The American Civil War holds an interesting place in U.S. history as a vital turning point in our nation’s story. The topic has been and remains heavily written about, but much of this period omits the role of African Americans. Frank Smith, founding member of SNCC and founder and director of the African American Civil War Memorial, explained: “There must be two thousand history books out here that are written about the Civil War that have no mention of African American Civil War soldiers (laughter)… These guys have these amazing stories… why did they get left out of the history books? Well, we know… one of the ways racism works… the Civil War sells in the South, people who write books… figure if they will put something in there about black people, white people buying these books weren’t going to buy them… So they just overlooked all of this history… This is a great story that has to be told.” Today we highlight the many HistoryMakers who have helped tell the U.S. Civil War story through the black lens of their own family histories.
Episcopalian minister Father Richard L. Tolliver recalled: “My grandmother talked about how her grandfather… was a Civil War veteran. And his name was Cyrus Turner. And in fact, I have his sword in my possession today that I keep at home, hidden… He was in the cavalry… he was from Springfield, Ohio… He’s buried in Fern Cliff Cemetery in Springfield.” TV journalist Harry Boomer also remembered: “George Boomer… [was] a quarter master… he fought… [in] the Civil War… there was an old musket that we had around the house. … And there is a monument in [Washington] D.C… [that has] his name… on that monument [Spirit of Freedom Sculpture].” Fiction writer and poet Samuel Greenlee (1930 – 2014) spoke of his great grandfather: “On my father’s side, my great-grandfather was a Union cavalry man, who became a member of the Ninth Cavalry. He was a Buffalo Soldier.”
Tuskegee airman and civil rights activist Dabney N. Montgomery (1923 – 2016) told of his father’s grandfather “Joe Montgomery… he escaped the South, and went north and joined the Union Army… He didn’t go far north; he went to Mississippi (laughter)… That’s where he met and joined the Union Army… he had a rifle in the Civil War. And he was given the job of a guard around… a warehouse, that contained guns and gunpowder and that kind of thing. And his orders was to shoot and kill any person that came near… that warehouse smoking cigarettes, cigars, tobacco, anything, to shoot and kill. And one day, who showed up at this warehouse? General Grant [Ulysses S. Grant], smoking a cigar. And this is the story as told to us. General Grant in Mississippi, smoking the cigar, came up to my great-grandfather Joe. And my [great] grandfather said, ‘Put the cigar out.’ He paid him no attention. After the second time, he said, ‘Put the cigar out.’ But it was a big cigar. General Grant paid him no attention. He told him, ‘I’m telling you for the third time, and I’m raising my rifle to shoot. Put the cigar out.’ General Grant put the cigar out and congratulated him for being a good soldier. Now, that’s the story that Aunt Hattie would tell us around the fireplace in Alabama… And, of course, that was something to remember and rejoice over. We had a father, a grandfather, a great-grandfather, who challenged General Grant. My father obtained that rifle and held that rifle in Selma, Alabama to the 1960s… I went home to get that gun…I got there; my father had sold that rifle for ten dollars to a white man that he didn’t know… I’ll never forget that because that was the only gun in history that I admired (laughter).”
The former wife of U.S. Congressman Ron Dellums, Leola “Roscoe” Dellums,described her maternal great-grandparents, who lived in Shenandoah Valley, Virginia at the time: “When the Civil War came… they realized that even freed men, free people, were not going be protected by the federal government… homes were being burned… they wanted to get the boys outta the house [Dellums’ three great uncles], and… one joined the 54th Massachusetts [Regiment], one joined the Ohio Volunteers, and one joined the First Michigan, so… they all fought in the Civil War… one of them, Amos Wanzer, was fighting for his pension and he had been wounded, and he was having to go to a Tribunal and fight for it, so he had to give all his family background and the history, and he had to bring witnesses… he was shot in the head… And what was interesting is that… he had Syphilis, but they called it the Pox. He didn’t know that he had Syphilis… But it was interesting because… the debilitation was more from the Syphilis than it was from the head injury, and that’s what they had to fight over.” The 54th Regiment, it should be noted, was the first officially recognized black military unit in the United States. Enough men showed up to fight for this regiment in 1863 that a 55th had to be created.
