By Tom Brooks
Copyright 1995. LWF Publications. Posted from the April, 1995 edition of the historical quarterly, Lest We Forget.
The history of Afro-British North Americans and Afro-Others who fought in the United States Colored Troops for the freedom of Afro-Americans during the War of the Renellion -- Co-Researched by Edward Milligan and Tom Brooks.
There were 101 foreign born soldiers of colour in the 20th USCT of whom 62 were British North American born. The vast majority of British North Americans in the 20th USCT were Canada West born, but their number did include David Walters born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, James Benjamin, also born in Halifax, George E. Jarvis another Nova Scotia native, Perry B. Mott born in St. John, New Brunswick, and James B. Armstrong a Montreal, Canada East native. At least six of these ‘free men of colour’ from British North America in the 20th USCT died in the service of this foreign country, the United States of America. Jacob Hicks, John Martin, and George Montgomery, all born in Canada West, are buried far from their native land. They lie in the coloured section of the Union military cemetery in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Jacob Jacobs and Isaac Wilson, both of the 20th USCT, and both Canada West born, are listed as being buried in two different cemeteries. Jacob Jacobs, died on September 24, 1864, is on the roll of the cemetery in New Orleans, and is listed as being buried in the National Cemetery down river from New Orleans, in Chalmette, Louisiana. Isaac Wilson, who died on August 7, 1865, is likewise listed as buried in New Orleans, and on the roster of the USCT buried in Chalmette, on the latter occasion, as a member of the 1st USCC (cavalry). Such is the exactitude of Civil War military records.
James Benjamin from Nova Scotia, the sixth whose record states that he died, is not listed in the cemetery roll in New Orleans.
Among the occupations of the 62 British North Americans in the 20th USCT are 9 waiters, 8 sailors, 4 cooks, the occasional barber, blacksmith, and butcher, a few farmers, and 29 labourers.
The other ‘free men of colour” who served, those who were not born in British North America, came from a world wide array of countries.
John Adams of the 6th USCT was born in Honalulu. The Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), as was John Brown of the 11th USCT. Samuel M. Watt of the 20th USCT was likewise born in The Sandwich Islands.
Joseph Fernandez, who came all the way from somewhere in the East Indies to end up serving in the 19th USCT, drowned in the Rio Grande River in 1866. He is buried in section ‘G’, grave number 67, in the National Cemetery in Brownsville, Texas.
Tarquin Freeman, a ‘free man of colour’ born in Africa, a volunteer in the 20th USCT, lies in the Union military cemetery in New Orleans.
Oswald Grant of the 20th USCT was born in St. Croix, the West Indies. William H. Lane of the same regiment, was born in Liverpool, England as was William Thompson of the 18th USCT. Henry Adams was the lone Chilian in the 20th USCT.
James Valentine and John Brandon were two ‘free men of colour’ born in Jamaica who volunteered for service in the 20th USCT. William Hood, also Jamaican born, was in the 18th USCT. Hood died in Chattanooga, Tennessee on March 21, 1865. He is not listed on the Chattanooga National Cemetery roster.
Mitchell King was another foreign born ‘free man of colour’ to perish in the war. A native of Mexico and a soldier in the 13th USCT, he was killed in action at Nashville, Tennessee on December 16, 1864. Steven Johnson of the 20th USCT and William Silkhind of the 4th USCT were born in Port O’Spain, Trinidad. Antonio Francis was the lone Brazilian in the 20th USCT. John Rhodes, a native of Goshen, Germany, in the 11th USCT, died in service. William Cook of the 20th USCT, born somewhere in South America, likewise died in service. Cook is buried in the Union military cemetery in New Orleans. Nelson Marshall of the 20th USCT, born on an unspecified West Indies island, was another to die in service. He is buried in the Union military cemetery in New Orleans.
