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Forgotten Freedom Fighters: Indiana Blacks in Massachusetts Regiments

by Alan D. Gaff.

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Forgotten Freedom Fighters
Letters from William Edrington, Co. K, 54th Massachusetts
Isom Ampey
List of Black Soldiers from Indiana's Fifth Congressional District Who Served in Massachusetts Units

Forgotten Freedom Fighters: Indiana Blacks in Massachusetts Regiments

by Alan D. Gaff

The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was one of the first regiments of black troops raised in the Northern states. Even though the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had agreed to recruit, organize, and provide officers for this regiment, there were not enough black males of military age within the state's borders to fill its ranks. On February 23, 1863, two days after the first squad of soldiers reported at Camp Meigs in Readville, Governor John A. Andrews dispatched George L. Stearns to scour the loyal states for potential fighting men. His first recruit was Lewis H. Douglass, son of the former slave, writer, and prominent abolitionist lecturer, Frederick Douglass. Within a few weeks Stearns had established a series of recruiting stations that stretched from Boston to St. Louis.

George Stearns selected John M. Langston, a mulatto graduate of Oberlin College and successful Ohio lawyer, to be his chief agent in the Midwest. Langston would address public meetings in black communities throughout Ohio and Indiana, explaining the laws regarding enlistment of black soldiers and generally stimulating patriotic sentiment. John Langston immediately decided that Indiana's Fifth Congressional District (the counties of Delaware, Fayette, Henry, Randolph, Union, and Wayne) should be an important stop on his speaking tour.

Located in east central Indiana, the Fifth District, according to the 1860 Census, contained more black residents than any other Congressional district in the state. Four-fifths of those blacks lived in Randolph or Wayne County. Wayne County contained a large number of Quaker citizens, whose anti-slavery sentiments created a favorable atmosphere for the settlement of free blacks. Richmond, the county seat and Indiana's second largest city, had a structured minority society that included an African Methodist Episcopal Church, Sabbath school, temperance lodge, Masonic lodge, and Masonic auxiliary. The spiritual leader of the region's black community was the Reverend William P. Quinn, Bishop of the A. M. E. Church and a native of Hindustan who had migrated to America by way of Gibraltar and England. Appointed a missionary to the flock in Ohio and Indiana in 1835, Quinn organized his Richmond church the following year. He established a second house of worship in Dublin, Indiana, in 1848 and during the Civil War founded two more churches in Cambridge City and Newport.

Although the black population of Wayne County in 1860 totaled but 870 persons, Richmond was part of a much larger cultural community that embraced the surrounding counties, both in Indiana and Ohio. Attendance was so high at regional gatherings that railroad companies often ran special half-fare trains to accommodate the crowds. There was also another railroad that carried thousands of blacks through Wayne County — the Underground Railroad. Until they moved to Ohio in 1847, the Quaker couple Levi and Catherine Coffin opened their Newport home to escaped slaves en route to freedom in Canada. Levi Coffin's network of agents became so successful that not a single escapee entrusted to his care was ever retaken, leading some to call him the "President of the Underground Railroad." Coffin's Quaker neighbors, ably assisted by Newport's black residents, continued the work after his removal to Cincinnati.

The second largest settlement in the Fifth District was located in Randolph County, where the black population was concentrated in three distinct areas: Greenville, Cabin Creek, and Snow Hill. The Cabin Creek and Snow Hill settlements were small farming communities in Nettle Creek and Washington townships. Greenville, largest of the three, straddled the Ohio state line northeast of Spartanburg and contained an A. M. E. Church and the Union Literary Institute, a manual labor boarding school. Samuel H. Smothers, formerly a Wayne County schoolteacher, served as principal of the Institute, whose endowment paid for the educations of both male and female students. Despite only nine months' attendance at a common district school, Smothers acted as editor for a student publication titled The Students' Repository. Smothers had already started to assemble articles for the first issue when Langston began his recruiting drive, but, due to lack of manpower to run the press of the Winchester Journal, the Repository did not appear until September. The North American Review praised Smothers' publication, while its subscribers included the Boston Athenaeum, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and James Russell Lowell, editor of Atlantic Monthly.

Acceptance of blacks in the Fifth District was highlighted by the political victories of Congressman George W. Julian, an outspoken abolitionist and fervent campaigner for black suffrage and civil rights. A founder of the Republican Party, Julian's views had been circulated through the columns of the Indiana True Republican, a weekly newspaper published in Centerville by his brother Isaac. During the war's first months, Julian had advocated use of blacks in non-combat roles, such as cooks, teamsters, and laborers. Following Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Congressman Julian spoke out strongly in favor of employing black soldiers to suppress the rebellion:

What we need is action, instant, decisive, defiant action, scourging faithless men from power, sweeping away obstacles, and kindling in the popular heart the fires of a new courage and hope. The government should arm the colored men of the free States as well as the slaves of the South, and thereby give effect to the proclamation of freedom.

