HARTFORD, Conn. –
The date is January 1st, 1863. The United States is plunged into a civil war. As the war enters its third year, and with no signs of the Confederacy yielding, President Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation goes into effect.
In this proclamation, Lincoln writes that all slaves, to include those in the rebellious states, many of whom were pressed into forced service by the Confederate Army, “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” The Union now has two objectives: the preservation of the United States and the liberation of every slave in the Confederate states.
To meet these goals, the Union needs men. President Lincoln knows this, and lays the groundwork in his proclamation for the acceptance of black soldiers into the U.S. Military. Following this, on May 22, 1863, the United States War Department issued General Order No. 143, which established a protocol so that African-American men can enter the Armed Forces.
On November 13, 1863, as Lincoln called on Connecticut for more soldiers for the war effort, Col. Dexter R. Wright and Col. Benjamin S. Pardee, of New Haven, proposed a bill to the state legislature for the creation of “Colored” infantry regiments. The proposal was initially met with racially motivated criticism, however, 10 days later on November 23, it was signed by Connecticut Governor William Buckingham. With the signing of this bill, Connecticut’s first black unit was born: The 29th Regiment Connecticut Volunteer Infantry.
The unit, which first mustered on March 8, 1864, in Fair Haven, a neighborhood in eastern New Haven, received 1,600 volunteers. According to an 1860 census, at the time only 8,726 black men lived in the state, of which, only 2,206 were of eligible enlistment age. Based on these statistics, approximately 78% of Connecticut’s black population that was eligible for military service volunteered to serve. Too many men had volunteered in-fact, leading to the creation of an additional separate regiment, the 30th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers. The 30th would not last long as its own independent unit, however, as the regiment did not receive enough men to fill its ranks and was soon amalgamated into the 31st Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops.
11 days later on March 19, the 29th paraded through the streets of New Haven, departed Connecticut via steamship and started their long journey south toward Virginia. The soldiers of the unit, almost entirely black, except for white officers appointed to lead them, would not receive their weapons until reaching their first stop on their journey, Camp Parole, Maryland. Thereafter, they were sent to South Carolina where they subsequently performed guard and picket duty in Beaufort until August 8. On August 8, the unit traveled to Bermuda Hundred, Virginia, and stayed there until being called up to partake in siege operations against Petersburg and Richmond.
These operations were designed to capture Petersburg and control the last rail supply line that ran between Petersburg and Richmond, the South Side Railroad. Once Petersburg and the rail line fell under Union control, all rail lines supplying Confederate forces in Richmond would be cut off.
The 29th’s first major battle as part of this campaign would be the Battle of New Market’s Heights, also known as the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, on Sept. 29, 1864. Prior to that, the unit’s only combat experience was a brief skirmish during a reconnaissance patrol in August. During the battle, the unit, and the rest of the Army of the James, attacked in the direction of Richmond in an attempt to draw Confederate forces away from Petersburg. The 29th, and other troops of the X Corps, attacked a defensive line of Confederate troops along New Market Road so that Gen. Edward Ord’s XVIII Corps could push unopposed into Fort Harrison, a Confederate stronghold. Their efforts were successful, the fort was captured, as was the artillery behind it, but their victory came at a cost. The 29th sustained 11 casualties in this engagement, including one Hamden native killed, John Williams, who fell on Sept. 30.
The 29th’s next action would be on October 13, 1864, during the battle of Darbytown Road. As part of the X Corps’ reconnaissance in force, the unit probed the newly established Confederate defensive lines along the road after reports came in that Confederate forces were building fortifications and digging in following their unsuccessful counterattack to reclaim New Market Road that occurred a few days prior. Although not much is known about the 29th’s contribution, X Corps’ recon turned into a full fledged attack, which was repulsed by the Confederates. By the time the dust settled and Union forces regrouped back at their own lines at least four 29th men were killed and many more wounded.
Following this engagement, the 29th would fight in the battle of Fair Oaks, also known as the battle of Kell House, between October 27 and 28, 1864, in what is now Henrico, Virginia. This battle was a purposeful diversion, meant to stress the Confederate lines. The Union hoped it would cause Confederate forces to build up and mass their forces in the vicinity of the Darbytown Road, which would give an opening for the Union’s XVIII Corps to break through the Confederate lines elsewhere around Richmond. Unfortunately for the Union, the offensive by the XVIII Corps would be routed.
The men of the 29th, however, performed their duties well, initially dispatching enemy forces that held advanced positions before their defensive line. Following that, the unit advanced on the enemy, at some points within 200 yards of their positions and established a skirmish line. Here, the 29th would hold their positions, at first trading musket shots with the Confederate forces, then not long thereafter coming under bombardment from Confederate artillery using grapeshot and canister shot. The men stayed on the line overnight as it was deemed impossible to have an organized withdrawal and were relieved the following morning.
