Thursday, June 24, 2010

Profile in Courage: Sergeant-Major Thomas R. Hawkins, 6th USCI

Ever since I first started blogging back in February it has been my intention to start profiling some of the forgotten heroes of the USCT in much the same way that Eric Wittenberg profiles forgotten cavalrymen over at his blog.

Working on an exhibit and two books at the same time has prevented me from doing this, but I’ve come to the realization that if I keep putting this off, I’ll be dead before I have an opportunity to profile these forgotten warriors.

Thus, in the first of what I hope to be many installments, meet Thomas R. Hawkins, Sergeant-Major of the 6th USCI and recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

As is the case with many members of the United States Colored Troops, not much is known about Hawkins’ early life. We do know that he was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1840 and that by 1863 he had made his way to Philadelphia. On August 3, 1863 he enlisted for three years’ service in the Federal Army as a substitute for a man named Passmore Henry. He was assigned to Company C of the 6th USCI after enlisting.

Hawkins must have impressed the white officers of the 6th because he was promoted to Sergeant-Major of the entire 6th USCT regiment just 19 days after enlisting. Hawkins and the men of the 6th would deploy to Yorktown, VA where they would remain until the spring of 1864. While Hawkins was in Yorktown he befriended a man who could sympathize with his duties and responsibilities – Christian A. Fleetwood, Sergeant-Major of the 4th USCI which was brigaded with the 6th. Both men would be heavily involved in Duncan’s Assault at New Market Heights.

On June 15, 1864 Hawkins and his regiment saw their first large engagement when they assaulted Petersburg. The USCT’s in Hinks’s Colored Division obtained one of the few Union successes that day and the casualties that they incurred provided all the proof that most white soldiers needed. Among the wounded was Hawkins who suffered a broken arm from a bullet that struck him near the elbow. He would be hospitalized for eight weeks and would rejoin his regiment at Dutch Gap on August 13th.

The next battle that Hawkins was involved in was the assault on New Market Heights, September 29, 1864. The 6th USCI, along with the 4th, comprised the first wave that went into action around 5:30 in the morning. As the 6th was subjected to severe musket and artillery fire, the color guards of both regiments took severe casualties and Hawkins was credited with rescuing the banner of the 6th before withdrawing with the rest of Duncan’s Brigade. When the dead, wounded, and missing for the first assault were tallied, it was learned that the 6th had sustained 57% casualties – and once again Sergeant-Major Hawkins was among them, having been wounded in the arm, hip, and foot. Hawkins’ friend Christian Fleetwood later wrote that “his recovery from these fearful wounds was deemed hopeless.” As it turned out, Hawkins did survive – although he was so badly crippled (the regimental surgeon estimated that he was two-thirds disabled) that he was given a disability discharge on May 20, 1865.

Unlike his friend Christian Fleetwood and the eleven other African Americans who were awarded the Medal of Honor on April 6, 1865 for their part in the assault on New Market Heights, Hawkins would have to appeal for his medal.

After the war, Hawkins petitioned Major General Joseph B. Kiddoo about the possibility of being awarded the Medal of Honor. With Kiddoo’s urging, the War Department approved the award. On February 8, 1870 a proud Hawkins was hand-delivered his Medal of Honor. Twenty days later, Hawkins died of consumption at the age of 29, survived by his wife and young son. He is buried in Harmony Memorial Park in Landover, MD.

Writing two days after his death, Christian Fleetwood wrote that “his death leaves a void in the hearts of his associates that will never be filled by another.”

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Society of Civil War Historians Meeting

In a few hours I will be checking out of the office and heading over to the Society of Civil War Historians’ Biennial meeting in Richmond. The conference has a very impressive lineup with Ed Ayers and Gary Gallagher speaking tonight and other historians such as Peter Carmichael, Joan Waugh, Mark Grimsley, Lesley Gordon, and Susannah Ural just to name a few.

While I’m having the damndest time figuring out which sessions I’ll be attending, I can guarantee you that I’ll be interested to hear “Brother, Religion is a Good Thing in Time of War: The Theology of U.S. Colored Troops” presented by Reginald F. Hildebrand.

