DescriptionCivil War Archive of Charles A. Hill Relating to His Service in the 1st Regiment Infantry, U.S. Colored Troops. An extensive archive consisting of 112 letters from Hill to his wife Lydia Hill, along with 49 canceled postal covers (9 with stamps removed) relating to his service in the Civil War.
Charles A. Hill, a resident of Crete Township, Will County, Illinois, was mustered out a captain in Company C, 1st Regiment Infantry of the United States Colored Troops. His 112 letters to his wife, dating from September 30, 1863 to September 16, 1865, contain his views of black troops, scenes of camp life, love for his wife and children, and war news.
In the first letter in the archive, dated September 30, 1863, Hill writes from Washington, DC, weeks after his enlistment. He informs his wife of the good news of his appointment to the rank of 1st lieutenant, "just one week from the day I was examined." Hill signed all of his letters to his wife "Gus." When Hill wrote to his wife from Washington, his regiment had been ordered to join the U.S. Department of Virginia, attached to Union forces at Norfolk and Portsmouth, Virginia. Hill, who was white, claimed to his wife in an October 13 letter that he was not prejudiced against black soldiers in his regiment.
"Yesterday had Regt'l Dress Parade and I was surprised at the fine Soldierly appearance of the Troops. Whether this particular regiment will fight or not remains yet to be tested but I think they have a decided taste for 'military' in spite of the constant drudgery of working on fortifications. But I will not dwell upon this till I have been longer with them and had a chance to test them more fully...they seem all in earnest and don't hang back for special invitations or on a/c of modesty, assumed or otherwise. Some will probably accuse me of prejudice, no doubt, when I speak or write thus. But I do not intend to be and do not think I am prejudiced. I intend to study and judge them fairly."
Hill had more to say concerning his views of black troops in a November 14 letter, in which he stated that "A great many have the idea that the entire negro race are vastly their inferiors-a few weeks of calm unprejudiced life here would disabuse them I think-I have a more elevated opinion of their abilities than I ever had before. I know that many of them are vastly the superiors of those (many of those) who would condemn them all to a life of brutal degradation. Many-very many are of course inferior to the whites-degraded, ignorant and brutish-but is it any wonder that they are so?"
In a November 21, 1863 letter written to his wife, two days after President Lincoln gave his address at the Gettysburg battlefield, Hill mentions reading a newspaper account of "the Eloquent address of the Hon. Edward Everett....I shall send you the paper and allow me to enjoin upon you Dear to give it a careful reading, even if you have to neglect some other duty-even that of writing me." No mention is made of Lincoln's address!
After taking a short leave in February of 1863, Hill returned to his regiment in early March and stationed for a while in Currituck, North Carolina, where he learned of the Battle of Olustee, which took place on February 20 of that year. In March 4 letter home, Hill referred to the heroism of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Troops. "Once again from that fearful harvest of death comes up 'The Colored troops fought with the utmost gallantry.' How much more such evidence will be needed before Congress and the people are willing to treat them like other soldiers?"
During the rest of 1863 and the early part of 1864, Hill's regiment saw little action. At the end of April 1864, the regiment moved into eastern Virginia, where General Ulysses Grant was battling General Robert E. Lee's army to a bloody standstill. It was here that Hill's regiment engaged in their first real encounter with Confederate troops. Writing to his wife from Wilson's Landing on the James River on May 6, Hill reports on the fighting, and the black troops' retribution for the Fort Pillow massacre, in which Confederate troops killed more than 300 black Union prisoners. "This PM a part of Co. B, our Regt., under Capt Eagle & Lt. Rice went on board a Gun Boat and down the River to capture a Rebel signal station....The Rebs took to their heels and tried to get away but were met by Lt. R's men and forced back till met again by Capt. E's men. And there they were shot down. 5 killed and buried on the spot, 3 wounded, and 2 unhurt prisoners....Had it not been for Ft. Pillow, those 5 men might be alive now. 'Remember Ft. Pillow' is getting to be the feeling if not the word."
In June of 1864, the 1st Regiment USCT moved to City Point, Virginia, where Hill temporarily assumed quarter master duties. In a June 11 letter to Lydia, he writes of one of Grant's assaults on Petersburg, which resulted in "a miserable fizzle....We went as near P as we could get without being so uncourteous as to crowd the Rebs out of their intrenchments [sic]-had a good view of some very strong works, smelt some powder, heard the whistle of a few Rebel bullets and the 'chicker-icker, chicker-icker, bang' of a few shells and then like the celebrated King of France who marched up the hill with 40,000 men, we marched back again. And for once the Rebs were uncivil enough not to accompany us Home." As Grant continued his assaults on Petersburg, Hill's regiment was involved in the fierce combat. Hill received a slight wound, which he described in a June 15 letter as "a mere scratch, a flesh wound under the left arm by a spherical case ball." He enclosed three small pieces of cloth that the bullet "took from my clothing in its progress. I found the ball in my stocking this morning, with the patch-work attached." [Three small pieces of bloodstained cloth are enclosed in the canceled postal cover of this letter.] He proceeded to describe the incident: "We were (Co. C and E) skirmishing at the time and had forced the Rebs back to their holes and then they began to shell us, throwing grape & canister & spherical case right into our skirmish line....I was sitting on my right heel with my left elbow resting on my left knee. A spherical case-a shell filled with a mixture of combustibles & small bullets...burst into the air a few feet from my head and one piece of the shell passed under my arm rubbing pretty hard against my left side and at the same time one of the small balls made a pretty little hole about 2 inches below my arm pit on the left side, just grazing the ribs." He was back on duty within a month. Several days later, on June 21, Hill wrote of the bloody encounter on June 15, the day he was wounded, and the valor shown by the black troops of his regiment. "I confess I am surprised at the dash and courage of these men. I have never sure of them before and even now I fear they would not have that steadiness under fire that many have but for a charge they cannot be beat....In any place they are much better than most of the New York & Penns. Regts." Hill later wrote that a bill equalizing pay of white and black soldiers was approved by President Lincoln the same day as the fight, which he termed "a rather singular coincidence. I guess Old Abe will never have cause, when these men are rightly led, to repent that act. It is only an act of tardy justice that should have been done months ago."
