27 April 2012

Private Alexander Branson, First Black Warrior in the North

Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes: 1861-1865

Private Alexander Branson, First Black Warrior in the North—Part I 

 By Ken Robison For The River Press April 25, 2012 

This continues a monthly series commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and the veterans that settled in Central Montana. 

Alexander Branson claimed to be the first African American to enlist in the North during the Civil War, and he might well have been. He was the first to enlist in the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, lived though the desperate assault at Fort Wagner, fought through other battles and skirmishes until the end of the war, and came to the Montana frontier to settle in Lewistown in the 1880s. Alex Branson lived over 40 years in the Judith Basin, earning the respect of his fellow veterans and the affection of his community where he was known as “Uncle Alex.” 

Born in 1840 in the slave-owning society of Charleston, Virginia (today’s West Virginia), Alex Branson likely was born into slavery. He was free before the beginning of the Civil War, although how he attained his freedom is not known. In the early 1860s he made his way to Philadelphia, Pa., where in February 1863 he was working as a barber. From Civil War records we know that he was 5’ 3” in height with a light complexion, black eyes and hair. 

In early 1863 just after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, Governor John A. Andrew, war governor of Massachusetts and a passionate opponent of slavery, succeeded in obtaining the permission of President Lincoln to recruit a regiment of “colored” men in his state. Only three colored regiments had been recruited prior to that time: Brigadier General Rufus Saxton formed the First South Carolina Volunteers (Union) from contrabands (escaped slaves freed in the South by Union forces) in August 1862; Major General Benjamin F. Butler began organizing the 1st Regiment, Louisiana Native Guards from free blacks in September 1862; and Colonel James M. Williams mustered in the First Kansas Colored Infantry in January 1863. 

The 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was the first military unit composed of men of African descent to be raised in the North. Twenty-seven men, the nucleus of the organization, assembled at Camp Meigs, Readville, Mass. on Feb. 21, 1863. The companies were mustered in on various dates between March 30 and May 13, the recruits coming from all parts of Massachusetts and many from outside the state. Since more enlistments were secured than were needed, the surplus became the nucleus of a second regiment, the 55th Massachusetts. 

When Governor Andrew received his order from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, he immediately set about organizing the regiment and at once appointed Captain Robert Gould Shaw of his state as Colonel, and Captain Norwood P. Hallowell to the post of Lieutenant Colonel. Both men accepted but were on duty in the South at the time. Captain Hallowell was the first to start north to help organize the new regiment. He stopped en route to Boston to visit relatives at Philadelphia for a few days and while there he recruited a number of colored men for the new Massachusetts regiment.

Alexander Branson was one of eight men signed up by Captain Hallowell on Feb. 18th, his first day of recruiting, and Branson claimed to be the first in line to sign on for a three year term as Private. Since no recruiting had yet been started in Boston, these eight men were in fact, the first recruits of the 54th Massachusetts. Samuel Branson, a Philadelphia shoemaker, was also among the first eight recruits, and he may have been Alexander’s brother. 

So great was the sentiment in the North against allowing black men to take up arms that Captain Hallowell was compelled to slip his recruits out of Philadelphia by stealth, singly or in small squads, and the Bransons were in the first squad to be sent to Boston. Upon reaching there, the early recruits were mustered at Camp Meigs, at Readville (now part of Boston), and on March 30, Alexander and Samuel Branson were assigned to Company B, 54th Massachusetts under company commander Captain Robert R. Newell. All the commissioned officers of the regiment were white men as the regiment began training. 

Leaving camp May 28, 1863 the 54th Massachusetts, led by Colonel Shaw and with Private Alexander Branson proudly holding his new Enfield rifle, passed in review by Governor Andrew on Boston Common before the largest crowd in Boston history. The regiment embarked the same day on the transport ship DeMolay bound for combat action along the coast of South Carolina. Touching at Hilton Head, June 3, the transport proceeded the same day to Beaufort. During the month of June the 54th visited New Frederica, St. Simon's Island, and St. Helena Island. Embarking July 8, the regiment proceeded to Stono Inlet, where it became a part of General Alfred Terry's expedition to James Island near Charleston, S. C. Near Secessionville on July 16, the Union forces were attacked by a Confederate Brigade under Brigadier General Alfred H. Colquitt, and in the battle that followed the 54th lost 14 killed, 18 wounded, and three missing. The 54th had seen its first combat, and soon more would come. 

