3rd US Colored Infantry

Only one man from Williamson County has been identified as serving in the 3rd United States Colored Infantry.: Private Alfred Fields.


Little has been uncovered about Private Fields' early life or his experiences following his service. However, we do know that he served in the 3rd Regiment of the US Colored Infantry at an extraordinarily special and important time in the early history of the enlistment of African American soldiers in the United States Colored Troops. His tale is one of a Black man from Williamson County who wound up at Camp William Penn, the largest and most famous training camp for African American soldiers in America, where he could have heard speeches by people like Frederick Douglass and been supported by the efforts of famous abolitionists like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Harriet Tubman.


The regiment was organized at Camp William Penn in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania beginning on August 3, 1863. The enlisted men of this regiment were principally from the interior of Pennsylvania. It is not clear how Alfred Fields made his way to Philadelphia. However, a small item in the Nashville Daily Union newspaper published on August 7, 1863 - one month after Alfred Fields enlisted - may provide a clue. The piece discusses the use of "colored soldiers" as substitutes for white draftees to fill quotas: "Now our negroes are going off to Philadelphia to enlist, as they get their bounty there." Perhaps that explains Pvt. Fields' journey from Williamson County to Camp William Penn.


Recruitment of Black Men in Philadelphia, July 1863


In the summer of 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee invaded Pennsylvania with his Army of Northern Virginia, rampaging through Lancaster and Gettysburg. The bloody battle of Gettysburg occurred on July 1-3rd; during their retreat, Lee's men reportedly took scores of free Black Pennsylvanians as slaves. In response, the African American community in Philadelphia mobilized to start enlisting Black men into the newly created US Colored Troops. On July 5th, a "Mass Meeting" was held at the National Hall in Philadelphia for the Promotion of Colored Enlistments. The final speaker was Frederick Douglass.


In the speech he gave that day, it may have been the first or one of the first times, he uttered this famous phrase:


"Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U. S.;

let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket,

and there is no power on the earth or under the death which can deny

that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States. ...

Young men of Philadelphia, you are without excuse.

The hour has arrived and your place is in the Union army. ..."


In addition to this personal appeal from Douglass, thousands of copies of a recruitment circular were distributed in the city at that time, reading in part as follows:


"This is our golden moment. The Government of the United States calls for every able-bodied colored man to enter the army for the three years' service, and join in fighting the battles of Liberty and the Union. A new era is open to us. For generations we have suffered under the horrors of slavery, outrage and wrong! Our manhood has been denied, our citizenship blotted out, our souls seared and burned, our spirits cowed and crushed, and the hopes of the future of our race involved in doubt and darkness. But now the whole aspect of our relations with the white race is changed.


If we love our country, if we love our families, our children, our homes, we must strike now while the country calls. More than a million of white men have left comfortable homes and joined the armies of the Union to save their country. Cannot we leave ours and swell the hosts of the Union, save our liberties, vindicate our manhood and deserve well of our country?


Men of color! Brothers and fathers! We appeal to you! By all your concern for yourselves and your liberties, by all your regard for God and humanity, by all your desire for citizenship and equality before the law, by all your love of country, to stop at no subterfuges, listen to nothing that shall deter you from rallying for the army. Strike now and you are henceforth and forever Freemen!"


Enlistment in the 3rd US Colored Infantry.


Perhaps Alfred Fields was one of the young men in the audience in National Hall on July 5th. Or perhaps he read these stirring circulars. In any case, he answered their call. Alfred Fields enlisted in Company E of the 3rd Regiment of the US Colored Troops on July 7, 1863, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On his Company Description card, he was described as a 24-year-old farmer who was born in Williamson County, Tennessee.


After his enlistment, he and the other men of the 3rd Regiment assembled at Camp William Penn, at Chelton Hills, about 7 miles north of Philadelphia - the first and largest Federal training facility for African-American soldiers during the Civil War. Three men who trained at this Camp would ultimately go on to be awarded the Medal of Honor - and Private Fields' 3rd Regiment of the USCT was the first regiment to train there. The Camp first opened on June 26, 1863, and on June 30th, several hundred black men marched on 6th Street in Philadelphia on their way to the newly organized camp in Chelten Hills. By Independence Day, 1863, the camp was fully open for the training of the nearly 11,000 men who would eventually pass through the gates of the camp. Private Fields enlisted just a few days after this - and maybe he was encouraged to enlist by seeing the men marching a few days earlier.


On the afternoon of Saturday, July 18, 1863 - just 11 days after Pvt. Fields enlisted - Frederick Douglass entered Camp William Penn to address the men of the 3rd Regiment. As Douglass prepared to speak, he saw a number of Black troops standing on barrels with rails over their shoulders. They were being punished for breaking military rules. According to reports, Douglass was visibly angry because this meant that some of the men in the 3rd Regiment had been misbehaving in Camp. And he knew that at least one of their white officers already thought the Black recruits would not be able to become good soldiers. He is reported to have said to the troops,


The fortunes of the whole race for generations to come are bound up in the success or failure of the 3rd Regiment of colored troops from the North. You are a spectacle for men and angels. You are in a manner to answer the question, can the black man be a soldier? That we can now make soldiers of these men, there can be no doubt!


