- Associated Press - Monday, February 9, 2015

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Tillman Valentine didn’t know the hard times he’d face when he enlisted in the Army that morning of June 30, 1863.

He was a black man in a country at war with itself over slavery and state’s rights. Emotions were running high as Confederate forces invaded Pennsylvania, where a great battle - the bloodiest of the Civil War - was about to be fought at Gettysburg.

Valentine bade an affectionate goodbye to his pregnant wife, Annie, and their three children in West Chester and headed to Camp William Penn, the first and largest federal training ground for black soldiers, just north of Philadelphia.

He joined hundreds of other black recruits who flocked to the colors, heeding the words that summer of black abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, who said: “Young men of Philadelphia, you are without excuse. The hour has arrived, and your place is in the Union Army.”

Over the following years, the laborer produced a rare record of the tumultuous time in letters to his “dear wife.” His often-misspelled words didn’t describe battles or politics; they mainly focused on the daily life and feelings of a black soldier who sorely missed his family and home.

“I think they offer a deeper sense of what family life was like for an African American soldier,” said Jonathan W. White, a professor at Christopher Newport University in Hampton Roads, Va., who scanned the letters from a pension file at the National Archives in Washington. “It’s so rare to find letters from a black soldier to his wife because of their low literacy rates.

“You don’t often see the personal side of things, especially in three long letters,” said White, author of Emancipation, the Union Army and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln, who edited the letters along with two students, Katie Fisher and Elizabeth Wall.

The correspondence “is a remarkable treasure - well-written and expressive,” said historian and author Andy Waskie, a professor at Temple University. Valentine “was one of the first men to arrive at Camp William Penn.”

“Most of the recruits were freemen from eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey,” he said. “There are few collections of letters of any black soldiers giving an in-depth view of their feelings, character, and courage.”

The 27-year-old Valentine was a sergeant in the Third United States Colored Troops, the first regiment to train at Camp William Penn and one of 11 the Union League helped raise there between 1863 and 1865.

Situated in what is now Cheltenham, the camp was built on land owned by Union League member Edward M. Davis, son-in-law of the abolitionist Lucretia A. Mott, whose estate was a major stop on the Underground Railroad.

By the end of August 1863, Valentine had been sent to Morris Island, S.C., just weeks after the now-famous and ill-fated July 18 assault by a black unit - the 54th Massachusetts Regiment - on the Confederate stronghold of Fort Wagner. His brother was among those who took part in the charge and survived.

During the siege that followed, Valentine was injured when a solid shot “struck and dismounted” a cannon.

“the Gun turned over on my Left Leg Crushing it in to the soft sand which prevented it from being broken but it was badly crushed (and) I were taken to my tent and excused from duty,” he later recalled in an affidavit.

Valentine’s writings during that time paint a picture of a man who longed for his family and wanted the best for them.

“I received your letter and it give me joy to think you are in good sparets (spirits) and more over that you have plenty to eate,” he wrote in a Dec. 26, 1863, letter from Morris Island. “for sum times when I am away out on picket the furthest post out and the rebels is not far forum me I look up at the stars and ask god to bless you and take care of you.”

Valentine described walking boldly ahead of “my men knowing that god is able and willen to ancer (answer) my prayers which is for him to spear (spare) me to see my family agane.

“give my love to all the people and all of it but a thimble full for yourself,” he wrote. “kiss the children for me.”

In a postscript, he added: “keep your sparets up I think we will be happy sum day learn the children to read”

Fort Wagner was later captured and Valentine and the Third were moved to Florida in February 1864 to garrison forts, free slaves, and destroy rebel property.

In an April 25, 1864, letter from Jacksonville, he wrote about family concerns, efforts to send money to Annie, and what it meant to be a man.

“That’s one of the most interesting parts of the letters,” said White, of Newport News, Va., a native of Abington who also lived in Southampton and Horsham.

Manhood and courage are usually associated with conduct on the battlefield. “In this case, it also means taking care of the family, educating them, and being financially responsible,” said White, who is expected to publish an article in April along with the Valentine letters in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. “That’s a much broader understanding of what manhood meant to black soldiers.”

In the April letter, Valentine wrote: “i will be very car full (careful) of my money and not spends one cent unnesurly (unnecessarily) … this war has caused me to think in terly (entirely) different from what I did.

“I feel my self a man and is if I ought to be a man and as if I ought to act as a man and the moste of all I wante to teach the children good manners and try to im prove yourself and elevate your minds,” he wrote.

In a June 14, 1864, letter from Jacksonville, he said he was “very lone sum.”

“well dear Anne you neade not think that I have any galls (girls) here for I have not any,” he wrote. “all the boys has galls but me … but I think to much of my little Children for that”

Ultimately, Valentine didn’t live up to his standards, White said. He remarried three times in Florida without divorcing Annie in Pennsylvania.

In 1865, he married Mary Ann Francis. It wasn’t clear whet her she died or the couple divorced. Five years later, Valentine married 18-year-old Mary Susan Alford, who died in 1880. And he tied the knot with Edith Keys in 1881.

After Valentine died of pneumonia in 1895, his first and fourth wives applied for his pension, and Annie used the letters to offer proof - along with the marriage certificate - of their union.

“He didn’t live up to his high ideals of what it meant to be a man, but he did good for his country and his race, enlisting and fighting for the Union,” White said.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1DxaECD

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Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer, https://www.inquirer.com


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