The Union Line

Fugitive African Americans Fording the Rappahannock River Virginia, August 1862
African Americans, fleeing bondage, ford the Rappahannock River and enter Union lines, circa July-August 1862; near Rappahannock, Virginia, close to the site of the Second Battle of Bull Run (AKA Second Manssass).
During the American Civil War, tens of thousands – perhaps a hundred thousand and more – African Americans escaped enslavement and sought refuge in Union occupied territory. Before the war, they might have been captured by slave patrols, groups of men who guarded their neighborhoods against runaway or wayward slaves. The presence of Union troops in the South, and the loss of white southern men to Confederate military service, gave slaves the opportunity to free themselves from captivity. The Union gave refuge to the runaways in return for their labor and other support. Many of the African American men in these groups become Union soldiers or sailors.

Image Source: Library of Congress; see also here.

The Union Line
by Alan Skerrett

Baby girl is crying so loud
Maybe mother’s milk isn’t right
If she’s too loud, a patroller might hear
And if we get taken back to massa
Lord knows what he’ll do to us
But we’ll be free
If we can make it
to the Union line

Young son is shivering
It’s not always this cold in November
Is it bad luck? Or a warning?
But I made up my mind
I heard the Yankees have tents and blankets
We’ll be warm
If we can make it
to the Union line

Where are you mama? Where are you papa?
They sent me down that river so long ago
You told me never to forget you
And to be a good nigger
I guess I can do one
And maybe not the other
Maybe I won’t be a nigger at all
If we can just make it
To the Union line

I’m holding my wife and children’s hands so hard
I’ll never let them go
The road, it whips us
The rain, it whips us
The hunger is whipping us
Well, we’ve been whipped before
But we ain’t whipped yet!
Our hands are strong
Strong enough to push and pull ourselves to freedom
Once we make it
To the Union line

May 20, 2015: Celebrating Emancipation Day in Florida

Emancipation-Day Florida 2015
From the 2015 Emancipation Day Celebration in Tallahassee: Tallahassee resident Brian Bibeau (center) portrays Brigadier General Edward McCook and presents a dramatic recitation of the Emancipation Proclamation from the front steps of the historic Knott House Museum. He is joined by the Leon Rifles 2nd Florida Volunteer Infantry Regiment Co. D, Captain Chris Ellrich Commanding, and the 2nd Infantry Regiment U.S. Colored Troops Reenactment Unit & Living History Association, led by Sgt. Major (Ret.) Jarvis Rosier.
Image Source: Museum of Florida History, via CapitalSoup.com

May 20, 2015, marked the 150th anniversary of the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in Tallahassee, the capital of Florida. That date is observed as Emancipation Day in the state; thus, Florida Emancipation Day is the equivalent of Juneteenth in Texas. Activities were held throughout the state to commemorate the event, including a reenactment of the Proclamation reading in Tallahassee.

Here’s the history behind the Day: on May 10, 1865, Union soldiers under the command of Brigadier General Edward McCook entered Tallahassee. This was weeks after April 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces in Virginia, and Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his forces in North Carolina. Successive waves of Confederate surrenders followed throughout the South. McCook and his men came to Tallahassee from Macon, Georgia, to facilitate the end of hostilities in the state and begin Union control. On May 20th, General McCook announced the Emancipation Proclamation in the city. Freedom in Florida was now “official.”

Of course May 20, 1865, was not the first time that slaves in Florida had heard of the Emancipation Proclamation or gained freedom as a result of the war. Union forces made forays into Florida throughout the Civil War. The state was not strategically important enough for the Union to conduct many operations there. But Union troops did, for example enter Jacksonville during the war, and that city changed handed hands several times throughout the conflict. Some of the Union forces consisted of men from the US Colored Troops (USCT). In NE Florida for sure there was an awareness of the Emancipation Proclamation, and slaves seesawed from slavery to freedom and back more than once as the Union and Confederacy took turns at controlling Jacksonville.


Emancipated slaves wait in front of the Provost Marshal’s office in Jacksonville about 1864. 

As noted here, the 2nd Infantry Regiment, USCT, did time in Florida. The source notes:

The 2nd U.S.C.T. was attached to the District of Key West, Florida, Department of of the Gulf, in February, 1864, and saw duty in New Orleans and Ships Island, Mississippi. In May the unit also participated in an attack on Confederate fortifications at Tampa, resulting in the destruction of the Confederate positions. The 2nd participated in several operation along Florida’s west coast between July 1st and 31st, 1864; including raids from Fort Myers to Bayport, and from Cedar Key to St. Andrew’s Bay. During the St. Andrew’s Bay expedition the 2nd skirmished with Confederate troops on the 18th of July.

There is a monument to the 2nd USCI in Fort Myers, FL, which is south of Tampa/St Petersburg:

My guess is that many slaves in west-central Florida – and admittedly, the huge part of the slave population resided in the northern part of the state – would have been aware of the Proclamation from Union soldiers.