The events at Camp William Penn were being closely watched by its champions and critics alike. In order to be sure that all went well with this first real large scale experiment of enlisting black soldiers, Douglass was working with abolitionists in the neighborhood around the Camp - such as Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, and William Lloyd Garrison. This must have been an incredible time to be a member of the 3rd Regiment; Alfred Fields from Williamson County, Tennessee was right in the middle of it all.


Muster and Service.


On July 29, 1863, the 3rd USCI participated in a moving ceremony in which they were presented with a handmade American flag (see more below). A few weeks later, the regiment was mustered in on August 10, 1863, meaning that all enlisted men and officers were organized into the regiment. The regiment was initially ordered to the Dept. of the South and attached to the 4th Brigade at Morris Island, South Carolina, 10th Corps, Department of the South. However, before their departure for the South, the 3rd regiment was not allowed to parade in Philadelphia. The August 8, 1863, edition of the Christian Recorder, a Black newspaper published by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, explained the situation:

“At the latter part of last week several of our daily papers published the gratifying intelligence that the Third Regiment of Philadelphia Colored troops would come into the city from Camp William Penn, to go through the evolutions of a street parade. The day came, but with it also came the postponement of the promised treat indefinitely. This has been a source of grievous disappointment to a great many, both colored and white.”

[Camp William Penn’s Black Soldiers In Blue By Donald Scott – November ’99 America’s Civil War Feature http://www.historynet.com/camp-william-penns-black-soldiers-in-blue-november-99-americas-civil-war-feature.htm]


The Christian Recorder noted the 3rd Regiment’s anger about not being able to parade shortly before it departed.

[N]ot only were the friends of the regiment disappointed, but when the intelligence reached the encampment it caused a great commotion amongst the men, amounting, as we have been told, almost to a state of mutiny, which had been the consequences of so frequently disappointing the men on this account. What right any man has to interfere with colored, more than with white troops, we cannot conceive. Does the government want to get them up in some dark corner, and prepare them to do just what white men are prepared to do in the dark? It should be remembered, that these men are human beings, and have their five senses, and feel just as well as the whites do. They are not ignorant of the manner in which they are treated; and of course they know what they are, and the kind of treatment they deserve. And the men who would interfere with, or molest them in any way, deserve the severest punishment. We, therefore, hope that both the Government and Philadelphia will redeem themselves from last week’s doings.


Unfortunately, the men of the Third never did get their parade, Rather, they left for Charleston on August 17, 1863. Here is how it was described in the Philadelphia Inquirer:


The Philadelphia Colored Regiment.; ITS DEPARTURE FOR CHARLESTON.

The Third colored regiment, . . . took their departure for Charleston yesterday morning. The regiment left camp at half-past seven o'clock, and taking the cars of the North Pennsylvania Railroad, arrived at America and Master streets about nine o'clock. The line of march was then taken up, . . . where they embarked on board the steamers Star of the South, . . . , and Cumbria, . . . . The streets through which they passed were crowded with citizens.

At Poplar-street wharf they were met by an immense crowd of colored friends and relatives, who had waited for over an hour to welcome them. The steamers did not leave the wharf until 11 1/2 o'clock, during which time baggage, &c., was taken aboard. As the steamers moved away from the wharf, the regiment received a perfect ovation; the people gave cheer after cheer, and the troops left amid great enthusiasm. They were also greeted with the heartiest cheers from the wharves and vessels along the river front, as they moved down the river. As the vessels containing the regiment moved down the river, the men crowded the decks, waving caps, handkerchiefs, &c., and singing the anthem of "John Brown's body lies mouldering in the grave."


So, while the 3rd Regiment did not leave in a grand parade, it does sound as though the African American community of Philadelphia and some of the rest of the city's citizens did turn out to send them off to War.


Fighting at Fort Wagner.


The 3rd USCI Regiment arrived in South Carolina in time to participate in the second siege of South Carolina’s Fort Wagner at Morris Island. Weeks earlier, on July 18th, the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry had led the initial bloody assault on the Fort made so famous by the movie "Glory." Following their defeat, US forces continued to press the Confederates at the Fort and the 3rd US Colored Infantry - including presumably Pvt. Alfred Fields - was immediately put into the trenches and shared in the hardships and the triumph when the Confederates abandoned it on the night of September 6–7, 1863. According to one account:


In one of the night attacks which resulted in the capture of a line of rifle-pits, a Corporal was reported missing. Two days after, the advance sappers came upon his dead body. Warned by previous experience, they were careful to examine it thoroughly before attempting to remove it. A small string was discovered attached to its leg, which led away to the trigger of a torpedo buried in the sand. Such was the warfare which this command was called to meet.