Ordered to report to Brigadier General George C. Strong on Morris Island, S. C., July 18, the 54th Massachusetts was chosen to lead an assault on Fort Wagner, a strategic bastion protecting the approach to Charleston. Colonel Shaw deployed his 624 men in two wings, five companies on the left and five on the right with Company B on the right flank of the right wing. At 7: 45 p.m. Shaw raised his sword and addressed his men, “Move in quick time until within a hundred yards of the fort; then double quick and charge! . . . Forward!” The 54th Massachusetts advanced to the storming before charged down the beach and into history. 

The assault of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry on Fort Wagner became legend, most recently honored in the movie Glory. Their Brigade commander Gen. Strong reported, "Under cover of darkness [the 54th] stormed the fort, faced a stream of fire, faltered not till the ranks were broken by shot and shell; and in all these severe tests, which would have tried even veteran troops, they fully met my expectations, for many were killed, wounded, or captured on the walls of the fort." 

The 54th suffered 272 casualties in their tactical defeat, yet their bravery under withering fire was acclaimed throughout the North. Among the casualties were Col. Robert Gould Shaw, two Captains, and about 133 men killed or missing and Lt. Col. Edward N. Hallowell (who earlier had replaced his brother), ten commissioned officers, and 125 men wounded. Despite the staggering losses, Private Alex Branson and the 54th proved to the North that black troops would fight, and not only would they fight, but they could be effective soldiers. 

All through the month of August the regiment was occupied constructing entrenchments and parallels gradually pushing up to within a short distance of Fort Wagner eventually forcing evacuation by Confederates forces on Sept. 7. The 54th Massachusetts was given the honor of being the first regiment to enter the earth works and occupy Fort Wagner. 

The autumn of 1863 was occupied in the reconstruction of Forts Wagner and Gregg so that they would face toward Fort Sumter and Charleston, and in erecting other fortifications. By Oct. 17 Lieut. Col. E. N. Hallowell had overcome his wounds and now promoted to colonel, returned and assumed command of the 54th. In late January 1864, the 54th was assigned to an expedition on the Florida coast commanded by Major General Truman Seymour. It broke camp on Morris Island, Jan. 29, reported next day at Hilton Head, and sailed Feb. 5, for Jacksonville. Arriving Feb. 7, about a week later it accompanied an expedition into the interior. On Feb. 20, it was engaged with the enemy near Olustee, Fla., while covering the retirement of Gen. Seymour's force from that place, losing 13 killed, 66 wounded, and eight missing. Olustee was the largest battle fought in Florida during the Civil War. 

The regiment remained at Jacksonville until April 17, when it returned to Morris Island in front of Charleston, S. C. Now commanded by Lieut. Col. Henry N. Hooper, it spent the summer and fall of 1864 in the fortifications on James and Morris Islands. 

On Nov. 27, eight companies, under command of Lieut. Col. Hooper, were transported to Hilton Head, and attached to Hartwell's (3d) Brigade, Hatch's Coast Division. Six of these companies were engaged at Honey Hill, Nov. 30, losing three killed, 38 wounded, and four missing. On Dec. 6 they were engaged at Deveau's Neck without loss. From Dec. 19, 1864 to Feb. 12, 1865 the 54th, as a part of Hatch's Division, was on guard duty near Pocotaligo, S. C., Sherman's base of supplies, and making frequent demonstrations along the Cambahee River. About Feb. 13 it was reported that the Confederates had retired to the Ashepoo River in the direction of Charleston. Hatch's Division soon followed, crossing the Combahee, Feb. 16, the Ashepoo on the 20th, and reached a position on the Ashley opposite Charleston Feb. 23. Here they found that the city was already in the possession of the Union forces, mostly from Morris Island, and among them Private Alexander Branson and Company B as well as Company F of the 54th which had been detached from the rest of the regiment since the preceding November. The Confederates had evacuated the place the night of Feb. 17, first setting fire to the bridge across the Ashley River and to all buildings in the city that were used as storehouses for cotton, and the following morning the place was occupied by the Federal forces. The main body of the 54th was ferried over the Ashley and entered Charleston Feb. 27, and now the separated companies of the regiment were reunited. 

The 54th remained in Charleston until March 12th when it was sent by transport to Savannah, Ga. From there, on the 27th, it was sent to Georgetown, S. C., arriving on the 31st. Here it was attached to Hallowell's Brigade of Potter's Division, and on April 5 set out on a raid into the interior. At Boykin's Mills, April 18, the 54th was engaged with the enemy, losing three killed and 24 wounded. On April 25 the regiment returned to Georgetown, the close of hostilities having been announced four days previously.

