top of page

Berks County African Americans in the Civil War - Woven With Words


Laura Hirneisen


Although African Americans repeatedly voiced a desire to fight for the Union during the Civil War, the government refused their services through the war’s early phases under a 1792 federal law (“African American Soldiers”).  Officially sanctioned African American regiments did not exist until 1863, after the Confederacy had dealt the Union several blows in major defeats at First and Second Bull Run and the Seven Days’ Battles, and the Union was eager to weaken the Confederacy’s infrastructure by any means possible (McPherson 1991, 20).  Abraham Lincoln’s famed Emancipation Proclamation, delivered first in September 1862 and then officially on January 1, 1863, did just that, giving African Americans the opportunity to enlist in the army and fight for their country (“History”).


The Union government took steps to organize African American regiments on May 22, 1863, with the creation of the Bureau of Colored Troops.  All African American regiments—with the exception of a notable few—lost their state designations and existed under the umbrella of the United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) (Compiled Military Service Records 2003).  Historical documents suggest that all of the African Americans from Berks who had formally enlisted served as a part of the U.S.C.T.


Records indicate that 497 African Americans lived in Berks County in 1860 (Montgomery 1886,  71).  When the Union finally acknowledged their desire to fight in 1863, many left their families and lives behind to uphold the cause.  But unlike white soldiers, African Americans yearning to enlist had to travel farther than their home town.  According to Morton Montgomery, Reading was a hotbed of army recruiting and organization. “Penn Square,” reflects Montgomery, “was daily, more or less, in commotion with the enlistment of men, the formation and exercise of companies and their departure to the seat of war or their return from it” (1886, 89). Despite this, Berks County African Americans had to enlist at Camp William Penn in Philadelphia, the city that had the largest African American population in the north at that time (McPherson 1991, 104).  When African American soldiers became an official component of the Union army, eight training camps were designated for African American troops. Camp William Penn was reserved solely for training African American soldiers from Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey (Conrad “Cheltenham”).


While an official tabulation of Berks County African American soldiers during the Civil War has yet to be uncovered, records have been preserved for a number of soldiers and sailors.  Isaac Cole, one of the soldiers who traveled from Berks County to Camp William Penn, is buried in the cemetery at the A.M.E. Mount Frisby Church, or the Six Penny Colored Church, near another veteran, James Jackson (Walker 1974, 313).  Cole fought in Company H of the 32nd U.S.C.T, enlisting as a private on February 20, 1864, and surviving his months spent in combat to muster out with the rest of his regiment after the war’s end on August 22, 1865 (“Isaac Cole;” “Isaac Cole [32nd Regiment];”Bates 2005, 1061).


Organized in the winter and spring of 1864 at Camp William Penn, Cole’s infantry unit began its duties at Hilton Head, South Carolina, on April 27.  Once in Hilton Head, the 32nd joined a brigade of U.S.C.T. under Colonel Bailey and performed drill, guard, and fatigue duty beyond the entrenchments (Bates 2005, 1047-48). The 32nd fought in a number of battles, including Honey Hill and at a raid on the Savannah Railroad (“Thirty-Second Regiment”).


The Battle of Honey Hill, fought November 30, 1864, saw attacks from collective U.S.C.T., including the Massachusetts 54th (made famous by its depiction in the movie Glory).  Despite outnumbering the enemy 5,500 to 1,400, Union forces could not overtake Confederate entrenchments at Honey Hill or cut a railroad tie, as had been their original intent, and retreated after nightfall.  Considered a Confederate victory, the battle left the Union with 746 casualties to the Confederate fifty (“Honey Hill”).  Cole’s regiment suffered nine men killed and forty-two men wounded.  Days later, the tables turned as Confederate forces attacked the 32nd. Although taken by surprise, the 32nd “rallied manfully and repulsed the attack” until General William Tecumseh Sherman returned from Savannah with his triumphant forces (“Thirty-Second Regiment”).


April 1865 brought the end of the war, but not before Cole’s regiment marched almost constantly for three weeks, engaging in skirmishes nearly every day. Under the leadership of General Potter, the 32nd captured twenty locomotives and two hundred rail cars brimming with Confederate supplies. The 32nd continued its garrison duties at Charleston, Beaufort, and Hilton Head before returning to Philadelphia (Bates 2005, 1048).


