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Thunder at the Gates
The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America
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Soon after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, abolitionists began to call for the creation of black regiments. At first, the South and most of the North responded with outrage-southerners promised to execute any black soldiers captured in battle, while many northerners claimed that blacks lacked the necessary courage. Meanwhile, Massachusetts, long the center of abolitionist fervor, launched one of the greatest experiments in American history.
In Thunder at the Gates, Douglas Egerton chronicles the formation and battlefield triumphs of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry and the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry-regiments led by whites but composed of black men born free or into slavery. He argues that the most important battles of all were won on the field of public opinion, for in fighting with distinction the regiments realized the long-derided idea of full and equal citizenship for blacks.
A stirring evocation of this transformative episode, Thunder at the Gates offers a riveting new perspective on the Civil War and its legacy.
THE YOUNG HARVARD STUDENT HAD ONCE DREAMED OF LIVING “in times called calamitous,” and now he understood that this was no moment for those who harbored any doubts about their cause, or about their courage. Aboard the steamers Williams, Maple Leaf, and Recruit, on the morning of August 3, 1863, the soldiers of the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment prepared to debark on Morris Island, just south of Charleston Harbor. The skies shone “clear and beautiful,” but the regiment had recently learned of the disastrous assault on Battery Wagner and the heavy losses incurred by their sister unit, the Fifty-fourth Infantry. The news was particularly heartrending for the Fifty-fifth’s commander, Colonel Norwood Penrose Hallowell, as his older brother, Edward Needles Hallowell, had been badly wounded in the fight. “If we succeed in taking Charleston,” vowed Lieutenant George Garrison, “the intention is, I think, not to leave one stone upon another, but to level it to the ground.” Also watching Morris Island and the U.S. blockading fleet heave into view were two former slaves turned schoolteachers, Nicholas Said and James Monroe Trotter. Two other soldiers were still in transit from Boston. One of them, Henry Jarvis, born a slave on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, had stolen a small craft in 1861 and sailed thirty-five miles across the Chesapeake Bay to Fort Monroe and freedom. The other, John M. Smith, a peddler and stove-maker from Maine, had deserted the Fifty-fifth from Camp Readville in Massachusetts. Captured in Boston, Smith was given the choice of trial and possible execution or rejoining his unit in the South. Rather to the dismay of his fellows, Smith opted for the latter.1
Observing the arrival of the transport steamers from the dock on Morris Island were the bloodied but unbroken survivors of Wagner. Peter Vogelsang Jr., a forty-five-year-old hotel clerk and porter from Manhattan, Edward Hallowell, and Lewis Douglass (like Lieutenant Garrison, a son of a great abolitionist) were all on sick leave after July’s fighting. Stephen Swails, a light-skinned boatman from Elmira who had joined the army to escape a troubled, reckless youth in upstate New York, stood on the wharf to welcome the Fifty-fifth, as did two friends lately of New Bedford, Massachusetts. William Carney, a Virginia runaway, and James Henry Gooding, born a slave in North Carolina but legally freed by his white father, had rallied the black community in their seaport town and marched its men north to Boston to join the Fifty-fourth. “The men appear to be in splendid physical condition, and take the two regiments in the aggregate, I think the 55th is superior in material to the 54th,” Gooding mused. “But the hardships incident to a soldier’s life may equalize them in a month or two.”2
Of all the men who were to serve in the state’s three black units, none hailed from more distant shores than Nicholas Said. In later years, he listed his place of residence as “traveler,” and that was an understatement. At a time when most white Americans resided near the place of their birth—or at best, had relocated one state due west in search of fresher farmland—Said, before taking part in his adoptive country’s great civil war, had passed through dozens of nations in Africa and Europe and nearly as many states in North America. First known as Mohammed Ali bin Said, he was born in Kouka (now Kukawa), the capital of the Kingdom of Bornou, “on or about the year 1836, of the Christian era,” as he later recalled. Even by Central African standards, his family was a large one. As allowed under his Muslim faith, his father kept four wives, and Mohammed was the thirteenth of nineteen children born to his mother, Dalia. The family was prosperous, but while Said was still young, his father and three brothers died in battle.3
