TN Library & Archives Gets U.S. Colored Infantry Letters

News release from Secretary of State’s office:
Glory, an Academy Award-winning movie released in 1989, documented the lives of African-American troops who served in the U.S. Colored Infantry during the Civil War. Now, for the first time, the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) has a collection of letters from officers who led one of those units.
Archivists from TSLA and the Tennessee State Museum are in the midst of a project, called Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee, in which they plan to visit every county in the state in search of Civil War era documents and artifacts. During the county visits, local citizens bring in items that the archivists electronically scan or digitally photograph.
This ongoing statewide project, in honor of Tennessee’s Civil War Sesquicentennial, allows for the digitization of historic family documents and artifacts for public access and educational use.
While working on that project, the TSLA staff received digital copies of a previously unknown collection of Civil War correspondence penned by officers in the 16th United States Colored Infantry. The collection, “Brother Charles: Letters Home to Michigan,” Civil War Correspondence of the Wadsworth Brothers, 1861-1865, features a rare collection of writings authored by two members of the 16th U. S. Colored Infantry, which was encamped in Clarksville from 1863-1865.
The letters were written between the fall of 1861 and December 1865 by two white Oberlin College students who left their studies to enlist in the Union Army.


The bulk of the letters came from Elihu H. Wadsworth, an earnest and religious young man in his twenties who decided to take part in the revolutionary experiment that was the Bureau of Colored Troops. Unique for a variety of reasons, including their connection to Middle and East Tennessee, Captain Wadsworth’s letters express in their language and sentiment the devoutly Christian belief system characteristic of many white emancipationists. The collection is significant for relating in eloquent terms a fiercely religious stance that inspired Wadsworth and others like him to educate and prepare formerly enslaved African-Americans for citizenship and enfranchisement.
In late 1863, Wadsworth left his clerical work in the headquarters of the Inspector General’s Office in Nashville to be mustered into Company B, 16th United States Colored Infantry as a First Lieutenant. He was later promoted to Captain. From December 1864 to January 1865, he was Quartermaster of the First Colored Brigade and recounted the heavy losses by African-American troops at the Battle of Nashville and other events.
Younger brother Orry, a First Lieutenant who was more ambiguous about military service, wrote a smaller number of letters, often expressing his fascination with the strength of Union sentiment in East Tennessee.
In recognition of his service in the United States Colored Infantry, Captain Elihu H. Wadsworth’s name was enshrined on plaque #B-33 in the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D. C. A regimental history of the “16th USCT” can be found at Tennesseans in the Civil War Project
“I am pleased that we have been able to add the correspondence of the Wadsworth brothers to TSLA’s vast collection of Civil War material,” Secretary of State Tre Hargett said. “At TSLA, collection of documents related to the war began roughly around the time the war ended – and continues to this day. Letters like these help us better understand the individual stories that bring the history of the Civil War into clearer focus.”

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