1st NC Colored Volunteers - Chapter 2, Part 1

The African-American's Civil War: A History of the
1st North Carolina Colored Volunteers

Chapter 2 - Part 1

Formation of the 1st North Carolina Colored Volunteers

Several black regiments had been mustered into the Union army by April 1863, but the question about recruiting ex-slaves remained. Most of the regiments raised previously consisted largely of free blacks. Because the North Carolina black brigade would primarily be made up of southern fugitives, skeptics criticized efforts to fill its ranks.

North Carolina offered a peculiar set of circumstances for raising a black brigade. President Lincoln saw the potential to reunionize North Carolina and selected a governor for the state who could foster pro-Union sympathies. Efforts to bring North Carolina back into the Union, however, conflicted with the raising of black troops. In addition, few Union officials in North Carolina supported the efforts of Governor John Andrew and his northern friends. The success of raising the brigade depended heavily upon effective leadership. Brig. Gen. Edward Wild worked long hours to recruit the men and select the officers for the 1st NCCV in hopes that it would be a model for future black regiments.

"A Mecca of a Thousand Aspirations"

Eastern North Carolina entered the war in February of 1862, when Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside occupied North Carolina's coastal regions with his large Union force of eleven thousand troops and fourteen warships. 1 Burnside's mission was to fulfill the War Department's strategy of blockading the Confederacy. On March 14 the Federals seized New Bern after a brief battle with the Confederates. Slaves in the area greeted their northern emancipators with shouts of jubilee. 2 "They seemed to be wild with excitement and delight," wrote Burnside to the Secretary of War. 3 As Union forces secured control of towns and cities, word quickly spread among the slave community that the "northern liberators" had arrived. Thousands made their way to New Bern, Washington, Elizabeth City, and other key locations under Federal control. 4 Many of these refugees would later form part of the 1st NCCV.

Congressional confiscation acts and the President's declaration in June 1862 had established policy concerning refugee slaves. Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler set precedents when he labelled escaped slaves as "contraband of war" and utilized them as laborers at Fortress Monroe. The question of whether or not to return ex-slaves no longer remained an issue.

A major issue did arise, however, when cities were overcrowded with refugee slaves and with southern whites displaced by the Federal expedition. The Union army was faced with a large, impoverished population. Burnside appointed Vincent Colyer as superintendent of the Department of North Carolina in order to deal with the problem. According to a census taken by Colyer, there were 7,500 black refugees in New Bern and surrounding areas, and 10,000 blacks, including women and children, within the whole Department. New Bern held the largest concentration of ex-slaves to the point of being called a "Mecca of a thousand aspirations" by one soldier. 5 Burnside ordered Colyer to employ up to five thousand contraband to build Federal fortifications at New Bern and other coastal locations and to pay them eight dollars a month, plus rations and clothing. Burnside also employed fugitives as spies for the Union army. As many as fifty at a time were sent out to observe Confederate positions. 6

Colyer established churches for the black refugees to meet their spiritual needs and organized two night schools for their education. Many soldiers from the Massachusetts regiments stationed in North Carolina served as volunteer teachers. Soon, as many as eight hundred blacks were enrolled in night classes. 7 The school was temporarily closed, however, when Colyer was confronted by Edward Stanly, the new military governor appointed by the President.

Stanly arrived six weeks after Colyer had opened his night schools for blacks and cautioned Colyer that North Carolina laws prohibited the education of slaves. If the state were to be reconciled, Stanly pointed out, the Union army must not encourage the violation of her laws. 8 Though Colyer suspended the classes, Stanly received the blame and was criticized for harboring pro-southern sympathies. The situation worsened when Stanly became involved in returning a runaway slave. Nicolas Bray, a local farmer near New Bern, insisted that Union soldiers had carried off his slave against her will. After Stanly persuaded Bray to take the oath of allegiance to the United States in accordance with Lincoln's reconstruction plan, he allowed Bray to take back his slave. Labelled the "Bray Affair," the incident excited fear among the fugitives in and around New Bern and substantiated northern suspicions of Stanly. After news of the incident appeared in several northern newspapers, abolitionists denounced Stanly as "a tool of the 'slaveocracy'" and demanded his resignation. 9

