Black regiments in the Civil War are still a relatively obscure aspect of American History. Though many didn’t battle, these units were vital in keeping the union intact.
A group of residents based in Goldsboro have rediscovered one of those regiments – the 135th U.S. Colored Troops.
Chris Thomas has this.
“So he says ‘I am 67-years-of-age and I live 2-and-a-half miles from Eureka, North Carolina…”
Phillip Fort was North Carolina native, soldier, and former slave revealed through through Amy Bauer, a Goldsboro insurance broker and genealogist.
Fort was a member of the 135th United States Colored Troops.
This testimony was taken as part of a pension request filed about 30 years after the war’s end.
Amy says little was known about the regiment when she and her husband, Jay Bauer, started investigating the unit’s history two years ago.
“We had heard that there were no pictures what so ever of this and with our background in genealogy, we thought ‘well, this would be…something good to take on that we could research and we could dig up.”
The 135th’s story begins with one of the nation’s most renowned and controversial Union Generals: William T. Sherman. His troops were known for their speed, effectiveness, and ruthlessness. His strategy of “total warfare” included seizing and destroying infrastructure crucial to the Confederacy’s war effort.
But Sherman’s troops still needed roads on which to travel. And as the war neared its end – Sherman led his soldiers northward from to the Carolinas.
That campaign led the soldiers to a small railroad town about 90 miles west of the Pamlico Sound – Goldsboro.
“They had to build the bridge over the Neuse River, which was a big concern and the closer they got to the Neuse River, the less timber they had. So in one of the memoirs he (Gen. Sherman) said ‘don’t worry about the timber, we’ll take it off the houses if we need it.’”
Those roads would be built, in large part, by the 135th USCT – 220 of whom were from North Carolina. They officially mustered in Cary in 1865. Like most segregated units, they saw little combat and mostly defended forts and outposts before they disbanded.
Deborah Jones is a descendent of one of those soldiers, Silous Codgell. She’s a retired U.S. Air Force nurse and still lives near Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro. She was already working on her own genealogical project and came across his name in a birth certificate.
“I went to the library here in Goldsboro – Wayne County Public Library – for a genealogy program. And Marty Tessler, the librarian there, had a poster about these colored troops. And one of the names that prominently stood out was Silous Codgell. And I was like ‘oh my gosh! The 135th? In Goldsboro? I’ve never heard of this. Where did this come from?”
Like the Bauer’s, Jones learned about her Codgell through his pension records. Soldiers, or their relatives, had to get give detailed descriptions of their past lives, their relationships, what they did during the war. Jones, who was in the Air Force for 30 years, was stunned by what they had to do to collect their pensions.
I thought it was quite a bit for them to have to prove that they served when…the government already had a roster with their names on it. But yet they had to constantly by more than one or two people, they had to have many people prove that this was a person and ‘yes, they’d served, and yes I know he served.’”
Though many of them died a century ago, individuals named in the 135th genealogy project, headed by the Bauer’s were rediscovered. Jones said she liked the man she learned about – her relative and a fellow member of the U.S. Military. She said the veteran and father of 20 was a hard worker.
“It wasn’t that it was that you had to join the troops because there were plenty of people that didn’t serve. But he was willing to go and serve. And this was an opportunity to take care of his family, too.”
Black regiments weren’t part of the U.S. Army until 1863 but by war’s end, there were scores of them in North Carolina.
That included the 1st NC Colored Regiment out of New Bern. They became the 35th USCT.
The raising of black troops in the area was a very dramatic story
Dr. Gerald Prokopowicz is a Civil War history and professor at East Carolina University. The New Bern regiment was organized, in part, by slave turned North Carolina State Senator, Abraham Galloway.
“In Eastern North Carolina, the impetus came from within the black community. Abraham Galloway most famously organized…brought in refugees from the slave community who escaped, who were willing to serve and he and others negotiated with the Union leadership as to what would be the terms under which the black regiment would be organized. They did not want to simply sign up and be paid less than white troops and used only for fatigue duty and otherwise be treated as ‘second-class-soldiers.’”
The 35th U.S. Colored Troops saw more combat than units like the 135th. Along with the more famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the 35th engaged rebels near Jacksonville, Florida at the Battle of Olustee. Though they were unsuccessful, they were commended by their commanding officers for their bravery.
Prokopowicz said their stories are only now leaving academia and library archives and making their way to the general public.
“You had black troops fighting in Port Hudson, Louisiana. You had them fighting in Honey Hill in South Carolina. You had them fight, famously, at Ft. Pillow in Tennessee where Nathan Bedford Forrest’s confederate soldiers massacred prisoners – they shot down black troops who were surrendering.”
No matter how much or little combat these soldiers experienced, many risked life and limb to enlist. Some of them left plantations – the only place they’d known to fight against their former masters.
Regardless, Deborah Jones and others involved in the project hopes to bring the 135th’s accomplishments to light and bring more recognition to black troops who fought for the Union.
“I think these people should have some recognition because they participated in their liberty, in their freedom and they’re not getting any recognition.”
And to accomplish that mission, the Wayne County Public Library is hosting a presentation on them 7 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 23 at the Wayne County Public Library’s Goldsboro Branch on Ash Street.
I’m Chris Thomas.