Another Berks County soldier, Jeremiah Dorsey (or Dossey), nickname Jere, enlisted in the 24th U.S.C.T. in Company I.  A survivor of the war, Dorsey is buried in Bethel Cemetery. (Montgomery 1886, 347).  The 24th formed at Camp William Penn on February 17, 1865, about two months before the war’s conclusion.  Dorsey’s regiment avoided battle but experienced war’s after-effects as they were placed in charge of various guard duties.  In early May 1865, the 24th was sent to Camp Casey, just outside Washington City on the Virginia side of the Potomac.  There, the regiment guarded Confederate prisoners at Point Lookout Maryland in June. Dorsey, who officially mustered in as a private on January 26, 1865, was discharged on Surgeon’s certificate on June 26, 1865.  After his discharge, the regiment went to Richmond, then to six county seats in Virginia where they preserved order in the countryside.  The 24th continued its post-war duties until they were mustered out of service on October 1, 1865 (Bates 2005; 1011, 1023).


Robert Miller, a runaway slave who settled in Berks, was a member of the 127th Colored Regiment Company F.  The 127th consisted of men enlisted and drafted in Pennsylvania, and the regiment organized at Camp William Penn.  The men who were a part of the 127th were enlisted for terms of service that ranged from one to three years.  The 127th engaged in only one battle, in which they were integrated with the Army of James. During the battle of Deep Bottom, only one man was killed from the 127th.  After the conflict ended in the east, the 127th was sent to Texas to guard the Mexican border.  Private Robert Miller was discharged on September 8, 1865, and returned to Berks County, where he passed away in 1901.


Berks County African Americans did not limit themselves to serving in the Army.  During the war, approximately 18,000 African Americans served in the U.S. Navy, including at least twelve women.  African Americans comprised 15% of the Navy, and 1% of all African American naval soldiers hailed from Pennsylvania.  According to records, 1,175 Pennsylvanians served in the navy during the war years, at least four of whom were definitely from Berks County (“Introduction”).


Henry Washington, born in Reading, was twenty-seven when he enlisted in the navy in New York City on December 30, 1863.  Washington’s occupation was listed as boatman/laborer, and he enlisted for one year as a landsman, the new recruit rating.  According to detailed muster records, he served on the Coeur de Lion from March 31, 1864, to June 30, 1864, when he began aboard the Matthew Vassar (“Henry Washington”). From October 1861 on, the Coeur de Lion operated on Chesapeake Bay tributaries.  She captured or destroyed schooners attempting to run the Union blockade and fought against Confederate forces from 1862 to 1864 (“USS Coeur de Lion”).  The Matthew Vassar had a much more storied experience log, and during Washington’s stint aboard her, she was assigned to the East Gulf Blockading Squadron.  On February 3, 1865, the Matthew Vassar captured her final war prize, the schooner John Hate, off the coast of St. Marks, Florida (“Matthew Vassar”).


John Cornish, another Berks County sailor, enlisted on January 28, 1859, for a term of three years.  Like Washington, Cornish was born in Reading.  He was a twenty-one-year-old barber when he enlisted as a landsman in New York City (“John Cornish”).  It is interesting to note that Cornish enlisted as a “Negro” in 1859, two years before the war began and four years before African Americans were officially recognized in the regular army.


John W. Johnson, also born in Reading, was twenty-nine when he enlisted in Philadelphia on December 19, 1861.  He was a steward before the war, and he enlisted for three years.  Unlike most African American sailors, Johnson had enough prior experience to enter the ranks as an ordinary seaman (“John W. Johnson”).


Yet another Berks Countian, Wellington Hawkins, went from being a barber to a soldier when he enlisted on July 21, 1864, at the age of twenty-one.  He enlisted in Philadelphia as a landsman for three years (“Wellington Hawkins”).


When African American sailors and soldiers enlisted, they offered their lives to their cause, determined to give their service to a country that had denied them rights in the past.  By war’s end in April 1865, over 180,000 African Americans had fought for the Union army in 163 different units, comprising about 10% of the full Union forces.  Of the 180,000 African American soldiers, approximately 60,000, or one-third, died from disease or combat wounds (“History of African Americans”).


African American soldiers proved themselves on the battlefield again and again.  “Whatever doubts may have existed in reference to their ability as soldiers,” wrote Reverend John Brock, “were quickly dispelled after the names of Port Hudson, Fort Wagner, Olustee, Honey Hill, Fort Pillow and Petersburg were emblazoned on the banners of this class of the nation’s defenders.”  But perhaps no more eloquent testament to the power of African American soldiers to change not only their own destinies, but the destiny of the nation, was written by Major General Godfrey Weitzel in February of 1865.  “Let history,” wrote Weitzel from his headquarters, “record that on the banks of the James [River] 30,000 freemen not only gained their own liberty, but shattered the prejudice of the world and gave to the land of their birth peace, union, and glory” (“Orders” 1897).  Berks County African Americans soldiers contributed in their own ways to the war that ultimately freed the nation.


Back to Main

bottom of page