By the end of the Civil War, nearly 200,000 Black men served as US soldiers and sailors. Of that number, more than 17,000 were from the state of Mississippi, with many of them stationed at Fort McPherson in Natchez, Mississippi. The acts of self-emancipation and agency of Natchez US Colored Troops (USCT) and Navy sailors demonstrated in their answer to the call of military service, and their forgotten contributions may not be known by some, but are definitely worthy of attention. The Natchez USCT not only contributed to the war effort but was essential to establishing a post-war monument honoring President Lincoln and emancipation that has stood in Washington, D.C., for almost 150 years.
With the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, the Union gained control of the Mississippi River, which was a major turning point for the Union forces. Nine days later, on July 13, Union forces entered Natchez, establishing Union Headquarters there and further solidifying full control of the entire Mississippi river.
Black men demonstrated agency by leaving plantations and enlisting—their tangible mobilization for freedom—for themselves, their families, and the Union. Their collective actions affirm, as historian Manisha Sinha notes, that enslaved people took agency over their lives in their self-liberation. By the next month, August 1863, the Union Headquarters command center in Natchez was organized, and freedmen began to enlist in the regiment then named the 6th Mississippi Infantry Regiment (African Descent), a designation subsequently changed to the 58th Regiment US Colored Infantry (USCI) in March of 1864.
Shortly thereafter, in the fall of 1863, Wisconsin troops stationed in Natchez, along with the 58th USCI, received orders to tear down the slave pens located at the Forks of the Road, the second-largest domestic slave market in the Deep South. In a letter published in the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel on February 17, 1864, a white Wisconsin soldier stationed in Natchez provided a detailed and moving account of the order and the ensuing destruction of the slave pens to obtain lumber to build barracks within the fortifications. Providing great insights regarding those Black soldiers, many of whom had previously been sold in them, the white soldier wrote, “During this work many a thrilling remimbrence[sic] was recalled of the cruelty of traders, of sad partings of husband and wife, of inhuman fathers selling their own children, and a thousand other incidents illustrating the detestable state of society at the South.” This white soldier’s detailed account of Natchez Black soldiers working through the night to tear down the slave pens with “wildest enthusiasm” and “terrible earnestness” attests to their vehement commitment to abolishing those enslaving structures forever!
After the Civil War officially ended on April 9, 1865, Black people—civilians and service members—continued fighting for equality, expressing their individual agency in words and deeds. Some Black veterans and their various dependents, as historian Brandi C. Brimmer examines, demonstrated agency while navigating the Civil War pension system. Meanwhile, another act of Black agency began with the actions of one Black woman on April 15, 1865. On this date, Charlotte Scott, a freedwoman living in Marietta, Ohio, employed by Dr. William P. Rucker, upon hearing of President Lincoln’s death, was inspired by her great admiration of him. In that very moment, Charlotte conceived the idea that a monument should be erected in honor of Lincoln, to which she gave the first five dollars, the founding donation, toward that noble cause.
Her proposal was deeply heartfelt, very generous in nature, and with the immediacy of intent and purpose. Within a couple of weeks, James E. Yeatman, President of the Western Sanitary Commission, received a letter from Brigadier General T.C.H. Smith regarding Charlotte’s proposal and published it the following day in the Missouri Democrat. Subsequently, Rev. C. D. Battelle and Dr. William P. Rucker (Charlotte’s employer) also sent letters detailing the account of Charlotte’s proposal and her interactions and conversations with them from the inception point.
The Western Sanitary Commission, a relief agency that served the Union Army and provided aid to wounded Union soldiers and freedmen, was entrusted with the responsibility of receiving funds for Charlotte’s proposal. Before the end of May, 1865, the Western Sanitary Commission report recorded the donations received from the Natchez USCT and accompanying letters of the regimental officers. “The publication of the note of Mr. Yeatman, and the first communication received concerning the colored woman’s proposed offering, brought the following letters and contributions, showing how generously the proposition of Charlotte Scott was responded to by the colored troops stationed at Natchez, Miss.” The Natchez Black soldiers had responded swiftly in support of Charlotte’s proposal with their own extraordinary acts of financial agency.
Letters received in May and June 1865, shed light on the expedient agency and wishes of the soldiers at Natchez. Brevet Major General J.W. Davidson, Commander of the District of Natchez, Mississippi, was among those who wrote to Mr. Yeatman. The general had assisted instrumentally with the fundraising movement by writing to the colonels of Black troops under his command immediately after seeing the Missouri Democrat article about Charlotte’s idea. General Davidson reported to Yeatman that the Black troops were “responding most nobly to the call,” with the 6th US Heavy Artillery having turned over “some $4,700” to the USA Paymaster, Major W.C. Lupton. Impressed by the Natchez soldiers’ generous contributions, Davidson requested an acknowledgment receipt in the Missouri Democrat.
In his letter, Colonel W. C. Earles, who commanded the 70th USCI, pointed out that the men under his command had contributed notably large amounts to the monument cause, averaging between one-third to one-half of their monthly salaries. That the generosity of 70th USCI soldiers to the movement was quite remarkable is evidenced by Colonel Earles’ revelation that “Much more might have been raised, but I cautioned the officers to check the noble generosity of my men, rather than stimulate it.” It would be challenging, then and now, to find many people who would so eagerly donate such a large portion of their earnings for a cause. The Natchez USCT were and are worthy of acknowledgment for their service and contributions.
By the time these Natchez USCT regiments mustered out in the spring of 1866, the Western Sanitary Commission had received a total $16,242 in the treasury. A $50,000 fundraising goal was set, but progress slowed during the Reconstruction era. The final tally of the funds collected totaled $18,000. Though a significant portion of the funds collected for the monument had been donated by the Natchez USCT soldiers, sadly, they had no input regarding the design of the monument.
Over a decade passed and the Emancipation Monument (Freedmen’s Memorial) was finally erected and dedicated on April 14, 1876, which marked the eleventh anniversary of President Lincoln’s assassination. Congress declared the day a holiday in the District of Columbia, allowing all federal and local government offices, as well as many businesses, to close so workers could attend the celebration.
The monument stands today at our nation’s capital because of Charlotte Scott’s proposal and generous “seed fund” and because of the generosity of those Natchez USCT soldiers. Without the donations of the Natchez USCT, it is likely the monument idea would not have come to fruition. The inscription on the monument itself published articles, and even public discourse continues to acknowledge Charlotte Scott —quite rightfully so—but the Natchez USCT troops are not mentioned. It is important to recognize that the story behind the Emancipation Monument provides a counternarrative to the erection of numerous Confederate monuments in the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras that stood as visible markers of white supremacy for decades.
More than a century and a half have passed, and it is high time the honoring, acknowledgment, and inclusion of the Black servicemembers’ full story of self-emancipation and acts of agency. Doing so affirms historian Hilary N. Green’s points about erecting monuments that highlight Black agency and various forms of activism. The City of Natchez has established a committee to create and erect a monument to honor the six regiments (6th USCHA and 58th, 63rd, 64th, 70th, and 71st USCI) of Natchez, Mississippi USCT soldiers and Naval servicemembers who served during the Civil War. Once erected, the monument will honor their service for the cause of freedom in the United States of America. Visitors will be able to see faces cast in bronze, touch the statues, make rubbings of nameplates, see and hear their true stories utilizing digital technologies and say their names in honor and in peace, ending the silence.permission.