The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that the Black Civil War Soldiers of Randolph County will be inducted into the 2021 class of honorees.
We know the names of eleven Black men from Randolph County who served in the Union Army in the Civil War, though it is possible that more volunteered from the area as well. Five of them—Jean-Baptiste Bisson, Isidore Cyntha, Frederic Joseph, Pierre Joseph, and John Therese—were born and raised in Prairie du Rocher. The remaining six were all residents of Sparta: Levi Block, Henry Coles, Joseph Griffin, Levi LaFleur, Joseph Morrison, and Joseph Van Buren Rowlett. They were all members of established communities of African-American residents in the county, and many of them were related by blood or by marriage. All would share the bond they formed while serving in the military for the rest of their lives. The first regiment of Black soldiers in Illinois was not formed until 1863, after the Emancipation Proclamation. All eleven of Randolph County’s Black soldiers enlisted in the army in February 1865.
Though Illinois had entered the union as a free state in 1818, historian Carl J. Ekberg notes that “black servitude of one kind or another, outright slavery or extended indentureship, persisted well after Illinois became a state.” All of the Black soldiers from the county were born before 1848, when a new state constitution finally banned slavery for good, and at least some of them were enslaved when they were born. They grew up at a time when African-American residents of the state were subject to a series of laws, called the Black Codes, that cruelly and systematically restricted the freedoms of Black residents of Illinois. Though they faced immense prejudice within their home state, and though Black soldiers were known to have been targeted with particularly brutal violence by Confederate soldiers, these eleven men were still willing to risk their lives and their livelihoods in service to their country. Their decisions to enlist, even knowing that they might face exceptional danger simply because of the color of their skin, were examples of remarkable bravery.
The eleven men, who were mustered into companies of the 29th US Colored Infantry Regiment, arrived at the battlefront in Virginia in March 1865. They were part of the Union Army’s final defeat of the Confederate forces, participating in small battles and skirmishes as the Union closed in on Lee’s army. On March 30, 1865, one of the soldiers from Randolph County, Jean-Baptiste Bisson, gave his life for his country. He went missing in action in heavy rain near Hatcher’s Run, and he was later declared dead. The remaining Randolph County soldiers survived the final weeks of the war, and some were in Appomattox on the day of the Confederate surrender.
While many soldiers were able to return home after peace had been established, the Black soldiers from Randolph County were given an additional mission. In May 1865, they sailed from Virginia aboard crowded, cramped steamships to the coast of Texas. There, they were tasked with restoring order to the state. The soldiers from Randolph County arrived in Galveston, where, on June 19, 1865, they may have personally witnessed a momentous event: the reading of General Order No. 3 by General Granger, which notified the enslaved people of Texas that they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. The event, which took place on June 19, 1865, is now known as “Juneteenth.”
The regiment was stationed on the Rio Grande for several months before they were issued their orders to return home. The soldiers from Randolph County were mustered out at Brownsville on November 6, 1865. They traveled home to Illinois, boarding riverboats for the journey up the Mississippi, and received their final paychecks at Camp Butler near Springfield. All ten of the surviving veterans returned to Prairie du Rocher and Sparta, and with one exception, it appears that all of them lived out the rest of their lives in Randolph County, raising families, running farms, and remaining vital members of their communities, even in the face of racial prejudice that persisted, and has continued to persist, long after emancipation.
The service of the Black Union soldiers from Illinois was not publicly celebrated or recognized during their lifetimes. No veterans’ organizations or reunions brought them together to share and remember their time in service to their nation. Even after risking their lives for their country, they continued to experience segregation and prejudice at home. A national memorial to the service of Black men who fought in the war was finally dedicated in Washington, D.C., in 1998. It would be a fitting tribute to recognize these local veterans, one of whom gave his life for his nation, with a memorial in their home county as well.