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The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Researching the Early History of Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley


From at least as early as the American Revolution and likely before, Black soldiers have participated in military units across Massachusetts.  Estimates suggest that some 5,000 African Americans served in the Revolutionary army, and many of these men were from Massachusetts. In Boston, an all-black military company formed called the Bucks of America, but Valley men too seized the opportunity the rebellion offered to change their circumstances.  Part of the story of one of these men, Cesar Phelps--enslaved by Charles and Elizabeth Phelps of Hadley, Massachusetts--is told on the website Revolution Happened Here (a project of the Pioneer Valley History Network in partnership with local history organizations; the entry includes a letter Phelps sent home from Ft. Ticonderoga, more than a year after he joined the Continental Army at Cambridge, a rare example of correspondence from an enslaved person in 1770s Massachusetts).

A significant resource for locating soldiers of color is Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors & Marines of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, a multi-volume set that contains brief biographical & service information on Massachusetts Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers.   See Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War: a Compilation from the Archives [1896]  and Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines in the Civil War [1931] .  For more information and resources, click here.

Researchers interested in locating Valley men of color who served in the American Revolution could review “Forgotten Patriots,” an effort by the Daughters of the American Revolution “to identify the names of African Americans, Native Americans, and individuals of mixed heritage who supported the American struggle for independence from Great Britain during the American Revolution:”  Names can be sorted alphabetically in this document by either county or community, making the material more accessible to those with a specific geographical interest. This source also includes a robust "Bibliography of Massachusetts African Americans and Native Americans in the Revolutionary Era," beginning on p. 171.

An important chapter in the history of local Black military service in the U.S. Civil War is the story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment.  Men of color from the Valley served in this now-famous unit, including Rev. Samuel Harrison, the unit's chaplain and the post-war pastor of the Sanford Street Congregational Church in Springfield, who had by then led a successful fight to secure equal pay for those soldiers.  Other Valley veterans include Amherst's Christopher Thompson and Charles Thompson, whose service is today memorialized among 300 Civil War veterans on a series tablets on view at the Bangs Center; for an article about Black servicemen from the town of Amherst, click here.  The Springfield Republican published articles about gatherings of "colored veterans," including the G.A.R.; see e.g. "The colored veterans at Boston," August 3, 1887.

More recently (since the beginning of WWII), the Valley has become home to Westover Air Reserve Base, an Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) installation located in Chicopee and Ludlow.  The base may hold relevant records.

Recommended Reading

Blatt, Martin H., Thomas J. Brown, and Donald Yacovone, eds. Hope and Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Amherst Press, 2001.

Carvalho, Joseph III. "Springfield pastor Rev. Samuel Harrison's fight for equal pay for black soldiers in the Civil War finally succeeds in June of 1864." Springfield Republican, May. 29, 2014.

Egerton, Douglas R. Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America. Basic Books, 2016.

Glatthaar, Joseph T.  “‘Glory,’ The 54th Massachusetts Infantry, and Black Soldiers in the Civil War,” The History Teacher 24 (August 1991): 475-85.

Hansen, Chadwick. "The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Black Infantry as a Subject for American Artists." The Massachusetts Review 16, no. 4 (1975): 745-59.

Kaplan, Sidney, and Emma Nogrady Kaplan. The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.

Knauer, Christine. Let Us Fight as Free Men: Black Soldiers and Civil Rights.  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.

Moebs, Thomas Truxtun.  Black Soldiers - Black Sailors - Black Ink: Research Guide on African-Americans in U.S. Military History, 1526-1900.

Nell, William Cooper. The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution. Boston: R. F. Wallcut, 1855.

Nell, William Cooper. Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812. Boston: R. F. Wallcut, 1852.

Penn, Lisha.  "Documenting African Americans in the Records of Military Agencies." Federal Records and African American History (Summer 1997, Vol. 29, No. 2)

Powell, Colin. Hope & Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.

Spencer, Tracey Lovette, James E. Spencer, and Bruce G. Wright. "World War I as I Saw It: The Memoir of an African American Soldier." Massachusetts Historical Review 9 (2007): 134-65.

Taylor, Brian. Fighting for Citizenship: Black Northerners and the Debate over Military Service in the Civil War, 127-48. CHAPEL HILL: University of North Carolina Press, 2020.

"West Cemetery." Black History in the Town of Amherst,, Massachusetts.