Emancipation-Day FL  2nd USCT Reenactor speaks to school children
From the 2015 Emancipation Day Celebration in Tallahassee: a member of the 2nd Infantry Regiment U.S. Colored Troops Reenactment Unit speaks to a group of school children.
Image Source: Museum of Florida History, via CapitalSoup.com
Continue reading

The Pennsylvania Grand Review of Colored Troops in Harrisburg, PA

Harrisburg Grand Review 4 copy
US Colored Troops reenactors/living historians at the 2010 Pennsylvania Grand Review commemoration in Harrisburg Pennsylvania.
Image Source: All photos courtesy Yulanda Burgess.

As noted in Wikipedia, “The Grand Review of the Armies was a military procession and celebration in Washington, DC, on May 23 and May 24, 1865, following the close of the American Civil War. Elements of the Union Army paraded through the streets of the capital to receive accolades from the crowds and reviewing politicians, officials, and prominent citizens, including the President Andrew Johnson.” The Grand Review was basically a victory parade for the Union as it celebrated its defeat of the Confederate States of America.

Some 180,000 African Americans enlisted in the Union army, and were part of the US Colored Troops (USCT) – the part of the army that was created for the organization of black soldiers into the Union army. Yet, none of the regiments from the USCT were represented in the Grand Review. Some say this was a slight of black soldiers; others have noted that the USCT was engaged in other activities that made them unavailable for the Grand Review (a number of troops were sent to Texas over concerns for the protection of the Mexican border). For whatever reason, the black soldiers were not there for this glorious celebration of victory.

The state of Pennsylvania, and African Americans leaders in the state, would see to it that black solders soldiers got their chance to bask in the glow of glory, recognition, and appreciation. As noted here,

Black veterans held a parade in Harrisburg on November 14, 1865. Thomas Morris Chester, Harrisburg’s most distinguished African American, served as grand marshal. The parade formed at State and Filbert Streets (now Soldier’s Grove). The soldiers marched through Harrisburg to the South Front Street residence of U.S. Senator and former secretary of war Simon Cameron. Cameron reviewed the troops from his front porch and thanked them for their service to the nation.

Other speakers included Octavius V. Catto, an African American educator and USCT recruiter from Philadelphia; William Howard Day, abolitionist and clergyman; and Brevet Major General Joseph B. Kiddoo, former commander of the 22nd Regiment USCT. Pennsylvania was the only state to thus honor black soldiers who had helped save the Union.

Harrisburg Grand Review 1 copy

Harrisburg is the capital of Pennsylvania, and a more central location for the state’s African American population. At the start of the war, Pennsylvania had the largest black population of any northern state, with 56,949 black residents. Pennsylvania also provided the most black soldiers of any northern state to the Union army, some 8,600 men in all.

In November 2010, a reenactment of the Pennsylvania Grand Review was held in Harrisburg. Various USCT reenactors from around the country participated. In addition to the reenactment of the Review Parade, there were numerous educational and cultural activities in the days before the march. It was a grand event.

Yulanda Burgess, who is a living historian, took a number of photographs from the event which are shown above and below. These belie the notion that African Americans are not interested in the Civil War.

Harrisburg Grand Review 2 Continue reading

The March 1865 Review of the Union’s Black Soldiers: “President Lincoln was deeply moved at the sight of these Negro troops”

Union Troops enter Richmond VA Leslie's Illustrated
“The Union Army Entering Richmond, VA., April 3,” from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 25, 1865.
As depicted in the illustration, African American soldiers led the way into Richmond when it was captured near the end of the Civil War. Just a week earlier, these soldiers had marched in review for President Abraham Lincoln.
This is a colorized versions of an image from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News by the postcard publisher Southern Bargain House of Richmond, VA.

Image Source: From MetroPostcard.com

For Confederates, it was time to do the unthinkable: enlist slaves in their war to create a slaveholders’ nation. For the Union, it was a time for black soldiers to strut their stuff in front of the president of the United States.

Such was the state of the American Civil War in March 1865. These two very different stories are discussed in the book HISTORY OF THE NEGRO TROOPS IN THE WAR OF THE REBELLION 1861-1865, by George Washington Williams. The historian Williams was a veteran of the Union army, having served in the United States Colored Troops, or USCT. His book shows how the contrasting policies of the Union and Confederacy toward black enlistment played out in the closing months of the war.

By March 1865, the Confederate States of America (CSA) was on the verge of military defeat, and desperate times dictated desperate measures. After several months of intense debate, the Confederate Congress approved a measure that allowed slaves to enlist in the Confederate army. The administration of Confederate president Jefferson Davis added rules which required that slaves be conferred the status of freemen by their owners prior to enlisting; although I have seen some debate as to whether the slaves were to be temporarily free during their enlistment, versus being permanently free both during and after their time as soldiers. In any case, it was a way to add new soldiers when the Confederate army was critically short of men.