This would be the deadliest battle for the regiment, suffering 69 men wounded and 11 men killed.
Following this engagement, the 29th remained on trench duty until April 1865. On April 3, 1865, scouts of the 29th began probing the Confederates lines outside Richmond. To their excitement, they found them to be abandoned. Unbeknownst to them, the day prior the Union’s Army of the Potomac broke through the Petersburg defenses, severely crippling Confederate forces. The Confederate troops, who were not defending the lines, fled, abandoning Petersburg and Richmond.
Not long after their reports came through, the entire regiment was notified and ordered to take Richmond. The men started advancing in small parties, discovering explosive traps left behind by retreating Confederate forces. These proved to be nothing more than an annoyance for the men of the 29th, who circumnavigated them easily and continued their drive toward the city proper. As they advanced they captured numerous prisoners, artillery and many small arms.
Soldiers of C. Company and G. Company became the first Union troops to enter the city at seven in the morning, ahead of the rest of the regiment. U.S. Army Col. William Wooster, commander of the regiment, linked up with these forward elements, pointed his sword toward the capitol, and ordered the men to march “double quick”. The men charged down Main street and took up positions in the square as they awaited to consolidate with the rest of the regiment. Not long after entering the city, the 29th would be ordered to the outskirts, replaced by advancing white Union soldiers.
Six days later Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered the last of his forces at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865. Following the surrender of the Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the men of the 29th were called upon to guard 20,000 prisoners of war in Point Lookout, Maryland until May 28.
The unit’s last job would be performing duty across the United States in the “Lone Star Republic” of Texas. Here, the unit was ordered to take positions near the U.S. and Mexican border in a show of force to France, who installed a puppet government in Mexico.
The deployment, thankfully, was uneventful, save for the suffering each soldier endured due to the terrible conditions traveling by sea to the border and upon landing at Brazos Santiago Island. Many men were parched upon disembarking their ships and hitting the beach, as there was not enough water on board to adequately sustain the unit. To make matters worse, when the unit arrived on shore and made it to their post there was not enough water available either, save for the water that pooled around their positions, in some places up to their knees. Soldiers of the 29th had to survive by filling their canteens with condensed water, at a cost of 10 cents per canteen. The 29th stayed here until later traveling on foot to Brownsville, Texas, a journey of over 20 miles through mud from a rainstorm weeks prior that actively tried to make the men one with the Earth as they waded toward their next position.
When the regiment reached Brownville they found it was not much better than Brazos. There was no great town or city waiting, no cheering citizens lining the streets, instead huts made from mud and a local populace that, to the men of the 29th, might as well have been from a different planet. The men would wear only a shirt and drawers, sometimes rolled up to their hips, and the women would often be seen walking about wearing little clothing at all, sometimes with their chests or bottoms exposed. The 29th remained here until mustering out of service on October 24.
Their first stop on their way home would be in New Orleans four days later, before eventually landing at New York Harbor in mid November. The 29th disembarked their steamer and marched down Broadway to the sound of thunderous applause and cheers from the local populace. The unit departed New York on November 23 via the steamship Granite State and arrived back home in Hartford on the morning of the 25th.
The men of the 29th were met with a “great reception” and paraded down the streets to their new encampment in the southern districts of the city. The next morning, November 26, 1865, the men fell in for the last time, were paid, and allowed to finally return to their families.
By the time the men were honorably discharged and the regiment was disbanded, the unit suffered 24 soldiers killed in action with 18 more soldiers being fatally wounded. Six soldiers would die in accidents and an additional 178 men would die of disease. 135 soldiers would be wounded and 103 men would be discharged for disabilities.
These men showed their character and grit on the battlefield. They proved that black soldiers could fight just as well and honorably as their white counterparts. Their actions, and their sacrifices, helped bring the bloodiest war in United States history to a close and laid the foundation for not just the rebuilding of the Nation in the following decades, but for the inclusion of black soldiers in the military.
As Frederick Douglas said to the men of the unit prior to their departure to the South, “You are pioneers of the liberty of your race. With the United States cap on your head, the United States eagle on your belt, the United States musket on your shoulder, not all the powers of darkness can prevent you from becoming American citizens. And not for yourselves alone are you marshaled—you are pioneers—on you depends the destiny of four millions of the colored race in this country. If you rise and flourish, we shall rise and flourish. If you win freedom and citizenship, we shall share your freedom and citizenship.”