The “Arkansas” Regiment from Missouri

   Shortly after the commencement of hostilities in the Civil War Thomas T. Gantt, a St. Louis lawyer, wrote to General William S. Harney, then the Union commander in Missouri, to ask whether “it was the intention of the United States Government to interfere with the institution of negro slavery in Missouri or any Slave State.” Harney immediately replied in the negative and added that “I am not a little astonished that such a question could be seriously put.”[1]
   What was equally inconceivable in 1861 was that by the end of the war 180,000 African Americans, most of them former slaves, would enlist in the Union Army. Missouri was officially credited with supplying 8,344 black soldiers, although the actual total was probably about 11,000. In addition to the 3d Arkansas featured here, the regiments credited to Missouri were the 1st, 2d, 3d and 4th Missouri Infantry, African Descent – later the 62d, 65th, 67th and 68th United States Colored Infantry, respectively. Only 627 blacks lived in Kansas in 1860. The 1st and 2d Kansas Colored Infantry, later the 79th USCI (new) and 83d USCI (new), were composed almost entirely of escaped Missouri slaves. Military authorities allowed Iowa to recruit slaves from northern Missouri to fill the 1st Iowa Infantry, African Descent, later the 60th USCI. Companies G, H, I, and K were entirely Missourians. When later regiments were recruited directly into the United States Colored Troops rather than initially designated as state troops, the 11th USCI (Old) was recruited in Missouri, but the regiment was not filled. It was combined with companies from two other regiments to create one of full strength.[2]
   Recruitment started in Missouri in May 1863 when Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas began a tour of Union posts along the Mississippi River to urge the commanders to fill black regiments. There was a problem, however. Missouri was a loyal slave state not covered by the Emancipation Proclamation. If slaves were to be recruited, should they be limited to those who were known to have been formerly owned by rebels? What should the government do if slaves of loyal masters sought to join the army? Moreover, Thomas’ visit came at a delicate time for the slavery issue in Missouri. The legislature was considering a scheme of gradual emancipation that sparked bitter debate between its conservative and radical members.
   After considerable foot-dragging, General John Schofield finally allowed the recruitment of Missouri slaves into the Union Army. The first regiment began to take in recruits in June 1863 and was finally organized in August. To sooth the political feelings of proslavery Unionists in the state, the new regiment was designated the 3d Arkansas Infantry, African Descent, even though its soldiers were Missourians.[3]
   Schofield ordered that slaves who were accepted for the army be given a certificate declaring that they were forever free. To placate their owners – at least those who were loyal – the government would allow them to claim $300 per man who were successfully mustered into service.[4] Schofield did not, however, initially permit recruiting officers to travel to the field for men. Rather, they were directed to set up offices in the towns. That meant that slaves who wished to join had to run away from their masters (or seek their consent). Contrary to standing orders, slave patrols were revived in some counties for the express purpose of preventing bondsmen from enlisting. Some slaveholders sought to evade recruiters by selling their slaves to persons in Kentucky until the practice was outlawed in March 1864.[5]
   The 3d Arkansas A.D. drew recruits from central, northeast and southeast Missouri. One hundred and eighty-two came from Audrain, Boone, Callaway, Cooper, Cole, Howard and Randolph Counties. Thirty-two men from St. Charles County joined the regiment. Eighteen men at Pilot Knob were assigned to Company C; 77 were recruited for Company H at Cape Girardeau. Many from outstate traveled to St. Louis to join. Later, additional men from Arkansas and Mississippi were added at the regiment’s duty station in Helena, Arkansas. All told there were 1,416 men who at one time or another were part of the regiment.[6]
   Eager African Americans came to recruiting stations in a variety of ways. Jonathan and Jane Crowson sent Charles and John Crowson to Fulton to enlist. Three slaves owned by the wealthy Robert Buckner of Callaway County – John Milton, Lewis, and William Stanton Buckner – ran away and enlisted at Mexico, Missouri. Some men, such as Benjamin Bogy and Isaac Martin, were apparently forced from their homes. Captain John Mohrstadt, commander of Company I, traveled to the Hannibal area, where he signed up 110 men belonging to loyal masters – leading them to complain to the governor of Missouri.[7]
   The soldiers were no doubt proud of their new-found freedom and military service to their country. But their pride was often tempered by troubles at home. Although the men were declared free when they enlisted in the army, their families were not.[8] Some of the masters and mistresses treated soldiers’ wives and children badly. For example, Private Andrew Hogshead received a letter from his wife Ann that read, “You do not know how bad I am treated. They are treating me worse and worse every day. Our child cries for you. Send me some money as soon as you can for me and my child are almost naked. My cloth is yet in the loom and there is no telling when it will be out. Do not send any of your letters to Hogsett [her owner] especially those having money in them as Hogsett will keep the money.”[9]
