Who Is This Benton Barracks Soldier?

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One of the most recognizable African-American soldiers of the Civil War, this young soldier has represented the nearly-200,000 USCTs who served in the Union armies. Standing in front of the famous “Benton Barracks backdrop,” he has also been the face of former Trans-Mississippi slaves who risked their lives to fight for freedom. Around 8,000 of them were from Missouri. Unfortunately, he has remained anonymous to historians for over 150 years.

Established in August 1861, Benton Barracks was the largest recruitment and training encampment in St. Louis, preparing thousands of Federal troops from the Midwestern states for active service. The facility could accommodate up to 30,000 recruits and hospital patients at a time. With so many Federal troops making Benton Barracks their temporary home, studio photographers used it as an opportunity to photograph the soldiers and display their craft.

The most prolific and experienced of these photographers was Enoch Long. Originally from New Hampshire, Long and his brother moved to the Gateway City in 1846 to establish their own photography studio. Though Long’s brother passed away before the war, his death did not slow Enoch Long’s career. In 1861, Long moved his studio from downtown St. Louis to Benton Barracks.

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Enoch Long is shown on the left with one of several of his famous backdrops for Benton Barracks. On the right is an unidentified USCT with another backdrop of Long. Courtesy of the Mike Medhurst Collection.

To make the portraits reflect the nature of war for St. Louis, Long commissioned an artist to paint a series of backdrops, which would be known famously by historians as the “Benton Barracks backdrop.” From the Military Images magazine, historians Mike Medhurst and Brian Boeve describe the backdrop:

 

The scene features an open tent that reveals a table, upon which lies a state map with county boundaries, a quill pen and inkbottle and an eagle statue. At the foot of the table sit a knapsack and a canteen. Also visible in the foreground is a cannon and stack of ammunition, a stand of muskets and cartridge box, and a section of a defensive work. The Stars and Stripes floats over the patriotic setting, while in the background an ironclad gunboat bellows smoke from its twin stacks, as it steams along the Mississippi River.

Now, without any provenance, it will be nearly impossible to identify the USCT in our featured image. A part of the Liljenquist Collection at the Library of Congress, it is dated to be around 1863. As a private with no insignia nor any other identifiable mark on his unit, we have to look elsewhere for clues. What we can possibly determine is the unit he was in.

We know of several USCT units that were stationed at Benton Barracks around 1863:

  • First Missouri Colored Infantry / Sixty-Second USCT (organized at Benton Barracks in December 1863 and stayed there until April 1864).
  • Second Missouri Colored Infantry / Sixty-Fifth USCT (organized at Benton Barracks in December 1863 and stayed there until March 1864).
  • Third Missouri Colored Infantry / Sixty-Seventh USCT (organized at Benton Barracks and stayed there until March 1864).
  • Fourth Missouri Colored Infantry / Sixty-Eighth USCT (organized at Benton Barracks and stayed there until March 1864).

From all four Missouri Colored Infantry units, we know this young soldier was most likely a former slave from Missouri. Now, at Benton Barracks, he is proud to fight for his freedom and to show off his sharp uniform, accouterments, and weapons. For the first time in his life, he could fight for his and his family’s emancipation. Knowing the histories of these four Missouri units, he may have fought throughout the Trans-Mississippi West against some of the toughest Rebel fighters of the war.

For this year’s Black History Month, we remember and honor this unknown, but not forgotten, face of African-American service in the Civil War.


Sources:

Mike Medhurst and Brian Boeve, “The Backdrops of Benton Barracks,” Military Images, accessed February 25, 2019, https://militaryimages.atavist.com/backdrops-of-benton-barracks-winter-2016.

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