Raising the African Brigade:
Early Black Recruitment in Civil War
Dr. Richard Reid
(By Special Permission of the NC Division
of Archives & History)
[Reprinted from North Carolina Historical Review, 70 (1993), pp. 266-301]
Two other appointments reflect the racially progressive attitudes of the organizers. John V. De Grasse, an assistant surgeon with the rank of major, was one of the very few blacks throughout the Union army to receive a commission prior to the last months of the war. He had already proved himself an exceptional man. After receiving his medical degree in 1849, he had become the first black man to be admitted to a medical association when he became a member of the Massachusetts Medical Society in 1854. 55 Although discharged supposedly for drunkenness in 1864, De Grasse was, in fact, cashiered for reasons that had as much to do with pigmentation as with intoxication. 56 Wild also commissioned the Reverend John N. Mars as the regiment's black chaplain, a policy he would continue with the other regiments. 57 Unfortunately Mars, at age fifty-eight, could not withstand the rigors of army life. He remained in a North Carolina hospital when his regiment left the state, and he ultimately resigned his commission in early 1864 for reasons of "chronic rheumatism in the ankle joint, and old age." 58 The careers of De Grasse and Mars (and possibly Reed) illustrate that, as initially conceived, the brigade espoused advanced racial attitudes. Unfortunately, the pressures of the war and widespread white hostility served to erode that policy, especially after the regiment left Wild's command. After Reed's death at the Battle of Olustee, both the doctor and the minister would be replaced with white officers. Those reversals, however, lay in the future.
On May 18 the general and fourteen of his officers reached New Bern and immediately began to recruit soldiers from among the freedmen gathered there. A soldier in the Forty-fifth Massachusetts, Thomas Hale, wrote home discussing Wild's arrival and the response of many white officers to his black surgeon, "who wears the uniform of a major and is of course to be'obeyed and respected accordingly.' I wonder," suggested Hale, "how the nice young men of Boston, the ladies' pets, the 'gallant' 44th, will like the idea of presenting arms, the most respectful salute they can make, to a negro?" Hale predicted that "it will come rather hard for some of them but they will have to submit to it." 59
James Chaplin Beecher, son of minister Lyman Beecher, became colonel of the First North Carolina Colored Volunteers. Portrait from National Cyclopedia of American Biography, 3:131.
Of much greater concern to Wild and his officers was the danger that both they and any black recruit faced from bitter Confederate hostility. Those risks were made very clear the next week. The Wilmington Journal carried a report of the law passed at the start of the month by the Confederate Congress to deal with black soldiers and their white officers. "All commissioned officers," the paper reported, "who shall be captured in command of negroes, shall suffer the penalty of death." The black prisoners of war would be subject to the laws of the state in which they were captured--in other words, treated as slaves engaged in insurrection. The newspaper justified the summary process as extreme but necessary. Since the Union officers had "organized and armed half civilized beings and urged them ... even to the annihilation of the white population of the South," the only recourse was to treat them as outlaws and murderers. 60 It was right and proper, the editor continued, "that the Yankee officers who would put themselves at the head of a negro brigade ... should fight with halters around their necks." 61 The war in North Carolina did not descend to that level of barbarism, in part because at the end of July 1863 President Lincoln had issued a policy of retaliation if prisoners of war were executed. 62 Nevertheless, the early recruitment of the African Brigade proceeded with all officers and men facing that very real threat. Moreover, aside from the official Confederate policy toward black troops, there was always the danger from individual Southern soldiers offended and outraged by blacks in the army. A soldier in the Forty-sixth Massachusetts wrote in his journal at the end of May that "the enemy's pickets at the ferry had considerable to say about the niggers being around in this department. They swore they would shoot every b---d nigger taken up arms against them." 63 When a squad from the Forty-sixth Massachusetts was captured a few days later, the Confederate interrogator's primary interest was the state of black recruitment and the time when the nine-month regiments would go home. 64
A Massachusetts soldier reported "quite a recruiting fever" among blacks in New Bern in 1863. This engraving, from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, February 27, 1864, shows volunteers for the African Brigade in front of Broad Street Episcopal Church.
