Dutch Gap, Virginia. Picket station of Colored troops near Dutch Gap canal. Library of Congress.
Norwell’s Lemuel Freeman Integrated White Civil War Units
October 27, 2022
West Scituate Mass 1862
Gov Sprague sir I am a colored man and would like to enlist in the colored regiment of your state will you please write to me if I can join and what bounty your state pays recruits and what aid the familys receive and if should be entitled to it yours Respectfully,
West Scituate Mass
Thirty-two-year-old Lemuel Freeman wanted in.
His ancestors were the enslaved Scituate residents Philis and Jack and their son, Revolutionary War veteran Asher Freeman. Lemuel’s southern brethren still endured slavery.
In August 1862, Lemuel Freeman sent the above appeal to Rhode Island Governor William Sprague. Recruitment of African American soldiers did not commence until the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. And it wasn’t until May that President Lincoln issued General Order No. 143, which spawned the United States Colored Troop designation for regiments such as the 54th Massachusetts Infantry.
But Lemuel Freeman was determined to join.
Thirza Freeman raised her son Lemuel, but she never married. Lemuel wedded his cousin Diana Comsett Freeman in 1849; Diana gave birth and lost a daughter months before the marriage. And in the following year’s U.S. Census, we find Lemuel’s mother in the South Scituate almshouse described as a “pauper;” Thirza died there indigent ten years later, just before the war.
Life was difficult for shoemaker Lemuel Freeman and his family, but he wanted better. Notably, Freeman’s letter to Gov. Sprague inquired about the recruitment bounty (a bonus paid to entice soldiers to enlist), salary, and aid to which a soldier and his family were entitled. Like his great-grandfather Asher and millions of American soldiers since, Lemuel Freeman sought military service to improve conditions for his family.
It’s unknown if Gov. Sprague wrote back. Still, by the end of September, Lemuel Freeman, a man enumerated on census records as both “Black” and “mulatto” (he had Mattakeeset heritage) had enlisted in the 45th Mass. Volunteer Infantry Militia.
The rub, though, is that the 45th was a white regiment. Common understanding tells us that the army was strictly segregated after the Revolution and throughout World War II. The 1989 film “Glory” gives the strong impression that Black soldiers did not serve in the Civil War until the formation of United States Colored Troop regiments.
Yet, it doesn’t seem that Lemuel Freeman passed into the 45th as white. Between the Sprague letter, census records, and the fact that Lemuel’s two South Scituate cousins—William and Warren Freeman—later served in the 54th, there was little ambiguity about how Freeman identified.
Literature on Black men serving in white units is sparse, and it’s believed that “it was rare, ” but the controversial Militia Act of 1862 authorized states to conduct drafts for the state militia, and it opened opportunities for African Americans to serve as laborers and soldiers. Notably, Lemuel Freeman isn’t even the only African American man from the town that became Norwell to serve in the 45th Mass Volunteers; Albert Winslow enlisted in the 45th 15 days before Lemuel. Winslow’s brother Richard was Lemuel Freeman’s best man and served in the 54th.
Pvt. Freeman returned home in 1863, but the life of the professional soldier lured Lemuel back to the battlefield. He enlisted for three years in another “all-white” unit, the 58th Massachusetts Infantry. In April of 1864, soon-to-be Sgt. Freeman was on the move south. Through several train connections and a steamship voyage between Groton and New York City, Freeman and the 58th arrived in Alexandria, Virginia. The men marched south, and by mid-May, the 58th had lost six men at the bloody Battle of the Wilderness. Next, they were engaged in the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, where 17 58th men died fighting.
Lemuel Freeman found himself amidst Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s costly but necessary Overland Campaign. By mid-June, Sgt. Freeman had survived Cold Harbor and the first assault on Petersburg. The United States Army at Petersburg was now laying siege to forces and a supply line critical to the Confederate capital of Richmond. In under two months, 53 men of the 58th had died and 251 other soldiers were wounded or missing. But “[f]rom the afternoon of the 18th day of June to the morning of the 30th day of July, the Regiment was engaged in no battles,” reported a 58th soldier in a regimental history published in 1865.
It’s easy to imagine June 26, 1864, was a warm and sunny Sunday, as the temperature in Northern Virginia reached the mid-eighties and the previous Friday’s weather report in Richmond noted a lengthy dry period; the observer described travel as “dusty.” Twenty miles to the south, Lemuel Freeman was on picket duty.
