The Black Civil War Soldiers of Randolph County

Library of Congress
Library of Congress


Willing to risk their lives in service of their country, even at a time when they faced immense racial prejudice and violence from their fellow Americans, the Black soldiers from Randolph County who served in the Civil War demonstrated immense courage in the face of danger and discrimination.

The Black men from Randolph County who served in the Civil War have backgrounds representative of the African-American history of the area. While it is difficult to determine the exact number of Black men from the region who served in the war, we can say with certainty that at least eleven men volunteered for military service and were subsequently mustered in to the army in 1865. Of the eleven Black soldiers from Randolph County who appear in the archives of the state’s veteran index database, seven of the men were born in Illinois, and four were born outside of the state. Six were residing in Sparta at the time of their enlistment, and five were residents of Prairie du Rocher. Both Sparta and Prairie du Rocher had thriving African-American communities in the 1860s, both because of the history of enslavement in the region and the politics of abolition.

The first Black men and women to live in Randolph County were brought to the area by French settlers in the early eighteenth century. French colonists settled the village of Kaskaskia shortly after 1700, joined by native people of the Kaskaskia tribe who had relocated with them from the northern part of Illinois. By the 1720s, enslaved people of African descent had been brought to the settlement, mostly to work on growing agricultural holdings owned by the French settlers. The acquisition of enslaved people was also facilitated by the village’s French Jesuit missionaries, who, according to historian Carl J. Ekberg, were “the first owners of black slaves in the Illinois country.” As Kaskaskia grew in prominence and wealth, the success of the village was in large part due to the physical labor of these Black enslaved people. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Ekberg notes, Black men, women, and children made up around a third of the population of present-day Randolph County, with 41% of households including at least one enslaved person.

Because Illinois was a part of the larger portfolio of French colonial settlements in America, the community followed many of the laws and regulations that had been set out by the administrators of French North America. Among these was the Code Noir, the legal framework that organized the institution of slavery in the French colonies. These laws, which appear to have underpinned the treatment of enslaved people in villages like Kaskaskia and Prairie du Rocher, shaped the lives and family structures of Black residents for generations. The code recognized Black men and women as full human beings but also stated that slavery was a “natural” institution, and treating enslaved men and women as property was within the scope of a “normal” society. The laws also included other contradictory principles, including exhortations to properly feed and care for enslaved people, while also providing instructions on the appropriate levels of physical violence that could be inflicted upon them by slaveholders. Some have argued that the slaveholding practiced by French colonial communities was a “kinder” version of the institution because of the Code Noir, but ultimately, it was still slavery. The men and women who were enslaved in communities like Kaskaskia and Prairie du Rocher still did not have the basic freedom to make choices for themselves, and they still faced violence and humiliation from the people who bought and sold them as if they were animals.

The Code Noir laws set out some requirements to maintain traditional nuclear family structures for enslaved men and women, allowing them to marry in the Catholic church and baptizing and instructing their children in the faith. However, once the children of these families reached the age of maturity, the codes also allowed slaveholders to sell those young men and women, breaking the generational bonds of family life. Ekberg notes that there is no real way to know how extensively these legal guidelines were actually implemented or enforced, especially in more remote colonies like the Illinois settlements. We do have plentiful evidence that people of Kaskaskia and Prairie du Rocher certainly took to heart at least one part of the code: the directions to integrate enslaved men and women into their local Catholic parishes. Nearly all Black children born to enslaved women in Randolph County were baptized, with their names and some family relationships, as well as information about which local men and women “owned” them, recorded in church records. The records are both troubling and valuable: they raise numerous questions about the Catholic Church’s historical perception of humanity, something further complicated by the Church’s own slaveholding history, but they also offer us a rich resource to trace the genealogies of the Black community in Randolph County.

