Friday, October 19, 2012

History-making soldier buried in East Canaan, Connecticut

A laborer from Sheffield, Mass., Milo Freeland enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts 
on Feb. 16, 1863. He's buried in East Canaan (Conn.) Cemetery.
(Photo of Freeland: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

Tired, hungry and thirsty, Private Milo J. Freeland and his comrades in the 54th Massachusetts hugged the beach on the morning of July 18, 1862, as Federal land batteries and warships in the Atlantic traded fire with the 1,700-man Rebel garrison inside Fort Wagner.

Recruiting poster for 54th Massachusetts. 
(Massachusetts Historical Society)

"A fresh breeze blew that day; at times the sky was clear; the atmosphere, lightened by recent rains, resounded with thunders of an almost incessant cannonade," the 54th Massachusetts regimental historian wrote of the attack near Charleston, S.C. "Smoke-clouds hung over our naval vessels, our batteries, and those of the enemy." (1)

Although some soldiers in the regiment had gobbled down hard bread from a rain-soaked box found on the beach near Fort Wagner, most of the black troops had little to eat or drink since their baptism of fire two days earlier. At  nearby James Island, the regiment suffered 14 men killed, 18 wounded and three missing in a skirmish described as a "supreme moment for the Fifty-fourth."  (2) A historic event, it was the first major battle in which black troops had been deployed during the Civil War.

"The sight of wounded comrades had been a trial," the regimental historian noted. "And the screaming shot and shell flying overhead, cutting the branches of trees to the right, had a deadly sound. But the dark line stood stanch, holding the line at a vital point."

The attack on Fort Wagner would prove to be much different -- and much deadlier. Instead of taking a supporting role, the 54th Massachusetts -- one of the first black units in the Union army and soon to be the most famous -- had been ordered to spearhead the attack. And the assault was to be made at night, a rare occurrence during the Civil War.

A period map shows forces arrayed  against Fort Wagner, 
near Charleston, S.C. , in July 1863. (Library of Congress collection)
One can only imagine the thoughts that went through the mind of Freeland, a married laborer from Sheffield, Mass., about 140 miles west of Boston. A 23-year-old who stood 5-foot-5 with black hair and piercing black eyes, he enlisted in the Union army on Feb. 16, 1863 -- perhaps the first African-American in the North to do so.  On March 30, Freeland was mustered into the 54th Massachusetts under the command Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a staunch abolitionist, and other white officers. Two sons of famous abolitionist Frederick Douglas also served in the regiment.

Training at Camp Meigs in Readville, near Boston, the 54th Massachusetts was looked at as a curiosity at first.

"Every day, but especially on Sundays, large numbers of visitors were present," the regimental historian noted. "Many ladies graced the camp with their presence. People came from distant places to witness the novel sight of colored troops in quarters and on the drill ground." Even the Massachusetts governor and U.S. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase visited the camp in late April to review the 850-man regiment. (3)

Because Union commanders were hesitant to use black troops in battle, the 54th Massachusetts was initially used only for manual labor. But with recruiting lagging and battlefield losses mounting, the army gradually warmed to the idea of using black troops in combat.

As twilight arrived on July 18, 1863, the men of the 54th Massachusetts, deadly serious, prepared to attack Fort Wagner about 3/4-mile away.  "Among the dark soldiers who were to lead veteran regiments which were equal in drill and discipline to any in the country, there was a lack of their usual light-heartedness," the regimental historian noted, "for they realized, partially at least, the danger they were to encounter." (4)

Milo Freeland was among the lucky ones in the 54th Massachusetts. He survived the attack on 
Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863.  Many of his comrades  were listed as missing in action on 
this muster roll and presumed dead.  (CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)

Supported by the 6th Connecticut, the 54th Massachusetts, bayonets fixed, charged toward the rebel fort. Under artillery fire, many of the Union soldiers stumbled or fell into the many large shell holes caused by Union naval or land batteries. Hit by flanking fire, the 54th Massachusetts slogged through a ditch filled with water before charging up the slope to the fort, where they slugged it out with the defenders. George Stephens, a sergeant in Company B and the son of a lay preacher, described the scene:
The 54th, undaunted by the hellish storm, pushed up to the work, down into the moat, and like demons ascended the parapet, found the interior lined with rebels soldiers who were well sheltered and fought them one hour before we were re-enforced; and when the regiment reached us, the 3d New Hampshire, which was presumed to be our re-enforcements, they, to a man, emptied their rifles into us. Thus we lost nearly as many men by the bullets of our presumed friends as by those of our known enemies. Some few entered the fort, and when they got in, it was so dark that friends could not be distinguished from foes, and there is no doubt but that many a Union soldier was killed by his comrades. On the whole, this is considered to be a brilliant feat of the 54th. It is another evidence that cannot now be denied, that colored soldiers will dare go where any brave men will lead them. (5)



Although Freeland survived the attack, the 54th Massachusetts was routed. Colonel Shaw was among nine officers killed, and 100 were missing and 247 more wounded. Many of the missing had been killed and were later tossed by the Rebels into a trench near the fort along with Shaw, whose efforts to mold the regiment were recounted in the terrific 1989 movie "Glory." 

Freeland served the rest of the war with the 54th Massachusetts, which also fought the battles of Olustee (Florida), Honey Hill (Georgia) and Boykin's Mill (South Carolina) after its epic fight at Fort Wagner. Mustered out of the Union army on Aug. 20, 1865, in Mount Pleasant, S.C., he returned to his wife Sophronia in Sheffield. By July 1880, their family had grown to five children: daughters Jesse, 9, and Sarah, 2, and sons Eugene, 5; Harry, 3, and Benjamin, 1 month. In the 1880 U.S. census, Milo's occupation was listed as farmer, Sophronia's was "keeping house."

Within the next three years, Freeland moved 10 miles south, to East Canaan, a sparsely populated town in the northwestern part of Connecticut. He died there at age 43 on April 16, 1883, 20 years after he enlisted in the Union army. He's buried bear the base of a steep hill in aptly named Hillside Cemetery in East Canaan. Three American flags and an old, broken Grand Army of the Republic marker adorned his slate-gray gravestone during a recent visit. Inscribed on the marker are these words:

The First Colored Man enlisted from the North in The Rebellion of 1861

Close-up of Freeland's tombstone, which was re-dedicated in 1996.

(1) "History of the Fifty-fourth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-65" Luis F. Emilio, Boston Book Company, 1894
(2) Ibid
(3) Ibid
(4) Ibid
(5)  "Voice of Thunder. A Black Soldier’s Civil War. The Letters of George E. Stephens," edited by Donald Yacovone, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Ill., 1998

FACES OF THE CIVIL WAR: Stories and photos of common soldiers who served during the war.
16TH CONNECTICUT SOLDIERS: Tales of the men in the hard-luck regiment.
STORIES ABOUT ANTIETAM: Read my extensive thread on the battle and the men who fought in it.

No comments: