Maine at War

Some Mainers broke racial barriers in ‘white’ state regiments

Posted Dec. 11, 2013, at 8:22 a.m.
Last modified March 20, 2014, at 9:23 a.m.
An unusual photograph taken in Virginia during the latter years of the Civil War depicts black and white Union soldiers standing together outside a rude cabin constructed in a regimental camp. The United States Army segregated units by race during the war, but historical records indicate that at least some &quotwhite" Maine regiments included black Maine soldiers. At least two such soldiers died while in service with such &quotwhite" regiments.
Library of Congress
An unusual photograph taken in Virginia during the latter years of the Civil War depicts black and white Union soldiers standing together outside a rude cabin constructed in a regimental camp. The United States Army segregated units by race during the war, but historical records indicate that at least some "white" Maine regiments included black Maine soldiers. At least two such soldiers died while in service with such "white" regiments.
Two black Union soldiers point their rifles toward enemy lines while manning a picket post at Dutch Gap Canal in Virginia, likely sometime in spring or summer 1864.
Library of Congress
Two black Union soldiers point their rifles toward enemy lines while manning a picket post at Dutch Gap Canal in Virginia, likely sometime in spring or summer 1864.

The eager Army recruits facing Capt. A. P. Davis at Augusta on Saturday, Dec. 5, 1863, differed only slightly from so many other loyal Union men taking up arms late that fall.

Waiting to sign the enlistment papers spread before Davis were three cousins, all from Warren: Daniel W. Peters, Dexter Peters and James Peters. They had traveled together in cold weather to join the fight against the Confederacy.

Like so many thousands of Maine boys who had preceded them into uniforms, the Peters all were farmers. Daniel was “twenty years and seven months” old, according to his enlistment papers. James was 30, actually almost 31, and 18-year-old Dexter brought with him his father, Jacob. He signed the “consent in case of minor” that Dexter was really “eighteen years of age” and that he, Jacob, agreed in writing that “I do hereby freely give my consent to his volunteering as a Soldier in the Army of the United States for the period of three years.”

A surgeon examined the Peters cousins and declared them fit for service. Davis, provost marshal for the “3rd [Congressional] District of Maine,” asked each cousin to sign on the literal dotted lines, front and back on the “volunteer enlistment“ forms.

Davis penned his signature to the “I certify, on honor” paragraph attesting that each cousin “was entirely sober when enlisted” and that “he is of legal age.”

Then Davis filled in each Peters’ physical description. Daniel stood 5 feet 9 inches — tall for that era — and Dexter stood 5 feet 6 inches. James Peters was 5 feet 5 inches in height.

The Peters differed little in other physical attributes. Eyes? “Black.” Hair? “Black.” Complexion? “Black.” Davis quickly penned the same word on all three enlistment forms.

Then he asked the cousins to raise their right hands and repeat the requisite phrases that indicated their loyalty to the Union and their desire to serve in the United States Army. The official swearing-in completed, Davis likely welcomed the Peters to the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment.

Rather than join a Maine regiment, the cousins had opted for an Ocean State outfit. As black Mainers, they believed that no Maine white regiment would accept them.

They may have been mistaken.

So the cousins joined the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, a “colored” regiment. Following them on Saturday, Jan. 2, 1864, were other Warren-based Peters: 22-year-old Reuben M. and 18-year-old William H. Like their three cousins a month earlier, Reuben and Bill were credited to the “quota of Warren,” according to Capt. Davis.

He described Reuben as 5 feet 8 inches tall and William as 5 feet 10 inches. Everything else about their appearances was recorded as “black,” “black” and “black.”

Maine’s black population numbered less than 1,500 men, women and children in 1861; of this number, fewer than 700 were men. But after learning about the incredible bravery displayed by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry warriors at Fort Wagner in July 1863, black Mainers joined the fight.

The thriving black community in Warren sent a disproportionate share of men, including even more Peters: Emmerson, who joined the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, and Abraham and Mariel, who enlisted in the Navy.

And black Mainers came from other places to defend the Union. Appearing before Davis on Dec. 15, 1863, 21-year-old Smithfield laborer Andrew J. Williams also joined the 14th Rhode Island. He was likely illiterate; “his mark,” as attested by Davis, was witnessed by Noah Boothby. At 5 feet 10 inches, he was another tall man who would make an excellent soldier.

On Saturday, Dec. 26, 25-year-old Aaron E. Williams followed his younger brother into Union blue wool, but not with the 14th Rhode Island. Now living in Industry, Aaron signed papers to join the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment, a “white” regiment. With that outfit’s Co. G would this 5-foot-6-inch farmer serve.

Aaron was not the only black Mainer to join the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery; so did Lemuel Carter and Franklin Fremont from Bath and George Freeman from Brunswick.

Another black farmer joining the Army that fall was 33-year-old Anthony Williams, born in Alton and living in Norridgewock when he enlisted in Co. D, 30th Maine Infantry Regiment on Nov. 23, 1863.

So did black Mainers go to war. The five Peters who joined the 14th Rhode Island transferred to the 43rd Pennsylvania Infantry, a colored regiment that fought in various Petersburg-related battles, including The Crater in July 1864 and the Weldon Railroad fiasco in mid-August 1864. The “Navy” Peters served on various ships,

How did some black Mainers win acceptance in “white” state regiments when the United States Army barred such integration? No efforts were made in Maine to conceal anyone’s skin color; Anthony Williams had a “dark” complexion, and Aaron Williams was a “dark mulatto.” Their comrades knew the Williams were black — and their comrades also knew that these black Mainers, like so many others, would fight when the time came.

Fight the black Mainers did — and they paid the same price as white Mainers. The death angel found James Peters in a military hospital in early January 1864 and Reuben Peters in a Philadelphia hospital on New Year’s Day 1865. Aaron Williams survived the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery’s blood-splattered introduction to combat in Virginia in late spring and early summer 1864, only to die from disease at a “camp near Petersburg” on Jan. 21, 1865.

And Anthony Williams, who at age 33 could have stayed out of the fight, was “killed in action” at “Cane River, La.,” on May 23, 1864, according to his soldier’s file at the Maine State Archives.

Anthony died as the 30th Maine Infantry participated in the Red River Campaign, ultimately a near disaster for Union forces. Other 30th Maine Infantry soldiers died in combat that April and May far up the Red River in northwestern Louisiana.

Those Maine boys were white, but like Anthony Williams, they shed red blood — and they all died defending the Union.

Brian Swartz is the BDN special sections editor. He can be reached at bswartz@bangordailynews.com or visit his blog at http:maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.

SEE COMMENTS →

ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business
ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business