JUST LEARNING TO BE MEN
"The Men of My Command"
The men of the 35th brought with them various backgrounds and situations, and left service in the USCT with diverse memories and experiences. The Descriptive Books of the regiment list 1,098 men who enlisted from the time of conception until the late stages of the war. In these books, officers recorded valuable information about the individual soldiers who joined the 35th. Included are the age, height, complexion, eye and hair color, town or county born, state, occupation, date of enlistment, site of enlistment, by whom enlisted, length of service, and additional remarks detailing desertion, death, wounds received, and promotions. The data available in the Descriptive Books provides glimpses into the individual lives of the men who formed the 35th USCT.
Former slaves and free blacks of all ages joined the 35th. Eager young men enlisted as young as fifteen, while others age forty and older joined to participate in the war. The average age of the regiment was 23.8 years of age, with the vast majority of soldiers in their late teens and twenties at the time of enlistment. However, men much older than the average decided to enlist. William Matthis, the oldest soldier of the regiment, was sixty-seven when he joined Company I. That a man of his age felt the desire to participate is remarkable. Fifty-two years separated Matthis from the youngest soldiers of the 35th. The vast age differences reflected the success of recruitment in Eastern North Carolina. Many of these men formerly served as laborers and assistants to Union troops, and felt the need to participate in another capacity. Therefore, Wild, Beecher, and their recruiters faced little difficulty inspiring black men of all ages to join the fight. 1
In most cases, recruiting officers identified the color complexion of the new soldiers. Though overwhelmingly recorded as "black" or "dark," some soldiers received the notation "light." Officers identified only seventy-six of the 1,098 men of the 35th as having "light" complexions. These men made up only 6.9 percent of the entire regiment. Company F contained the largest number of "light" soldiers, with seventeen of ninety-four men fitting that description. Out of 110 men, Company C only listed one soldier of "light" complexion. According to the comments in the Descriptive Books, the experiences of "light" soldiers differ little from those with dark skin except in one significant area. Soldiers noted as having "light" complexions more often received promotions than did other black soldiers. 2
A separate roster in the Descriptive Books lists the noncommissioned officers for the regiment. Of the nine noncommissioned officers in this list, four received the notation of "light." Two were listed as "black," one as "dark," and the remaining two were white. Blacks of lighter complexion historically received more favorable treatment than those with darker skin. On a plantation in the slave society, slaves with light skin often worked in positions other than in the fields, sometimes as servants in the main house or in skilled trades on the plantation. Because light-skinned slaves occasionally had superior training and skills, some could have advanced in the ranks more rapidly than those who had little or no training in anything other than field work. For example, John Monroe of Company A worked as a servant before the war, and received and early promotion to Quarter Master Sergeant. Perhaps the skills he learned as a house worker helped him earn the promotion. Reflecting the views of the race-conscious society, white officers might have treated lighter-skinned blacks better and given them greater chances for promotions. 3
Though some of the men who received promotions did indicate that they worked at jobs other than field hands, the majority of the men did not. Judging by the occupations listed in the descriptive books, most of the men of the 35th had been slaves before enlisting in the unit. Most soldiers reported their occupations as farmer or laborer, occupations that imply slavery. In Company A, of 115 men, eighty-six listed the occupation of farmer. Only six men worked as laborers, but another eleven held the occupations of blacksmith, carpenter, teamster, driver, or mason. These jobs could have been on a plantation in the service of a master. A number of recruits could have been free; in1860 30,463 free blacks lived in North Carolina. Free blacks also tended to perform unskilled agricultural labor, though some held skilled positions. Most of the other companies in the regiment reflected the pattern of Company A. The greatest majority of soldiers worked as farmers or laborers before the war, and a few listed skilled occupations such as carpenter, blacksmith, mason, or driver. Still fewer recruits reported domestic occupations, such as servant, waiter, or cook. Many soldiers recruited on the Outer Banks of North Carolina worked as sailors; they might have been slaves or freed men. 4
