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Stories of the USCT

May 24, 2017 Innovation Impact

”We are Bound for Glory with a Fair Wind, Nothing but Working and Fighting Ahead.” – Samuel Chapman Armstrong, Lt. Col., 9th USCT, between Hilton Head, South Carolina and Petersburg, VA, 1864

The American Civil War was the seminal event affecting daily life and ideals about freedom and citizenship during the 1860s and beyond. People coped with the reality of war-time devastation in a variety of ways. As the Civil War generation passed during the late 1920s and 1930s, when the collections of The Henry Ford were forming, the sacred family mementos that associated with personal memories of pride, honor and glory became part of this great museum of the American experience. Even though The Henry Ford is not a military history museum, the collections are rich with Civil War photographs and letters, battlefield relics, and even a medal of honor. The war is deeply imbedded in the collective memory of 19th and early 20th century Americans, and it was so often included in the “archives” of their lives that, by default, their mementos became part of our collections. 

Henry Ford’s own interest in documenting the lives of his parents and his own childhood and young adulthood, caused him to collect his own family’s rich Civil War stories. Two of Henry’s mother’s brothers, John and Barney Litogot, served in the storied 24th Michigan. John was killed near Fredericksburg, Virginia, and Barney survived to fight in many battles, including Gettysburg. He also served in the honor guard at Abraham Lincoln’s funeral.

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John and Barney Litogot at the time of their enlistment, August, 1862. THF 226852

The variety of Civil War objects in the collection is amazing, and represents both Union and Confederate perspectives. 

Keeping troops in the field proved challenging for the Confederacy and the Union. A broadside confirms pay scales for Union troops and employees of the United States Army. 

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Recruiting Broadside, United States Army, c1863. THF 8551

Lackluster enlistment, however, prompted both armies to institute conscription. The Confederacy did this in April 1862 and the Union followed in March 1863.

The U.S. Army issued broadsides to recruit soldiers, including men of African descent, after passage of the Emancipation Proclamation. One broadside in the collection depicts a white male standard bearer front and center and elevated above others in the scene. He is armed with a sword and the banner, “Freedom to the Slave.” To the left sits a public school and a black man reading a newspaper rather than manning the plow. This implied that education and literacy could free people from manual labor. To the right, a black soldier aids black women and children recently freed from the shackles of slavery while black troops fight in the background. 

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“Freedom to the Slave. . . Fight for the Stars and Stripes,” 1863-1865. THF 118383

Black men had opportunities to serve in the Union forces before the Emancipation Proclamation. In fact, in May 1862, General David Hunter, in command of occupying forces in Hilton Head, South Carolina, organized the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry. He acted without permission of the War Department and reputedly impressed men enslaved on plantations in the occupied territory into service. This sparked controversy about whether contraband of war, the enslaved in occupied territory, could, or should, serve in the military. The regiment disbanded in August 1862

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Wood Engraving, First and Last Dress Review of 1st Regiment South Carolina (Negro) Volunteers, 1862. THF 11672.

The Militia Act on July 11862 made it legal for the U.S. President, as commander in chief, to accept “persons of African descent” into the Union military or navy. The Militia Act authorized their pay and rations equivalent to that of soldiers already serving, but instead of $13 per month, they received $10 per month, with the remaining $3 paid in clothing). It also allowed persons of African descent to work for the Union, performing camp service and building fortifications.

Union officers reorganized the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry in November 1862, in conjunction with the Port Royal Experiment to redistribute lands on the Sea Islands of South Carolina to the formerly enslaved. Company A, under command of Charles T. Trowbridge, became the first official regiment of U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) on January 1, 1863, the same day that officials read the Emancipation Proclamation for the first time, in Beaufort, South Carolina, on Port Royal Island, just south of Fort Sumter. The First South Carolina was renamed the 33rd U.S. Colored Infantry in 1864 and remained in service until January 31, 1866.

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"Dress Parade of the First South Carolina Regiment (Colored) near Beaufort, South Carolina," 1861-1865. THF 8221

Stories of tragedy and triumph abound in the history of the USCT, including experiences lived by residents on our own Susquehanna Plantation.

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Susquehanna as it appears in Greenfield Village today. THF 2024

Morris Robertson, an enslaved carpenter, left Susquehanna and enlisted with the Federal Army on October 25, 1863. He became a member of the 9th USCT, Company C. This regiment was organized at Camp Stanton, Benedict, Maryland, from November 11 to December 31, 1863. They saw service in South Carolina and Virginia, including Petersburg and Richmond. Following the end of hostilities, the regiment was moved to Brownsville, Texas, where it remained until September 1866. The 9th was ordered to Louisiana in October and mustered out at New Orleans, November 26, 1866. Sadly, it was in Brownsville, Texas, very near the end of his term of service that Morris Robertson died of cholera on August 25, 1866. We would like to think that Morris’ brief time of freedom, though under frequent periods of extreme danger, gave him some joy.  It is troubling to know that though free, he would never see his family again.

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Service Record for Morris Robertson from the Company Descriptive Book. (Library of Congress)

Other objects in the collections document USCT in several other states, and confirms their service across the Confederate States from Virginia to south Texas. Examples include the 54th Massachusetts, perhaps the most well-known USCT regiment. It received national media attention in July 1863 for its “gallant charge” on rebel-held Fort Wagner, on Morris Island in the Charleston, South Carolina harbor.

