Private No More: The Civil War Letters of John Lovejoy Murray, 102nd United States Colored Infantry. Edited by Sharon A. Roger Hepburn. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2023. 162 pp, Paperback, 24.95; Hardcover, $114.95.
Reviewed by Tim Talbott
Collections of letters produced by individual Black men who served in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) are rare. Those that do exist and have received publication since the Civil War are usually letters that soldiers sent to African American or local newspapers during the war.[i] While these certainly have amazing value to historians and students of the conflict, soldiers wrote them for that particular audience. Thus, we often do not get the intimate tone, personal topics, and “off the record” subjects that come when soldiers write to family members or friends. Yet another issue with published newspaper letters is that period editors potentially altered (i.e. shortened, corrected, improved, etc.) letters for wide-audience publication purposes.
There are several reasons why few USCT letter collections have remained together and survived the last 160 years. First, the majority of USCT soldiers came from enslaved backgrounds before enlisting. Most enslaved men had little to no opportunity to receive any literacy education. Those who were free before joining up often started working at extremely young ages and in occupations that left little spare time for learning to read and write. Also, imposed social and economic circumstances during the postwar decades often meant that pragmatic measures for sustaining one’s family and striving for their future advancement took precedence over maintaining tangible connections to family history. Additionally, few local, state, or even national archives actively sought the inclusion of African American letter collections until the 1960s and 1970s, and by that time many had already succumbed to the dustbin of time.
Fortunately, USCT letter collections still occasionally appear. In Private No More: The Civil War Letters of John Lovejoy Murray, 102nd United States Colored Infantry, editor Sharon A. Roger Hepburn offers readers a set of 60 letters that provide unique perspectives. These letters largely survived because Murray’s mother, Sarah Wells, provided them to a special examiner at the Pension Bureau—who instructed their return to her, but obviously never were—as proof of her relationship to Murray in order to receive benefits after his death from disease on April 12, 1865.
John Lovejoy Murray, a native of upstate New York, moved to Michigan during the fall of 1863 to pursue work. He enlisted on December 1, 1863, in Detroit in what was originally the 1st Michigan Colored Infantry, but would eventually become the 102nd United States Colored Infantry (USCI). At 36 years old, Murray was considerably older than many of his comrades. Being single, he maintained strong connections with his New York family. After recruiting up the regiment and training at Camp Ward in Detroit, Pvt. Murray and the unit left on March 29, 1864, for the Department of the South where he served through the end of the war.
Pvt. Murray began writing letters to his mother and friends back in Lockport, New York, even before leaving Detroit. However, after arriving on the South Carolina coast and getting familiar with his surroundings, he offered a number of interesting opinions on a variety of topics. For example, on the day before Independence Day 1864, Murray commented about the “no quarter” understanding that often developed between Confederates and Black U.S. soldiers: “there wont Be no quarters Showed to them. they have Slaughtered our folke. we Shoot Ever thing that have gray cloth an they Do Do the Same.” (64)
A week later, Murray shared an incident that occurred between his unit and a USCT regiment of South Carolinians. In what appears to be an unfriendly relationship between free northern Black soldiers and formerly enslaved southern Black soldiers, a fight broke out. “they Call us Coward. we told them that we Could fight with out Being Drove Into Battle. that made them mad. they Come at us like tigers But they left just as soon. they went to there quarters and got there Gun. we took Club and Brick and Drove them Back,” Murray wrote. Pvt. Murray ended this letter with a postscript:
”Northern Black Southern Black Cant live together” (66-67)
Other issues, most stemming from prejudicial treatment, received comment from Murray as well. In his letters, Murray mentions receiving inferior weapons, initially less pay than White soldiers, and inadequate health care. And while most of these morale-damaging issues were later rectified, they still proved troubling to him, and probably his comrades, at the time. However, Murray also shares numerous concerns faced by pretty much all Federal soldiers, including the Copperhead element at home, foraging for supplemental rations, and encounters with southern flora, fauna, and Confederate civilians.
Murray was transitionally literate, so his letters could prove challenging at times to readers inexperienced with period writing. To help on this front, Hepburn provides excellent footnotes that clarify Murray’s numerous unfamiliar references. The book also contains a thorough index, and an impressive bibliography that demonstrates the depth of Hepburn’s research.
Private No More adds significantly to our understanding about the diversity of USCT soldiers and their experiences. It is a must read for those interested in Civil War soldiers’ letters, the common soldier, and the conflict in the Department of the South.
[i] A couple of examples include: Virginia M. Adams, ed. On the Altar of Freedom: A Black Soldier’s Civil War Letters from the Front – Corporal James Henry Gooding. Amherst, MA: Massachusetts University Press, 1991; and Donald Yacovone, A Voice of A Voice of Thunder: The Civil War Letters of George E. Stephens. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997.