Many Union officials in North Carolina opposed raising black troops. The efforts of northern civilians and soldiers thus became crucial for the success of recruiting black soldiers. Governor Andrew was instrumental in drawing attention to North Carolina. The success of his two regiments, the 54th and the 55th Massachusetts Volunteers, led him to believe that the South offered potential for black enlistments. He wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton suggesting the idea of sending "some able, brave, tried, and believing man as a brigadier" to raise a brigade in North Carolina. He knew that within Maj. Gen. John G. Foster's department there were from 2,500 to 5,000 black men ready to be recruited. 10 Several prominent abolitionists such as Wendell Phillips, George Stearns, Edward Kinsley, and Francis Bird were among those who supported Andrew's efforts. 11

Realizing the difficulty of attracting blacks to join white troops, Andrew recommended sending the 54th Massachusetts Regiment to be the "nest egg of a brigade" of North Carolinians. If the government refused to sanction the North Carolina undertaking, Andrew was prepared to welcome North Carolina fugitives into his Massachusetts regiments and offer them the state bounty. He preferred, however, to see the work going on in the South, where more slaves were apt to volunteer. 12

Governor Andrew recommended Brig. Gen. Frank Barlow of New York to direct the recruiting process. If he were not deemed suitable, Andrew knew of several colonels with excellent qualifications who would accept a brigadiership for such a purpose. Andrew cautioned that the "soul for any movement-even to trundle a wheelbarrow," depended on the right man. 13

The War Department referred Governor Andrew's proposal to Foster in New Bern. Foster was not in favor of recruiting blacks. When a guerrilla force threatened to invade Elizabeth City he armed and equipped about eighty ex-slaves due to a shortage of manpower. Opportunity never came for the freedmen to engage the enemy, but they performed their duty well. Foster felt, however, that they could not be trusted in "any outward movement or raid, probably owing to their lack of discipline." 14

In another Confederate attack on Washington, N.C., many blacks in surrounding areas petitioned to be armed. With limited resources, Foster could only supply about 120 rifles. Again, these men did not directly engage the enemy, but performed their duty well and seemed willing to fight. Once the emergency had passed, they were not interested in enlisting. According to Foster, the men wanted to live with their families rather than serve in the Union army. Probably the general's attitude had much to do with their unwillingness to serve. 15

Foster asserted that his own experiences indicated that not more than one regiment of volunteers could be raised in his department. Forced enlistments, he reassured Stanton, would alienate blacks as they had done at Port Royal under Maj. Gen. David Hunter. On one occasion, having received a petition of ex-slaves wishing to join the Union army, Foster replied that if enough volunteered to form a regiment, he would consider the matter and take action. The only response was an unofficial count of about three hundred men who were willing to enlist. Foster made it clear, however, that the wishes of the government would be "carried out, not only with obedience . . . but with zeal." 16

Col. Robert G. Shaw prepared the 54th Massachusetts to be transferred to the Department of North Carolina. At a ceremony in Boston on May 18, 1863, however, Shaw received orders to report to Maj. Gen. Hunter, commanding Department of the South. Shaw was not disappointed because he felt that South Carolina offered more opportunity for his regiment to demonstrate its military capability than North Carolina. "The latter, as likely as not, would make us do all the digging of the department," he wrote. 17 As it turned out, both the 1st NCCV, soon to be organized, and the 54th Massachusetts were given excessive fatigue duty once they arrived in South Carolina.

When the War Department sanctioned the recruitment of blacks in North Carolina, Wild was put in charge of raising four regiments of African descent. Governor Stanly did not approve of Lincoln's measures to emancipate southern slaves, nor did he endorse Union officials' recruiting efforts. Soon after Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation, Stanly submitted his resignation to the President. 18 There were far fewer Union sympathizers in North Carolina than President Lincoln or the Union army had realized. Even those who were pro-Union were offended by blacks wearing blue uniforms. Wild had his work cut out for him.

