“Deaths Were Rapidly Occurring”

               Postwar Philanthropy and The Tragic End of the 56th United States Colored Infantry

   The 56th United States Colored Infantry received a new commander in January 1865. Colonel Charles Bentzoni was a Prussian-born Regular Army officer who served in the Prussian and British armies before coming to America. He spent most of the war training troops in Boston, but managed to reach the front lines in 1864, where he distinguished himself in actions around Petersburg. Bentzoni brought a professionalism that few regiments of African American soldiers were to experience.[1]

   Shortly his arrival, Bentzoni led a brief expedition to Friar’s Point, Mississippi, where the regiment once again provided security at the landing while a cavalry detachment rode inland to search for the enemy. The principal result was to pick up 32 former slaves, four of whom Bentzoni enlisted in his unit. But the regiment spent most of its time as it had since its arrival in Arkansas – drilling, guarding government supplies, and providing protection to leased plantations.[2]

   The close of the war found the 56th USCI still at Helena. Its mission was essentially the same: to protect the freedmen in eastern Arkansas from harm. But now the harm was not threatened by roaming bands of Confederate cavalry or guerrillas, it came from a particularly hostile population – returning landowners who still regarded men, women and children, who were now legally their employees, as if they were still their slaves. Bentzoni wrote an angry letter in July 1865 in which he complained that slavery was still everywhere in Arkansas. Planters, he said, “understand that slavery will remain in some form or other.” Unless it was “broken up by the strong arm of the Government, it will continue to exist in its worst forms all law and proclamations to the contrary.” The military had to keep a strong presence in the area, not just to safeguard legal freedom but to ensure “practical freedom.” And practical freedom existed in the South only within the lines of military occupation. Bentzoni urged a radical solution of a permanent military presence supplemented by so-called “colony soldiers,” former black soldiers who would be encouraged to remain in the area by giving them land. As a kind of militia, these colony soldiers would “provide all the assistance which might be required to enforce law and order, and the black people would through it become free in deed.” His idea was not seriously considered by the government.[3]

   That left Colonel Bentzoni to assure protection for the former slaves in eastern Arkansas with his own regiment. On the same day as his letter quoted above, Bentzoni issued an order for that purpose. “To prevent the recurrence of outrages on the persons of colored people by their former owners and other evil-disposed persons,” all such cases were to be brought in military courts. He acknowledged that “[c]olored men are free in all cases to choose their own employers” and that, after a contract was signed and approved, they would be required to keep to tits terms, but he warned that employers were “prohibited from taking the law into their own hands under any circumstances” – a warning intended for those, including Northern lessees, who abused and even whipped their black employees for perceived infractions. He noted that all former slaves in Arkansas were freed on January 1, 1863 by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and ordered that all persons who have “restrained” such person from liberty since that date will be required to pay them back wages. The order concluded: “It is expected that the people will see their own interest and also of their former servants by treating them like free men in every respect, and thereby sustain in good faith the laws, proclamations, and policy of the United States Government.”[4]

   It was a noble expression of a hope, an ideal, that was never met in postwar Arkansas or anywhere else in the South. The Union’s zeal to protect former slaves began to wane until in a few years it was completely extinguished, not to be revived for a century.

   White soldiers and African American regiments from free states were quickly mustered out, leaving on active duty primarily regiments from former slave states. The proportion of African American men increased from 53% of all volunteer troops still on active duty in January 1866 to 74% of the army that summer. By June 1866, there were only 18 black regiments left, and of those, only five (including the 56th) were assigned to enforcement of Reconstruction policies. The remainder were engaged primarily in guarding government installations.[5]

   Conditions in Helena were especially harsh for black children. Many had either had one or both parents sold or had been sold themselves while in slavery. The town had many black orphans to take care of. To handle this problem, General Napoleon Buford requested the assistance of Quakers from Indiana. The Indiana Yearly Meeting was organized in 1821 to assist and educate black children kidnapped or illegally held in bondage. Before the war, for example, it rescued an eleven-year-old boy who was kidnapped in Richmond, Indiana and sold into slavery in St. Louis at a cost of $178.12 1/2.

