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Monument Honors 'Colored Regiment' Of Civil War, by Mary E. O'Leary

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 9, Number 7

Almost 150 years ago, 900 men of color mustered on a swampy area of Fair Haven, Connecticut, as they trained for a war that would take numerous lives through combat and disease in the service of a nation that was ambivalent about their worth. They were paid less than their white counterparts, suffered continuing indignities tied to racism, undertook the hardest manual labor and had next to no chance of advancing to officer. 

Joseph Sills of Shelton was one of those men who survived five Civil War battles and later returned to home, where he married, reared a large family in Woodbridge and left behind examples of his masonry work that still exist.

Sills and his comrades in the Connecticut 29th Colored Regiment C.V. Infantry were memorialized September 20 when a monument designed by New Haven’s “Amistad” sculptor, Edward Hamilton, was unveiled on the site of the soldiers’ first encampment along the Mill River at Grapevine Point, now known as Criscuolo Park.

As a cool breeze blew off the water at the Chapel Street park, Harrison Mero, the great-grandson of Sills, reflected on the 10-year quest of the men’s descendants to win the soldiers recognition and a more formal place in the history books.

“It has been a labor of love . We look upon the monument as belonging to the citizens of Connecticut,” said Mero, president of the descendants’ group, which promotes awareness of the African-Americans and Native Americans who comprised the regiment, and the white officers who advocated for their equality. In addition to Sills, Mero, 67, claims three other mixed heritage Native American and African American relatives in the regiment: Robert Sills and Robert Franklin (great-uncles) and Samuel D. Franklin, another great-grandfather.

A retired affirmative action officer for a construction company, Mero said he always is asked why the men joined the war effort. The Hamden resident always has the same answer. “For freedom. For the right to vote. They wanted a right to choose their leadership, to have a say in various laws. That was of great value,” said Mero, although the vote did not come until five years after the men completed their service, from late 1863 to November 1865.

‘No more patriotic people’

Adeline Tucker, 71, another group member, said the monument is a way to make sure men of the 29th “get their due.” Tucker, a retired research associate at the Yale Medical School, said her relatives fought in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. “There are no more patriotic people than African-Americans. We fought in all the wars,” despite discrimination, she said.

The men of the 29th saw action in Maryland and Virginia and had to battle Texas rebels all the way to Brownsville, after the rebels refused to accept Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender. But the high point was the march into Richmond, Va., when the regiment was the first to enter the city after it fell to Union soldiers. “They took the seat of the Confederacy. It is amazing to me. I can just see them running down the road to Jefferson Davis’ mansion,” said Samuel Dixon of New Haven, another relative of the Sill brothers.

Filling in the larger picture of the 29th Colored Regiment is the research undertaken of Thomas Acri of Milford, an eighth-grade teacher at West Shore Middle School. A member of the monument committee, Acri did his master’s thesis on the regiment at George Mason University. The Connecticut War Record published regular reports back from the regiment and detailed the soldiers’ indignation at not being armed until weeks after they arrived in Annapolis. The group also regularly endured racial taunts and were banished to hastily erected tents in the middle of winter, rather than barracks enjoyed by white recruits.

Before they left New Haven, however, Frederick Douglass, the famous black orator, addressed the men at the encampment on January 29, 1864, advising them of the value of education and also how important it was for them to succeed as soldiers. “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,” Douglass said.

Orderly Isaac Hill, one of the men in the regiment, wrote a book about his experiences with the 29th regiment, providing many details, including the march down Chapel Street to State Street to Long Wharf to embark on the vessel, “Victory,” to take the men to Annapolis on March 8, 1864. “White and colored ladies and gentlemen grasped me by the hand, with tears streaming down their cheeks, and bid me good bye, expressing hope that we might have a safe return,” Hill wrote.

Mero said a descendant of Col. William Wooster, for whom Wooster Square is named, will be part of the dedication ceremony, as will Hamden resident Daniel Lathrop, 84, grandson of Daniel S. Lathrop, who with Alexander H. Newton attained the rank of master sergeant in the 29th, the highest possible for the men.

“I’m the closest one to an ancestor in the 29th,” said Lathrop, a retired construction worker, who was born in 1924, the year his grandfather died at 76, a part-French and Iroquois Indian who enlisted in the regiment at 16. Lathrop and Newton are featured on one side of the black granite obelisk that is the centerpiece of the memorial. On the other is a bronze plaque created by Hamilton that shows soldiers marching with the regimental flag, with five in front protecting the others.

“It gives you the feeling that the soldiers are coming toward you. It brings you in and takes you out,” said Hamilton of the design and the eight matching granite obelisks that bear the names of the men and their officers. Two matching benches complete the artwork, which rests on white cobblestone. “We have created this kind of solemn space, where your eyes automatically go to the obelisk,” said Hamilton, whose studio is in Kentucky.

Meeting Abe Lincoln

Hill also gave a first-hand account of President Abraham Lincoln visiting troops April 4, 1865, as he arrived without fanfare and walked for more than a mile through the smoldering city with his son, Tad, then 12, to Davis’ Confederate White House.

“Then followed thousands of people, colored and white. What a spectacle! I never witnessed such rejoicing in all my life,” Hill wrote. Mero said Lincoln was accompanied by a color guard from the 29th and family history has Lathrop in the lead.

In a short speech to African-American and Native American troops, Hill quoted Lincoln as saying: “Although you have been deprived of your God-given rights by your so-called masters, you are now free as I am.” Eleven days later, Lincoln was dead, assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.

The Hartford Courant wrote that on Nov. 29, 1865, the 29th was given a hero’s welcome by Gov. William Buckingham, Wooster and Gen. Joseph Hawley. “I saw black men brought back wounded and I believe their blood was worth as much as anybody’s. Thank God for one thing that has been settled by the war. It is settled that the black man is entitled to all the rights and privileges of the white man. And with the help of God, they shall have them!” Hawley said.

Still, it took half a decade more for men of color to get the vote.

Our thanks to Mary E. O’Leary and The New Haven Register, for providing this article. Click on these links for more information on the monument, the Connecticut Freedom Trail, and the Connecticut 29th Colored Troops