From Camp Servants to Soldiers – Part II

The famous 54th Massachusetts included a number of men who first served as camp servants before formally enlisting as arms-bearing soldiers. Probably the best documented individual due to his surviving collection of letters is George E. Stephens. Born free in Philadelphia, educated, and from a respected family that had left Virginia in the wake of the Nat Turner rebellion, the cabinet maker was already well involved as an activist for equal rights and racial advancement when the Civil War erupted.

After the secession of the first seven slaveholding states, Philadelphia’s Black leaders offered to raise units to join the fight. Disgusted at their rejection, some promised to only help enslaved individuals in reaching freedom, and not assist the government that did not want them as soldiers. Stephens decided to chart his own path, he became the camp servant and cook for Capt. Benjamin C. Tilghman, 26th Pennsylvania Infantry. While in this role, Stephens took the opportunity to write often to the Weekly Anglo-African, a New York City published newspaper, giving readers back home an eyewitness account of army life. He also used his time with the army to help enslaved people make their way north. Likewise, Stephens’ presence and demonstrated abilities, as well as his shared copies of the Anglo-African, opened the minds of a number of white Union soldiers who had no idea that Black people had such capabilities. In his many letters, Stephens often pointed out the racism that existed among the soldiers in the Army of the Potomac.

On December 31, 1862, while in camp with the 26th Pennsylvania, Stephens, like so many other African Americans, North and South, waited with anticipation for President Lincoln’s to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. In January 1863, Stephens left Tilghman and the 26th Pennsylvania and returned to Philadelphia. On April 2, 1863, Stephens wrote the Weekly Anglo-African encouraging Black men to enlist and to disdain those who suggested caution now that the opportunity was at hand: “Men and brethren! for the sake of honor, manhood and courage—in the name of God of country, and of race, spit upon the base sycophants who thus dare to insult you.” With Pennsylvania not ready to recruit a regiment of Black men, Stephens traveled to Massachusetts and joined the 54th Infantry on April 30, 1863.

The 54th Massachusetts contained several soldiers who had previously served as camp servants before enlisting. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Stephens’ intelligence and previous experience with army structure and policy matters, gained while serving as a camp servant, probably helped him receive a promotion to sergeant in less than two weeks after enlisting. He continued to write to the Anglo-African while training at Camp Meigs, and after the 54th arrived at the front in South Carolina. Stephens reported on the regiment’s bravery at the Battle of Battery Wagner, shared his thoughts about the pay inequality issue, and the lack of opportunities for Black combat soldiers to advance into the commissioned officer ranks. Stephens also blasted the continued racism that he and his comrades endured from white soldiers who were supposed to be comrades in arms. Likewise, Stephens excoriated racist statements from officers like Col. James Montgomery, 2nd South Carolina Colored Infantry, who berated the men in a speech for not accepting unequal pay. To Black soldiers like Stephens such talk showed an unwillingness to understand their perspective and reasons for rejecting less pay than white soldiers.

On January 24, 1864, Stephens received promotion to 1st Sergeant of Company B, and soon after wrote to the Anglo-African about the Battle of Olustee, Florida. Despite their strong performance, Stephens felt the Black soldiers received unfair blame for the loss of the battle. This, combined with continued instances of racial injustice, caused his morale to plummet. “One year in the service of the United States has purged me of the major part of my patriotism,” he wrote in one letter to the newspaper. Regardless, Stephens continued to do his duty. After the surrenders of the Confederate armies, Stephens received additional promotions to first and second lieutenant before mustering out with the 54th in the summer of 1865. After the war, Stephens worked for a while with the Freedmen’s Bureau teaching in Virginia. He eventually moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he died in 1888.

Unable to enlist when Woodstock, Vermont, raised what became a company in the 12th Vermont Infantry, a nine-month regiment, at least three men of color, Austin Hazard, Charles Wentworth, and Isaac Williams accompanied the regiment to Virginia where they worked as the company’s officers’ servants. When provided the opportunity to take part in the fight, all three men joined the 54th Massachusetts. Hazard, a 32-year-old butcher, joined Company B; Wentworth, a 21-year-old barber, joined Company K; and Williams, a 22-year-old famer joined Company H. Although Williams was drafted, they all joined the regiment after it earned fame for its performance at Battery Wagner, and thus they were clearly aware of the risks involved, but went anyway. All three men survived the war.

Union camp servants performed a myriad of duties for the officers who employed them. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Another soldier eventually developed ties to the Green Mountain State. George Hart, born enslaved in Louisiana, probably served as the camp servant for the 7th Vermont Infantry’s quartermaster, Lt. Edmund A. Morse, during the regiment’s time in the Pelican State. It was not uncommon for officers with enlightened racial views to develop close relationships with their camp servants that resulted in the servant’s relocation to the officer’s home town. After resigning his position in the 7th to take a position in Washington D.C., Morse while on a furlough in late 1862, brought George Hart with him to Rutland, Vermont. The 21-year-old Hart enlisted in Company G, 54th Massachusetts Infantry, on December 5, 1863. Although records indicate that Pvt. Hart apparently arrived too late to fight at Olustee, he did see combat at the Battle of Honey Hill, South Carolina. After mustering out in August 1865, Hart returned to Vermont and settled in Woodstock, where he worked as a stone mason until he died in 1917.

