Secrets of a Cemetery, Part IV: The United States Colored Troops

Read the rest of the series here.

For five men buried in the National Cemetery, the Civil War was the opportunity for a completely new future.  African-American men were not allowed to enlist until the second half of the war (black troops would see their first action in Virginia at Spotsylvania in 1864) but by the end of the war there were 166 black regiments in US service consisting of 180,000 troops.  For these Colored Troops and the rest of the enslaved population, the Civil War was the road to emancipation.  Beginning with individual actions leading to the definition of escaped slaves as contraband to Lincoln declaring emancipation an official policy of the war, the Union Army represented freedom for four million enslaved people.  Those black men who enlisted as soldiers fought not only for the Union and to ensure that emancipation would succeed, they also fought to prove the abilities of black men to the rest of the country.

 Grave of Chatham slave, Charles Sprout.

Grave of Chatham slave, Charles Sprout.

Each of the five known African-American burials in the cemetery was enlisted in a different regiment of the United States Colored Troops.  Peter Wilson (grave #814) was the first to join the Union Army, enlisting July 13, 1863 in the 36th USCT Infantry in North Carolina where he was born and raised a slave in the family of Dr. Turner Wilson.  Thirty-four years old at enlistment, Peter was killed just under a year later by Confederate guerillas near Pierson’s Farm, Richmond County, VA.  Twenty-three year old Charles Sprout (grave #6688) also joined up in 1863, enlisted at Fort Monroe in December.  A former slave of James Horace Lacy (owner of Chatham, currently a historic home run by Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania NMP), Sprout served in the 1 USCT Cavalry until his discharge February 4, 1866.

 Grave of William Branch.

Grave of William Branch.

Enlisting later in the war, William Branch (grave #6152) of Company E, 31st USCT Infantry mustered in on April 8, 1864 in Jamaica, Long Island.  The 23 year old soldier served with his regiment until January 27, 1865 when he was detached as a teamster.  Less than four months later, Branch died of typhoid fever at a field hospital in Virginia.  Thomas Hill (grave #4677C), private with the 50th USCT, enlisted January 10, 1865 in Illinois as a substitute for James Emery.  He served for the rest of the war, was discharged in January 1866, and died in Fredericksburg, VA on October 22, 1930.

 Grave of Moses Humphreys.

Grave of Moses Humphreys.

The fifth USCT burial remains somewhat of a mystery.  Most information about Moses Humphreys of grave #3306 is unknown, and that on his gravestone is most likely incorrect.  He is listed as a private in Company I, 135th USCT.  He probably was not a member of this regiment because he died in 1864 and that unit only existed between March 28, 1865 and October 23, 1865 and operated in North Carolina, not Virginia.  Despite this lack of information, we know Humphreys is one of five men representing a very important population and story.  There may be more USCT troops in the cemetery, lying under unknown markers with other casualties of the 1864 campaign, but we will never know.

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park from 2010-2014 and has worked on various other publications and projects.