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History & Genealogy


A History of the

in the Wars of
1775-1812, 1861-'65,
Joseph T. Wilson
Late of the 2nd Reg't. La. Native Guard Vols. 54th Mass. Vols.
Aide-De-camp to the Commander-In-Chief G. A. R.
Author of
"Emancipation," "Voice of a New Race,"  "Twenty-Two Years of Freedom," etc., etc.
56 Illustrations
Hartford, Conn.:
American Publishing Company


pg. 503 -

     The esteem in which education was held by the soldiers of the Black Phalanx, can be judged of best by the efforts they made to educate themselves and to establish a system of education for others of their race.  Doubtless many persons suppose that the negro soldier elated with his release from slavery, was contented ; that his patriotism was displayed solely upon the field of battle, simply to insure to himself that one highest and greatest boon, his freedom. Such a supposition is far from the truth.  The Phalanx soldiers had a strong race pride, and the idea that ignorance was the cause of their oppression gave zest to their desire to be educated.
     When they found following the United States Army a large number of educated people from the North, establishing schools wherever they could in village, city and camp, and that education was free to all, there was awakened in the black soldier's breast an ambition, not only to obtain knowledge, but to contribute money in aid of educational institutions, which was done, and with liberal hands, during and subsequent to the war.
     Unlettered themselves, they became daily more and more deeply impressed, through their military associations, and by contact with things that required knowledge, with the necessity of having an education.  Each soldier felt that but for his his illiteracy he might be a sergeant, company clerk, or quartermaster, and not a few, that if educated, they might be lieutenants and cap-

[Pg. 504]
tains. This was not an unnatural conclusion for a brave soldier to arrive at, when men no braver than himself were being promoted for bravery.
     Generally there was one of three things the negro soldiers could be found doing when at leisure: discussing religion, cleaning his musket and accoutrements, or trying to read.  His zeal frequently led him to neglect to eat for the latter. Every camp had a teacher, in fact every company had some one to instruct the soldiers in reading, if nothing more. Since the war I have known of more than one who have taken up the profession of preaching and law making, whose first letter was learned in camp; and not a few who have entered college.
     The negro soldier was not only patriotic in the highest sense but he was a quick observer of both the disadvantages and opportunities of his race. He recognized the fact that the general education of the white men who composed the Union army in contra-distinction to so many of those of the confederate army, gave them great prestige over the enemy. The ingenuity of the Yankee he attributed to his education, and he readily decided that he lacked only the Yankee's education to be his equal in genius. Great was the incentive given him by example, arousing his latent hope to be something more than a free man; if not that, his children might rise from the corn-field to the higher walks of life. Their thirst for a knowledge of letters was evinced in more ways than one, as was their appreciation of the opportunity to assist in providing for coming generations.

     Colonel G. M. Arnold says :
     "Aside from the military duties required of the men forming the Phalanx regiments, the school teacher was drilling and preparing them in the comprehension of letters and figures. In nearly every regiment a school, during the encampment, was established, in some instances female teachers from the North, impulsed by that philanthropy which induced an army of teachers South to teach the freedmen, also brought them to the barracks and the camp ground to instruct the soldiers of the Phalanx. Their ambition to learn to read and write was as strong as their love of freedom, and no opportunity was lost by them to acquire a knowledge of letters. So ardent were they that they formed

[Pg. 505]
squads and hired teachers, paying them out of their pittance of seven dollars per month, or out of the bounty paid to them by the State to which they were accredited. In a number of instances the officers them selves gave instructions to their command, and made education a feature and a part of their duty, thereby bringing the soldier up to a full comprehension of the responsibility of his trusts "Taps" was an unpleasant sound to many a soldier, who, after the fatigue and drill of the day was over, sat himself down upon an empty cracker box, with a short candle in one hand and a spelling book in the other, to study the ab, eb, ob's. When the truce was sounded after a day or night's hard fighting, many of these men renewed their courage by studying and reading in the ' New England Speller.' And where they have fought, - died where they fell, and their bodies left to the enemy's mercy, they often found in the dead soldier's knapsack a spelling-book and a Testament. At the seige of Port Hudson and Charleston, and of Richmond, agents of the Christian Commission and of various other societies, made a specialty of the spelling-book for distribution among the soldiers of the Phalanx, and upon more than one occasion have these soldiers been
found in the trenches with the speller in hand, muttering, bla, ble.' ,

     The historian of the 55th Regiment says:
     "A great desire existed among those who had been deprived of all educational privileges to learn to read and write, and through the kindness and labors of Dr. Bowditch and others, a school was established to teach those who desired to learn. Many availed themselves of this, and many were assisted by their company officers and their better informed fellow-soldiers , so that a decided improvement in this respect was effected among the men during their stay at Readville."
     But it is not necessary to dwell upon the subject to show the eagerness of these soldiers to learn to read and write, as many of them did.
     Lieutenant James M. Trotter,* in an article published in Mr. Fortune's paper, gives this graphic description of "The School-master in the Army":
     "Of the many interesting experiences that attended our colored soldiery during the late war none are more worthy of being recounted than those relating to the rather improvised schools, in which were taught the rudimentary branches. One would naturally think that the tented field, so often suddenly changed to the bloody field of battle, was the last place in the world where would be called into requisition the school teacher's services in fact it would hardly be supposed that such a thing was possible. Yet in our colored American army this became not only possible but really practicable, for in it frequently, in an off-hand manner, schools were established and maintained, not only for teaching the soldiers to read and write but also to sing, nor were debating societies,

* Now Registrar at Washington, D. C.