The generation of Black men from Randolph County who served the Civil War were born about a century after the first African enslaved people were brought to the region. Some of their ancestors had been enslaved in Randolph County for generations. In 1825, three years after the oldest of the Civil War soldiers was born, 331 Black residents of Randolph County were recorded on a state census; of those, only 91 were free. Though Illinois had nominally entered the union as a free state in 1818, Ekberg explains that “black servitude of one kind or another, outright slavery or extended indentureship, persisted well after Illinois became a state.” As a territory, the new state had framed and legalized a system of indentured servitude that was slavery in all but name. Moreover, because of a specific legal exception that had been made, the descendants of the African men and women who had been enslaved by colonial French settlers in Illinois were still legally held in slavery even after statehood. (The descendants of these enslaved men and women, including several of the county’s Black Civil War soldiers, weren’t legally freed until 1845.) A majority of residents of Randolph County continued to support full legalization of slavery in the state for decades, though communities like Eden, organized around abolitionist church congregations, were noted havens for those opposed to slavery in all its forms. The state constitution of 1848 firmly banned the institution of slavery in Illinois for good, but in response, state legislators (led by John A. Logan) passed a series of laws, the Black Codes, that cruelly and systematically restricted the freedoms of Black residents of Illinois. Those laws weren’t repealed until 1865, and anti-Black attitudes continued in some Illinois communities afterward, even in some cases to the present day, even without that formal legal backing.

The Black Codes were still firmly in effect in February 1865, when eleven Black men from Randolph County made the decision to enlist in the Union Army. Only a few years earlier, their enlistment wouldn’t have been possible at all. In The Black Civil War Soldiers of Illinois, Edward A. Miller, Jr. explains that, although Black soldiers had served in America’s armed forces since the days of the Revolution, it took significant time for military leaders to agree to enlist regiments of Black soldiers during the Civil War. Part of this was political calculation, especially regarding “the loyalty of border slave states.” Miller argues that the idea of incorporating Black soldiers into the Union Army in a significant way only became possible after President Lincoln accepted “the inevitability of emancipation.” In 1863, the United States established the Bureau of Colored Troops and began organizing (segregated) units of African-American soldiers.


Recruitment poster for African-American soldiers, 1860s
Recruitment poster for African-American soldiers, 1860s

In September 1863, Governor Richard Yates authorized the organization of a regiment of Black infantry soldiers in Illinois—even though the state’s restrictive Black Codes still forbade Black men from serving in a state militia. Miller notes that the average “Illinois soldier’s reaction to emancipation and blacks in uniform was much the same as elsewhere in the West—initial hostility followed by reluctant acceptance.” He also writes, however, that the influence of many anti-war “Copperhead” residents in the state was strong, and “public opinion was generally hostile to black enlistments, despite the sometimes impressive performance of black regiments.” Combined with stories in the newspapers about the atrocities that had been committed by Confederates against Black Union soldiers serving in the war, this public sentiment demonstrates why recruitment of Black soldiers in Illinois was somewhat difficult. The problem was compounded by the low payments and signing bonuses offered to Black soldiers, which were significantly less than those tendered to their white counterparts.

Though the obstacles to recruiting Black soldiers were significant, and the reservations that the Black soldiers themselves may have held were well founded, the 29th US Colored Infantry Regiment was formed in the state in the autumn of 1863. The soldiers of the regiment were mustered into service on April 24, 1864, and were sent to Virginia, where they took part in the Siege of Petersburg, suffering heavy losses at the Battle of the Crater in July and participating in Union attempts to seize and sever the Weldon Railroad. After continuing to participate in battles against Lee’s forces in Virginia throughout the autumn of 1864, the regiment was transferred to the army’s new XXV Corps. Recruiting efforts back in Illinois at the end of 1864 and the beginning of 1865 helped fill the regiment to capacity. Among those final recruits for the regiment were eleven men from Randolph County, Illinois.

On February 1, 1865, five Black men from Prairie du Rocher arrived in Alton to enlist in the infantry regiment. They ranged in age from 18 to 43. All five were Illinois natives, born in Prairie du Rocher to parents who either had been or still were enslaved people from the French community. The eldest was Jean-Baptiste Bisson (also simply called “Bee” in some local records), a day laborer who was born in 1822. Bisson listed his hometown as Prairie du Rocher on his enlistment papers, but five years earlier, he’d been living with his wife, Agnes Morrison, and their children in St. Clair County. Agnes’s surname indicates that she may have been descended from people enslaved by the wealthy Morrison family in Randolph County, who ran a large and prosperous mercantile business. Bisson’s roots are a little less easy to trace, but both his first and last names indicate that he was indeed the descendant of people enslaved by French residents of the area.