   The Meeting sent Alida and Calvin Clark to Helena to create an orphanage for black children. They arrived in April 1864 and initially took sixteen children under their wing. More soon followed – as many as 400 ultimately passed through their orphanage. In early 1866, Colonel Bentzoni was ordered to return the buildings housing about 80 children which had been taken over when their owners fled Union occupation. The colonel called upon Alida Clark to discuss what to do with her charges. He proposed the purchase of land outside Helena and promised that his men would put up suitable buildings according to a rough sketch he brought with him. Clark recognized Bentzoni “as God’s instrument” and the answer to her fervent prayers. Bentzoni wrote that
Alida Clark “was the greatest woman I have ever known. With unusual executive abilities she combined tenderness of heart and an unbounded desire to help the lowly and needy.”[6]

   Each officer and man of the regiment contributed a percentage of their wages to the project and $900.00 was raised to buy a thirty acre tract nine miles northwest of Helena. Bentzoni detailed men to work erecting the buildings until they were complete. Adjutant Samuel J. Clark reported to the Indiana Meeting that the amount of work done by the men was “immense, from an allmost unbroken forrest it has been cleared fenced and a large part of it planted, and four substantial buildings erected suitable for the wants of the children and those who have the Care of them.”[7]

   On July 4, 1866, the regiment marched out to the new orphanage, where they gave three cheers and fired three volleys as a salute. Colonel Bentzoni read out the amounts given by each company and turned the deed over to Alida Clark. “Hearty amens” were shouted, the children sang, and Bentzoni and Adjutant Samuel Clark spoke to the children. The ceremonies were followed by refreshments laid out on a long table. The boys, the school’s history says, were dressed in linen pants and shirts, with new straw hats; the girls wore calico dresses and Shaker bonnets.[8]

   From this beginning the Clarks, and especially Alida Clark, created Southland College. Alida, whose “somewhat stern [was] indicative of an iron will and indomitable purpose,” bombarded Quaker journals and wealthy members of the religion with requests for money to develop the school. In 1876 Southland College was chartered as the first institution of higher learning for African Americans west of the Mississippi. For years it was a principal source of African American teachers for the region’s schools until its closure for financial reasons in 1925.[9]

   In early August 1866, the 56th USCI was ordered to return to St. Louis to be mustered out. It had lost up to that point a total of four officers and twenty-one enlisted men in combat. But it had lost 474 officers and men to disease, mostly chronic diarrhea or “typho malarial fever.” Worse was to come.

   Companies A, B, E, G and K had been at Duvall’s Bluff. They returned to Helena on August 5. On August 9, these five companies, under the command of Captain James M. Thomas boarded the Continental. The remaining companies and the regimental headquarters left on the Platte Valley on August 10. The regiment’s surgeons were left behind at the post hospital, but there were medical stewards and medical supplies on board. “[T]the command had been unusually healthy during the summer,” Bentzoni said, but he told a doleful story of what happened next:


   When I arrived at Cairo, Illinois, I was told that the Continental which preceded me a few hours, had thirteen dead bodies onboard, and from fifty to sixty sick. At the same time, the number of sick increased to an alarming extent on the Platte Valley, which induced me to engage a physician at Cairo who treated about fifty men for various complaints, one of whom died of congestion between Cairo and Saint Louis, Missouri.

   Arrived at the quarantine grounds near Jefferson barracks, Missouri, I found the detachment from the Continental disembarked; and Captain Thomas reported to me that over fifty men died on the passage, and the deaths were rapidly occurring since the landing was effected. Brevet Colonel Swift, Surgeon United States Army, was on the ground, and at my request, inspected the sick on the Platte Valley and reported no cholera among them. The Platte Valley then proceeded to the port of Saint Louis, arriving about midnight of the 13th. I kept the troops aboard until morning, when the physician reported a “clear case of cholera” onboard. I had the case removed by the civil authorities. I then reported in person at the headquarters of Lieutenant General Sherman and was ordered to proceed to the quarantine grounds.

   Although I had kept the two detachments in separate camps, the disease seemed to have infected the whole regiment. Everything has been done that medical skill can do to stay the progress of the disease by Surgeon E. Swift, United States Arm., Surgeon D.A. La Force, fifty-sixth United States colored infantry (reported for duty yesterday morning), with a number of citizens physicians, are untiring in their efforts to relieve the sufferings of the sick.[10]


   In addition to the men lost en route, the 56th reported 256 cases of cholera at the quarantine grounds, of whom 134 died. Virtually the entire regiment was affected in one way or another, for there also 234 cases of acute diarrhea.[11] When the regiment finally mustered out on September 15, 1866, it had 26 officers and 511 men who survived. Thus, the 175 men lost in the cholera epidemic in those few days of August and September amounted to about 25% of the regiment’s strength when it left Arkansas. Altogether, the 56th USCI lost 649 officers and men to disease – nearly 46% of the 1,416 men who served in the regiment during its three years of existence.[12] 

   Included among the dead was Joseph Brooks, Jr., age 22. Brooks was buried with military honors in St. Louis, accompanied by an escort and the regimental band.[13]