The process of filling the First NCCV and the type of soldier enrolled established a pattern for the next two regiments in the brigade. On May 20 Luke Measel, age thirty, became the first man to enlist in Company A. 65 Of all of the companies in the regiment, for some reason this one filled slowest. The Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Volunteers would not arrive for several more months, and the North Carolina freedmen, who probably hoped for civilian jobs around New Bern, may have been cautious about what they would face in a white Union army. The day after Measel joined, enrolling officer Captain Josiah White, operating in Beaufort County, signed on Taft Godfrey, who at age forty-three was the company's oldest recruit. In New Bern another eight men joined. By May 26 company strength had reached fifty-one and included men recruited at New Bern, Beaufort, and Newport. Another ten men were added by June 1, including the first man to volunteer from Morehead City. A week later eighty-one men were in uniform, but it was not until June 18 that Company A reached a complement of one hundred men. By that time most of the other companies had been manned. Captain James Croft had signed eighty-seven men into Company D by May 22, Company E had eighty-nine men from New Bern by May 28, and Company G numbered ninety-two soldiers as of June 1. The other companies, organized in June, filled even more quickly when their books were opened. On June 9 Croft enlisted ninety-seven men at Washington into Company C. Only two other men would be added to that company before the end of the war. Six days later, when Captain Charles A. Jones began forming Company B, eighty-seven men, all at New Bern, enlisted and only one other man, Frank Harrison, who joined on July 13, was added to the unit until May 1865.
The increased pace of enlistment within the First NCCV suggests that Wild was able to encourage enlistment in a number of ways to capitalize on the willingness of the freedmen to join the Union army. He began by going over the census returns compiled by Clapp. 66 He then spent several weeks visiting the various parts of the department to encourage recruitment personally. In mid-June, on one of his trips, the general and his effectiveness were described by an officer stationed on Hatteras. Wild, "a tall slim man with a reddish beard" and an empty sleeve dangling at his side, appealed to the freedmen on the island, with impressive results. He "succeeded in getting about 150 men from the colored people on the bar, leaving only the old and decrepit." 67 There and elsewhere, in filling out his regiments the general used his own funds to cover some of the costs of recruiting. 68
Wild relied on more than just his own presence to attract African Americans to his regiments. When he came to North Carolina, he was accompanied by several civilians who were to help him raise black troops. Edward W. Kinsley is reputed to have been a major force in attracting recruits. One account, written by Albert W. Mann long after the war, claimed that recruiting had been slow until Kinsley held a secret, late-night meeting with influential New Bern blacks, headed by Abraham Galloway. At that meeting Kinsley gave an unauthorized promise to accept certain demands. The freedmen's requests included pay equal to that of the black Massachusetts troops, rations for the soldiers' families, education for their children, and a government commitment that captured colored troops must be treated as prisoners of war by the Confederates. 69 The meeting that took place, however, must have been very different in substance from Mann's account. Abraham H. Galloway was certainly influential in New Bern, but he was described by Wild as "my special and confidential recruiting agent, a mulatto, originally sent to me by George L. Stearns." The general praised Galloway, writing that he "has served his country well, since the commencement of the war--formerly as a spy--now as recruiting emissary." 70 As a recruiter, Galloway was probably a much more persuasive spokesman for the general than was Kinsley. A black abolitionist from Pennsylvania who had come with Wild, Joseph E. Williams, was less useful in raising troops. 71 Although Williams had been very active initially when volunteering was popular, he became less interested and effective as the pool of ready recruits dried up. He became involved in some unspecified swindle in New Bern and was forced by Wild to leave the state. Several months later, he had been employed by George Stearns to recruit and was headed for Vicksburg. 72