Like Sgt. Andrew Jackson Smith, who received coverage in this article’s Part I, Milton Holland started his military experience as a humble camp servant, but before his army career ended, he too, earned the nation’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor. Born enslaved in 1844 in Texas, Holland’s African American mother, Matilda, was enslaved by a man named Spearman Holland, the brother of Milton’s white father, Bird Holland. Milton’s uncle enslaved his two brothers, William and Johnson as well. Bird Holland purchased Milton and his brothers, freed them, and sent them to Ohio to receive a vocational education at the Albany Manual Labor Academy in Athens County. Milton apparently learned the shoemaking trade.

When the Civil War erupted, Holland was eager to do his part. However, barred for being underage and bi-racial, he found another way to contribute to the war effort. Holland used the opportunity of serving Athens, Ohio, newspaper editor, state politician, and officer, Nelson Van Vorhes in the 3rd, 18th, and 92nd Ohio Infantry regiments to learn about military matters. When Col. Van Vorhes resigned as colonel of the 92nd Ohio in the spring of 1863, Holland probably returned to Ohio with him. By this time Ohio had started raising the state’s first Black regiment, the 127th Ohio (later re-designated the 5th USCI). Holland initially planned to serve in the 54th or 55th Massachusetts, but John Mercer Langston encouraged him to remain in Ohio and work on raising a company of local men. Holland enlisted on June 22, 1863. The following day he received a promotion to first sergeant, but in April 1864, he was reduced to private. Soon promoted again to first sergeant, he became the regiment’s sergeant major on August 31, 1864.

Sgt. Milton Holland, who first served the United States as a camp servant, later enlisted in the 5th USCI and received the Medal of Honor and the Butler Medal for his heroism at the Battle of New Market Heights. Image in the pubic domain.

Holland wrote to the Athens Messenger newspaper on January 19, 1864, providing an update on recent events. He mentioned that in a recent skirmish in northeastern North Carolina that, “The men stood nobly and faced the cowardly foe when they were hid in the swamp firing upon them. They stood like men, and when ordered to charge, went in with a yell, and came out victorious, losing four killed and several wounded.” Holland ended his letter with the immortal words of Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” After fighting at Petersburg on June 15, 1864, Holland wrote the Messenger again explaining that his regiment’s recent combat performance “was a complete success.” The Petersburg fight gave Holland and his comrades a confidence only gained through experience under fire.

The 5th USCI’s combat ability received further testing on September 29, 1864, at New Market Heights. Holland and the 5th were among the troops in a second charge against the Confederate earthworks which succeeded in driving the defenders away. During the battle, “He took command of Company C, after all the officers had been killed or wounded and gallantly led it.” For his courageous actions, Holland received both the Medal of Honor and Gen. Benjamin Butler’s specially commissioned silver medal, and although wounded, he did not leave the field.

For most white soldiers, a similar performance on the battlefield normally resulted in a promotion, but again, because Holland was partly of African descent, his advancement to commissioned officer rank went unfulfilled. Sgt. Maj. Holland mustered out in October 1865. He married in Ohio, moved to Washington D.C., studied law at Howard University, and worked in the government Treasury Department and in the Pension Bureau. Holland died in 1910 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.



Complied Military Service Record for Sgt. Maj. Milton Holland, 5th United States Colored Infantry, Accessed via

Complied Military Service Record for Pvt. George T. Hart, 54th Massachusetts Infantry, Accessed via

Complied Military Service Record for Pvt. Austin Hazard, 54th Massachusetts Infantry, Accessed via

Complied Military Service Record for Sgt. George E. Stephens, 54th Massachusetts Infantry, accesses via

Complied Military Service Record for Pvt. Charles Wentworth, 54th Massachusetts Infantry, Accessed via

Complied Military Service Record for Pvt. Isaac Williams, 54th Massachusetts Infantry, Accessed via

Dana, Henry Swan. History of Woodstock, Vermont. Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1889.

Mitchell, Joseph B. The Badge of Gallantry: Letters from Civil War Medal of Honor Winners. White Mane Books, 1997.

Mendez, James G. A Great Sacrifice: Northern Black Soldiers, Their Families, and the Experience of Civil War. Fordham University Press, 2019.

Redkey, Edwin S. A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African American Soldiers in the Union Army, 1861-1865. Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Yacovone, Donald. A Voice of Thunder: The Civil War Letters of George E. Stephens. University of Illinois Press, 1997.

3 Responses to From Camp Servants to Soldiers – Part II

    1. Thanks, David! The Stephens letters that appeared in the Weekly Anglo-African are published in the “Voice of Thunder” book, edited by Donald Yacovone, which is listed in the sources.

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