By the time of Said’s birth, the ancient kingdom (located in the northeastern section of modern Nigeria) was in a state of decline, engulfed by internal turmoil and warfare with neighboring states. Amid the upheaval, the regional traffic in slaves and weapons only intensified. Although both the United States and Britain had banned the importation of Africans by 1808, the Ottoman Empire continued to purchase roughly 10,000 slaves each year for domestic service. Buyers preferred African women, but for most of the century a small number of men were captured and shipped north as well. Said’s mother warned him about the dangers posed by the Kindils, desert pastoralists, who earned their livelihood by providing traders with captives. When he was about fifteen, Said joined a number of boys in gathering eggs and fowl in a nearby wood. Suddenly the cry of “Kindil! Kindil!” went up, and the boys scattered. Said tripped and fell, and then all went black. When he awoke, Said found himself “on horseback behind a man, and tied to him with a rope.” After walking for ten days, the group reached the town of Katchna, a commercial center on one of the main northern trading routes that crossed the Sahara en route to Tripoli.4
Said’s captors put the boys up for sale, and within a few days he was purchased by Abd-Al-Qadir, an Arab merchant. The boy’s price was a burnoose and a rusty blunderbuss, which Said later guessed to be worth about $10 in American currency. Said’s new master planned to sell the boy, together with some ivory, in the north. Upon reaching Murzuq, a walled trading outpost (in modern Libya), Al-Qadir set the boy to work on his farm. Said was unaccustomed to hard labor, and after several weeks in the fields he begged his master to sell him “to some Turk or Egyptian.” At length, Al-Qadir acceded. Said’s newest buyer was Abdy Agra, a young Turkish officer who was in need of a servant for his father. Said had all but resigned himself to life with the officer when, after several months, Agra announced that the time had arrived for Said to be shipped to his father in Tripoli. Since Al-Qadir was again moving north with a load of goods, Agra entrusted the boy’s care to his former owner.5
And so it was that at the age of sixteen Said began life in Tripoli with a third owner. Hadji Daoud, an old man with three wives and a long, flowing white beard, peddled tobacco in his shop and proved to be a kind master. Said “learned to speak the Turkish language tolerably.” He later boasted that he had always possessed “an extraordinary aptitude for the acquirement of languages,” and as his extraordinary life was to demonstrate, that claim had the virtue of accuracy. During Daoud’s third pilgrimage to Mecca, much of the Turkish marketplace burned, and with it his business. Destitute, Daoud informed Said that he would have to be sold to cover his debts. “I began, this time to think that it was my fate to pass from hand to hand, with never a sure and definite resting place,” Said worried. In search of the best possible price, Daoud’s agent carried Said across the Mediterranean to Smyrna, where he was sold to a Turkish officer named Yusuf, the brother-in-law of Reşid Pasha, the pro-Western minister of foreign affairs. Reşid had once served as the Ottoman ambassador to France, and his household was so secular that Said fretted that Reşid “was not truly Islam.” But Said enjoyed the silk clothes he wore as Yusuf’s manservant and relished the ice cream he tasted for the first time, and so he learned to ignore Reşid’s habit of dining with Christians, shaking their hands, and sipping their champagne. His “blood boiled with anger,” however, when he witnessed the family’s enslaved concubines “cuffed and beaten” by Reşid’s eunuch custodians. “I never could be reconciled to it,” he sighed.6
Reşid counted foreign ministers and ambassadors among his intimates, and he was especially close to Admiral Alexander Menshikov, the Russian envoy to Constantinople. The tall, sixty-six-year-old nobleman “took a great fancy” to Said the first time he laid eyes upon him, and “after that,” Said remarked, “he would not allow Reşid Pasha any rest” until he agreed to sell the boy. For a boy who had once been sold for a robe and a rusty musket, Menshikov, in search of an exotic toy, “offered a large price,” and at length Yusuf and Reşid consented. By this time, Said had grown into a slender, attractive young man of medium height. An American journalist later described him as having “pleasing features,” with a “complexion perfectly black.” The tattoos imprinted upon his forehead as a child gave him a mysterious quality, and he practiced a “quiet and unassuming address” that was perhaps the result of a lifetime of domestic service.7
As tensions between Russia and the Ottoman Empire escalated, Menshikov increased Russia’s demands, until Sultan Abdülmecid I, backed by the British ambassador, finally rejected what he regarded as an assault on Turkish sovereignty. A furious Czar Nicholas II recalled his envoy in early May, and Said “accompanied him on the journey” to Russia. They boarded the warship Vladimir and in two days reached the Black Sea port of Odessa, where Menshikov kept one of his many estates. Unfree labor, in the guise of serfdom, still existed in Russia, and Said was given to understand that his master owned 56,000 serfs. The two traveled on to St. Petersburg, where the admiral found orders from the czar commanding him to hasten to the Crimea and take command of the Russian forces. Menshikov decided to leave his manservant behind and loaned the boy to Prince Nicholas Troubetzkoy. Twenty-five years old, the single prince lived near the theater