23 Mar 2015


Lost Capitol Hill: Raising the 1st USCT

turner-tn1I have written before of the church that once stood just south of the Capitol; on its use by the Israel Bethel congregation; and on how it played host to the mustering of the 1st Regiment, United States Colored Troops in 1863. As next month I will be giving a tour of the Hill which will focus on the sites related to the African American experience during the Civil War, I went back to look more closely at the events of May 18, 1863.

With the passage of the D.C. Emancipation act on April 16, 1862, as well as the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the next step was to muster freed slaves –as well as freedmen– into the Army to help in the fight against the Confederacy. While numerous efforts had been done ad hoc across the country, including the raising of what would become the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first federal effort began in Washington D.C.

In early May, a number of “War Meetings” were held across the city, including at Camp Barker, a contraband camp at 12th and Q Streets NW, the Asbury United Methodist Church, the 15th Street Presbyterian Church, and at Israel Bethel. The result was that on May 15th, the Evening Star reported on “The First Appearance of the Negro Soldiers,” with one company of the regiment parading through the streets of the city.

However, it would be a meeting on the 18th that would really represent the beginning of the regiment. Fortunately, a reporter from the National Republican was present, and described the scene for its readers.

Ad from the Daily National Republican announcing a 'War Meeting' for the evening of May 7, 1863. (LOC)

Ad from the Daily National Republican announcing a ‘War Meeting’ for the evening of May 7, 1863. (LOC)

The meeting was held at Israel Bethel. With Henry McNeal Turner acting a chairman, the hope was that two companies – or about 200 men – would be mustered in that day. A flag that had been presented to the regiment by Julia Henderson was displayed. A Lieutenant Colonel Raymond described how other regiments composed of African Americans had fought bravely, as did a Captain Thorney, who had served in the British army with “British and colored troops in India,” with the latter being the equal of the former. Reverend James Reed spoke of the “oppression under which his race had suffered and of their bright hopes of the future.” He then “urged his brethren to go into this battle and fight manfully.” A John J. Costan underlined this by referring to the “bravery of the District colored men in the battle of Bladensburg,” some of whom had children in the audience.

In short, everything was pitched to the idea that those able-bodied young men in the audience should take up arms against the secessionists. And take up arms they did. According to records of the regiment, about 150 soldiers were mustered in on the following day. This may well include those 50 about whom the Star had spoken of a few days previously – the 19th is the earliest day that any (but five, who were mustered in on the 17th) are shown to be members. These 150 represented a cross-section of civilian life, with the new soldiers having had a huge variety of occupations. While waiters, farmers, laborers were the most common, there were also wool spinners, cooks, bakers, hostlers, barbers, blacksmiths, gardeners, butchers, plasterers, messengers, brick makers, sailors, teamsters, tobacconists and boatmen.

In short, the meeting and its aftermath was a great success. In fact, the success was so great that Turner resigned his pulpit to become the regiment’s chaplain: at first unofficially, then later officially.

The regiment soon moved to Mason’s Island (today Roosevelt Island) where it trained before shipping south and the war. Over the next year and a half, the battled through North Carolina and Virginia, including in the two battles of Fort Fisher. The regiment was mustered out on September 29, 1865, and returned to Washington on October 8 to a hero’s welcome.

They had paid a heavy price. Of the some 1,100 members, about 200 had died during the war: about 1/3 in battle, the other 2/3 of disease.

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