In a study of various descriptive books in regiments of United States Colored Troops, Historian Robert A. Margo reached several intriguing conclusions. Margo noted that prewar occupations of recruits were closely related to the age, height, and complexion of the soldier. Younger, taller, darker-skinned former bondsmen more often than not worked as field laborers. Slaveholders recognized that youth and height in workers could result in greater production in the field. Older recruits commonly worked in skilled positions, and those with lighter complexions frequently listed domestic posts. Margo also observed that former slaves recruited in the eastern and southeastern states of the Confederacy reported a slightly higher number of skilled, semi-skilled, or domestic occupations than those from Union states or western states within the Confederacy. This difference, according to Margo, implies that different recruiting policies may have existed in the regions. Many of the soldiers of the 35th follow the same patterns noted by Margo. John Monroe of Company A, mentioned previously, reported his occupation as servant before the war. Monroe also had a "light" complexion, which corresponds with Margo's findings that soldiers with "light" complexions more often than not worked in non-field positions. Also in Company A, Crosby McCade, twenty-eight, Frank Roberts, twenty-one, and Thomas Wilson, twenty-seven, all with "light" complexions, listed the skilled occupation of carpenter. Margo noted that older recruits often reported occupations other than field work, regardless of complexion. Thirty-six year old Henry Pelham of Company D, though dark-skinned, listed his occupation as servant. Peter Brady, thirty-seven, of Company I, reported the occupation of carpenter. Also dark-skinned, Brady received skilled training before the war. The characteristics of these men support Margo's conclusion. 5
However, the men of the 35th do not necessarily uphold Margo's findings that height and age determined which slaves worked in the fields. Margo concluded that young, tall men produced superior results in field work, therefore such men frequently composed the nucleus of the laboring force. At first glance, the records of the 35th do not entirely support this conclusion. If height is simply taken into account, men of all statures served as laborers, from the diminutive Silas Furly of Company E, 5ft. 1in., age nineteen, to Jacob Green of Company F, also nineteen, 6ft. 2in. Several factors must be considered. First, all slaves did not serve on large plantations where overseers could choose the best men for each job. On smaller estates, men who did not fit the top physical description for laborers may have performed the job out of necessity. Second, a strong, healthy man of lesser height simply could have outworked a taller, but less able man. Owners or overseers certainly would have chosen workers based on ability, not merely height. Finally, the enlisting officers did not record occupations for every man, or even every company. "Laborer" is recorded with extreme regularity. The roster of Company B lists all but one of the recruits as laborers, the exception being John Wallace, a hostler. Wallace and five other men joined the regiment in South Carolina, after the 35th left New Bern. Captain C.A. Jones recruited the first 88 men of Company B, but Captain Hutchins signed the last six soldiers. It is possible that many enlisting officers misused the term "laborer," applying it indiscriminately. Perhaps Jones listed every soldier as "laborer" rather than record the specific labor performed by the individual. Officers may not have believed this information to be valuable or even necessary, and therefore did not concern themselves with recording occupations accurately. Consequently, it is not known which men might have held skilled or semi-skilled positions. 6
The Descriptive Books of the 35th regiment provide demographic information as well as physical descriptions and occupations of the soldiers. In most cases, the soldier's home town or county is recorded, as well as the site of enlistment. This information offers insights into the scope of recruiting efforts by General Wild and his officers. Men from various localities joined. Some soldiers more than likely came to New Bern on their own either as refugees or when word of the organization of the regiment spread across eastern North Carolina. Others must have signed up because of the recruiting attempts of Wild. In Company A, men primarily came from Craven County and the surrounding counties. Forty men enlisted from Jones, Craven, Beaufort, and Carteret Counties. Those travelling the greatest distances came principally from northeastern counties such as Chowan, Tyrrell, Halifax, and Pasquotank. Several men from Elizabeth City joined the 35th. These soldiers faced a tremendous journey. If travelling over land, the recruits had to cross four rivers, and if by water, probably the quickest route, the trip still would have not been easy. 7