It should be a great conference and I hope to see some of you there!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Fantastic New Post at Mysteries and Conundrums

Be sure to check out the new post over at Mysteries and Conundrums regarding the fighting that took place at the Alrich Farm on May 15, 1864. This was the first combat by USCT’s north of the James River and mainly involved troops from the 23rd USCT.

The 23rd was a Virginia unit and many of you might recognize the face of Nimrod Burke, who served with the unit. Burke’s image is by far one of the most iconic photographs of a USCT.

Monday, June 14, 2010

USCT Grave Rededication on Juneteenth

This Saturday a memorial service and grave rededication will be held at the Blairsville Cemetery in Blairsville, PA (just east of Pittsburgh) for eleven United States Colored Troops and one African American sailor.

The servicemen to be honored with new headstones include:

1. Samuel McClellan, 32nd USCT

2. Lewis Bronson, 5th Massachusetts Cavalry

3. Charles Battles

4. Noah Bronson, 43rd USCT

5. Dennis Johnson, 24th USCT

6. James Patterson, 43rd USCT

7. Paul Patterson, 43rd USCT

8. John Patterson, 127th USCT

9. William Robinson, 24th USCT

10. John Yanall, 127th USCT

11. Edward Yaw

12. Kane Ranson, USN

While I’m sure that none of these names are familiar to you, if you consider the units that these men served in you can gain a greater understanding of what their time in the army might have been like.

For instance, Samuel McClellan of the 32nd USCT could have seen action at Olustee, FL or Honey Hill, SC.

William Robinson of the 24th USCT may have been a prison guard at Point Lookout, MD.

James Patterson of the 43rd USCT most likely witnessed the horrors of the Crater while his brother in the 127th USCT might have stormed Battery 45 during the breakthrough at Petersburg and followed Lee’s army during the Appomattox campaign.

And Lewis Bronson of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry (Colored) may have known Charles Douglass, son of Frederick Douglass, and might have ridden with the 5th into the streets of Richmond on April 3, 1865.

No matter what these men may or may not have experienced, it is pleasing to see local organizations taking the initiative to honor their local soldiers and learn the stories behind the faded grave markers

Thursday, June 10, 2010

An Unexpected Find

In addition to writing about the American Civil War, I sometimes moonlight as an amateur historian of the First World War. I’m currently working on a WWI exhibit that will be opening this September and will be publishing a history of Richmond during the Great War in 2011.

While conducting research on the African American population in Richmond during World War One I came across a 1922 article entitled “The War Record of Negroes in Richmond, Virginia” which was published in The Southern Workman, a journal published by Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University). Expecting to find detailed information on the black response to the draft, I was surprised to read the following in the first paragraph of the article:

The qualities shown by Negro men during the Civil War were found again in the World War registrants. When the test came the Negro went back to his honorable record made in the sixties and not to the years when he was misrepresented and misled politically.

Not thinking much of this slightly rambling prelude, I was taken aback when I read the second paragraph:

The South can never forget the Negro of 1861 to 1865. Actually, if not nominally, the protector of the families and the property of her soldiers, he showed fidelity to his trust and devotion to the white people with whom he lived. There was not an instant during that war when the South’s chance for success was not based on the certainty of the Negro’s devotion to his master’s people. A general uprising, even cause for distrust, would have led, at any stage of the war, to the immediate dispersion of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Um…excuse me?

Needless to say, I was at first baffled at the inclusion of such a paragraph in a journal published by a predominantly African American college.

Then I looked at the bottom of the page and found that this was an excerpt from a report filed by the Report on Selective Service in the City of Richmond, Virginia to the Richmond War History Commission in 1922.

The Richmond War History Commission, of course, was made up predominantly of white Richmonders in a city that was still very much dealing with the legacy of the American Civil War. Tensions boiled over throughout the country during World War One with large race riots breaking out in several major American cities. The situation grew so bad that Gov. Westmoreland Davis actually arranged to have weapons stockpiled in the bell tower at the state capital in case the Ku Klux Klan threatened Richmond’s returning black heroes.

Was the inclusion of a paragraph on the “loyal slaves” of the Confederacy a subtle way of intimating how blacks were expected to behave in the postwar world?