As it turned out, the new policy was too little too late. In April of 1865, CSA General in chief Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, and the remaining Confederate forces followed his example over the next few months. But for a moment, African American soldiers were the great black hope of the white men in grey.

For the Union, meanwhile, their black hopes had been realized. In July of 1862, legislation passed by the Union Congress allowed African Americans to enlist in the military, and gave freedom to slaves who did so. Eventually, some 200,000 black men would join the Union army and navy and become a vital part of the Union war effort.

By March 1865, Union forces that included black soldiers were on the brink of capturing Richmond, Virgina, the capital of the Confederacy. Indeed, on April 3, 1865, members of the USCT would take the lead in capturing the fallen city. With the end of the war so close, president Abraham Lincoln came to the Richmond area from Washington, DC, to see the events unfold.

Lincoln’s itinerary included a military review of the black troops. (A review is basically a military parade in which soldiers march in formation.) As noted by George Washington Williams in HISTORY OF THE NEGRO TROOPS, some 25,000 black soldiers, “well drilled, well armed, and well officered, passed in review before the President, General (Ulysses) Grant, and the general officers of the Army of the James and the Army of the Potomac.” While noting the irony that Lincoln had initially “protested” against the use of black soldiers early in the war, Williams said that now, “Lincoln was deeply moved at the sight of these Negro troops.”

This was the last review of black troops that Lincoln would see; an assassin’s bullet cut his life short on April 15. But for that one bright moment, the president was presented with “one of the most magnificent military spectacles of the civil war.” Continue reading

Health Care, such as it was, for Civil War Veterans

A Bit of History partial Thomas Waterman copy
“A Bit of History – The Veteran” by Thomas Waterman Wood, circa 1865-6. This is one of three images by Wood that shows the transformation of a man from a slave into a newly-recruited soldier for the Union army and finally into a veteran. Many soldiers wore the wounds and scars of the American Civil War into post-war life. Sadly, there were not always resources in their communities or beyond to help them with their health issues.
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

I’ve been ill the past few days, and I wound up having to make a long visit with the doctor. Unlucky me – I have an abdominal condition that will probably require surgery. But at least I have health care, so I can go to a doctor and get back to wellness.

Today, US military veterans have access to health care via the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and its Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals. According to Wikipedia, there are currently 152 VA Medical Centers and approximately 1400 community-based outpatient clinics in the US. In 2014, the Veterans Health Administration was “rocked by scandal” due to “major problems with scheduling timely access to medical care.” But at least there is a system in place to attend to the health needs of our veterans.

Compare that to the circumstances for veterans, and especially black veterans, of the American Civil War. In the book Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files, edited by Elizabeth Regosin and Donald Shaffer, the editors note that

The vast majority of former slaves were poor… (the) medical problems (of previously enslaved Union veterans) both contributed to and were compounded by poverty. Illness left former slaves with the medical bills that they could not pay or without access to proper medical care, leaving them in a position where they had to treat to themselves with herbal remedies or patent medicine, forms of therapy that sometimes ameliorated symptoms but rarely provided a permanent cure.

The book goes on to site the case of black Union veteran Isaac Petteway, who served in the US Colored Troops, 37th Infantry Regiment, and his wife Rosa Pettetway. In 1889, Rosa filed for a pension after her husband passed away. The following is from the deposition that was filed with the pension request and found in the National Archives:

Q. After coming out of the Army did your husband the soldier ever have any fever or pneumonia or was he troubled with any cough or lung disease?

A. He had a bad cough and after he was taken down with his fatal illness he had a desperate cough. He was always subject to cold and he had the chills bad often.

Q. Tell me all you can about his condition from the time you say he was taken down until he died?

A. He was down in his bed three years, helpless as a child, and I nursed [him]. He was full of pains and misery, and that leg would pain him. He would holler so you could hear him holler along way. He had a very bad cough and complained of his side and chest, and I’ll cross his breast and stomach. The ulcer on the leg would run part of the time and there again would break out again. The sore or a corruption did not [intelligible] above the knee. There were no running sores on his body only the old one.
I didn’t think he had any hemorrhage or bleeding, not as I knows of.

Q. What did you believe was the immediate cause of his death?

A. That leg, the pain in it run up into his body and took his life away from him

Q. How do you know that it was not pneumonia or consumption he died of?

A. I don’t know, only I think it was the leg.

Q. When you found your husband was dying was there no way you could have secured a doctor, is there no State or county provision for Doctors for the poor?

