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.
Some recruits went to the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment (Colored), forming on Dutch Island in Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. Like white Mainers, the black recruits went to Camp Berry in Cape Elizabeth prior to shipping out for their respective assignments.
In its Jan. 26, 1865 issue, the Portland-published Eastern Argus cited “an experienced officer” who claimed “that Portland had one of the best arranged, best disciplined and best located military camps in the United States, and from our own observation and knowledge of Camp Berry … he spoke correctly.”
At that time in the war, Camp Berry had “recently been enlarged so that several acres are comprised within the enclosure,” the Argus’s reporter noted. “The general aspect of the camp is neat and orderly to a degree almost painful or prison-like to a civilian, but to the pleasure and pride of the soldier.”
Thomas M. Vinfield, “a colored man” from Antigua, would have concurred in January 1864 that Camp Berry was run like a prison — to the detriment of the black recruits briefly stationed there.
Vinfield had joined “the 14th Regiment Rhode Island Infantry” (the 14th RI Heavy Artillery) in late November or early December 1863. He dutifully reported to Camp Berry, commanded by Brig. Gen. Thomas A. Rowley.
According to Vinfield, he reported to hell.
His horror story soon reached Maine Gov. Samuel Cony via Col. Lewis B. Smith, assigned to the Portland Custom House. A federal employee, Smith had recorded the nightmare detailed to him by Vinfield, stuck at Camp Berry seven weeks after he should have left for Rhode Island.
Also living at Camp Berry were “30 or 40 colored men,” Cony learned from Smith’s report. The black recruits lacked dining facilities separate from white soldiers; Vinfield and other hungry blacks could not “eat or drink without being punched, [and] coffee cups knocked out of their hands while drinking.”
Anywhere in camp, a passing white recruit might knock off a black recruit’s cap. The blacks “cannot move around without being insulted and crowded[,] whether eating or [moving] about the yards,” Vinfield told Smith.
The black Americans could not “walk around in peace” without being pelted with snowballs and “junks (sic) of ice and every means taken to make them wretched,” Vinfield claimed.
Although assigned sleeping quarters, the black recruits “are obliged to get out of the barracks at night to prevent being kicked and trampled over and go into the [camp’s] barber shop to get quiet sleep on the floor,” Vinfield indicated
The racist assaults were “unendurable”; the black recruits “must be protected, they say,” Smith paraphrased a Vinfield statement. “Sitting by the stove, they are tormented and crowded and the whole proceedings seem to be to make their lives wretched.”
After compiling a five-paragraph report, Lewis Smith sent it to an elected Portland official whom Sam Cony identified as “Councillor (sic) Holden.” He, in turn, personally delivered the report to the governor no later than Wednesday, Jan. 20.
After reading the report, Cony addressed a passionate letter written on State of Maine Executive Department stationery to “Brig. Gen. Thomas A. Rowley, Com’d’g ‘Camp Berry,’ Portland, Maine.”
The recipient was a bit out of place. A Pennsylvanian, Rowley had risen in the ranks to brigade command at Chancellorsville. He was commanding the 3rd Division in John Reynolds’ I Corps at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863 when a dust-up with Lysander Cutler led to Rowley being later removed from field command.
January 1864 found him stationed in Portland, in charge of the Draft Rendezvous and well away from the action.
Enclosing the Vinfield-Smith report, Cony told Rowley, “I could but feel hurt and mortified that there was a probability of truth in such a statement of conduct on the part of white soldiers in this state.
“From the high expectation enjoyed by you[,] I know that such injurious behavior would not be tolerated within the limits of your command and hope that upon investigation it may prove to be unfounded,” Cony wrote.
“If however it is substantiated[,] you will know how to administer the proper remedy,” Cony concluded.
Receiving Cony’s letter and the Vinfield-Smith report, Rowley kicked the requested investigation downstairs to Col. Charles B. Merrill, the actual commander of Camp Berry. A hard-bitten combat officer who had led the 17th Maine Infantry Regiment, he was ordered by Rowley to “investigate the matter referred to, and report to this office.”
Via 1st Lt. J.S. Dudley, an acting assistant adjutant general, Rowley penned the order to Merrill on Friday, Jan. 22.
Something happened during the next 11 days. On Tuesday, Feb. 2, staffers from the Eastern Argus visited Camp Berry to “inspect its winter arrangements and the condition of the men, numbering seven or eight hundred, now quartered there,” the paper reported on Feb. 3.
The journalists spent “a brief hour’s examination in all the departments at Camp Berry,” but that statement was inaccurate.
“One of the features of interest at the camp is the ‘Corps d’Afrique,’* numbering 32 negroes,” the Argus noted; this figure correlates well with Vinfield’s estimated 30-40 men. “They are comfortably quartered by themselves, and are to be sent to the 14th Rhode Island Regiment whenever General Rowley can learn where that regiment is.
“We did not see them on parade, as we had hoped to do,” the journalists noted.
They had also learned that Rowley inspected Camp Berry daily.
Did he do so in response to Cony’s letter? Had the black recruits finally been given their own sleeping quarters from which white troublemakers were barred?
Were the newspaper reporters purposefully kept away from the black recruits?
After searching later issues of the Eastern Argus and the Portland Daily News and reviewing the Samuel Cony letters and telegrams preserved at the Maine State Archives, I have been unable to find the results of the Charles Merrill investigation.
Does anybody know what Merrill learned?
* “Corps d’Afrique” was a collective term applied to various black units during the Civil War. The term has appeared in letters and newspapers from New Orleans to Portland, Maine.
Source: Charles R. Lemons graciously shared the Samuel Cony letter and Thomas Vinfield report with “Maine at War.”
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.