Part of the USA Today Network

Black History Month: Local black men fought in the Union Army

The old African-American cemetery off of Fifth Street in Columbia, Pennsylvania, features a row of memorial headstones commemorating several men from Lancaster County and York County, Pennsylvania, who fought in the Union Army during the Civil War. Photo by Bobby Housch in September 2009; courtesy of the Gettysburg Daily website. Used by permission.

Early in the Civil War, several prominent political leaders and social reformers in both the North and South envisioned filling the ranks of the armies with fresh troops comprised of free black men. The Union army experimented with mustering into its ranks hundreds of recently liberated slaves from areas then under its control.
Early efforts in South Carolina and Louisiana indicated that the controversial concept had merit, and in March 1863 Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts authorized the formation of the state’s first black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. A second regiment, the 55th, was also recruited. While formed and named in the Bay State, the ranks of the 54th and 55th included men from many other states, most notably New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania (a staggering 22 percent of the regiment’s roster came from the Keystone State).
Among the Pennsylvanians were nearly three dozen local men, including four from York County.

Cannonball blogger and Civil War author / tour guide Scott L. Mingus Sr. stands next to some of the headstones in Columbia’s African-American Cemetery in this September 2009 photo by Bobby Housch for the Gettysburg Daily website. Used by permission.

Governor Andrew had the support of many of the leaders of the black community, including Frederick Douglass whose two sons Lewis and Charles were early volunteers. As a result, the proposed all-black regiment (excepting its officers who were white) received national publicity. Recruiters in the Columbia, Pennsylvania, region targeted the free blacks of the Susquehanna River Valley, many of whom were farmers or laborers on the railroads or in the iron foundries and forges along the river in Wrightsville, Columbia, and Marietta. The Maltby-Case Rolling Mill in Columbia provided a fair number of recruits (and nearly sixty more workers would temporarily serve as volunteer soldiers during the Gettysburg Campaign and help defend the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge).

Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848 – 1907). Public domain photograph from

Black volunteers received a cash bounty for signing up to serve in the 54th and 55th, and the names of twenty-three men from the Columbia area grace the muster rolls of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s new regiment. One of them, Private Charles Body of Company G, a 28-year-old farmer from Lancaster County, perished in the ill-fated attack on Fort Wagner on the Atlantic Coast near Charleston, South Carolina. That July 18 assault in recent years became world famous through the Hollywood film “Glory” and young actor Denzel Washington’s marvelous Oscar-winning portrayal of the fictional soldier Silas Tripp.
Other men from York and Lancaster counties signed up later in 1863 and throughout 1864 for the newly raised national regiments, known as the “United States Colored Troops,” many of which trained and drilled at Philadelphia’s Camp William Penn. Several companies came from the south-central Pennsylvania region, and the men saw action on the front lines in several key campaigns, including the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia. In total, nearly 180,000 blacks served in the Union army during the war, the vast majority in its last eighteen months.

The Columbia cemetery is in a patch of recently cleared woods nestled alongside U.S. Route 30. Access is from 5th Street in Columbia, not far from the Susquehanna River Valley visitors center at 5th and Linden. Photograph courtesy of Bobby Housch, September 2009.

For much more on black Civil War history in York County, PA, see fellow blogger Jim McClure’s York Town Square blog, including his October 2007 post on the 54th Massachusetts.