African American Men from Albany in the Civil War; the 54th Massachusetts, NYS “Colored Regiments” and an African American serves in the 77th “Saratoga Regiment”

By the end of the Civil War roughly 175,000 black men (10% of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army, and another 19,000 served in the Navy. About 4,500 men from New York State served in the War. So far we’ve found the names about 90 men with links to Albany.

Black men were not allowed to serve in the Union Army until 1863 when Massachusetts raised the 54th regiment of “colored troops” in spring 1863. These are the men whose gallantry and courage are portrayed in the movie “Glory”. By early 1864 New York State finally raised 3 regiments of colored troops – the 20th, the 26th and the 31st. About 3,000 men from New York and elsewhere enlisted in this regiments, and in similar regiments mustered in the other Union states. Other Black men served in the Navy before 1863, scattered on various Union ship as cooks and stewards.

The 54th Massachusetts

We’ve identified 10 men from Albany County (mostly from Albany city) who served in the 54th Massachusetts.

  • Charles Bell – age 20, waiter, private
  • William Briggs – age 21, waiter, private
  • William Everson – age 19, laborer, private
  • William Francis – age 30, waiter, private
  • Benjamin Helmus – age 21, waiter, private
  • James Jones – age 33, waiter, mustered out as Sargent
  • Edgar Morgan – age 20, laborer, private
  • Alexander Thompson – age 25 laborer, private
  • John Titus age 21, laborer, private
  • George Alfred Wilson – 23, laborer, private

Bell, Briggs, Everson, Francis, Helmus, Jones, Morgan, Thompson, and Titus went to Massachusetts, and enlisted as a group on March 29, 1863, and became part of Company E. All but two of the of the men, Bell and Wilson, are identified as being present at the attack of the 54th on Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina. Although the attack was unsuccessful it proved to the nation that Black men could fight with courage, bravery and skill. The Confederate soldiers buried the dead Union soldiers in a mass grave, and in a gesture of utter contempt, threw the body of their white commander Col. Robert Gould Shaw in the same pit. Later Shaw’s father wrote, “We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers. … We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company. – what a body-guard he has.”

While some of the men from Albany were wounded, all but one survived – William Briggs died from his wounds a number of days after the battle. Some of the wounds were horrendous, and left many of the men serious disabilities from gunshot and bayonet wounds.

Alexander Hill from Hudson died in Albany in 1876; his death was attributed to the wounds received at Fort Wagner.

NYS Colored Regiments

The 20th, the 26th and the 31st regiments were raised in in New York City in Spring 1864. While many people were not totally on board with NY establishing African American regiments the State was having difficulty meeting its enrollment quotas, and the draft was despised. We’ve identified about 50 men who were born or lived in Albany County who served in these regiments.

Most of the Albany men were members of the 20th and 26th regiments, the first two established. Many of the volunteers were from outside of the city; farmers and laborers from Bethlehem, Coxsackie, Rennselaerville, etc. Most were in their late teens or early 20s. We need to do more research to find out more, but we can tell you some about two of the men.

William Latour was an older man, age 38, and a barber when he enlisted in the 26th NY (CT). His father Henry was born enslaved on the farm owned by the French aristocrat émigré the Marquis de La tour du Pin who fled to this area in the 1790s after escaping the guillotine in the French Revolution. When they purchased their farm in Watervliet Madame La Tour was shocked that General Schuyler and others advised that they would be unable to sustain the farm without slaves. It appears that when the family sold the farm before their return to France in 1798 they freed those they had enslaved. (There is no mention of slaves in the description of the farm used for the sale.) Most of the those previously enslaved made their way to Albany city, and appear as free people in the very early city directories. Henry was one of the Black men who attended the first New York State Colored Convention held in Albany in 1840, and played a pivotal role in aiding the escape of the fugitive Charles Nalle in Troy NY in 1859. (In the nick of time Henry arrived with a wagon and whisked him away, with the help of Harriet Tubman.)

Sylvester Dorsey was born in Ithaca and enlisted in the 26th in 1864. He was also 38. After the War he settled in Albany (we think that there was a family relationship with the family of John Titus who served with the 54th Massachusetts). In Albany he married Frances Johnson, a member of a leading Black Albany family. He was a blacksmith by trade, and in 1879 he was the armorer for the Albany Zouave Cadet Company (which would become part of the 10th NYS National Guard). In 1910 the history of the Company was published and this description of Sylvester Dorsey in 1879 appears:

“Many of the exempts (note: this means members of the Company) will remember the faithful old servitor, and will the dispute the truth of the present day saying about all “coons” looking alike. Dorsey has an individuality all his own, and as the members of the old Guard conjure up his shining ebony face there will come trooping many recollections of happy days gone…”

(By 1879 many members of the Company were young and merely “playing” at being a soldier, yet Sylvester Dorsey had actually served in the War.)

