- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 2, 2002

Civil War correspondent Thomas Morris Chester's most dramatic and symbolic moment is a footnote to the war, when this son of a one-time slave scored a one-punch knockdown of a Rebel officer within the Confederate Capitol in Richmond.
Little-known today, Chester was a man who did not like anyone or anything to circumscribe his ambitions. This attitude was bound to get him into trouble in mid-19th-century America.
Chester's blow, indeed, his very presence in the chamber that housed the Confederate House of Representatives, underscores his remarkable life. He was born May 11, 1834, in Harrisburg, Pa., to George and Jane Marie Chester, the latter a slave until she fled from her master in Maryland.
Using the nom de plume "Rollin," Chester became the only black correspondent covering the Civil War for a major Northern newspaper, reporting for the Philadelphia Press. His was a life marked by firsts after the war, he studied law in London and became the first black American to be admitted to the bar in England, and later in Louisiana. Chester was "yet another example of those antebellum black men and women who by one means or another defied efforts to impose unfair restrictions on their lives," writes his biographer, R.J.M. Blackett.
Before the war, Chester became an advocate of black immigration to Liberia. He saw Africa as a place where, he wrote in 1853, blacks could climb from under the "insolent indignities and contemptuous conduct to which it has almost become natural for the colored people dishonorably to submit themselves."
This call for black "colonization," which later gained the support of President Abraham Lincoln and other influential leaders, was detested by abolitionists, who thought it would solidify slavery's hold by removing America's most able blacks. But Chester did not waver despite the prestige of colonization's critics, including Frederick Douglass and his own father. He made four voyages to Africa between 1853 and 1861.
Despite the grim hurdles facing American blacks, America had an undeniable pull for Chester, who returned in 1861 after his startup newspaper, the Star of Liberia, failed to dislodge a political foe from the presidency there. After raising 45 men in Harrisburg for the black 55th Massachusetts Infantry, Chester, perhaps disillusioned by the government's failure to let black officers lead the new black regiments, left for England in fall 1863.
Looking for a patron to subsidize his law studies, he proved to be a foil to Confederate propagandists, speaking eloquently to British audiences about slavery.
Back in America, Chester took the field as a reporter in August 1864. He covered the Army of the James during its siege of Petersburg. It is unclear why John Russell Young, the Press' 23-year-old managing editor and earlier the paper's pre-eminent war correspondent, offered Chester a place on his staff. The paper had a decidedly erratic stance on equality of the races.
Early in the war, it supported the Democrats until swinging its support to the Lincoln administration by 1864. At war's end, the Press swung again, endorsing President Andrew Johnson's efforts to block black suffrage.
Whatever lay behind his opportunity, Chester made the most of it, sharing the Army's regimen of harrowing days in the trenches, where the soldiers were exposed to constant fire and extremes of weather. He wrote of this and of their heroics and heavy losses, and the personal war between the black infantrymen and the Confederates.
He also wrote about this time of witnessing "the bearing in of our honored dead":
"Two rows of men, several deep, extending far into the dense forest, formed a passage through which their comrades were now borne on stretchers. As each fallen hero was carried along this passage of brave men, even the solemnity of the scene could not restrain the indignation of the soldiers, as they witnessed the Union dead returned to them stripped of their shoes, coats, pants, and, in some instances, of their shirts."
Chester entered Richmond on April 3, 1865, the morning of the city's formal surrender, traveling with a brigade of black troops from the Union Army's XXV Corps. He claimed for the brigade the honor of being the first Northern infantry unit to enter the fallen enemy capital, a feat he said was achieved despite the Army's efforts to gain that honor for white troops.
When the Union infantrymen triumphantly entered the city, Chester wrote, "the citizens stood, gaping in wonder at the splendidly equipped army marching along under the graceful folds of the old flag. … The pious old negroes, male and female, indulged in such expressions: 'You've come at last,' 'We've been looking for you these many days,' 'Jesus has opened the way' … and similar expressions of exultation. The soldiers, black and white, received these assurances of loyalty as evidences of the latent patriotism of an oppressed people, which a military despotism has not been able to crush."
Chester made his way to the Capitol building the following day. There he spied the vacated, thronelike speaker's chair in the Hall of Delegates, where four years earlier Robert E. Lee had accepted command of the Confederate forces in Virginia.
Chester sat and began to write to the Press, "aware of the irony and eager to thumb his nose at the Confederacy," according to biographer Blackett.
Chester datelined his story "Hall of Congress, Richmond, April 4, 1865." The story began: "Seated in the Speaker's chair, so long dedicated to treason, but in the future to be consecrated to loyalty, I hasten to give a rapid sketch of the incidents which have occurred since my last dispatch." This appeared in the Press two days later.
According to an account written by the Boston Journal's Charles C. Coffin, a paroled Confederate officer saw Chester sitting. He clenched his fist and shouted: "Come out of there, you black cuss." The Confederate might have failed to notice that the seated Chester was, as Coffin observed, "tall, stout and muscular."
Coffin continued: "Mr. Chester raised his eyes, calmly surveyed the intruder, and went on with his writing. 'Get out of there, or I'll knock your brains out,' the officer bellowed, pouring out a torrent of oaths, and rushing up the steps to execute his threat, found himself tumbling over chairs and benches."
The New York Tribune's Charles A. Page wrote that Chester's antagonist, "a scion … of a first family … laid hold of him to take him out. Then Chester planted a black fist and left a black eye and a prostrate Rebel."
"Mr. Chester sat down as if nothing had happened," Coffin wrote, but the blow further enraged the Confederate, who sprang to his feet and demanded the sword of a Union officer standing nearby, so, according to Page, the Southerner could "cut the dd [reporters] heart out."
Coffin wrote that the officer, a captain named Hutchins, replied: "O no, I guess not. I can't let you have my sword for any such purpose. If you want to fight, I will clear a space here, and see that you have fair play, but let me tell you that you will get a tremendous thrashing."
"The [Confederate] left the hall in disgust," recalled Coffin, and Chester returned to his writing.
Chester remained in Richmond for many weeks, his dispatches blasting the leniency that Union Army commanders displayed to those who had "defied the powers of the government."
Among the indignities he denounced was a pass system the Army established, whereby Richmond's blacks had to carry passes signed by whites. The measure was enforced by the city's 12-year mayor, Joseph Mayo, and his police force, which the Union Army had reinstalled.
In Chester's last dispatch from Richmond, dated June 12, 1865, he wrote:
"Yesterday one of Lee's negro servants was halted by one of the police force, and asked if he had a pass. He replied in the affirmative. 'Who is it from?' inquired the rebel policeman. 'From General Lee,' replied the negro. 'You couldn't have gotten one from a better man,' was the expressive response of the traitor who holds his office by loyal permission. Of course, Lee's servant was not molested; but if he had been Gen. [Ulysses S.] Grant's, the probabilities are that he would have gone to the city prison."

Ger Regan is a New York City-based journalist. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]
garmedia.com. For information about Thomas Morris Chester, read "Thomas Morris Chester, Black Civil War Correspondent: His Dispatches From the Virginia Front," by R.J.M. Blackett, DeCapo Press, 1991.


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