One Thousand sable heroes martialed for the defense of their country

In part I of this series, I recounted the story of Addison White’s escape from bondage in Kentucky, his dramatic confrontation with slave catchers at the home of Udney Hyde in Mechanicsburg, and the subsequent events that led to the Battle of Lumbarton and the storied “Green County Rescue Case” in which two white Ohioans faced federal charges for their defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This second part of the story leaps ahead six years to the spring of 1863 when the momentous issue of enlisting black men into the army to help in suppressing the Civil War had just begun. The intention is to explore a bit of how the community of Urbana viewed these enlistments, all for the purpose of setting the stage for an insightful letter written by Addison White while he was serving in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry…
Addison White

Addison White would get a chance to strike yet another blow for freedom, but it would take a six years and a bloody civil war to provide that chance. Once authorization was given to enlist black men into the army, agents from the state of Massachusetts canvassed various communities throughout the North seeking volunteers. Roughly 20 recruits were secured from Champaign County area in early May and they went on to join the ranks of the 54th Massachusetts. Addison enlisted April 23, 1863 and was mustered in May 16, 1863 as a Private in Co. E of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry at Camp Meigs at Readville, Massachusetts, listing his age as 41, height of 5 feet 11 inches, occupation as salt maker, and residence of Mechanicsburg, Ohio.[i]
Addison White's description from the Company Descriptive Book

Governor David Tod of Ohio did not object to the recruiting of black men from his state, but he was eager to ensure that the state received credit for the enlistments, which would subsequently lower the number of white men which would need to be drafted to fill the quota. “No provision being made by the laws of Ohio, Governor Tod said that he requested the Governor of Massachusetts to organize the colored men from Ohio into separate companies, so far as practicable, and also keep him fully advised as to the number, with the age, name, and residences of each so that Ohio may have the full benefit of all enlistments from the state, and the recruits the benefit of such aid as may be extended to them by our associations.”[ii]

Democrats had opposed the enlistment of black troops all along, and nervously looked upon these efforts to recruit black men into the army. In their May 13, 1863 issue, the Urbana Union took particular umbrage at T.D. Crow, a black citizen who was called upon to address a recruiting rally on May 8, 1863 where he “intelligently and enthusiastically urged colored men to volunteer.” The Union dismissed the results of the local rally, stating that only eight recruits came forth and “it was the general impression that it would have been more successful had there been less ‘crowing’ done and more room given to the enunciation of sense and the transaction of business.” The Union then printed the reported remarks of Crow, publishing them in the stereotypical ‘Negro’ vernacular of the time that quite frankly is too insulting to reside on my blog, and as such will not be repeated here.[iii]

G.W. Guy, a black resident of Urbana, fired back at the Union in a letter published in the Citizen & Gazette  the following week, disputing the Union’s claim that only eight men joined up (Guy claimed that 15 men enlisted as a result of the rally) and stated that the recruits came forth due to Crow’s “manly speaking.” He rhetorically asked the Union, “Have white men done any better in the same length of time in proportion to their number? If we ‘niggers’ can save you whites from the draft, nobody but traitors will object!” Guy argued that the Union was slandering their efforts out of fear that “we will do something to elevate our race. Hence his attempt to discourage our volunteering, and his cowardly assault upon our efforts and that of the gentleman (Crow) who had the soul in him to speak noble and eloquent words in our behalf, while urging us to fight for our common country.”[iv]

Now that we have seen something of the context of the community and times from which he enlisted, we can more properly appreciate Addison White’s letter. This letter was written in August 1863 to a white friend from Ohio (Brother Taylor, presumably Charles or Edward Taylor who were arrested for assisting him in his escape to Canada in May 1857) while Addison was engaged in the siege of Battery Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina.

He finds his situation “peculiar” but invigorating, as he, “the representative of a downtrodden and proscribed race,” was now engaged in subjugating “the power that has thus bound me.” Upon arrival in Massachusetts in May, White found “1,000 sable heroes, martialed there for the defense of a country that has ever proscribed them, yet they were there with a spirit as buoyant as any. The squad I arrived in more than filled the regiment; so you see, brother, if I was not a complete soldier, I completed the regiment; looking at it in that light, I considered it indispensable that I should enlist as a soldier.”

