Thursday, March 31, 2011

"Black Bellied Yankees" Made Their Mark at The Battle of Ft. Blakeley

Image of the Battle of Ft. Blakely


Imagine a Civil War battle in which more than 6000 black soldiers emerged victorious. Such is the story of the Battle of Ft. Blakely in Alabama. Just hours from the time of Lee's surrender, there was much activity in many parts of the south including Alabama.

Among the many units involved in this battle was the 46th US Colored Infantry.  One of the white commanding officers was Colonel Frederick Mortimer Crandal.  He described the black soldiers in a personal letter, and described the unit he commanded as "Black Bellied Yankees" who "made their mark."  

Image from letter written by Colonel Frederick Mortimer Crandal

The first Union soldier to advance to the line are said to have been the 73rd and 86th US Colored Infantries. The 73rd US Colored Infantry was known originally as the 1st Louisiana Native Guards, the regiment was later re-designated as the 73rd US Colored Infantry. Both of the units were described as extremely successful in fighting off Confederate forces. One of the black soldiers in that battle happened also to be only black officer known to have been serving on the Blakeley Battlefield.  His name was Captain Louis A. Snaer, who had been a free man of color in Louisiana, before the war.

Portrait of Capt. Louis A. Snaer in Civil War Uniform
Before the war he was a free man of color in Louisiana
Image from descendants of Louis A. Snaer.

He was wounded at the seige of Ft. Blakely, and was treated for his wounds. He did survive the war, and later moved westward to California where he died in 1917.

It is said that after this battle some former slaves encountered former slave masters. In one case the slave and former slave owner expressed some pleasure in encountering each other.  It is also said that in some cases USCTs after the battle and prisoners taken, that some former slaves attacked some of the white prisoners, for deeds administered to them previously while enslaved. 

Today the battle site is an historic park . On the site one can find an organizational list of the USCTs that fought at Ft. Blakeley.  The story of the siege of Ft. Blakely is indeed an interesting one, and it is among the many stories to tell about the history of the US Colored Troops.

This was the last battle of the Civil War in which US Colored Troops were said to have played a major role.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Finding The Civil War Era Stories Around Us

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Someone asked me recently how I was able to find out about much of the local Civil War history that I write about.  This was a valid question, especially since much is not written about nor presented in the standard history curriculum. The question arises---how do you know if you should delve into Civil War History?  

Well my answer is simple---if the war affected the region where you lived---and if your ancestors were impacted---then one should by all means study the events as they occurred on the local level in particular.

So----where are the clues and how can you find out? Well, many clues to our history are all around us----right in the communities where we live.  We only have to open our eyes to learn see them. Every community has a rich history and even if you own community or that of your ancestors is not discussed in a textbook sense, there is still data to be found, anyway. We only have to let our eyes see it! Look at your local community with a new lens.

Was your ancestral community a site where any historic battles took place?  If so--- were there any black soldiers at that battle?  Years ago this would have been difficult to answer---but today that is not a difficult task.  So ask the question and see what you find.

This historic marker reflects activities the 1864 campaign against Petersburg. There 22 black units
involved in the events around Petersburg VA, from June 1864 - April 1865

 If there was a battle in the vicinity---that tells you several things.

For there to have been a battle:
1) There had to have been Union soldiers. 
2) If there was a Union regiment in the area, there was a Union encampment---a Union line.
3) If there was a Union line, there is also the possibility of sanctuary---a contraband camp might have been nearby.
4) If there was a large plantation or estate in the area, there might have also have been right after the war, a local field office of the Freedman's Bureau----thus leading to new records and a new source of data including labor contracts with newly freed slaves.
5) If there was a large estate, and a presence of Union soldiers---there was also the possibility of a regiment of US Colored Troops being organized in the same area.

Are there historic antebellum homes? Then there is another opportunity for research.

An historic home--Heyward House, Bluffton SC

In those communities if there were any antebellum homes---then there was a community of people who were enslaved who worked in those homes and also upon the grounds of the estate.  Even if your ancestors had no ties to the estate--someone in the community did have ties, and knowledge of the community's history involves working on the history of those tied to those estates.  

