“Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”
– Frederick Douglass
As a woman of color, while doing research on the Invalid Corps one of the things that I wondered about was what happened to African-American injured soldiers? In fact, while doing research on the Invalid Corps it occurred to me that I had not seen one image of an injured black soldier. So, I started where everyone does: Google. I put in “Black Civil War Soldier” and found several images. I added the term “Injured” and I found a Thomas Nast illustration from Harpers Weekly came up a lot.
Considering that more than 180,000 African Americans served, making up about 10% of the Union Army, and more than half survived the war, I would think there would be some evidence of their presence and their survival post injury. I changed to the word “amputee.” Granted, it’s very specific but so far I had not been able to find ANY images of injured black soldiers.
With that change, one image came up. Only one. It’s a photo of Private Lewis (sometimes spelled Louis) Martin, of Company E, 29th United States Colored Troops. His photo was found glued to his certificate of disability for discharge by Civil War Conservation Corps volunteers while compiling records at the National Archives. His wounds were described in his discharge form: “Loss of right-arm and left-leg by amputation for shell and gunshot wounds received in battle at Petersburg on July 30, 1864 in charging the enemies works. In consequence of which is totally disabled for military service and civil occupation wholly.” He was a forgotten Civil War veteran for more than 120 years, buried in the paupers section of Oak Ridge Cemetery in an unmarked grave until a community effort was made to mark his grave with a tombstone.
From what is known, Private Lewis Martin was born in Arkansas, a slave, but somehow became free, enlisted in Illinois in February of 1864. A muster roll record lists his place of birth as Arkansas, his age as 24 years, his height as 6 feet, 2 inches, and his occupation as a farmer. A few months later he took part in the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia and was wounded, resulting in the amputations. He was sent to the General Hospital at Alexandria, Virginia, then later transferred to Harewood Hospital in Washington, DC before finally being discharged. He returned to Illinois.
After that, his story is hard to follow, but from what I can find, it is a sad tale. He obviously was unable to work, and was the victim of discrimination and public humiliation. He became an alcoholic. It would seem his obituary and articles in several papers made mention of it:
Died from Exposure & Drink
Louis Martin, a Colored Man, Dies Alone
At FindaGrave the IL State Register’s obituary reads:
A negro named Lewis Martin, who is well known in this city as the one-legged and one-armed old soldier, was found dead yesterday morning in his bed. He resided in a house, corner of Lincoln avenue and Jefferson street, and up to a short time ago he had been having a white woman at his home as a housekeeper, but she left him recently and he had since lived alone. About 7 o’clock yesterday morning, Mrs. Carrie Boone, colored, who came to the house frequently to look after him, found him dead. Mrs. Boone immediately notified some of the neighbors.
He was a private in the Twenty-ninth Illinois volunteers during the war, and received a pension of $72 per month for the loss of his limbs and one eye in the army. He received some time ago back pension money amounting to $6,500, a portion of which he invested in property on West Jefferson street, including the place where he lived. He also had some money saved up. He was about 45 years of age, and has two brothers residing in Alton, who have been notified of his death. IL State Register, Springfield, IL 1-27-1892
On November 2, 2013, citizens from the Springfield community held a ceremony honoring Private Martin. A marker for his grave was erected and Civil War re-enactors presented the colors; a 21-gun salute and the playing of “Taps,” all the things Lewis did not get when he died. Considering, the dedication was exactly 2 years ago today, it seemed pertinent to write and reflect on Private Lewis Martin, his service and his sacrifice.
