In the year 1886, George R. Prowell announced the publication of a much awaited history of Camden County, New Jersey. Prowell’s literary effort begins with the earliest settlement of the Camden County area and moves forward in time to 1885. Included in the history are chapters on the development of Camden City and the growth of the county as well as the law and medical professions. Prowell also devoted much time to the participation of county residents in the various wars fought by the United States during this period, listing the names and regiments of those who fought.
Chapter X of Prowell’s History of Camden County, New Jersey, “The War For The Union”, covers ninety pages. In it, the author sets forth a brief history of the American Civil War with a focus on Camden County’s contributions. The county’s efforts to raise troops for the Union cause is thoroughly covered. In addition there are biographical sketches of individual officers from the area, their respective units, and the names of all from the county who served. According to Prowell, Camden County raised thirty-two regiments for the Union cause.
Prowell’s accounts of various individual acts of gallantry and heroism performed by men and regiments are set forth in glowing terms. One can almost hear the sound of the bugle and smell the cannon smoke as the charge of men in uniform begins. The names of now-famous battles are recalled for Camden County’s glory, with the role of each county-sponsored regiment heroically stated. Unfortunately, Prowell failed in any attempt at presenting the complete story. Although he was meticulous in providing the names of all known white soldiers who participated, with two exceptions, he utterly failed to mention any of the many African-Americans who served so gallantly.
As part of “The War For The Union” chapter, under the sub-heading “Necrology”, the historian lists Johnson Cemetery (StocktonTownship) as one of a number of cemeteries in Camden County wherein the remains of Civil War soldiers lie buried; the information was probably provided from lists obtained from Grand Army of the Republic veterans groups. Although eighteen names are included, there is no indication that any of them were African-Americans. This is startling because at that time in 1886, Johnson Cemetery was known to be almost exclusively for the burial of blacks. Prowell’s second, and somewhat veiled reference to black participation in the Civil War, is found in his mention of the various veterans’ lodges created after the War to keep the spirit of camaraderie alive, viz:
WILLIAM P. ROBESON POST, NO. 51, of Camden [the first post in New Jersey composed of colored soldiers was instituted and organized June 28, 1881, with twenty-five charter members.
The following is a complete roster of the Post at this date (1886):
Past Commanders, W.S.Darr and W.A. Drake; Post Commander, Miles Bishop; Senior Vice, Chas. Jones; Junior Vice, Ezekial Jones; Surgeon, George Lodine; Chaplain, August Wescott; Adjutant, Charles Accoo; Officer of the Day, Anthony Aust; Officer of the Guard; George Bishop; Quartermaster, John C. Richardson; Quartermaster-Sergeant, Joseph Rice; Sergeant-Major, George H. Watson.
The other members are; Jas. Wiltbanks, Nathaniel Ingram, Wm. Ing, Wm. M. Butts, Wm. Smith, Hezekiah Wrench, Benj. Stewart, Elijah Hammitt, Chas. Barnes, Shepherd Pitts, Chas. Woolford, Elijah Pipinger, Thomas Ryan, George F. Johnson, and Charles Ford. The Post meets in Lee’s Hall, corner of Broadway and Atlantic Avenue.
Prowell’s failure to present a true picture of all the valiant men who fought for the Union prompted the idea for this research. To investigate and record black contributions during the Civil War would fill the void and add a much needed chapter to The History of Camden County, New Jersey. It may be one hundred and thirty-one years late, but those black men who wore the uniform of their country some of whom died for it are entitled to be recognized for their commitment. The battles that were fought and the hardships endured were the same regardless of skin color. When the bugle sounded the charge and the bullets flew, the color of one’s skin made no difference; all fought for the same cause.
The recent motion-picture, Glory, and the PBS series on the Civil War, have given the American viewing public a new awareness of African-American participation in the Civil War. Glory told the story of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment and its heroic attack on Fort Wagner guarding Charleston Harbor on July 18, 1863. The 54th Massachusetts was one of the first all black regiments to be raised in the Union Army after the Emancipation Proclamation, and, it lost a large number of soldiers in the attack including its Colonel, Robert Gould Shaw. Of those who survived, seven are known buried in Camden County. But more of that later.
My object was to research and locate the names of all of Camden County’s black Civil War veterans, both soldiers and sailors and locate their remains if possible. There being a paucity of records available on individual African-Americans in Camden County during the Civil War period, I recalled the teachings of a professor at Dickinson College and went to the graveyards first. As I thought back to those college years in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, I realized for the first time what an impression certain people there had made upon me. John C. Pflaum was my professor of Civil War history. He would teach us not only in the classrooms, but also at the actual battle sites in the area. A main stop at each site was always the cemetery which accompanied the battlefield. Professor Pflaum would point to a gravestone and say, “The history of America before 1900 can be found in her graveyards.” I know now that he was right.
Paul Ellsworth Hodge was also from Carlisle. He was born there in 1899, the son of free black parents, but the descendant of former slaves. Paul was the housefather at my fraternity as well as a deacon at the local black church, and made a special effort to make sure that his “children” knew of the black history of Carlisle.