Mary Ellen Butler, former speechwriter for U.S. Senator Alan Cranston and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, had a relative in this 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. She explained that “on my mother’s [Virginia Craft Rose] side… James Monroe Trotter… was an outstanding participant in the Civil War… Trotter was a member of the 55th Regiment in Massachusetts… this occurred after Abraham Lincoln said that black men… could… join the Union Army. He needed manpower, so he broke down and said okay, we’ll take black soldiers. And James Monroe Trotter, and many others, were among the first to volunteer to serve in the Civil War. And he came out of it as one of the few black officers who were appointed during that time… His mother Letitia… was owned by a slaveholder in Mississippi… her owner either released her from slavery, or she escaped, and arrived in Ohio.” These soldiers “were recruited by white and black abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass from across the North. Abolitionists spoke at churches and rallies where they urged free blacks to join. Some of those who joined may have been fugitive slaves as well. When the men did join, they were provided with quality accommodations and conditions which helped to recruit more black soldiers. So many African American men volunteered to serve in the 54th and 55th Regiments that medical examinations had to become more thorough and selective which worked to produce strong and healthy regiments.”
Even those too young to fight wanted to be a part of the Union Army, as was the case for jewelry artist Curtis “Kojo” Morrow’s grandfather: “My grandfather [George Wash Morrow] was the storyteller… he was twelve years old when the Civil War began… he and three other young boys ran away. They were looking for the Union Army… how they found the way north because of the moss, the way the moss grow on one side, certain side of the tree and the stars… they finally found or walked into a Union Army camp and… he was too little, too young to fight and… His first job was a water boy and then he became a laborer. And at night they would have classes, teaching… slaves how to read and write. And they taught him his alphabet and he was a quick learner. So by the time the war ended, he was teaching other freed slaves how to read and write. So he became a teacher and a preacher.”
Leaving the South to fight for the Union, of course, could also be very dangerous. The great-great grandfather of photojournalist Ernest Withers (1922 – 2007) was murdered for doing so: “Silas Withers, my great, great grandfather that was born in Mississippi, went off with [Ulysses S.] Grant when he came through Marshall County to take Vicksburg [Mississippi]… after General Grant took Vicksburg, and they receded, the Union Army left and went out of Mississippi. Silas, according to the story of my father [Earl Withers], came back to the slave herd and… But then when he did go back, they resented his having gone with Grant and the Union army as a slave. And the slave owners loaned him to other slave owners in the vicinity… And the family legacy is that… scatters of his body and clothing were found in the Pigeon Roost Bottom [valley, Mississippi]… they killed him… the entire Withers family, when Silas Withers was found lynched, they scattered out of Mississippi.”
Largely due to this danger, some African Americans remained in the South where they worked for and sometimes fought with the Confederate Army. Former Houston YMCA head Quentin Mease (1908 – 2009) spoke of his maternal grandfather, Joseph Henry Tate, who “used to tell me about… some of his Civil War experiences. And at dinner table on Sundays he would refight the Civil War. And he’d have a knife (laughter) he would be pointing as if it was (laughter) a gun… but he was in the Confederate Army. And he was a carpenter… in the early days of the Civil War in the South they wouldn’t induct the slaves or black into the military as fighting men… But as the war became a losing cause to them then they gave these former slaves… guns, and bayonets, and swords or whatever to fight on their side. And so that’s how he got into it… It was very interesting.”
Lieutenant Colonel Harry B. Johnson, in his interview spoke of his maternal great-great grandfather: “My mother was a Revels. Her father was James W. Revels… His father was… Colin Revels, who was from Cherokee, North Carolina… the Cherokees… fought for the Confederate side… And when I was studying this, I found where my great-grandfather is buried, and that he’s buried in a Confederate cemetery. And I was thinking… what was wrong with him? (laughter)… until I realized… the history of the Cherokees [for those that stayed in the South, they weren’t forced to leave for Oklahoma]… my great-grandfather, lost a leg at [the Battle of] Gettysburg… he always wore his hair apparently all the way down to his shoulders. And he dressed more like an Indian [Native American] than he did anything else… And his father before that came from France, and apparently they were mountain men… they went down to North Carolina to the… Smokies [Smoky Mountains]… and married Cherokees. So they were a part of the Cherokees…. but his [Colin Revels’] wife was an African whose mother was a slave.”