Hill came down with a fever and complications thereof and was hospitalized in an U.S. Army hospital for almost four months from late July through the first week of November 1864, during which time he was recommended for a promotion to rank of captain. By the time he was discharged from the hospital, the war had changed dramatically, with Union victories at Atlanta and Mobile Bay. Late December 1864 found Hill and his regiment off moving between the coast of North Carolina and outside the Confederate capital at Richmond. In a February 7 letter home, Hill mourns the death of his son Stafford and praises Congress' recent moves concerning the 13th Amendment. "I am glad to see Congress has finally taken the first step toward the Abolition of Slavery-by proposing an amendment of the Constitution. And glad Illinois was the first to second the motion. Let the ball roll on." While in North Carolina in February of 1864, Hill witnessed the gradual decimation of Confederate forces. On February 24, he wrote his wife of the expectation of receiving from the Rebels "from 5 to 10,000 of our poor half-starved Prisoners. They are unable to feed them, and so consent to yield them up....No exchange-simple delivery....This is one of the First Fruits of Grant's Policy of Pushing & Concentration. The Confederacy is Bleeding, Starving & Choking-all at once." Hill finally received his promotion to captain on May 12, 1865.
Hill's letters from May 1865 through the following September contain his frustrations concerning his attempts to resign so that he could travel back home to Illinois. In July 1865, Hill was stationed in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where he served as Acting Superintendent in the Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees & Abandoned Lands, for the Sub District of Elizabeth City, which was, as he stated in a July 23 letter "a very important, arduous & delicate-or rather responsible duty. I am vested with a great deal of authority in matter relating to the Cold. People." Hill discusses the problems he sees facing "Reconstruction," in North Carolina in particular and in the South in general in a July 30 letter. "The leaven of Secession is still in the lump. They regard themselves as whipped of course but the most of them seem bound to try & accomplish their purposes in a different way. The Yankees are still 'the damn yankees' and they are just as much as ever disposed to fight them-with peaceable weapons. Hatred of the North & northern institutions is about as strong as ever and will doubtless influence their political actions for a good many years to come....They would do in a day what in four years they have failed to do-subvert the Republic." Hill was mustered out of the service in late September 1865.
The 1st Regiment, United States Colored Infantry was organized in the District of Columbia from May 19 to June 30, 1863. It served at Norfolk, Portsmouth and Yorktown, Virginia until April 1864, and participated in an expedition from Norfolk, Virginia, to South Mills, Camden Court House, and other locations in North Carolina from December 5-24, 1863. The regiment was part of General Benjamin Butler's operations south of James River and against Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia from May 4 to June 15, 1864. The regiment saw action in several battles, including Wilson's Wharf, the siege of Petersburg and Richmond, the battles of Chaffin's Farm, Fair Oaks, the assault on and capture of Fort Fisher, the capture of Wilmington, North Carolina, and the occupation of Goldsboro and Raleigh. After the surrender of Confederate Joseph E. Johnston's army on April 26, 1865, the regiment served in the Department of North Carolina until September of that year. The regiment mustered out on September 29, 1865.
Each letter is accompanied by a typed transcript. In addition, the archive contains a 10 page copy of a typescript entitled "Fort Pillow and Wilson's Wharf: Black Troops as Victims and as Victors," a 5 page copy of a typescript entitled "Wilson's Wharf, 24 May 1864," and a photocopy of several regimental histories of U.S. Colored Troops, including the 1st Regiment. Also present are 11 letters from Hill to his wife and children, dating from August 3, 1898 to March 15, 1902, along with 5 canceled postal covers; an undated 3-page handwritten poem addressed to "My Dear Father" by Lydia Wood Hill; and 2 letters from an unknown correspondent to Hill and his wife, dated November 8 and 19, 1901. Also, a Will County School Commissioner's Certificate, 9" x 5.25", dated February 4, 1865, certifying Mrs. L. M. Hill as a schoolteacher for two years; plus various newspaper clippings.
Condition: The letters in the archive, written in ink and pencil, have the usual folds, but are in good condition, as are most of the cancelled postal covers.
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