Black or white or both, he made a good Maine soldier, Part II

On June 16, 1862, a New Orleans businessman named B. Bronson discovered that his “light mulatto” slave, Calvin, had run away. With Union troops occupying the Big Easy, Bronson probably figured he would never see Calvin again.

In 1865, Moses Bernard photographed a black man in a New Orleans studio. The man’s bearing, Union kepi, and shoes suggest that he was a veteran of a “colored” regiment that fought for the North. Maine soldiers encountering blacks for the first time in the Deep South were shocked to learn that not all slaves were black; miscegenation laws cast many “white” people into slavery. (Library of Congress)

An enigmatic character, the “B Bronson” recorded in the June 28, 1860 census of “free inhabitants” of the Third Ward of New Orleans worked as a “Trunkmaker” with a personal estate worth $100. He lived in an overwhelmingly white neighborhood of mixed ethnic and national origins; his neighbors hailed from predominantly from the States, plus England, Ireland, German principalities, and Spain.

Census taker Charles Gardner scribbled remarkably sloppy abbreviations and whole words under Column 10, “Place of Birth.” The 54-year-old Bronson was born in “Map,” “Mass,” or even “Mars” for that matter, his 37-year-old wife Isabella in “Engld” (England), and their children Alfred and Ava in “La” (Louisiana).

By spring 1862, Bronson had moved his business to a “carriage repository” at 74 Carondelet Street in New Orleans. His slave Calvin vanished on June 16; Bronson claimed that weekday was Tuesday, but the 16th fell on Monday that year.

On Saturday, June 21, “as I was passing Lafayette Square, I found the said slave with a United States uniform on, standing guard just above the Brooks House, on Camp street,” Bronson informed Col. Frank S. Nickerson of the 14th Maine Infantry Regiment on June 23.

Calvin had “enlisted [in the 14th Maine] as a United States soldier, assuming to be a white man,” Bronson complained. “I have the documents to prove him a slave.”

Nickerson raised an eyebrow when Bronson’s “demand for his [McRae’s] surrender” arrived. And rather than deliver the demand himself, Bronson dispatched it via his agent, E.W. Herrick.

In mid-June 1862, Col. Frank Nickerson of the 14th Maine Infantry learned how loosely Louisiana miscegenation laws defined who was a slave. (Maine State Archives)

A “carriage dealer” by trade, the 41-year-old Herrick lived in Jefferson City in Jefferson County, Louisiana when a census taker came calling on June 22, 1860. Herrick hailed from Vermont, his 37-year-old wife “M. Herrick” from Louisiana, and their 16-year-old daughter Julia from a wretchedly scrawled destination that defies transcription to this day.

Living with the family in 1860 were apparent siblings Mary Kendall, 16, and Joseph Kendall, 14.

Going with Herrick to locate McRae, “I … found him to be a white man—as white as I am,” noted Nickerson. “Therefore I required the proper proof that he was a slave.”

Bronson’s ownership papers stated that McRae “was so white that a stranger would not suspect him of being a black man,” Nickerson later informed Maine State Senator B.M. Roberts (italicized in original document).

Many white Northerners thought that slaves universally had dark pigmentation. Generations of ill-use of women slaves by white men (often plantation owners and their sons) had bred lighter shades among many offspring, however, and terms like “mulatto” and “yellow” described such skin tones, especially in laissez faire New Orleans.

Many Union boys were realizing that the South’s antiquated slavery laws cast a wide miscegenetic net. In late autumn 1862, Corporal John A. Dicker of Orono and Co. F, 12th Maine Infantry watched the black men joining the colored regiments forming in New Orleans.

Escaping blacks “are coming in here every day in squads of from ten to thirty at a time,” Dicker said, noticing the diverse epidermal hues among the men, women, and children reaching Union lines, colorations ranging from deep black to skin as light as that of most Mainers.

“Some of them (blacks) are as white as I am, and could walk the streets of Orono, and you would not suppose they were negroes for a moment,” Dicker said. “If they fail” to qualify as Caucasian, “it will not be for the want of white blood in their veins.”

Circa 1863-1864, “slave children from New Orleans” Rebecca Hughes (left), Charles Taylor, and Rosina Downs posed for photographer M.H. Kimball. Portrayed as “white” slaves, the children posed collectively or individually for at least three photos to help raise funds “for the education of colored people in the Department of the Gulf,” according to the back of this photo. A similar “white” black man, Calvin McRae, fled his owner and joined the 14th Maine Infantry in June 1862. (Library of Congress)

Dithering and dallying, Frank Nickerson delayed releasing McRae to Bronson, who soon appealed to Maj.. Gen. Benjamin Butler, the Union commander in New Orleans. On July 7 Butler dashed off terse instructions concerning McRae.

“You will forthwith discharge him” to Bronson, Butler informed Nickerson.

That order “was not obeyed,” Nickerson told Senator Roberts. The 14th Maine went upriver to fight at Baton Rouge in August, and “Calvin did not return; he still serves with us as a soldier; distinguished himself at Baton Rouge, and is one of the best soldiers in the 14th Regiment,” Nickerson reported in February 1863.

“I say without fear of contradiction, that he [McRae] is one of the best drilled, and the best soldier in every respect, in the Regiment,” he stated. “There is not a man who knows him who would not forcibly resist the attempt to take him out.

“This is but one instance of negro soldiers,” Nickerson commented.

Calvin McRae capably served in the 14th Maine Infantry Regiment until he was killed in action at Port Hudson, Louisiana on July 1, 1863.

Sources:
1850 U.S. Census; 1860 U.S. Census; Maine Adjutant General’s Report 1863; Employment of Colored Men, Daily Whig & Courier, Monday, December 15, 1862; and Kennebec Journal, Friday, May 29, 1863

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys 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.