district, and when Said and his temporary proprietor were not prowling the city’s “societies, theaters, mansions of the rich and noble,” the prince tutored Said in both French and Russian, his fourth and fifth languages. The Americans Said would come into contact with during the following decade had no way to assess his Russian or Turkish, but the white officers he served under—Harvard graduates all—praised his “French [as] quite Parisian and his Italian correct.” Grateful for the prince’s enormous “kindness” and friendship, Said agreed to convert to a Christian faith that he little understood. On November 12, 1855—Said’s first inclusion of a precise date in his autobiography—the nineteen-year-old was baptized and dropped his birth name for that of Nicholas Said. The prince presented Said with a solid gold cross to wear on his breast; in coming years Said would find good cause to keep the crucifix tucked under his uniform.8
Muslim or Christian, Said remained manservant to Troubetzkoy, although that legal technicality did not stop them from becoming close friends—and perhaps much more. The prince longed to travel, and so the two Nicholases set out for Moscow, then made their way north to Archangel. Warsaw and Vienna followed, as did Prague, Dresden, and Paris. From there they journeyed to Venice and Florence, and Said put his time to good use by beginning to learn Italian, although the former Muslim also discovered the pleasures of wine, “sometimes drinking too much.” To demonstrate his wealth, the prince dressed elegantly, with Said, in a conscious display of Orientalism, beside him “in a Turkish costume, embroidered with gold” as they strode down the city’s boulevards. A chance encounter while dining in Venice with an African manservant born not far from Kouka prompted in Said a longing to return home.9
When the two journeyed to London in late 1859, Said opted to part ways. Perhaps he learned that slavery was illegal in Britain, or possibly he knew that his friend and traveling companion would not attempt to restrain him. Certainly, for the past several years, Said had experienced a very loose sort of domestic servitude, quite different from what he would later encounter in South Carolina. As recompense for years of service and comradery, the prince handed Said two £50 notes, and the two parted in tears. Said booked a modest room at the Strangers’ Home for Asiatics, Africans, and South Sea Islanders located at the docks on West India Street.10
Said hoped to book a steamer for Malta, go on to Tripoli, and then finally go back to Bornou by caravan, but his money began to run low. The proprietor of the hotel encouraged Said to visit Isaac Jacob Rochussen, a Dutch businessman recently arrived from Suriname. Rochussen was about to marry, and he and his bride Catherine intended to travel throughout the Caribbean and North America. He required a manservant for the tour, and he assured Said that after the trip of twelve months, he would bring him back to London and assist with his return to Africa. They settled upon compensation of £3.11 each month, plus travel, board, and clothing expenses. Two days later they purchased tickets for Liverpool, where they booked passage aboard the Bohemian, due to sail for Portland, Maine, on December 21, 1860. The shipping clerk scribbled down his name, age, and country of origin: Nicholas Said, twenty-three, “Africa.”11
The steamer made good time, arriving in Maine just before noon on January 5. Said and the Rochussens tarried only a few hours in Portland before sailing down the coast for Boston, and then, after two days, for Manhattan, where Said had his first encounter with American racism. On their first Sabbath in New York City, Rochussen thought to attend services at the Dutch Reformed Church on Lafayette Place. Three years before, its minister, Dr. George Cheever, had published an influential abolitionist pamphlet entitled God Against Slavery. Rochussen, who regarded himself as a sound antislavery man, had read the essay and assumed that “such odious distinctions” as the special balcony pews for Americans of color he had heard of would not exist in Cheever’s congregation. The three arrived early, and Rochussen and his wife found empty seats in the main chapel; Said, nicely dressed in “livery,” instinctively found a pew directly behind them. Rochussen was praying silently when he heard whispering and turned to find a white congregant urging Said to move to the balcony. Said’s employer rose and complained that he was shocked to discover that Cheever’s church was not “in harmony with the views he professed,” and the three swept out of the church. Having lived as a slave for eight years, Said well understood the prerogatives of class, but this was the first time he witnessed the conflation of class and race. It was also his first warning that, even in the free states, men such as Cheever flattered themselves to be antislavery reformers without showing the slightest desire to have anything to do with those of a darker skin.12
