African American Soldiers in the Civil War

Simon Bradley and the 56th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry

Group photograph of Edwardsville G.A.R. post #461 in 1912. “G.A.R.” stands for “Grand Army of the Republic,” a Civil War veterans group. Simon Bradley is standing in the back row, fourth from the right. The photograph was taken in 1912 by Herbert C. Crock.

The United States War Department created the Bureau of Colored Troops in May 1863. President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation the previous New Year’s Day declaring freedom for people held as slaves in the Confederacy and inviting them to serve in the Union Army.

The Union Army began recruiting Black soldiers in Missouri as soon as the United States Colored Infantry (USCI) was established. Enslaved people in the non-Confederate slave state of Missouri didn’t benefit from the Emancipation Proclamation. But if a Missouri slave joined the Union Army – with or without his owner’s blessing – he received a certificate of permanent and irrevocable freedom. As a pretense to placate proslavery Missourians, the Army named the first regiment of African American recruits from Missouri the 3rd Arkansas Infantry (African Descent).

Simon Bradley was born in Kentucky in 1846. Like its bordering neighbor Missouri, Kentucky was a non-Confederate slave state. It isn’t known whether Bradley was born into slavery or where he lived in 1863. We do know that Bradley turned seventeen years old in August 1863, the same month the 3rd Arkansas was organized in St. Louis. Bradley joined the regiment before it became the 56th United States Colored Infantry the following March.

The 3rd Arkansas/56th USCI primarily provided garrison duty at Helena, Arkansas, for three years. After gaining liberty via the Emancipation Proclamation, thousands of former slaves came to Helena seeking a place to live. The desperate and unhealthy conditions in Helena, Arkansas, inspired the soldiers of the 56th USCI to nickname it “Hell-in-Arkansas.” About a third of the 1,416 men who served in the regiment died of typhoid, malaria, or dysentery in Helena.

Private Simon Bradley served with Company K, which numbered among five companies of the 56th USCI that spent time occupying DeValls Bluff, Arkansas. The White River port town served as a Union supply depot, receiving men and material via the river and then shipping them to Little Rock by rail. The five companies returned to Helena in August 1866 and boarded the steamboat Continental to muster out in St. Louis.

By the time Bradley and the rest of the soldiers on the Continental arrived in Cairo, Illinois, thirteen men had died and dozens were ill. Over fifty soldiers died on board between Cairo and an island near Jefferson Barracks, where the survivors were quarantined. The regiment’s remaining companies arrived in St. Louis on the Platte Valley, but were soon sent to join the others on “Quarantine Island” – both steamboats were infected with cholera. The official death toll for the 56th USCI from the shipborne cholera epidemic reached 175.

The combined tragedies of rampant disease at the regiment’s duty station in Helena and cholera on their trip home claimed the lives of 649 soldiers of the 56th USCI. An additional 25 soldiers were killed or mortally wounded in action at Wallace’s Ferry in July 1864. The lucky 52% of the regiment who survived included Private Simon Bradley.

Miner’s cap lamp dating to the late 19th century, MCHS object 2018-302-0011-FIC. The lamp hung on the miner’s cap, in front of his face. The miner lit the oil-fueled lamp by the lighting a wick at the tip of the spout.

Bradley married Martha E. Wilson shortly after the war ended. The couple initially settled in Christian County, Illinois, and had nine children. The family later moved to Edwardsville. Bradley supported his family by working as a laborer, a stationary engineer, and a hoisting engineer. Bradley also worked as a fireman and watchman in Edwardsville coal mines. After Martha died in 1897, Bradley married Lizzie Stuart. He died in 1928 and is buried in Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. The cemetery also contains a monument to Bradley’s comrades who died of cholera on “Quarantine Island.”

The 29th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry

It isn’t known how many Black Civil War veterans besides Simon Bradley settled in Madison County after the war. We do know that at least eighteen African American men who served with the United States Colored Troops are buried in Madison County.

We also know that ninety African American soldiers lived in Madison County at the time they enlisted with the United States Colored Troops. Ten were killed in action and one died later from battle wounds. Eight more died of disease and five were discharged due to disability. Per policy, all higher-ranking commissioned officers in the United States Colored Troops were white. Non-commissioned corporals and sergeants were promoted from the Black ranks. For more details about these soldiers and their service, view this Roster compiled by Madison County Historical Museum and Archival Library staff.

Seventy-four of the ninety men in the roster enlisted with Company E of the 29th USCI. The regiment of Illinois recruits was sworn into service in April 1864 as part of the Fourth Division of the Ninth Corps. The 29th USCI participated in siege operations against Petersburg and Richmond from the summer of 1864 through the spring of 1865. Nine soldiers from Madison County died in the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864, during the siege of Petersburg. The regiment also fought in the Appomattox Campaign. The campaign ended the war and one Madison County soldier lost his life. A total of 234 of the regiment’s 2,072 soldiers died from combat wounds and disease.

Canteen used by a Union soldier during the Civil War. MCHS object 1967-052-0003.

Leather cartridge box with brass fastener, MCHS object 1957-017-0011.


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