An Extraordinary Life: Mohammad Ali Nicholas Sa’id, Polyglot Genius of the Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts

The ink was barely dry on Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in January, 1863 when Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew successfully petitioned the War Department to recruit a Black regiment for the Union Army. Andrew’s recruitment team, led by John Mercer Langston and George Stearns, fanned out across the North, while celebrated abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison spoke for enlistment in major cities. Douglass’s sons Lewis and Charles were the first to enlist in the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He sent eldest son Frederick Jr. to Mississippi to recruit formerly enslaved refugees.

Response was so overwhelming that Andrew formed a second regiment, The Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts, who responded to Douglass’s call “to fly to arms, and smite with death the power that would bury the government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave.” Soldiers in the Fifty-Fifth included Captain George Thompson Garrison, eldest son of the renowned abolitionist, future Medal of Honor winners Andrew Jackson Smith and Thomas F. Ellsworth, and Charles Lewis Mitchell, one of the first two African Americans to serve in the Massachusetts legislature. Harvard-trained Captain Charles Pickering Bowditch enjoyed later fame as an archaeologist, deciphering mysterious Mayan epigraphs and calendars, but he was far from the most learned linguist in the Fifty-Fifth. That honor belonged to a Black man named Nicholas Sa’id.[1]

Sergeant Nicholas Sa’id
55th Massachusetts Infantry

Sa’id’s life story is remarkable. His autobiography, recently rediscovered and authenticated by scholars, is one of longest extant slave narratives. But unlike most formerly enslaved men who fought for their freedom in the United States Colored Troops, Sa’id had not fled or been freed by a Southern master. This teenage son of an African general had been kidnapped from his homeland and sold into slavery in the Ottoman Empire, beginning an odyssey that would take Sa’id to five continents where he eventually mastered ten languages. That accomplishment makes him unique among American Civil War veterans.

Born Mohammed Ali Sa’id in Kukawa, capital of the Muslim state of Borno around 1836, the fifteen-year-old was on a hunting expedition with friends near Lake Chad when they were abducted by Tuareg nomads and sold to a merchant, who then transported them across the Sahara Desert. Sa’id became the slave of an Albanian tobacco merchant in Tripoli, who took the exceptional teen on pilgrimage through Alexandria and Cairo to Mecca and Medina before selling him to an Ottoman diplomat. The Turk gifted him to Russian Prince Alexander Sereyevich Menishov. In Odessa, Sa’id mastered the Russian language in mere weeks, then journeyed to Athens, Vienna, Warsaw, and Krakow before settling in the prince’s household in St. Petersburg. He regained his freedom at this point, as the laws of Russia did not permit slavery. When the Tsar named Menshiov commander-in-chief of the Russian Army in 1853 and sent him to Crimea, Sa’id became the servant of Prince Nikolai Petrovitch Troubetzkoy of Moscow.

Troubetzkoy insisted that his new servant learn French and convert to the Orthodox faith. In his autobiography, Sa’id remembered kneeling on hard stone at the Christian altar for hours on end, cursing his master under his breath. He was christened “Nicholas Said,” the name he would carry through the rest of his life. Sa’id accompanied his master on a two-year tour of western Europe before settling in Hanover Square, London. He met many important leaders during his travels, including Tsar Nicholas I and Queen Victoria. In recognition of his loyal service, the prince gave Sa’id 300 pounds and permission to return to Borno in 1859, but the young man’s wanderlust proved too strong to resist.

Sa’id accepted the position of valet to Jacob Rochussen, an official in the Dutch West Indies, and left with him on a long tour of North America and the Caribbean. Rochussen later abandoned Sa’id and stole his money, leaving him to fend for himself as a deck hand on a St. Lawrence River steamer. He first settled in Detroit where he taught French before moving to Sandusky Ohio, where he answered his adopted country’s call for Black troops in 1863.[2]

The Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts’s Civil War service was hardly Hollywood movie material, unlike their famous brothers in the Fifty-Fourth. Originally appointed sergeant, Sa’id stepped back to private at his own request in August, 1864. His literacy and penmanship proved valuable as a clerk in the adjutant’s office and at the regimental hospital, so he missed most of the regiment’s few combat engagements. He mustered out at Charleston, South Carolina on August 29, 1865.[3]

During the difficult years of Reconstruction, Sa’id decided that teaching at freedmen schools was the best way to “render myself useful to my race.” He spent two years teaching near Charleston and was appointed registrar for the Berkeley District in 1867. He would go on to establish schools and teach in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Tennessee. In early 1870, he began an extended speaking tour of the Deep South, gathering subscriptions to fund publication of his autobiography. Sa’id’s wanderings created a media sensation.[4]

Freedman’s School c. 1867 North Carolina

Georgia’s Thomasville Enterprise reported that Sa’id intended to “enlist the sympathies of the white race” for uncivilized natives in Africa and convince Black Americans of the importance of education as a pathway to their “mental and moral improvement and elevation.” The editor then claimed that Sa’id denounced “Northern emissaries” as “vampires” and “enemies of the owners of the soil,” pleading with them to “cultivate amicable relations with white people…quit the political field and turn their attention to agriculture.” Was this an accurate report of the message of a recent Republican Party appointee? Sa’id himself took great pains to conceal his service in in Union Army from his Southern neighbors, likely fearing that such disclosures would make it impossible for him to reside in the former Confederate States.[5]

Extracts of his autobiography in Atlantic Monthly and The Nation in 1867 mention his Civil War service, but the manuscript he used to solicit Southern subscribers falsely claimed that he arrived in America in 1867. By the mid-1870s, some Southern newspapers who had featured Sa’id’s intelligence as a curiosity, now portrayed him as a “deadbeat” and a swindler. In 1880, he worked as a teacher in Brownsville, Tennessee, then vanished from the public record for seventeen years.[6] What became of him?

