“Peace, Union, and Glory”: Berks County African Americans in the Civil War
By LAURA HIRNEISEN
After Lincoln’s initial call for troops in 1861, Pottsville resident Nicholas Biddle, then sixty-five years old, promised himself he would join the fighting, even if it had to be on the sly. He had arrived in Pottsville as a runaway slave, supporting himself in summer by selling ice cream and in winter by selling oysters. After gathering some belongings together and somehow acquiring a smart blue uniform, he followed the Washington Artillerists as they left Pottsville for Harrisburg. He arrived in the state’s capital along with his adopted regiment as “an object of curiosity and delight to the colored population.” But Biddle’s proud adventure soured when he and his unofficial regiment reached Baltimore, a city divided by southern sympathies.
As the troops reached Baltimore on April 18, 1861, Biddle marched behind the artillery in full military regalia. An angry mob assaulted the regiment, hurling stones and insults at the men, Biddle bearing the brunt of most angry retorts, including “Nigger in uniform” and “Kill that damned brother of Abe Lincoln.” A stone or other form of debris thrown by the crowd cut Biddle’s face so deeply his bone was visible beneath the slack flesh. First Lieutenant James Russell held Biddle up and he made his way through the crowd with as much dignity as he could maintain. After the war, Biddle claimed the honor of “shedding the first blood for the Union” during his march, and his epitaph proudly proclaims his contribution to history.
A figure often overlooked in history, Biddle presents both an intriguing and colorful character. When a comrade asked him if he didn’t fear the mob in Baltimore, he responded that not even the devil himself could scare him away from Washington, adding a plucky, “You better look out.” After his death, Biddle would be largely forgotten, despite his shedding some of the first blood in the war. The white Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, also of the Union, is most frequently credited with shedding either the first blood, or some of the first blood in the war; however, he was killed May 24, 1861, over a month after Biddle’s blood spilled on the Baltimore streets. Even so, Biddle did not go completely unmemorialized. “Strange to say,” wrote the Reverend John C. Brock of Biddle in 1886, “among the first to lose blood in that memorable struggle was a colored man. He was not an enlisted soldier, but he went with those who went to defend the starry banner in the highest capacity that was at that day accorded to colored men in the military service, viz., no officer’s servant.”
Biddle, like many other African Americans who wanted to serve the Union in the war’s earliest phases, did so in an unauthorized capacity. Officially sanctioned African American regiments did not exist until 1863. Although African Americans repeatedly voiced a desire to fight for the Union, the government refused their services through the war’s early phases because of a 1792 federal law. After the war’s onset in 1861, the fairytale of a seventy-five day war dissipated quickly. By 1862, the Confederacy dealt the Union several blows in major defeats at First and Second Bull Run and the Seven Days’ Battles, making the Union eager to undermine the Confederacy and weaken its infrastructure by any means possible. Abraham Lincoln’s famed Emancipation Proclamation, delivered first in September 1862 and then officially January 1, 1863, did just that, giving African Americans the opportunity to enlist in the army and fight for their country.
The Union government took further steps to organize African American regiments on May 22, 1863 with the creation of the Bureau of Colored Troops. All African American regiments—with the exception of a notable few—lost their state designations and existed under the umbrella of the U.S.C.T. Even after gaining entrance to the ranks of the Union army, African American soldiers faced the obstacle of inequality. While non-commissioned officers were black, commissioned officers from lieutenant up were white. When regiments made it to Washington City, they weren’t necessarily treated to the same hero’s welcomes as their white counterparts. Many whites targeted African Americans in uniform, beating them up on city streets. A policeman reportedly offered that “he would put as many bullets through a “nigger” recruit as he would through a mad dog.” Pay also presented a contentious issue. In accordance with an 1862 Militia Act, black soldiers received $10 each month, with a $3 deduction for clothing. Meanwhile, white soldiers had a clothing allowance of $3.50 in addition to their higher pay rate of $13 each month.
Soldiers fought for their right to equal pay—and thus equal status as citizens—until June 15, 1864, when Congress finally gave black soldiers the same rate per month as white soldiers received. Republicans actually introduced the bill in the 1863-64 session, but stiff Democratic opposition dragged the matter out over the course of several months. Democrats objected to the underlying equality suggested by such a measure.
These Democratic sentiments mirror the anti-war stance that surfaced in the November 1864 election for president a few months later. So-called Peace Democrats, headlined by presidential candidate General George Brinton McClellan, wanted to end the war by suing the Confederacy for peace. While McClellan publicly distanced himself from radical Peace Democrats or Copperheads as they were also known, the nation accepted the election as “a test of the North’s willingness to go on with the fight.”
