1886 banquet book excerpts detail Rikers & Hart USCTs formation.

Sketch in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper of March 26, 1864 depicts presentation of regimental flags to Rikers' 20th United States Colored Troops (USCT) March 5 in front of Union League hq, Union Square.

22 Years Later Union League Commemorates its Role in Epic Event

Before becoming major bases of NYC Correction operations, Rikers and Hart Islands were mustering-in and training bases for, among others, an estimated 4,000+ African-American soldiers during the Civil War. They served in New York State's three regiments of United States Colored Troops (USCT) -- the 20th, 26th and 31st -- whose formation was initiated and sponsored by the Union League Club of New York.

Cover for NYCHS excerpts edition.

Click above image to access the New York Correction History Society-created 34-page excerpts version of the 142-page book in which the Union League Club of New York recorded remarks aired at its 1886 banquet commemorating its fostering formation of the Rikers and Hart Islands USCTs in 1864-65.
On Feb. 9, 1864, the first of the three -- the 20th -- assembled on Rikers.

On March 5, that regiment was ferried from the island encampment to 34th St., Manhattan.

The regiment first marched to the club's headquarters, then on 17th Street off Union Square, where the officers and troops received its battle flags.

Afterward they marched in military formation down Broadway to Canal Street and from there to the Hudson River piers to their embarkation ship, the steamer Ericsson.

Three hundred Union League Club members marched with them to the dock.

Participants were well aware of the historic significance of the ironic scene unfolding: Colored Troops parading to cheers from whites as well as non-whites lining the very streets where only nine months earlier blacks (and whites coming to their defense) were beaten to death or hanged from lampposts by mobs whose initial protests against the unfair draft law soon turned into racist savagery.

Twenty-two years later -- on March 16, 1886, to be exact -- about 70 Union League Club members from 1863 and 1864 and their guests gathered in the club's quarters, then at 5th Avenue and 39th Street, to commemorate their campaign to raise "colored regiments" for the Union cause despite resistance from the "peace Democrat" Governor Horatio Seymour and much of NY's power structure.

The 20th USCT parades down Broadway.

The above image is from an illustration entitled "Parade of the 20th Regiment USCT in New York" appearing in The Black Phalanx by Joseph T. Wilson and published in 1890. He was the first black member of the National Council of Administration of the Grand Army of the Republic. Click to access. Use browser's "back" button to return to this page.
Indeed, the club had come into existence in February 1863 as a reaction to what prominent backers of the Lincoln administration and the Union cause perceived as inadequate NY governmental support for the North's war effort.

The Lincoln party leanings of club members come through loud and clear in the banquet book's recorded remarks.

The League had George F. Nesbitt & Co., at Pearl and Fine Streets, in Lower Manhattan, regular printer of Republican broadsides and campaign materials, run off sufficient copies to distribute as souvenirs for the participants, for other members and for interested and sympathetic non-members as well as libraries and other educational institutions.

Fortunately, Google eBooks has digitalized a copy of this public domain book and made it available for non-commercial use. Using a downloaded Google-digitalized copy of the 142-page book, the New York Correction History web site has excerpted those sections most relevant to the start-up of the Rikers and Hart Island USCTs. A PDF file of this abridged version (34 pages) can be accessed by clicking the image of the excerpts edition cover (above left).

Col. Le Grand B. Cannon,
banquet presiding officer.
While the original book contained no Table of Contents, the following list outlines the sections excerpted for this presentation:

  • Pages 1, 2 -- Excerpts Edition Cover, original title page.

  • Printed Page #s 3, 4 -- Background on the 1886 banquet and the 1864 regimental flags ceremony. Includes text of the "Presentation Address of the Ladies of the City of New York to the Officers and Men of the 20th United States Colored Troops, March 5, 1864."

  • Printed Page #s 7 - 11 -- Remarks by Col. Le Grand B. Cannon, banquet presiding officer. Includes his recollections about how the Navy, long before any other Union military force, accepted in its ranks volunteers from among the fugitive slaves fleeing the South and how he had played a small role in that development during the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac near Fort Monroe.

    Jackson S. Schultz,
    club quartermaster for USCTs.

  • Printed Page #s 11 - 23 -- Remarks by Col. George Bliss, a chief organizer of the 3 USCTs. Includes his recollections how the club's initial efforts to raise a regiment to aid the Union cause were not focused on it being manned by Colored Troops but how Col. Cannon's recounting the brave, eager and quality service rendered by the fugitive slave volunteers at Fort Monroe convinced the league to concentrate on raising USCTs.

  • Printed Page #s 28 - 29 -- Remarks by Jackson S. Schultz, club quartermaster for USCTs. Includes his description of winter weather conditions the men of the 20th USCT endured on Rikers Island.

  • Printed Page #s 30 - 33 -- Remarks by Col. Nelson B. Bartram, 20th USCT commander. Includes his recollections about the difficulties getting a military band to accompany the marching 20th USCT and the reluctance to play "John Brown" by the band eventually assigned.

  • Printed Page # 56 -- Remarks by club president, Chauncey M. Depew, who spoke to the sacrifices of the mothers, wives, and fiancees of the officers and the rank and file soldiers in the club-sponsored regiments.

    Col. Nelson B. Bartram,
    20th USCT commander.

  • Printed Page #s 56 - 60, 63 - 64 -- Remarks by the Rev. Dr. W. B. Derrick, African-American naval veteran of the Civil War, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Sullivan Street, and a state/city leader of the Colored Republicans Central Committee. His speech included extended passages addressing the plight of his race more than two decades after Emancipation. He passionately pleaded that those who fostered freedom for the slaves now foster opportunity for them to advance to achieve their great natural potential.

Reading These 19th Century Remarks With 21st Century Eyes

WEBMASTER NOTES: Readers should keep in mind that any lapses in 21st Century political and social sensibilities reflected by the remarks recorded in the banquet book may be accounted for by the fact the utterances came from 19th Century men celebrating an achievement accomplished some two decades earlier.

In the wake of NYC's worse anti-black race riot, these men -- all abolitionists -- had overcome opposition and raised United States Colored Troops who marched down Broadway amid cheering crowds of well-wishing New Yorkers. No mean feat, certainly worth the regiments' sponsors recalling and celebrating with African Methodist Episcopal pastor W. B. Derrick, a Civil War Union Navy veteran, as their guest of honor.

The book excerpts are not presented as an example of how such a commemorative event should be structured and conducted but as source for details and insights into a significant chapter of Rikers and Hart Island history.

Chauncey M. Depew,
club president and later U.S. Senator.
The fact that the word "negro" was not capitalized in the 1886 book reflects the standard practice of the period, not a consciously intended slight. Spoken, the word in itself was not a pejorative then and is not now, though today it's considered antique, out of step and behind the times. The lower-case "n" was virtually universal well into the early decades of the 20th century until W.E.B. DuBois and others launched a capitalization campaign which reached a high point March 7, 1930 when a New York Times editorial proclaimed that henceforth its pages would spell the word "Negro." The book page excerpts reproduced on this site are not typed transcriptions, but actual images of the original pages. Thus, the question of changing "n" to "N" in retype did not arise.

In contra-distinction to the word "negro" stands a different "n" word, one clearly pejorative, whether capitalized or not. This "n" word has prompted some educational authorities to remove Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn books from student reading lists and school libraries. On excerpted Page 16 of the banquet book that offensive n-word appears twice, both times inside quotations which the speaker cites with obvious disapproval. In recounting resistance that he and Jackson S. Schultz encountered trying to enlist a military marching band to play in the planned 20th USCT parade, Col. Bliss attributed use of the pejorative "n" word to two well-known military band leaders of the period. The latter's reported negative utterances had made the club even more determined to secure a military band for the 20th's march down Broadway; and this the league did, obtaining one from Governors Island, as Col. Nelson B. Bartram relates on excerpted Pages 30 and 31.

Given that the offensive n-word was not quoted with approval but, on the contrary, used to illustrate the negativity which the league had to overcome in its raising and supporting the USCTs, I have reproduced the excerpted page as is. However, for those parents and teachers who may want to use the excerpted version of the banquet book with their children and students, for whom they feel the appearance of the original term might be an unproductive distressing distraction, I am working on crafting a version of excerpted Page 16 in which "n-----s" is substituted in the two places. To obtain a copy of this version, please email me at either address listed at the bottom of the home page.

One of the views of the Spirit of Freedom sculpture which appears in this correctionhistory.org web site's virtual tour of the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Click to access. Use browser's "back" to return.
Parents and teachers with qualms about the suitability of excerpted Page 16 for their children and students should not consider recommending they read the unabridged 142-page original. Several pages in it that I did not include in the excerpted version contain phrases politically incorrect by today's standards, though arguably they appear not so intended at the time, given their context. But since they were not essential to the excerpts version's central focus (the Rikers and Hart USCTs' start-up by the Union League Club), I left them out. Besides I wanted to reduce the number of pages of the excerpted version as much as possible while still providing most relevant details.

Some modern day readers may find the fulsome praise for the Grand Old Party uttered by the African Methodist Episcopal pastor in front of this audience of Republican movers and shakers a bit hard to take.

If so, keep in mind that Lincoln's Party came to power in 1860 committed to ending expansion of slavery into new states, a stance the South saw as setting the stage for that institution's inevitable abolition. The Presidential candidate of Northern Democrats had favored letting new states decide slavery by popular vote. The Presidential candidate of Southern Democrats favored enacting a federal code to enshrine slavery's preservation.

When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, "peace Democrats" such as NYC Mayor C. Godfrey Gunther found in it no cause for celebration. But for millions of slaves the carefully framed military order issued by Lincoln in his role as Commander in Chief became a sacred document freeing them at long last from bondage. Regardless of the limitations set forth in the proclamation's fine print, its sweeping effect was to tie the goal of preserving the Union to ending slavery. For the newly freed and generations of their kith and kin, Lincoln had been the new Moses, leading them out of bondage and they identified their liberation with his party.

Rev. Derrick's Republican effusions become easier to grasp when viewed in this context. If there be criticism of his GOP commitment on the general grounds that clergy ought not get so enmeshed in partisan politics, consider whether the same principle applies to current day high profile clerics heavily in involved in NYC Democratic Party politics. The observation is not criticism of their involvement, but offered to see Rev. Dr. Derrick's GOP involvement during the post-Civil War era from another perspective.

The camp flag of the 20th USCT.
To this webmaster reading Pastor Derrick's remarks, the most interesting aspect was the way in which he artfully praised his audience for its members' past courage and initiatives on behalf of his race during the war while urgently challenging them to continue that same level of commitment in seeing the job, begun so well, through to successful completion in the post-war era.

The banquet book itself contained no illustrations or photographs. The relevant images appearing on this web page were obtained during web research. Despite extensive web searching, no digital image of Rev. Dr. Derrick or his Sullivan Street church was found, though his name appears in sundry newspaper stories, books and various journals from that era. Nor did equally extensive web searching uncover an image of the 20th USCT chaplain, the Rev. George W. LeVere, or for that matter any other African American member of the regiment. If any reader comes across such an image, please contact the webmaster, using either email address at the bottom of the home page.

Other than Chaplain LeVere's, the unabridged 142-page banquet book, whose full title is Banquet given by the members of the Union League Club of 1863 and 1864 to commemorate the departure for the seat of war of the Twentieth Regiment of United States Colored Troops, raised by the club, contains no names of the African American members of the regiment. For that kind of information, visit the National Park Service web site: http://www.nps.gov/civilwar/soldiers-and-sailors-database.htm

NYCHS webmaster,
Black History Month 2014

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Rikers Island's 26th U.S. Colored Troops on parade.

20th USCT 1864 flags presentation sketched from different angle.

Graphic pen version of a March 19, 1864 Harper's Weekly illustration entitled "The Twentieth United States Colored Troops receiving their colors on Union Square March 5, 1864."