The loss during this siege to the 3rd USCI was six killed and twelve wounded - but Pvt. Fields appears to have escaped unharmed.


Service in Florida.

Early in the year 1864, the regiment moved to Florida. See below for a remarkable letter to the editor of the Christian Recorder newspaper in Philadelphia from Sergeant Thomas Rockhold of Company D of the 3rd Regiment, dated May 29, 1864, provides some details about what the men were doing following their arrival in Florida.


While, in Florida, the Third was drilled as a heavy artillery regiment and garrisoned the forts in the area. In September 1864, small parties were frequently sent out into the surrounding country. Sometimes the expeditions extended far into the interior to free people still being held in slavery and to destroy property belonging to the Confederate government. On one occasion, a group of twenty-nine enlisted men of the Third and one private of another regiment, all under command of Sergeant Major Henry James, scouted about sixty miles up the St. John's River in boats, rowing by night, and hiding in the swamps by day. The men marched thirty miles into the interior, gathered together fifty or sixty runaway slaves and several horses and wagons. They burned store-houses and a distillery belonging to the Confederate government and returned bringing their recruits and loot into camp. On their way back to camp, they were stopped by a group of Confederate cavalry, which they beat off after a short fight, and the men of the 3rd managed to cross the St. John's without losing a man, carrying with them their wounded. The courage and good conduct displayed by the men of the 3rd in this incident was deemed to be "highly creditable", and they were commended in an order by the General commanding the Department of the South.


Muster Out.


Following the end of the Civil War and major fighting, the regiment was posted at various sites in Florida, including Tallahassee, and Lake City. On May 22, 1865, Private Fields was placed on police duty but it is not clear in which city. The regiment remained in service in Florida, until October 31, 1865 when they mustere out in Jacksonville.

Presentation of Regimental Flag.

Yesterday afternoon the Third Colored Regiment, now steamped at Camp William Penn on Chelton Hill, about eight miles from the city, and half a mile from the North Pennsylvania Railroad, were the recipients of a large and handsome American flag, presented to them by the Committee who were instrumental in raising the regiment.

The occasion was celebrated by a flag raising, at which speeches were made by GEO. H. EARLE, Esq., and Judge KELLEY.

A special team left the depot of the North Pennsylvania Railroad at 3 1/2 P.M., consisting of fourteen cars well loaded with colored persons, and among tham a sparking of white ladies and gentlemen, all bent on witnessing the ceremony. A band, composed of colored musicians, escorted the excursion party.

Shortly after the arrival of the excursion train at Chelton Hill, the regiment was formed and taken to an adjoining field, where they were put through a series of field maneuvers, which were executed with commendable promptness and witnessed by about fifteen hundred spectators, comprising all colors, ages and sexes.

After an hour spent in drilling the regiment, they were marched to the camp-ground near by, and formed into a hollow square around a lofty flag-pole, at the peak of which the emblem of our nationality was destined to float to the breeze. About 5 1/2 o'clock the raising of the flag took place, the colored band attached to the regiment playing the "Star-Spangled Banner." Immediately afterward Col. LEWIS WAGNER, the commander of the camp, mounted a rough stand, and proposed three cheers for the Star-Spangled Banner, which were given by the regiment with a will.

Mr. GEORGE H. EARLE then mounted the stand, and proceeded to address the regiment and concourse of visitors who were present.

MR EARLE's SPEECH.

Mr. EARLE said he felt very happy to say a few words on this occasion, but was unable to say all he felt. He informed those assembled that they stood on consecrated ground -- that had witnessed a struggle during the Revolutionary war. The inspiration of the present moment is as from Heaven, and like the voice of the Great Creator, for it is the day that tells us that America is calling into the service all her servants for the purpose of protecting her nationality, regardless of color.

Your enemies in the North opposed sending you to the field, but no men are more respected than you when under arms. Your enemies have said you would not fight. Have you not fought already? We knew what you could do, and therefore did not think it necessary to search history to prove any of your deeds. Not a farmer in the neighborhood complains of any improper conduct on the part of any of you. Nothing has been destroyed while you have been encamped here, and you have conducted yourselves with entire propriety. Show me another regiment that can say as much.

At Milliken's Bend your brethren fought well and reflected honor on you; the same can be said of the conduct of the colored troops at Morris Island. Their Colonel said, "Take that battery." and it was taken. A colored man bore the colors in the fight, and faced all dangers presented to him. Baton Rouge was another example of the bravery of colored troops.

Why should you not fight? Are not your hearts in the present struggle? Are you not fighting for the freedom of your own race? You fight for the principles of PATRICK HENRY, "Give me liberty or death."