Democratic objections to equal pay for black soldiers and to the continuation of the war are telling cultural artifacts. According to election returns, Berks County sustained a Democratic majority in every presidential election from 1828 to 1880. The county vote contrasted the state vote in both the 1860 and 1864 presidential elections—elections crucial for their political ramifications. In 1860, Lincoln ran against major Democratic candidate John C. Breckinridge when slavery was a major party issue for Republicans. Lincoln lost to Breckinridge in Berks County by the narrow margin of 2,137, while he defeated Breckinridge in the state by 89,159 votes. The 1864 election, even more critical for the war that played out its violent struggle across the nation, saw an even more overwhelming margin of victory for the Democratic party in Berks County. Democrat George Brinton McClellan defeated Lincoln by 6,732 votes, but lost to Lincoln in the overall state totals by 20,075 votes.
The pervasiveness of the Democratic party in Berks County did not go overlooked in Washington City. In a letter to Lincoln dated October 22, 1864, John W. Forney related his effort on behalf of the Republican party in Berks County. Forney, along with his friend, a General Lauman, bought what he dubbed “the old Democratic organ,” a newspaper based in Reading called the Gazette and Democrat, for $8000. “You will see,” wrote Forney, “that we may turn the flank of the enemy even in Berks County, although I do not expect that the effect of this movement will visibly appear at the coming election.”
Examining election results for 1864 in particular gives insight into the political climate of Berks County. Only 32% of county voters wanted to continue fighting a war that could potentially keep America united and abolish slavery in all states. However, 52% of Pennsylvania voters wanted to keep Lincoln in office and keep the war effort burning. The results do not definitively suggest that Berks Countians did not want to abolish slavery in 1864. Notably, the historical precedent of a Democratic majority may have been the decisive factor for Democrats maintaining loyalty to the party line. However, it can safely be determined that Berks residents felt the merits of a Democratic president outweighed the merits of continuing the war under Lincoln’s regime.
Despite the political balance being tipped in favor of Democrats in their county, however, a number of Berks County African Americans joined their brethren in swelling the ranks of the Union army. Records indicate that 497 African Americans lived in Berks County in 1860, and when America finally acknowledged their desire to fight in 1863, many left their families and lives behind to uphold the Union cause. But unlike white soldiers, African Americans yearning to enlist in the Union army had to travel farther than their home town.
According to the narrative produced by Morton Montgomery, Reading became a hotbed of army recruiting and organization. “Penn Square,” reflects Montgomery, “was daily, more or less, in commotion with the enlistment of men, the formation and exercise of companies and their departure to the seat of war or their return from it.” Despite this, Berks County African Americans enlisted at Camp William Penn in Philadelphia, a city that had the largest African American population in the north. When African American soldiers became an official component of the Union army, the government set up eight training camps designated for their troops. One of the eight camps, Camp William Penn was located in Philadelphia, and reserved solely for the training of black soldiers from Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey.
While an official tabulation of Berks County African American soldiers during the Civil War has yet to be uncovered, records have been preserved for a number of soldiers and sailors. Isaac Cole, one of the soldiers who traveled from Berks County to Camp William Penn in Philadelphia, is buried in the cemetery at the AME Mount Frisby Church, or the Six Penny Colored Church, near another veteran, James Jackson. Cole fought in Company H of the 32nd U.S.C.T mustering in as a private and out as the same rank. He enlisted on February 20, 1864 and survived his months spent in combat to muster out with the rest of his regiment after the war’s end on August 22, 1865.
Organized in winter and spring 1864 at Camp William Penn, Cole’s infantry unit began its duties at Hilton Head, South Carolina on April 27th. Once in Hilton Head, the 32nd joined a brigade of U.S.C.T. under Colonel Bailey and experienced drill, guard, and fatigue duty beyond the entrenchments. The 32nd fought at a number of battles, including Honey Hill and a raid on the Savannah Railroad.
The Battle of Honey Hill, fought November 30, 1864, saw attacks from collective U.S.C.T., including the Massachusetts 54th made famous by its depiction in the movie Glory. Despite outnumbering the enemy 5,500 to 1,400, Union forces could not overtake Confederate entrenchments at Honey Hill or cut a railroad tie, as had been their original intent, and retreated after nightfall. Considered a Confederate victory, the battle left the Union with 746 casualties to the Confederate 50. Cole’s regiment suffered nine men killed and forty-two men wounded. Days later on December 6, the tables turned as Confederate forces attacked the 32nd, which comprised the extreme right flank of Union forces holding a rail line at Deveaux Neck. Although taken by surprise at the sudden attack, the thirty-second “rallied manfully and repulsed the attack” until General William Tecumseh Sherman returned from Savannah with his triumphant forces.
April 1865 brought the end of the war, but not before Cole’s regiment participated in an exciting campaign. Cole marched with his regiment almost constantly for three weeks, engaging in skirmishes nearly every day. Under the leadership of General Potter, the 32nd captured twenty locomotives, including two hundred rail cars brimming with Confederate naval and military supplies. Finally, word came to the fighting regiment of the Confederate surrender, but the men’s cheers evaporated days later when they learned of Lincoln’s assassination. The 32nd continued its garrison duties at Charleston, Beaufort, and Hilton Head before returning to Philadelphia.