The late-night meeting attended by Kinsley may have been organized by Galloway to reassure other freedmen in New Bern. It certainly underlined what the freedmen saw as the crucial contractual nature of any agreement into which they might enter with the government. If they offered their services, then the government was morally obligated to protect them and their families. The meeting also accorded with a protest of black laborers who had refused to work after their wages were long overdue. Wild seems to have understood their concerns. Certainly, in addition to his military duties, the general initiated a number of programs to aid the refugees, including a policy to place the families of soldiers volunteering for his regiments upon vacant land. General Order No. 103 authorized him to take possession of all unoccupied and unowned land on Roanoke Island "for the purpose of distributing the same to the families of Negro soldiers and other contrabands in the service of the United States." 73 Wild was convinced that he should give "much time and labor to the care and provision of negro families." 74 He understood that a guarantee to provide support for the families of his new recruits was both fair and a strong encouragement for further recruitment. One of the Northern teachers at New Bern, Oscar Doolittle, reported that Wild "tires out his staff daily," although he seemed "as fresh as ever" despite his many responsibilities, long hours, and the oppressive heat. In addition to recruiting, organizing and training his brigade, and supervising plans for Roanoke, the general found time for the black civilians. Doolittle wrote that he was "in consultation with [Wild] a number of times a day in regard to the establishment of schools and other matters pertaining to them." 75 Although the general believed himself to he overextended, not until July 1863 did an officer specifically appointed as superintendent of Negro affairs assume some of Wild's duties concerning the black refugees. 76 The assistance offered to the families of black soldiers had a special significance. It marked a new role for many of those men as a direct provider for their families. 77 At the same time, the recruits were often encouraged to join by family members. William Derby was struck by the enthusiasm shown by black women in encouraging their men to enlist in the African Brigade. He claimed that "they seized every able-bodied man of their race, shouting '...you's took a heap better in de crowd dar!' at the same time shoving him by force into the ranks." 78
The regimental descriptive books of the First NCCV allow a cautious assessment of the background of the enlisted men. In addition to indicating where, when, and under which officer the men enlisted, the books also give the ages, heights, and complexions of the recruits. Their places of birth are recorded and there are spaces, not always filled, for their occupations. General remarks concerning mortality, discharge, and desertion were added for some soldiers, although other records indicate that the descriptive books were often incomplete and must be used carefully. If the place of birth can be used as a crude measure of residency for the prewar slaves, however, certain patterns are clear. The regiment drew heavily from those areas opened up by the Union occupation. Beaufort, Martin, and Pitt counties produced the largest block of the first recruits, while considerable numbers of men came from the region of Pasquotank and Camden counties. Washington and Hyde counties also yielded many recruits. Nevertheless, one of the striking features of the evidence is that the soldiers in the first regiment had come originally from at least thirty counties in North Carolina. By September, Wild's brigade had in it men drawn from forty counties (see appendix A). Each company in the first regiment would also recruit men in South Carolina at the end of the war. 79
Enlisting in the Union army allowed many former slaves to become providers for their families, as General Wild instituted programs of support for the dependents. Illustration of black soldier from Pictoral War Record 3 (September 29, 1883): 37.
The pattern of many counties' providing the men for each company suggests one way in which the experience of the black soldier differed significantly from that of the white troops raised in either the North or the South. Each company of a white regiment was usually raised from a specific region, often a single county or large town. That practice allowed family and friends to enlist together, bringing into the army a sense of a particular community, which was then reinforced by letters and visits to home and by replacements drawn from the original locale to fill depleted ranks. For the African-American soldiers, usually ex-slaves who had managed to free themselves of the planter's control, a different picture emerges. Most had become refugees and had sought protection within Union lines prior to May 1863. In many cases, their local black communities had already begun to fragment as eastern planters tried to move large numbers of their slaves into the interior of the state. Union military excursions allowed some but not all of the slaves left behind the opportunity of flight. Some, singly or as families, grasped the chance. The result was that, among the freedmen who congregated at towns such as New Bern, ties of family and old friendships had been badly disrupted although not completely destroyed. Companies raised at these towns, as a result, were often conglomerates of strangers. One of the exceptions, in the First NCCV, may have been Company H. Slightly over 60 percent of all the men who joined the company in 1863 came from Hatteras Island in the wake of Wild's visit there. It is likely that, for this unit, the prewar community ties carried over into military life in ways not possible in the other companies. 80
55. North Star (Rochester, N.Y.), June 8,1849; Frederick Douglass' Paper (Rochester, N.Y.), September 22, 1854.
56. Asst. Surgeon John De Grasse, Proceedings of General Courts-Martial, Records of the Judge Advocate General's Office, Record Group 153, National Archives.