Max Hassan of the 11th USCT was African born, as was Peter Hampton of the same regiment. Alas, Hampton died of disease in Memphis, Tennessee on March 26, 1865. He is buried in the Mississippi River National Cemetery near Memphis, Tennessee. Nicholas Said of the 55th Massachusetts Infantry, was born in Bornu in the Sudan in the so-called Horn of Africa. He came to the regiment with a tattooed face. Apparently, he could speak and write English, French, German, and Italian, and spoke fluently in two African dialects, as well as Turkish and Russian. An unusual man indeed.
Joseph R. Robinson from Canada West, another unusual man, was a 21 year old servant by trade at the time of his enlistment. He was something of an anomaly for his time. As a ‘free men of color’, he served in the 1st Battalion Nevada Mounted Volunteers, a non coloured regiment. Odd indeed, very odd for the time.
Cuba, Nassau, Santa Domingo, St. Martin, St. Thomas and other West Indies islands, all contributed a share of the foreign born ‘free men of colour’ to the USCT regiments.
Not all ‘men of colour’ served in the army of course. The United States Navy was a great depository for non-white volunteers, and unlike the army, the navy was not segregated as such though this is not to say that ‘free men of colour’ were necessarily accepted as equals in the United States Navy.
Among the British North American born ‘free men of color’ who served in the United States Navy was Benjamin Jackson, a native of Lockartville, Kings County, Nova Scotia. He was born in freedom on January 2, 1835, two years after slavery had been outlawed throughout the British Empire. He enlisted in New York City on May 21, 1864 as a hired substitute for an American citizen, Lewis Saunders, who did not want to serve his country. Jackson went to war a married man. He had married Rachel Carter on September 23, 1858. He was the father of one at the time of his enlistment. Jackson served onboard the USS Potomac, the USS North Carolina, and the USS Richmond. On the last named vessel, he was gun captain of piece number 10, and was wounded while engaged in clearing Confederate torpedos (mines) from the Mississippi River. He was honorably discharged from the United States Navy on June 2, 1865, and in time, duely received a war pension from the United States government. Jackson died on September 4, 1915 and was laid to rest in an unmarked grave, in Stoney Hill Cemetery near Hantsport in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. A few years after his death, the Lockhartville Road was renamed the Benjamin Jackson Road in his honour. It is a rare honour in British North America for anyone to have a road named after them.
Not all British North Americans who served in USCT were necessarily ‘men of colour’. Any man of European stock who transferred to a USCT regiment, regardless of his previous rank, invariably became an officer. With but rare exceptions, ‘men of color, were not allowed to become officers, even in USCT regiments.
It is impossible to discern the motivation of those British North Americans of European heritage who did transfer to the USCT. Perhaps they did believe in the equality of the races, perhaps not.
Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire thirty years before the American Civil War, and thirty years earlier then that even, it was abolished by John Graves Simcoe in the colony of Canada West, then Upper Canada. Possibly the last slave sold in British North America was 33 year old Emmanuel Allen. He was put on the auction block in Montreal, Canada East, then Lower Canada on August 25, 1797 and sold for $180.00.
And it is true that Uxbridge, Canada West native Stuart Taylor did die with John Brown at Harper’s Ferry in October 1859 in an attempt to free the slaves. But another British North American, Pictou, Nova Scotia born William Hill Blackadar, fought on the side of the Virginians to defeat the intended slave rebellion. Though the idea of men as chattel was generally scorned in British North America, hence our holier-than-thou attitude vis-a-vis our American cousins, certainly there were differences of opinions then on the issue of the equality of the races.
Joseph W. Fitzgerald and Alonzo Wolverton for instance, born in Middlesex County, Canada West, after previous service in the 20th Ohio Light Artillery, transferred to the 9th USCHA, the former with the rank of 1st Lieutenant, the latter with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant.
Charles E. Graham, from Hereford, Canada East, after previous service in the 5th New Hampshire Infantry and the 13th New York Infantry, transferred to the 45th USCT with the rank of 1st Lieutenant.
