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100 Years Ago


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Black Shelby Countians Serve Their Country

When news reached Sidney that a recruiter would be in the area, Elias Artis, 30 years old and married, and Hezekiah Stewart, 19 and single, joined the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and marched into history. Along the way, they were joined by five men from the Mercer County black community of Carthagena. The 54th enlisted only black soldiers, and with an officer corps that was all white, led by the flamboyant Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, it was ready to prove to the Union Army its worth in battle.

When the regiment sailed from Boston Harbor, Frederick Douglass, famed black abolitionist, was there to wave good-bye and offer encouragement. On their arrival in Georgia, Shaw’s men became discouraged with the lack of battle action. However, that changed on July 18, 1863, when the regiment was chosen to spearhead a beach attack on Fort Wagner, a fortified structure protecting the approach to the city of Charleston, South Carolina. The suicide attack on Fort Wagner proved nothing but the bravery and valor of the 54th. When it was over, nearly one-half of the 54th’s regiment of 600 volunteers had been killed, wounded or captured. Many of them died that day, including Colonel Shaw who was buried on the beachhead in a common grave along with his courageous black soldiers. Efforts to return the Colonel’s body to Massachusetts were halted when his father insisted that he remain with his men, saying, "We can imagine no holier place than that in which he is...or wish him better company —what a bodyguard he has!"

Just before the battle, Sgt. Robert Simmons, one of Shaw’s men, sensing the futility and danger in the Fort Wagner assault, wrote and mailed a message to his family in New York City, "God bless you all! Good-bye!" One of the survivors, Sgt. William Carney, despite multiple wounds, carried the regimental colors that day, and yelled, "The old flag never touched the ground, boys!" For his bravery, Carney became the first of twenty-three blacks to win the Medal of Honor.

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Frederick Douglass
Sgt. William Carney

One of the Carthaginian men died, Elias Artis was wounded and hospitalized, while Hezekiah Stewart remained unscathed to fight on with the 54th, and the Union Army as they moved around the unchallenged Fort Wagner, and on to the glorious conclusion of the war. Frederick Douglass, in a proud moment of praise and a powerful appeal for the greatest gift his brothers could receive, said, "Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States."

The "New York Tribune" in its summation of the Battle for Fort Wagner, reported, "It is not too much to say that if this Massachusetts 54th had faltered when its trial came two hundred thousand troops for whom it was the pioneer would never have been put into the field...But it did not falter. It made Fort Wagner such a name for the colored race as Bunker Hill has been for 90 years to the white Yankees."  The courage of the 54th and their now recognized commitment to patriotism, became a rallying point for 200,000 freed blacks who volunteered to fight on behalf of the North. Their presence on the battlefield, fighting and dying, gave impetus to the fight to eliminate slavery forever and guarantee the preservation of the Union.

A notice that appeared in "The Sidney Journal", May 20, 1864, encouraging Shelby County colored citizens to enlist in the 5th U.S. Colored Troops appealed to their patriotism, and support of the government. All soldiers now received equal pay.  Sidney or Shelby County has no record that Elias Artis or Hezekiah Stewart ever returned to their homes in Ohio, or that their war service bonus of $325 per man was ever paid.

Somewhere in this country, they may have young descendants who do not know what Shelby Countians know about their ancestors. Residents can see the names of all 325 Civil War dead cut in the polished marble of the Civil War Tablets housed on the ground floor of downtown Sidney’s Monumental Building. Constructed to honor its war heroes, the tablets were originally installed on the second floor of the structure.

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If Artis and Stewart had returned to Shelby County, along with other Civil War veterans, however, their reception may have been less than civil in an environment charged with racism that threatened the welfare of new Negro residents if they did not relocate outside Shelby County.

The warning to move was issued by the I.O.O.N.A. Research efforts have been unable to determine an interpretation for "I.O.O.N.A." and who they represented. [Conjecture has it, that it could have been a temporary acronym for - International Order Of Native (or North) Americans]

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'Black History' segment written in June, 1998 by David Lodge

 

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