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Lemuel Freeman, Black man joined white Civil War units

Enlisted in all-white 45th Mass. Volunteer Infantry Militia

Wayne Tucker
Lemuel Freeman, Black man joined white Civil War units
Dutch Gap, Virginia. Picket station of Colored troops near Dutch Gap Canal. PHOTO: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

August 11

West Scituate Mass 1862

Gov Sprague sir I am a colored man and would like to enlist in the colored regiment of your state will you please write to me if I can join and what bounty your state pays recruits and what aid the familys receive and if should be entitled to it yours Respectfully,

Lemuel Freeman

West Scituate Mass

Thirty-two-year-old Lemuel Freeman wanted in.

His ancestors were the enslaved Scituate residents Phillis and Jack and their son, Revolutionary War veteran Asher Freeman. Lemuel’s southern brethren still endured slavery.

Lemuel Freeman letter to Rhode Island Gov. Sprague, 1862. PHOTO: RHODE ISLAND STATE ARCHIVES

In August 1862, Freeman sent the above appeal to Rhode Island Governor William Sprague. Recruitment of African American soldiers did not commence until the Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863. And it wasn’t until May that President Lincoln issued General Order No. 143, which spawned the United States Colored Troop designation for regiments such as the 54th Massachusetts Infantry.

But Freeman was determined to join.

Thirza Freeman raised her son Lemuel, but she never married. Lemuel wedded his cousin Diana Comsett Freeman in 1849; Diana gave birth and lost a daughter months before the marriage. And in the following year’s U.S. Census, we find Lemuel Freeman’s mother in the South Scituate almshouse described as a “pauper;” Thirza died there, indigent, 10 years later, just before the war.

Life was difficult for Freeman, a shoemaker, and his family, and he wanted better. Notably, Freeman’s letter to Gov. Sprague inquired about the recruitment bounty (a bonus paid to entice soldiers to enlist), salary, and aid to which a soldier and his family were entitled. Like his great-grandfather Asher and millions of American soldiers since, Lemuel Freeman sought military service to improve conditions for his family.

It’s unknown if Gov. Sprague wrote back. Still, by the end of September, Freeman, a man enumerated on census records as both “Black” and “mulatto” had enlisted in the 45th Mass. Volunteer Infantry Militia.

The rub, though, is that the 45th was a white regiment. Common understanding tells us that the army was strictly segregated after the Revolution and throughout World War II. The 1989 film “Glory” gives the strong impression that Black soldiers did not serve in the Civil War until the formation of United States Colored Troop regiments.

Yet, it doesn’t seem that Freeman passed into the 45th as white. Between the Sprague letter, census records, and the fact that Freeman’s two South Scituate cousins — William and Warren Freeman — later served in the 54th, there was little ambiguity about how Freeman identified.

Literature on Black men serving in white units is sparse, and it’s believed that it was rare. Notably, Lemuel Freeman isn’t even the only African American man from the town that became Norwell to serve in the 45th Mass Volunteers; Albert Winslow enlisted in the 45th 15 days before Freeman. Winslow’s brother Richard was Freeman’s best man and served in the 54th.

Re-enlisted

Pvt. Freeman returned home in 1863, but the life of the professional soldier lured him back to the battlefield. He enlisted for three years in another “all-white” unit, the 58th Massachusetts Infantry. In April of 1864, soon-to-be Sgt. Freeman was on the move south. Through several train connections and a steamship voyage between Groton and New York City, Freeman and the 58th arrived in Alexandria, Virginia. The men marched south, and by mid-May, the 58th had lost six men at the bloody Battle of the Wilderness. Next, they were engaged in the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, where 17 men of the 58th died fighting.

Freeman found himself amid Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s costly but necessary Overland Campaign. By mid-June, Sgt. Freeman had survived Cold Harbor and the first assault on Petersburg. The United States Army at Petersburg was now laying siege to forces and a supply line critical to the Confederate capital of Richmond. In under two months, 53 men of the 58th had died and 251 other soldiers were wounded or missing. But “[f]rom the afternoon of the 18th day of June to the morning of the 30th day of July, the Regiment was engaged in no battles,” reported a 58th soldier in a regimental history published in 1865.

It’s easy to imagine June 26, 1864 was a warm and sunny Sunday, as the temperature in Northern Virginia reached the mid-80s and the previous Friday’s weather report in Richmond noted a lengthy dry period; the observer described travel as “dusty.” Twenty miles to the south, Freeman was on picket duty.

Civil War picket lines were advanced positions used to surveil enemy movement and give warning of attacks. Often, picket lines were neutral, non-combative positions. At times, Union and Confederate picketers were close enough to converse. But the nature of war being what it is, picket lines were also targets of harassment and a favorite of sharpshooters. Freeman’s medical records detail the gunshot wound he suffered that day, noting a “G.S.W. dorsal region with commuted fracture of 3rd rib … near its articulation.” Four days later, the army finished transporting Freeman 130 miles north to Mount Pleasant Hospital in Washington, D.C., and on July 1, Freeman suffered a “secondary hemorrhage into the left pleural cavity.” Lemuel Freeman died of internal bleeding.

The grave of Sgt. Lemuel Freeman. PHOTO: WAYNE TUCKER

Veteran marker

Enter Norwell’s First Parish Cemetery by foot from Main Street, turn left and walk parallel to the fence for 75 yards. To your right, nestled among a sloping grassy landscape featuring the shade of pine trees, you will find a cluster of 13 Civil War veterans’ gravesites. Eight of these men were African American. Not all men fought in Robert Gould Shaw’s 54th like William Freeman, Jacob Talbot, and Henry Winslow. Lemuel Freeman and Albert Winslow, of course, served in white regiments. John Talbot served in the 55th Mass. Infantry, the regiment created to accommodate the enthusiastic nationwide surplus of men who wanted to join the 54th. Two others, James Patterson and James Thompson, fought in the 5th Mass. Calvary, the third and final USCT regiment formed in Massachusetts.

Post-Civil War government headstones are distinct. They’re white marble, extend 16 to 24 inches above the ground with a rounded top, span 12 inches wide, and are 4 inches thick. The soldier’s name, rank and unit are the only words inscribed. All the men in this cluster rest under this type of stone except Lemuel Freeman.

Freeman’s stone is indeed white, but his family placed it soon after the army returned his body to South Scituate in 1864. The Department of the Interior did not codify the design of the Civil War-type headstone until an 1873 act of Congress. Freeman was the only one of the eight Black soldiers buried at First Parish Cemetery not to return home.

Details of Freeman’s military service, wound and subsequent death come to us from Diana Freeman’s widow’s pension application. Lemuel’s oval stone lies next to Diana’s grave and a 5-foot-tall family obelisk. And although caretakers mark Lemuel Freeman’s grave with a Civil War medallion and flag, the resemblance to a platter and faded inscription make it easy to miss. But his stone is there for all of us to see, just like the records of uncounted Black men who “integrated” supposedly all-white Civil War units.

black history, Civil War, Lemuel Freeman
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