57. E.A. Wild to Maj. Thomas M. Vincent, May 21,1863, Letters Received, Colored Troops Division, RG 94.
58. John N. Mars, Compiled Military Service Records, RG 94.
59. Thomas Hale to "Dear Mother," May 19, 1863, Eben Thomas Hale Papers, Southern Historical Collection.
60. Wilmington Journal, May 23,1863.
61. Wilmington Journal, May 23, 1863.
62. Dudley T. Cornish, The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1956), 168.
63. Memorandum and Journal of Samuel Chapin of South Wilbraham, Massachusetts, Company I, 46th Regt. M.V.M. (n.p.: Historical Society of the Town of Hampden, 1987), 109.
64. One of the soldiers questioned, Sgt. William R. Sessions, prided himself that the Confederate "found out but little that he wished to know," even though Sessions had told him that he "knew nothing of the Negroes but believed that a Bat. was forming at N______." Diary of Sgt, William R. Sessions of South Wilbraham, Massachusetts, Company I, 46th Regt. M.V.M. (n.p.: Historical Society of the Town of Hampden, 1987), 8.
65. This information and the subsequent data in the paragraph are drawn from the Descriptive Books, Thirty-fifth Regiment United States Colored Troops (USCT), RG 94.
66. Henry A. Clapp to "Dear Mother, " May 25,1863, Clapp Letter Book.
67. Alfred S. Roe, The Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in Its Three Tours of Duty, 1861, 1862-'63, 1864 (Boston: Fifth Regiment Veteran Association, 1911), 244.
68. Official Records, ser. 3, 3:684. By the next year agents bringing in recruits to the Third NCCV received two dollars, while the enlisting men got a small bounty of ten dollars. Wild may have been using his own money for that type of payment.
69. Albert W. Mann, History of the Forty-fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Militia (Boston: W. Spooner, 1908), 301-302, 446-449.
70. Edward A. Wild to Edward W. Kinsley, November 30,1863, Edward Wilkinson Kinsley Papers, Special Collections Department, Duke University Library, Durham. Galloway, who was politically active in New Bern and Wilmington during Reconstruction, managed at this time to get his mother out of Wilmington, where she was a slave, and arrange for her transportation to the North.
71. Williams had acquired a reputation as an antislavery speaker in parts of the North. Edwin S. Redkey, ed., A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992),90.
72. Edward A. Wild to Edward W. Kinsicy, July 28, 1863; Joseph E. Williams to Edward W. Kinsley, August 19,1863, both in Kinsley Papers.
73. General Order No. 103, entry 44, Orders and Circulars, 1797-1910, Eighteenth Army Corps, RG 94.
74. "Military Life of Edward A. Wild," Massachusetts MOLLUS Collection.
75. Oscar Doolittle to J. W. Sullivan, July 22,1863, Kinsley Papers.
76. Edward A. Wild to Edward W. Kinsley, July 28, 1863, Kinsley Papers; Official Records, ser. 1, 29, pt. 2:166; Joe A. Mobley, James City: A Black Community in North Carolina, 1863-1900 (Raleigh: Division of Archives and History, Department of Cultural Resources, 1981), 4, 21.
77. Although needy freedmen in North Carolina received rations just sufficient "to prevent positive suffering," the families of the soldiers automatically received full rations. Stephen Edward Reilly, "Reconstruction through Regeneration: Horace James' Work with the Blacks for Social Reform in North Carolina, 1863-1867" (Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 1983), 45-46.
78. Derby, Bearing Arms in the Twenty-seventh, 192.
79. That enlistment, in late April or early May 1865, added 118 soldiers to the regiment, or 10.8 percent of all the men on the regimental books.
80.Muster Rolls, Thirty-fifth Regiment USCT, Duke Special Collections.
North Carolina Division of Archives and History
Source: "Raising the African Brigade: Early Black Recruitment in Civil War North Carolina", by Dr. Richard Reid, Dept. of History, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada; in North Carolina Historical Review, 70 (1993), pp. 266-301.