Pioneers of Liberty: Easton’s Soldiers in Connecticut’s 29th Colored Regiment
At the edge of the New Haven harbor in Fair Haven sits Criscuolo Park. Sports fields and playgrounds now occupy what was once a bustling port area where the Quinnipiac and Mill Rivers meet. While there is no trace of the Civil War training camp that existed at this spot, since 2008, a monument to our state’s first Black regiment solemnly marks this location as the point of their earliest gathering. Here, on January 29, 1864, Frederick Douglass addressed the men and called them “pioneers.” Encouraging them despite the formidable tasks ahead, he stressed that their freedom and that of millions of people in slavery relied on their victory.
Commissioned in November 1863, the Connecticut 29th Colored Regiment fought in several significant battles and its soldiers were noted for their bravery. While referred to as “colored,” the group represented a diverse cultural diaspora that included Native Indian, African, Hispanic, South Pacific and interracial members.
Today, their names are inscribed on 8 black marble pillars that encircle a central cenotaph registering the battles they fought, their wounded and their casualties. Organized by Connecticut cities and towns, the troops are listed in an impressive format that highlights statewide participation. Easton is credited with the names of seven Black servicemen: a substantial number for a small town that was already experiencing the population decline typical of rural areas in the mid-nineteenth century. The men listed include: Francis Cleveland, Isaac A. Nichols, James Painter, James Perry, William H.Smith, William Turner and Charles West. In addition, we also know of two more Black soldiers from Easton living in other towns at the time: George Baldwin is listed under Enfield and Michael B. Nichols in Fairfield.
Out of all the soldiers in this regiment associated with our town, only three were actually born here: George Baldwin, Michael B. Nichols and Isaac A. Nichols. Of these, we know the most about George. His family has been extensively researched in the context of Easton’s Den Road Cemetery. Born here in 1846, his childhood home was in “Little Egypt,” an interracial community that included Black, white and Native Indian residents. George descended from slaves brought to this region and freed as early as the 18th century. By the time he enlisted in Hartford on December 23, 1863, he had lived a somewhat itinerant life; his family had moved on to Redding while he himself went on to Fairfield and then Enfield.
We don’t know what specifically drew George to sign up for military service just days before Christmas. As with other young men at the time, he may have wanted to escape the dull monotony of rural life. Unlike many recruits from the countryside, both of George’s parents could read and write and he attended school while living in Redding. Considering his literacy, it is tempting to think he was influenced by the numerous broadsides that were distributed calling Black men to arms. Emphasizing the urgency of the moment, these compelling posters asked them to leave the comfort of their homes and prove their manhood in a struggle for liberty against prejudice and hatred.
Like George, Michael and Isaac Nichols were laborers and they were working on land owned by white farmers. For all three of these young men, the moral call to arms against slavery may have been amplified by the financial incentives offered. Each recruit was promised a sign-up bounty; a payment to volunteers that was in addition to their soldier’s salary. For Connecticut volunteers, regardless of color, this bonus was about 300 dollars and varied depending on the year, the county and a recruit’s military experience. This substantial amount of money was roughly a year’s salary for a laborer and it was often portioned out in thirds over the duration of an enlistment term. These staggered payments were to prevent “bounty jumpers” who signed up in multiple districts to collect cash without serving.
Nineteen year old Isaac Nichols is noteworthy because he deserted less than one month after he signed up. Apprehended in March, he relayed to his commanding officer that his mother in Easton had been approached by a former deputy sheriff named George Wheeler. This man asked for a payment of 200 dollars to clear her son from his military obligation. He then gave Isaac 25 dollars and advised him to change his name, remove his uniform and “clear out.”
This account, preserved with Isaac’s enlistment documents, gives the impression that George Wheeler offered his services without invitation. It also infers that Isaac’s mother made the payment. Since there is no indication of his father in the narrative, we have to assume Isaac’s mother was head of the family and possibly widowed. In census data, we do see Black heads of households with several hundred dollars worth of property and personal goods at this time. Cash on hand for such a large payment would certainly be uncommon but it is possible that they had at least part of Isaac’s sign-up bonus.
