Chesco exhibit shows African Americans' role in Civil War

Archivist Cliff Parker at an exhibit at the Chester County Historical Society. Parker used records to study African American Civil War enlistment.
Archivist Cliff Parker at an exhibit at the Chester County Historical Society. Parker used records to study African American Civil War enlistment. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 28, 2013

Richard Adams, an African American laborer, was in his 60s and living near Coatesville when he enlisted in the Union Army on June 26, 1863, less than six months after the Emancipation Proclamation.

His enlistment was extraordinary, given that the Civil War recruitment age limit was 45. "He lied and gave his age as 40," said Cliff C. Parker of the Chester County Archives.

"I can't give a reason for his joining," Parker said. "He was born in Virginia and, though we can't say, he may have been born into slavery."

Though he wasn't trained by the time of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3), Parker said, Adams' later efforts for Company A of the Third U.S. Colored Troops earned him "a silver medal for gallant conduct."

Parker, an archivist, knows Adams as well as historical records allow. He gathered from several sources the stories of African Americans at war and at home for their section of "On the Edge of Battle: Chester County and the Civil War," an exhibit at the Chester County Historical Society in West Chester.

On Tuesday, Parker pointed out a recruitment poster, taken from the society's holdings, on a wall at the exhibit.

"Colored Men Wanted for the U.S. Service. $100 Bounty," read the poster, dated June 20, 1863.

"The company will be furnished with Rations, Clothing and Bounty the same as white men" - bounty being the Civil War-era word for a recruitment bonus paid to volunteers, Parker explained.

Beginning their work in February 2012, Parker and photo archivist Pam Powell were able to document that 925 African Americans from the county served in the Union Army.

And that, he said, was a significant leap from the 100 or so reported in earlier histories.

In all, Parker used 11 sources for his online database - www.chesco.org/index.aspx?NID=2273 - which documents each person.

For instance, Adams was listed in If Thee Must Fight, a Civil War history of the county by Douglas Harper, published in 1990 by the historical society.

The fact that Adams was born in Virginia and was living outside Coatesville with his wife, Eleanor, came from the 1850 census, Parker said.

His 1863 enlistment came from the "compiled military service records," online at the National Archives, he said.

The information for the unit in which he fought came from History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, a five-volume work by Samuel P. Bates.

"We also used his veteran's pension file," Parker said, "which gave a bit more detail."

In an 1869 pension application, Adams charged that while he was suffering from a fever while stationed in Gainesville, Fla. in 1865, a white Army surgeon "cursed and swore at him and abused and neglected him."

Finally, Parker said, Adams "ended up in the county poorhouse" in Embreeville. He died there on Aug. 13, 1882, a week after admission, "so we have his poorhouse records."

Ellen Endslow, the curator of the exhibit, said that although African Americans take up less than a quarter of the exhibit space, "they're central to the story."

That part of the exhibit relies heavily on the society's own holdings, she said, such as "recruiting posters and photographs of some as soldiers, though we don't know who they are."

The last such exhibit took place from 2002 to 2004, when the subject was the county's part in the Underground Railroad, she said, "though the Civil War was downplayed" because the story "eventually went into the 20th century."

"On the Edge of Battle" opened on Oct. 18, 2012 and is due to close on Sept. 28.


Contact Walter F. Naedele at 610-313-8134 or wnaedele@phillynews.com.

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