While the 32nd saw a great deal of fighting, the 24th U.S.C.T. experienced the bulk of soldier life after the war’s end in April 1865. Another Berks County soldier, Jeremiah Dorsey (or Dossey), nickname Jere, enlisted in the 24th in Company I. Dorsey was buried in Bethel Cemetery, a survivor of the war. The 24th also formed at Camp William Penn on February 17, 1865, about two months before the war’s conclusion.
Many of the regiment’s commissioned officers (ie. colonel, lieutenant colonel, major) had experienced prior military service. Jeremiah Dorsey missed “the elephant” of battle witnessed by his fellow Berks Countian Isaac Cole. Dorsey’s regiment avoided battle, but experienced war’s after-effects as they were placed in charge of various guard duties. In early May 1865, the 24th was sent to Camp Casey, just outside Washington City on the Virginia side of the Potomac. The regiment then guarded Confederate prisoners at Point Lookout Maryland in June. Dorsey, who officially mustered in as a private on January 26, 1865, was discharged on Surgeon’s certificate on June 26, 1865. After Dorsey’s discharge, the regiment went to Richmond, then to six county seats in Virginia where they preserved order in the countryside. The 24th continued its post-war duties until being mustered out of service on October 1, 1865.
Like Nicholas Biddle, who was determined to serve regardless of governmental restrictions, Berks County African Americans did not limit themselves to serving in the army. They were not alone in their quest. During the war, some 18,000 African Americans served in the U.S. navy, including at least twelve women. They comprised 15% of the navy, and 1% of all African American naval soldiers hailed from Pennsylvania. According to records, 1,175 Pennsylvanians served in the navy during the war years, at least four of whom were definitively from Berks County.
Henry Washington, born in Reading, was 27 years old when he enlisted in the navy in New York City on December 30, 1863. Washington’s occupation prior to the war was listed as boatman/laborer, and he enlisted for the term of one year as a landsman, the new recruit rating. According to detailed muster records, he served on the Coeur de Lion from March 31, 1864 to June 30, 1864 when he served aboard the Matthew Vassar. From October 1861 on, the Coeur de Lion operated on Chesapeake Bay tributaries. She captured or destroyed schooners attempting to run the Union blockade and fought against Confederate forces from 1862-64, during the time when Washington served aboard her. The Matthew Vassar had a much more storied experience log, and during Washington’s stint aboard her, she was assigned to the East Gulf Blockading Squadron. On February 3, 1865, the Matthew Vassar captured her final war prize, the schooner John Hate, off the coast of St. Marks, Florida.
John Cornish, another Berks County sailor who served during the Civil War, enlisted on January 28, 1859 for a term of three years. Like Washington, Cornish was born in Reading. He was 21 years old when he enlisted as a landsman in New York City, and his prior occupation was barber. It is interesting to note that Cornish enlisted as “Negro” in 1859, two years before the war began and four years before African Americans were officially recognized in the regular army. John W. Johnson, also born in Reading, was 29 when he enlisted in Philadelphia December 19, 1861. His occupation before the war was steward, and he enlisted for three years. Unlike most African American sailors who mustered in as the lowest rank of landsman, Johnson had enough prior experience to enter the ranks as an ordinary seaman. Yet another Berks Countian, Wellington Hawkins, went from being a barber to a sailor soldier when he enlisted on July 21, 1864 at the age of 21. He enlisted in Philadelphia as a landsman for the term of three years.
When African American sailors and soldiers enlisted, they offered their lives to their cause, determined to give their service to a country that had often denied them in the past. By war’s end in April 1865, over 180,000 African Americans had fought for the Union army during the Civil War in 163 different units, composing about 10% of the full Union forces. Of the 180,000 soldiers, approximately 60,000, or one third, died from disease or combat wounds.
The war was over, won, and African American soldiers had proved themselves on the battlefield again and again. “Whatever doubts may have existed in reference to their ability as soldiers,” wrote Reverend John Brock, “were quickly dispelled after the names of Port Hudson, Fort Wagner, Olustee, Honey Hill, Fort Pillow and Petersburg were emblazoned on the banners of this class of the nation’s defenders.”
But perhaps no more eloquent testament to the power of African American soldiers to change not only their own destinies, but the destiny of the nation was written by Major General Godfrey Weitzel in February of 1865. “Let history,” wrote Weitzel from his headquarters, “record that on the banks of the James [River] 30,000 freemen not only gained their own liberty, but shattered the prejudice of the world and gave to the land of their birth peace, union, and glory.” Whether intrepid figures like Nicholas Biddle, or soldiers invested in the nation’s cleanup like Jeremiah “Jere” Dorsey, Berks County African Americans contributed in their own ways to the same “peace, union, and glory” that ultimately freed the nation.