   A Union officer reported that wives of Simon Williamson and Richard Beasley “have again been whipped by their Masters unmercifully.” Their owner tried to prevent them from going to the post office to pick up mail and if they did get mail, the master was “sure to whip them for it if he knows it.”[10] Lieutenant William Argo wrote from Sedalia that the families of black soldiers were being driven from their masters’ homes. He was directed to send them to a contraband camp at Benton Barracks in St. Louis. In the first three months of 1864, the camp received 947 men, women and children; 330 left on their own; 234 were hired out to “loyal responsible persons”; 101 died; and 268 remained – 165 in the hospital.[11]
   Enlisting former slaves as soldiers met with considerable doubts among whites and, for some, outright trepidation. Many soldiers, generals, citizens, and politicians thought that while former slaves might be useful as laborers, teamsters or cooks, they could not stand up to white Confederate troops in combat. For others, arming African Americans raised the specter of slave insurrection – a fear common among slaveholders, especially after John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry scarcely four years previously. But when it became known that black soldiers counted against a state’s quota for the draft, dissatisfaction among whites lessened. Some white soldiers had a practical take. An Iowa infantryman wrote in his diary: “If any African will stand between me and a rebel bullet he is welcome to the honor and the bullet too.”[12]
   In August 1863, about five hundred men under Major Moses Reed embarked on the steamboat Sam Gaty for Helena, Arkansas, a town that would be their duty station for the next three years. The rest of the regiment arrived in February 1864.[13]
   Helena was captured by Union troops in 1862. Almost immediately, slaves began to flock there. After the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, literally thousands arrived. Conditions at Helena were atrocious. Former slaves sought shelter in abandoned buildings, barns, caves, discarded tent, brush shelters, and rude huts in an area called “Camp Ethiopia.” Helena’s commander was “at a loss to know what to do with them.” By the summer of 1864, there were 3,300 black civilians living in the town.[14]
   Things were no better for soldiers. A nurse serving in the post hospital called Helena “a wretched place . . . low, damp, and enveloped in continual fog. . . the constant and abiding dwelling-place of fever and ague.” Soldiers nicknamed it “Hell-in-Arkansas,” and joked that the mud was so deep that mule teams were lost in it forever, with only “two pointed ears being the self-erected monuments to tell where each mule was buried.”[15]
   The 3d Arkansas’s camp, wrote Captain Samuel Ferree, was “very poor. . . . The Quarters of the men have been Shelter Tents, the ground was steap, bareside hill. The Tents were without floors & during the cold rains men and the Tents were made drenching wet.” It is not surprising that, despite continued recruiting in Missouri until February 1864, and in Arkansas and Mississippi thereafter, the regiment’s strength declined from 812 in December 1863 to 603 in June 1864 – a loss of 25% in six months. The 3d Arkansas’s experience proved the city to be one of the unhealthiest spots on the Mississippi. Overall, in its three years there the regiment lost about 500 men to disease – typhoid, malaria, chronic diarrhea (probably dysentery), smallpox, measles, and cholera.[16]
   For the most part the regiment performed mostly boring garrison duties. They maintained forts and guarded warehouses. A few hundred men were sent downriver to Island No. 63 to protect a woodyard that supplied fuel for steamboats. Conditions at Island No. 63 were no better than Helena, and several men died there of various diseases.[17]
   Detachments were sent on patrols outside Helena looking for rebel troops and guerrillas. The only notable actions for the 3d Arkansas occurred in February 1864. Two officers and 50 men were detailed to guard a steamboat on the White River while two companies of Illinois cavalry made a sweep through the countryside looking for rebels. A few days later another company of the 3d Arkansas performed a similar duty for the Illinois cavalry on the St. Francis River. In March, Company C spent a couple of weeks manning a fort south of Helena intended to protect freedmen who were farming on a nearby plantation.[18]
   Effective March 11, 1864, all the African American regiments then in Arkansas, including those with state designations – such as the 3d Arkansas – were renamed as regiments in the United States Colored Troops. The 3d Arkansas lost its misnomer and became the 56th United States Colored Infantry.[19]
   The 56th USCI spent the first year of its existence in organization, training, guard and fatigue duties. Its greatest challenge was simply surviving the weather, mud and disease of Helena. That was about to change. 

  ​                                                                                                 Endnotes
[1] Gantt to Harney, May 14, 1861; Harney to Gantt, May 14, 1861 in Ira Berlin et al. (eds.), Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation 1861-1867: The Destruction of Slavery, ser. 1, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 413-414.
