"U.S. Colored Troops" Civil War Archive
I brought out part of a collection that's been in my family for generations. My great-great-great-grandfather was an officer in the Civil War. And he started out in the 67th Ohio Volunteer, and then mustered out of there and went into the 5th U.S. Colored Infantry. Here are a number of the letters that he wrote to my great-great-great-grandmother while he was at war. And it's part of a larger collection.
We all know that the Civil War was a major turning point for the beginning of the modernization of race relations in the United States. Obviously at this point, we're now fighting a war to emancipate African Americans. One of the things that went on during the course of the war is the Union decided that it was absolutely necessary, both in terms of manpower and also from the purposes of helping to understand the reasons we were fighting the war, to have African Americans serving in the military to help fight for the freedom of other African Americans. And it became an opportunity for a lot of officers to move up in the ranks. One of the things that your memorial shows is that he was a second lieutenant, and then a first lieutenant with the 67th Ohio, but when he moves over to the 5th U.S. Colored Troops, he's a captain. And now he's commanding a company.
One of the fabulous things about your archive is the content of the letters. Some of the letters talk about the change in attitude from the beginning of the war to later in the war amongst the troops. What did you say you read in some of these letters about that?
To preface it, I think that maybe Gustav had a different perspective. He was born in Germany, and came here when he was 14 years old. He spoke very highly of his black troops. He thought them very brave and honest, good men. And he felt like they were always going to fight as hard as they could.
There's a point in the letter where he talks about the attitude of the white troops changing. Not all of them were supportive of African-American troops serving alongside them. But after they proved themselves in battle, all of a sudden they were glad that they were there. For any historian of the Civil War, one of the most crucial moments is the Siege of Petersburg, where Lee's army is finally trapped, and Grant is going to defeat him. One of the things that they tried to do to break that siege was they set off a giant mine. It was a giant explosion to destroy some Confederate earthworks and try to break through the line. This became known as the Battle of the Crater. And he wrote an eloquent letter describing that. For a collector of letters, that's the kind of battle content you want—a firsthand account written the day after the battle. It's amazing stuff. Unfortunately, hundreds of troops were killed. Thankfully for the troops under your ancestor's command, they were in reserve, and they didn't get trapped in the crater. Usually these kind of things are preprinted and filled in, and they got them at a veteran event, or something like that. A hand-painted one is certainly unique. The preprinted ones have minimal value—100, 200 bucks. The painted ones typically are a couple of hundred dollars to $400. Because this is U.S. Colored troops, it has a whole different perspective on the war. And right now I would say, because of the wonderful content of the letters, in conjunction with this memorial, realistically, an auction value of $3,000 to $5,000 for the entire archive is not unreasonable, and it could actually bring even more.
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