Other Colored Troop Regiments

Based on information from various data bases we found another 40 or so additional African American men born in Albany who served in the other “colored” regiments across the North and in the Union navy who enlisted in places as diverse as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Maine.

Black Men Who Served in White Units

No one really knows how many African American soldiers served with white regiments in the Civil War. A low estimate is about a 1,000, and they are thought to have been mostly “contrabands”, enslaved men who made it to Union positions, and served as cooks and officer valets and stewards in white regiments.

But what we found turns that theory on its head. In late summer 1861, at the very start of the War, William Topp Lattimore , an African American born in Albany enlisted in the 77th NY (the “Saratoga Regiment”). Their grandfather, Benjamin Lattimore, who had been one of the few Black Revolutionary War soldiers, settled in Albany in the late 1790s. He had been instrumental in creating the first African school in the city and had been a major mover and shaker in the Black community. His son, Benjamin Lattimore, Jr., followed in his father’s footsteps. He was an active member of Albany’s African American political and social community, an ardent abolitionist and a member of Albany’s Underground Railroad (UGRR). In 1847 he pulled up stakes and moved his large family to a farm he purchased in Moreau N.Y. in Saratoga County just south of Glens Falls. There he continued his UGRR activities.

he time the War started both William (Billy as he was called) had lived in Moreau for 14 years. He enlisted and fought side by side with the white men with whom he had attended school and church.

Billy re-enlisted (he may have been the only African American soldier, or one of a few who served at Gettysburg), and was seriously wounded at Fort Stevens in 1864. After the War Ben became a rolling stone, traveling across the country, finally ending up as a porter at a San Francisco Hotel for several decades. Billy first went to New York City and then came back to the farm after his father died in 1873. For the rest of his life he would remain proud of his military service and was an active member of the 77th NY GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) Association for Union Army veterans. He attended every encampment and reunion, and often served as an officer of the Association.

We aren’t sure if the enlistment of the William Lattimore is a complete anomaly or similar enlistments happened across the North. We do know, based on picture of Billy in a large GAR re-union he was very light skinned (the family is listed variously as Black or Mulatto in different census data.) There is no indication in any military active service or pension records that either brother was not white. It’s a mystery that’s worth pursuing.

Here is the list we have so far of Albany men who served in colored regiments or the U.S. Navy,