Knowing of my interest in Civil War history, Paul would often take me to his church cemetery and show me the graves of those black Civil War soldiers from Carlisle. I now think back fondly to those many evenings in Paul’s small house on West Street and the arguments we had over my disbelief that black soldiers had actually fought in the Civil War. Paul too, was actually teaching me from the history written on the gravestones.
I surmised that the African-American experience during the Civil War had to have been similar between Carlisle and Camden County. If the church was the focal point of daily family life, then the church and it’s cemetery would contain the history of a man’s existence. Those names found in local cemeteries could then be cross-checked against existing Civil War records and confirmed as to place of residence, regiment, battles fought, etc. The same process would be followed in identifying those black Civil War sailors who served on Union warships.
My original idea for this research was to give names and existence to blank faces. Both black and white children must be taught not only of the black man’s struggle for freedom, but also that he actively participated in the bloody fight to win it. To say that black soldiers and sailors fought in the Civil War is not enough. To identify a black soldier or sailor by name or hometown and then list what he did will create historical heritage and pride. The young student can now proudly say, “My great-great grandfather was wounded at the assault on Fort Wagner during the Civil War”, and have the facts to prove it. The African-American children of our generation must be taught to appreciate that slavery was not their beginning, but rather a low period in a great culture thousands of years old with no doubt more heritage than any other culture. The American Civil War was a bloody proving ground for two great cultures, but it’s happening allowed one to stand up and be counted.
The identification process, if successful, would help in determining their descendants living in the Camden County area today. The process was made difficult by the fact, in many instances, that grave records were unavailable or nonexistent, and that many of the names located belonged to individuals who were not originally from Camden County but settled there after the end of the War. Since very little was known about any of the individuals identified, I realized that help was needed and turned for advice to Clarence Still, Lawnside historian. With his guidance and a fatherly hand on my shoulder I began the research. Toting a copy of A True Story of Laswnside, N.J. compiled by Charles C. Smiley in 1921, the research took me through the numerous black cemeteries of the county, the Camden County Historical Society, the Philadelphia Civil War Library and Museum, the New York Free Library, the National Archives and most importantly into the homes of many of the descendants of the men I was researching. The debts I incurred I hope someday to repay. The friendships I hope last a lifetime. Gail Greenberg, the Camden County Historian, a friend and my former history teacher, took time to guide me and continue to act as my teacher and editor.
Russ Pritchard, the curator of the Civil War Library and Museum in Philadelphia’ gave me full use of the thousands of volumes in the library as well as his personal advice. The staff of the Camden County Historical Society allowed me the freedom to roam through their vast resources which included the numerous directories and the Works Progress Administration Cemetery Project of 1937. Numerous people deserve special thanks. Carolyn Williams and Frank and Gilbert Shaw are the direct descendants of Timothy E. Shaw; without their support and friendship this research would be lacking. Irene Poole, Fred Pierce, Bernice Lawson Hackett, Blanche Lawson Pierce and Inez Pierce Hunter, the direct descendants of John Lawson also gave assistance so that this record would be complete. A special thanks to Giles Wright for reading drafts of this research and offering valuable suggestions for improvement. Again, I must thank Clarence Still. Since the project’s inception, he has been there every step of the way, providing comments, criticisms, suggestions and advice as well as being my sounding board. In the same vein, I must recognize the contributions of my good friend, George Cameron Vail of Audubon, New Jersey. Since completing the original manuscript of this project in 1992, many efforts have been made to have it published, but to no avail. Having read the rough copy, Mr. Vail, a nationally known artist in his own right as well as the former Executive Director of the Camden County Historical Society and a 34 year member of the Batsto Citizens Committee, by his own strength of character, simply “took the bull by the horns” and placed the entire manuscript on the Internet. Wanting no credit but deserving all, I want George to know that this project would be languishing in a drawer without his help. Thank you. Lastly, I must thank my wife Susan, for understanding the weekends spent in looking through cemeteries and the many nights spent typing with one finger.
Throughout the text, I regularly refer to officers as white and enlisted men as black. I have quoted heavily from various sources, and wherever possible I have retained their spelling and punctuation. Depending upon the time frame in which a certain book was written and which I then used as a reference, I have tried to maintain that author’s description and characterization of the black soldier’s participation. Lastly, parenthetical abbreviations are used in many instances because originally, many of the black commands had state titles. For example, the abbreviation A.D., meant “African Descent,” or the word “Colored” was used to designate the race. Ultimately, the War Department called all of its black regiments ” United States Colored Troops” and most authors and historians have abbreviated this to USCT. I have followed suit.
Joseph T. Glatthaar, in his recent work, Forged in Battle, quoted Garland H. White, the black chaplain of the 28th USCT, who wrote, ” The historians pen cannot fail to locate us somewhere among the good and the great, who have fought and bled upon the altar of their country.” I agree, and if there are any errors of omission in this project, I take sole responsibility.
Samuel Asbell, December, 1999