For Chicago historian Christopher R. Reed, his great-grandfather served in regiments that helped force the surrender of Confederacy: “My great-grandfather maternally was a slave who served in the Civil War…[Henry Slaughter] in the 116th infantry regiment [116th Regiment], U.S. Colored Troops… This was a regiment raised in the area around Fort Nelson, Kentucky in 1864. They served in the eastern theater, fought at the… siege of Petersburg [Virginia]. They were part of the massive assault force that chased Robert E. Lee out of Richmond [Virginia] in late March, early April 1865 for a hundred miles westward where they cornered him in Appomattox, Virginia [Appomattox Court House, Virginia]. And the 116th with my great-grandfather was in the middle of the battle formation that Lee saw when he decided to surrender… The 116th was accompanied by troops of the 31st infantry regiment [31st Regiment] from New York, a slave regiment”
Contributions made by African Americans in the Civil War are indisputable. By the conclusion of the War Between the States, “roughly 179,000 black men (10% of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy. Nearly 40,000 black soldiers died over the course of the war—30,000 of infection or disease.” Additionally, African American women, “who could not formally join the Army, nonetheless served as nurses, spies, and scouts.” With this in mind, Frank Smith concluded: “They literally fought their way from slavery to freedom… following the Civil War the Congress passed the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution, and this is a radical change in American democracy… for the first time you see… the vote extended beyond the white male population, to who? To the black male population… They went on after that to become congressmen and senators in the Southern states. So, it’s an important story that has been left out of the history books, and it’s important for America because this democracy that we know in the United States is an evolving process… I think we made some great strides at it, we still have a long way to go… [and] it’s been done with… the blood and sweat of black people...”
Frank Smith (The HistoryMakers A2004.257), interviewed by Racine Tucker Hamilton, December 13, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 5, Frank Smith discusses the role of African Americans in the U.S. Civil War.
Father Richard L. Tolliver (The HistoryMakers A2003.030), interviewed by Larry Crowe, February 19, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 4, Richard Tolliver talks about his father’s background.
Harry Boomer (The HistoryMakers A2014.040), interviewed by Larry Crowe, February 10, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 1, Harry Boomer talks about his ancestor, George Boomer, who served as a quartermaster in the Civil War.
Samuel Greenlee (The HistoryMakers A2001.028), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, November 1, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 3, Sam Greenlee describes his father’s history and traces ancestors to pre-Civil War days.
Dabney N. Montgomery (The HistoryMakers A2007.226), interviewed by Adrienne Jones, August 7, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 4, Dabney N. Montgomery describes his father’s family background, pt. 1.
Leola “Roscoe” Dellums (The HistoryMakers A2003.130), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 12, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 7, Leola “Roscoe” Dellums talks about her family’s involvement in the Civil War.
 Ephrem Yared. “55TH MASSACHUSETTS INFANTRY REGIMENT (1863-1865),” Black Past, March 15, 2016, accessed September 18, 2020. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/55th-massachusetts-infantry-regiment-1863-1865/#:~:text=The%2055th%20Massachusetts%20Infantry%20Regiment%20was%20a%20volunteer%20regiment%20made,unit%20in%20the%20United%20States
Mary Ellen Butler (The HistoryMakers A2007.136), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 13, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 5, Mary Ellen Butler describes her maternal ancestor, James Monroe Trotter.
Ephrem Yared, “55TH MASSACHUSETTS INFANTRY REGIMENT (1863-1865).”
Curtis “Kojo” Morrow (The HistoryMakers A2003.259), interviewed by Larry Crowe, November 3, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 6, Curtis “Kojo” Morrow shares stories about his paternal grandfather during the Civil War.
Ernest Withers (The HistoryMakers A2003.147), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 28, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 3, Ernest Withers discusses a slave ancestor’s murder during the Civil War.
Quentin Mease (The HistoryMakers A2004.224), interviewed by Larry Crowe, November 2, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 4, Quentin Mease talks about his maternal grandfather’s service in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War.
Lt. Col. Harry B. Johnson (The HistoryMakers A2003.223), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 17, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 5, Harry B. Johnson describes his mother’s, Eunice Revels, family history, pt. 1.
Christopher R. Reed (The HistoryMakers A2009.149), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 17, 2009, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 3, Christopher R. Reed describes her mother’s family background.
 “Black Soldiers in the U.S. Military During the Civil War,” National Archives, last edited September 1, 2017, accessed September 18, 2020. https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/blacks-civil-war