Some great resources, articles, and posts of Private Martin’s story
Dave Bakke: Black Civil War veteran’s grave identified at Oak Ridge – http://www.sj-r.com/article/20120516/NEWS/305169913/?Start=1
They were Men who Suffered and Died – http://usctchronicle.blogspot.com/2011/01/they-were-men-who-suffered-and-died.html
Public Comes Through for Civil War Icon – http://www.sj-r.com/x452551251/Public-comes-through-for-Civil-War-icon#ixzz2ieFsiaGJ
Teaching With Documents: Preserving the Legacy of the United States Colored Troops – http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/blacks-civil-war/article.html
Please don’t forget we are in the middle of our Kickstarter to raise funds to tell the story of the Invalid Corps; of soldiers with disabilities who continued to serve: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/dayalmohamed/the-civil-war-invalid-corps-and-the-battle-of-fort
For William Durgin of Maine, April 20, 1865 was a typical day. He was garrisoned at the Camp Frye Barracks in Washington, D.C., assigned with the 10th Veterans Reserve Corps. His typical duties with the regiment consisted of nothing more than garrison duty after suffering from rheumatism in his arms and being struck in the ankle with a cannonball during the amphibious landing at Fernadina, Florida in 1862. Yet, when he received his orders for that day, they looked far different from his daily duties. The order read as follows:
Special Order No. 88
Pursuant to orders from Headquarters, 1st Brigade Veteran Reserve Corps requiring four First Sergeants should be selected with reference to their age, length of service and good soldierly conduct for escort duty to the remains of President Lincoln to Springfield, Illinois.
1st Sergeant William W. Durgin of Company F 10th Regiment V.R.C. is hereby detailed for that duty and will report to Capt. McCamly 9th Regiment Vet. Res. Corps at Camp Frye at 9:00 o’clock A.M. this day.
By command of
Major George Bowers Commanding Regiment
From his clerical duties at Camp Frye Barracks, Durgin’s place in history rose greatly as he became one of Lincoln’s pallbearers, traveling across the nation with the casket. His war-record carries on his roll call for April 1865 “Absent – on escort duty with remains of President Lincoln.”
While Durgin seems to be a typical soldier offered the honor as a token of great luck, in many ways the assignment was and did boost the prestige of one of the most neglected regiments in the U.S. Army: the Veterans Reserve Corps (VRC).
Created in 1863, the VRC started as the Invalids Corps, and began as a project to give disabled veterans like Durgin a second chance at active service. Yet their corps did not go unscathed. Other soldiers derided the corps as a group of cowards and rejects; the initials of the Invalids Corps matched a stamp of the Quartermaster’s Department that stood for “Inspected – Condemned.” Soon after, to boost the morale of recruits and entice more volunteers, it was renamed “Veterans Reserve Corps.” The disabled veterans that re-enlisted were assigned various rear-echelon duties, ranging from guard duty to censoring mail.
To honor one of the corps members as a pallbearer presented in a greater sense a place for disabled soldiers in American military history alongside regular soldiers in memorializing the Civil War, and recognizes the potential of disabled veterans, or civilians, as capable individuals that can still contribute despite their sacrifice.
Enlistment in the corps did not always entail monotonous, clerical duties. For Sergeant William Wray, fate would lead to a reprisal of his combat duties. After losing his right eye and parts of his nose at Fredericksburg, Wray joined the 1st Veterans Reserve Corps. While stationed at Fort Stevens, he miraculously found himself at the center of a surprise attack by a corps of 10,000 men led by Jubal Early. In the midst of battle, while a number of his VRC comrades were confused and scattered, Wray rallied his men to the defenses during a critical attack, and helped prevent the fort from falling. Although his actions did not go recognized until much later, with some speculation regarding the fact that he was a member of the undesirable VRC, Wray was eventually awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions.
After the Civil War, programs for injured soldiers and disabled veterans returned around World War I, when the massive amounts of casualties and disabling injuries permitted for the resurrection of the Veterans Reserve Corps. In the age of modern warfare, disabled veterans have been able to carve a niche for themselves with the Continuation on Active Duty program, allowing wounded soldiers to serve their country within the limits of their abilities. Thus, heroes like Sergeants Durgin and Wray show what makes a soldier a great leader and a hero is not how well or straight a soldier stands, but what a soldier stands for in fighting for their country.
Jonathan van Harmelen is currently studying American History at Pomona College, and has conducted research with Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. He also works at Pomona College as manager for the Orchestra and as assistant to the History Department. He enjoys collecting military antiques, playing drums, and attempting to learn French, German, and Dutch all at once.