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  • Researching African American Participation in the Civil War Part One: New England Regiments

    Beth Anne Bower

    Published Date : March 28, 2003

    The start of the Civil War in 1861 and Abraham Lincoln’s decision to release the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 dramatically changed the lives and family histories of African Americans. By its language the proclamation removed any obstacles to the recruitment of African Americans into the armed forces.[1] Over 200,000 African Americans, both men and women, served in the Union Army and Navy during the Civil War. Approximately 7,850 were residents of New England when they joined the Union cause.[2] In addition, many African Americans from regions other than New England chose to join black regiments in New England that were formed in the early days of recruitment.

    There were many triumphs and adversities for these troops. The Massachusetts 5th Calvary and the 25th Army Corps (the latter consisting entirely of African Americans) were among the first troops to enter Richmond, Virginia, after its surrender.[3] However, black soldiers were paid less than their white counterparts for much of the war and, in most cases, were denied the opportunity to serve as officers. And Confederate troops, enraged to be fighting against former slaves and freedmen, killed black soldiers rather than take them as prisoners. Black troops lost 2,894 killed in battle, but only 98 died as prisoners.

    This column is the first of a two-part series on researching African American Civil War soldiers, sailors, and workers with New England roots. African Americans who served in the Civil War may have New England connections through three paths:

    (1) They were resident in New England and enlisted in a New England regiment (Army)
    (2) They were resident in New England and enlisted in the United States Colored Troops (Army)
    (3) They were resident in New England and enlisted in the Navy either in New England or other Northern ports, or worked as non-combat personnel such as cooks, nurses, drivers, or laborers.

    For general information on the formation of regiments and the history of African Americans in the Civil War, consult the following books:
    • Noah Andre Trudeau, Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War: 1862-1865 (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1998)
    • Hondon B. Hargrove, Black Union Soldiers in the Civil War (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1988)
    • Steven J. Ramold, Slaves, Sailors, Citizens: African American in the Union Navy (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002)
    • Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the Civil War (Cambridge, MA: De Capo Press, 1989)
    This article will discuss general tips and resources for your research on the six African American regiments formed by New England states.

    First Steps for Civil War Research

    Approximately 6,956 African Americans volunteered from New England states as follows:

    • Connecticut – 1,789
    • Maine – 104
    • Massachusetts – 2,986
    • New Hampshire – 125
    • Rhode Island – 1,837
    • Vermont – 120[4]

    Before starting to research your ancestor in Civil War resources, it is important to gather some specific information about him or her. The more information you have the easier it will be to trace the right person through the records.

    Names with alternative spellings
    Consider the different spellings that may have been used for a name (for instance, Hasbrook can also be spelled Hasbrouck). The index for the New England Historical and Genealogical Register lists many alternate spellings of surnames.

    Date of birth
    Calculate the person’s age between the dates 1861 and 1865. If they are under 13 or over 70 it is unlikely they served in the war.

    Names of spouses and children
    This information is important for tracking down pension records.

    Place of residence both before and after the war
    If you think you know this information, consult the census records for 1860 and 1870 to confirm. Check town histories of these places for information.

    Burial information
    Where is the individual buried? What does the tombstone say? Internet sites are rapidly adding information on Civil War burial locations. CyndisList.com is a great place to find such sites. Look under their Military category, and then the U.S. Civil War subcategory. Also check the website Resting Places of U.S. Colored Troops. There are a number of broken links on this site, but you can re-enter the cemetery name in the search engine and reach the information.

    Personal papers, memories, affiliations
    Did your ancestor leave any personal papers about his Civil War service? Do any living relatives recall stories or details? Did the ancestor belong to a veterans’ association? The tombstone may reveal the answer to the last question.

    Secondary sources such as town histories or books on local African American history
    Many town histories were written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so the Civil War involvement of the town and its residents is recorded. James Avery Smith’s The History of the Black Population of Amherst, Massachusetts 1728-1870 (Boston:  New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1999) and James Fuller’s Men of Color, To Arms! Vermont African Americans in the Civil War (iUniverse.com, 2001) are two sources to examine.

    If you have some information about a family member’s regiment or military career be prepared to keep an open mind! There were 182 African American regiments during the Civil War, some of which were merged or renamed. The majority of these troops were called the United States Colored Troops or USCT. Keep in mind that the veteran may not have resided in New England before volunteering. Conversely, many black New Englanders joined USCT regiments.

