- Associated Press - Saturday, February 6, 2016

ALTOONA, Pa. (AP) - Strolling through a cemetery around a national holiday, when bright flags mark each veteran’s grave, it’s easy to overlook the four letters carved into some: “U.S.C.I.”

They stand for United States Colored Infantry, and they mark the resting place of one of dozens of local black men who took up arms during the Civil War. It’s been 150 years since those units began returning home from their service in the South, where more than 175,000 members fought - and in some cases, died - to free their fellow African-Americans from slavery.

It was almost exactly 150 years ago, on Feb. 9, 1866, that the white commanding officer of one such regiment addressed his men as they set out for home: “The flag of our fathers, restored to its rightful significance, now floats over every foot of our territory, from Maine to California, and beholds only free men,” Lt. Col. C.T. Trowbridge told his soldiers. “The church, the schoolhouse, and the right forever to be free are now secured to you, and every prospect before you is full of hope and encouragement.”

The Blair County men who fought for that hope risked death at the hands of an enemy that didn’t recognize their freedom. Black soldiers captured by the Confederacy risked punishment and enslavement; many were executed on the spot.

“For me, this was an eye-opening experience,” said Harriet L. Gaston, a Penn State Altoona minority programs coordinator who has researched the local soldiers for years. “An extremely eye-opening experience.”

‘Sic semper tyrannis’

When the Civil War began in 1861, black men simply couldn’t serve in the U.S. Army. Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass called for the Army to recruit black soldiers, but federal officials at first refused, fearing a backlash in pro-slavery states.

But on Jan. 1, 1863, with the war dragging into its third year, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and declared all black residents of the Confederate states were free. His decision opened the door for African-American military recruitment - and in Altoona, black residents heeded the call.

“A very enthusiastic war meeting was held by the colored residents” of Altoona, according to an 1863 letter in a black church newspaper. “Some very able speeches were delivered; prominent among the most able speakers was Mr. Benjamin Johnson, one of our townsmen, who, it is said, made a very stirring speech on behalf of the union and the enlistment of colored soldiers.”

The federal government set about raising black regiments, while some states including Massachusetts raised their own black units. All were led by white officers.

Of all the Northern states, none contributed more men to the so-called U.S. Colored Troops than Pennsylvania, Gaston said. Blair County, which had hosted secret stops on the Underground Railroad before the war, proved a fertile recruiting ground.

While freed Southern slaves joined the Union effort in great numbers, “the truth of the matter is, just as many of these were individuals who were free for their entire lives,” said Jared Frederick, a Penn State Altoona history professor.

At churches, barbershops and even Freemason lodges, local black citizens discussed the war and joined up, Gaston said.

Among them were men like Charles Elder, later buried in Hollidaysburg, who in his 20s joined the 22nd U.S. Colored Troops Regiment. His unit’s banner bore a grim image: a uniformed black man plunging a bayonet into a fallen Confederate officer. Above it were the words “Sic semper tyrannis” - “Thus always to tyrants.”

‘Inciting insurrection’

Kitted out and armed, the soldiers arrived by the thousands in the South, many fighting in some of the war’s most savage battles.

The diary of William P. Woodlin, a musician in the 8th Regiment U.S. Colored Troops and one of few black soldiers whose contemporary stories remain, tersely reveals the dangers the soldiers faced.

“The shells came straight down to where we play”; “two men killed”; “another man shot through the head by sharpshooter” - so read Woodlin’s entries from the siege of Petersburg, Va.

Of the Blair County men who joined the 54th Massachusetts - the regiment made famous by the 1989 film “Glory” - several were killed and wounded in the disastrous 1863 attack on Fort Wagner in South Carolina. Another, 27-year-old James Elletts of Hollidaysburg, was listed as captured at the fort.

He would die in a South Carolina prison, according to regimental records.

For black soldiers, surrender could easily mean death. A Confederate proclamation in 1862 had ordered the military to turn over all captured “negro slaves” to civil authorities, where they could be returned to slavery.

In practice, however, rebel troops often executed captured black soldiers en masse. Their white commanders, if captured, would be found guilty of “inciting servile insurrection” and subject to execution as well, the Confederate government ruled.

“Armed African-American troops. … In their eyes, this was an insurrection,” Frederick said.

As the Confederacy was driven bank, the Northern ranks swelled with freed slaves eager to fight against their former masters. Some Southern blacks would later settle in Blair County; census records in and around Altoona indicate some veterans were born in Virginia or in Maryland, a slave state that had remained loyal to the Union.

Pennsylvania’s black soldiers, meanwhile, fought in some of the worst engagements of the war’s final days. Cpl. William Moulton, a Juniata County native buried in Altoona, bore his regiment’s flag at the Battle of Hatcher’s Run in Virginia. His unit had fought at the bloody “Battle of the Crater,” after which rebel soldiers massacred hundreds of black prisoners.

Moulton served through the rebel surrender at Appomattox Court House and lived to return to Pennsylvania.

For those who had served through the war’s darkest days - like Susie King Taylor, a “regimental laundress” from Georgia with the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops - victory inspired an almost poetic feeling.

“What a wonderful revolution!” Taylor wrote in a memoir decades later. “In 1861 the Southern papers were full of advertisements for ‘slaves,’ but now, despite all the hindrances and ‘race problems,’ my people are striving to attain the full standard of all other races born free in the sight of God, and in a number of instances have succeeded.”

History long overlooked

The black soldiers, some of whom were still standing guard in the conquered Confederacy, remained conspicuously absent from the Army’s grand, victorious march through Washington, D.C., in May 1865. Six months later, however, they were invited to march through Harrisburg while prominent state officials watched admiringly.

Pennsylvania was the only state to honor its black troops.

“This was a truly game-changing opportunity for a large number of African-Americans,” Frederick said of the soldiers’ service.

Many returned to towns including Altoona, Hollidaysburg, Tyrone, Bellwood and Martinsburg. Others moved to the region after the war, leaving families and gravestones to mark their service.

A few white officers who had served with the black soldiers lived out their lives here, as well.

In a 1909 Mirror profile honoring his retirement, longtime railroad foreman Joseph T. Brown was described as one of the first men to equip black troops for their own liberation. The “young giant … (had) the distinction of having mustered in and drilled the first colored troops put into service,” the article said.

The black regiments’ service was long remembered as a small part of the Civil War, especially with the U.S. military remaining strictly segregated until 1948. The soldiers’ graves in Blair County have been preserved, Gaston said - especially since a 2010 push to refurbish and replace their old headstones - but small cemeteries remain at risk when locals can no longer care for them.

Coupled with the recent 150th anniversary commemorations, a recent run of popular Hollywood movies about slavery and civil rights has awakened a new generation to the period, Frederick said.

“I think there’s definitely a growing interest in this type of history - a history that was all-too-overlooked in many classrooms,” he said.

It was a sentiment that Taylor, the young black woman who had served alongside one of the regiments, expressed even in 1902.

“I know what they went through, especially those black men, for the Confederates had no mercy on them,” she wrote. “There are only a few of them left now, so let us all, as the ranks close, take a deeper interest in them. Let the younger generation take an interest also, and remember that it was through the efforts of these veterans that they and we older ones enjoy our liberty today.”

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