Allen F Camera was born in Lower Canada on February 21, 1836. His father had been the colour-sergeant in the 79th Regiment of Foot. The Queen’s Own Camera Highlanders. Camera enlisted in the 5th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery and was promoted to 1st Sergeant in company ‘A’. He transferred to the 11th USCHA (14th Rhode Island Coloured Heavy Artillery) as a 1st Lieutenant in Company ‘I’.
Robert M. Bocces was born in Canada East in 1843. When he was ten years old, his family immigrated to Boston, Massachusetts. On September 14, 1861, he enlisted in company ‘G’, 99th New York Infantry, where he became 1st Sergeant. On October 18, 1863, he re-enlisted, this time in the 5th U.S. Cavalry. At the expiration of this enlistment, on June 25, 1865, he re-enlisted again, on August 12, 1865, this time as a Lieutenant in the 115th USCT. He served in this unit until taking his final discharge on March 7, 1866.
A number of British North American doctors of European descent likewise found service in USCT regiments. William Clunie of Toronto and William Noden of Hampton, both towns in Canada West, were assistant surgeons in the 10th USCT. William S. Tremaine, born in the British North American province of Prince Edward Island, was promoted from assistant surgeon in the 24th Massachusetts Infantry to surgeon in the 31st USCT. Charles M. Wight of Canada West was surgeon in the 32nd USCT, and Anselm Achim, Montreal born, saw service as an assistant surgeon in the 41st USCT.
Toronto born Anderson Ruffin Abbott was probably the most famous British North American born surgeon to serve ‘coloured’ soldiers during the Civil War. Educated at the University of Toronto, he was the son of an escaped slave from Mississippi and was thus himself, a ‘free man of colour’. He was said to be one of only eight ‘coloured’ doctors in the entire Union army. Another ‘coloured’ doctor, though born in Virginia a slave, was Augustus T. Alexander, also University of Toronto trained.
Interestingly enough, Abbott declined to serve in a USCT regiment. He eventually hired on as a contract surgeon. In a letter written in 1907, he explained his reason for not becoming regularly enrolled in the USCT. He felt that he was equal to the task of healing any man, not just ‘men of colour’. Having been born in a land where all men were free, he was not about to submit to government endorsed segregation, even that of a government fighting to end slavery.
This decision though admirable did have an unfortunate repercussion. In 1927, after Anderson Ruffin Abbott’s death, his wife Mary applied for a Civil War widow’s pension. Though Anderson Ruffin Abbott had been the recipient from Mary Todd Lincoln of the shawl that the President had worn to his first inauguration, a gift in recognition of services rendered in preserving the Union, Mary Abbott’s application for pension was declined. Abbott did serve, and he did wear a uniform, but he was a contract surgeon and therefore not regularly enrolled in the Union army.
Although 18 British North Americans were executed as the result of Capital Court Martial proceedings during the Civil War, no ‘free man of colour’ born in British North America appears to have been among the 50 or so USCT soldiers permanently discharged from the army in this fashion. Interestingly, the rate of formal military execution of coloured soldiers in the Union army was nearly double the rate of the formal military execution of soldiers of European heritage in the same army. A number of the coloured soldiers were shot or hung for simply pointing out the obvious, the discrimination in pay scales between coloured and non coloured soldiers in the same army. A coloured 1st Sergeant for instance, was paid the same rate as a non coloured private. Such protests alas, were deemed mutiny.
Well over half the coloured soldiers made subject to capital punishment were executed after the Confederate armies had surrendered in April and May 1865. To wit, the war was over.
This article is not intended to be a definitive study of the contribution of foreign born ‘free men of colour’ to the cause of freedom. Only a dozen of the 170 Coloured regiments have been analysed by this author. What this article does do, I hope, is shed a slight light on a virtually unknown part of Canadian and American history in the Civil War.
(Tom Brooks, Civil War Historian and Confederate Reenactor, resides in Gravenhurst, Ontario.)
END: Part 2 of 3.
NEXT: Data on the 19 regiments in which the Afro-British North Americans and Afro-Others served.
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