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Columns

Reflections: Illinois blacks served in Civil War – but it wasn’t easy

Roger Matile
Roger Matile

It took years of brutal warfare, but by 1863 the U.S. government was finally persuaded to recruit regiments of African-American soldiers to help finish the war against the rebellious Southern states.

Even so, the nation’s inherent racism made the recruitment and fielding of black infantry, cavalry and artillery regiments slow going.

African-Americans had proved their military worth and heroism when the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, an all-black regiment recruited in 1863, was ordered to attack Fort Wagner on the South Carolina coast. They suffered 40 percent casualties, including their regimental commander, Col. Robert Gould Shaw.

Back in the summer of 1862, Illinois Gov. Richard Yates had begun urging President Abraham Lincoln to allow the recruitment of black troops. A company of black soldiers had already been established in Galesburg – a longtime center of abolitionism in Illinois. But there was considerable opposition among both civilians and the army in the northern states to using black soldiers. But as the war dragged on, opposition to enlisting black soldiers began to decline. It was about that same time the gallantry of the 54th Massachusetts became a nationwide sensation, and that, in turn, may have led to Gov. Yates receiving approval from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to establish an Illinois regiment of black soldiers.

According to the War Department’s direction, the new infantry regiment was to have one colonel, one lieutenant colonel, a major, a chaplain, a surgeon and two assistant surgeons, an adjutant, quartermaster, and a sergeant major to oversee 10 companies. Companies were authorized to have one captain, one first and one second lieutenant, a first sergeant, three sergeants, six corporals, two musicians, a wagoner, and 64 to 83 private soldiers.

Initially, the regiment was designated the 1st Regiment Illinois Volunteers (Colored), and recruitment began Nov. 1, 1863. Inequities between black and white recruits were immediately apparent, much to Yates’ disgust. Congress had set pay for white soldiers at $13 per month, but pay for black soldiers was set at $10 per month, of which $3 was automatically withheld, supposedly as a clothing allowance. It would be another year before pay was standardized across all Union soldiers no matter their race.

At first, recruitment of blacks did not count against the required levels of soldiers the state was to supply to the army, but it didn’t take long for agitation to begin to eliminate that bit of red tape. As a Quincy newspaper noted, “Let the negro-hater remember that every black who enlists in Illinois counts one and takes the place of a white man, perhaps himself.”

At the time, the Illinois Black Codes were still fully in force. They prohibited blacks from membership in the state militia and from owning firearms, and as a result, black soldiers joining the new regiment required far more training than their white counterparts, most of whom grew up with firearms. The Black Codes also levied a wide range of petty penalties on blacks with the aim of keeping them out of Illinois. But even so, recruitment and enlistment continued, spurred by relaxation of anti-black laws and enlistment bounties.

Eventually, the state agreed to pay enlistees, black and white alike, $100 for each year they enlisted. Further, those who could afford it were allowed to pay others to take their place as military drafts were threatened. Substitutes and those who were paying them to take their places generally negotiated these fees among themselves. One such agreement made in NaAuSay Township, a copy of which is in the collections of the Little White School Museum in Oswego, paid the white substitute $140 on top of the $300 bounty for a three-year enlistment in the 127th Illinois Volunteer Infantry.

The black regiment’s enlistees were all sent to Quincy, where they received uniforms and were taught basic drill, although not much other training was provided. By April 1864, the regiment, commanded by Lt. Col. John A. Bross, had only filled five of its authorized 10 companies, but it nonetheless was officially mustered in on April 25, 1864, and the 1st Regiment Illinois Volunteers (Colored) became the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment.

Although lacking many commissioned and non-commissioned officers, as well as all but the most rudimentary training, the regiment left Illinois on April 29, 1864, eventually arriving at Camp Casey near Alexandria, Virginia, where they finally received their rifled muskets, bayonets and other accouterments. Although recruitment continued in Illinois, the regiment remained chronically understrength in both private soldiers and officers, which had a negative effect on its training and readiness.

The regiment was assigned to the defense of Washington, D.C., until June when it was assigned to the 2nd Brigade, 4th Division, 9th Corps, of the Army of the Potomac, which was investing the Confederate capital of Richmond. On July 30, the 29th was among the colored and white regiments that took part in the disastrous Battle of the Crater at Petersburg. A regiment of Pennsylvania coal miners had dug a tunnel from the Union lines to the Confederate fortifications at Petersburg, filled the end of it with gunpowder and on July 30 exploded it. Union officers completely bungled the subsequent attack, and thousands of black and white soldiers were killed.

In the 29th’s Company B, Private Nathan Hughes – who moved to Oswego after the war – was seriously wounded in the hip during the battle, but not only survived the battle but also survived that wound plus another wound later on.

After the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House – for which the 29th was present – they were redeployed to the Texas border with Mexico along with thousands of other troops as a warning to the French, who were then meddling in Mexican affairs. The warning worked, and on Nov. 6, 1865, they were officially mustered out of federal service.

Two of the 29th’s veterans, Hughes and Pvt. Thomas Jefferson, came to the Oswego area immediately after the war and are buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery, along with Robert Ridley Smith, a comrade from the 66th U.S. Colored Infantry, and two slaves liberated during the war, Tony Burnett and William Bradford, both of whom joined Union Army units, as a cook and orderly, respectively. The graves of these brave men mark the first efforts to stamp out, forever, the scourge of human slavery in this country.

• Looking for more local history? Visit historyonthefox.wordpress.com.

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