My great-great-grandfather commanded an all-black company during the Civil War, and met Lincoln

Jeff Nelson, | 01/17/13

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Read More: african american, civil war, colored company, joseph s. mcclelland, soldiers, troops

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My great-great-grandfather commanded an all-African American company during Civil War. Below is his full diary – including his description of General Grant and President Lincoln unexpectedly appearing in camp to mingle with black troops.

(Note to Reditors -- I tried posting this on Reddit, but it is too long and was rejected.  (I previously posted the first excerpt from this diary at

My grandmother and her brother transcribed this typed version from a written diary. To my knowledge, this personal history has not been released publicly anywhere. After interest from some Redditors in r/history I am posting the full diary documenting some of my great-great-grandfather's Civil War experiences.

My great-great-grandfather, Joseph Simpson McClelland, was from Tiffen, Ohio, and went on to become a newspaper publisher after the Civil War. He enlisted into the Union Army on September 11, 1863, in Seneca County, Ohio, to serve three years during the war. He was mustered in the U.S. service as 2nd Lieutenant of Captain George B. Cock's COMPANY "G", 5TH REGIMENT UNITED STATES COLORED TROOPS, Colonel James W. Conine commanding.

My father's cousin now has the diary which I am excerpting here. As you can read below, it is a series of incidents my great-great-grandfather recalled and decided to write down about 40 years after the war, in the early 20th Century:

* * *

mcclelland.jpgMy first experience as a soldier was in West Virginia. We went out one night from Clarksburg to a little village a few miles south, arriving there at midnight, where we camped in a church. I was given eight men at daylight to go to a house and arrest a man for enticing young men to join the rebel army. I put my men on guard at each door and window and then knocked at the front door.

A woman's voice asked, "Who is there?"

I replied, "Soldiers."

"What do you want?"


"There is no one here to prepare it."

"Why can't you?" I asked.

Then came the reply, "I don't work."

"Well, I have a cook with me."

"You can't get in here, there's no one here but me."

I then gave her just five minutes to open the door or I would break it in. The key could be heard turning in the lock and a small black head peered out.

"Is your master in?" I inquired of the little black girl.

When she said, "No," I forced my way into the house and the men searched it thoroughly, but found no one.

We soon sat down to a good breakfast, but the madam was wonderfully bitter. She did all the talking and I forbade the boys to say anything.

Our command left the town soon afterwards but returned just before noon the next day. When we returned to the house, the lady opened the door for me and burst out crying. I thus knew that I had caught her husband. I soon arrested him, and, as they were just sitting down to a fine dinner, I took possession and asked them to have dinner with me, which they did. The lady had lost her fire and temper and acted very gently; I admired her very much. After dinner, I marched the man to headquarters. I learned afterwards he was sent north and remained a prisoner at Camp Chase, Ohio, until the end of the war.

* * *

The 5th Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry was organized at Camp Chase, Ohio, and I received a commission as a 2nd lieutenant in company “G.” We first went to Norfolk, Virginia, and made a raid from there through the Dismal Swamp to Elizabeth City, North Carolina. No hostile forces had been through that region so we lived high on turkey, chick, pork, etc.

The first day out, in passing through a dense wood, I stepped to the side of the road to rest and the next thing I knew, I was alone and the troops were just moving out of sight. I finally managed to attract attention and was assisted into an ambulance. I was sick for several days and although we were in a country swarming with guerillas, I refused to return to camp. We went to Elizabeth City where we tore down houses for firewood. We stayed there for only a few days.

On our return the troops were fired on by guerillas and two of my men were killed the first time we were under fire. The next day we burned every house in that region and then made a hurried march to Cirrintuck as a rebel force was trying to cut us off from Norfolk. We made good time and got out of their reach.

* * *

colored_infantry.jpgWe were next sent to Yorktown, Virginia, and finally marched across to Ft. Monroe. On the 5th day of May we steamed up the James River to City Point. Having been detailed to command the pioneer corps, we were the first to contact the rebel pickets [soldiers], who hurriedly fled before us. When Gilmore made his feeble attack on the Petersburg defenses, I was again in the advance with the pioneers and we were for the first time under artillery fire. We returned to City Point and on the 15th of June again attacked the defense of Petersburg. Here we made our first charge, carrying all the works on our front. We captured seventeen twelve pound Napoleans (brass). When I got to the guns they were so hot I could not bear my hand on them. They had been used so frequently firing at us.

That day while my company was supporting a battery, I saw a shell come bounding along and put my foot out to stop it. Fortunately it was too far off, otherwise I might have lost a leg as another officer did the next day. In this charge a shell broke off the butt of Sergt. De Long's gun, who was next on my left. It struck me on the left leg, causing occasional lameness from that day to this, nearly forty years later. This was my only wound during the war.