Returning to Charleston, May 6, a large part of the regiment was distributed at various points in South Carolina. District Headquarters detailed Private Branson on May 12 as an orderly in the Mayor’s office. Branson and the regiment assembled at Mount Pleasant on Aug. 17, to be mustered out on Aug. 20. Embarking the following day on the transports C. F. Thomas and Ashland, it reached Galloup's Island, Boston Harbor, Aug. 27 and 28. The men were paid off Sept. 1, and on the following day, after being reviewed by the governor, and having paraded in the vicinity of Boston Common and Beacon Hill, the regiment was disbanded. Private Alex Branson received $38.89 pay and a bounty of $100. 

An important chapter in the history of the 54th was its fight for the regular soldier's pay of $13 per month. At the outset Governor Andrew assured the men that they would receive the same pay and emoluments as all other volunteer soldiers. But in July 1863 an order came from Washington fixing the compensation of colored soldiers at $10 per month, and several times an offer was made to the men of the 54th of this amount, but each time this was declined. Refusing their reduced pay became a point of honor for the men of the 54th. 

In Nov. 1863, the legislature of Massachusetts passed an act providing that the difference of $3 per month should be made up by the State, but the men of the regiment refused to accept this money. They demanded that they receive their full soldier pay from the national government. For eighteen months after the first companies entered the service the men received nothing for their services and sufferings. Finally, in Sept. 1864 the federal government met their demand and all members of the regiment received full pay from the time of their enlistment. 

Battles Fought by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment: 
 Fought on 16 Jul 1863 at James Island, SC. 
Fought on 18 Jul 1863 at Fort Wagner, SC. 
Fought on 17 Aug 1863 at Morris Island, SC. 
Fought on 4 Sep 1863 at Fort Wagner, SC. 
Fought on 5 Sep 1863 at Morris Island, SC. 
Fought on 28 Sep 1863 at Morris Island, SC. 
Fought on 28 Sep 1863 at Fort Chatfiled, Morris Island, SC. 
Fought on 9 Oct 1863 at Fort Wagner, SC. 
Fought on 30 Nov 1863 at Honey Hill, SC. 
Fought on 7 Feb 1864 at Jacksonville, FL. 
Fought on 8 Feb 1864 at Jacksonville, FL. 
Fought on 20 Feb 1864 at Olustee, FL. 
Fought on 1 Apr 1864 at Jacksonville, FL. 
Fought on 2 Jul 1864 at James Island, SC. 
Fought on 15 Jul 1864 at 
In A Camp At Morris Island, SC. 
Fought on 16 Jul 1864 at Morris Island, SC. 
Fought on 30 Nov 1864 at Honey Hill, SC. 
Fought on 10 Dec 1864 at Honey Hill, SC. 
Fought on 10 Feb 1865 at Secessionville, SC. 
Fought on 10 Feb 1865 at Morris Island, SC. 
Fought on 12 Feb 1865 at Salkehatchie, SC. 
Fought on 7 Apr 1865 at Eppes' Bridge, SC. 
Fought on 10 Apr 1865 at Sumter, SC. 
Fought on 16 Apr 1865 at Near Camden, SC. 
Fought on 18 Apr 1865 at Near Camden, SC.
Fought on 18 Apr 1865 at Boykin's Mills, SC. 
Fought on 30 Apr 1865 at Georgetown, SC. 
Fought on 9 Jul 1865 at Charleston, SC. 

 The 54th Massachusetts Regiment was widely acclaimed for its valor during the battle of Fort Wagner. Their actions proved that black men would fight and die in defense of their country. Their valor helped encourage the further enlistment and mobilization of some 300,000 African-American troops, a key development that President Abraham Lincoln once noted as helping to secure the final victory. 

 The legacy of the 54th Massachusetts since the Civil War has been remarkable. In 1867 the new fort in the Sun River Valley in Montana Territory was named Fort Shaw as a tribute to Col. Robert Gould Shaw. A monument, constructed 1884–1898 by Augustus Saint-Gaudens on Boston Common, is part of the Boston Black Heritage Trail. A famous composition by Charles Ives, "Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment," the opening movement of Three Places in New England (Orchestral Set No. 1), is based both on the monument and the regiment. Colonel Shaw and his men also feature prominently in Robert Lowell's Civil War Centennial poem "For the Union Dead" (1964). Most recently, the film Glory won the 1989 Academy Award and re-established the now-popular image of the role African Americans played in the Civil war. Private Alexander Branson had served bravely throughout the Civil War with the most famous black regiment. 

