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.
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.
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.
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.
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.