Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Peter Caulder: A Free Black Soldier and Pioneer in Antebellum Arkansas

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Peter Caulder: A Free Black Soldier and Pioneer in Antebellum Arkansas

Article excerpt

ON JUNE 18, 1812, PRESIDENT JAMES MADISON signed into law the war bill that Congress had narrowly passed the day before. Madison, exasperated by unfriendly British actions at sea during the Napoleonic Wars, thus led his country into war against a powerful adversary. The established army numbered less than twelve thousand men, but immediately eager volunteers flocked to recruiting booths. Recruits who signed on for five-year regular army terms formed the core of the military, but campaigners counted on state militia units to provide much of the punch-if the timing of battles was right. Militiamen enlisted for three months at a time, after which most went home, even if a major engagement loomed just ahead.1 Patriotic citizens too busy or too wealthy to serve for three months could round up substitutes to join state militia. One such substitute was South Carolinian Peter Caulder, a "free colored man," who eventually came to own one hundred-sixty acres in Arkansas Territory by virtue of his War of 1812 service.

Eleven days after the declaration of war, one Alexander Lane sent Caulder in his place to join the 5th (Keith's) South Carolina Regiment, where he became part of Capt. Elisha Bethea's company. Two other free colored men, Martin Turner and James Turner, enlisted in the same regiment as Caulder on the same day, June 29, 1812.2 Captain Bethea and his green recruits probably had no opportunity to march into battle, since, during that first summer of war, the nine land engagements that occurred between U.S. and British, Canadian, or Indian forces took place north of the Ohio River, hundreds of miles from South Carolina. By September 29, 1812, when his ninety days expired, Caulder had earned for Lane, a white man, nineteen dollars and ninety-eight cents, computed at a rate of six dollars and sixty-six cents per month.3

Two years later the threat of British victory motivated Congress to strengthen the army by offering cash and a one-hundred-sixty-acre land bounty for new recruits. An easing of the unwritten rule of an exclusively white soldiery enlarged the manpower pool and cracked open the door to regular army service for Caulder and other free black men.4 Caulder's state militia experience evidently convinced this young, landless mulatto that adventure and advancement awaited him in the army. He seized the opportunity, becoming one of those Americans of African descent whose service in the first quarter of the nineteenth century briefly integrated the U.S. army, including, in the case of Caulder, units along the frontier in Arkansas.

On September 2, 1814, at the Marion County Courthouse, South Carolina, Caulder joined the 3rd Rifles, one of four new fifteen-hundredman regiments being readied to take on the British. Two weeks earlier, Caulder's militia comrades Martin Turner and James Turner had enlisted in the same unit. The Turner and Caulder families were neighbors whose property on Catfish Creek adjoined. While Caulder's parentage is to this point unknown, the young Turner brothers may be traced back two generations to John Turner, who had a white mother of the "Irish breed" and a black father. Under South Carolina law, any child born to a white woman and a black man was considered free colored, but entitled to the same privileges as whites, including rights in ownership of property and slaves.5 Caulder's regiment, raised in the Carolinas and Virginia, came into being too late and in the wrong place to see action against British troops. Only a handful of engagements occurred after September 1814, the principal one being, of course, at New Orleans, in which free black Louisianans fought with Gen. Andrew Jackson against the British. Before that famous battle Jackson had echoed the army's new racial toleration by summoning American blacks to "rally round the standard of the Eagle," proclaiming:

Every noble hearted free man of Color, volunteering to serve during the present contest with Great Britain, and no longer, there will be paid the same bounty in money and lands, now received by the white soldiers of the United States, namely, one hundred and twenty-four dollars in money and one hundred and sixty acres of land. …

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