Monday, January 3, 2011

My First USCT: Moses Johnson 83 US Colored Infantry

Those who are close friends know that I have several ancestors who served in the Union Army as part of the US Colored Troops, during the Civil War. In fact, I have documented 9 ancestors who were US Colored Troops.

My knowledge of USCT history came when I began researching my own family and I met a woman from Maryland who was an authority on the black Union Army regiments from the state.  I admired her and was inspired to find my own Civil War ancestors, and, if possible tell some of their stories.  

Well that was not so easy. Now I had heard for many years that someone on my mother's side had served in the Civil War and was said to have been a flag bearer in one of the regiments---but the name of that soldier was not known. This was someone whom my mother said she had heard her grandmother talk about, but she never heard the name of that soldier, and without a name, there was not much to go on.

Well, back in 1991, I had been visiting the National Archives for some time, and on one trip home to Arkansas over the Christmas holidays, after a wonderful Christmas dinner, the talk turned to local topics, and my mother interjected how she was so excited about the local history that I had been researching. My sister-in-law, Rebekah, had a cousin who was there with his fiance that day--Cousin Doug Johnson, from nearby Oklahoma.

Now  Rebekah's cousin Doug was a generally quiet mild mannered man of few words.  As my mom was chatting with the cousin clan, she mentioned how I was interested in local history and was trying to research the Civil War, and I noticed that Doug, the quiet mild mannered young man became suddenly talkative!

He mentioned that he was kind of interested in that subject and that he always wanted to know if one of his ancestors---a gr. grandfather had been a Civil War soldier, or Buffalo Soldier.  Apparently, there was a military stone on his grave in nearby Shady Grove, Oklahoma.  The stone had some kind of markings on it----83rd USC Inf.  

Whoa!! Now I knew a little bit about the 83rd US Colored Infantry! 

Being a fan of Afr. American western frontier history, I was familiar with the 1st and 2nd Kansas Colored Infantries.  One regiment--the 1st Kansas Colored was familiar to me, for their efforts in saving Ft. Gibson.  The fort was saved from confederate hands by the actions of 1st Kansas Colored Infantry. 

Well----both the 1st and 2nd Kansas Colored were later re-designated as the 79th and 83rd US Colored Infantries. In addition----most of their soldiers that initially mustered in, were soldiers who were once slaves in the Cherokee and Creek Nations. And here was a descendant of one of those regiments. I was thrilled!

Now I do have to pause and mention that I do have an ancestor whose name I now know, who also served in the 83rd US Colored Infantry---but at that time,  in the winter of 1991, I did not know of him, nor did I know his name. 

So here I was that Christmas 1991, Cousin Doug, was telling me he had an ancestor from a black Civil War regiment. And this soldier was from the local area!  I knew of no one at that time in 1991 in Arkansas or Oklahoma, who was researching black Civil War soldiers. In fact I doubt if there were 10 people living in the community at that time who knew that there were black men from the area who had joined the Union Army and who had served honorably.

But at last----here was someone who told me about his ancestor who was a Union soldier.  I asked him to look at the stone again and if so I would also look at his history for him. I really wanted to know this, because this soldier would be the first Civil War soldier with a connection to my family and region that I would have.

Like many cases, the descendants of Moses Johnson knew little of him after all he did live over 100 years ago, and his involvement as a soldier in the 83rd was long forgotten. 

Well, it was now my job to find out about him. I agreed to obtain any records on him that I could. (Living in Maryland and going to the National Archives was something that I always did.) 

Moses Johnson lived in the south eastern part of the Cherokee Nation, in a community known as Shady Grove, in an area once known as Benge, Indian Territory. The town itself is now known as Muldrow, Oklahoma. I studied the area west of Ft. Smith Arkansas, going towards Ft. Gibson. This was all part of the Cherokee Nation the very area where Moses (sometimes called Mose) Johnson lived as a slave.

Immediately to the east of this part of the Cherokee Nation was Ft. Smith, Arkansas.  As the war intensified, for many slaves, the word had reached the community----Union soldiers were close by and if you could make it either to Ft. Gibson, or to Ft. Smith---you had a shot at freedom!!!    

Many men took this risk---knowing it would mean their lives---traveling with no passes, with no permission from the slave owner to leave their estate.  What courage it must have taken to leave, especially when one had to travel at night, or risk being seen. Moses Johnson was one of those who dared to take that risk----and he made it!!!