Said and his employers boarded the Karnak, owned by the Cunard line, and departed for the Caribbean. Among the passengers were wealthy abolitionists Frank and Sarah Shaw, whose son Rob was to play an important role in Said’s life. Said was more interested in their brief detour to Cap Haitian and the memories that evoked of black victories. “I found myself exceedingly delighted to be in the country where the heroes [of] the ‘Haitian Independence’ contended with the armies of Napoleon,” he remembered. “I had always admired the exploits of Toussaint Louverture, Dessalines, Christophe, and other negro leaders, whose heroism and military talents are an honor to the African race.” Said and his employers concluded their tour with a large, circular swing through western New York and into Canada, where the Rochussens left him near Montreal, leaving all of their luggage behind. Said began to suspect that he had been tricked, and he “had a strange presentiment that [he] would never see them again.” He waited at the hotel for several more weeks, but the manager finally concluded that the couple had absconded, leaving a debt of $2,000. The hotel seized all of the Rochussens’ baggage. Taken was all of Said’s clothing, his “four Turkish costumes, three full suits,” and “dozens of linen and fine English flannel shirts.” Gone too were Said’s dreams of returning to Bornou, as he had but $380 left in his pocket.13
While awaiting his employer’s return, Said had become friendly with the Reverend D. T. Johnson. The minister advised Said to return to the United States and to consider living in either Buffalo or Detroit, “where there were a great number of colored people.” Evidently Buffalo failed to suit him, as upon reaching the city he took passage aboard the Concord as a deckhand. Said had not endured hard labor for years, however, and his “strength failed.” After crossing Lake Erie and landing in Detroit, Said again sought employment as a manservant. In a strange coincidence, in a life full of curious turns, the African was recognized by the Reverend George Duffield, who had first met Said several years earlier on the ship Egitto, at which time Said was owned by Menshikov. Duffield introduced the traveler to “the principal colored people” of Detroit, a city of 45,000, and Said began a new life as a French tutor. He was still in Detroit that fall when Abraham Lincoln captured Michigan’s six electoral votes, to the dismay of Duffield, who supported John Bell’s Constitutional Union Party. Said had not resided in his new country for the five years required for citizenship, but in any case, the 1857 Dred Scott decision denied federal citizenship to even free African Americans and the state of Michigan restricted voting rights to white men. Nevertheless, as a former slave, Said took a keen interest in Southern secession and the coming fury.14
ALTHOUGH SAID COULD NOT HAVE KNOWN IT WHEN THE BOHEMIAN steamed into Maine in January 1861, just ten miles to the north of his embarkation, in the small coastal town of Yarmouth, lived a young man of about his age. Born in Old Town, Maine, around 1842, John M. Smith barely survived a troubled childhood. Although his parents, John Dennis Smith, a free black, and Cynthia Ann Downing, a white woman, claimed to have married in 1838, by the time the boy was eight his father was either dead or had abandoned his family and the child was one of twenty-five inmates in the Brunswick “Poor House.” The light-skinned John was the only person of color in the institution; his mother lived nearby in the home of a white farmer, helping the older couple with their newborn daughter. By 1860, Smith eked out a meager income as a “pedler,” though he occasionally listed his occupation as “stove maker.” Fate would unite the traveler and the peddler within three years, although fortune planned very different destinies for the two men.15
WHEN NICHOLAS SAID EXITED THE SEGREGATED CHURCH IN MANHATTAN, had he walked but a few blocks toward the Bowery, he would have reached Stanton Street and the rented home of Peter Vogelsang Jr., a forty-three-year-old hotel clerk and porter. Peter’s father, Peter Vogelsang Sr., was a native of St. Croix, and his mother was from Manhattan. Little explanation exists for the porter’s German surname, as the Province of Brandenburg had lost its leasing rights in the Danish West Indies nearly a century before. But despite hair and facial features that betrayed an African lineage, Peter’s complexion was such that army recruiters variously described him as “white” or “light” or “colored.” The elder Vogelsang had done well for himself, and prior to his death in 1844 he managed steamers on the Albany line. The family remained well connected to other socially prominent black families along the Hudson. Peter’s brother Thomas found employment in Albany as a merchant sailor, while his sister Jane wed James Forten Jr., the son of one of the wealthiest men in Philadelphia. At some point in the late 1830s, Peter also married well. His bride was Theodosia Burr De-Grasse, whose prosperous family was connected to the late vice president and whose sister married George T. Downing, a restaurateur and activist two years Peter’s elder. They had three children—George Peter, Maria, and John—before Theodosia died young of tuberculosis in May 1854. Such a tragic loss, together with the demands of a busy job and a young family to care for, would probably have led most men to watch the growing sectional divide of the late 1850s with some detachment; in addition, Vogelsang’s status as a renter did not allow him to meet the $250 property requirement New York State imposed on black voters. Yet whatever contempt Vogelsang had for Northern racism, he hated slavery more.16