If there are other historic sites---an old mills, historic buildings, churches, and courthouses, there are opportunities for researchers to obtain more data on their own people. Such places were often worked on by enslaved people in the area---so there is more data to explore.

Old churches often reveal information about slaves, in those cases where slave holders allowed slaves to have services.

There are many stories around our ancestral homes, and by placing our ancestors back on the landscape and understanding that their lives unfolded right there----we must begin to look at communities differently as we pass them by.

Thankfully---more historic markers are also appearing on the landscape reflecting in incidents that involved the fight for freedom made by our ancestors who were soldiers and who were enslaved people seeking their freedom. 

We must simply learn to look at those landmarks as we pass them by.

Historical marker in Nashville area.

Marker honoring the 1st Regiment Kansas Colored, Rentiesville, Oklahoma

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

In Slavery and in Freedom--Civil War Era Records Serve to Contain Rich Data

When I speak with people researching their ancestors, especially African Americans, I am often amazed at  how few people tell the story and incorporate the Civil War into the family narratives.

Oh we all know about the "Wall of 1870" that many reach when they run out of census records to document the family. The "Wall" is the technical "dead end" where many stop their research on a particular line.  Some will indeed begin the process of identifying the slave owner, and others will simply stop, choosing not begin to climb over that wall. 

For some there is the major challenge of identifying the slave owner, and for others researching the line during the slavery era is something that they may not be ready to do. And for many others the task is not attempted simply because one does not know what to do, to take the family back any further.

It is for this very reason that I recommend researching the Civil War to find the family both in slavery and in freedom.

After one has exhausted census and vital records, one can find that there are documents including many documents that will reflect the Civil War Years and the first days of Freedom.

Among the records to trace the family during the Civil War Years are:
-Local Histories 
-Compiled Military Service Records of Civil War soldiers
-Civil War Pension Records
-Freedman's Bureau Records
-Freedman's Savings Record

Local Histories  Your ancestors did not live in a vacuum, whatever happened to the community, affected them as well.  If the war, came through the community where your ancestors were enslaved and if there were many white men who left to fight----then opportunity for the slaves came---to make a break for freedom. In the 1860s there are many  images of the slaves escaping to the Union lines, hoping to find sanctuary.  One of the most dramatic images from that of slaves fleeing to Ft. Monroe Virginia---which became in fact, the first of many contraband camps.

Ilusatration from depicting slaves pouring into Ft. Monroe for sanctuary.

A good number of actual photographs of newly freed slaves, identifying them as contrabands, also were taken.

SourceTitle from Milhollen and Mugridge: "Bermuda Hundred, Va. African-American 
teamsters near the signal tower. 
(Note---the gray-looking coats are actually the light blue Union Army top coats. The union soldiers are wore the same kind of kepi (hat) or forage cap.

Compiled Military Service Records of Civil War soldiers
If you live in a community where there may have been a regiment of United States Colored Troops, it would be worthwhile to research the service records of the soldiers from those regiments.  Many are not aware that their ancestors were soldiers. Many of these compiled records reflect where the soldier enlisted, and provide exact dates.  Keeping in mind that the enlistment of these soldiers would have been a direct affront to the wishes of their slave masters---these records are very important.

This soldier from Yortktown VA enlisted at Old Point Comfort, and he was present at some time at Ft. Monroe which was known to hold a major contraband camp. 
Source: National Archives Publication M1817  Compiled military service records of volunteer Union soldiers in the 1st through 6th U.S. Colored Cavalry 

Civil War Pension Files I have illustrated in other blog posts how Civil War pension files can reveal details about the family history that had been lost.  In a piece that I wrote about a uncle, Sephus Bass, his beginning deposition provided information about the time when he, a brother Braxton, and his own two sons enlisted together in the same regiment.  Look at the details----4 healthy men walked off the Bass estate and joined the Union Army.  Clearly they had opportunity and one researching the family must savor this.  In addition, from a genealogy perspective, I learned about an uncle whose name was known by no one living today, and the additional two sons also were names lost to the family for decades.