His letter recounts the parade of regiment through the streets of Boston, the lengthy sea voyage to the “Sunny South,” and the reception the men met upon their arrival in Beaufort. “As we passed a large group of had-been slaves, one old lady whose sands in her hour glass had almost run out, raised her hands to Heaven and exclaimed, “God bless you!”

White also remembered the regiment’s part in the raid on Dairen, Georgia, the engagement on James Island, and briefly described the regiment’s assault on Battery Wagner. White noted from where he now wrote, he was only six miles from the grave of “the great arch-traitor” John C. Calhoun (widely considered to be the author of secession), and relished in stating that he was now “martialed in battle array to subjugate his principles and his posterity.”[v]

Addison White had come a long way in six years. He went from barricading himself in the loft of a cabin in Mechanicsburg, Ohio, an escaped slave fending off slave catchers with his courage and a rifle, to being a soldier in a grand army defending the very government whose laws six years prior had proscribed him as nothing more than property, but now destined and endeavoring to secure a “new birth of freedom.”

Addison White’s story in many ways is emblematic of the turmoil which engulfed so many of our forebears in the years leading up to the Civil War, and is a testament to one’s man’s courage and determination to secure his freedom.

Addison White’s letter was published on the first page of the Urbana Citizen & Gazette’s October 22, 1863 issue with a brief introduction from “Brother Taylor” which reads as follows:

Mechanicsburg, Ohio
September 27, 1863
            The following is a letter written to the undersigned by a soldier of the 54th Massachusetts. Perhaps you may deem it worthy of publication; if so, it is at your service.

Morris Island, South Carolina
August 26, 1863
Brother Taylor: The circumstances under which I address you are peculiar and quite congenial with my feelings. I left the good old state of Ohio under different circumstances from most men. I left there the representative of a downtrodden and proscribed race, having all my days or life borne its heaviest burdens of proscription and then to find myself en route to subjugate or annihilate the power that had thus bound me. I am frank to acknowledge, it seemed a little peculiar to me. Brother, you nor any of yours ever have and I pray never will occupy the beautiful position of a man and beast at the same time, and the government acknowledging you neither- while you feel yourself a sort of a living specimen of life and death and the supreme orbit of both, and then to see that government struggling to save its own created canker, and calling upon you to lend your aid. What would be your reply? Knowing you as I do, I know it would be “I will fly to the rescue of my country and the vindication of justice and liberty.”

I found myself in the state of Massachusetts after a ride of two days and a half on the cars, and the sight I there beheld will forever remain in my mind. I found 1,000 sable heroes, martialed there for the defense of a country that has ever proscribed them, yet they were there with a spirit as buoyant as any, and as firm as the rock whose base rests upon the bosom of the ocean, and whose apex darts to the clouds. And if you could only have beheld them at drill, or on dress parade, you would have said they would have done honor to Napoleon’s Old Guard, so soldierly was their martial tread, and so readily do they take to the manual of arms. The squad I arrived in more than filled the regiment; so you see, brother, if I was not a complete soldier, I completed the regiment; looking at it in that light, I considered it indispensable that I should enlist as a soldier.

In a few weeks after this, we were reviewed by his Excellency, the Governor of Massachusetts. His very eyes flashed rays of sympathy that seemed to flow from a heart that knew nothing but good. It was on this occasion that the regiment received its colors. We next received the bounty of $50, all in greenbacks, and then commenced to make hasty preparations for our departure south. We were fitted out as well as a regiment could possibly be, and every preparation made to transport us from Camp Meigs to Boston, a distance of nine miles which was by way of cars. On the morning of the 28th of May, we embarked for Boston. On our arrival there, it seemed as though business was entirely suspended and everybody was in the streets. No regiment ever was received with such enthusiasm as we were. After passing through the most popular streets, we were next marched in companies in front of the State House. There we were joined by the Governor and staff in full dress, and escorted to Boston Commons. There we were received by his Excellency in the presence of a multitude of people that I can compare to nothing but the host that greeted Pompey when he triumphantly entered Rome after the Mithridatic War with the three kings to adorn his train.
Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts
"His very eyes flashed rays of sympathy that seemed
 to flow from a heart that knew nothing but good,"
Addison White wrote in 1863.

We were next marched to the dock where the good ship DeMolia lay in readiness to transport us south. We boarded her, and in a few minutes we were borne away by a sweet and pleasant gale towards the Sunny South, and our good ship, as though conscious of her precious load, moved over the mighty deep like a swan upon a park pond, and on we glided with nothing to mar our happiness, save a few that were sea sick. When about three days out, Orion seemed to rise from her Oriental home from the very bosom of the mighty deep, and it was then and there, Brother Taylor, that I could not fail from looking into the ocean with astonishment and admiration. Who can behold such a vast world of water without riveting his mind on the Deity? Who can listen to its ceaseless roar; behold its myriad of living inhabitants, without beholding the awful sublimity of the living God?

But eight days brought us within the vicinity of Beaufort, South Carolina and as our noble ship neared the harbor, we were greeted along the river banks by the little dark faces as we passed with a patriotism that would do honor to any American. We landed on the ninth morning from Boston. The city of Beaufort is a dilapidated looking city, yet there are many things to admire. The orange, lemon, fig, and pomegranate trees all waved a graceful bow as we passed along. The corners of every street were crowded with anxious spectators of both sexes, and all ages, and their very countenances revealed their joy at beholding their own kindred marching by platoons in their defense. One circumstance I shall never forget- it is indelibly fixed on my memory. As we passed a large group of had-been slaves, one old lady whose sands in her hour glass had almost run out, raised her hands to Heaven and exclaimed, “God bless you!”

            We passed on through the town to an eminence of ground, well suited for a camp, and bivouacked for a short time. We only remained one week when we received marching orders. We then went down the Savannah River about 150 miles into the state of Georgia to St. Simond’s Island. When there on the second day, the long roll beat and in a moment every man was under arms; eight companies sailed for a little town up the river 50 miles and on our way we were joined by the 2nd South Carolina regiment under Colonel Montgomery. On arriving at this town (its name I think was Dairen), we found it almost entirely deserted. We reconnoitered the place, confiscated everything of use, burned the place, and returned without losing a man.

But we remained only a short time, when we again received marching orders. Our next place of destination was St. Helena Island, South Carolina. We remained on this island a short time when we were again ordered to march. Our next destination was the famous James Island. When on this island, we threw out three companies as pickets and on the night of July 15, 1863, Ethiopia showed herself. Our three companies were attacked by a force of 6-8,000, and the 300 held them at bay from 3 in the morning until 6, when was whole force was drawn up in line of battle and it only took us about 30 minutes to put the Rebels to flight. The Rebs acknowledge a loss of from 200-300 killed and wounded. We then made hasty preparations to withdraw from the island. Our officers learned by the prisoners we captured that the Rebels intended to attack us with overwhelming numbers, so we made a successful withdrawal from the island.

We made a forced march of two days and two nights. On the night of the 17th, we stood all night in a drenching rain. The next day being the 18th was the day on which the 54th Massachusetts regiment made that never to be forgotten charge on Fort Wagner. We were marched up the beach and ordered to lie down in order to allow the shells to pass over our heads, and while lying in that position, we were for the first time informed we were going to be put into action, and about 8 o’clock we received the command “Forward, march!” When in about musket shot distance, we gave a yell and double quicked to the fort. Well, we had a short but desperate struggle. In about 30 minutes, we left between 300-400 of our brave men on the field, and were forced to retire. And here we are yet, only about six miles from the tomb of the great arch-traitor John C. Calhoun, whose giant mind so powerfully maintained errors, and who commenced secession 30 years ago. And now I, the chattel, am martialed in battle array to subjugate his principles and his posterity. More anon.

Click to read part I of this series

[i] Addison White Compiled Military Record, National Archives & Records Administration. has digitized all records of soldiers from the 54th Massachusetts, including Addison White’s file.
[ii] ‘More Colored Recruits,’ Urbana Citizen & Gazette, May 21, 1863, pg. 3
[iii] ‘Negro Recruiting,’ Urbana Union, May 13, 1863, pg. 3
[iv] ‘Negro Recruiting’ Urbana Citizen & Gazette, May 21, 1863, pg. 3. Guy’s letter was also published in the Urbana Union’s May 20th issue in which the Union editor disclaimed any intent to discourage black men from volunteering.
[v] This paragraph and the preceding three quote from “Letter from Addison White,” Urbana Citizen & Gazette, October 22, 1863, pg. 1
[vi] Ibid.


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