Nicholas Sa’id resurfaced in the summer of 1897 via a long article in the Chicago Times-Herald. The writer claimed that Sa’id had been arrested for forgery six times and had spent nearly twelve years in Alabama’s infamous convict leasing program, laboring in the coal mines near Birmingham. But his name does not appear in court or prisoner records for that period. The journalist also claimed that Sa’id had calmed tensions between Black and white residents of Choctaw County, Alabama in 1874 “following the assassination of the entire family of Blakely Bass at Bladon Springs.” Historic newspaper searches reveal no mention of this alleged incident. The article reported that Sa’id campaigned for Democrat Samuel J. Tilden in the 1876 presidential election and that of “2000 Negro voters in this county, less than 500 voted for Hayes.” Finally, this curious article claimed that Sa’id’s prison term was to expire in March, 1898.[7] There are no records of his purported release.

Was Sa’id was a cunning charlatan or merely one of thousands of “troublesome” Blacks who were incarcerated in labor camps for minor offenses during the long reign of Jim Crow?  Or did he simply pass quietly into historical obscurity? We do know that this gifted genius enlisted immediately to help end chattel slavery in the United States and devoted his postwar years to educating formerly enslaved people. Perhaps that is why a clerk at the Freedman’s Bank in Florida dubbed him “the wonderful Nicholas Said.”[8]

The first full-length biography of Sa’id, by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Dean Calbreath, will be released by Pegasus Book in February, 2023.

David T. Dixon is the author of Radical Warrior: August Willich’s Journey from Germany Revolutionary to Union General (Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2020).

[1] Douglas R. Egerton, Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments that Redeemed America (New York; Basic Books, 2016). Katherine Dhalle, “History of 55th Massachusetts Volunteer infantry,” Lest We Forget (blog) Vol. 3, No. 2, April 1995, http://lestweforget.hamptonu.edu/page.cfm?uuid=9FEC3871-BCAD-1517-698B543B15C0CFA2. Norwood Penrose Hallowell, The Negro as a Soldier in the War of the Rebellion (Boston: Little, Brown and Co, 1897). David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018), 385—86.

[2] Mohammed Ali Sa’id, The Autobiography of Nicholas Said; a Native of Bornou, Eastern Sudan, Central Africa (Memphis: Shotwell and Co., 1873).

[3] National Archives and Records Administration, U.S., Colored Troops Military Service Records, 1863-1865 accessed at Ancestry.com, September 1, 2022.

[4] Paul E. Lovejoy, “Mohammed Ali Nicholas Sa’id: From Enslavement to American Civil War Veteran, Semantic Scholar (2017),  https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Mohammed-Ali-Nicholas-Sa%E2%80%99id%3A-from-enslavement-to-Lovejoy/2488ffd9f076aaa13c266590ea2133c255bdedf3.

[5] Thomasville (GA) Enterprise, reprinted in Daily Columbus (GA) Enquirer, 9 July 1870.

[6] Nicholas Said, “A Native of Bornou,” Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 20 (1867), 485—95. The Nation, Vol. 5 (22 August, 1867), 144. Troy (AL) Messenger, 11 Sept., 1873.

[7] Times-Herald (Chicago, IL) reprinted in Morning News (Savannah, GA) 18 July, 1897.

[8] National Archives and Records Administration, U.S., Freedmen’s Bureau Records, 1865-1878 accessed at Ancestry.com, September 1, 2022.

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5 Responses to An Extraordinary Life: Mohammad Ali Nicholas Sa’id, Polyglot Genius of the Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts

  1. Mike Maxwell says:

    Until viewing the movie, Glory, in 1989 my knowledge of U.S. Colored Troop participation in the Civil War was in close proximity to non-existent. According to my High School History, women contributed next-to-nothing; and the only immigrants worth a mention were Irish. Nothing happened in California: everyone there was digging for gold. And the role of Native Americans… remains confused. So much of the Civil War had been condensed to “Sumter – Bull Run – Gettysburg – Appomattox – Lincoln’s Assassination… but the war succeeded in freeing the slaves,” that it remains a wonder that anyone stayed awake during the 4-week module.
    Ongoing efforts to expose the real story of the Civil War, as above – one previously neglected participant at a time – may be the best way to reverse the rot. Well Done to David T. Dixon!

  2. Tim Talbott says:

    Excellent article! Thank you!

  3. Meg Groeling says:

    Huzzah! to Mike Maxwell & David Dixon.

  4. Nicholas Said was a truly fascinating guy, and even though his exploits on the battlefield may not have been quite as dramatic as the final scenes in “Glory!” he and the other troops of the Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts did some impressive stuff: digging the trenches that finally helped bring about the defeat of Fort Wagner, prevailing in small battles in the Sea Islands against Confederate forces, and participating in one of the biggest battles in the Carolinas: the Battle of Honey Hill, where Said – who had since joined the hospital team – helped treat a crushing flow of wounded, including many of his personal comrades.

  5. Pingback: Around the Web November 2022: Best of Civil War & Reconstruction Blogs and Social Media - The Reconstruction Era

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