Despite this, the men did come. Company B drew heavily from the areas around New Bern and the northeastern counties, areas occupied by the Federal army, though one soldier from Confederate-held Raleigh joined. Similarly, a single recruit from Guilford County stood out among the other soldiers from northeastern North Carolina in Company C. Men from Jones, Duplin, Sampson, and other eastern North Carolina counties filled the ranks of Company D. Company E consisted of soldiers from Bertie, Pasquotank, Edgecombe, Perquimans, and surrounding counties. In Company F, the largest number of soldiers orginated in Camden, Pasquotank, Beaufort, Currituck, and Craven Counties. Several recruits in Company F listed Roanoke Island as their home. Company G drew from Martin, Bertie, Halifax, and neighboring counties. The majority of soldiers of Company H came from Hatteras Island. Company I recruited soldiers from Pasquotank, Hyde, Martin, Beaufort, and Gates Counties. The last company of the 35th, Company K, grouped recruits from Lenior, New Hanover, Carteret, Pitt, Craven and other eastern counties. 8
The men who gathered in the late spring and early summer of 1863 to form the 35th USCT overwhelmingly originated from the eastern counties of North Carolina. Many had great distances to travel under hazardous conditions in order to reach New Bern. Slaveholders certainly did not want their property to run away to join the enemy's force, but in Union-occupied areas they could not prevent it. In Confederate areas, guard units patrolled to prevent slaves from escaping. Runaway slaves faced punishment or worse if caught. Nevertheless, these determined men found their way to New Bern. A few traveled from Virginia, and several from South Carolina joined the companies after the regiment made its headquarters at Folly Island, South Carolina, in July 1863. 9
All of the social, economic, and demographic information contained in the Descriptive Books provides an image of the regiment. The vast majority of the men who formed the 35th were slaves prior to enlistment and lived in eastern North Carolina. From the occupations listed, most soldiers labored as field workers on plantations or smaller farms. However, soldiers listed a wide variety of skilled and semi-skilled positions as well. These recruits ranged in age from fifteen to sixty-seven years of age. Though possessing markedly similar backgrounds, the military experience of the soldiers of the 35th proved to be unique to each man.
For example, Crosby McCade of Company A enlisted in New Bern on June 30, 1863, at the age of twenty-eight. Born in Washington, North Carolina, the light-skinned McCade worked as a carpenter before enlisting. McCade participated in the battle at Olustee on February 20, 1864, and at the engagement at Honey Hill on November 30, 1864. His service record describes the equipment charged to him during the war; three canteens, three haversacks, and one tent, in addition to noting an injury to McCade's right foot. When mustered out, the War Department owed McCade $38 and $100 of enlistment bounty. He never seemed to be wounded or on sick call. 10
Caswell Streeter of Company E did not share the same experiences of McCade. Streeter enlisted on June 6, 1863, at the age of forty-four. The company muster rolls for January and February, 1864, noted Streeter "absent-in infected camp on Folly Island." Rolls for March and April indicate Streeter's continuing illness, "absent-sick at Jacksonville, Florida." In September, Streeter finally received a discharge because of illness. His certificate of disability read:
He has perfomed no duty for eight months and has been on the sick
list all the time. Is troubled with chronic rheumatism to partial
blindness . . . . consider him permanently disqualified to perform
the duties of a soldier. 11
Like white recruits, illness certainly shortened the careers of many soldiers. Streeter, already forty-four at the time of enlistment, had the misfortune of suffering from repeated sickness and, according to surgeon Henry O'Marcy, "old age." These afflictions made him incapable of carrying out his duties as a soldier and caused Streeter to return to civilian life early. 12