This warrants further investigation…

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Why Glenn Beck Needs To Read This Blog

While flipping through the channels this evening I came across an interview with Glenn Beck in which he excoriated our 28th President, Woodrow Wilson. Amongst the list of sins committed by Wilson, Beck made the stunning allegation that Wilson “resegregated the United States army.”

Yes, RE-segregated.

Now, if you’re like me, you’re probably asking yourself…well, Glenn, when exactly was the army DE-segregated prior to the election of 1912 (excluding, of course, the 500,000 blacks who fought for the Confederacy – sorry, I just couldn’t resist)?

Pretty sure United States Colored Troops served in segregated units…

…and the 9th & 10th Cavalry and 24th & 25th Infantry who served after the Civil War…

…and then the 92nd & 93rd Divisions who went on to fight in Mr. Wilson’s War.

Sure, you could make a case that African Americans served in desegregated units during the American War of independence and the War of 1812, but to say that this was the standard policy is beyond problematic.

I think what Mr. Beck was referring to was the segregation that went into affect under Wilson in such government entities as the Treasury and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. But not the army.

Beck seems to be pushing some strange narrative in which everything was hunky-dory in the United States until big bad Woodrow Wilson came into power. Please don’t mistake this as an endorsement or defense of the policies of Woodrow Wilson – but there was that pesky little slavery issue that plagued the country prior to Wilson’s administration.

I propose that Mr. Beck tour the exhibit that I helped create – Take Our Stand: The African American Military Experience in the Age of Jim Crow, which deals directly with some of the real issues that African Americans in the military in the early 20th century had to deal with.

And then he can have me on his show and help promote my New Market Heights book.

Hey, I’m just sayin’…

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Yet Another Reason To Love Pittsburgh...

For those of you who don’t know me well, one thing you will quickly learn about me is that I am a die-hard Pittsburgh sports fan. I follow all of their teams (yes, even the Pirates – don’t get me started) as much as I can, which can be difficult for a fella living in central Virginia.

In any case, imagine my surprise when I took a look at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s webpage to get an update on the Buccos and instead saw an article about United States Colored Troops.

Here’s the article in full:

Re-enactors Offer Tribute to Civil War's Black Soldiers

By Mike Cronin
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Miguel Tucker joined the re-enactors of the 6th Regiment Infantry of the United States Colored Troops because he likes playing drums.

Tucker, 16, keeps doing it is because of all the cool things he's learning.

"I didn't know that 190,000 African soldiers fought in the Civil War," said Tucker, a sophomore at University Prep, a K-12 school in the Hill District.

Because blacks were still slaves, they were not yet called African-Americans, said John L. Ford, historian at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland.

Tucker and the four other members of the 6th Regiment re-enactors performed Monday during Soldiers & Sailors' Memorial Day program.

Ron Gancas, president and CEO of Soldiers & Sailors, founded the modern version of the 6th Regiment last year, Ford said.

The re-enactors use Civil War-style snare and bass drums.

"We want students to know the regiment's history so they have the pride to fulfill the glory that many of the soldiers thought they had when they were fighting for their freedom," Ford said.

Only after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 could black slaves enlist in the Union Army, said Michael Kraus, the museum's curator.

Roughly 8,900 Africans from Pennsylvania fought for the Union during the Civil War and about 800 came from Western Pennsylvania, Ford said. About one-third of them died.

"This is more stern and serious — more discipline — than a regular marching band," said Tucker, the oldest member of the 6th Regiment re-enactment group.

The unit's youngest member, Marshall Anderson, 10, joined because he loves playing drums. And, he, too, has learned some Civil War history.

"They could never let the flag touch the ground — even if the person carrying it was killed," said Anderson, a Wilkinsburg resident who attends Tolatr Academy in Highland Park.

The 6th USCI was part of Col. Samuel A. Duncan’s Third Brigade of Paine’s Third Division,  XVIII Corps during the assault on New Market Heights and had one of the highest casualty rates of any unit that day – 57% (company D alone lost 87% of its strength).

For more on this unit see James M. Paradis, Strike the Blow for Freedom: The 6th United States Colored Infantry in the Civil War and here.