When part of the Army of the Potomac occupied Fredericksburg from April 1862, until the following September, and then when the full army arrived again that winter, many of the area’s enslaved used these opportunities to make their way into the lines and gain their freedom. Probably the best known Fredericksburg freedom seeker, due largely to his postwar narrative, was John Washington. On April 18, 1862, Washington left his enslaved position at Fredericksburg’s Shakespeare Hotel behind forever. Washington used the confusion that reigned in Fredericksburg from the Federal occupation of nearby Falmouth as a distraction to flee. Union soldiers on the north bank of the Rappahannock asked Washington if he wanted his liberty. When he answered in the affirmative and with eagerness they rowed across for him. Soon, Washington received employment as a camp servant, cooking for members of Gen. Christopher Augur’s staff, and then later for Gen. Rufus King. Although Washington did not become as USCT soldier, his example was not unlike some of those who did eventually enlist.
Born in Fredericksburg, John T. Bell labored in bondage for Linia Arrington in Stafford County before the Civil War. According to the 1860 slave schedule census, Arrington claimed ownership of five individuals who occupied one slave dwelling. Bell is probably the 22-year-old male listed under Arrington’s name in that census. Bell may have taken his last name from Catherine Bell, a 56-year-old white woman who is in Arrington’s household in the 1850 census. Regardless, John T. Bell fled bondage sometime during the war and became a camp servant for the 127th New York Infantry. Bell probably made the overland trek to the outskirt defenses of Washington D.C. and found refuge with the New Yorkers, as they apparently never served in the Fredericksburg area. It is unknown how long Bell remained a camp servant, but he enlisted in the 23rd USCI in Washington D.C. on April 12, 1864. Within less than a month, Bell received a promotion to corporal, and by the end of November he was first sergeant of Company H. It appears Bell fought at the Battle of the Crater, as well as at Hatcher’s Run on October 27, 1864, near Petersburg.
The 23rd USCI was among the several USCT regiments detailed to Texas soon after the surrender of Gen. Lee’s and Gen. Johnston’s Confederate armies. Before sailing, on May 13, 1865, Bell received a 20-day furlough. The request, made by Bell’s captain states the reason for the desired furlough: “[Bell] has been a good and faithful soldier for over a year. He had a family which when he enlisted were held in Slavery and by its emancipation is left in circumstances destitute which render his presence an absolute necessity.” Bell apparently rejoined his regiment in Texas, became its principle musician, and mustered out in November 1865. In the postwar years he worked as a Pullman Porter and died on February 21, 1903. He is among those resting in the graves at Arlington National Cemetery.
Another central Virginia example of a camp servant turned USCT soldier is Andrew Weaver, a bondsman formerly enslaved by James Horace Lacy. Lacy, one of the Fredericksburg area’s leading citizens, also owned two fashionable homes: Chatham across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, and Ellwood, in the Wilderness. Both residences witnessed the war firsthand. Weaver was born at Chatham in 1845. He probably escaped during the Union occupation of the area during the spring and summer of 1862. After making his escape, Weaver became the camp servant of Lt. Jacob R. Sackett, 1st New Jersey Cavalry, and worked for him until just after the Battle of Second Manassas.
Like many other formerly enslaved men, women, and children, Weaver eventually made his way to Washington D.C. There he enlisted in the 23rd USCI on July 8, 1864. Pvt. Weaver apparently made it to the Petersburg front in time for the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864. His service records indicate that he received treatment for a gunshot wound to the left shoulder at Summit House Hospital in Philadelphia following the battle. After recovering, Weaver returned to the 23rd USCI at Petersburg. The regiment transferred to the Texas/Mexico border after Gen. Lee’s surrender and mustered out in November 1865. After returning to Washington D.C., Weaver married, started a family, and held several different jobs around the capital city during the postwar years. He died in 1915 and received a military burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Randolph Johnston hailed from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Apparently born a free man of color, he and his family appear in the 1860 census among the residents of the soon to be famous town. Living in the household of his father, Upton, 19-year-old Randolph was the middle child among his two brothers. During the secession crisis, Johnston formed a local Black militia company that drilled in anticipation of war. Although probably deeply discouraged by the state and federal government’s reluctance to accept Black men as arms bearing soldiers at that time, Johnston contributed to the war effort by becoming the camp servant for Charles Henry Buehler of the 2nd Pennsylvania Infantry, a 90-day regiment.
Johnston’s pension records state that his service for Buehler began early in the war, “I think the 19th of April 61,” he recollected. After Buehler’s initial enlistment ended, Johnston stayed with him when Buehler became a captain, and then major, of the 87th Pennsylvania Infantry. How long Johnston was in Buehler’s employment as servant is unknown, but apparently in the summer of 1863, Johnston offered the services of his Black militia company to Gov. John Andrew of Massachusetts. However, Johnston received instructions to remain in Pennsylvania, as the Keystone State was just then in the process of raising their own Black regiments.