Though twice wounded in battle, Martin Lawson of Company I managed to fulfill his commitment with the 35th. The twenty-two-year-old farmer from Duplin County enlisted in May, 1863. Wounded in the leg at Olustee on February 20, 1864, Lawson suffered for several months. The Field and Staff Muster Roll for March and April reported Lawson "sick in General Hospital No. 10 Beaufort, S.C., since February 20, 1864 from wounds received in action." Lawson recovered from his wound and returned to the regiment after several months. However, his health soon suffered again. In November, 1864, Lawson became ill and rested in camp. Though sick in camp days before, Lawson regained enough strength to join the regiment for an engagement with the enemy at Honey Hill, South Carolina, on November 30, 1864. Perhaps Lawson should have remained in camp, for he received a severe wound in his left arm that necessitated his return to the General Hospital in Beaufort. Lawson, much younger than Caswell Streeter, recovered from both wounds and won the battle with ill health that ended the career of many soldiers. 13
Although wounded once, Alexander Mitchell of Company K also completed his service to the 35th. Mitchell, only twenty when he enlisted on June 2, 1863, worked as a laborer in Craven County prior to joining the regiment. Mitchell's service record notes very little, except pay deductions for canteens, haversacks, and other items. However, the record proves Mitchell's service to the 35th by listing the engagements in which he participated:
Was in engagement at Olustee, Florida, February 20, 1864;
Skirmish at Ten Mile Station, Florida, June 2, 1864;
Was in skirmish at Darby Station, Florida, August 12, 1864;
Slightly wounded at Battle of Honey Hill, South Carolina,
November 30, 1864; At Skirmish at Deveaux Neck, South
Carolina, December 7, 1864. 14
Mitchell survived skirmishes and battles, recovered from injury, and endured any illness he experienced. He mustered out of the regiment in June, 1866, owed $13.93 for his service to the country. 15
Mark Bufford of Company F began his military career with an illness that prevented him from mustering in with the rest of his company. The twenty-eight year old laborer from Currituck County became sick shortly after joining the unit. The Company Muster Roll for July and August, 1863, notes "Absent-sick at New Bern, N.C. from July 30, 1863, not yet mustered." This created difficulties for Bufford and the regiment, because the 35th left New Bern in early August for Charleston. The Muster Roll for September and October list Bufford as still absent due to sickness, but in October Bufford went on detached service in Virginia, most likely with the 36th United States Colored Troops. A detachment of the 35th joined General Wild and the 36th, 1st, 5th USCT, along with a detachment of the 55th Massachusetts. Wild led his troops on a raid in Virginia and northeastern North Carolina in early December 1863. On December 28, Bufford finally joined the 35th on Folly Island, South Carolina. He remained with the regiment without incident until November, when he again became sick. The Muster Rolls for November and December 1864 and January and February 1865, note "sick at Jacksonville, Florida, since November 25, 1864." Bufford recovered by early spring, and the Muster Roll for March and April 1865 simply records deductions from Bufford's pay for supplies, such as a cartridge belt plate, cone wrench, haversack and canteen. Just a month after the war ended, Bufford received a promotion to corporal for "good soldierly conduct." Bufford's war experience involved two serious illness, detached service far away from his regiment, and, finally, advancement from private to corporal. 16
John Monroe of Company A began his career differently from that of many of his fellow soldiers. Monroe, only eighteen when he joined the 35th on May 23, 1863, received a promotion to sergeant two weeks later on June 5, 1863. The light-skinned Monroe worked as a servant prior to enlistment. As a servant, Monroe certainly possessed skills other than those of an average field worker, perhaps even the ability to read and write. His abilities as well as his lighter complexion probably influenced recruiting officers when determining his rank. Monroe served the regiment with proficiency and without incident. He went on to be named Commissary Sergeant on May 1, 1865. Because of his skills, Monroe's war experience differed from many other black soldiers. 17
After surviving the war, Benjamin Gramby, Company I, met his fate with smallpox in May 1866. Twenty-three at the time of enlistment, Gramby participated in several battles and skirmishes with the 35th, including Olustee, Honey Hill, and Deveax's Neck, South Carolina. Gramby endured the battles only to have his life end while still a member of the 35th USCT. After contracting smallpox, Gramby died in the post hospital at Summerville, South Carolina in May, 1866. Gramby persevered through the dangerous war years only to lose his final battle with a dreaded disease that took the lives of many soldiers, black and white, Union and Confederate. 18