[Pg. 506]
even, things unheard of in the camp life of these men. Besides in quite a number of the colored regiments military bands were formed, and under the instruction of sometimes a band teacher from the north, and at others under one of their own proficient fellow-soldiers, these bands learned to discourse most entertaining music in camp, and often by their inspiriting strains did much to relieve the fatigue occasioned by long and tiresome marches. But we are speaking now mainly of the work of the school-teacher proper. And what shall we say of the halls of learning in which were gathered his eager pupils? Well, certainly these would not compare favorably with those of civil life, as may well be imagined. As says Bryant, truly and beautifully, speaking of primitive religious worship:

'The groves were God's first temples.'

So, too, in the groves and fields of their new land of liberty, these men found their first temples of learning, and in spite of all inconveniences these school tents were rendered quite serviceable. Of the text books used there is not much to say, for these were generally ' few and far between.' Books were used at times, of course, but quite as often the instruction given was entirely oral. That these spare facilities did not render the teacher's efforts ineffective was abundantly proven in the service, and has been proven since in civil life. Scattered here and there over this broad country to-day are many veteran soldiers who are good  readers and writers, some of them even fair scholars, who took their first lessons from some manly officer or no less manly fellow-soldier in the manner mentioned, during such camp intervals as were allowed by the dread arbitrament of war. In a number of regiments these fortunate intervals were quite frequent and of long duration, and in such cases, therefore, much progress was made.
     " It must, of course, be remembered that in our colored regiments a very large percentage of the men were illiterate, especially in those composed of men from the south and so lately escaped from under the iron heel of slavery. Indeed, in many of them there could scarcely be found at the commencement of the service a man who could either read or write.  Many an officer can recall his rather novel experience in teaching his first sergeant enough of figures and script letters to enable the latter to make up and sign the company morning report.  All honor to those faithful, patient officers, and all honor, too, give to those ambitious sergeants who after awhile conquered great difficulties and became educationally proficient in their lines of duty.
     "In this connection I readily call to mind one of the most, if not the most, unique figures of all my experience in the army.  It was Colonel James Beecher, of the famous Beecher family, and a brother of Henry Ward Beecher.  He was in command of the First North Carolina Colored Regiment.  In this position it would be hard to overestimate the variety and value of his services, for he became for his soldiers at once a gallant fighter, an eloquent, convincing preacher, and a most indefatigable and

[Pg. 507]
successful school-teacher. Preaching had been his vocation before entering the army, and so it was but natural for him to continue in that work. At one time our regiment lay encamped near his in South Carolina, and I well remember how, on one Sabbath morning, the two commands formed a union service, all listening with deep, thrilling interest to the inspiring words of this " fighting parson. "That he was indeed a fighting parson we fully learned not long after this Sabbath service.  For again we met on the bloody field of battle, where in the very front of the fight we saw him gallantly leading his no less gallant men, even after he had been wounded, and while the blood almost streamed down his face. Seeing him thus was to ever remember him and his noble work with his regiment.
     ''Colonel Beecher when encamped neglected no opportunity to form schools of instruction for his men, in order that they might become not only intelligent, efficient soldiers, but also intelligent, self-respecting citizens, should they survive the perils of war. I do not know what are his thoughts to-day, but judging from the grand work of Colonel Beecher in his black regiment, I can not doubt that he looks back to it all with satisfaction and pride, and as forming the richest experience of his life. 
     "I know another ex-colonel and scholar, of high rank as a man of letters and in social life, who yielding to the call of duty, not less to country than to a struggling race, left, his congenial studies and took command of a colored regiment, becoming not only their leader, but, as chance afforded, their school-teacher also. However, as he has given to the world his army experience in a book abounding in passages of thrilling dramatic interest, I need only in this connection make mention of him.  I refer to that true and tried friend of the colored race, Colonel T. W. Higginson.
     "But let it not be supposed for a moment that only officers and men of another race were engaged in this noble work of school-teaching in our colored army. Not a few of the best workers were colored chaplains, who wisely divided their time between preaching, administering to the sick by reason of wounds or otherwise, and to teaching the old 'young idea how to shoot;' while many non-commissioned officers and private soldiers cheerfully rendered effective service in the same direction.  Nor must we close without expressing warm admiration for those earnest, ambitious soldier pupils who, when finding themselves grown to man's estate, having been debarred by the terrible system of slavery from securing an education, yielded not to what would have been considered only a natural discouragement, but, instead, followed the advice and instruction of their comrade teachers, and, bending themselves to most, assiduous study, gained in some cases great proficiency, and in all much that fitted them for usefulness and the proper enjoyment of their well earned liberty. And so we say, all honor to teachers and taught in the Grand Army that made a free republic, whose safe foundation and perpetuity lies in the general education of its citizens."








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