    To find listings of African American Civil War soldiers or sailors first consult the National Park Service’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors website. This contains regimental descriptions, pedigrees, battle lists, troop lists, and a searchable database, from which you can search for names of soldiers and sailors, state (or origin), unit number (or ordinal), function (infantry, cavalry, etc), and Union or Confederate.[5] This database is drawn from the general index cards in the Compiled Military Service Records at the National Archives. Under each soldier’s name it gives name, rank, regiment, company and the microfilm roll associated with that soldier. The names of 235,000 African American Union soldiers have been entered. Be cautious when searching this site. You must enter the exact spelling of the name as it was listed on the muster roll. If you cannot find your ancestor you should try different spellings. You may find multiple listings for the same name as some soldiers either moved or re-enlisted into other regiments. If you know their regiment you may go to the regimental list and page through to see if there are alternate spellings. 

    Also check printed sources including Janet Hewitt’s The Roster of Union Soldiers, 1861-1865. United States Colored Troops (Wilmington, N.C.: Broadfoot Publishing Co., 1997) and the statewide listings for regiments detailed in David Lambert’s recent column on this website,
    "Finding Your Civil War Ancestor at the NEHGS Research Library."

    When you find your subject’ s regiment and service listing in one of these sources you may then start collecting and reviewing any original documents or primary source material available through the National Archives Records Administration (NARA). In many cases there will be a Compiled Military Service Record, which would include age, birthplace, place of enlistment, date of enlistment, capture, prisoner information, and parole. There may also be medical information. For a complete guide to the types of records available and how to order copies, go to the NARA website. Dee Parmer Woodtor’s Finding a Place Called Home: A Guide to African-American Genealogy and Historical Identity (New York: Random House, 1999) has an excellent chapter on finding and interpreting pension records. Also consult Jeanette Braxton Secret’s Guide to Tracing Your African American Civil War Ancestor (Heritage Books, Inc. 1997) and Bertram Hawthorne Groene's Tracing Your Civil War Ancestor (Winston-Salem, N.C.: John F. Blair, 1973).

    In addition to official records held by the U.S. Government, there are also records held by state archives and manuscript repositories. These may include regimental records, papers of white officers, and personal papers of African American soldiers. The New England states raised six regiments of African American troops: the 29th and 30th Connecticut Colored Volunteers, the Massachusetts 5th Calvary and 54th and 55th Infantry, and the 14th Rhode Island Colored Heavy Artillery. More information about these regiments and their soldiers are discussed below.

    Connecticut Regiments

    The 29th Regiment, Connecticut Infantry (Colored) was mustered in Fair Haven, Connecticut, on March 8, 1864, and mustered out in October 1865. This regiment retained its original name and the CWWS database lists 1,609 men as having served, with 198 losing their lives through combat or disease. They fought primarily in Virginia and were one of the first infantry regiments to enter Richmond after its surrender.[6]

    There are several books devoted to this unit: Isaac Hill’s A Sketch of the 29th regiment of Connecticut colored troops (Baltimore: Daughtery, Maguire & Co., 1867), and Out of the Briars: An Autobiography and Sketch of the Twenty-ninth Regiment Connecticut Volunteers, written by black veteran Alexander Newton (Miami, FL: Mnemosyne Publishing Co., 1910, reprint 1969). The Connecticut Historical Society (CHS) has the manuscript letters of Sergeant Joseph Orin Cross to his wife Abby and a collection compiled by Jean Fisher of articles on Connecticut’s black Civil War veterans.[7] Some letters written by white officers of the regiment are also preserved at the CHS.

    The 30th Regiment Connecticut Infantry (Colored) was formed in April of 1864 and was merged into the 31st Regiment, USCT, the following month, at Hart Island, New York. The CWSS lists 1,881 soldiers and a loss of 175 men to combat and disease. The African American Collection at CHS compiled by Jean Fischer includes the story of black veteran Alfred Somers, a fugitive slave who joined the regiment and later settled in New Haven.[8] Some veterans of this regiment are buried at Slate Hill Cemetery, Goshen, New York.[9]

    Massachusetts Regiments

    Shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts petitioned the War Department for permission to raise a regiment of free Northern blacks. The 54th Massachusetts Regiment was organized and mustered in Readville, Massachusetts, on May 13, 1863. This is probably the most well known Northern black regiment, due to the 1989 film Glory. Do not assume that a soldier in this regiment was a Massachusetts resident. There were not sufficient Massachusetts African Americans available to fill the regiment, so Andrew engaged black recruiters such as Frederick Douglass and Martin R. Delaney to travel throughout the Northern states to find soldiers.  There are numerous resources about the Massachusetts 54th including:

