While Black Print Unbound includes much about Black soldiers' reading and writing, what’s been especially interesting to me about soldiers’ letters in the Recorder, is how actively they engage with questions reaching beyond the War. That is, in the midst of their complex struggles as soldiers (and, indeed, to simply be considered as soldiers), many of the Black men serving in the Union army wrote about political questions, struggles for civil rights, questions of faith and home--a massive and rich range of issues. As powerful combinations of personal/autobiographical writing, occasional writing, sketches, and more formal essays deeply connected to the worlds around them, these texts demand further attention from literary scholars and the broader public.
A piece that still strikes me is this 15 October 1864 Recorder letter headed “A Soldier’s Idea of What Those at Home Should Do,” which carries the dateline “Camp in the Field, Crow’s Nest, Va., September 24th, 1864”:
MR. EDITOR—Dear Sir: I have been asked several times since I have been in the army why I did not correspond with your valuable paper, and I always told the inquirers that I did not think that I was a fit person to write for your most excellent sheet. But since then I have come to the conclusion that I would try my hand by way of writing you a few lines for your columns.
As I was walking out towards the Crow’s Nest, near the camp of our regiment, thoughts came in my mind concerning the condition of our people in Pennsylvania. I thought of what had been done for them that so many of her sable sons should enlist in the service of the United States, and thus counted in the quota of Pennsylvania.
I answer, Not any thing. But still we go, to fill the quota of the State. It is true we are made citizens of the United States. It is also true that we get the same bounty that white men regularly receive in the United States army, together with pay and rations. But is this all that we should look for? I answer, No. We fill the quota of the State for white men, and, as we do all this in Pennsylvania, why not vote like white men?
They acknowledge that we make as good soldiers, if not better than the whites—and as this is the case, why not accord us our rights as citizens of the State, as well as citizens of the United States?
We have some ten or eleven regiments that have been raised in Pennsylvania, as good as can be produced in any other State, and still they come to fill up the ranks of the Union army in solid phalanx.
The Copperheads say we ought to go and fight. I should like to know what for, unless it be to let them stay at home to vote the iron heel of oppression upon our necks. I am sure they are not going to vote us a citizenship in the United States,—that would not do,—for then we would be their equals. But I hope at some future day, not far distant, there will be a power sprung up that will drive away the prejudice that now exists in our so-called land of liberty. I suggest that now would be a good time to hold a State Convention, and strike another blow for our own franchise, while we are in the field fighting for the preservation of the Constitution and the Union.
You have held Conventions before concerning the rights and privileges of our race—and why not call one now while the public sympathies are with us? I am sure it would have its proper effect. Now is the time. Strike the blow while you can.
I shall certainly look for something being done by those that remain at home, for these are the ones that ought to do the work while we are in the fields to do battle, for we well know you won't be doing any more than your duty. You cannot but see that the Copperheads are doing every thing in their power to make peace and leave slavery and us just where we were, with the exception of those few who were freed by the kind hand of the Administration. But I think they have commenced too late in the day to do us any harm now, if you use the proper vigilance at home.
We can do nothing but fight for the country’s cause—and that we will do until every man perish by the rebel bullet. In spite of all the prejudice that we have had shown towards us, we will stand by the old flag forever. If it should happen to prove of no benefit to us as a people, it will do good to the rising generation. So we will proudly fight the battles of our common country.
I am aware that you are going to hold a State Convention, but for what purpose, I do not know, unless it be for toleration in the cars running to and fro through your city. I recommend you to get your franchise acknowledged first, and then you can claim every thing you want. I am sure, until you can go to the polls and vote as white men do, it will benefit you nothing. If you should get any thing without this, it will only be by the mercy of the whites. Therefore, I recommend you to go for the franchise in preference to all other objects. Then you will have all you desire.
As I am about to come to a close, I hope this rather hastily penned little letter will meet with the approbation of yourself and the readers of your paper.
Excuse the plain language that I have used, as I have no pretensions in the least to being a Shakespeare.
WM. H. DAVIS,
Band-Master 22d Regiment United States Col. Troops.
Davis was a well-known musician and music teacher with deep ties to Philadelphia. Recorder notes on his later work can be found in pieces titled “Amateur’s Companion” in the 9 December 1865 and 30 December 1865 issues and a piece titled “The Great Cure” in the 16 December 1865.
The 22nd had been organized at Camp William Penn in January 1864 and later left for Yorktown, Virginia. They saw significant combat in the siege of Petersburg and other engagements. They would later be sent to Washington, DC (where they were part of the memorial observations for President Lincoln) and Texas. More information on the unit can be found on the NPS’s site.
Among the wealth of soldiers’ writing in the Recorder, these pieces are especially interesting:
*William B. Johnson, “Soldier’s Letter,” 26 December 1863
*John Hance, “Letter from Sergeant Hance, 4th US Colored Troops,” 20 August 1864
*Garland H. White, “Letter from the Reverend Garland H. White, Chaplain of the 28th US Colored Regiment, Raised in Indiana,” 20 August 1864
*J. H. Hall, “Letter from the 54th Massachusetts Regiment,” 27 August 1864
*unsigned, “Letter from the 1st Colored Troops,” 8 July 1865
Also of real interest, two scholars have worked to share the writings of Henry McNeal Turner, a Black Union chaplain and, later, AME Bishop. See Jean Lee Cole’s Freedom’s Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of Henry McNeal Turner (WVU Press 2013) and as well as Andre Johnson’s The Forgotten Prophet: Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and the African American Prophetic Tradition (Lexington 2012) and Johnson's larger work collecting Turner’s writings.
I’ll talk more about the kinds of conventions that Davis's letter calls for above (and the exciting recent scholarship on them) in my next post.
For now, I’m simply going to revel in Davis’s “plain language” and his powerful demands.