Selecting the Officers

Though Governor Andrew and Col. Shaw recommended Barlow, Wild proved to be the man for the job. Edward Augustus Wild of Brookline, Massachusetts, had served as colonel of the 35th Massachusetts Infantry at the Battle of Antietam, the Federal victory that prompted Lincoln to announce his Emancipation Proclamation. He was wounded and subsequently had his left arm amputated. Wild still managed to remain on active duty, helping to recruit for the 54th Massachusetts. Though Shaw doubted his ability to remain in active service, the War Department promoted Wild to brigadier general and sent him south to recruit more black troops. 19

To insure that quality officers were selected for the 1st NCCV, Wild chose experienced veterans who were committed abolitionists. Unlike recruiters of other black regiments, Wild was given sole authority to appoint officers. His selections were not required to appear before a board of examiners or wait for the Bureau of Colored Troops to designate rank. 20 Of the fifty-three selected, all but a handful were white anti-slavery men from Massachusetts. Seven came from Massachusetts regiments previously stationed in North Carolina-the 17th, 23d, and 25th Regiments of Volunteers. 21

Wild called on Lt. Col. James C. Beecher, half-brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe, to command the 1st NCCV and help fill its ranks. Beecher's previous experiences helped in his relationships with the men. Reared by his stepmother, James knew his brothers and sisters only slightly. Beecher entered Dartmouth College, but a rebellious tendency caused him to be suspended in his junior year. 22 With the help of his influential family, James was allowed to return and was graduated. According to one historian, the estranged relationship between James and his siblings prompted his adolescent behavior. After graduating, Beecher entered Andover Theological Seminary, following the same path as his father and brothers into the ministry. Before he could finish at Andover, James accepted an offer that would send him to the Orient. Beecher spent five years as a missionary, first in Canton, and later in Hong Kong, where he pastored a seaman's chapel. These years of ministering in cities crowded with prostitutes, brothels, and ruffians, forged in James a heart of compassion that later served him well in his command of the North Carolina regiment. 23

Sadly enough, there was a high turnover rate among the sailors in Hong Kong, and James became discouraged at the poor attendance to his services. Adding to his grief, his wife Annie returned to the United States to receive medical care. Once it was discovered that she suffered from alcoholism, she did not return to Asia. This revelation was a blow to the Beechers, a family who publicly championed high moral standards. James returned to the United States at the outbreak of war in 1861 and immediately enlisted as chaplain in the 1st Long Island Regiment, called the "Brooklyn Phalanx." 24

Desiring advancement, James requested and received a transfer into the 141st New York Volunteers as a lieutenant colonel. His brother Tom was also a chaplain in the regiment. The pressures of army life coupled with the strain of Annie's problem weighed heavily upon Beecher. Tom wrote to his wife, Isabella, that James was being driven to madness and possibly faced court-martial. Probably adding to Beecher's anxiety was guilt he felt over his newly discovered attraction to Frances Johnson, a sturdy, pious woman. The Beechers used their influence to persuade Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to grant James an honorable discharge from the army. Thereafter James entered a sanitarium in order to receive professional help for his nervous condition. 25

James was offered a second chance after Annie died in April, 1863. That same month, the War Department had authorized the raising of the North Carolina brigade. Soon after, James received his commission as commander of the 1st NCCV.

Among the other officers, Wild appointed William N. Reed of New York City as lieutenant colonel of the regiment. Reed was graduated from the military school at Keil, Germany, and later served in an imperial army where he received the rank of major. Some records indicate that Reed was a mulatto; if so, he was the highest ranking African-American in the Civil War. 26 Archibald Bogle, from Melbrose, Massachusetts, was appointed major on April 28, 1863. After the Battle of Olustee, Bogle temporarily assumed command of the regiment when its colonel was wounded and its lieutenant colonel killed. He was later promoted to lieutenant colonel of U.S. Volunteers. William C. Manning from Portland, Maine, was appointed adjutant on April 28, and on June 11, 1864, Manning was detailed as Acting Secretary Adjutant to Brig. Gen. E. E. Potter by special order No. 238. He was appointed captain of Company "H" on August 10 and, later in the war, was promoted to major of the 103d United States Colored Troops (USCT). 27

One of the most controversial appointments in the 1st NCCV was Dr. John V. DeGrasse, regimental surgeon. DeGrasse, born in New York City, entered Bowdoin College in 1847 and, on May 19, 1849, received his M.D. with honors. After graduation he traveled abroad to Paris where he became an assistant to the renowned French surgeon, Alfred Velpeau. 28 When he returned to the States, he opened his own practice in New York. Soon he moved to Boston where he earned an excellent reputation. DeGrasse became the first African-American surgeon to be admitted to the Massachusetts Medical Society and was probably the first black to be admitted to any medical body. 29 When war broke out, DeGrasse volunteered his services to the United States Army, thus becoming one of only eight black surgeons to serve in the Union forces. For his brief service with the 1st NCCV, Governor Andrew awarded him a gold-hilted sword from the state of Massachusetts. 30