    • Luis F. Emilio, A Brave Black Regiment: History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (Boston: Boston Book Company, 1894)
    • Martin H. Blatt, Thomas J. Brown, and Donald Yacavone, editors, Hope and Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001)
    • James Henry Gooding, Virginia Adams (editor) On the Altar of Freedom: A Black Soldier's Civil War Letters from the Front, (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999)
    • Russell Duncan, editor, Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: the Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (New York: Avon Books, 1992)
    • Donald Yacavone, editor, A Voice of Thunder: The Civil War Letters of George E. Stephens. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996)

    The Massachusetts Historical Society has manuscript collections related to the 54th including regimental records, the research materials of Edwin Gittleman (for his unfinished book about Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the first regiment of black troops organized in a Northern state), the Lee family papers, and the Robert Gould Shaw letters. The New York State Library has the Hoke Family collection, which contains records and memorabilia of Private C. Bromley Hoke of the Massachusetts 54th regiment.

    The 5th Regiment, Massachusetts Calvary was organized at Readville, Massachusetts, between January and May of 1864. This regiment sawduty primarily in Maryland, Virginia, and Texas, and is said to have been one of the first regiments to enter Richmond. The CWSS lists 1,718 soldiers, of which 123 were lost to combat or disease. The “Fitzgerald Family Papers” at the Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, contain the diaries of African American Private Robert G. Fitzgerald, which describe life in this regiment.[10] Amos Webber (1826-1904) also served in the 5th Cavalry and kept memory books of his life that are chronicled in Nick Salvatore’s We All Got History: The Memory Books of Amos Webber (New York, Vintage Books, 1997). The Massachusetts Historical Society has the correspondence of one of the 5th Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry’s white officers, Edward J. Bartlett. The Maine State Archives has muster in and descriptive rolls for the 5th. For information on burials (although no references) visit Resting Places of Soldiers and Veterans of the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry Regiment.

    The 55th Regiment, Massachusetts Infantry was mustered in June 22, 1863. This regiment served primarily in South Carolina through to discharge on September 23, 1865. The CWWS lists 1,335 men and losses of 197 to combat and disease. As with the 54th, there have been several published regimental histories and letters, including:

    • Burt Green Wilder, The Fifty-Fifth Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Colored, June 1863-September 1865 (Brookline, MA: The Riverdale Press, 1919)
    • Charles B. Fox, Fox Record of the Service of the Fifty-Fifth Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry  (Cambridge, MA: Press of John Wilson and Son, 1868)
    • Noah A. Trudeau, Voices of the 55th (Dayton, Ohio: Morningside House, Inc., 1996)
    • Lieutenant Colonel N. P. Hallowell, Selected Letters and Papers of N. P. Hallowell (Petersborough, NH: Richard R. Smith Co., Inc., 1963)

    The Massachusetts Historical Society has the papers of Hallowell and Fox; records of the Association of Officers of the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry; the papers of 55th recruiter Edward W. Kinsley; and correspondence between physician David Thayer and Warren M. Babbit, the assistant surgeon of the 55th.

    The Rhode Island Regiment

    The 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery (colored) was formed on August 28, 1863.  On April 4, 1864, it was designated the 8th Regiment, United States Colored Heavy Artillery, and on May 21, 1864, it became the 11th Regiment, United States Colored Heavy Artillery until mustered out on October 2, 1865. This unit served primarily in the defenses of New Orleans, Louisiana. The CWWS lists 2,092 men in the database. William H. Chenery’s The 14th Regiment Rhode Island Heavy Artillery (Colored) (Providence: Snow & Farnham, 1898) recounts the history of the unit. The muster in and descriptive rolls for this regiment can be found at the Maine State Archives.

    The next column on African American genealogy in New England will explore researching New Englanders who served in United States Colored Troops (USCT), including a rare manuscript from the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers owned by NEHGS. Information on researching black sailors and military support personnel will also be discussed.

    [1] Noah AndreTrudeau, Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War: 1862-1865 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1998, pp 18-19).

    [2] Hondon B. Hargrove, Black Union Soldiers in the Civil War. (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1988).

    [3] Trudeau, p. 417-424.

    [4] Hargrove, p.207.

    [5] Website, Civil War Soldiers and Sailors

    [6] Website, Civil War Soldiers and Sailors

    [7] Joseph Orin Cross, Letters, 1864-1865, and Jean Fisher, compiler, African American Collection, various dates, Connecticut Historical Society.

    [8] Neil Hogan, “Ex-slave Made Daring Escape, Joined Black Regiment in State,” New Haven Register, clipping (Jean Fisher Collection), Connecticut Historical Society.

    [9] Website, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War Department of New York

    [10] Fitzgerald Family Papers, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, N.C., 1864 and 1867-1871.

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