We lay for months in trenches around Petersburg, making occasional attacks on the works there and at Richmond. On one of these attacks on the latter place we marched away to our right to near the York (?) Railroad and met with an overwhelming defeat. Retreating some ten miles that night in a severe rain we lay down to sleep. Captain Bates having a rubber blanket and I a woolen one, we joined forces and slept together. In the morning our pants were frozen solid above the knees. The weather was very cold and the suffering great.

At another time we crossed the James River at Deep Bottom and attacked the rebels at Chapins Farm Ft. Harrison by assault but we were repulsed the next day at Ft. Gilmer. The color bear being shot, we lost our colors, but they were restored the next day. In three days we lost 333 out of 656 men in our regiment.

* * *

We lay so long in the trenches without any vegetables that the scurvy broke out. Carloads of onions were sent to us and we could eat them like apples. On Thanksgiving Day there were carloads of turkey sent to the army; to the men they were a gift, but the officers had to pay for theirs.

While encamped on Chapin's farm we were paid off. As I was the regimental quartermaster, I was about the only officer who could take the mens' money to the express office. They gave me about $3,000, and, going to Bermuda Hundred, I had to ride two miles north and six miles east to the express office.

When I got about a half mile from the camp I met Kantry's cavalry and artillery companies coming as hard as they could go; they had been whipped and were demoralized. They warned me that I would be captured if I didn't turn back, but I have time and rode as fast as the horse could go until I made the turn to the east and got to the James River just as they were taking up the pontoon bridge. They let me over and I was safe, but it took three months before the last of the men had heard that their money had reached their families safely.

* * *

While holding entrenchments at Chapin's farm below Richmond I was sent out one morning on picket duty [guard duty]. When relieving the office on picket duty I called his attention to a couple of peach trees covered with red. He told me that the day before, three pickets had been eating their dinner around the campfire when a hundred pound shell exploded between them. The red appearance of the trees was caused by portions of the three men. All that could be found of their remains were buried in a cracker box under one of the trees. This was just across the James River from Ft. Darling from where the shot was fired. I did not have my headquarters in that same place.

* * *

After lying five weeks continuously in the Petersburg trenches, we were marched out two miles on the City Point road for rest. The next day I noticed two mounted men coming up the road. I soon recognized General Grant and the other was in civilian dress, something unusual there at that time. From pictures I had seen in Harper's Weekly, I saw it was President Lincoln.

Telling the boys who it was, they all started toward the road cheering. The President's legs nearly touched the ground and he looked very awkward. The horse he rode was spirited and it took all of his time to manage the beast. A couple of hours later the two officers returned when every soldier in the company was out cheering them. The colored soldiers fairly worshipped “Marse Linkum.”

* * *

In August of 1864 we drew out of the trenches before Petersburg and marched thirty miles to the front of Richmond. On this march I was acting quartermaster and had a horse to ride. Only five of the officers were able to march with us. They asked me to go to the sanitary commission tent and get them some blackberry cordial to make them able to march with the troops.

I went to a number of the tents but they would give me nothing because they were not attached to our corps, the 25th. I then went to the Christian Commission tent and got what I wanted, which helped our officers to keep their place.

* * *

Sergeant Farrow's family in West Virginia was in want so he came to me for a loan of twenty dollars until next payday. I let him have the money and very shortly thereafter we got into a battle and retired behind breastworks [a temporary defense structure] and lay down with very strict orders not to show our heads until the enemy came up. Serg't Farrow could not control his curiosity, however, and he rose up and was shot through the forehead, he was killed instantly so I was cheated out of my twenty dollars.

* * *

While at Petersburg, I was sent with a couple of men and a major to City Point for sanitary supplies for the sick. Appearing before the agent of the sanitary commission with my requisition from our surgeon I found him in conversation with a dandy cavalry office and a woman of uncertain character. After a time I got his attention and showed him my requisition. He refused to fill it, saying he did not have the supplies. However I stayed around until he consented to fill the needs of the fast woman and I saw she was getting the very goods that I wanted. Then I got wrathy and demanded the goods I was sent for and threatening otherwise that I would report him to General Grant, whose headquarters were not forty rods away. This had the desired effect and in fifteen minutes I was on my way back to camp.

* * *

From Yorktown we made two raids up the peninsula toward Richmond, once to release its Union prisoners at Richmond, in which we were unsuccessful, the rebels getting word of our coming. The other raid was to help General Kilpatrick on a similar venture. The pickets of the two forces encountered each other before daylight and each thought the other were rebels, but Kirkpatrick's men were overjoyed to see us even though most were black. It was an all night and day march with no stop. On these trips we had no grub except what we each carried in his haversack. Our failure to release the Union prisoners was mainly because a rebel prisoner had bribed his guard to let him out and he then informed the rebels of our approach. We were not allowed to make any fires as they might let the rebels know we were coming.