[2]  The 1st Kansas was the first African American unit in the Civil War to fight white Confederate troops (not the 54th Massachusetts as shown in the movie Glory, as is commonly believed) when about 225 of its men clashed with 800 rebels at Island Mound, Missouri (near Butler in Bates County) on October 26-27, 1862. It later distinguished itself at the Battle of Honey Springs, Indian Territory, where a Union force of African American, Native American and white troops defeated a Confederate force of whites and Native Americans. More than 100 men of the 1st Kansas were killed – many after they were wounded – at the Battle of Poison Springs, Arkansas in 1864. The 2d Kansas was among the troops who defeated Confederate forces a few days afterwards at the Battle of Jenkins Ferry, where it is said that many killed wounded Confederates, while shouting “Remember Poison Springs!” The latter action is portrayed in the opening scene of the movie Lincoln. Richard B. Sheridan, “From Slavery in Missouri to Freedom in Kansas: The Influx of Black Fugitives and Contrabands into Kansas, 1854-1865,” Kansas History 12 (Spring 1989), 28, 37; The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies [hereafter cited as OR], ser. III, vol. 4, pt.2, 1270 (table of troops furnished by state); Daniel E. Sutherland, “1864: ‘A Strange, Wild Time,’” in Mark K. Christ (ed.), Rugged and Sublime: The Civil War in Arkansas (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994), 114-117, 120-123; William A. Dobak, Freedom by the Sword: The U. S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. 2013), 238, 241-244. 
[3] Dobak, 191.
[4] OR, ser. III, vol. 3, 860-861; 1034-1036. In 1864 Congress created a claims commission to which loyal owners could apply for compensation. In 1867, Congress repealed the program. No compensation was ever paid to loyal slave owners in Missouri. Section 24, Supplementary Enrollment Act (February 24, 1864), United States Statutes at Large, XIII, 6-11; Act Suspending the Payment of Moneys . . . as Compensation to Persons Claiming the Service or Labor of Colored Volunteers (January 14, 1867), United States Statutes at Large, XIV, 376-377.
[5] W. A. Poillon to Dr. Martine, Berlin, Destruction of Slavery, 411-412, 477-478;
[6] Rudi Keller, “56th USCT Roster,” Columbia Daily Tribune (March 11, 2014); Rory Riddler, The Bitter Divide: A Civil War History of St. Charles, Missouri (St. Charles: Frenchtown Heritage and Research Center and City of St. Charles, 2013), 248; Bob Schmidt, The Military Destruction of Slavery in Southeast Missouri, 1861-1864 & Rise of the USCT (Iowa City: Camp Pope Publishing, 2015), 106, 115; 56th USCI at
[7] See the individual entries for each of these soldiers at 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, available at See also John C. Mohrstadt, CMSR.
[8] The 1862 Militia Act freed a soldier regardless of whether his former master was in rebellion, but only freed his wife, children and mother if their master had “borne arms against the United States.” This oversight was corrected in 1865, but by that time Missouri had already adopted an ordinance freeing all the slaves in the state. United States Statutes at Large, vol. XXII, 597-600 (July 17, 1862) and vol. XIII, 571 (March 3, 1865); William E. Parrish, Turbulent Partnership: Missouri and the Union, 1861-1865 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1863), 200-201.
[9] Ira Berlin, et al. (eds.), Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867: The Black Military Experience, ser. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 686-687.
[10] Capt. A.J. Hubbard to Gen. William A. Pile, February 6, 1864, in Berlin, Black Military Experience 687-688.
[11] Argo to Pile, Berlin, Destruction of Slavery, 481-482; Berlin, Black Military Experience, 597-598.
[12] Quoted in Dobak, 9.
[13] Schmidt, 124.
[14] Chandra Manning, Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), 107, 123; OR, vol. 22, pt. 2, 39; Dobak, 245.
[15] Quoted in David Brodnax, Sr., “Will They Fight? Ask the Enemy: Iowa’s African American Regiment in the Civil War,” Annals of Iowa 66 (2007), 280-281, available at
[16] Dobak, 233; OR, ser. III, vol. 3, 1115; ser. I, vol. 34, pt. 4, 310.
[17] Schmidt, 125; Dobak, 233.
[18] Schmidt, 130; OR, vol. 34, pt. 1, 126-127, 143-144.
[19] OR, ser. III, vol. 4, pt. 1,165.

Unknown African American soldier at Benton Barracks, St. Louis (Library of Congress).

James W Erwin