Continuing the Battle: The Civil War
"Three as worthy men as ever carried a gun"
So wrote the chaplain of the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry of the only fully-commissioned black officers in this renowned Civil War regiment. All of them were connected to the Monticello enslaved community.
Lts. James M. Trotter (1842-1892) and William H. Dupree (1838-1934) both married great-great-granddaughters of Elizabeth Hemings of Monticello. The third officer, John Freeman Shorter (1842-1865), was her great-great-grandson. He enlisted in the Fifty-fifth in the spring of 1863 and is almost certainly the grandson of Melinda Colbert, sister of Monticello butler Burwell Colbert, and thus the great-grandson of Elizabeth Hemings's daughter Betty Brown.
The historian of the regiment described Shorter as having "every soldierly quality, from scrupulous neatness to unflinching bravery. He well merited the reputation of the best non-commissioned officer in the regiment. As such, he was selected for the first promotion from the ranks" (in March 1864). Trotter and Dupree were promoted four months later, after the regiment's first major engagement near Charleston, South Carolina. But the army refused to officially muster them in as officers "because God did not make them White," as a fellow soldier wrote at the time.
In August Trotter wrote to the son of William Lloyd Garrison that he, Dupree, and Shorter were nevertheless performing the duties for which they were commissioned, "but this half and half arrangement is very unpleasant to us" and "most all the line officers give us the cold shoulder." A year later several white officers threatened to resign if Shorter, Dupree, and Trotter were mustered in as lieutenants. "[We] will try to do our duty as officers," Trotter wrote, "let prejudice be as great as it may." Only in the summer of 1865, when the fighting was over, were they officially commissioned. Their chaplain, John R. Bowles, exulted in a letter to the Weekly Anglo-African that the three men "have at last been permitted to wear straps on their shoulders and cords down the seam of their pants."
Trotter and Shorter were also prominent in the struggle for equal pay. The men of the Fifty-Fifth (like those of the more famous Fifty-fourth) went without pay for a year and a half, rather than accept less than what white soldiers received. Trotter, whose remarks when speaking for his regiment were called "especially good," wrote that they were inspired by "the great Principle, for the attainment of which we gladly peril our lives&—Manhood & Equality." In July 1864 the soldiers in Company D made their case directly to Abraham Lincoln himself in a letter probably written by Shorter: "We came to fight for liberty, justice & equality. These are gifts we prize more highly than gold." There was great rejoicing in the camp on Folly Island when they were finally paid in full in October, with a program of speeches, singing, and music by the regimental band, of which Dupree was manager. John F. Shorter read the regiment's resolutions, which included their first duty as men, to "prove our fitness for liberty and citizenship, in the new order of things now arising in this, our native land."
The chance to prove themselves came only three weeks later, in the Battle of Honey Hill, near Charleston. Federal troops withdrew in defeat after a fierce battle in which the Fifty-fifth suffered the highest proportion of casualties. In his vivid account, William Wells Brown singled out the gallantry of several men. "Sergeant-major Trotter is wounded," he wrote, "but still fights. Sergt. Shorter is wounded in the knee, yet will not go to the rear."
Although disabled by his leg wound, Shorter stayed with the regiment until it was finally mustered out in August 1865. A white officer remembered him as "tall, of muscular build, ... hair light, complexion almost white, and blue eyes, whose lively expression brightened a face otherwise somewhat grave." He fully justified "the policy of the final recognition of the rights of his race, implied in opening to them promotion from the ranks." But his life was cut tragically short. On the way back to Ohio to get married, "he was exposed to the contagion of the small-pox, which his constitution, weakened by wounds, could not resist; and, soon after arriving at his destination, he died."