* * *

In December of 1864 we left the Petersburg entrenchments and went to City Point, took a steamship and sailed down the James River. We went up Chesapeake Bay and up the Potomac until midnight. We then turned down the river to Fortress Monroe and out to sea under sealed orders. We were on our way to Ft. Fisher, North Carolina. We had with us sixty war vessels and a host of transports. It was the largest naval force ever sent out of the United States carrying 600 guns from 10 pounders to fifteen inch cannons. Th transports lay off about a mile from the naval vessels and witnessed the bombardment of the fort, a wonderful sight.

We did not assault the fort but returned to City Point. This was under General Ben Butler. Two weeks later we started for Ft. Fisher again under General A. H. Perry; the naval vessels were again with us. This time we landed, the men in the boats getting up to their armpits in the water. I had been seasick and then wet up to the neck in salt water. However, we got ashore, gathered up some fuel and put the coffee pot on to have some supper. But my company and two others of the regiment were ordered to fall in, without anything to eat and with clothes wet through and through, and this in January.

It was about a mile across the land to the Cape Fear (?) River and before we got quite to its banks, I spied a light ahead. I soon discovered it to be a dwelling and found the people sitting down to supper. I lost no time in arresting the whole outfit and sitting down and eating their meal which consisted of hot biscuits, butter, boiled sweet potatoes, and milk, the best supper I ever had.

I called in my cook and had him bake more biscuits and sweet potatoes; I then called in the other officers and I helped them to fill up.

The next day we marched down toward the Fort and captured a little steamer loaded with ammunition for Ft. Fisher.

The next day three infantry brigades marched down to where we were and relieved us and then carried the fort by assault. At nine o'clock the sent to our corps for our two best regiments to help them carry the rest of the works. Our regiment got to the fort just as the rebels surrendered. Rockets were sent up from all the naval vessels which made quite a display.

I asked permission of the colonel to stay in the for until morning. This, he would not grant, and, in the morning I returned and upon entering the fort, the first thing I saw was the bodies of the two officers with whom I had intended to say in the fort. Both were dead, having been killed in the explosion of the magazine.

* * *

That is the full dairy of recollections my great-great-grandfather wrote. It was copied by my grandmother, Helen McClelland Nelson with her brother, Joe McClelland, in 1967. They wrote: “We had some difficulty in deciphering our grandfather's handwriting; it was something like working out a puzzle. While we probably did not get every word, exactly, I think we did get the correct meaning. Any mistakes in typing, spelling, or punctuation are ours.”

From Googling, I can see that there is a lot of information about this regiment and other colored troop regiments, and many valiant stories on other sites of African American troops taking command of their company after all the white officers were killed or wounded, and gallantly leading it.

Here is a link to my great-great-grandfather's discharge papers.

Here is a link to an “Oath of Identity” he signed.

* * *

About my great-great-grandfather, McClelland:

newspaper-mcclelland.jpgJoseph S. McClelland, a newspaper publisher from Tiflin, Ohio, came to Denver in 1872 after his Civil War service and time spent publishing a weekly at Galesburg, Ill. He founded "The Express", forerunner to the "Fort Collins Coloradoan". When the first paper in the county was published on April 16, 1873, the total population was about 1, 500. He managed the paper until 1880 when he sold the paper to the Croft brothers. Mr. McClelland began planting fruit trees in 1876 on 160 acres at Fossil Creek. He helped build the old Watson mill and the Farmer's mill. He assisted in bringing beet sugar refining to Fort Collins. He was prominent in planning and constructing the irrigation system of the Cache la Poudre Valley. He was commander of the George H. Thomas Post of the GAR; an organizer of the first Grange in the county in 1874; master of Pomona Grange; postmaster of Fort Collins from 1878 to 1880; member of the State Board of Agriculture; president of the State Horticultural Society for two years. He homesteaded in the Fossil Creek area; both his newspaper venture and his fruit orchard was very successful. He also served as postmaster at Fort Collins, helped organize the first Grange, and was a member of the State Board of Agriculture.

* * *

Joseph McClelland was my father's mother's grandfather.

My father's father also had some interesting relatives – who fought in the Revolutionary War – Thomas Nelson, who signed the Declaration of Independence and helped finance the Revolutionary War. You can read about him here:

My father has a photo of my mother standing beside The Nelson House wall, showing one cannonball embedded in it. The story was that our forbear General Thomas Nelson had his house taken over by the British, and that Lord Cornwallis occupied it as his headquarters. Nelson then offered his gunners a guinea (slightly more than a British pound) if they could hit it with a cannon. He paid out at least one guinea, and maybe more.

As previously related here on VegSource, on my mother's side my great-great-grandfather started the Armour Meat Company (ironic, for a vegetarian website). Here is an 8-minute video relating some of the facts about my maternal great-great-grandfather, H.O. Armour:




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