In October of 1863, two young men enslaved on the Southern Maryland farm of George Peterson made a bold move towards fighting for their own freedom and that of four million individuals enslaved in the United States. William H. Coates, aged 18, and William B. Jones, aged 19, enlisted at Camp Stanton in Charles County for a three year term with the United States Colored Troops (USCT). Located along the Patuxent River at Benedict, Camp Stanton was established in 1863 as a recruiting station and training camp for the U. S. Colored Infantry.
The enlistment of Black men into the Union Army came to be viewed as critical to the success of the war. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (for whom Camp Stanton was named) wrote to Abraham Lincoln on October 1, 1863: “There is…in my judgment, a military necessity, in the State of Maryland… for enlisting into the forces all persons capable of bearing arms on the union side without regard to color, and whether they be free or not” (Berlin 1982:212). Although President Lincoln had initially resisted enlisting men of color, the Bureau of Colored Troops was formed in May of 1863 to facilitate the recruitment of African-American soldiers into the Union Army (Cornish 1965). By the end of the Civil War, there were almost 180,000 men in 175 USCT regiments; about one-tenth of the manpower of the Union Army. U. S. Colored Troops fought in every major battle during the last two years of the war and their efforts contributed to the success of the Union.
In Maryland, 8,718 men enlisted in the USCT, enrolling in locations throughout the state. Training the newly-enlisted troops was a critical step in making the men battle-ready. At places like Camp Stanton, the troops received instruction in handling arms and drills. Archaeological excavations conducted at Camp Stanton (18CH305) in 2012 revealed traces of four 6 by 8 foot tent structures aligned in a grid pattern that probably corresponded to streets within the camp (Cochran et al. 2016). Archaeological traces indicated that these tents were heated – an important wintertime consideration in this exposed, windswept location along the Patuxent River.
Coates was enlisted in Company I of the 7th Regiment of the U. S. Colored Troops and Jones in Company H of the same regiment; one of four regiments (also the 9th, 19th, and 30th Regiments) trained at Camp Stanton between October 1863 and March of the following year (Eshelman et al. 2009:13-17). Although many recruits died from diseases and exposure at the camp during the harsh winter of 1863, both Coates and Jones survived training. They left Camp Stanton in March of 1864 and served with their regiments in Virginia, South Carolina and Florida before spending the final days of the war near Petersburg, Richmond, and Appomattox during the siege operations that took place there between August of 1864 and April of 1865. After Lee surrendered, the 7th Regiment was sent to Texas, where they patrolled along the Rio Grande River until October of 1866.
Coates remained a private throughout his service, although Jones achieved the rank of corporal in July of 1864. They both survived the war (USCT soldiers had a one in five chance of dying) and were mustered out on October 13, 1866 at Indianola, Texas. Coates returned to Calvert County, where by 1880 he was married to Rebecca and living in the immediate vicinity of the Peterson farm, where he had been enslaved.
Maryland had not been included in the ten Confederate States affected by the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation; thus slavery was not officially ended in Maryland until a new state constitution was passed in 1864. Any person remaining enslaved in Maryland was emancipated on November 1, 1864 (Fuke 1999:1-2). It appears that Coates and Jones received permission to enlist from George Peterson, who signed a statement that these two men were enslaved by him on his farm along the Patuxent River where Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum is currently located (Ancestry.com). Because their enlistment occurred before slavery was abolished in Maryland, Peterson was entitled to receive a bounty for each man he allowed to join the USCT. Peterson received $300 to compensate for Coates’ lost labor in November 1864 and manumitted Coates that same day. The Union Army would also enlist self-emancipated men who had escaped from their owners and sought freedom by joining the Army.
The important role that the U. S. Colored Troops played in the war cannot be overstated. In recognizing the contributions of the troops, Abraham Lincoln declared, “Without the military help of the black freedmen, the war against the South could not have been won.”
Berlin, Ira, editor. 1982. Freedom; A Documentary History of Emancipation 1861-1867. Selected from the Holdings of the National Archives of the United States. Series II The Black Military Experience. Associate Editors Joseph P. Reidy and Leslie S. Rowland. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Cochran, Matthew, Matthew Palus and Julie M. Schablitsky. 2016. Archaeological Survey and Corridor Study Along MD 231, Benedict, Charles County, Maryland. Maryland State Highway Administration.
Cornish, Dudley Taylor. 1965. The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861–1865. W.W. Norton, New York.
Eshelman, Ralph E., Donald G. Shomette, and G. Howard Post.2009 Benedict, Maryland, Cultural Resource Survey and Context Study (Phase I). Prepared for the Charles County Department of Planning and Growth Management. Charles County, La Plata, MD.
Fuke, Richard Paul. 1999. Imperfect Equality: African Americans and the Confines of White Racial Attitudes in Post-Emancipation Maryland. Fordham University Press, New York.
Massachusetts Civil War Project. 2018. Lt. Eben White. https://macivilwarmonuments.com/tag/lt-eben-white/