US Colored Troops as Veterans; Happy Veterans Day, 11/11/2015



Negro members of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veterans organization, parading, New York City, May 30, 1912
Image Source: Library of Congress; Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-132913; see more information about the photo here.

This is a photograph of black Civil War veterans, and family and friends, marching in a Grand Army of the Republic parade in New York in the early twentieth century. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was an organization of United States (Union) veterans of the Civil War, including men from the Army, Navy, Marines and Revenue Cutter Service. Wikipedia discusses the GAR:

After the end of American Civil War, organizations were formed for veterans to network and maintain connections with each other. Many of the veterans used their shared experiences as a basis for fellowship. Groups of men began joining together, first for camaraderie and later for political power. Emerging as most influential among the various organizations was the Grand Army of the Republic, founded on April 6, 1866, on the principles of “Fraternity, Charity and Loyalty,” in Decatur, Illinois, by Benjamin F. Stephenson.

The GAR initially grew and prospered as a de facto political arm of the Republican Party during the heated political contests of the Reconstruction era. The commemoration of Union veterans, black and white, immediately became entwined with partisan politics. The GAR promoted voting rights for black veterans, as many veterans recognized their demonstrated patriotism. Black veterans, who enthusiastically embraced the message of equality, shunned black veterans’ organizations in preference for racially inclusive groups. But when the Republican Party’s commitment to reform in the South gradually decreased, the GAR’s mission became ill-defined and the organization floundered. The GAR almost disappeared in the early 1870s, and many divisions ceased to exist.

In the 1880s, the organization revived under new leadership that provided a platform for renewed growth, by advocating federal pensions for veterans. As the organization revived, black veterans joined in significant numbers and organized local posts.

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Grand Army of the Republic, New York Post 160, Cazenovia, New York (near Syracuse), circa 1900
Image Source: blog.syracuse.com; collection of Angelo Scarlato

This is a wonderful photograph of an integrated GAR post. The post, New York post number 160, was located in Cazenovia, New York, which is near Syracuse. The picture was taken around 1900, roughly 35 years after the end of the war. The image of these black and white soldiers, with its staging of a black man holding the American flag in the center of the shot, has a poignancy which reaches over a hundred years of time, and touches me today.

These men might not have known each other during the war, because Union regiments were segregated. Although, during the course of the war, different soldiers from different regiments often fought alongside each other at particular sites. But GAR units like this one might have been the first opportunity for black and white soldiers to meet, greet, and perhaps, become friends.

The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) show “History Detectives” devoted a program segment to a discussion of the photo, the GAR, and race in the Civil War. A transcript of the segment, which aired in July 2007, is here. Thanks to the blog Syracuse.com for providing the link and the photograph, and additional information.


Image Description: G.A.R. Post (Civil War veterans. Photoprint) 1935; perhaps in the Washington, DC or southern Maryland area; Addison Scurlock, photographer
Image and Description Source: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, Local Number: 618ps0229581-01pg.tif (AC scan no.), Box 68


Image Description: The Mansfield GAR Post in Middletown, which included a number of Black Hartford (CN) veterans. Shown here is a detail from a photography of the members of Mansfield Post #53 in c. 1880. The photograph shows about 100 veterans, and it appears that about five to ten percent of them were Black. 
Source, Image Description: Hartford (CN) Black History Project
Image Source: Connecticut Historical Society Museum Collection


USCT veterans, purportedly from the the 33rd Infantry Regiment, USCT, organized in South Carolina
Image Source: Dr. Bronson’s St. Augustine History


USCT veterans, perhaps from Kent, Maryland
Image Source: State Archives of Maryland

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Photograph of Union Navy veteran William B. Gould with his six sons.
This photograph of the Gould veterans originally appeared in the NAACP’s magazine, Crisis, in December 1917. All of the sons were veterans of World War I except William B. Gould, Jr., a Spanish-American War veteran. William B. Gould, already in his 80s, is seated wearing his GAR uniform. Standing behind elder Gould are, from left to right: Lawrence Wheeler Gould, James Edward Gould, William Benjamin Gould, Jr., Ernest Moore Gould, Herbert Richardson Gould, and Frederick Crawford Gould. (GAR = Grand Army of the Republic, an organization for Union veterans)

William B. Gould was born a slave, but that would not define him or confine him. By the end of his life, he would leave a legacy of service for which any American would be proud. And it seems his sons learned from his example.

Gould grew up in the North Carolina port city of Wilmington, NC (which is now famous for its movie industry and for being the hometown of NCAA/NBA great Michael Jordan). On September 21, 1862, Gould and seven other men liberated themselves from captivity by navigating a boat down the Cape Fear River. Gould and the others were picked up by the USS Cambridge, and he became a member of the ship’s crew.

Gould was literate, and kept a diary of his days as a Union sailor. One of his descendants, William B. Gould, IV, used that diary to form the basis of Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor.

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As an accompaniment to the book, Stanford University hosts the website Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor. The site features primary sources and photographs that tell the story of Gould in an interesting and compelling fashion. I very much enjoyed the site, and I look forward to reading the book. Highly recommended.
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One of the more notable efforts of African American Civil War veterans took place in Missouri. In 1847 the Missouri General Assembly passed a law forbidding blacks, slave or free, to be taught to read or write. As noted in the book Missouri’s Black Heritage, the law “was a reflection of a slaveholder’s fear that literacy might lead to (a slave) rebellion.” This so-called “Black Code” prohibition taught Missouri blacks a lesson they would not forget: education was a force for their liberation and uplift.

Black soldiers and veterans were at the forefront of efforts to ensure that freedmen and freedwomen would receive the education and learning that were denied to them under slavery. Men from two regiments of black Union soldiers – the 62nd and 65th infantry regiments of United States Colored Troops – took an unprecedented action: in 1866, they pooled their money to fund the first and only school established by soldiers of African descent.

Located in Jefferson City, Missouri, that school stands as a legacy of African Americans’ efforts for improvement, progress, and full citizenship. Its name: Lincoln University of Missouri.


Main statue for the Soldiers’ Memorial at Lincoln University, Missouri
Source: Lincoln University, Missouri

An interesting photograph of African American Mississippi GAR members is here. Unfortunately, the website charges a fee to view the image offsite, so I can’t post it here. But it is a great image.

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One thought on “US Colored Troops as Veterans; Happy Veterans Day, 11/11/2015

  1. The Cazenovia, NY GAR image from the Angelo Scarlato Collection is currently on exhibit in Special Collections & College Archives, Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. It’s part of the exhibit, “Right to Serve, Right to Lead: Lives and Legacies of the USCT” which will be up through December 2017.

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