Every man experienced the Civil War differently. For the soldiers of the USCT, most of whom left slavery to join the fight, the war offered numerous opportunities in addition to risks. Leaving plantations behind provided former bondsmen a glimpse of what freedom might offer in the future, if the Union prevailed. However, newly freed men faced many dangers, including illness, casualty on the field, and the risk of capture by the enemy, which could mean summary death or a brutal return to slavery. Even with the real possibility of danger facing the new recruits, most soldiers adapted to the rigors and structure of military camp life. Many soldiers excelled in camp, enjoying training and new responsibilities. John Monroe, quickly promoted to sergeant, experienced a different war than did Caswell Streeter, discharged due to illness. Alexander Mitchell and Martin Lawson participated in the battles and major skirmishes faced by the 35th. Both received wounds. Both left the regiment when it disbanded in June 1866. These two soldiers shared similar war experiences, very different from those of soldiers who could not, or did not participate as thoroughly as did Mitchell and Lawson. Benjamin Gramby, like Mitchell and Lawson, survived the war years, only to die from smallpox while still in camp. The timing of Gramby's death is especially unfortunate as it occurred just weeks before the regiment mustered out. Mark Bufford experienced quite a different war than did many soldiers of the 35th as he did not join the regiment until late December, 1863, and participated in detached service far away from the 35th. Like many others, Bufford fought his own battles with illness and survived. Named corporal at the end of the war, Bufford served until the unit disbanded. The war brought diverse experiences and left distinct memories for each black man who donned the Union blue. It also brought them confidence in their own abilities and their desire for true freedom after the war.
* * Go to Chapter Four * *
1. Descriptive Books, 35th Regiment USCT, RG 94; Richard Reid, "Raising the African Brigade: Early Black Recruitment in Civil War North Carolina" North Carolina Historical Review, 70 (July, 1993): 281 and Appendix A; Joe A. Mobley, James City: A Black Community in North Carolina 1863-1900 (Raleigh, North Carolina: Division of Archives and History, 1981), 16-17.
2. Descriptive Books, 35th Regiment USCT, RG 94; Reid, "Raising the African Brigade," 285.
3. Descriptive Books, 35th Regiment USCT, RG 94.
4. Ibid.; Jeffrey J. Crow, Paul D. Escott, and Flora J. Hatley, A History of African-Americans in North Carolina (Raleigh, North Carolina: Division of Archives and History, 1992), 52-53; Glatthaar, Forged in Battle, 86-87.
5. Robert A. Margo, "Civilian Occupations of Ex-Slaves in the Union Army, 1862-1865," in Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, eds., Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery: Markets and Production: Technical Papers, Volume I (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1992), 176-177, 182; Descriptive Books, 35th Regiment USCT, RG 94.
6. Margo, "Civilian Occupations of Ex-Slaves in the Union Army," 176-177, 182; Descriptive Books, 35th Regiment USCT, RG 94.
7. Descriptive Books, 35th Regiment USCT, RG 94.
9. Ibid; Joseph T. Glatthaar, National Park Civil War Series: The Civil War's Black Soldiers (Eastern National Park and Monument Association, 1996), 35.
10. Crosby McCade, Compiled Military Service Record, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's -1917, RG 94, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
11. Caswell Streeter, Compiled Military Service Record, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's-1917, RG 94, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
13. Martin Lawson, Compiled Military Service Record, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's-1917, RG 94, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
14. Alexander Mitchell, Compiled Military Service Record, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's-1917, RG 94, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
16. Mark Bufford, Compiled Military Service Record, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's-1917, RG 94, National Archives, Washington, D.C.; Fred M. Mallison, The Civil War on the Outer Banks: A History of the Late Rebellion Along the Coast of North Carolina from Carteret to Currituck (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc., 1998), 132-133.
17. John Monroe, Compiled Military Service Record, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's-1917, RG 94, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
18. Benjamin Gramby, Compiled Military Service Record, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's-1917, RG 94, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
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