Did racist white soldiers go after their black comrades in Cape Elizabeth? — Part I

In one of the more familiar images of black soldiers taken during the Civil War, the men of Co. E, 4th United States Colored Troops (USCT) stand outside a building. By late 1863, many black Maine men were joining the Army or Navy as the Lincoln Administration welcomed black recruits into uniform. (Library of Congress)

In one of the more familiar images of black soldiers taken during the Civil War, the men of Co. E, 4th United States Colored Troops (USCT) stand outside a building. By late 1863, many black Maine men were joining the Army or Navy as the Lincoln Administration welcomed black recruits into uniform. (Library of Congress)

Did racist white Maine soldiers run amuck at Camp Berry in Portland in mid-winter 1864?

Unsure as to the truth, a livid Gov. Samuel Cony wanted answers — immediately, if not sooner.

By late 1863, black Maine men were joining the fight against the Confederacy. War Department policy prohibited blacks from serving in white regiments, so except for a few situations, the black Mainers enlisted in black regiments being raised in other states.

According to the 1860 United States Census, Maine’s black population numbered fewer than 1,500 men, women, and children; less than 700 were men.

Neither number had changed considerably when the flaming Southern “Fire-Eater” Edmund Ruffin allegedly fired the first shot at Fort Sumter at 4:30 a.m., Friday, April 12, 1861. However, after learning about the incredible bravery displayed by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry warriors at Fort Wagner near Charleston in July 1863, black Mainers joined the fight.

On Saturday, Dec. 5, 1863, three eager recruits stood facing Capt. A.P. Davis at Augusta, possibly inside the State Capitol. Davis was the provost marshal for Maine’s 3rd Congressional District; his thoughts about the three recruits passed unnoted into history, but warm bodies were warm bodies, so he signed them up.

Cousins Daniel W. Peters, Dexter Peters, and James Peters hailed from Warren. They had traveled together in cold weather to join the fight against the Confederacy.

Like so many thousands of Maine boys who had preceded them into uniforms, the Peters all were farmers. Daniel was “twenty years and seven months” old, according to his enlistment papers.

James was 30, actually almost 31, and 18-year-old Dexter brought with him his father, Jacob, to sign the “consent in case of minor” that Dexter was really “eighteen years of age” and that he, Jacob, agreed in writing that “I do hereby freely give my consent to his volunteering as a Soldier in the Army of the United States for the period of three years.”

A surgeon examined the Peters and declared them fit for service. Davis asked each cousin to sign on the literal dotted lines, front and back on each man’s “volunteer enlistment“ forms.

Davis penned his signature to the “I certify, on honor” paragraph attesting that each cousin “was entirely sober when enlisted” and that “he is of legal age.”

Then Davis filled in each Peters’ physical description. Daniel stood 5-9 — tall for that era — and Dexter stood 5-6. James Peters was 5-5.

The Peters differed little in other physical attributes. Eyes? “Black.” Hair? “Black.” Complexion? “Black.” Davis quickly penned the same word on all three enlistment forms.

You get the drift; Daniel, Dexter, and James were black Mainers enlisting in a white-dominated Army to save the white-run Union.

Col. Robert Gould Shaw grasps his chest as a bullet strikes him while he leads the black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment over the ramparts of Fort Wagner in summer 1863. Although inaccurate (the attack took place at night), the 1890 Kurz and Allison lithograph captures the heroism of the black troops, heroism that encouraged other black men to enlist in the Army or Navy.

Col. Robert Gould Shaw grasps his chest as a bullet strikes him while he leads the black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment over the ramparts of Fort Wagner in summer 1863. Although inaccurate (the attack took place at night), the 1890 Kurz and Allison lithograph captures the heroism of the black troops, heroism that encouraged other black men to enlist in the Army or Navy.

Then Davis asked the cousins to raise their right hands and repeat the requisite phrases indicating their loyalty to the Union and their desire to serve in the United States Army. The official swearing-in completed, Davis likely welcomed the Peters to the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment.

Rather than join a Maine regiment, the cousins had opted for an Ocean State outfit because as black Mainers, they believed that no “white’ Maine regiment would accept them.

So the cousins joined the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, a “colored” regiment. Following them on Saturday, Jan. 2, 1864 were other Warren-based Peters: 22-year-old Reuben M. and 18-year-old William H. Like their three cousins a month earlier, Reuben and Bill were credited to the “quota of Warren,” according to Capt. Davis.

He described Reuben as 5-8 and William as 5-10. Everything else about their appearances was recorded as “black,” “black,” and “black.”

The 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment (Colored) was coalescing at Dutch Island in Narragansett Bay. The fledgling regiment’s confinement to an island was not indicative of racism; wherever possible (including Maine), Army officials assigned draftees and recruits alike to island-based camps to keep men (usually draftees) from deserting.

Like white Mainers, the Pine Tree State’s black recruits went to Camp Berry in Cape Elizabeth prior to shipping out for their respective regiments. The camp was named for Hiram Berry, the talented Rockland merchant who, after taking the 4th Maine Infantry to war in 1861, rose to the rank of major general of volunteers.

Berry might have risen farther if a Confederate sniper had not potted him as he crossed a road during the Battle of Chancellorsville.

The five Peters from Warren all probably reported to Camp Berry, as did other black Mainers who enlisted in early winter 1864.

If they expected treatment equal to that accorded white Maine recruits, they apparently were sorely mistaken — because something was horribly wrong at Camp Berry, according to another 14th Rhode Island HRA recruit.

And Sam Cony demanded answers.

Sources:1860 federal census, black recruits’ enlistment papers at Maine State Archives, and Charles R. Lemons, who has graciously shared with “Maine at War” the Thomas Vinfield report and the subsequent Samuel Cony letter.

Next week: Governor Cony demands answers about white soldiers’ behavior toward black recruits.

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.