When Gettysburg townsman David Wills telegraphed Pennsylvania’s Gov. Andrew Curtin on June 15, 1863, asking if the Black men could help defend the town from Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia if they happened to head that way, the governor said authority had to come from the United States War Department. Apparently, Johnston and his men did not participate in the fighting that broke out at Gettysburg on July 1. They likely either left town when they heard Confederates were capturing free people of color while in Pennsylvania, or Johnston and his men may have instead gone directly to Harrisburg to help defend the state capital and petition the governor directly. Yet another possibility is that Johnston and some of his militia company were among the Black men fighting to prevent Confederate Gen. Richard Ewell’s corps from crossing the Susquehanna River at Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, on June 28.
Perhaps disillusioned with the whole process—being first rejected and then put off—maybe Johnston waited to see what guarantees the government would provide Black men before he formally enlisted. Regardless, Randolph Johnston finally joined up on February 3, 1865, with the 24th USCI at Norristown, Pennsylvania. In less than a week Johnston received a promotion to first sergeant. The 24th USCI did not see any combat before they mustered out in October 1865. Johnston’s service records indicate that he kept his rifle, NCO sword, and accoutrements for which he was charged $33.33 when he left the service. Johnston returned to Gettysburg, but soon moved to Maryland where he taught school. With his health wrecked, apparently partly due to his short stay in the army, he died in 1901, in Baltimore at only 61 years old.
Numerous additional stories of Black men who first served as camp servants only to later enlist as soldiers surely abound just waiting to come to light in the vast pension record files kept at the National Archives in Washington D.C. However, included in Ronald Coddington’s excellent book, African American Faces of the Civil War, An Album, are the stories of two other men who were camp servants before becoming noncommissioned officers in USCT regiments: 1st Sgt. Emanuel Monroe Cunnigen, 3rd Illinois Cavalry, and then the 66th USCI; and Sgt. Maj. John Sample, 9th Ohio Cavalry, and later the 108th USCI.
When the vast majority of Black men were not yet able to enlist to fight in a war that many of them believed would abolish the institution of slavery—as long as the United States prevailed—they found other ways to contribute to the cause. As shown by a number of examples in the three parts of this article, hundreds left with, self-emancipated to, and worked for white volunteer and regular army regiments as camp servants. In these roles they cooked, cleaned, laundered, and took care of officers’ horses, along with a host of other service tasks. The work that servants performed allowed their employers to focus more time and energy on their primary military responsibilities. In turn, working for the United States army exposed Black men—whether previously free or enslaved—to the rhythms of military life.
After the Militia Act of 1862, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and the states’ calls for Black men to join their United States Colored Troops regiments, many men chose to leave their role as camp servant, pick up a rifle and cartridge box, and join the fight as arm-bearing, government-sanctioned soldiers.
One might ask, why not remain in a servant’s role where pay was often fairly equivalent to that of a private soldier, and where things were normally safer, at least in terms of staying clear of dangerous flying lead and iron? Why would one risk his life to serve a nation that did not view him a social equal and did not allow him to participate politically, in most cases, as a recognized citizen?
Unfortunately, a lack of primary sources by the men who made the decision to transition from camp servant to soldier directly answering these questions leaves us without many clear and definitive answers. However, from the sources that are available, and from the conclusions that scholars present in their works about Black men who left slavery to become soldiers, we understand the importance they placed on playing an active part in putting down secession and abolishing slavery. Fighting as a soldier instead of laboring as a camp servant helped them prove that Black men could be just as brave as white men when facing the enemy in deadly combat. They believed that proving one’s manhood by serving the county in its time of need in turn deserved the country’s recognition their citizenship and the constitutional guarantees that came with it. Partly due to their demonstrated ability on the battlefield and willingness to sacrifice their lives in effort to “create a more perfect Union” amendments entered the Constitution that abolished slavery, conferred citizenship, and offered African American men the ability to vote.
The author wishes to give a special thanks to Eric Mink, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, for sharing his research on Sgt. Bell and Pvt. Weaver (both 23rd USCI).
1850 U.S. Free Schedule Census, accessed via Ancestry.com
1860 U.S. Free Schedule Census, accessed via Ancestry.com
1860 U.S. Slave Schedule Census, accessed via Ancestry.com
Blight, David. A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation. Harcourt, 2007.
Coddington, Ronald S. African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.
Complied Military Service Record for Pvt. John T. Bell, 23rd United States Colored Infantry, Accessed via Fold3.com
Complied Military Service Record for 1st Sgt. Randolph Johnston, 24th United States Colored Infantry, Accessed via Fold3.com
Complied Military Service Record for Pvt. Andrew Weaver, 23th United States Colored Infantry, Accessed via Fold3.com
Creighton, Margaret S. The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History – Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle. Basic Books, 2005.
Emberton, Carole. “‘Only Murder Makes Men:’ Reconsidering the Black Military Experience” in The Journal of the Civil War Era, Vol. 2, No. 3 (September 2012).
Taylor, Brian. Fighting for Citizenship: Black Northerners and the Debate over Military Service in the Civil War. University of North Carolina Press, 2020.