 To be continued next week.   

Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes: 1861-1865 

Private Alexander Branson, First Black Warrior in the North—Part II 

By Ken Robison For The River Press May 2, 2012 

This continues with the second part of the story of Civil War veteran Alexander Branson. Part I covered Branson’s early years and his service with the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. 

Private Alexander Branson survived the carnage of the battle of Fort Wagner, South Carolina, that had decimated his 54th Massachusetts Regiment, but proven the valor of this African American Regiment. Branson survived the other skirmishes and battles through the end of the Civil War. After his discharge Aug. 20, 1865 he returned to Philadelphia, Pa. and worked there during the 1870s as a barber. Little is known of his life during this period, but he probably joined with his fellow veterans, black and white, in the Union veterans’ organization, the Grand Army of the Republic (G. A. R.). 

By 1880 the U.S. Census recorded that Alex had moved west to Sioux City, Iowa on the Missouri River where he worked as a barber. It is not clear when Alex Branson came to Montana Territory. A biographic sketch written in 1924, states that he came to Montana in 1872 and lived for some time in Helena. It is more likely that he came up the Missouri River to Fort Benton by steamboat in 1881 and settled in the Judith Basin, before there was a town of Lewistown. During this period the bison herds had been reduced and cattle ranching was taking over the Judith. 

For some time, Branson engaged in stock raising. When the town began to grow after 1883 he moved into Lewistown and started a barbershop. In July 1887, Alex Branson filed claim for a 160 acre homestead on the west fork of Beaver Creek southwest of Lewistown. The 1890 US Census Veterans Schedule recorded 26 Union veterans living in Lewistown, with Private “Elick” Branson, Company B of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment listed first. 

In February 1891, Branson’s barbershop burned to the ground in a building he owned in a late night fire that also destroyed four other buildings. Insurance covered most of his loss, and he quickly began work on a frame building to house his shop. The building was completed in early July, and Alex moved into his new barbershop with the help of at least one other barber. Ads ran in the Fergus County Argus for the new shop, “Gem Shaving Parlors Alexander Branson, Proprietor Main Street, Lewistown, Montana Best appointed shop in eastern Montana.” 

On New Year’s Eve 1891, when the James A. Shields Post No. 19 of the G. A. R. met to select new officers. Alex Branson was named Surgeon, one of fifteen named to office. Throughout his years in Lewistown, Branson remained active in the G. A. R. during many public events including annual Memorial Day observances. In February 1892 the Republican Party of Lewistown organized a Lincoln Club with Alex Branson listed among the members. In May the Fergus County Argus observed that Lewistown “promises to become a town of wind mills. George M. Stafford, James H. Moe, D. J. Kane, Alex Branson and R. von Tobel are to have mills erected soon. How the sight of them would vex Don Quixote were he to pass through astride Rocinante.” 

On July 11,1892 Branson completed proving up his homestead and received patent to 160 acres. He had other land in the same area and operated a ranch at the head of Little Rock Creek. Active in ranching, business, and politics, African American Alexander Branson had gained the respect of the Lewistown community. 

In May 1894 he was named with three other G. A. R. members to arrange Memorial Day activities. Sunday, May 26th, the Shields Post No. 19 of the G. A. R. and its camp attended church in a body with the Memorial Sermon preached by Rev. U. F. Hawk at the Methodist Episcopal Church. The Lewistown band played that day and on May 30th, meeting with the post and camp at the band room on Sunday at 10 o’clock a. m. and marching from there to the church. On the 30th the band, post and camp met at Jackson’s hall at 1 o’clock p. m. and marched from there to the court house, where the exercises were held on that day. At the court house the following program was carried out: 
Selection by the Band. 
Song by Musical Assembly. 
Address of Welcome, B. C. White. 
G. A. R. Services. 
Selection by the Band. 
Oration by Wm. E. Cort. 
Song by Musical Assembly. 
Recitation by Miss Blodgett. 
Address by Prof. J. M. Parrent. 
 Selection by Prof. T. J. Load. 
Selection by the Band. 
March to Cemetery and Decoration of Graves. 
All business houses were closed during the services. 

