Black Virginians in Blue: A Digital Project Studying Black Union Soldiers and Sailors from Albemarle County, Virginia

Black Virginians in Blue: A Digital Project Studying Black Union Soldiers and Sailors from Albemarle County, Virginia

For the last four years, the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History at the University of Virginia has been working to uncover the untold story of Albemarle County, Virginia’s Black men who served in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) or Union navy. Our project, which we call “Black Virginians in Blue,” tells the unknown stories of the 256 Black men who enlisted in the Union military in order to end slavery and save the Union.

Descriptive Book of the 64th USCT. “Albemarle” was often misspelled in military records, as is the case here with the entry for Fenton Hood (National Archives and Records Administration)

One of the reasons that this local story has never been told is because most USCT records reside in the National Archives at Washington, D.C. There are very few traces of our soldiers and sailors that remain in Charlottesville or Albemarle County. Thanks to digital databases such as the National Park’s Soldiers and Sailors database and African American military service records digitized on Fold3.com, we were actually able to accomplish a lot of our initial research online. In addition to these online resources, we also examined regimental descriptive books at the National Archives. Because so many soldier’s birthplaces as listed in their service records are given simply as “Virginia” or are spelled incorrectly, it is possible there are even more soldiers from Albemarle for us to find in the future.[1] Like Holly Pinheiro and other scholars, we have found that military pension records are one of the best sources for understanding the lives of Black veterans and their families before, during, and after the war.[2]

Pension Record of Jesse S. Cowles (National Archives and Records Administration).

By the end of the Civil War, about 179,000 Black men served in what was known as the United States Colored Troops or USCT for short. About 5,700 Black soldiers enlisted in regiments raised in the state of Virginia. Our research, however, shows that many more men born in the state had moved elsewhere, joining up with USCT regiments raised across the North and occupied South. With only fourteen of the 250 soldiers from Albemarle County enlisting in Virginia’s borders, we believe that our finding suggests that the Old Dominion’s true contribution to the USCT has been vastly undercounted. The most prominent of our soldiers was Commissary Sergeant James T. S. Taylor of the 2nd USCT, who played a major role in local Black politics after the war.[3]

As historian Elizabeth R. Varon, one of the project codirectors, has previously noted, this research finding “challenge[s] us to rethink our concepts of ‘local history.’” Without acknowledging the Albemarle roots of the soldiers and sailors who enlisted outside of Virginia, “one might conclude that Albemarle County, Virginia had no USCT history: there was no USCT wartime presence there, no recruiting stations and battles involving Black troops. But if we take into account birthplaces, we see that Albemarle has scores of USCT stories.”[4]

Tintype of Willis Calhoun of the 67th USCT (National Archives and Records Administration).

By contrast to the army, the first Black men to be accepted into Union service entered the navy much earlier, starting in late 1861 as authorized by the Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. Unlike the army, naval vessels were not segregated.  Black men had served onboard before the war. By war’s end, nearly 18,000 Black men had served in the Union navy, over 2,800 of whom were born in Virginia, the largest number from any state. Six of these men were born in Albemarle County or Charlottesville. Although tracing the lives of five of these men is difficult, the value of pension records was once again more than demonstrated by our detailed biography of Alexander Caine, the first man from Albemarle County to enlist in the Union military.[5]

So far we have located 256 African American men from Albemarle County who enlisted in more than eighty different regiments. Only about seven percent of the men deserted during the war, a desertion rate lower than that for white Union soldiers which was more than nine percent.[6]Albemarle County USCT soldiers served in both the western and eastern theaters from 1862 until 1867 when the last Black regiments were finally discharged. Although none of them fought at the Battle of Fort Wagner depicted in the movie Glory, our soldiers were present at others of the USCT’s most important battles and campaigns, including Port Hudson, the siege of Petersburg, New Market Heights, Nashville, Fort Fisher, Honey Hill, Natural Bridge, and the Appomattox Campaign. In addition, the six Black sailors from Albemarle served in a variety of naval vessels, cursing for Confederate commerce raiders on the Atlantic, performing blockade duty near South Carolina, and patrolling the Mississippi and other western rivers.

Seventy-two of these Albemarle men died in the service, a death rate of 28.1 percent, which is far higher than the overall death rate of 18.5 percent for all Black soldiers during the war. However, only five men died from combat wounds and one from an accident as the vast majority died from diseases such as small pox, pneumonia, and dysentery and diarrhea, with the latter two being the biggest killers.[7]

Reverend Jesse S. Cowles (published in Cleveland Gazette, July 30, 1887).

