Some early black troops from Illinois
On May 25, 1863, a group of fifteen to twenty African American men gathered at a railroad platform in Springfield to begin a journey east to Massachusetts. There they would be mustered into the Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the Union’s earliest black military units. The men were some of the first of many black troops from Illinois that would fight in our Civil War.
It is likely that a number of factors led blacks from Illinois to enlist in units raised and organized by Massachusetts, which became the 54th and 55th regiments of infantry. Perhaps the most important was opportunity. The Bay State eagerly sought out African American recruits for units that would be made up of black privates and non-commissioned staff, and led by white officers.
Such was not the case in Illinois. As early as the summer of 1862 some black men residing in Illinois, supported by local white leaders, offered military service to state officials. The larger public, however, was not ready to place weapons in the hands of black men so that they might fight for the nation.
Reports of a rally held in Chicago in late April 1863 noted that the African American leader John Jones expressed sadness that the “State of his present residence would not accept his services in this glorious cause, but he was determined to participate, and… should embrace the opportunity presented by the noble and patriotic Governor of Massachusetts.” Jones was “willing to adopt Massachusetts as his home, provided she gave him the right which every freeman covets, namely, that of fighting for her honor, and the honor of his country.”
The meeting unanimously adopted a series of resolutions, one noting that African Americans had been “ever loyal to a government that has oppressed us for 200 years and more, and do pledge our lives and sacred honors to… aid and assist in defending the common liberties of the entire nation.”
The meeting also issued a call for black men in Illinois to enroll in the Massachusetts units, declaring that they would play a crucial role in bringing freedom to their brothers and sisters throughout the South:
“In this war the liberty of the slaves is at once established, so soon as the Proclamation is carried to them. Who is to bear to our brethren of the South this good news… thousands of whom have not yet heard it. It is our duty-the duty of the black man to bear this proclamation, which can only be effectively accomplished by entering the army as soldiers… and thus carry it by fire and sword, not only to the heart of the South, but into the hearts of rebels.”
Where were they from?
Massachusetts records and the published history of the 55th show recruits in varying numbers from towns across Illinois, including: Alton, Bloomington, Cairo, Champaign, Chicago, Jacksonville, Newman, Peoria, Quincy, Springfield, Tuscola, and Waterloo.
It appears that many of those from Chicago, Springfield, and Jacksonville, among others, were new to Illinois, having recently escaped slavery. Among them was Andrew Jackson Smith, an escaped slave who had come north to De Witt County after working as servant to Colonel John Warner of the 41st Illinois Infantry.
A surprisingly large group of the state’s first black enlistees were the men from rural Clinton County, located about forty-five miles east of St. Louis. The father-son team of Daniel and James Mayhew gave their home as Breese Station, as did Tecumseh Pendergrass. Nearby Jamestown was home to John Coleman, Joseph Haren, John Morgan, and John Oglesby.
The standouts in the Clinton County cluster were members of what appears to have been an extended family. Franklin Curtis and the brothers Napoleon and Richard Curtis hailed from Jamestown, while John, Joseph, and Pleasant Curtis all hailed from near Carlyle. Census and land sale records show the family group to have arrived in the area by the late 1830s. Like many other of the earliest settlers the heads of the family purchased public domain land directly from the federal government. The U.S. population census for 1840, taken shortly after the family’s arrival, shows 111 African Americans living in Clinton County as free persons. Another 10 were held as slaves, some of them on farms located within a mile or so of members of Curtis family farms.
The 55th in service
The 55th was mustered into service at Readville, Massachusetts, on June 22, 1863, and a month later headed south. The men then began a long stretch of fatigue duty on South Carolina coastal islands. It was the kind of work seen by most Americans, north and south, as being most appropriate to African Americans. In February 1864 the regiment moved to serve near Jacksonville, Florida, for two months, after which they returned to the islands of the South Carolina coast. On July 2, the 55th took part in a small action on James Island.
Shortly after a November transfer to Hilton Head, South Carolina, the regiment took part in what would be its most notable fight, on November 30, 1864, near the town of Honey Hill. The action, in which the 55th fought with the now-famous 54th Massachusetts, was small but very deadly. The ground to be crossed in attacking Confederate lines was broken and covered with thick underbrush, making rapid movement impossible. Rebel rifle and artillery fire took a large toll. The two sides continued their small arms fire through the day in spite of the inability to see their opponents due to the thick vegetation. That evening the Federal forces withdrew under cover of darkness. The men of the 55th had acquitted themselves well. Andrew J. Smith, who lived at Clinton, Illinois, at the time of his enlistment, saved the regiment’s flag when the color bearer was “blown to pieces by the explosion of a shell.” Smith’s exploit was rewarded, in 2000, with the Congressional Medal of Honor.
After Honey Hill the 55th returned to its pattern of frequent movements along the South Carolina coast, punctuated by occasional short expeditions up the area’s rivers. In February 1865 the black troops of the 55th had the privilege ofmarching through the just-captured Charleston, South Carolina, perceived by many as the birthplace of the secession movement that had led to the war.
During its term of service the regiment lost 64 enlisted men killed or mortally wounded, among them Joseph Haren of Jamestown, Elijah Thomas and Alvers Northrup of Springfield, Andre Haggins of Quincy, John Abbott of Bloomington, and Emery Burton of Jacksonville. Another 128 were taken by disease. One of them was John Curtis, of the Clinton County family that contributed six members to the 55th.
After the war
Authors of the 1868 regimental history made at least some attempt to locate veterans of the 55th. Many of the men who had enlisted from Illinois had returned to the state, including the surviving members of the Curtis family, and Daniel and James Mayhew, all of Clinton County. Others returned to their prewar homes of Alton, Champaign County, Chicago, Douglas County, Jacksonville, and Springfield.
A few Illinoisans of the 55th, however, adopted Massachusetts as their postwar home, at least for a time. William Miledam and Jacob Payne located in Boston, while Lewis Clark who enlisted from Jacksonville, lived elsewhere in the Bay State.
Interested in learning more?
Bert G. Wilder, The Fifty-Fifth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, colord, June 1863-September 1865, which includes a regimental roster, can be found online at