The George Wheeler involved in this case seems to have been a rather disreputable figure who may have been targeting Isaac’s family because of his recent bounty. Living in Weston two years earlier, Wheeler was caught in a scandalous case where he aided a white deserter. That he was removed from his public office for his crimes is suggested by Isaac’s description as a “former deputy sheriff.” Despite his reduced standing in the community, it would be very difficult for Isaac or his mother to argue with or question a white male authority figure at this time. Wheeler would have been able to extort money with little fear of reprisal.
After Isaac’s capture, his commanding officer, Captain Charles Griswold of Guilford, was sympathetic. To his credit, Griswold saw the extenuating circumstances behind Isaac’s desertion and presented the case to his superiors. He described the young man’s testimony as “honorable” and “worthy” of consideration. His intercession on Isaac’s behalf may very well have saved his life. Common punishments for desertion included branding, imprisonment or death. Instead, Isaac was returned to his company and fined 30 dollars.
Of the remaining six men listed under Easton on the Fair Haven monument, none were born in this town. Francis Cleveland was a basket weaver from Sacketts Point New York. The other five men were southern laborers. Charles West was from Virginia. James Painter and William Turner were both from South Carolina. James Perry and William Smith were both from Louisiana.
None appear in town census rolls and a careful reading of their recruitment documents reveals an important term. All five of these men were “credited” to Easton. This does not mean they were born or resided in town, rather, it relates back to the cash bounty system and the practice of enlistment quotas. During the Civil War there were many calls for volunteers in each state with an expected number of recruits set by the government. Early on, Connecticut’s men signed up in record numbers, but as the war progressed into a long struggle, there were fewer volunteers.
Since failing to meet a quota would trigger a compulsory draft, wealthier towns and cities offered large sums of money in addition to the bounties set by the government. Federal and state officials tried to regulate these amounts, but their rules were often ignored. These additional cash awards resulted in a hugely competitive and complicated system of bounties that in some cases resulted in more than a 1,000 dollars being offered per volunteer.
Connecticut, New York and Massachesusetts were particularly competitive in this regard and attracted men not only from other states but even outside the country. Aggressive scouts canvassed for prospective soldiers, giving rise to a network of brokers and agents who were all paid a cut from the bonus money. The system was certainly fraught with corruption and Black soldiers in particular were cheated out of portions of their promised payments.
Ironically, in the fight for emancipation, those with lesser means were commodified so that wealthier citizens could avoid the battlefield. Even when the draft did come and call on Easton’s residents, one could pay for a substitute. We know of at least one case in our town where a white farmer, James S. Cole, paid 300 dollars to Erwin Windbush to take his place. Erwin was a Black laborer born in Canada. Sadly, though he served in the 29th Colored Regiment and counted towards Easton’s quota, his name does not appear on their monument.
It is also quite likely that Easton’s out-of-state volunteers never saw or stepped foot in the town as their contracts were signed in the larger port cities of Bridgeport and New Haven. It should be stressed that Easton was not unique in these practices. Neighboring towns also had enlistees from outside Connecticut and ultimately, where these soldiers came from does not diminish their national service. Our towns and our country owe them a debt of gratitude. However, we do need to acknowledge the socio-economic forces that drew these men to our state and particularly those men from the South. While some of these recruits may have been free men, it is just as likely they were former slaves or fugitives. Returning to Confederate territory as soldiers was an extraordinary act of courage. More than their northern compatriots, they understood the dire risks they took joining the fight. For them, there was no losing on the battlefield; if they were captured, they would be returned to slavery, tortured or killed.
Above all the dangers faced by these men, the deadliest was disease. In truth, that can be said for all Civil War soldiers, but the toll was inordinately high for Black soldiers. Dysentery, typhoid and malaria were just a few of the illnesses rampant in congested camps. Combined with poor nutrition, it is hardly surprising that members of the 29th Regiment began to fall ill not long after arriving on the front. We have a glimpse of what a few of these men suffered from the medical notes in their military records.
