It was a struggle for the nation’s soul. President Abraham Lincoln had said as early as 1858 that America could not stand “half slave and half free.”
By late 1862, the union’s fate seemed uncertain as the outnumbered and outgunned Confederate armies proved more adept at fighting than the numerically superior armies of the industrialized north.
It was at this critical moment that President Lincoln authorized the formation of “Colored” or “African” regiments to take up arms in the great struggle for freedom. By war’s end, 200,000 of the Union Army’s 2.2 million soldiers were men of colour. One of those “colored” troops was Private Benjamin Talbot of Usborne Township.
Benjamin Franklin Talbot was born in Kent County in Ontario on April 14, 1845. He was the second youngest of Zebedee and Sylvia Talbot’s seven children. Benjamin’s parents were both born in the United States, indicating that they were probably runaway slaves who saw the Union Jack as freedom’s flag rather than the Stars and Stripes.
It is not known when Zebedee and Sylvia arrived in Canada West, or when they were married, but by at least 1833, they were living in British territory, as their oldest son James was listed as having been born in Canada.
By the 1851 census, Zebedee (48) and Sylvia (40) and their seven children lived in a log house on an Usborne Township farm. The family attended the local Wesleyan Methodist church, but by 1861 claimed adherence to the more evangelical New Connexion Methodist sect. At some point, Benjamin received some schooling because when he enlisted in the Union army he was able to sign his name and listed his trade as a wagonmaker on subsequent censuses.
Although the Talbot family were still in Usborne by the 1861 census when the Civil War broke out, 17-year-old Benjamin’s whereabouts cannot be determined. Although Canadians closely followed the Civil War’s progress, the Talbots, like other African-Canadian families with American roots, had more at stake in the fight. They would have been keenly aware of the war’s tremendous significance especially when, on Jan. 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which granted freedom to slaves in the rebellious states. More than a fight to keep the union together, the Civil War had become a crusade “to make men free”, as Julia Ward Howe wrote in The Battle Hymn of the Republic, which was sung around the campfires by hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers.
Despite the mounting Union losses and the authorization of “colored” regiments, recruitment among freed black men was slow at first. There were several barriers preventing men of colour from enlisting, according to Richard Reid in African Canadians in Union Blue. Reid argued that potential recruits feared being exploited for menial tasks in labour battalions. Others wondered about being subjected to the prejudices of white troops.
However, Reid says the greatest obstacle to recruiting black troops was pay inequality. White troops received $13 per month pay, while their black comrades received only $10, with $3 deducted for rations and clothing, leaving only $7.
When Congress finally granted equal pay in June 1864, and made it retroactive to when soldiers of African descent enlisted, recruitment increased dramatically.
Nineteen-year-old Benjamin Talbot was one of those volunteered after equal pay was instituted. He enlisted in Toledo, Ohio on Aug. 19, 1864 under the name of William Thurman. He later explained to the pension board that he used an assumed name because he did not his parents to find out that he had joined the army.
Reid argues that Talbot, like many Canadians who fought in the Civil War, may also have been aware that by joining the U.S. Army they were violating a long-held British law that forbade British subjects from enlisting in the foreign armies.
In addition to his $13 per month pay, Talbot was also paid a $300 bounty upon enlistment by Luther Skidmore. After the U.S. had enacted conscription in 1863, all fit men between ages 18 and 45 were subject to the draft. Unless, they could afford to pay a substitute to take his place. Thurman presented himself to a military board whose members approved the substitution.
Yet, Reid points out that “money is not the only explanation, war was an adventure and coloured men had an altruistic motive to fight, to end the slave power.”
Talbot was then sworn in as a private in F Company of the 5th US Colored Troop of Infantry.
As the US Army was segregated until 1948, the 5th US Colored Troop in which Talbot was enrolled was an all-Black unit led by white officers who were usually committed abolitionists. By October 1864, after his initial training, Talbot was with the 5th USCT in the trenches at the siege of Petersburg, Virginia. Talbot’s unit was a battle-tested one, having taken part in the failed attack on the Crater on July 30, 1864. In October, at the Battle of Fair Oaks, four of its members won the Medal of Honour. In December Talbot took part in fighting at Sandy Hill, North Carolina and an unsuccessful attack on Fort Fisher, North Carolina.
In January 1865, while in North Carolina, Talbot took ill and was placed in hospital. In the Civil War, sickness claimed far more lives than combat. Over 400,000 military deaths were attributed to disease. In the 5th USCT, two officers and 166 enlisted men died of disease compared to four officers and 77 other ranks lost in battle.
Talbot was fortunate in that he recovered from his illness and was released from hospital in August 1865. The 5th USCT was disbanded on Sept. 20, 1865. Talbot was honourably discharged the same day.
The 1871 Census records that Talbot had returned to Usborne Township after the Civil War and continued to ply his trade as a wagonmaker. He married Elizabeth Hynes, aged 29, in London, Ontario’s famed African British Methodist Episcopal Church on July 7, 1870.
By the 1881 Census, Benjamin and Elizabeth Talbot were living in Chatham with his mother Sylvia and with three children aged 10, 8 and three. They had two more sons, John (b. 1881) and William (b. 1884).
Sometime around 1886, the Talbots moved to Los Angeles, California. He became an American citizen in November 1891 and was active in the local Grand Army of the Republic Lodge. In April 1889, ill health forced Benjamin to apply for an army disability pension. After convincing the pension board that his name was Benjamin Talbot and not William Thurman, he was eventually granted a pension.
Benjamin Talbot died on Feb. 17, 1900 at age 54. The cause of death was listed simply as “accident.”
His wife Elizabeth was granted a widow’s pension, which she received until her death in 1927.
Talbot was one of 2,500 black British North American men who enlisted in the Union Army.
Reid says of them that “these people were true volunteers” because they left the safety of their Canadian homes to fight to break the shackles of human bondage. It was a cause that transcended national boundaries.
Choose among a variety of subscription packages and stay up to date with convenient home delivery and our on the go digital e-edition.
© 2020 Clinton News Record. All rights reserved.
A member of Sun Media Community Newspapers part of Postmedia Network.
Donnez votre point de vue et aboonez-vous!
Votre point de vue compte, donnez votre avisTéléchargez notre application Android