SHARING THE STORIES OF NORTHWEST CONNECTICUT'S AFRICAN AMERICAN CIVIL WAR SOLDIERS
Not all those who fought in the American Civil War were American. Joseph Parks was born in Valparaiso, Chile. Described as being just 5’1” with a “dark complexion, black eyes, black hair,” Parks was a sailor prior to the war. This changed, however, when on August 18, 1864, he found himself in the Union army. Twenty-seven years old at the time, Parks enlisted in Bridgeport, CT, as a private in Company A of the 29th Regiment with more than 1,000 other persons of color.
In March of 1863, prior to Parks’s enlistment, Congress passed the Enrollment Act which made men between the ages of twenty and forty-five eligible to be conscripted into the army. However, this act also allowed for men to opt out of a draft by paying a $300 commutation fee. This fee, however, only exempted men from the current round of the draft; if an additional draft was needed, those men would again be eligible. The Enrollment Act also provided for the hiring of substitutes. If a man hired a substitute, he was permanently exempted from military service. Prices for substitutes soared, with the market topping out at over $1,000, worth about $30,000 today. Thus the Civil War became known as a “rich man’s war” and a “poor man’s fight.”
Thus, when sailor Joseph Parks arrived on his vessel in New York City in 1863, he was met at the docks by Leverett Wessells, a recruiting agent tasked with finding substitutes. Offered a significant amount of money, Parks took the place of 41-year-old Lemuel Deming of North Canaan, Connecticut. Given his African heritage, Parks was assigned to the 29th Connecticut Infantry, an African American regiment, and the town of North Canaan was credited with one soldier toward its recruiting quota. At the time, agents working at docks essentially targeted immigrants in order to yield a significant profit through employing substitutes. While these substitutes were being paid significant amounts of money, sometimes these soldiers would desert or were simply unfit for the military. Estimates of the number of substitutes hired during the Civil War range between 50,000 and 150,000. The widespread use of substitutes allowed for many rich men to evade the draft, and use an immigrant’s poverty as a tool to save themselves. Hiring substitutes could also be an act of patriotism, as even Lincoln hired a substitute. Of course, as the president and a man in his fifties, Lincoln could not be drafted. It is likely, however, that Deming’s hiring of a substitute was real, for while he was older, he was still of military age.
While little is known about Joseph Parks’s experiences in the army, his wounding, medical treatment, and death and burial can be reconstructed. On October 27, 1864, while on the skirmish line in an “engagement near Kell House,” Parks received a severe jaw wound. By analyzing the doctor’s reports - which were, remarkably, included in the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion - one learns that a conoidal bullet entered the left side of his face, causing a serious jaw fracture. As a result, Parks could not articulate well enough to be understood.
Parks did appear to receive sufficient care, and the account of his medical care illustrates that surgery was conducted on his jaw over the course of an hour and a half, with very little blood being lost. The surgery took place at the 10th Corps Hospital, at Bermuda Hundred, VA, where Clara Barton served as superintendent of nurses. After the operation, he was tube fed, and his wound was dressed and cared for. While this information is compelling, perhaps the most remarkable part of this chapter in Parks’ life is the fact that for the entire surgery, Parks was conscious, and is said to have “bore the operation with great fortitude.” Afterward, he was eventually transported to a hospital in Fort Monroe, Virginia. Lemuel
Surgery in the Civil War, however, was incredibly invasive and surviving the operation was just one of many hurdles a patient would have to clear. Joseph Parks passed away on November 6th, 1864, due to exhaustion. He was buried in the Hampton National Cemetery in Virginia. (The full account of his medical care can be read below. Lemuel Deming, whose place in the army Parks took, lived to the age of 76, dying in 1899. He is buried in the Undermountain Cemetery in Falls Village.
Whether they are simple or complex, it is clear that stories such as that of Parks are so much more than meets the eye. They truly emphasize the strength, dedication, and outright perseverance of African-Americans over the course of the Civil War that often go unacknowledged. While there are various reasons why African-Americans might have chosen to fight, it is very meaningful to highlight their significant, powerful contributions. After all, it was Lincoln himself who said, “And then, there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation.”
From The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion:
“Case.– Private Joseph D. Parks, Co. A. 29th Connecticut Colored Volunteers, aged 30 years, was wounded in an engagement before Richmond, Virginia, October 27th, 1834, by a conoidal ball, which entered the left side of the face, midway between the angle and symphysis of the inferior maxillary, passed obliquely inward and outward, abrading the tongue, and emerged at the angle of the inferior maxilla, right side, extensively fracturing the bone to within the capsule of left articulation, besides greatly comminuting the body of the jaw. He was at once taken to the hospital of the Tenth Corps, being unable to articulate sufficiently distinct to be understood. On the same day, he was placed in a partially reclining position, and chloroformed by Surgeon C. M. Clark, 39th Illinois Volunteers. An incision was then made, commencing at the lobe of the left ear, carried along the inferior border of the bone to the chin, and the soft parts dissected, leaving the periosteum. After removing all the loose fragments, the stump of the left ramus was grasped with the bone pliers and disarticulation accomplished with a few strokes of the knife. A similar incision was then made on the right side to connect with the other, severing the geniohyoglossus and geniohyoid muscles, and the tongue retracted so as to fill the pharynx. The tongue was then drawn forward and retained in that position by means of a silk cord passed through it and fastened externally. The bone was then dissected the same as on the opposite side, and removed to within a short distance of the sigmoid notch, where it was found to be sound, and was severed at the upper third of ramus by a chain saw; the wound was brought together with silk sutures. Cold water dressings and compress, with paste-board support, were applied, and nourishing diet administered through a tube The operation occupied one and a half hours time. Very little blood was lost. The only artery ligated was the facial; the others were twisted The patient was at no time unconscious, and bore the operation with great fortitude. Death resulted on November 6th, 1864, from exhaustion. The case is reported by the operator.”