by Terry Rogers
On Friday, February 9, the Milford Public Library in conjunction with the Delaware Humanities Forum, presented “Black Soldiers in the Civil War” with a reenactment by historian Ron Whittington. Whittington has done extensive research on African-Americans who served in the Civil War and portrays a gentleman from Milford, William Owen.
“Back in junior high and high school, when we learned about the Civil War, we would learn right up until the war and then jump to the end,” Mr. Whittington said. “This is because there were a lot of things in that war we still don’t like to talk about. One little known fact is that Delaware had over 1,000 African-American’s soldiers who fought for the Union Army.”
Whittington who had a spiral notebook with the names of about 950 of the soldiers, pointed out that a February 4 edition of the News Journal proved that the list was incomplete. The paper ran a story about William Faucett along with a photo that discussed his service, but Mr. Faucett does not appear on the list held by Whittington.
William Owen was a carpenter in Milford. It is possible that his name originally had an “s” on the end, but when he enlisted, it was left off his enlistment paperwork, which happened often. Whittington and Ronnie Vann researched to determine if there had been an error but could not come to a conclusion. Owen owned his own business and worked in the shipbuilding industry as a carpenter. He was a free man and lived in the area near where St. Paul’s Church now stands. In 1863, Owen learned that a young man by the name of Frederick Douglass planned to speak in Philadelphia and he decided to travel to hear him.
At the time of the speech, Douglass was not free. His owner had lent him to a Baltimore shipbuilder to work as a corker, a laborer who caulked openings on wooden ships to keep them from leaking. One of the sailors lent Douglass his shirt, tie and passbook, which allowed him to travel between ports, and Mr. Douglass boarded a train. Ironically, he was seated next to the man who he was supposed to be working for, but the man never looked him in the eye as, during this era, white men did not feel black men were “worthy” of eye contact. Mr. Douglass made it to Wilmington and spoke at the home of Thomas Garrett.
“He stopped at Garrett’s house because Garrett was known as a ‘friend of a friend,’ as the Quakers put it,” Mr. Whittington said. “He was a conductor on the Underground Railroad in Wilmington. This was a stop as Frederick Douglass made his way to freedom, picked up at the train station by Mr. Garrett. It was at this house that William Owen heard Mr. Douglass speak. The very next day William Owen enlisted.” At the time, Owen was 38 years old but he knew he wanted to do something.
During the speech, Owen heard Mr. Douglass state his famous line calling men of color to arms. “Put a musket in my hand, an eagle on my button and no man can deny me the right to be a citizen of this United States,” Mr. Douglass said as part of his recruitment efforts.
Owen, along with John Parker of Bridgeville, were mustered into the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infrantry, the first African-American regimen established in the North. The regimen was established under the Emancipation Proclamation. Prior to the Proclamation, which only freed slaves in rebellion states, even free blacks were not permitted to serve in the Armed Forces. The 54th Massachusetts began recruiting in February 1863 with two sons of Mr. Douglass among the first to enlist. Governor John Albion Andrew, who had pressured the government to allow African-Americans to fight, placed a high priority on the unit. Mr. Whittington said that the 54th and the 55th Massachusetts consisted of some of the most educated soldiers. Leaders like Robert Gould Shaw were educated at Harvard at the demand of Governor Andrew who not only required the company leaders be educated, but that they had received that education at certain schools because he wanted the unit to succeed.
Owen and Mr. Parker were mustered in as part of Company B at Fort Penn. They were then transported to Reedsville, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. At that time, there was a question whether they would be given arms as black soldiers were initially put in positions as laborers, digging trenches and batteries. Men of the 54th and 55th, however, were not because they were considered special. At the time, white soldiers were paid $13 per month while black soldiers were paid half. The 54th and 55th did not accept any money at all rather than take half-pay.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Parker did not survive to the first battle,” Mr. Whittington said. “He more than likely died of the flu before the regiment was shipped out for their first battle in South Carolina. But Mr. Owen fought in that battle.” The first test of the regiment was at the Battle of Fort Wagner, a battled designed to help the North capture Charleston. During the battle 270 of 600 men were killed, wounded or captured. Colonel Shaw was killed along with 29 of his men. The total casualties were the highest suffered by the 54th in a single engagement during the war. Although the fort was not taken, the 54th was credited with valor during the battle and their recognition led to further African-American enlistment.
Owen remained in the 54th Massachusetts until the end of the war. At the war’s end, he may have been in Washington DC when the Grand Review marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, but he was not permitted to march as he was black. In July 1998, a monument was erected in Washington DC to honor the African American Civil War Soldiers. Whittington said that he was able to march down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the Willard Hotel where Ulysses S. Grant and others watched the Grand Review all those years ago, as a reenactment of the Grand Review march.
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“Mr. Owen never returned to Milford to live,” Mr. Whittington said. “I was told he was not buried here but we have never been able to find his grave. Edna Sharp’s mother, Mrs. Turner, who lived to be almost 100, said she remembered him and recalled him marching in parades. He may have come back to Milford for parades, but we think he lived in Polktown, near the Reedy Point Bridge. There were more opportunities for him as a carpenter in New Castle than here in Milford after the war.”