Statements like this convinced John Langston that Indiana's Fifth District would prove to be fertile ground for his recruiting effort.

Despite his optimism, Langston's initial efforts in the Newport and Cabin Creek settlements were disappointing, the local press noting that the blacks "don't rally very extensively." Undaunted, he moved on to Richmond where he addressed a huge public gathering in Starr Hall on May 7. The topic of his speech, "The Duty of the Colored Man in This Crisis," was aimed directly at the black residents, but Langston's appeal was widely praised by their white neighbors. After collecting money to purchase a flag for the 54th Massachusetts, a white businessman offered some resolutions that were loudly and unanimously approved by the crowd:

Resolved, That we tender him our sincere thanks for the pleasure he has afforded us, and extend to him the right hand of sympathy and friendship in his honorable efforts in enlisting his fellow citizens in that army of the Union.
Resolved, That the present perilous state of the country demands the united effort of all her citizens, white and black, to aid in its salvation, and that, therefore, we owe the same obligation to the families and dependents of the black men who offer their lives a sacrifice for our defence and safety that are due to the families of the soldiers of our own blood.

After listening to Langston's impassioned oratory, a squad of young black men stepped forward and signed the roll of the Massachusetts regiment.

Following his brief campaign in Randolph and Wayne counties, John Langston moved on to other Midwest cities and towns. He delegated future recruiting efforts to W. G. Robinson, a black Richmond barber described by the Richmond Palladium as "a man of intelligence and respectability and worthy of the confidence of all." Robinson enthusiastically canvassed the district and neighboring Ohio counties, forwarding about sixty more volunteers to Massachusetts. Principal Samuel Smothers described the wave of patriotism that swept the Greenville community, as well as communities across the nation:

There is considerable excitement in our neighborhood at present. Several of our young men have enlisted, and gone to Mass. to join the Colored Brigade, and a number of others talk of going. We now have a glorious opportunity of striking the fetters off of our enslaved brethren, and I rejoice, that our people are eagerly embracing it, by nobly responding to the call of Massachusetts, and enlisting by thousands.

Incomplete records show that at least 150 Indiana black men enlisted for service in the 54th Massachusetts. Thirty-nine of these resided in the Fifth District.

As squads of black Hoosiers departed for the Bay State, Editor Isaac Julian questioned whether Indiana would receive credit for recruits mustered into the service by another state. His suspicions were well founded — all Midwestern blacks sent east were credited to Massachusetts by the War Department. Governor Oliver P. Morton, worried over the potential loss of more Indiana manpower, queried Governor Andrew about rumors that additional black regiments were to be raised in Massachusetts. Although Andrew replied that no such plans existed, recruiters from other agencies swooped into Indiana in search of black recruits.

First to appear was John Langston, who now sought volunteers for the 5th Regiment, United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.), raised under the authority of the Bureau for Colored Troops which the War Department had established to coordinate the organization of black soldiers. Although Langston restricted his activities to Ohio, some Hoosier men crossed over the state line to join that regiment in the summer of 1863. Agents for the 1st Michigan Colored Regiment appeared soon after, followed shortly by recruiters from a Rhode Island heavy artillery regiment. In order to receive credit for future enlistments, Governor Morton requested permission to raise a battalion of black men that could be applied to Indiana's quota. To keep men available for this new unit, Morton issued a regulation that "recruitment of colored troops in this State for companies or regiments organizing in other States, is henceforth positively prohibited and must cease." Indiana's new organization, the 28th U.S.C.T., came up short of Morton's goal. Due to the number of blacks who had enlisted elsewhere, only six companies could be filled in Indiana, the remaining four companies being raised in Maryland.

The press always bemoaned that Indiana had been late in recognizing the worth of black troops. The Winchester Journal expressed its indignation against the Morton administration and its political cowardice:

Now that it is too late to do much good our State authorities have gone into the work of enlisting colored soldiers. . . . If this had been done long ago, as it should and might have been, instead of deferring to the fear of unfavorable influence on the prospects of our political organization, we would now have credit for all the colored soldiers who were enlisted in Indiana by agents from other States. This County would have her quota under the last call nearly or quite made up if we had credit for our colored men who are in Massachusetts regiments.

The editor of the New Castle Courier agreed with those feelings and castigated Morton's short-sightedness, complaining, "If it had not been for the existence of an insane prejudice on the subject, we might have had credit for large numbers who now swell the ranks of regiments formed in some of our more wide-awake sister States."

