I’m spending the evening going through the service records of the members of the 56th U.S. Colored Infantry, some of which participated in the Action at Wallace’s Ferry, Phillips County, Arkansas, on July 26, 1864. I’m working at tracking down this engagement, and am attempting to identify the U.S. combat deaths attributed to the engagement. I’ve got all but five, so far. Just looking through the thing, a few basic observations pop out.

  1. How did ANYONE survive this regiment? Between the multiple drownings, the smorgasbord of diseases that beset the unit during its service at Helena, and the massive cholera epidemic that struck it in August, 1866, it seems like more than half of the men who joined it didn’t make it out alive.
  2. The 1866 cholera epidemic is interesting in its own right. There’s a monument to the unit and its endurance of the outbreak at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. Based on the pattern of deaths, though, it seems like men started dying of cholera while still in Helena (some of the first deaths are listed as there, and not aboard a vessel), then the Army loaded the regiment onto several steamers (the Continental, Luminary, and Belle appear repeatedly) to sail them up to St. Louis. Being crowded onto those steamers in August must have helped spread the disease.
  3. The 56th was raised primarily in Missouri, mostly around St. Louis. A lot of the men list counties or cities around St. Louis as their place of nativity, though there are a sizeable number of native Virginians represented as well. Herein we may be seeing the effect of the 2nd Great Migration, wherein millions of enslaved African Americans were forced to move from plantations on the eastern seaboard to the Mississippi River Valley to serve on farms there.
  4. It is really quite fascinating to see how many U.S. soldiers had claims documents included in their personnel files. I don’t mean that THEY were claiming things, but rather that others were claiming THEM as property. The U.S. had a process for compensating loyal Southern whites for former slaves now in service to the U.S. Army, and those forms remain with the soldiers’ permanent records.
  5. Few to none of the men of the 56th, though they were primarily former slaves, had “slave” or “servant” entered for their prewar occupation. Most were classed as “farmer” or “laborer,” codes that would have been applied with equal frequency to white soldiers in other regiments.
  6. There aren’t many deserters in this unit. A few men departed soon after joining, and a few men left in August, 1866 (in the midst of a cholera outbreak… I’m inclined to let them slide a bit on this one), but all-in-all, they mostly stayed put in spite of the adversities of serving in Helena (or “Hell-in-Arkansas,” as it was known).
  7. Captain Charles S. Kincaid of Company D was kicked out of the service roughly three weeks after Wallace’s Ferry. I’m wondering, based on the timing, if he did something ignominious that morning that got him shuffled out of the unit.

So far, the U.S. casualties I’ve been able to track down are:

  • Battery E, 2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery – CPT Joseph F. Lembke, CPL William Smizer, PVT Robert Jenkins
  • 56th U.S. Colored Infantry – COL William S. Brooks, SURG J.C. Stoddard, (from Co. A) PVT Ambrose Clark, PVT John Woolfork, PVT Charles Woods, 1SG Henry C. Stewart, (from Co. D) PVT Peter Clordy, (from Co. F) SGT John Yaw, PVT Joshua Fowler, +4 more yet to be identified
    • (Co. A) PVT Henry Jones, (Co. D) 1LT Addison Crane and PVT George Wilson, (Co. F) PVT Charles Lawrence all died of their wounds subsequent to the engagement
  • 60th U.S. Colored Infantry – Adjutant Theodor Pratt, (from Co. F) PVT James Bebabean, PVT David Henshaw, and PVT Henry Howard


One thought on “Browsing the 56th

  1. Did any of them have a wife who later received a pension? Some pension records have long descriptions of the man’s service in them, provided by witnesses who knew them.

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