Give Us a Flag: African American Civil War Soldiers

Tombstone of Jerry Wilson
Tombstone of Jerry Wilson, an African American soldier from the United States Colored Troops, who later settled in Pasadena (Courtesy of Nick Smith)

…And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.

This less-known part of the Emancipation Proclamation became the authorization for federal regiments made up of African Americans. Individual enlistment wasn’t illegal before that, and there were plenty of African Americans in the Navy, but the Army had been opposed to the concept of “colored” soldiers for a couple of generations. There had been African American soldiers in both the American Revolution and the War of 1812, but as slavery became more prominent economically, there was a parallel tendency to view African Americans as not being “proper soldiers.” There were individual dark-skinned soldiers in some state militia units, north and south, and the state of Louisiana had an entire regiment of what they called Native Guards early in the war, African Americans with colored Creole officers. Mostly, when African Americans tried to volunteer to fight in this war, they were turned away by officials on both sides.

Early in the war, individual commanders had wanted to emancipate slaves owned by Confederates and arm them, but President Lincoln opposed those measures, considering them to be a threat to the loyalty of the slave states that had not seceded. In a few areas within the boundaries of the Confederacy, local Union commanders raised “colored” units of freed slaves and local free volunteers. Until 1863, there was no general opportunity for free African Americans in Union states to serve their country.

Once it became possible, African Americans flocked to fill these new units. The state of Massachusetts set out to raise one regiment, and ended up with three, the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry and the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry. Other than the troops raised by that state, the other units of African American soldiers became part of what was called United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T., or U.S.C.I. for U.S. Colored Infantry). Massachusetts was the only state to proudly kept their “colored” regiments as part of their state’s regular troops.

Because of the pervasive beliefs at the time, the War Department insisted that most combat officers be white. (African American ministers were permitted to be chaplains, and “colored creole” officers from Louisiana served in a few regiments.) White officers were recruited from other regiments, often as a promotion.

Of the veterans who came to Pasadena, there were both African American enlisted men and white officers from the 55th Massachusetts and various U.S.C.T. regiments. Local officers who had led “colored” soldiers included Thomas Ellsworth, Jacob Force, Arnold Bertonneau, Edgar Clough, and James Irwin. Local enlisted men from the U.S.C.T. included Jerry Wilson, Gilford Hervey, Charles Carter and several others.

Unlike in some other cities, the Grand Army of the Republic Post here in Pasadena was not segregated and included several African American veterans. Sadly, some families viewed U.S. Colored Troops service as being socially unfashionable, and so it was sometimes omitted from obituaries of the white officers, and only their service with white troops was published.

At Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena, the burial plots bought and paid for by the Godfrey Post of the G.A.R. were used for white, African American, and Hispanic soldiers, buried next to each other in a prominent plot just south of Founders Circle. This group of graves is specially honored every year at Memorial Day.

O, give us a flag, all free without a slave,

We’ll fight to defend it as our Fathers did so brave,

The gallant Comp’ny A will make the rebels dance,

And we’ll stand by the Union if we only have a chance.

– from the song “Give Us a Flag,” written by a soldier of the 54th Massachusetts

By Nick Smith

Mr. Smith is a co-curator of the exhibition When Johnny Came Marching West: How the Civil War Shaped Pasadena.