early history of Grand Forks.

For instance: William H. Brown, the first mayor of Grand Forks, was a Civil War veteran. So were George Walsh, whose efforts were critical to establishing UND, and George Winship, the founder of the Grand Forks Herald.

But perhaps one of the area's most interesting Civil War veterans was a black man named D. Blakely Durant, who never was a slave, but whose nickname, "Old Shady," was from a Civil War song he often sang about the joy of slaves who had been freed.


"Old Shady" campaigned with and was the cook for Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman, one of the Union army's greatest military strategists, was the general whose scorched earth march through Georgia devastated the South.


Durant joined the 71st Ohio Volunteer Infantry, a regiment in Sherman's division, as a private soldier in 1862 and was first detailed as a cook for the officer's mess. During his service with Sherman, he became known as the general's "singing cook" for his fine voice and his performances for the officers and others.

Durant moved to Grand Forks in about 1875 to live with two of his sons. When he died Sept. 20, 1894, his passing was marked by an impressive funeral in the Baptist Church, according to a story in an 1894 edition of the Grand Forks Herald.

After the funeral, his body was escorted to the train station for burial in St. Paul by members of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veterans group for Union soldiers; Company F, North Dakota National Guard; and the Grand Forks City Band.

"He wasn't a wealthy man and he was an African American man," said Leah Byzewski, director of the Grand Forks County Historical Society. "But at a time when people had very strong race prejudices, he was very well thought of in Grand Forks."

Byzewski came upon "Old Shady's" story by accident while she was looking for information about another early settler.

Durant was born in 1826 at Fort Madison, Miss. His family moved to Texas and after his father died (when Durant was seven) his mother moved the family to Cincinnati, Ohio. Durant received no formal education (apparently there weren't any public schools in Cincinnati for black children) but acquired a "foundation of a wide range of information." He was married in Mercer County, Ohio, and lived on a farm until the start of the Civil War.

In addition to Sherman, he also cooked at times for Gen. James McPherson. "Old Shady" was a well-known and popular caterer for various groups of Union officers, and was a great favorite. During the three months he cooked for Gen. Ulysses Grant's mess, he was nightly called to the ladies' cabin to sing "Old Shady" and other songs for the general and his guests.

The North American Review recorded Gen. Sherman's favorable impressions of Durant, including this reference to his singing voice and the song "Old Shady."


"I do believe that since the prophet Jeremiah bade the Jews to sing for joy among the chiefs of the nations, because of their deliverance from the house of bondage," Sherman wrote, "no truer song of gladness ever ascended from the lips of man than at Vicksburg, when 'Old Shady' (Durant) sang for us in a voice of pure melody this song of deliverance from the bonds of slavery."

Durant may have been a cook, but he was brave, too. The Midland monthly magazine, Volumes 1-2, published in 1894 by J. Birgham, records that during one battle "Old Shady" retrieved the regimental colors of the 71st Ohio, which had been left behind during a hasty retreat. In doing so, he lost his prized guitar, but some officers soon gave him a beautiful new guitar which he still had when he died.

Durant told interviewers that he last spoke with Sherman in 1884 when the old general was passing through Grand Forks by train.

"I met him at the depot and had some 15 minutes or more of conversation with him," Durant is quoted in the 1919 book, "Early history of North Dakota: essential outlines of American history," by Clement Augustus Lounsberry. "At first the old general did not seem to know me, but when I told him that I was really 'Old Shady,' the very same 'Old Shady' who had so long followed his fortunes in the war, I thought he would shake me to pieces."

After that they corresponded, and Sherman sent Durant a photo of himself and his wife.

"I always thought a great deal of the old general, and in return he seemed to think a great deal of me," Durant said. "General Sherman was a man who never made any pretensions, but he was always very plain, strict and straight-forward in his dealings with me and his soldiers."

The Midland magazine called Durant "a fine specimen of manhood," then went on to say: "He was a very light mulatto -- indeed, he was almost white. He was 5-feet 7-inches high, and weighed over 300 pounds. He was an exceptionally intelligent man, and a most agreeable conversationalist. For the last few years he did not do any active work, but made his home in the family of a son, a graduate of the State University of North Dakota (sic). Almost up to the time of his death he continued to sing his old camp songs with all his old-time enthusiasm. His wonderfully rich, resonant voice never lost any of its power and sweetness."

The Midland monthly magazine article, titled: "Old Shady, The composer and original singer of one of our most stirring and popular war songs," by C.M. Hartwick, had at least one thing wrong. Durant was not the composer of "Old Shady." It was written by another son of Ohio, Benjamin Hanby, according to "Ohio history, Volume 14," published by the Ohio Historical Society.


"Old Shady" had nine children, four of whom survived him, including Walter, a farmer, and Blakely R., who worked on a railroad buffet car, both of Grand Forks.

Byszewski said one of the Grand Forks County Historical Society's new projects is to locate and identify the graves of Civil War veterans in Grand Forks Memorial Park Cemetery. The Civil War veterans group, the Grand Army of the Republic, was active in its day. It was responsible in 1913 for erecting the Civil War soldier statue on Belmont Avenue near St. Mary's Catholic Church. But today most people no longer recognize the graves of its old soldiers.

The GFCHS has recorded all the GAR members whose names are engraved on the base of the Civil War soldier statue and is working with Robin Purcell at the cemetery to locate and mark the graves so they can be flagged on Memorial Day -- a national holiday that was enacted to honor Union and Confederate soldiers following the Civil War. William H. Brown and George Walsh are among the Civil War veterans buried in Grand Forks.

"It's not that anybody has intentionally ignored them as far as putting out flags," Byszewski said. "It's just that people don't know, especially if it's just a plain stone with a name on it. How would you know this person was a veteran anyway?"

Reach Tobin at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 134; or send e-mail to .

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