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. Continue reading “Who Is This Benton Barracks Soldier?”

Freedom Fighters of Missouri

Over 8,000 African Americans from Missouri – mostly former enslaved – volunteered to fight for freedom in the Union Army in 1862 with the Confiscation Acts. Not until the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 did the Government approve of the mass mobilization of all-Black units for combat in the infantry, cavalry, and artillery. On May 22, the Bureau of Colored Troops was established by the War Department to handle the recruitment and mobilization of United States Colored Troops units. From that day forth, all African American units were to be designated as such. In total, about 190,000 joined the USCTs, making up for one-tenth of the entire Union Army by 1865.

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1 Sgt. William Messley of the 62nd USCTs. Courtesy of Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield

Below, I have compiled a list of the USCT units that were organized in Missouri during the war. The 8,000 men from Missouri that enlisted in these units joined mostly out of determination to achieve freedom from bondage, not necessarily to fight for country and union. Pay, stability, manhood, and the ability to finally independently care for their wives and children were many of the driving factors that encouraged their enlistment. For former Missouri slaves who fled to free territory in Kansas, where ardent abolitionists welcomed them, the stakes for freedom were even greater. These same troops would deploy into slave territory to fight the men who kept them and their families in bondage. Though many white soldiers and officers doubted whether they could actually fight in combat, these troops repeatedly proved their courage at battles such as Island Mound, Cabin Creek, Honey Springs, and Fort Blakely. Island Mound in Bates County, Missouri was the first known engagement where the Union Army deployed African Americans in combat in October 1862, even before the Emancipation Proclamation. Continue reading “Freedom Fighters of Missouri”

The Formation of the American Zouaves Regiment

Known as the “American Zouaves,” the 8th Missouri Infantry was as much a tool for recruiting young, enthusiastic Unionists as it was a social experiment in early-war St. Louis, Missouri. At the start of the Civil War, St. Louis was a booming river city, with growing populations of German and Irish immigrants, as well as native-born slaves and white civilians. In 1860, St. Louis was the 8th largest city in the United States, with over 160,000 people living within its borders and over half being foreign born. Though many immigrants in Missouri experienced nativist opposition in the 1850s, they were some of the first to respond to the rallying cry for volunteers to serve in the Union armies and navies.

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Sgt. Phillip Smith, Co. H, 8th Missouri Infantry wearing the signature Zouave uniform. Courtesy of the Peoria Historical Society.

To create a sense of unity and comradery, many recruitment officers segmented units based on ethnicity. The 7th Missouri Infantry Regiment, for example, was nicknamed the “Irish Seventh” for its large numbers of Irishmen. The “Western Turner Rifles,” or the 17th Missouri Infantry, consisted of Germans. There were many others, as well, that were formed to meet the quotas for the State of Missouri and to form a distinct unity between comrades. In early June 1861, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon and Congressman Francis P. Blair, Jr. both actively supported the formation of a purely “American” unit, dubbed the “American Zouaves.” Continue reading “The Formation of the American Zouaves Regiment”