Part of Pension Application Depotion of Sephus Bass, of the 111th US Colored Infantry

In many other cases, one might not have had soldiers in the family line, but they appeared as  witnesses speaking to the character of other men who did serve and who later applied for a pension.  These depositions reveal much rich information about the relationship of the soldier/pensioner, to the community

Freedman's Bureau Records
Records from the Freedman's Bureau are quite telling and so diverse they contain notes and letters made by officers, at the various camps but also provide some glimpses into the lives of the newly freed slaves. In some cases, labor contracts are found, marriage ledgers and even bounty records of black soldiers soldiers

Ledger of Bounties paid to Black Soldier at end of the Civil War

Names of  soldiers from several regiments found in FB Records

Freedman Savings deposit books sometimes hold interesting data on the account holders.

This images shows one of the depositor's data found.  Note that he was skilled laborer and such records often provide  family data like the parents mentioned on this document.

These documents illustrate that even when one hits the infamous Wall of 1870 brick wall, there are ways to climb over that wall, but utilizing other documents. These records are all federal records, though they reflect local community data in many cases

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Looking at Civil War, It's History and Why We Don't Know More

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Image of 54th Massachusetts Seige at Ft. Wagner

Several weeks ago in a weekday genealogy online chat, the Civil War Sesquicentennial came up in the conversation.  The participation of the US Colored Troops was mentioned and the various regiments were brought up.  One regular member made a comment that surprised me. "I wonder", he said, "how were so many men able to escape to Massachusetts to join the Union Army."   

"What?"  I asked him to repeat his statement, or to clarify what he was asking.  He restated it, wondering how so many men who were slaves in the South, got to Massachusetts, during the war to join. I realized that this visitor, a regular to the chat and a long time family researcher, had no idea that the men who served in the US Colored Troops---were from the south, enlisted in the south, and fought in the south. They had to escape to get to the Union lines where the Federal soldiers were encamped, but why did he think they fled all the way to Massachusetts to enlist?  He then started talking about the movie "Glory" and the 54th Massachusetts, and then I realized it.  He had never studied the Civil War. Ever!  

But, I began to think about how and why a man in his 60s had no concept of the Civil War, and the involvement of black soldiers, and why he was under the impression that there was only one regiment of black soldiers---and all were in the 54th Massachusetts, depicted in Glory!  And I had a larger question----was he alone in this thinking? I thought about it----and sadly I realized that he was not alone and was not unique. The fact is---most African Americans have never studied the Civil War, nor relished many stories from the war----because the involvement of our own people in our own fight for freedom---is not widely known and has never been taught.   The movie Glory, even with the many historical errors in the film----is the only movie to ever tell the story of black soldiers in the American Civil War.  

So then I asked myself how many Civil War or Civil War era movies have been made in general?  

I made a query on Google, and I was surprised that there were quite a few. Some of them went back to the beginning of the movie industry:

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
Drums in the Deep South
Gettysburg Three Days of Destiny
Gods and Generals
Gone With the Wind
How the West Was Won
Major Dundee
North and South
Outlaw Josey Wales
Red Badge of Courage
Ride With the Devil
Shadow Riders
The Birth of a Nation
The Blue and the Gray
The General
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
USS Hunley
Wicked Spring

As I look at the list, two of them stand out in my mind. The Birth of a Nation was a film that did so much harm in the depiction of former slaves as intrinsically evil and a film that glorified the KKKlan and made them  the "heroes" who saved the south. This film did so much harm to black families struggling in the South scraping a living as sharecroppers.  It depicted them and their families as people deserving of being relegated to the mistreatment and lynchings of the era and made them "deserving" of any harm directed to them.

And there was Gone With the Wind, a movie I refused to watch until I was in my 40s and hated it for it represented---a glorification of slave owners and slave life with happy and simple minded slaves like Prissy. I continue to be amazed at how many people find that film to be such a wonderful love story when a major part of this country find it nauseating. With the other films---African American soldiers don't exist and were not participants in the war.

There have been documentaries in recent years that have included the involvement of US Colored Troops.
• Ken Burns, The Civil War (1990 Mini-Series PBS & Turner Home Entertainment)
• Civil War Journal II 

After looking at that list and thinking about the man in the chat, I then began to think about another phenomenon. 

