I’ve discovered I have at least TWO great-great-grandfathers who fought in the Civil War, one each on each of my parents’ lines. In honor of the beginning and end of the war (April 12, 1861-spring 1865), I will revisit one of my Civil War ancestors, James Archer, with a greater understanding.
In 2018, I ordered the book African American Freedom Journey in New York and Related Sites, 1823-1870: Freedom Knows No Color by Harry Bradshaw Matthews, Associate Dean and Director, Office of Intercultural Affairs at Hartwick College in Oneonta, NY. At some point before COVID, I spoke briefly with the professor on the telephone, who clarified a genealogical question for me.
The book has 143 pages of a narrative about the struggle for freedom, including that of his ancestor Isaac Killingsworth of Barnwell, SC. Then it contains over 200 pages of appendices that were particularly useful to my research.
When slavery was finally abolished in 1827 in New York State, there was a public celebration in Cooperstown on July 5 of that year. Frederick Douglass’ famous speech What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July? was given on July 5, 1852.
There were many other efforts to end disenfranchisement, discrimination, and oppression in the Empire State. The black press, such as The Colored American, often fueled these endeavors.
Black people had no organized opportunity to fight when the Civil War broke out in 1861. By 1863, however, entities were able to recruit black soldiers. New York was one of the slower states to take action because of Governor Horatio Seymour’s resistance. Finally, by November 1863, “enlisting colored troops in New York” began, purportedly with black soldiers receiving the same bounties as white volunteers.
This occurred not long after the New York Draft Riots of July 1863, when black people were often the target of violence. This showed a remarkable turnaround in attitude.
Professor Matthews quotes from the Tribune of December 5, 1863. “New York City, so recently the theatre of mob violence, in which hatred of the Negro seemed to be the uppermost idea – this city, so long considered free from the intrusion of colored troops, and the only place in the loyal States where it was possible to raise a spirit of opposition to them, has exceeded its hospitality to the 2d Regiment of United States Colored Troops.” [NY 20th was the first, the NY 26th, the second.]
At this point, my great-great-grandfather, James Archer, joined the NY 26th (Colored) Regiment. He enlisted on December 29, 1863, in Binghamton, NY, at the age of 29. The troops were first quartered at Riker’s Island. The 26th included soldiers from the West Indies.
The regiment fought several important battles in South Carolina in 1864, including at John’s Island, James Island, Honey Hill, and Beaufort.
But James was not the only member of his extended family in the NY 26th. His brother-in-law, William Bell, who was about 30, also signed up. James had two small children, Morgan and James Edward. I believe William also had a young son, Martin.
Because New York was so slow in accepting black recruits, some folks joined regiments in other states, such as Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. Indeed, Henry Bell, William’s 22-year-old brother, joined the Massachusetts 54th in March 1863. This group was presented in the movie Glory; about 42% of that regiment was killed or wounded.
James was made a corporal in April 1864. He was sick in a hospital starting September 16 in Beaufort; I don’t know the cause, but I suspect it involved mosquitos. Indeed, more people died from disease than gunfire in the NY 26th.
Still, James, William, and Henry all made it home safely. The 1865 New York State Census shows that their household in Binghamton usually consisted of the patriarch Edward Bell, whose wife Phillis Wagner had died that year; his sons William and Henry; his daughters Francelia, 19, and Harriet (Archer); Edward’s son-in-law James Archer, and the three grandchildren.
But James and probably William were still in South Carolina until they were mustered out in August 1865. This was likely true of Henry as well.
I don’t know the identities of the three men pictured, which was in possession of one of my sisters and my mom before that. I believe the guy on the left is James Archer, who had hazel eyes. Could the other guys be William on the right and Henry in the middle?
James and his wife Harriet, whom he married in 1856, had two more children, Lillian (b. 1866) and Frederick (b. 1869), after the war. He worked as a potter, a worker in a tin shop, and a general laborer.
An act in 1890 finally allowed black soldiers to receive the same benefits as their white counterparts. James Archer was listed as an “invalid ex-Union soldier,” though it did not specify his ailment.
James in the 1910 Census
In 1910, James Archie, a name variant that also shows up in other records, was a black male, 74 (though actually 76), living at 13 Maple Street, Binghamton, NY. This house was purchased in 1882 and owned free and clear, without a mortgage. He was married to Harriet Archie for 53 years at that point. James still could not read or write.
James Archer died in March 1912. He was buried at Binghamton’s Spring Forest Cemetery. His gravestone is about 250 meters from the house where he passed away. As noted previously, the only daughter of James Archer and Harriet Bell was Lillian Archer. She married Edward Yates (b. 1851) in 1893, and they had at least five children, four of whom survived to adulthood.
Edward Yates died in March 1911. Lillian (d. 1938) then married Maurice Holland (1856-1943) in July of that year. Lillian’s oldest surviving daughter, Gertrude Yates (1897-1982), married Clarence Williams (1886-1958) and had a daughter, also named Gertrude (1927-2011).
The younger Gertrude, who would eventually go by Trudy, married Leslie H. Green (1926-2000) in March 1950. They had three children, of which I am the oldest.