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USCT Recruited in Deep South AL and GA, 1865

It was an event memorialized by Upson County, Georgia, residents’ written recollections and oral history for several generations: Wilson’s Raid—the lightning dash of General James H. Wilson’s Union Cavalry Corps, Military Division of the Mississippi. Fifteen thousand strong, these Union cavalry men rode from Tennessee through Alabama into the heart of Georgia in April 1865. Tales abound of stolen mules, ransacked homes, and pillages smokehouses and corn cribs; however, no local memoirs mention what must have been one of the most disconcerting scenes of this raid from the point of view of Upson’s free citizens—and surely one of the most exciting experiences for local slaves. Marching one day behind Wilson’s advance force of white cavalrymen was a regiment of U.S. Colored Troops (USCT), totaling about fourteen hundred men, thirty-two of them born in Upson County.

The troops were raw recruits enlisted mainly in Selma, Alabama, on 8 April, by Major Martin R. Archer, an army officer from Ohio. We know a little bit about some of the men from Upson—but nothing certain yet about why each was in Selma, Alabama, in April 1865. Some may have moved west from their birthplace with their owners; others may have been sold west in the interstate slave trade. A few may even have run away from slavemasters during the confused last months of the Civil War.

The case of Upson native Seaborn Jackson suggests dynamics late in the war that we do not yet fully understand. A blacksmith in his early twenties, five feet five inches high, and of black complexion, Seaborn Jackson had been enslaved to Thomaston plantation and stable owner Burwell W. Jackson. He had joined Shiloh Baptist Church by experience of grace on 16 July 1859, and apparently still lived in Upson County in 1863 when his slavemaster died. Probably because of his blacksmith skills, he was appraised at $3,000—a large amount even in inflated Confederate currency. Burwell’s widow, Malinda Jackson, selected Seaborn as part of her share of the estate in December 1863. Sixteen months later, on 8 April 1865, Seaborn Jackson, with nine other Upson men, enlisted in Company B, 137th Regiment, USCT, at Selma, Alabama—but how and why was he there? The 1870 census does not show that Seaborn Jackson returned to Upson after the war.

Major Archer wrote that he recruited the first 500 men at Selma on 7-8 April, and drilled them the next day “in order to have the regiment so we could move out in some order when we received orders to do so.” The new troops marched out on the night of 9 April, following the main body of Wilson’s Cavalry Corps east toward Montgomery. They picked up 500 more men on the march, then enrolled another 400 in Montgomery. By the time the USCT force reached Columbus, Georgia, on 17 April, 1200 of the 1400 soldiers were mounted on mules ands horses collected by the division along the way.

Wilson had captured Columbus, Georgia, on 16 April 1865, and ordered an advance party of his veteran cavalry to ride all night 17 April to capture the Double Bridges across Flint River, on the road to Macon, Georgia, so that the Confederates would not burn them. Major Archer reported that his U.S. Colored troops had followed the next day with a forty mile march, camping at Flint River on midnight, 18 April. The next day the regiment marched fifteen miles through Upson County and camped “five miles east of Thomasville” (Obviously, Archer meant Thomaston). The USCT reached Macon on 21 April.

We have no recorded reaction from anyone in Upson County to the arrival of USCT, but to the county’s slaves these men—especially the men they knew from their own county—would have been evidence of real and immediate change: a sign of the end of slavery, an acknowledgement of manhood in people who had been called “boy” all their lives, and the undeniable promise of citizenship—for surely they had heard rumored in the slave quarters what Frederick Douglass had said, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.”

Ironically, those of Archer’s USCT soldiers who were not still wearing the plantation rags in which they had enlisted were probably dressed in Confederate uniforms captured in Columbus. Wilson’s army carried no spare Union blue uniforms to issue, but since the USCT followed in the rear (and, unlike Confederates, appeared distinctively black), closely supervised by white officers and noncommissioned officers of the regular army, the recruits were unlikely to have been endangered from mistaken identity by fellow Federal troops.

