Sunday, December 17, 2017

Sojourner Truth's Grandson, 54th Massachusetts POW

The 54th Massachusetts Infantry, a black regiment allowed to retain its state regimental designation, was composed of African American men from all across the free states. Some men were former slaves who had made new lives in the North, but many more were free men of color. In the regiment were the sons, grandsons, and relatives of black abolitionists. Famously, Frederick Douglass's two sons, Louis and Charles, served in the famous 54th, as did Martin R. Delaney's son, Touissant L'Overture Delaney. Another descendant of a black abolitionist in the 54th was James Caldwell (shown above), the grandson of Sojourner Truth. The image of Truth below shows Caldwell's photograph on her lap.

Caldwell appears in the 1860 census in Battle Creek, Calhoun County, Michigan as a sixteen year old, who was born in New York state. He is listed as "B" for black and appears in the household of Luther Slater, a fifty-seven year old white man, who was a blacksmith. This fits with his Civil War service records, which lists Caldwell's occupation as blacksmith. The young man was likely apprenticing with Slater before the war. Caldwell is the only non-white in the household.

I've tried to determine which child of Truth's was Caldwell's mother. It appears that it was Elizabeth. James may be one of those individuals who was counted twice in the 1860 census. In Sojourner Truth's household in Calhoun County, Michigan was Elizabeth Banks, who was thirty-three, and a James Colvin, which may have been a census takers mishearing of Caldwell, who is listed as fourteen years old, and born in New York state.

When he found out that the Union army was accepting black men, Caldwell apparently told to his famous relative, "Now is our time Grandmother to prove that we are men." Caldwell enlisted in Company H, 54th Massachusetts Infantry on April 17, 1863, and was mustered in on May 13 at Readville, Massachusetts, where the 54th trained. His records state he was nineteen when he enlisted and was five feet nine inches tall, with a "dark" complexion. 

Caldwell's active service was rather short lived, as he was captured in an engagement on July 16, 1863, at James Island, South Carolina, just two days before the 54th attained their Glory at the Fort Wagner fight on Morris Island. It appears that Caldwell was held in Confederate hands for the almost two next years. His records indicate that he was finally released at Goldsboro, North Carolina, on March 4, 1865. His records also show that he spent at least part of this prisoner of war time at Florence, South Carolina, in the "rebel prison pen" there.

James Caldwell was sent on to Annapolis, Maryland (Camp Parole) for recovery. There he received his discharge on May 12, 1865, and received three months extra pay "due to hardships endured at Rebel prisons" by order of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

I was not able to determine what happened to young James Caldwell in the years following the Civil War. If anyone should happen to know or can point me in a direction to where I could find out, I would be grateful.

Image of James Caldwell in the public domain.
Image of Sojourner Truth courtesy of the Library of Congress.


  1. Can you let me know where you found the image of James Caldwell? My searching skills have failed me on this one. Thanks!