A Black New Hampshire Family Fights for Freedom

Alex H. Johnson 54th Massachusetts Infantry

First Sergeant George E. Stephens of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry remembered the assault on Confederate works at Fort Wagner in South Carolina at dusk on July 18, 1863. Positioned on the far right of the regiment’s right wing, soldiers from Company B, “charged the fort, passed the half-filled moat, and mounted to the parapet, many of our men clambered over, and some entered by the large embrasure in which one of the big guns were mounted, the firing substantially ceased there by the beach, and the Rebel musketry fire grew hotter on our left.” Just as an officer ordered them to spike the gun, another Union regiment rushed up the works and began to fire on them from across the moat. “Don’t fire on us!” Stephens shouted, “We are the Fifty-fourth!” In the confusion, these Federals did not realize that their Black comrades had taken possession of the seaward end of the battery. Company B reached a Gatling battery drawn up to repel a potential counterattack and prepared to charge again, but an officer ordered them to withdraw to the flanking rifle pits and await an enemy charge. It never came.

Recruitment Broadside 54th Massachusetts Infantry

In the meantime, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s regiment was cut to pieces and Shaw himself killed upon reaching the parapet. By the time the battle ended around 10:30 p.m., the defeated U.S. Army had suffered more than 1500 casualties and the 54th Massachusetts numbered only 315 men.[1] Recruiters blanketed the New England countryside, eager to replenish the decimated ranks of the now-famous 54th. Included among those volunteers were two Exeter, New Hampshire natives, Aaron C. and William L.D. Hall. These Hall brothers knew what they were getting into. Their family had been fighting for freedom for nearly a century.[2]

Aaron and William Hall’s grandfather, Jude Hall, was the most celebrated Black New Hampshire solider of the American Revolution, earning the nickname “Old Rock” for his extraordinary feats of strength and courage. Like many enslaved people, Hall resented his status as chattel property. He agreed to serve the patriot cause for the duration of the war in exchange for his freedom. He fought at Bunker Hill, where he was “thrown headlong by a cannonball striking near him.” He was lauded for bravery and endurance at the Battle of Monmouth in 1778, where temperatures on the battlefield approached 100 degrees. His service ended in 1784, when the New Hampshire Battalion disbanded.[3] He married Rhoda Paul, a mixed-race woman from a highly accomplished family that produced three notable Black ministers. The Halls produced ten children and lived in a tiny shack in the woods outside of Exeter. Rather than receiving gratitude for his lengthy military service, Jude Hall was warned out of Exeter on three occasions as the town refused to support paupers who were not born within its bounds.

Jude Hall’s postwar life was full of tragedy. Three of his adult sons, James, Aaron, and William, were hounded for small debts, abducted, and sold into slavery. Only William escaped his fate and fled to England. Eldest son George remained in Exeter and celebrated the abolition of slavery in New Hampshire by leading a marching band down the streets of Exeter. Like his father, George could not escape poverty. He married a white woman and raised his family on the town poor farm for many years.

George Hall’s eldest son, Moses Uriah, was a bright young man who lived with a prosperous white farmer. Moses drove students in a sleigh to the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy until one day in 1858 when he was awarded a scholarship. Five years later, in late November 1863, while their brother was studying at one of the premier private schools in the country, Aaron and William Hall departed Camp Whightman on Long Island in Boston Harbor and sailed to Morris Island to join the 54th Massachusetts.[4]

Aaron and William Hall fought in the Battle of Olustee, fifty miles from Jacksonville, Florida, where the Union suffered 34 percent casualties in a lopsided defeat on February 20, 1864. George E. Stephens, who was commissioned First Lieutenant in the field, described the action two weeks later in a letter to the New York Weekly Anglo-African: “The colored regiments suffered severely. And what is still more unfortunate, the greater part of the wounded and all the killed were left on the field.” The 54th covered the retreat of the army. The Confederates did not pursue them. Stephens lamented the scapegoating of the other two Black regiments, who had never been under fire. He bemoaned the fact that a number of Black Union soldiers were executed for offenses that did not result in capital punishment for white soldiers. He regretted that some Republican Party leaders intended to deny the franchise and true equality to the Black race. If such men prevailed, he warned, “the world will witness the deep perfidy and criminal meanness of a nation which is so lost to duty, dignity, and a sense of national greatness as to call to its defense the victims of its own cruel oppression, and then spurn and spit on them. One year in the service of the United States has purged me of the major part of my patriotism.”[5]

3rd US Colored Troops Banner

Meanwhile in New Hampshire, five students from Kentucky left the Phillips Exeter Academy to protest Moses Hall’s presence. Rather than enrolling for the fall term, Hall enlisted in Company C, Third U.S. Colored Infantry on August 5, 1864, becoming the third of George Hall’s sons to leave and fight for the Union. Moses joined the Third USCT in Florida but did not see combat, mustering out at Jacksonville on October 31, 1865. His brothers did duty at Morris Island, South Carolina before occupying Charleston on February 18, 1865. They spent the balance of the war in Savannah and the South Carolina countryside, returning to Boston on September 1, 1865 for discharge.[6]

The three Hall brothers, while never achieving wealth, lived out their years comfortably. William Hall returned to Sturbridge, Massachusetts, worked on a farm, and made shoes. He disappeared from census records after 1880. Aaron Hall worked as a laborer, married a white woman and owned his own home.

Herbert Hall, son of Aaron C. Hall and Family

Moses Hall became a skilled brick and stone mason. He married a white woman who had been born in England. Their children attended school and nearly all of them stated their race as “white” on their marriage certificates.[7] By the dawn of the twentieth century in New England, being a Black Union veteran commanded a certain amount of respect; but such benefits paled in comparison with the privilege of being considered “white.” The Halls had fought two wars to secure freedom for Americans of African descent. Victory in the battle for true racial equality, however, would likely be delayed for many more generations.

David T. Dixon is the author of numerous published articles on enslaved and free Black people. You may download pdf versions at http://www.davidtdixon.com

Sources:

[1] Luis M. Emilio, A Brave Black Regiment: History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry 1863—1865 (Boston: Boston Book Co., 1894), 74—76, 88—93.

[2] David T. Dixon, “Freedom Earned, Equality Denied: Evolving Race Relations in Exeter and Vicinity, 1776—1876,” Historical New Hampshire 61:1 (Spring 2007), 28—47.

[3] Glenn A. Knoblock, “Strong and Brave Fellows”: New Hampshire’s Black Soldiers and Sailors of the American Revolution, 1775—1784 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, 2003), 119—125.

[4] Dixon, “Freedom Earned,” 40—41, 47 n44, n45, n46, n47.

[5] Weekly Anglo-African (New York) 6 March, 1864.

[6] Dixon, “Freedom Earned,” 47 n47.

[7] Genealogical data on the Hall family was supplemented by research on Ancestry.com. Contact the author for specific details.

 

 

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