Michael Burr Nichols fell ill repeatedly and was in and out of hospitals from July 1864 to March 1865. His frail health led to a disability discharge due to exposure in the line of service that caused chronic rheumatism. Surviving the war, he return to Fairfield where he lived until 1917. He passed away at the age of 70.
Francis Cleveland, who had been promoted to the rank of corporal during the siege at Petersburg, was hospitalized with chronic dysentery in November 1864. Never fully recovering, he died in Fortress Monroe on February 26, 1865. Francis is interred in Hampton National Cemetery, Virginia.
George Baldwin also spent a substantial amount of time in military hospitals from December 1864 to October 1865. When he was discharged from David’s Island Hospital in New York, he was granted a Certificate of Disability. In this document we learn that George was injured while constructing battlements near Chapins Farm when a log fell on him. His injuries were so severe that he was not able to stand upright. At the time, disability was estimated as a fraction related to the quantity of the body injured and subsequent inability to earn a living. For George, this degree was set at “one sixth” for the weakness in his spinal muscles.
The federal government had made clear that disability benefits should be awarded to all those who served in the war. However, the final decisions regarding level and compensation were often made by medical and clerical personnel who were biased. Injuries were also judged as more or less worthy depending on how they were received. For example, gunshot wounds were granted higher payment than damage resulting from manual labor. This was an especially bitter outcome for Black soldiers like George who were often given menial construction work rather than the more respected tasks given to white soldiers.
For George at the end of the war, 1⁄6 disability meant 1/6th of 8 dollars, payable every month. Amounting to $1.33, it seems no wonder that with his body bent over from injury he ended up living in an almshouse. As a disabled Black veteran, he would have been doubly disadvantaged in the late nineteenth century. The prejudice he may have hoped to eradicate during the Civil War lingered and mixed with a deep distrust of pensioners who many accused of milking the government. Long before the Americans with Disabilities Act, the daily challenges he must have faced in an able-bodied world left him constantly dependent on others.
For this native son of Easton, there may have been a fortuitous turn when he was admitted to Fitch’s Home for Aged Soldiers in Darien. Founded by the dry-goods entrepreneur Benjamin Fitch in 1864, it was the first home for disabled war veterans in the United States. Its spacious buildings were set on several park-like acres and the center was a national example for quality and dignified elder care. Though impaired by injury and hard times, we know that George spent his final 16 years in this center.
Homes such as Fitch’s were institutional living facilities and it would be disingenuous to imagine the quality of life exceeding that of most hospitals at the time. Many of the veterans who were admitted had serious health issues complicated by untreated post traumatic stress disorder, dementia and substance abuse. Contemporary medicine, no matter how compassionate, was woefully inadequate in treating these conditions. Residents were also referred to as “inmates,” and while they were technically free to leave at any time, they were expected to wear a uniform and follow military rules and schedules. The appearance of the men was significant as soldiers’ homes grew to become tourist destinations where elderly veterans were displayed at public events almost as “living monuments.” While some balked at the showmanship, others were proud to be seen in the context of their military service.
Future research will hopefully shed light on George’s life in the Soldier’s Home and whether or not others from the 29th Regiment joined him. Until then, it would be nice to think he enjoyed some of the better aspects of life at this facility in the many years he spent there. Known for festive events and musical entertainment, Fitch’s Home was an important center of civic pride for the local community and was catered to by several charity and civic groups. It was said to have the first and best radio in Noroton Heights along with a make-shift movie theater in the chapel. Barring some squabbles between the veterans of the Spanish American War and the old-timers from the Civil War, it seems there was far more bonding the aging soldiers than dividing them. Every Memorial Day, they assembled to honor their fallen brethren and for each resident who died, Taps would play solemnly as their remains passed through the main gates towards the adjacent Spring Grove Cemetery. George Baldwin made that final journey on October 13, 1926.