Community where Moses Johnson Lived
 This map shows  the southeastern part of the Cherokee nation, including Ft. Gibson 
to the West and Ft. Smith in the southeastern portion of the map. Since the 83rd was in that region,
Moses John would end up enlisting in that regiment.
Source: New York: H.H. Hardesty and Company, 1883; from The Historical and Geographical Encyclopedia

Moses Johnson lived with his family west of Ft. Smith Arkansas and his task, to be able to escape to enlist, meant leaving basically rural farm land that he had worked his entire life, avoid confederate soldiers, and to reach the Union line. His son Lewis, I would learn, would also join him.  Their task was to cross the Arkansas River, and the state boundary, entering Arkansas on the banks of Ft. Smith. Ft. Smith was where the Federal Military post was situated. Once there, they would find freedom!

 With the network of communication among slaves, the word quickly spread, and many slaves from Indian Territory also heard the word.  Many Cherokee and Choctaw slaves who were with masters while in Ft. Smith on business, heard from other slaves what had happened and they took that news with them back into the Territory, and back to the slave quarters. 

On the Arkansas side, some refugee slaves also fled when the young men left. In other cases, some simply left alone, at night, being wary of dogs being put on their trail.

Some runaway slaves left in groups and others alone.

 As major recruitment of strong men unfolded, a train  took both soldiers and some refugee slaves northward into Kansas, where the men were mustered into service there.  And Moses Johnson others from the Cherokee Nation, and western Arkansas, were among them. Moses Johnson would see the skirmishes and engage in the battle of Jenkins Ferry. 

Thankfully he did not die in battle, also not only survived the many military engagements of the war. In later years, his widow Julia and his daughter would file for and receive a Civil War pension, based on his service.

Moses Johnson Pension Index Card

From that pension file, I would learn not only of Mr. Johnson's military service, but I would learn of others from the Cherokee slave community, that also enlisted.  Surprisingly, I also learned that Moses Johnson had  a son Lewis Johnson who also served in the same regiment.  

What a thrill to become so close to a USCT with a tie to my family--through my brother's marriage. 

Exploring the life of the Johnsons had stimulated my appetite to learn more about the former slaves, and also about the men who seized their freedom when opportunity came, joined the Union Army and fight. This would open the doors further in learning about USCTs from the Arkansas/Oklahoma communities, and how eager and how quickly so may were to engage in their fight for freedom!

The success in obtaining this information about Moses Johnson and his life, would eventually lead me to becoming a regular researcher at the National Archives, and exploring the lives of former Indian Territory slaves, before and after the Civil War. 

It turned out that Moses Johnson was also a Cherokee Freedman, and I found his Dawes Enrollment card. as well as that of his son, Lewis Johnson, so even more data came from researching this man's life and learning about a man who was an active participant in several major military campaigns in the Arkansas/Oklahoma communities.  
Enrollment Card of Moses Johnson Cherokee Freedman

He had seen it all from engagements in Missouri, when the regiment was still the 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry. He had been in skirmishes in Missouri, northern Arkansas, and later at Jenkins Ferry in Arkansas, and Honey Springs in the Creek Nation, Indian Territory.

How wonderful that I had found a USCT with a connection---though distant to me! Of course I would later discover some more closely connected to my direct lines, and those stories shall also be told.

I am happy though to have found my first USCT at least one connected to people who were connected to me.  

Since that time in 1991, I have been fortunate to find some more directly connected to me, on both my father's side as well as my mothers side.and so many more have come my way!

Learning the story of this one man, and learning about the lives of others who knew him, has opened many doors to 19th century research, especially in Western Arkansas, and Indian Territory history.


  1. What an awesome story, Angela. Thanks for sharing.

  2. So wonderful to find others interested in the history of the US Colored Troops, especially the 79th and 83rd Regiments. My great great grandfather, Harrison Monroe, served in Company C of the 2d Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry (later designated as the 83rd Regiment of the USCT--New Organization). We are indeed, heirs to a rich tradition that deserves to be more fully told as we honor our patriot ancestors.

  3. Hello Mr. Monroe,
    Thanks for your remarks, and I just say that it is wonderful to meet someone who also has an ancestor from the 83rd. The Kansas Colored and the 79th and 83rd Infantries have a very rich history and I hope that more will begin to tell these incredible stories in the fight for freedom!!

  4. Thanks Professor Dru. I hope to be able to read some of your Civil War stories soon.