His Is the Voice of Black Soldiers

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 5, 2008 | Go to article overview

His Is the Voice of Black Soldiers


Byline: Gordon Berg, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The journalistic career of Thomas Morris Chester started off with a bang - a really big bang.

On Aug. 9, 1864, Chester stood about a mile from the James River wharves at City Point, Va., watching thick, acrid smoke and sheets of fire erupt into the noonday sky. Chester was there as a war correspondent; the only black correspondent accredited to a daily Northern newspaper to cover the campaigns of any Union army during the Civil War.

His vivid description of the earth-shattering explosion and the horrific devastation visited on the vast Union supply depot by a Confederate "torpedo" planted on an ammunition barge was the first of a series of insightful reports Chester sent back to his editors at the Philadelphia Press.

From August 1864 to June 1865, Chester, writing under the pen name "Rollin," was "embedded" with the Army of the James. What he saw and wrote about for those 10 months provides a unique insight into the lives of black soldiers serving the Union in Virginia and opens a window into the personal beliefs of a very unusual man.

Chester wrote about the battlefield accomplishments and the daily routines of camp life experienced by the black soldiers serving in the Army of the James because it had more regiments of U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) than any other Union army. He gathered his information by living the way the troops lived, witnessing firsthand the dangers and the boredom they faced every day.

Chester was born in Harrisburg, Pa., on May 11, 1834. His father owned a prosperous restaurant known for its good food and for being the city's center of abolitionist sentiment. It was the only place in town selling William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper, the Liberator. At age 16, Chester left home to attend the Allegheny Institute, a new school near Pittsburgh set up by the philanthropist William Avery to provide "colored Americans" with the fundamentals of a college education.

An extremely intelligent young man, Chester was soon learning more outside the classroom than inside the lecture hall. He became deeply involved with the American Colonization Society, an organization dedicated to resettling blacks in Africa. He also became acquainted with an emerging nationalist emigrationist movement that urged blacks to establish a homeland outside the United States. This movement, led by Martin R. Delany, Pittsburgh's most prominent black man, included a philosophy advocating citizenship for black people and promoting racial pride.

In April 1853, Chester decided to immigrate to Africa to attend school in Monrovia, Liberia. During the next 10 years, he traveled frequently between Africa and the United States, lived and worked in Liberia, returned to America to continue his education, and toured extensively throughout Europe. He became a polished orator, regularly giving speeches to raise money for a variety of organizations helping blacks emigrate from the United States to Africa. Chester returned to the United States in spring 1864, this time to stay.

The reasons why John Russell Young, editor and former war correspondent for the Philadelphia Press, offered the 30-year-old Chester a job are not clear. A biographer of Chester suggests that the symbolism of having the only black war correspondent would bring political benefits to the newspaper. Its publisher, John W. Forney, had supported the Democratic Party until his frustration with the policies of President James Buchanan led him to switch to the fledgling Republicans.

However, none of the Northern daily newspapers paid any attention to the growing importance of black troops in furthering the Union cause. Forney probably hoped to increase circulation of his paper at Camp William Penn. Located just outside Philadelphia, it was the largest camp for mustering and training black regiments in the North.

Many of these regiments eventually joined the Army of the James encamped near Williamsburg. …

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