When the regiment was transferred to South Carolina, friction arose between DeGrasse and Dr. Daniel Mann, a white surgeon appointed by Wild. Mann claimed that Wild intended to make him head surgeon even though DeGrasse was appointed first. Mann accused DeGrasse of undermining his authority, and charged that he abused his access to the hospital liquor and funds. 31 Considering DeGrasse's reputation in Boston, Mann's allegations appeared to be racially motivated. Mann also accused Lt. Col. Reed of aiding his fellow African-American by issuing an order that annulled Mann's right as chief medical officer. Maj. Horace R. Wirtz, medical director, supported Mann's allegations and threatened to bring charges against DeGrasse. 32 When Wild learned of the incident, he rebuked Col. Beecher for not promoting temperance in the regiment.

Beecher swiftly came to DeGrasse's defense. Intending to Court Martial Mann, he hoped that the results of the trial would aquit himself of Wild's rebuke. Beecher insisted that by his orders, no liquor had been issued to the men, except in case of excessive exposure, and under no circumstances had it been given to officers. In not one instance, contended Beecher, had there been an intoxicated officer, and only in one case had charges been brought against one of the men, a statement "which can probably be said of no other regiment in the service, certainly not in this Dpt." 33

Lt. Col. Reed arrested Mann for his wild accusations. When no charges were brought against DeGrasse, Reed offered to drop his charges as well if Mann made an official apology to DeGrasse. Later in the war, DeGrasse was discharged from the service on grounds of insobriety by orders of the War Department, although some doubt remains about the validity of the charges. 34 The appointments of both DeGrasse and Reed reveal a progressive racial attitude prevalent at the raising of the brigade; however, with the replacement of both men with white officers in 1864, this attitude had apparently changed. 35

Another surgeon was assigned to the regiment on October 1, 1863, and reported for duty on November 24. Dr. Henry O. Marcy, a white physician from Boston, had previously served as assistant surgeon in the 43d Massachusetts Volunteers. While with the 1st NCCV, he performed double duty as an officer and as instructor of classes he had established for the men. His term with the regiment ended in 1864 when he was appointed medical director of Florida. He later served with Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in the Carolinas campaign. 36

Although the utmost care was taken in the selection of officers, occasionally one was discovered to be incompetent or unmanageable. First Lt. Levi G. Pratt of Newton, Massachusetts, commander of Company B, serves as an example. Pratt was called before the board for the examination of officers in June 1864 in South Carolina after having been reported "bad-more than two times." 37 He was discharged for disability on July 25, 1864.

Receiving a commission into a black regiment was not always an easy task. In one case, an officer accepted a position in the 1st NCCV when he could not receive a commission into the 54th Massachusetts. George Geurrier convinced his brother and a friend, both staunch Quaker abolitionists, to lobby for him after he was denied a position in the 54th. The friend wrote to General Byron Root Pierce describing Geurrier as having "the highest and purest motives to fight for liberty. . . ." Col. Shaw liked Geurrier but had no more room in his regiment. Governor Andrew was able to obtain a second lieutenancy for him in Beecher's regiment where Geurrier became commander of Company A. 38

Once the officers were selected, General Wild began to focus on filling the ranks of his brigade. He placed Beecher in charge of recruitment. Several prominent New England abolitionists volun-teered to assist Beecher. Edward Kinsley played a major role in speeding up the process of filling the ranks. In a meeting with influential African-Americans in New Bern, Kinsley reportedly made unauthorized offers to new recruits. Abraham H. Galloway, a North Carolina mulatto who moderated the meeting, probably recruited more men than did Kinsley. In praising Galloway for his service, Wild wrote how he was formerly a spy but now was "recruiting emissary." 39

Within thirty days of their arrival, the northern anti-slavery men with their southern delegation were able to enlist 980 men at New Bern. The 1st North Carolina Regiment of Colored Volunteers was officially mustered into service on June 30, 1863. 40 A shortage of volunteers enabled only two other regiments of infantry to be organized-a third, completed in 1864, was designated as heavy artillery.

