Black soldiers guarded confederate prisoners in Rock Island; one soldier’s descendant helps keep the history alive
Quad City Times June 19, 2022
(Tribune News Service) — For nine months during the Civil War, a regiment of Black soldiers, many of them former slaves, guarded confederate prisoners on what is now the Rock Island Arsenal.
For the past 30 years, Rock Island’s Shellie Moore Guy has been researching and accumulating history on those soldiers, like her great-great-grandfather, Charley Wilson.
Wilson, born into slavery in Kentucky, later settled in Port Byron, where he became the town’s veterinarian and a beloved community figure.
About 980 men were a part of the regiment, which was one of a number of U.S. Colored Troops in the Union Army. All told, more than 178,000 Black soldiers served during the final two years of the Civil War, making up 10% of all Union Army troops. Another 19,000 served in the Navy.
Moore Guy’s efforts to connect the dots of historical documents into a narrative of the soldiers’ lives — hours of research, writing a children’s book, founding an organization dedicated to the history of the local regiment and giving informational presentations — serves both as knitting together genealogical history important to her family and bringing to light to local history of critical efforts during a war that led to the freedom of millions of Americans.
On Monday, she’ll give a presentation at the Rock Island Arsenal 158 years after the 108th was organized in Louisville, Ky., on June 20, 1864, an anniversary that was not lost on the organizers.
Monday will also be just the second time Juneteenth — which celebrates the end of slavery in confederate states — will be recognized as a federal holiday after legislation made it so in June last year, and the first time several local governments, such as the state of Illinois and the city of Davenport, have recognized the holiday by giving employees the day off.
“We here in the Quad-Cities can connect ourselves to something so monumental and important,” Moore Guy said. “Our history here is connected to the Civil War, which meant for Africans for Blacks, for colored people, the right to be free.”
“Here in the Quad-Cities, we can go to the place where the 108th Regiment performed duties and served this country trying to free themselves,” she added.
Although her great-great grandfather has the most detailed available documentation thanks in part to an interview he did with local philanthropist and historian John Hauberg, Moore Guy hopes to document the lives of each soldier in the 108th Regiment. She and other members of her organization have found resources with a 501(c)3 nonprofit, called the Reckoning, that’s dedicated to examining the legacy of slavery. That includes learning how to navigate databases for marriage certificates and military records, and how to find hard to reach information.
Moore Guy said she felt lucky she could identify nine generations of her family. The federal Census began recording African descendants in 1870, although they’d been brought in shackles more than 250 years before to what would become the U.S. Slaves were saddled with the last names of their owners, and families were fragmented when sold to different owners, making genealogical history difficult to trace for many Black Americans.
In documenting what their lives were like during slavery, during the war and afterward as community members, Moore Guy said, she hopes to deploy a more complete narrative of their lives.
“This is not just about thanking them for their service,” Moore Guy said. “This is about respecting their very humanity.”
Moore Guy’s great-great-grandfather, Wilson, married his wife, Eliza, while they were still enslaved in Kentucky, and they had three children together. According to an account he gave Hauberg, Wilson said he left with a group of other enslaved men on a train guarded by union soldiers to arrive in Louisville, Ky., and enlist.
Wilson was assigned to the 108th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops, which traveled to Rock Island by train, and soldiers were charged with guarding prisoners who fought to enslave people who looked like Wilson.
“It was very much a life-and-death decision,” Moore Guy said of the 108th regiment soldiers. “They were very much aware of the threat of what might happen if they were in battle and captured. Would they be returned back to their masters or would they be killed?”
The conditions at the arsenal were tough.
Within the first few weeks, 200 men from the regiment reported illness. By the end, 54 soldiers would die during the regiment’s nine months at Rock Island. Nationally, nearly 40,000 Black soldiers died over the course of the war, most of whom — 30,000 — died of infection or disease.
And soldiers encountered animosity from the confederate prisoners and from some locals.
A newspaper article in the Davenport Democrat, reported, “It seems as though there was a screw loose on the island, else so many would not have been allowed to come over here at once to startle the usual peaceful citizens of Davenport into such fearful commotion.”
Despite those challenges, there are no disciplinary actions in the service records. The one exception was a freed man who was court-martialed for insubordination and being absent without a pass.
And the Rock Island Argus wrote upon the regiment’s departure to Vicksburg, Miss., in April 1865: “The 108th USCT have conducted themselves with great propriety since they were stationed here.”
Wilson was one of a number — though unknown exactly how many — of Black soldiers to return to the Quad-Cities once the war was over. Wilson’s wife and children arrived in Rock Island after he was stationed there, and his family wasn’t allowed to follow the regiment to Mississippi, drawing Wilson back to Rock Island, Moore Guy said.
Wilson’s brother, Sandy Terry — also a member of the 108th regiment — and sister, Celia, stayed in Rock Island and were two founding members of Second Baptist Church in Rock Island, Moore Guy said.
Moore Guy, now 67, first heard in detail about her great-great-grandfather’s military history in the 1990s from an author who included a paraphrased interview Wilson gave to Hauberg in a book about Rock Island County history.
“I’m a story teller, so I immediately started reading his narrative in some performances,” Moore Guy said.
According to Wilson’s account, his owner in Kentucky owned a tobacco plantation with about 60 slaves, and he bred and trained race horses. Wilson rode as a jockey and learned from the owner and a horse trainer how to look after the horses, which sparked interest in his career later in life as a veterinarian.
“I learned to doctor horses, and when a neighbor’s horse got sick, he came and worked in my place while I went over to doctor his horse. And so the more I did the more I studied and learned, and that’s how I learned. I had made up my mind when I was a boy that I wanted to be a Horse Doctor,” his account reads.
As he boarded the train preparing to leave to enlist in the Civil War, according to Wilson’s account, a race horse owner approached him and said: “Well Charley, so you’re going to the war. I didn’t think you’d leave old Mr. Wilson.”
To which Charley Wilson replied: “This is a new deal Mr. Garvin; this is different. You know when you turn your canary out of his cage he don’t come back. He’s free.”
Wilson added in his account, “I’d been a prisoner all my life, and this was a new deal, and my, we thought a lot of being free.”
After the war, Wilson returned to Rock Island and moved to Port Byron in 1876. Moore Guy said Wilson was remembered as a pillar of the village there. She attended a Port Byron historical society meeting, where members showed her a ballad written in honor of her great-great-grandfather.
But the battle for equality didn’t end with Wilson’s service in the Civil War. In a 1890 Rock Island Argus article on a Republican Party meeting, it read that several Black residents complained that party bosses only courted Black voters just ahead of an election and weren’t advocating for equal treatment at any other time.
“He had been, he said, a slave 20 years in the south, and had been a slave 25 years in the North,” the newspaper paraphrased Wilson saying.
“The war ended; they’re not slaves anymore, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t know that there’s still a fight,” Moore Guy said.
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