WHEN SAID JOURNEYED THROUGH CENTRAL NEW YORK WITH THE Rochussens, he had passed above Elmira, home to the Swails family. In 1860, Peter Swails was sixty, his wife Joanna forty-eight. Both had been born in Maryland, perhaps into slavery, and they had resided for a time in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where their six children were born. Southern Pennsylvania was also home to gangs of professional slave catchers, and as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 granted accused blacks no rights of attorney—technically, runaways had broken no law and were nothing more than errant property—freedpeople had relocated farther north over the course of the decade. Census takers recorded that Peter was mixed-race and employed as a “boatman.” As was typical of most struggling black families new to freedom, almost all of the children pitched in to help the household survive. Stephen Atkins Swails, at twenty-eight the eldest, found employment roughly 140 miles to the east in Cooperstown as a waiter in the elegant “three story hotel” owned by Daniel Keyes.17
Joanna was as light-skinned as her husband—census takers listed both as “mulatto” in 1860—and Stephen Swails was so fair that later journalists often described him as “white” or “a light quadroon.” Confident in his good looks, Swails sported a thick mustache and brushed his straight hair back away from his forehead. Cooperstown was far from his father’s gaze, and he soon took notice of a twenty-one-year-old servant named Sarah Thompson. Soon Stephen and Sarah were seen together about Cooperstown, but his reputation was not a good one. Keyes finally fired the waiter “for habitual drunkenness and dishonesty.” With his standing in tatters in the small town, Swails returned home to Elmira. Sarah Thompson, who was pregnant, remained behind.18
The first months of 1863 found Swails working in Elmira as a “boatman” and living on Jay Street, just blocks from the estate of coal magnate Jervas Langdon, whose then-eighteen-year-old daughter would one day marry writer Samuel Clemens. By that time, Sarah had given birth to a boy, Stephen Jr., and in spite of the lack of a marriage certificate she gave the child the surname of Swails rather than Thompson. Despite Swails’s obvious lack of desire to legalize their relationship, Sarah continued to see him, and in 1863 or 1864 she bore him another child, a daughter named Minnie Swails.19
SAID HAD ALSO UNKNOWINGLY PASSED CLOSE BY THE HOME OF JAMES Monroe Trotter. Born a slave in Grand Gulf, Mississippi, about twenty-five miles south of Vicksburg, the light-skinned James was the son of Letitia, a bondwoman, and her master, Richard Trotter. While the precise nature of their relationship remains lost to history, James’s early life suggests that however coercive or unequal the union may have been, it was not the violent rape experienced by so many black women. Unlike most children born into slavery, James was later able to tell an army clerk his precise birthdate—February 8, 1842—and by the time he was ten, if not before, he and his mother and sister Sally were living in Cincinnati, Ohio. Escape from the lower South was far from easy, even along the Mississippi River, and mothers rarely succeeded in fleeing with young children. Most likely, Richard Trotter ferried his black family north and left them in the care of Hiram Gilmore, an English clergyman who ran a school for freed blacks in Cincinnati. When James was about twelve, his mother passed away, and he and his sister were taken in by Robert Thomas, a fifty-five-year-old black carpenter. James was able to continue his education at the Gilmore School, an institution for freed slaves, and after moving to nearby Hamilton, Ohio, he studied music. By 1860, eighteen-year-old James Trotter, who continued to regard Thomas as his “guardian,” had taken a job teaching school in Chillicothe, and his sister Sally remained with the Thomas family.20
ALSO BORN INTO SLAVERY WAS JAMES HENRY GOODING. ALTHOUGH most of the men he was to serve with could boast of unusual backgrounds, Gooding’s own journeys were almost as far-flung as those of Said. As was the case with Trotter, Gooding’s mother, Sarah Tucker, was a slave and his father, James M. Gooding, was white. What made their relationship unique was that Gooding was not Sarah’s owner, but rather a white man who loved her. Born in 1813, he was a country “merchant” in New Bern, North Carolina, living with his parents, when he first met Sarah. On August 28, 1838, Sarah gave birth to their son. No record indicates who Sarah’s owner was, but in 1846, one month after the child turned eight, the “boy Henry had his freedom purchased by James M. Gooding,” who then “brought him to N.Y. and gave him his Manumission papers.” The elder Gooding entrusted the deed to the Pearl Street law office of White and Baines, together with $30 for the first year’s room and board at Manhattan’s Colored Orphan Asylum, though James Henry remained in contact with his parents. By 1851, Gooding had put cash enough aside to also purchase Sarah, and in January they were wed in North Carolina. Twelve years after that, when James Henry himself took a bride, he listed “James & Sarah” under the “names of parents,” although they were surely not present at the ceremony.21
- Co-winner of the 2017 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize
- On Sale
- Nov 1, 2016
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- Basic Books