Archer wrote, “The most difficult part of the organization of the colored troops was that of subsistence, as we were compelled to subsist entirely upon the country, and when we take into consideration that a large force were constantly in our advance, nearly clearing the whole country of subsistence, it made the procuring of rations for the regiments a difficult matter indeed, which was only accomplished by industry and perseverance on the part of the officers and men of the command.” I doubt, however, that many Upson County residents welcomed Union troops’ “industry and perseverance” in that regard. Three weeks after the ceasefire, the Macon Daily Herald of 14 May 1865 reported severe food shortages in counties through which Wilson’s raiders had passed, especially in Upson County. The editor wrote, “Indeed, we know of one instance, in Upson county, in which the corn was gathered from the camp grounds of the Federal cavalry and converted into meal for bread!”

By the time Archer arrived in Macon, his command had swollen to 2,700 men. Medical examinations on 24-25 April eliminated the least fit, and the remainder were organized into two (later three) regiments of 1,000 men each. “The greater portion of them are very well clothed in rebel uniforms,” wrote Archer. By 1 May he still had only 950 guns and 450 sets of gear for all the USCT under his command, but Lee had already surrendered to Grant and the war was effectively over.

Forty-three Upson-born men followed the Union army to Macon and enlisted in the USCT. We know little about the previous lives of most of them, but among those who joined the 137th Regiment, U.S.C.T., was Dock (a.k.a. Doctor) Womble, 23 years old, who, like his mother, Rainey, was a former slave of Enoch W. Womble.

Seaborn Hartfield, twenty-nine years old when he enlisted in the 138th Regiment at Atlanta on 15 July, was one of the older Upson men to join the USCT. A blacksmith by trade, we find a piece of his prior history in the legal records of Thomaston merchant William W. Hartsfield; on 6 January 1855, Hartsfield had deeded an 18-year-old slave, Seaborn, to Edward Traylor in trust for Hartsfield’s wife, Susan P. Hartsfield.

The regimental records of these seventy-five Upson soldiers’ service are sketchy. Caleb Sullivan, Cesar Davis, Tony Mathews, and Seaborn Hartfield were appointed sergeants (Sullivan was reduced to private after five months). David Davison and Seaton Dunham became corporals, while Tabby Barnes and Albert Bryant were mustered in as “undercooks.” Four other men died in service during 1865, and another four deserted.

General Wilson had a fairly narrow idea of how to employ his USCT; he saw them mainly as laborers. On 30 April, for example, after deciding to restore the Macon and Western Railroad track to meet military transportation requirements, he ordered Colonel Archer—newly promoted from major—to send a “detail of twenty-five men (negroes)” with an officer to report to the railroad’s superintendent to work ten days on the road. Two weeks later Wilson queried his superior officer about rebuilding another railroad: “I have 2000 negro troops whom I can put to work. Shall I continue operations?”

With the nation demobilizing rapidly, the three regiments of USCT raised by Major Martin R. Archer during Wilson’s raid were mustered out of service in January 1866. Archer chose to take a Freedmen’s Bureau job and settle in Georgia rather than return to Ohio – probably “to escape from a shotgun marriage, the consequence of a youthful antebellum indiscretion.” He became a bigamist when he met and married a North Carolina schoolteacher, neglecting to tell her about his marital status! Although he secured a divorce from the first wife six years later, the second Mrs. Archer did not find out about the first Mrs. Archer until she applied for her widow’s pension in 1893.

Subsequent histories of the enlisted men in these regiments remain to be researched; meanwhile, for the convenience of researchers, the Thomaston-Upson Archives has a list of seventy-five Upson County natives who served in the 136th, 137th, and 138th Regiments, USCT.


U.S. National Archives, RG 94, Regimental Books, U.S. Colored Troops, Descriptive Books for 136th, 137th, and 138th Regiments, USCT Infantry.

U.S. National Archives, RG 393, Entry 2460, Cavalry Corps Military Division of the Mississippi, Letters Sent, Vol. 2, letters on pages 47 and 58.

The War of the Rebellion, a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Vol. 49, Part 2, pages 818-9.

Thomaston-Upson Archives, Upson County Probate records and Deed Books.

(Upson County) Shiloh Baptist Church Minute Book.

Quote beginning “to escape from a shotgun marriage . . .” is from Paul A. Cimbala, Under the Guardianship of the Nation: The Freedmen’s Bureau and the Reconstruction of Georgia, 1865-1870 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997), p. 54. See also p. 272, n.27.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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