Warrington G. Roberts: “Dedicated to the Proposition that All Men Are Created Equal”

Grave of Warrington G. Roberts (Chris Mackowski)

Interred in grave 3287 at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery lays Warrington G. Roberts. This past Memorial Day I had the privilege of telling Roberts’s story during the annual Luminary program atop Marye’s Heights. Telling his story and digging even further into the records revealed a man who lived—and died—by the creed espoused by Abraham Lincoln during the Gettysburg Address that this country was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Though he eventually donned the Union blue, Roberts’s story actually begins with his birth in Virginia in 1829. The Old Dominion did not prove to be Roberts’s home for long, though, as the 1850 Federal Census found him living in Jones, Indiana. Seven years later, Roberts married Eliza Cain and a year before war tore the country in two Roberts and his family lived in Indianapolis.[1]

When war came in 1861, Roberts enlisted in the 26th Indiana Infantry, but little more than a year later left the regiment because of disability. Returning to Indianapolis, Roberts mended and continued his military service with a short-term militia unit raised in the wake of John H. Morgan’s raid through the mid-west in the summer of 1863.

The journey that would bring Roberts to Fredericksburg and eventually to its National Cemetery began in late 1863 and early 1864. Since being permitted to with the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, Northern states began to recruit African Americans into units known as United States Colored Troops (USCT). Indiana raised its first regiment of USCTs in late 1863, and the War Department numbered it the 28th United States Colored Troops. To become an officer in the USCTs, one first had to be nominated; Indiana’s Governor Oliver Morton sent along his nominations, and the candidates had to proceed to Cincinnati, Ohio. There, the officer candidates faced a review board, testing their preparedness and qualifications. Historian Joseph Glatthaar, in a study of USCT officers, writes that, “Although there were some minor structural differences in the examinations, all boards quizzed candidates on army regulations, general military knowledge, history, geography, and mathematics.”[2] Warrington Roberts faced such a test, and he passed it. He was mustered in as a First Lieutenant in Company C of the 28th USCT on May 1, 1864. Roberts joined the regiment after it had already left Indiana, and he met up with his soldiers in Washington, D.C. as the army prepared for the spring offensives.[3]

Part of the Ninth Corps, the 28th’s service brought them to Petersburg, a vital railroad hub about 30 miles south of Richmond. At Petersburg, Roberts’s life was altered forever. Trying to break through the Confederate lines, Union soldiers tunneled underground, and filled the empty chambers with gunpowder. On July 30, 1864, they detonated the gunpowder.

Rushing into the combat of what would soon come to be called the battle of the Crater, the 28th met heavy resistance as Confederate forces organized counter-attacks. The fighting was close, and personal. During that wild melee, a shell exploded in front of Roberts and left the Hoosier officer mangled. A pension record states that he “lost his left hand, and part of his left arm,” and his service record adds a “gunshot wound of the right thigh.” Doctors worked on the bloodied Roberts, amputating his left forearm, and put him on a ship to more permanent hospitals in the rear.[4]

Battle of the Crater, where Warrington G. Roberts was grievously wounded.

With his horrendous wounds, Roberts would not be able to rejoin the 28th USCT. Spending the rest of 1864 recuperating, the army mustered him out of service on January 12, 1865, citing his “physical disability from wounds received in action.”[5]

Warrington G. Roberts, missing most of his left arm and with a right hip shattered by a rifle bullet, could have gone home and no one would have thought less of him. But instead he continued to serve his county—he transferred himself to the 16th Veteran Reserve Corps. At one time known as the Invalid Corps, the Veteran Reserve Corps existed for soldiers who could no longer serve on the front lines. Service with the Reserve Corps mainly consisted of administrative duties, or light garrison details.

Roberts served with the Veteran Reserve Corps in the Fredericksburg area. Before the war, a third of the city’s population had been enslaved, and with the passage of the 13th Amendment the question became what was next for those men and women. To try and answer that question, the Federal government established the Bureau of Refugees and Abandoned Lands, better known as the Freedman’s Bureau. Agents of the Bureau worked throughout the South facilitating education, housing, and jobs for formerly enslaved people. Roberts became one of those agents by 1866, working out of the Fredericksburg offices and tending to business in King George and Spotsylvania counties.

A symbolic representation of the Freedmen’s Bureau’s role during Reconstruction. (LOC)

Roberts reported to James Johnson, Assistant Superintendent of the Bureau in Fredericksburg. Johnson later recalled “that Lieutenant Roberts was in good health when he reported to me for duty,” with the exception of his existing disabilities.[6] Roberts worked diligently to ensure fair criminal trials for incarcerated Freedmen, among other duties, as evidenced by a letter he wrote in the Spring of 1866 reporting on the trial of a man charged with horse thievery in King George.[7]

However, Roberts’s duties soon took their toll. James Johnson’s testimony continued and he testified that “during the Winter and Spring of 1866 [Roberts] contracted a cold from exposure incident to his duties—which resulted in disease of the Lungs and finally in confirmed consumption of which disease he died.”[8] Lieutenant Warrington G. Roberts died on March 25th, 1867 in his 38th year.

Roberts’s funeral followed, with his comrades eulogizing, “Very few men had a higher appreciation of the duties as an officer and a gentleman than Lieutenant Roberts.” And so Warrington G. Roberts rests in the National Cemetery at Fredericksburg, surrounded by some 15,400 others, with stories just as pertinent. While Memorial Day was almost a month ago at this point, it’s pertinent that we remember those stories every day, so we remember where we’ve been, and where we’re going.

___________________________________________________________

[1] Federal Census for 1850; Widow’s and Minors’ Pension for Warrington G. Roberts, Page 9; Federal Census for 1860.

[2] William Robert Forstchen, “The 28th United States Colored Troops: Indiana’s African Americans go to War, 1863-1865,” PhD Dissertation, Purdue University, 1994; Joseph T. Glathaar, Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 49.

[3] Warrington G. Roberts Service Record, 28th United States Colored Troops, National Records and Archives Administration.

[4] Roberts’s Pension, 24; Roberts’s Service Record.

[5][5] Roberts Service Record.

[6] Roberts’s Pension, 25.

[7] W.G. Roberts to General O. Brown, May 31, 1866, Bureau of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Virginia , Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1860., “Narrative Reports of Criminal Cases Involving Freedmen, Mar. 1866- Feb. 1867”

[8] Roberts’s Pension, 25.

This entry was posted in Armies, Battles, Common Soldier, Lincoln, Reconstruction and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Warrington G. Roberts: “Dedicated to the Proposition that All Men Are Created Equal”

  1. Rob Wilson says:

    A moving and inspiring story. Thanks for introducing me to Warrington Roberts.

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