A Buckeye with the 54th Massachusetts Infantry

    While recently scanning through issues of the Urbana Citizen & Gazette (a great paper for soldiers’ letters by the way), I came across this little gem of a letter written by Private Napoleon P. Rector of Urbana. What is unusual about this letter is that it was published at all: it is a rare treat to find letters written by black soldiers published in the press of the time.

    Napoleon P. Rector was a freeman, born in Ohio in 1835 and working as a porter in the city of Urbana, Ohio when he chose to enlist in Co. F of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, a regiment made famous for its exploits against Battery Wagner in July 1863 and depicted in the movie Glory. He served with the regiment throughout the war, being mustering into service May 12, 1863 at Readville, Massachusetts and mustered out with the regiment August 20, 1865. Regimental records show him being briefly hospitalized in April 1864 for sickness, but he was shown as present for duty every month.

    Last year, I posted a blog post about Sergeant Major John H. Wilson of the 54th Massachusetts who is buried just across the river in Riverside Cemetery in Maumee, Ohio so it was a pleasure to find another Ohio connection with the 54th Massachusetts. 

    His letter, while short, gives a good synopsis of the 54th’s experience in its first month of service, and in many ways reminds me of scenes from the movie- the review through the streets of Boston, the sea voyage to South Carolina, meeting the 2nd South Carolina, and the expedition to Darien, along with the subsequent pillaging of the town. Rector’s letter appeared in the July 9, 1863 issue on page 3.

Simon’s Island, Georgia
June 15, 1863
            Dear Father: I resume you’ve heard of our leaving Massachusetts for the South. Previous to our departure, we had a grand parade through the principal streets of Boston while being reviewed by the governor. We boarded a steamer between the hours of 3-4 P.M. and believe me; we had a sublime voyage of seven days to Hilton Head. Here we weighed anchor three or four hours and then coasted on to Beaufort, South Carolina where we found the 2nd South Carolina regiment (colored) which had just returned from an expedition of capturing some 800 slaves whom they intend making soldiers. We did not remain there long ere we were ordered here.

The 54th Massachusetts parades through the streets of Boston. 

            Last Wednesday June 10th, we were ordered on an expedition to the Altamaha River to a town by the name of Darien. We returned successfully after capturing several herd of cattle, sheep, and chickens from the shell to the roosters without the loss of a single man. The citizens of the place were preparing to dine, but upon our approach left their tables, gorgeously decked houses and offices, and fled to the woods just as their slaves have had to do in times past. As we were hungry, you may imagine what became of the table’s contents. Every office here is supplied with a whole set of parlor furniture, pianos, melodeons, accordions, fiddles, etc. There were things we were compelled to burn as they were contraband goods. We expect to go in a few days where we no doubt will see some fight. Charley Gammon is here- he and I are well.
            As ever your son,
            Napoleon P. Rector

“Hurrah for Nip- he’ll make a good soldier.”


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