Anyone who grew up in the south---knows---that just about every town, or at least every county seat has some kind of monument to confederate soldiers. 

From an African American perspective, those monuments were simply one of the many indignities that life brought----monuments honoring slavery, the continuous us of that flag, the obstacles brought by segregation, and the hundreds of attacks upon innocent people usually with that flag being waved by angry mobs and so much more---it was just part of living in the south.  But we had learned to just ignore the indignities and go about life. 

At sporting events when the son Dixie was played we knew to just stay quiet while white people would cheer, get emotional and feel some kind of tie to a time that we were thanking our God that such time had passed.  It was just part of life---expect the insults, for that is what they were, we ignored them and went on with more important issues at hand, for one's daily life.

But in recent years---thankfully in the years since more have had access to better education, the involvement of African Americans and the participation in the Civil War is now openly discussed and this discussion has created a new initiative to tell the story. 

This has been enhanced by genealogical research that so many families have undertaken, and a new awareness has emerged because their own family was involved in the Civil War and they are documenting it!

Page from Pension File of Isaac Alexander, a soldier in the 79th US Colored Infantry

But then I reflected again on the conversation in the chat. The interest in US Colored Troops in the Civil War surged after 1989 when the movie Glory was released.  A few years later, in 1998, the African American Civil War Monument was also unveiled. 

African American Civil War Monument, Washington DC

Re-enactment groups have arisen over the years, many of which reflect the histories of specific regiments of US Colored Troops.  

Images above:  USCTs  (left)   Reenactor group from BennieMcCrae's website (right)

Of course this has been an uphill battle for just as quickly as USCT history has emerged, many fell victim to strong arm propaganda about mythical black confederate battalions that just did not exist.  Anecdotes of loyal slaves are always shown as some kind of "proof" that these groups existed, but finally historians are expressing themselves more loudly against the myth makers and the message is getting through to the audience that needs to hear the simple fact that there were over 178,000 black men who fought for their own freedom, joined the Union Army to do so, and 16 Medal of Honors were awarded from their ranks.  

I had to stop and think about that----16 Medals of Honor awarded, and most people cannot tell you the name of one man.  This is not taught at all. 

Headstone of William H. Barnes, one of 17 black Medal of Honor Winners in 
the Civil War

I think that I was able to learn why we don't know more and how even slight USCT history is not common knowledge.  I also realize that after the Civil War, when those who had seceded were given back their power and status and that of former slaves was legally made second class by Jim Crow, those black ex-soldiers were not able to freely celebrate their days of glory as victors in the war.  Most lived in the only place they knew as home, and their victory and their post war years of celebration, would have made them easily targeted as they lived among those against whom they had been fighting.

Schools did not include black civil war soldiers in the curriculum, and black schools subject to inspection at anytime by a hostile school board, would not have tolerated stories of Union victories and bravery of black soldiers during those vulnerable post civil war and early 20th century years. 

Also by being identified as Union soldiers in their local communities, they might have been targets for violence towards them and family, so they became silent heroes, or as a good friend and colleague has called them many times, "soldiers of silence."  

In my Bass family in the 1880s that family was a victim of "night riders" who killed my gr. gr. grandfather.  His son, my Uncle Sephus Bass, did get in some good shots and had to leave west for Texas where he did spend the rest of his life.  

1879 Painting Depicting Klan Attack. My Bass Family was attacked by Klan night riders and my gr. gr. grandfather Irving Bass (father to Sephus Bass) was killed. Irving had two sons (Sephas and Braxton) and two grandsons, Henry and Emmanuel who served in the 111th US Colored Infantry together.  

So many people to this day still do not know that they have ancestors who were Union Army veterans.  

The good part of the story is that the numbers are increasing.These silent warriors deserve to be honored and to have their stories told. 

I am happy to talk about them, call their names and to honor them.  

We are here because of them.  They are my heroes.

Certificate Verifying my Uncle Cephas (sic) Bass and his enlistment in 111th US Colored Infantry. His name is also engraved on the wall of the Afr. American Civil War Memorial in Washington DC.