Military | Wars

Joseph Hayne Rainey

First Black CongressmanJoseph Hayne Rainey fled to Bermuda so he would not have to work for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. When he returned to the United States, he became active in politics and was the first Black man to serve in the United States House of Representatives.

Joseph was born enslaved in Georgetown, South Carolina on July 21, 1832. His father, who was a barber was permitted to work off the plantation and earn money, but had to share his earning with his enslaver. Even with that he was able to save enough money to buy his family’s freedom.

When the Civil War broke out the Rainey family was living free in South Carolina. Although a free man, Joseph was forced to work as a laborer for the Confederate Army. When the opportunity arose, he and his wife escaped to Bermuda where they remained until the end of the war.

Joseph, like his father, was a barber. He established a successful barber business in Bermuda and his wife became a successful dressmaker. When the couple returned to the United States, after the war, they were very wealthy.

During Reconstruction, Joseph became active in politics. In 1870 Congressman Benjamin Whittemore was accused of wrongdoing while serving in office. He resigned as a result leaving his congressional seat vacant. The South Carolina Republican party selected Joseph to serve in his place.

Joseph served in the United States House of Representatives for almost ten years. While in office he fought for civil rights legislation, funding for public schools and equal rights under the law for all Americans.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman was a conductor on the Underground Railroad for eight years and she helped many enslaved Black Americans escape to freedom. As she went back and forth, leading people from the South to the North she learned a lot about plantations in the South.

That is why, in 1862, Massachusetts Governor, John Andrew asked her to go South again, to South Carolina, to work as a spy and scout for the Union Army. He knew the knowledge she gained while working as a conductor on the Underground Railroad would be valuable to the Union Army.

Harriet worked with 2nd South Carolina Volunteers as a nurse, cook, scout and spy. In June 1863, under the command of Colonel James Montgomery, she led 150 black soldiers on a raid of plantations along the Combahee River in Beaufort. During the operation 700 enslaved people were freed.

Harriet was the first woman in the United States to lead a military operation.

Women supported the Union Army throughout the war but were not paid, and Harriet Tubman was no exception. After the war she did receive a pension as the widow of her second husband, Nelson Davis. With the support of others, she fought for a pension in her own right. In 1899 she was granted a pension for her services to the federal government.

Harriet Tubman spent the latter part of her life working on behalf of women’s suffrage.

Charlotte Forten

Charlotte Forten, teacher, abolitionist, and suffragist grew up surrounded by activism. It’s no wonder she got involved in work for civil rights and equal rights for Black Americans.

In 1861, soon after the Civil War began, Union forces took over the coastal areas of Georgia and South Carolina. Confederate plantation owners fled the area leaving behind people they had enslaved, plus hundreds of acres of land and crops that need to be harvested.

The federal government issued an order that those freed by the Union Army would be resettled on those abandoned farms and would, for the first time, be paid to harvest the crops.

Enslaved Americans were not able to go to school so many of the emancipated men in women were not able to read and write. They needed assistance making the transition from slavery to citizenship.

Charlotte Forten, who was involved in the anti-slavery movement in Massachusetts, was recruited to go south and teach emancipated Black Americans on the Sea Islands of South Carolina.

Charlotte was the child of well respected abolitionists in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area. She was born on August 17, 1837 and spent her early years in Philadelphia. Her parents were well-off and were able to hire a private tutor for her education. When she was seventeen they sent her to Salem, Massachusetts to live with friends who were also well-known abolitionists, and to attend an integrated school.

In 1856 Charlotte graduated from Salem Normal School, now Salem State University. She was the school’s first Black student. After graduation she worked as a teacher in Salem and taught Black and white students. She also joined the Female-Anti Slavery Society, before moving to South Carolina in 1862 to teach on St. Helena Island.

Charlotte taught on St. Helena Island for two years. She returned to Philadelphia in 1864 where she continued her activism. She also published “Life on Sea Islands” in 1864, which was about her experience teaching in the south.

Charlotte remained an activist for the rest of her life. She became active in the suffrage movement and in 1896 helped found the National Association of Colored Women.

Charlotte died in 1914 at the age of 76.

Thomas Morris Chester

Civil War ReporterWhen Black Union soldiers captured the city of Richmond, and took over the Confederate capital, Thomas Morris Chester was there with them reporting on their brave actions for the Philadelphia Press newspaper.

Thomas was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on May 11, 1834. His mother had been enslaved. She escaped slavery, on her own, in 1825. Little is known about his father’s early life.

Both of Thomas’ parents were abolitionists and active in the anti-slavery movement. They owned an oyster restaurant which also served as a meeting place for Black activists. Thomas grew up with a desire to fight for a better life for Black Americans and became active in the anti-slavery movement with his parents.

When Thomas was a young man, there a movement to get Black Americans to emigrate to Liberia, a country in Africa, for a better life. Thomas who was, tired of the indignities Black Americans faced became part of the movement.

In April 1853 he left the United States and went to Liberia where he planned to attend school. He was not pleased with the school and before long returned to America.

Thomas continued his activism and when the Civil War started, recruited Black soldiers for the Union Army. He later became a Civil War correspondent for the Philadelphia Press newspaper and reported on the activities of Black soldiers on the front lines in Virginia. Thomas was the only Black reporter for a major daily newspaper during the war. He traveled with the 25th Army Corp, which was part of the 7th United States Colored Troops and reported on their actions during the final year of the war, including their role in taking Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy.

Thomas’ reporting was the only first-hand account of what Black soldiers experienced fighting on the front lines during the Civil War.

William Carney

Sergeant William H. Carney was the first Black soldier to earn the Medal of Honor for bravery during war.

He was born into slavery on February 29, 1840 in Norfolk, Virginia. His father escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad. He then worked to save enough money to buy his family’s freedom. Once all were free the family moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts.

William had plans to become a minister, but put those plans aside to answer the call for Blacks men to join the military during the Civil War. William enlisted and became a member of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.

On July 18, 1863, the 54th Regiment went into battle against Confederate troops at Fort Wagner on Morris Island in South Carolina.  They were met with heavy fighting from the Confederates. During the battle Sergeant Carney carried the US flag. Although wounded, he continued moving forward and never let the flag touch the ground.

The 54th lost the battle. More than 100 men, including their commander Colonel Robert Gould Shaw were killed.

During the war it was very important that the United States flag stayed up so soldiers could see it and be inspired to move forward and keep fighting. William was praised for his actions and for making sure the flag stayed up and visible.

Many white Civil War soldiers and commanders did not recognize or acknowledge the bravery of Black soldiers. The Medal of of Honor was not awarded to William until  May 1900. He died eight years later.