U. S. Colored Troops – Part 2 of 2, A Vintage Vignette

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U. S. Colored Troops – Part 2 of 2
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
February 10, 2010

The Bureau of Colored Troops was created in May 1863. Still, for many months afterward there was Union controversy about the suitability of Blacks for service. The movie “Glory” portrayed the situation vividly. The official records of the War of the Rebellion describe actual conditions of service by local Black men commemorated by Veterans Administration tombstones in cemeteries on Redstone Arsenal.

As mentioned in my previous article, the Black troops marked with VA tombstones on the arsenal are Austin Groves, Joseph Beasley, and Gabriel R. Blackburn – all corporals. Austin Groves' grave is in a very large cemetery with many obvious burial depressions, but his is the only marker in the cemetery. Therefore, the Army has designated that cemetery as the Austin Groves Cemetery, with identification as cemetery site 67-2 in Test Area 6 south of Martin Road on the west side of the arsenal. Blackburn is buried in the Inman Cemetery, site 62-1, west of Anderson Road and north of Martin Road, also on the west side of the arsenal. Beasley's stone is found in the Fennil Cemetery, site 56-1, at the junction of Martin Road with Mills Road near the center of the arsenal. Groves served in Company A of the 42nd Regiment of U. S. Colored Troops. That unit was organized in Chattanooga in May 1864. It consisted of about 400 men recruited by Union scouts and agents in northern Alabama. The soldiers of the 42nd were considered a “laboring regiment” of men “unfit for field duty”. The records show that they were assigned work in what was variously called “hospital gardens” and “sanitary gardens”, doing “fatigue duty” and occasional picket duty, with a few marches in the Chattanooga area also recorded. The unit was mustered out in June of 1865.

Beasley served in Company C of the 12th U. S. Colored Infantry. “James” Beasley was born in 1843, according to his own statements given in 1869 per information supplied by Thomas Henry Kenny in the book “Slave Genealogy”. At that time Beasley told that he had served in Company C of the 12th USCI, that his father was Bill Beasley, and his mother was named Emmaline. He said that he had a brother named Ellick and sisters named Mary Ann, Emma, Lucinda, and Becky. In 1869 he was a farmer on the Matt Strong plantation. Military pension papers and the 1910 census list “Joseph” Beasley as the one whose estate was probated here in 1918. The VA tombstone shows the name as “Jos.”, which would normally be for “Joseph” or “Josiah” or even “Joshua”. He died of pneumonia in February 1918, leaving heirs Hattie Lanier, Sarah All, May Hines, William Beasley, Jimmie Beasley (a son), Charley H. Beasley, Josh Beasley, and a brother Thomas Beasley, who was Administrator of Joseph's estate of $56.50 “in the bank”. He was born in Tennessee and enlisted in Rogersville, Alabama. His 1883 pension papers as an invalid show that he was injured at Nashville in 1864 by an exploding shell, then additionally injured by a fellow soldier with a pick while they were digging rifle pits in Tennessee. Joseph married Emmaline Scruggs in 1870, by whom he had seven children. They divorced in August 1911 when Emmaline abandoned Joseph and the children. Joseph thereafter married Sophia Johnson in November 1911, with whom he had one son, William. Sophia died on Christmas Day 1913.

Gabriel Blackburn was born about 1848. He was married and had six children but divorced by 1900. He applied for an invalid pension in 1887. It was granted. His service was primarily in Bridgeport and Chattanooga, with Company B of the 4th U. S. Colored Infantry according to his VA marker. However, the service records indicate that it was the 14th regiment. One account states that Blackburn's regiment charged Wheeler's line at Dalton, Georgia. While most accounts of the Colored Troops showed restriction to menial duties, at least some clearly stated growing appreciation of their valor and abilities by Union officers through time.

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