A. No Sir, You can’t get a doctor here [Beaufort, N.C.] without the cash… We were not able to employ any doctor. I just treated my husband with herbs and such like—we never had any Doctor

It doesn’t seem right that a veteran should go out this way, to use a colloquial expression. Dignified service should have resulted in dignified care. But our health care policies have evolved for the better since then, and thankfully so. I hope Isaac and Rosa Petteway are resting in peace with the knowledge that their country is trying to do better by the soldiers who followed him.

Nina L. Brown and Children


Nina L. Brown with Daughters [Photograph of Nina L. Brown with Frances and Lois (daughters)], probably very late 1890s or early 1900s; additional details are here.
Source: Ohio Historical Society; from the Hallie Q. Brown/Frances Brown Hughes Collection. The photograph is located at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, OH.

These photographs are from the Hallie Q. Brown/Frances Brown Hughes Collection at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio. Hallie Q. Brown (1845? – 1949) was a teacher, elocutionist, civil and women’s rights advocate, and Wilberforce University graduate, instructor, and trustee. Nina L. Brown was Hallie Q. Brown’s sister-in-law.

The photos are part of an online exhibit at the Ohio Historical Society’s website, the African-American Experience in Ohio 1850-1920.


Nina L. Brown and Jere Brown Jr., circa 1906-07; additional details are here.
Source: Ohio Historical Society; from the Hallie Q. Brown/Frances Brown Hughes Collection. The photograph is located at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, OH.

On the eve of the Civil War, in 1860, Ohio had the third largest population of blacks in the free states/the “North,” with 36,000 African American residents. Among northern states, only Pennsylvania (57,000) and New York (49,000) had more free blacks than Ohio. In fact, Ohio had more free blacks than any Confederate state, except the state of Virginia (58,000). Maryland, a “border” state that was considered part of the South, but was not part of the Confederate States of America, had the most free blacks of any state (84,000).

Hallie Q. Brown’s alma mater, Wilberforce University, was opened in the late 1850s as a place where youth of African descent could gain an education. It is one of the oldest private, historically black universities in the United States. It was named after William Wilberforce, the 18th century abolitionist. It was a joint collaboration of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, although the AME became its sole operator during the course of the Civil War.

Links of Interest – May 8, 2015

I invite you to check out these sites which have some interesting stuff:

[1] Grand Review Parade Week is coming to Washington, DC

Starting on Friday, May, 15, 2015, a number events will be held in Washington DC to commemorate the Grand Review Parade that was held by the Union army in May 1865 to celebrate the end of the Civil War and the preservation of the Union. The activities will culminate with the reenactment of the Grand Review Parade on May 17, 2015. In the 1865 parade, African American soldiers were not participants. In a fitting tribute to those black soldiers, the parade on May 17 will include reenactors from African American regiments, as well as descendants of black Civil War soldiers, along with reenactors from other Union regiments from around the country.


Scene from the 1865 Grand Review Parade, from the website for the 2015 Grand Review Parade Week.

Details are at the website, Grand Review Parade.org. The theme for the activities is “Grand Review Parade Weekend: A New Birth of Freedom and Union.”

The African American Civil War Museum of Washington, DC, is a major co-sponsor of the event. The Museum has planned several activities, starting on Friday, May 15, which are noted here.

This should be great fun and education for all. I hope you all can make it to my hometown of Washington, DC, for these events.

[2] African American Military Portraits from the American Civil War

This video discusses a museum exhibit of portraits of African American soldiers who served during the Civil War. There is an interesting and poignant story about one black soldier who served in various capacities in other wars, even after reaching 70 years of age.

[3] African American Civil War Reenactors in North Carolina

The New & Observer website has an article by Martha Quillin titled “Civil War saga: Black re-enactors tell their side of the story.” James White of Wilmington, NC, who is the commander of an African American Civil War re-enactment group, is featured in the piece.

James White USCT North Carolina Reenactor
Civil War re-enactors James White, center, his son, Jayden, left, and James’ brother, Joseph White. Courtesy of James White
Image Source: News & Observer, article dated January 24, 2015.

[4] African American Doctors in the Civil War

The picture quality is not great, but this is an informative discussion of African American doctors in the mid-19th century and the role they played in the American Civil War. The speaker is Dr. Robert Slawson, an author and docent at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

[5] The Belated Burial of the Confederate Flag

Artist, activist, and mathematician John C. Sims is seeking to stage a multi-site event in the former Confederate States on Memorial Day, May 25, 2015, for “The Belated Burial of the Confederate Flag.” The event, which is “to take place simultaneously in 13 Southern states, at sites to be determined” is part of Sims’ “Recoloration Proclamation” project. Sims and his team are inviting “poets, artists, activists and community leaders to participate” in the event. This appears to be a flyer for the event:

Read more here: “Call for Artists: Be Part of John C. Sims’ The Belated Burial of the Confederate Flag,” from the Nashville Sscene.com. Story and image both posted by Stephen Trageser.