Civil War picket lines were advanced positions used to surveil enemy movement and give warning of attacks. Often, picket lines were neutral, non-combative positions. At times, Union and Confederate picketers were close enough to converse. But the nature of war being what it is, picket lines were also targets of harassment and a favorite of sharpshooters. Lemuel Freeman’s medical records detail the gunshot wound he suffered that day, noting a “G.S.W. dorsal region with commuted fracture of 3rd rib…near its articulation.” Four days later, the army finished transporting Freeman 130 miles north to Mount Pleasant Hospital in Washington, D.C., and on July 1, Freeman suffered a “secondary hemorrhage into the left pleural cavity.” Lemuel Freeman died of internal bleeding.
Enter Norwell’s First Parish Cemetery by foot from Main Street, turn left and walk parallel to the fence for 75 yards. To your right, nestled amongst a sloping grassy landscape featuring the shade of pine trees, you will find a cluster of 13 Civil War veterans’ gravesites. Eight of these men were African American. Not all men fought in Robert Gould Shaw’s 54th like William Freeman, Jacob Talbot, and Henry Winslow. Lemuel Freeman and Albert Winslow, of course, served in white regiments. John Talbot served in the 55th Mass. Infantry, the regiment created to accommodate the enthusiastic nationwide surplus of men who wanted to join the 54th. Two others, James Patterson and James Thompson, fought in the 5th Mass. Calvary, the third and final USCT regiment formed in Massachusetts.
Post-Civil War government headstones are distinct. They’re white marble, extend 16 to 24 inches above the ground with a rounded top, span 12 inches wide, and are four inches thick. The soldier’s name, rank, and unit are the only words inscribed—all the men in this cluster rest under this type of stone except Lemuel Freeman.
Lemuel’s stone is indeed white, but his family placed it soon after the army returned his body to South Scituate in 1864. The Department of the Interior did not codify the design of the Civil War-type headstone until an 1873 act of Congress. Lemuel was the only of the eight Black soldiers buried at First Parish Cemetery not to return home.
Details of Lemuel’s military service, wound, and subsequent death come to us from Diana Freeman’s widow’s pension application. Lemuel’s oval stone lies next to Diana’s grave and a five-foot-tall family obelisk. And although caretakers mark Lemuel’s grave with a Civil War medallion and flag, the resemblance to a platter and faded inscription make it easy to miss. But his stone is there for all of us to see, just like the records of uncounted Black men who “integrated” supposedly all-white Civil War units.
Images of the eight headstones of First Parish Cemetery’s African American Civil War Veterans. July and October 2022.
135 South Scituate/Norwell men fought in the Civil War. The African American community comprised 5% of Norwell’s 1860 population, yet 9% of Norwell’s Civil War veterans were Black. The small but tight-knit African American community in Norwell sent 12 of its 48 Black men (25%) to the Civil War. Contrast this number with the fact that 15% of the white men of Norwell served. Imagine the strain that this put on local African American women and Black families.
In addition to the eight men above, four other African American South Scituate/Norwell men fought in the Civil War. Lemuel’s Cousin and Warren’s brother William Freeman is buried in Colebrook Cemetery in Whitman. Lemuel’s best man and Albert’s brother Richard Winslow rests at Hanover Center Cemetery. Not far from Richard is the stone of Benjamin Franklin Lee. Benjamin and his father were boarders of South Scituate abolitionist Venus Manning. Although born in Marshfield and buried in Hingham, Jason Prince was a wartime resident of South Scituate and served the in 54th.
This page identifies 12 Black and multi-racial men that South Scituate/Norwell sent to the Civil War. If you know of an African American or native-descended soldier from Norwell that I’ve missed, reach out.
Click here for the full list of bibliographic and genealogical sources on Lemuel Freeman.
Read more local history:
Venus Manning was likely born into slavery in Scituate, Massachusetts. She eventually became one of the wealthiest single women in what is now Norwell and used her money to fund abolitionist causes.Keep reading
This is the remarkable story of an African American teenager fighting in the Revolution, of a young soldier suffering a life-altering wound and witnessing an historic execution, and of a disabled veteran fighting for benefits.Keep reading
Copyright Wayne Tucker 2022. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License
Additional keywords: Diana Comsett Freeman Pierce, USCT, Dianah Comsett, Dianah Compsit, slavery in Scituate, slavery in Norwell, anti-slavery, integrated civil war units, black soldiers in white Civil War units 45th Massachusetts Infantry Militia, 58th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry