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U.S. Colored Troops

From Civil War to Civil Rights

May 2024
5min read

J.R. Clifford fought his real battles in the courtroom

My paternal grandfather, Edward St. Lawrence Gates, was buried on July 2, 1960. After the burial my father showed my brother and me scrapbooks that his father had kept. Within the pages of those scrapbooks was an obituary of my great-great-grandmother, a slave named Jane Gates. It was dated January 6, 1888. And then he showed us her photograph. The next day I bought a composition book, came home, interviewed my mother and father, and began what I later learned is called a family tree. I was nine years old.

Perhaps because I grew up surrounded by my mother's relations, I was far more intrigued with the Gates branch of my family than with the Coleman side. But my father often reminded me that my mother's family was actually more distinguished than his. I thought he was just being polite. "We come from people," my mother liked to say, but it wasn't clear to me what she meant.

In 1954, just five years before I began researching my family tree, the remains of one of my mother's relatives had been reinterred in Arlington National Cemetery in honor of his military service. I am sure my father had him in mind when he encouraged me to learn more about my mother's family. But I doubt if either of my parents had any idea how distinguished J. R. Clifford really was. And certainly none of us imagined that one day his handsome visage would grace a United States postage stamp.

J. R. Clifford and my great-grandmother Lucy were two of 12 children of Isaac Clifford (1824–1903), who had descended from a long line of free Negroes on both his mother's and father's side. The more I learned about J. R. Clifford, the more I understood what my mother had meant when she instructed us that we had "come from people." In 1887 J. R. became the first black person admitted to the bar in West Virginia. One of his biographers, Connie Park Rice, writes that he was "hailed as the 'dean of black editors'" because he owned and edited his own newspaper, the Pioneer Press, in Martinsburg, West Virginia, from 1882 to 1917. Along with W. E. B. DuBois, he was one of the founders in 1905 of the Niagara Movement, the immediate antecedent to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In fact, the second meeting of that organization was held at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in 1906, and J. R. was its host. (A photo of J. R. with Du Bois and two other founders hangs in my office.)

J. R. will be remembered in the history of the legal battle for civil rights through two cases, in order of importance: Williams v. Board of Education of Fairfax District (1898), in which he and A. G. Dayton sued the Fairfax District Board of Education in Tucker County on behalf of Carrie Williams to establish the right of black children in West Virginia to school terms of equal length as those of white students; and Martin v. Morgan County Board of Education (1893), which insisted that the state allow black children to enroll in white schools when separate black schools did not exist. (He won the 1898 case but, not unexpectedly, lost the more controversial 1893 case.) In a 1918 essay published in the NAACP's journal The Crisis, entitled "Two Fighters," W. E. B. Du Bois wrote that Clifford was both "impetuous" and "honest," and that "his exploits as a fighter for Negro rights read like romance." Indeed they do. And clearly his service during the Civil War was a transformative event for a young man who couldn't sign his name when he enlisted.

In May 1864 Clifford had journeyed to Chicago with John J. Healy, a white recruiter who had befriended him and his father in West Virginia. Healy apparently sent J. R. to school and later accompanied him to the Army recruitment office. Healy served as first lieutenant of the 23rd Regiment, Illinois Infantry, while Clifford joined the the 13th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery (USCHA), Company F, on March 7, 1865, and enrolled in the unit at Camp Butler, Illinois, on April 28, 1865. He enrolled for one year, with a $100 bounty. His service records indicate that he was 18; in fact he was two years younger. (Contrary to Du Bois's comments, he apparently wasn't honest all the time!) He was promoted to corporal on April 25, a sure sign of merit and leadership skills, but at this point apparently he still could not write, as he made his mark rather than signing his name.

His regiment had been organized at Camp Nelson, Kentucky, on June 23, 1864. The only documented action the unit saw took place in October 1864, when eight of its officers were in Eddyville, Kentucky, on a recruitment drive and Confederates captured them and some black recruits. There is little further information available about the 13th USCHA, but one of its officers, a Capt. George F. Sutherland, wrote "The Negro in the Late War" in 1891, a very favorable account of the black experience in the Civil War.

Clifford reached Camp Nelson on or about June 23, 1865, and spent July and August working in the camp hospital. When not dispensing medicine, he trained or performed guard duty. The largest recruitment center in the state, Camp Nelson at its height housed thousands of Union recruits, their families, and thousands more "contraband," or refugees fleeing slavery. Many of the black women washed clothes for the troops or found other ways to serve. The camp commander, Gen. Speed Smith Fry, detested the refugees and periodically ordered their removal, even when they included the families of his own soldiers, sparking protests from the officers and Northern relief agencies. Despite the camp's usually neat appearance, conditions for the many civilians in residence could be lethal. Between April 16 and July 16, 1865—while Clifford was in the camp—103 black women and 409 children perished.

Kentucky retained the institution of slavery and more than 225,000 slaves until ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865. During the war Camp Nelson and its recruiters became the focus of intense resistance by area whites who either opposed the Union or hated seeing black men in uniform. Kidnapping and murder became so common that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had to issue directives against the state for its resistance to Union recruitment efforts. White supremacists who refused to accept the end of slavery continued terrorist activities after the war. Perhaps the saddest part of Camp Nelson's history involved the Battle of Saltville, Virginia, in October 1864, when many wounded men who had previously been stationed at the camp were murdered in their hospital beds by Confederates outraged at the sight of uniformed black soldiers.

Despite the misery and sacrifice, the soldiers and freedpeople at Camp Nelson found joy in celebrating the Fourth of July in 1865. With the war over, thousands of black soldiers paraded on the grounds with thousands of former slaves to hear military bands and speeches and sing songs, some by black schoolgirls. As the New York Weekly Anglo-African reported on July 22, "Such an assemblage of colored people on the 'sacred soil of Kentucky' was never before beheld." J. R. Clifford did not muster out until November 1865, so he must have witnessed the celebrations and probably participated in them.

He had become a soldier, but he never fought a battle. Instead he found his battles after the war, in courtrooms and in a society that still resisted providing equal rights to all citizens. In a sad irony, he suffered more injuries in the field of law than he had in military service. Working as a lawyer in West Virginia in 1896, he impaneled the first black jury in the state. For those efforts the opposing attorney attacked him with an inkwell and an iron stand, then struck him on the head with a three-cornered paper weight, which left him traumatized for over a year.

J. R. Clifford died in October 1933, leaving a wife, Mary Franklin Clifford, whom he had married on December 28, 1876, at Storer College in Harpers Ferry. The couple had 11 children. Besides his family, J. R. Clifford left behind a legacy of commitment to the cause of civil rights, a struggle that had merely begun after the Civil War ended slavery. He had lived an extraordinary life, and I as learned about his battles and accomplishments I truly understood what my mother meant. Her family had indeed "come from people."

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University. He would like to thank Jane Ailes and Donald Yacovone for their generous assistance with the research for this article.

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