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Footnotes (1 - 40)

1. John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1963), 97.

2. Joe A. Mobley, James City: A Black Community in North Carolina, 1863-1900 (Raleigh: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History, 1981), 2.

3. Ira Berlin et al., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867, Selected from the Holdings of the National Archives of the United States, ser.1, vol. 1, The Destruction of Slavery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 80-81.

4. Mobley, James City, 2.

5. James A. Emmerton, A Record of the Twenty-third Regiment Mass. Vol. Infantry in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 . . . (Boston: William Ware and Company, 1886), 95, as quoted in Mobley, James City, 5.

6. Vincent Colyer, Brief Report of the Services Rendered by the Freed People to the United States Army in North Carolina in the Spring of 1862, after the Battle of New Bern (New York: Vincent Colyer, 1864), 9, as appears in Mobley, James City, 9.

7. Ibid., 10.

8. Norman D. Brown, Edward Stanly: Whiggery's Tarheel 'Conqueror,' Southern Historical Publication No. 18 (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1974), 207.

9. Ibid., 210.

10. Governor John A. Andrew to Secretary of War Stanton, April 1, 1863, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), ser.3, 3:109-10 (Hereafter ORA).

11. Richard Reid, "Raising the African Brigade: Early Black Recruitment in Civil War North Carolina," North Carolina Historical Review, 70 (July 1993): 268.

12. Governor Andrew to Secretary of War Stanton, April 1, 1863, ORA, ser.3, 3:110.

13. Ibid.

14. Maj. Gen. J. G. Foster to Secretary of War Stanton, May 5, 1863, ORA, ser.3, 3:192.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. David Duncan, Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1992), 332-33.

18. Brown, Edward Stanly, 248-49.

19. Duncan, Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune, 322-323.

20. Reid, "Raising the African Brigade," 276.

21. Descriptive Books, 35th United States Colored Troops (USCT), Record Group 94, National Archives, Washington, D.C.; Reid, "Raising the African Brigade," 277.

22. Milton Rugoff, The Beechers: An American Family in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1981), 451.

23. Ibid., 453.

24. Ibid., 455.

25. Ibid.

26. In a letter to Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore, Maj. Horace R. Wirtz, Medical Director, asserted that Reed was a mulatto and that this influenced his decision to elevate a black surgeon over a white one. Maj. Wirtz to Maj. Gen. Gillmore, November 20, 1863, Order Book, 35th USCT, RG 94, National Archives, Washington, D.C. Also see Reid, "Raising the African Brigade," 277; Descriptive Books, 35th USCT, RG 94, National Archives.

27. Descriptive Books, 35th USCT, RG 94, National Archives.

28. Herbert M. Morais, The History of the Negro in Medicine (New York: Publishers Company, Inc., 1967), 38.

29. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, eds., Dictionary of American Negro Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1982), 169.

30. Morais, History of the Negro in Medicine, 38.

31. Daniel Mann to Maj. Wirtz, October 22, 1863, Order Book, 35th USCT, RG 94, National Archives.

32. Maj. Wirtz to Maj. Gen. Gillmore, commanding, November 20, 1863, Ibid.

33. Col. James C. Beecher to Brig. Gen. Edward A. Wild, December 4, 1863, Ibid.

34. Descriptive Books, 35th USCT, RG 94, National Archives; Reid, "Raising the African Brigade," 278.

35. Reid, "Raising the African Brigade," 278.

36. John H. Talbott, M.D., A Biographical History of Medicine: Excerpts and Essays of the Men and Their Work (New York: Grune & Stratton, 1970), 1008-09.

37. Maj. Archibald Bogle to Capt. S.L. McHenry, June 25, 1864, Order Book, 35th USCT, RG 94, National Archives.

38. Duncan, Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune, 317-319; Col. Beecher to Lt. Thomas Robinson, November 15, 1863, Order Book, 35th USCT, RG 94, National Archives.

39. Reid, "Raising the African Brigade," 282.

40. Col. Beecher to Lt. Robinson, November 15, 1863, Order Book, RG 94, National Archives.

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