Oliver P. Morton, a native and life-long resident of Wayne County, was a politician and a very practical man. He realized that, despite the favorable opinion held by some of his neighbors, a majority of Hoosiers had no use for black families. Pandering to this anti-black sentiment, Morton used simple logic to sell the employment of black soldiers to white voters at a Fourth of July celebration:

Even if the negroes will not make as good soldiers let us make what use of them we can. If they are only a quarter as good let us have the quarter. If they can be made to save the blood of our fathers, brothers and sons, shall they not be employed? . . . We shall garrison the South with negroes, and every one we enlist enables one of us to stay at home.

Most in the crowd would have subscribed to the crude concept that "a rebel had as well be shot to death by a negro, as kicked to death by a mule."

Horace Greeley explained the unique situation that faced Indiana's first black recruits, stating, "To this Massachusetts Fifty-fourth was set the stupendous task to convince the white race that colored troops would fight — and not only that they would fight, but that they could be made, in every sense of the word, soldiers." Speaking of his first recruits, John Langston said, "Its personnel was of the highest character. Many of the first colored families had representatives in it, and many of the very best young colored men were numbered among its troops." Captain Luis F. Emilio described the volunteers that assembled at Camp Meigs in the spring of 1863, "Only a small proportion had been slaves. There were a large number of comparatively light-complexioned men. In stature they reached the average of white volunteers. Compared with the material of contraband regiments, they were lighter, taller, or more regular features." Except for the chaplain, all commissioned officers were white until Stephen A. Swails mustered as second lieutenant of Company F on May 14, 1864.

By May 11, 1863, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw's 54th Massachusetts had been completed, so surplus arrivals were assigned to the 55th Massachusetts, commanded by Colonel Norwood P. Hallowell. Some non-commissioned officers and clerks were transferred to the 55th to aid in its organization. Seventeen of the Fifth District's black men arrived in time to be assigned to the 54th, all but one serving in either Companies H or K. Later arrivals went into the 55th, most serving in Company G, with others scattered among companies A, C, D, and H. Records for the latter regiment give some interesting insights into its composition. Of the original 980 enlisted men, 247 had once been slaves, 550 were classified as "pure blacks," 430 were of "mixed blood," and 219 were married. The average age was just over 23 years and two months, while the average height was 5' 7." Although 319 could read and write, only 52 claimed to be church members (if their parents had only known!). Farming was the occupation of 596 men, the remainder claiming employment in forty-six other professions. These statistics mirror those of the 54th Massachusetts.

Colonel Hallowell remembered those early days at Camp Meigs in the following description:

The squads of recruits which arrived at Readville for the 55th could hardly at first have been called picked men. They were poor and ragged. Upon arrival they were marched to the neighboring pond, disrobed, washed, and uniformed. Their old clothes were burnt. The transformation was quite wonderful. The recruit was very much pleased with the uniform. He straightened up, grew inches taller, lifted, not shuffled his feet, began at once to try, and to try hard, to take the position of the soldier, the facings and other preliminary drill, so that his ambition to carry "one of those muskets" might be gratified.

Hallowell, noting that cleanliness was paramount in camp, said "not a scrap of loose floating paper or stuff of any kind was permitted." There were, of course, some hard cases. These were dealt with strictly, Colonel Shaw, seconded by Colonel Hallowell, using the stick rather than the carrot, so that "unruly members of the 54th and 55th were stood on barrels, bucked, gagged, and, if need be, shot, — in fact, treated as white soldiers were in all well-disciplined regiments."

The 54th Massachusetts left that state on May 23, 1863, for duty in the Department of the South. Assigned to the forces operating against Charleston, South Carolina, this regiment fought its first engagement July 16, 1863, on James Island. Two days later, Colonel Shaw led the 54th Massachusetts in the assault on Fort Wagner, an attack memorialized by the 1989 film Glory. The regiment participated in the siege of Fort Wagner, the battles of Olustee, Florida (February 20, 1864) and Honey Hill, South Carolina (November 30, 1864), and then spent the rest of the war performing various duties in the latter state. The 54th Massachusetts was disbanded on Boston Common September 2, 1865. Of its 1,364 enlisted men, 271 had been killed, died of wounds or disease, died as prisoners of war, or remained missing in action.

The 55th Massachusetts left Camp Meigs July 21, 1863, for service on the South Atlantic coast, suffering its first casualties in an engagement on James Island, July 2, 1864. The regimental record included expeditions in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, with heavy losses at Honey Hill on November 30, 1864. The regiment had 1,129 enlisted men in its ranks during the war, of whom 178 died in battle, succumbed to wounds, or died of disease or in prison. Colonel Hallowell correctly pointed out that his men had also engaged in "many minor affairs, not large enough to be dignified by the name of battles," explaining, "There were reconnoissances and raids, rifle-pits were charged and captured, prisoners were taken, and the resources of the enemy removed or destroyed."