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Lithograph: GALLANT CHARGE OF THE FIFTY FOURTH (COLORED) MASSACHUSETTS REGIMENT / On the Rebel Works at Fort Wagner; Morris Island near Charleston, July 18th 1863, and the death of Colonel Robt. G. Shaw. THF 73704 

USCT saw action in the Gulf of Mexico. Evidence includes a portrait of J.D. Brooker. Inscriptions on the back of the photo matte indicated that Brooker served with the Corps d’Afrique, 79th Regiment of Infantry. U.S. Army recruiters worked at the parish-level in occupied Louisiana, to attract volunteers. Troops saw heavy action during the Port Hudson campaign, May through July 1863. Major General Nathaniel P. Banks praised the Corps--"It gives me great pleasure to report that they answered every expectation. In many respects their conduct was heroic. No troops could be more determined or more daring."

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Portrait of J.D. Brooker, soldier with the Corps d'Afrique 79th U.S. Colored Troops from Louisiana. THF 93151  

Fragments of “our flag” were glued to the back of J.D. Brooker’s portrait.

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THF 93152

Collections include portraits of white commanding officers of black troops.

Union Army Colonel Bernard Gains Farrar, who assisted in the siege of Vicksburg, recruited African-American troops from the area after Vicksburg fell. He commanded the 6th U. S. Colored Heavy Artillery. 

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Portrait of a Union Army Colonel Bernard Gains Farrar, 1862-1864. THF 6229

Lieutenant Andrew Coats, served with the 7th Colored Infantry Regiment and as Acting Assistant Adjutant General for the District of Florida. In 1864, the 7th Colored Infantry Regiment was part of the 10th Army Corps, located in the area of Hilton Head and Beaufort, South Carolina.

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Portrait of Lieutenant Andrew Coats, 7th Colored Infantry Regiment, 1864. THF 57539

Americans of African descent remained the fulcrum around which debates about status and citizenship revolved. An 1864 print by Currier and Ives, conveyed this debate graphically as a contrast between the George B. McClellan, the Democratic presidential candidate, who wanted to restore the Union, but not abolish slavery, and the incumbent, Abraham Lincoln, author of the Emancipation Proclamation. If McClellan won the election, the CSA president, Jefferson Davis, would slit their throats. If President Lincoln retained his seat, black soldiers could stand at Lincoln’s right hand, defending the Union of States against CSA president Davis, in rags and on his posterior and held at bay by Lincoln. Black soldiers, however, remained culturally distinctive in the Currier and Ives depiction, as the dialect in the captioning re-enforced.

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“Your Plan and Mine,” Political Cartoon, Presidential Campaign, 1864. THF 251879

Our collections also document post-war service of USCT. The Muster Roll for Company E, 46th Regiment of United States Colored Infantry confirmed the presence of men serving in the Regiment between April 30 and June 30, 1865. It also included names of at least fifteen men who had been taken as prisoners of war and men who had been discharged and deceased. The roll may have been used to keep track of soldiers after the war, perhaps for pension applications. Some annotations are dated 1885 and 1890. The Company E, 46th Regiment USCT saw action in Arkansas and the Mississippi Delta.

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THF 96529

Another muster roll, confirmed the presence of thirteen soldiers in Company G, 25th Regiment of United States Colored Infantry, on April 12, 1865. Col. F.L. Hitchcock, commanding officer of the troops in Fort Barrancas, Florida, signed the roll. It includes details about each soldier:

Name; Rank; Date mustered in; Place mustered in; Mustered in by [name]; How long in service; Hair color; Eye color; Complexion color; Height (feet and inches); Where born; Age; Occupation; Pay information.

The 25th Regiment USCT was on garrison duty at Fort Barrancas, Florida, when these soldiers were recruited, and remained on garrison duty until December, 1865, never seeing action. During the spring and summer of 1865 about 150 men died of scurvy, the result of lack of proper food. Col. Hitchcock wrote:

"I desire to bear testimony to the esprit du corps, and general efficiency of the organization as a regiment, to the competency and general good character of its officers, to the soldierly bearing, fidelity to duty, and patriotism of its men. Having seen active service in the Army of the Potomac, prior to my connection with the Twenty-fifth, I can speak with some degree of assurance. After a proper time had been devoted to its drill, I never for a moment doubted what would be its conduct under fire. It would have done its full duty beyond question. An opportunity to prove this the Government never afforded, and the men always felt this a grievance."

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Muster Roll of 13 Soldiers in Company G, 25th Regiment of United States Colored Infantry, April 12, 1865. THF 284824

As we pause to celebrate Memorial Day, a holiday with its origins linked to the Civil War, we need to pause to also honor all those who have given their lives in service, and all those who have, and continue to, serve to protect our freedoms. Americans did not agree on the meaning of freedom during the 1860s, and the evidence indicates that Americans of African descent were not given their freedom by white Americans. They fought during the Civil War to attain it.

Jim Johnson is Curator of Historic Structures and Landscapes at The Henry Ford. Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.

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