   The enlisted men were buried in a mass grave on Quarantine Island in a space enclosed with “a neat pale fence.” An obelisk was erected by the survivors of the regiment with the inscription “to the memory of 175 non-commissioned officers and privates of the 56th U. S. Colored Infantry, died of cholera in the month of August 1866.”[14]

   In 1939, African American civic leaders convinced the War Department to move the obelisk and the remains of the men to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. In 2014, descendants of the soldiers provided documentation to the United States government that resulted in the installation of a plaque at the base of the monument, listing the names of the 175 men who died on the trip home from Arkansas.[15]


[1] Charles Bentzoni, Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Belonging to the 56th through 138th Infantry Units, United States Colored Troops (USCT), 1864-1866, [hereafter cited as CMSR], National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 94, roll 3, available at Fold3.com; Notes on Charles Bentzoni, courtesy of Steven Clay.

[2] The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies [hereafter cited as OR], ser. I, vol. 48, pt. 1, sec. 1, 121-122.

[3] Quoted in Gregory P. Downs, After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2015), 42, 54-55.

[4] General Orders No. 30, July 7, 1865, quoted in New York Times, July 20, 1865.

[5] OR., ser. III, vol. 5, 932, 973; William A. Dobak, Freedom by the Sword: The U. S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. 2013), 487, 493.

[6] Society of Friends, History of Southland College (Richmond, IN: Nicholson Press, 1906), 8-9,21.

[7] Clark to Joseph Dickenson and Timothy Harrison, June 11, 1866, in Ira Berlin, et al. (eds.), Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867: The Black Military Experience, ser. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 763.

[8] Stanley Pumphrey, An Interesting Account of a Visit to Southland College (New Vienna, Ohio: Friends’ Publishing House Print, ca. 1879), 2; History of Southland College, 12-13. In response to an appeal from Colonel Bentzoni in November 1865, the officers and men of the 56th USCI also contributed $500.00 to the Lincoln Monument Association. Martin W. Őfele, German-Speaking Officers in the U. S. Colored Troops, 1863-1867 (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2004), 203. Őfele says Bentzoni ordered his men to contribute 20% of their income to pay for the land on which Southland College was built, citing General Orders No. 4 (March 8, 1866). Ibid. (General orders were sometimes directives and sometimes – as in the case of the Battle of Wallace’s Ferry – merely announcements. I believe from the other evidence that General Orders No. 4 was of the latter character, but I have not been able to confirm the substance of this order.)

[9] History of Southland College, 21.

[10] Bentzoni to Adjutant General, August 18, 1866, in War Department, Surgeon General’s Office, Report on Epidemic of Cholera in the Army of the United States During the Year 1866, Circular No. 5 (Washington, May 4, 1867), 50. The “quarantine grounds” were located on Quarantine Island, across the river from Jefferson Barracks. Waagner’s Map of St. Louis County (1857) (Library of Congress).

[11] Report on Epidemic of Cholera, 18.

[12] The exact of number of deaths from cholera is not known. It is usually said to be 175, but Colonel Bentzoni’s letter of August 18, 1866, identified 139 deaths (mostly on the Continental among the men who had been at Duvall’s Bluff), plus “more than fifty” who died in between Helena and St. Louis. If he was correct, then the number of deaths could be more than 190. Ibid.; Dobak, 233. The number of men who were mustered out on September 15, 1866, is given in the Missouri Democrat, July 20, 1866. The total number of men who served in the 56th USCI is taken from http://www.civilwardata.com/. The authorized strength of the Union Civil War infantry regiments was about 1,000 men, although the effective strength at any one time was usually far less. The strength of the 56thUSCI at its muster out was reported in the Missouri Democrat, September 20, 1866.The United States Colored Troops lost 68,178 men to disease during the war, or about 37% of the total number enlisted or drafted., OR, ser. III, vol. 5, 138; Dudley Taylor Cornish, The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1966), 288.

[13] Joseph Brooks, Jr., CMSR, roll 4, available at Fold3.com.

[14] Missouri Democrat, September 20, 1866.

[15] The plaque and monument are in Section 57 at the cemetery. Mitchel Yockelson, “‘Their Memory Shall Not Perish”: Commemorating the 56th United States Colored Troops,” Gateway Heritage, vol. 22, no. 3 (Winter 2001-02); Riddler, 258; “A Memorial to the 56th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops,” http://www.stcharlescountyhistory.org/category/civil-war/.

Southland College. Library of Congress.

56th United States Colored Infantry Monument at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. Library of Congress​.

James W Erwin