RAISING THE REGIMENT
In 1861, President Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to fight in the Civil War; this proved to be only a fraction of the number needed for the war effort. In the ensuing years, Lincoln issued repeated calls for more soldiers. In response to these calls, a special session of the Connecticut General Assembly was held on November 13, 1863. There, Colonel Dexter Wright and Colonel Benjamin Pardee proposed a bill to organize regiments of “colored infantry.” Despite opposition from Democrats, who feared that such action would unleash a “horde of African barbarians” and that African American troops would bring disgrace on the army, the bill was approved. The result was the formation of the 29th Connecticut, one of two regiments of African American troops planned by the state. (The other, the 30th Connecticut, was never filled and merged with the 31st United States Colored Troops regiment.) Many historians have discussed the money and steady supply of food and clothing as motivating factors in black enlistments, but in Connecticut, many black laborers earned higher wages than the army promised. In spite of this, African American volunteers flocked to the recruitment sites. By January 1864, over 1,600 men had volunteered, a staggering total considering that the entire African American population of Connecticut in 1860 was 8,726. One study has concluded that nearly 80% of Connecticut’s African American men of military age served in the army. Another study indicates that men from Canada and the Caribbean came to Connecticut to enlist in the 29th.
Colonel William Wooster
In late December 1863, the enlistees of the 29th Connecticut assembled in the Fair Haven section of New Haven, where they met their colonel, William Wooster of Derby. The men received military training and were outfitted with their equipment, except for their rifles. As an African American regiment, the 29th would not be given weapons until they were in the South. On January 29, 1864, the noted abolitionist and one-time slave Frederick Douglass addressed the recruits, saying:
"You are pioneers of the liberty of your race. With the United States cap on your head, the United States eagle on your belt, the United States musket on your shoulder, not all the powers of darkness can prevent you from becoming American citizens. And not for yourselves alone are you marshaled—you are pioneers—on you depends the destiny of four millions of the colored race in this country. If you rise and flourish, we shall rise and flourish. If you win freedom and citizenship, we shall share your freedom and citizenship."
Alexander Newton, who would go on to be the regiment’s chaplain and write a famous memoir of the unit’s exploits, paralleled Douglass’ message: “Although free born, I was born under the curse of slavery, surrounded by the thorns and briars of prejudice, hatred, persecution and the suffering incident to this fearful regime.” In joining the regiment, he was “doing what he could on the battlefield to liberate his race.”
There were many different factors that motivated those who joined the 29th Regiment of Connecticut Volunteers. One reason was to right for the liberty of their people; who better to fight for freedom than somebody who’s lived without it? The African-American soldiers, as Newton remembered, were “fighting for the liberty of [their] people”. One soldier recounted that he was fighting with the burning question of “Slavery or No Slavery” which was “to be forever settled” in this war. He also “had a burning desire to eke out some vengeance.” Fighting in the war also invoked feelings of satisfaction and pride, contrasting their poor lives of discrimination. It made the soldier realize “what it meant to be again in the South, not a cringing black man, but a proud American soldier.” They were fighting for their morals; to end the cruelty of enslavement and to make their long-suffering people proud. Money was also a reason for some to join. With the draft in effect, towns had “quotas of soldiers to fill”, which resulted in payments of up to $300 from the municipalities to recruits. The state offered bounties of up to $310 from the state, and some Connecticut counties offered $75. Bounties from the federal government may have been offered to some men. Though not all made good on this promise, as one soldier says they “did not shrink our duty because we had not received our just dues.”
On March 8th, 1864, the men of the 29th were mustered into the United States Army. Eleven days later, after receiving a United States flag from a group of prominent African American women from New Haven, the regiment marched to the New Haven green. They paraded to the city wharves, with crowds from the state’s African American community throwing flowers to them. They then embarked on the Warrior for Annapolis, Maryland. There they were allowed to set up tents about 3 miles outside of town. They had to dig holes about two feet wide, starting inside the tent and continuing outside. The men used these trenches to start fires and stay warm in the cold damp weather of Maryland. They no longer had the luxuries they started off with “bed always supplied by Mother Earth”. Their meals consisted of “half-done salt pork” and “[hardtack], on which one could hardly make an impression with the teeth.” Once in Virginia, the mental conditions of the soldiers were poor, thanks to the conditions and a constant fear of unpleasant surprises from the enemy. One soldier accounts that he was “almost afraid of [his] own shadow, ready to shoot at anything that made a threatening noise.” On top of this, the horrifying realities of war, such as narrowly escaping death seeing people being “wounded, killed and taken prisoners,” haunted the soldiers .
New Haven during the Civil War
The 29th Regiment was full of brave soldiers who fought for what they thought was right. While money obviously was a motivating factor for some, many soldiers never received the amount they were promised. They wanted to free their people, and did whatever it took to make that happen. They went through sleepless nights, unsanitary conditions, and seeing the shocking and terrifying scenes of death and pain play out around them. On top of this, as the soldiers “faced the prejudice of their white officers, were often killed rather than be taken as prisoners and received lower pay than white soldiers." From different backgrounds, the men who formed the 29th united to liberate their families and friends, and tolerated the horrors of war to walk as free men.