Burnside's Expedition and beyond
President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. The intent was to free slaves in any state in rebellion against the federal government. A state could show it was not in rebellion by having a duly elected official in the US Congress. Although North Carolina would try to elect
such an official (and fail), the man in charge of local United States forces in Elizabeth City when the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued, Captain Enos Sanders, decided to enforce the proclamation immediately. In November 1862 Captain Sanders, of Co. D, 1st North Carolina Union Volunteers, ordered that local African American men be given weapons and be used as sentinels and garrison men in the Federal
occupation of Elizabeth City.
Sanders armed between 150 and 300 men. These men served under arms in Elizabeth City from November 1862 until Elizabeth City was abandoned by Union forces in April and May 1863. When Captain Sanders withdrew the remnants of Company D to New Bern, North Carolina in April and May 1863 he also evacuated those African American men who had been serving as the garrison in Elizabeth City.
Once in New Bern these African American men, already experienced with weapons, were recruited to be part of what was at first called the African Brigade. Originally the regiments were given state designations: 1st North Carolina Colored Volunteers, etc., but by February 1864 the designation was changed to United States Colored Troops and North Carolina’s three infantry regiments became the 35th, 36th, and 37th United States Colored Troops.
After the Civil War, many of these men returned to their home town of Elizabeth City. In 1885 they formed the fraternal organization the Fletcher Post of the Grand Army of the Republic. These men often received federal pensions for their service in the Civil War. When they died some were buried in the Oak Grove cemetery in Elizabeth City and received headstones courtesy of the United States government. A few headstones have gone missing over the intervening years but most are still there in Oak Grove.
Like some of those headstones, the stories of some of these soldiers have gone missing over the intervening years. To better understand the Civil War we need to better understand these men. Their story is our story. Can you help us rediscover the story?