Although his Civil War service record reported no battle wounds, Branson suffered early from rheumatism, and in July 1896 was granted a Civil War invalid pension, which was renewed in 1903. Perhaps because of his ailments, in December 1896, Alex Branson opened a hospital in the DeFrate building on Main Street. The Argus reported Branson’s hospital was “prepared to take care of anyone who desires to come to Lewistown for treatment. The rates, including room, board, nursing etc., will be $15 per week, a saving of nearly fifty per cent from that incurred at the hotels. Patients may have any physician they choose, the local doctors all having offered to aid Mr. Branson in caring for patients. A hospital has long been needed in Lewistown, but it is very doubtful if the number requiring such a retreat will be sufficient to make it pay. While no one wishes that men may become afflicted or accidents occur in order that a hospital may be supported, if those desiring the advantages will avail themselves of the opportunity afforded by this venture, it will be a favor to many who really need the attention only to be afforded by a hospital.” 

 By 1898 Branson was a partner of Mr. Danioth operating the Occidental Restaurant serving “fresh oysters, fresh fish and all delicacies of the season.” The following year, when Lewistown held a grand reception to welcome home their veterans of the Spanish-American War, Alex Branson was the Veterans Color-Bearer in the line of march into the city. 

In 1900 Alex served as a trial juror in the District Court, making him one of the early blacks to serve on jury duty in Montana. Ever active and in the news, when Charles Williams of Lewistown received a shipment of six raccoons from friends in Indiana, the Argus observed, “Alec Branson is already negotiating for one, probably with an eye to a Christmas dinner.” 

 Alexander Branson left Lewistown in late Sept. 1902 en route to Washington, D. C., to be present at the encampment of the G. A. R., held there from October 6th to 11th. The Argus reported, “Alex. Branson is a well known citizen of Lewistown and is one of the G. A. R. veterans left in this section of the state. He served during the war with the 54th Mass. Regiment in the capacity of color bearer. The regiment did excellent service and was the first colored regiment recruited in the north. It was under the command of Col. Shaw, after whom old Fort Shaw was named.” The G. A. R. Thirty-sixth National Encampment was held at Camp Roosevelt in the shadow of the Washington Monument Oct. 9-10, 1902. 

 By 1903, Branson was operating a saloon at the end of Main Street. On New Year’s Eve 1904, Alex left his First and Last Chance Saloon before 1 a.m. to go up town for supper. In his absence his saloon was robbed of $50 cash. Over the next two decades, Alex Branson remained active although he was slowed by age and ailments and eventually forced to retired when he was about 80 years old. He lived comfortably with the property he had accumulated and his invalid pension from the government. His great desire was to attend the National Encampment of the G. A. R. in Boston in 1924 to see one last time Boston Commons where he had paraded with his regiment on their way to war and mustered out nearly 60 years before. Unfortunately during the winter of 1923-24 his rheumatism reached a stage where he was unable to care for himself. 

“Uncle Alex” Branson left Lewistown in the fall of 1924 to spend his remaining days in peace and happiness with a niece, Mrs. Roy Hamit, in Pittsburgh, Pa. Lewistown lost a respected resident who had earned the good will of the entire community. Montana lost an honored Civil War veteran when Alexander Branson passed away in Philadelphia at age 94 on Dec. 26 1934. Today, Private Alexander Branson rests in Philadelphia National Cemetery. 

 Note: If you have Civil War veterans in your family who settled in this area, we would be pleased to hear from you with copies of stories and photographs that we can share with our readers. Send your Civil War stories to mtcivilwar@yahoo.com or to the Overholser Historical Research Center, Box 262, Fort Benton, MT 59442. 

 [Sources: Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors & Marines in the Civil War; Luis F. Emilio, A Brave Black regiment: the history of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865; American Civil War Regiments; Civil War Trust Maps; Montana Newspaper Association 13 Oct 1924 Judith Basin County Press; US Census 1880-1930; Philadelphia City Directory 1872-77; GLO Patent Alexander Branson; Fergus Co Argus 21 May 1891; Fergus County Argus 5 Feb 1891, 23 Apr 1891, 20 May 1891, 31 Dec 1891, 4 Feb 1892, 23 Nov 1893, 17 May 1894, 15 Dec 1897, 26 Oct 1898, 1 Nov 1899, 18 Sep 1901, 1 Oct 1902, 6 Jan 1904] 

 Photos for Part I: 
 1. Statue by Augustus Saint-Gaudens on Boston Commons Honoring the 54th Massachusetts Regiment 
2. Battle Map of Fort Wagner Assault 
3. Alexander Branson in his Grand Army of the Republic Uniform 

 Photos for Part II: 
1. Alex Branson in Lewistown with Mrs. Reed and her children. 
2. Private Alexander Branson Grave in Philadelphia National Cemetery