Jesse Sumner Cowles, who was born around 1845 to Sarah and Montgomery Cowles in Albemarle County, Virginia. Cowles was subsequently enslaved in eastern Virginia before the Civil War. When the Union army marched up the Virginia Peninsula toward Richmond in the summer of 1862, Cowles escaped slavery and fled to Union lines, becoming part of a mass wartime exodus of fugitive slaves to the Federal army.[8]

Cowles enlisted as a private at the age of 18 on November 30, 1863, in Hartford, Connecticut, and mustered in on March 8, 1864, in New Haven. Cowles served in the 29th Connecticut Infantry Regiment during the war, seeing action at the sieges of Petersburg and Richmond in 1864 and 1865 before shipping out to Texas after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9. Cowles was wounded in his left forearm at the Battle of Second Fair Oaks, Virginia, on October 27, 1864. He mustered out with the rest of his regiment on October 24, 1865, in Brownsville, Texas.[9]

After the war, Cowles made his way north to Connecticut where he graduated from Wesleyan University and was ordained as a minister in 1872, playing a leadership role in the AME Zion churches in postings across the North. Cowles used his considerable talents as an organizer and orator to support charitable causes, to protest segregation and other forms of discrimination, and to keep the memory of the Union victory alive. In 1885, for example, Cowles helped lead an effort to raise money in New York’s Black churches in order to erect a monument to the Union general and former president Ulysses S. Grant, who had just passed away. Cowles died of consumption in York, Pennsylvania, on July 17, 1897. An obituary remembered him as “an earnest and faithful worker and an eloquent and pleasing pulpit orator.” He is buried in Lebanon Cemetery in York along with his wife Nancy.[10]

In telling the stories of Black Civil War soldiers and sailors such as Jesse S. Cowles and many more, the Nau Center hopes to tell a more comprehensive and inclusive story of our local history. We have found that the Civil War history of Albemarle County is more than just one of Confederates or the Lost Cause statues they left behind. In fact, many African Americans from our county eagerly donned the blue uniforms of the Union army and navy, and we hope our efforts will inspire similar studies of Black soldiers and sailors from other Virginian counties and other southern states. Our project will officially launch on April 13, the first day of our virtual signature conference.[11]

[1] Compiled Service Records, RG 94 National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. (hereafter NARA), accessed through Fold3 (https://www.fold3.com/browse/273/); “Search for Sailors,” Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System database, National Park Service (https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/search-sailors.htm); “U.S., Colored Troops Military Service Records, 1863-1865,” Ancestry.com; USCT Regimental Descriptive Books, RG 94, NARA.

[2] Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr., “Black Families’ Unending Fight for Equality: Teaching Civil War Pension Records,” Muster, February 16, 2021, https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/2021/02/black-families-unending-fight-for-equality-teaching-civil-war-pension-records/.

[3] Christopher T. Brooks, “James T. S. Taylor (1840–1918),” Encyclopedia Virginia, https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Taylor_James_T_S_1840-1918; Jonathan W. White, “A Black Soldier from Charlottesville Writes to Lincoln,” September 27, 2016, John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History (website), http://naucenter.as.virginia.edu/blog-page/311.

[4] Elizabeth R. Varon, “From Carter’s Mountain to Morganza Bend: A USCT Odyssey (Part 2),” John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History (website), January 18, 2017, https://naucenter.as.virginia.edu/blog-page/421.

[5] Joseph P. Reidy, “Black Men in Navy Blue during the Civil War,” Prologue 33, no. 3 (Fall 2001), https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2001/fall/black-sailors-1.html; William B. Kurtz, “Alexander Caine: From Philadelphia Barber to Union Sailor to World Traveler,” John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History (website), October 29, 2018, https://naucenter.as.virginia.edu/blog-page/911.

[6] Dora L. Costa, Matthew E. Kahn, Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 112.

[7] Margaret Humphreys, Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 11.

[8] Compiled military service records for Jesse S. Cowles, RG 94, NARA; J. W. (James Walker) Hood, One Hundred Years of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; or, The Centennial of African Methodism (New York: A.M.E. Zion Book Concern, 1895), 613-15.

[9] Compiled military service records for Jesse S. Cowles, RG 94, NARA.

[10] Pension Records for Jesse Cowles, RG15, NARA; New York Freeman, August 8, 1885; The York Dispatch (Pennsylvania), July 19, 1897; Samantha Dorm, “Jesse Sumner Cowles,” Emails, December 2020-January 2021.

[11] “Black Virginians in Blue: 2021 Signature Conference (Day 1),” John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History (website), https://naucenter.as.virginia.edu/2021-signature-conference-day-1.

 

William B. Kurtz

Dr. William B. Kurtz is the Nau Center’s Managing Director and Digital Historian. He is the author of Excommunicated from the Union: How The Civil War Created a Separate Catholic America (Fordham University Press, 2016) and “Black Virginians in Blue: The Untold Stories of Albemarle County’s US Colored Troops,” Magazine of Albemarle Charlottesville History 78 (Albemarle County Historical Society, 2020).

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