The speaker felt that the men before him would do all in the line of duty that the Committee who raised the regiment expected of them. Fifteen months ago the creation of a negro regiment would have caused a riot in the city, but public opinion was changed, and officers and men are respected now. The speaker then paid a glowing tribute to the American flag. After some further remarks, in the course of when he urged the members of the regiment to perform all services required of them, Mr. EARLE retired with applause.

A number of cheers were given by the regiment at the conclusion of Mr. EARLE's remarks, after which Judge KELLEY stepped forward for the purpose of saying a few words.

JUDGE KELLY's SPEECH.

He said he had come for the purpose of speaking, but simply to witness the proceedings of the day, and what he had to say should be made very short, as he was anxious to witness the battalion firing of the regiment with blank cartridge. He had, however, a very important secret to impart to the white people present, and that was that JOHN BROWN's soul was matching on, and, with the help of God, it would continue to do so, and that with the aid of soldiers of African descent, the flag that now floated proudly above their heads would soon wave over a country in which there were nothing but free men. He told the regiment that they had redeemed their race in Philadelphia from a prejudice that had long existed against them, and that prejudice was that the colored race were a race of cowards. You must show the world that the free men of African descent in the North can fight as well as their slave brethren in the South have done. You are to proceed to Florida, and the Colored race are to make that State a Free State of our Union.

As soon as you leave for the seat of war, another regiment will be formed on the ground you now occupy, and they will soon follow you to fight for your race. The black man is to make Florida free, and if France attempts to create an empire on this continent, the tropical regions of the country was swarm with legions of black men, who will frustrate any attempt on the part of European potentates to carry out any of their schemes on this continent.

Letter to the Editor of the Christian Recorder newspaper


Sergeant Thomas Rockhold of Company D of the 3rd USCI, wrote a letter to the editor of the Philadelphia Christian Recorder, dated May 29, 1864, which provides some details about what the men of the regiment were doing following their arrival in Florida in early 1864. It is important to know that at the same time the 3rd USCI was in Florida the 8th USCI - which had arrived at Camp William Penn after them - had been sent to Florida. That Regiment was new and entirely untested in battle. They wound up being slaughtered in the disastrous Battle of Olustee which is referenced in the letter below.


Head Quarters 3d U.S.C.T.

Jacksonville, Florida,

May 29th, 1864.


MR. EDITOR: - I, now, this beautiful Sunday afternoon, sit myself down, according to promise, to write a few lines to you, hoping they may find you and all your friends enjoying good health.


I will commence my correspondence with you by giving you my Florida Expeditions. Our regiment left Hilton Head on the 6th of February, for Jacksonville, Fla., and we arrived there on the 8th. Just as soon as we landed we were ordered to camp. Here we remained until the 8th of February, when we received orders, in the night, to surprise the rebel camp, called "Camp Finagan," about ten miles from Jacksonville. We got to the rebel camp about 1 o'clock at night, but were too late to do any good; but we had the pleasure of liberating some of our flesh and blood. There were about two hundred slaves at that place that had the pleasure of saying: "We are free from the chains and fetters of slavery." On the morning of the 9th we were ordered to fall in and march to the next station, called by the natives of the State, "Ten Mile Station." . . .


On the morning of the 10th of February, we started to the next station, called Baldwin, the junction of all the railroads that lead to Georgia, Mobile, and Charleston. We arrived there about noon of the same day, and went into camp; some of us to do picket duty, and some to do provost guard duty; . . .


There we staid one week, while that awful slaughter came off at Olustee; but as God knew best, we did not have to go up there to be murdered like dogs.


On the 15th of Feb., the fight took place; and on the 16th, early in the morning, the wounded came in by the wagon load, and ambulances loaded down. But the worse of all, was to see the poor soldiers come in with no hats on, and some with arm and hands off. Our regiment stayed at Baldwin till all of the wounded were off the field; and about 10 o'clock at night, we took up a line of march for Jacksonville, down the railroad, to keep the rebels from flanking us, and cutting off our communications with the army. We got as far as Camp Finagan that night, where we bivouacked. We rolled logs together and made up camp-fires; though tired and worn out, we made some coffee in our tin cups, and it tasted as good as if our mothers had made it. The next morning, at half-past eight o'clock, we started for, we didn't know where, but we went in camp on Stocklain's Road, and stayed two days; and on the third day, we were ordered on the railroad, about three miles from the main road. . . .


Since I have been staying at Jacksonville, I have attended four cotillion parties, given by the colored ladies of this place.


I will bring my letter to a close, by bidding you good-bye. May God bless you, and may you be prosperous in all your undertakings.


I hope to hear from you soon; and I hope the next letter I write may be better.


Yours until death,

THOMAS R. ROCKHOLD,

Orderly Serg't of Co. D, U.S.C.T.