  • Alexander, John – U.S. Navy
  • Anthony, Andrew 8th US CT
  • Anthony, Fleetwood – 29th NY CT
  • Baker, Charles – 26th NY CT
  • Becker, John Henry – 20th NY CT
  • Brent, William – 2nd Cav CT
  • Brown, Jackson – 20th NY CT
  • Bulah, Joseph – 11th Heavy Artillery CT
  • Burns, William – 26th NY CT
  • Cain, Andrew – 26th NY CT
  • Cambridge, Samuel – U.S. Navy – “Grand Gulf”
  • Cane, David – 26th NY CT
  • Ceasar, John – 31st CT – KIA in Petersburg
  • Champion, Theodore – 26th NY CT
  • Cisco, John 20th – NY CT (also listed as 31st CT)
  • Crummel (Cromwell?), James – 5th Heavy Artillery CT
  • Curtis, Milo – 20th NY CT
  • Darby, George = 26th NY CT
  • Dickson, Albert – 26th NY CT
  • Dickson, Peter – 20th NY CT
  • Dickson, Richard – 26th NY CT
  • Dickson, William – 26th NY CT
  • Diffenderf, Henry – regiment unknown
  • Dixon, Robert – 26th NY CT
  • Dorcey, Abraham – 20th NY CT
  • Fletcher, Harvey – 26th NY CT
  • Green, Zebulon – 11th Heavy Artillery CT (also appears to be listed as sailor and 24th CT)
  • Groomer, Solomon – 26th NY CT
  • Habbard, Luther – 26th NY CT
  • Hallenbeck, William – regiment unknown
  • Harden, Steven – U.S. Navy “Mohongo”
  • Harding, George – 8th US CT
  • Holland, George – 20th NY CT
  • Harding, Morris – 26th NY CT
  • Holland, George – 20th NY CT
  • Hollin, Samuel – 26th NY CT
  • Holmes, Poliver – 26th NY CT
  • Houzer, Richard – 3rd CT
  • Ingold, George – 29th NY CT
  • Jackson, Abram – 26th NY CT
  • Jackson, Anthony – 36th NY CT
  • Jackson, Charles – 11th Heavy artillery CT
  • Jackson, Jacob – 26th NY CT
  • Jackson, Jerod – 26th NY CT
  • Jackson, John – 31st CT
  • Jackson, Joseph – 26th NY CT
  • Jackson, Prime – 31st CT
  • Jackson, Robert – 26th NY CT
  • Jackson, Samuel – 26th NY CT
  • Jackson, William – 26th NY CT
  • Jackson, William Henry – 11th heavy artillery CT
  • Jarris, Henry – 26th NY CT
  • Johnson, Daniel – 26th NY CT
  • Johnson, David – 26th NY CT
  • Johnson, Henry – 20th NY CT
  • Johnson, Nicholas – U.S. Navy
  • Johnson, William – 44th NY (may be in accurate)
  • Johnston, Henry – 24th CT
  • Jones, Davis – 20th NY CT
  • Jones, Solomon – 1st CT and 1st CT Cavalry
  • Keyser, Zacariah – 26th NY CT
  • Kniskern, Harrison – 61st NY (may be inaccurate)
  • Lavendar, Benjamin – 11th Heavy Artillery CT
  • Lawyer, George – 20th NY CT
  • Lewis, Peter – 26th NY CT
  • London, George – 26th NY CT
  • London, Michael Thomas – 26th NY CT
  • Manuel, Charles – 26th NY CT
  • Marco – 30th NY – probably inaccurate
  • Moore, John – 41sr CT (New Hampshire)
  • Morgan, George – 14th Rhode Island CT
  • Morgan, Henry – 11th Heavy Artillery CT and 14th Rhode Island CT
  • Morgan, Luther- 20th NY CT
  • Murphy, Charles – 20th NY CT
  • Nash, James -26th NY CT
  • Nash, Samuel – 26th NY CT
  • O’Neil, William – 26th NY (also listed with 31st CT)
  • Panton, Charles – no regiment listed CT
  • Raymond, J.S – 5th CT Cavalry (Mass) CT
  • Richard, Hart – 26th NY CT
  • Richard, Scott – 26th NY CT
  • Rix, Ambrose – 144th NY (probably inaccurate)
  • Rondout, John – no regiment listed
  • Saulter (Salter), Isaac – 26th NY CT
  • Sawyer, George – 30th CT
  • Scott, Richard – 30th CT (also listed as 26th NY CT)
  • Smith, William – 8th CT
  • Smoke, Josiah – 20th NY CT
  • Smoke, William – 31st CT
  • Snyder, Thomas – 18th NY (probably inaccurate)
  • Spanberg (Speanbergh), Henry – 91st NY (probably inaccurate)
  • Sternbergh, Lorenzo – 26th NY CT
  • Sternberg, William – 26th CT
  • Stewart, John – 26th NY CT
  • Stewart, William – 29th NY CT
  • Sutphen, James – 31st CT
  • Swailes, Thomas – U.S. Navy – U.S. Saratoga
  • Swan, Elisha – 26th NY CT
  • Sylix, Andrew – 20th NY CT
  • Teabout, Joseph Henry – 11th heavy artillery CT
  • Ten Eyck, Anthony – 20th NY CT
  • Thompson, John – 20th NY CT
  • Thompson, Prime – 26th NY CT
  • Thompson, Lysander – 26th NY CT
  • Tilson, John – 26th NY CT
  • Titus, George – regiment unknown
  • Van Cruren, Peter – 6th cavalry CT
  • Van Slyke, John – 26th NY CT
  • Van Slyke , Samuel – 20th NY CT
  • Vroman, Daniel – 26th NY CT
  • Ward, Phillip – 31st CT
  • Weddington, George – 20th NY CT
  • White, John – 11th Heavy Artillery CT
  • Wilbur, Noruse – 26th NY CT
  • Williams, Edward – U.S. Navy “Sebago”
  • Williams, Henry – 20th NY CT
  • Williams, James – 20th NY CT
  • Wilson, Frank – 8th CT
  • Wright, Major – 26th NY CT

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

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