Indiana's black soldiers suffered along with their comrades in the disease-ridden Southern camps, as well as in the skirmishes and battles of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments. Of the seventeen Fifth District residents in the 54th, four were killed in action, two sustained wounds (one being shot in two different battles), and two died of disease. The twenty-two men in the 55th Massachusetts were luckier, only three receiving wounds while three others died from disease.

Officers were proud of those who performed well under fire, and sought to reward those who had proven themselves worthy, including several Fifth District soldiers. Captain George Woodward recommended that his first sergeant, William H. Evans, be given a furlough to Indiana, having "always been a faithful and efficient soldier — he was severely wounded in the recent advance on James Island S.C. (July 2nd 1864) and is still suffering from the effects of the wound there received — and he will not, in my opinion, be able for duty with his Co for a long time." A canister shot had penetrated Evans' upper thigh just two inches below his groin. Lieutenant William Roberts sought a month-long furlough for Sergeant Charles Oglesby, writing, "he having been in the service over two years wishes to visit his wife and family & as he has been faithful in performing his duties as a soldier I would recommend that a furlough be granted." Captain J. C. Hall, commanding Company D of the 55th Massachusetts, gave two reasons for allowing Stephen Pediford to return home. First, he had been "a true and faithful soldier performing all his duties with cheerfulness and alacrity." On a more compassionate note, Hall explained, "His reason for going is to provide a home for his mother, who has been made homeless by a cruel and drunken stepfather." On the other hand, officers had no use for bad soldiers, such as Wayne County resident John Steth, who had managed to enlist although suffering from a long-standing case of rheumatism. His regimental surgeon said of Steth, "An improper enlistment. Good for nothing. Has never earned his salt since joining the regiment." A note on Steth's discharge certificate noted, "No claim for pension."

Men of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts had an additional battle to fight that had nothing to do with firing their muskets. This contest pitted them against the War Department, as explained by the state adjutant general:

The colored men whom we enlisted were entitled to be paid and treated as white soldiers, but difficulties arose. The colored soldiers were not paid the same compensation as white troops. The government allowed them but ten dollars a month, inclusive of clothing, while white troops were paid thirteen dollars a month, exclusive of clothing, making a monthly difference of seven dollars, and no distinction was made in regard to non-commissioned officers, sergeants and corporals. They had been enlisted in the same way as white troops, had been mustered in, and were under the same laws and orders, and were subject to the same casualties. This distinction caused dissatisfaction, and the heroes of Fort Wagner refused to accept the government pay of ten dollars a month. They demanded, and justly so, the same pay as white troops doing the same duties.

Colonel Hallowell explained, "Seven times were our regiments mustered for pay. Seven times they refused, and pointed to their honorable scars to plead their manhood and their rights." Promises by the state to make up the difference were rebuffed — they served in the United States army and would accept only the payment due them from the Federal government!

Many were "sadly in need of money" for impoverished families, but they adamantly refused to take less than what was due them. Mutiny became a distinct possibility and, according to one officer, "a part of the 55th did one morning stack arms, not in an angry, tumultuous way, but in a sullen, desperate mood that expressed a wish to be marched out to be shot rather than longer bear the cries from home and longer endure the galling sense of humiliation and wrong." A few men broke from the majority and accepted payment, including Dublin's Thomas Cannon of the 55th, all of whom came "highly recommended by their commanders as brave and good men, and had been fifteen months in service without pay." One Bay State paymaster said simply, "They were totally destitute, and part had families." Again it was Colonel Hallowell who asked rhetorically, "It is all very well and good, of course, to praise the bravery of these men as soldiers, but with what words may we express our admiration of the dignity, self-respect, self-control, they showed in their conduct as men as well as soldiers in the matter of pay?" The War Department finally acknowledged that black and white soldiers deserved the same wages and the two Massachusetts regiments received their long-awaited back pay in September of 1864.

Men of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments, including those long-forgotten Hoosier volunteers from east central Indiana, had proven themselves to be warriors both on the battlefield and in the fight for equal pay. Their efforts had been a giant step forward towards racial equality, although obviously much remained to be done. When John Langston addressed a Memorial Day ceremony in 1873, he spoke to those black Indiana volunteers, and thousands more just like them, who had left their homes and families, bound for Massachusetts and determined to change the world:

Our freedom does not mean simple emancipation, mere release of body, self-ownership or freedom of locomotion. It is all of those, but far more beside. It is the enjoyment of free thought, free speech, citizenship, the ballot; but above all the opportunity to rise and achieve, thereby becoming great and influential among our countrymen, to cultivate all those things which pertain to dignified life, and the highest interest of our country.