The next eldest recruit from Prairie du Rocher was 28-year-old Frederic Toussaint Joseph, who was born in March 1935 to a free Black man named Joseph and his wife, Cecilia George. At the time of Frederic’s birth, Cecilia was enslaved by Marie Louise Langlois, the widow of Antoine d’Amour Louvière. (Historian Margaret Kimball Brown identifies the Louvières and the Barbeaus as two of the largest slaveholding families in Prairie du Rocher; they were united in the 1860s when Antoine Louvière’s son, Jean Noël Louvière, married Marie Louise Barbeau.) Following the guidelines of the Code Noir, Madame Louvière ensured that Frederic was baptized. At the ceremony at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Prairie du Rocher, which took place on April 2, the baby’s godparents were both white members of the Louvière family: Benjamin Louvière and his wife, Gertrude McNabb. Frederic’s mother was freed around 1841, but she stayed in Prairie du Rocher, and Frederic was raised in a community that included numerous siblings, cousins, and other family members. On July 27, 1856, the family celebrated his marriage to Marie Josephine Jeannoel at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. The couple settled in Prairie du Rocher, where Frederic worked as a laborer, and welcomed at least three children before he made the decision to enlist to fight in the war.

Frederic Joseph was part of an extensive, large family. Joining him in Alton was one of his nephews, Pierre Joseph. Because Pierre’s father (who was also named Pierre Joseph) had been enslaved by Jean Noël Louvière at the time of his son’s birth in 1843, the younger Pierre sometimes used the surname Louvière, including on his army enlistment papers. Pierre Jr.’s parents were both enslaved at the time of his birth; his mother, Clarice, was a mixed-race woman who was enslaved by André Barbeau. With the apparent encouragement of the Louvière and Barbeau families, Pierre Joseph Sr. and Clarice had been married at St. Joseph’s in Prairie du Rocher in 1838, and had produced many children, all of whom were also baptized in the church. Pierre Jr.’s baptism was held on February 25, 1843. Unlike his uncle Frederic, both of Pierre’s godparents were Black: one was his grandfather, Joseph, and the other was a free Black woman named Marie.


Thomas Waterman Wood's "The Recruit," 1866
Thomas Waterman Wood’s “The Recruit,” 1866

Pierre was 21 when he traveled to Alton with the rest of the Prairie du Rocher recruits to enlist in the army. Another fellow enlistee, John Therese, was the same age. John was born on March 10, 1844, in Prairie du Rocher to Thérèse, a woman who, like Pierre Joseph’s mother, was enslaved in the household of André Barbeau. He was baptized with the name Jean Noël, the first name of another Prairie du Rocher slaveholder, at St. Joseph’s seven days later. (His godparents were Paul, a free Black man, and Lucile, another woman who was enslaved by André Barbeau.) Records from the time of John’s birth do not list the name of his father, but later records describe him as “mulatto,” suggesting that he likely had a white or mixed-race father. He was raised in Prairie du Rocher with his extended family, using a variety of familiar local surnames (including Barbeau, Godair, and Lacave), but often also adopting his mother’s first name as his last name. The name “Thérèse” must have confused the army enlistment staff, who rendered the name as “Terrace” in official records. Like the others who came with him from Prairie du Rocher, John gave his occupation as “laborer.”

The fifth and youngest recruit from Prairie du Rocher was an 18-year-old named Isidore Cyntha. (The recorder rendered his surname as “Senty.”) Isidore’s baptismal record indicates that he was born in Prairie du Rocher on April 18, 1847, to free black parents, Antoine Cyntha and Lucile Charles. Though they had both gained their freedom by the time of Isidore’s birth (which happened after the French slavery exemption was struck down by the Illinois Supreme Court), both had been raised as enslaved people. Antoine’s mother, a woman often simply called Cynthia in records, had been enslaved by Antoine Blais around the year 1800. After twenty years, she worked up the courage to travel to the office of the Randolph County Circuit Clerk, William Greenup, to tell him that she believed Blais had never officially filed the paperwork to indenture her legally in Illinois. She was particularly concerned not for herself but for her son, Antoine, who had just turned fourteen (and thus was likely eligible, according to the principles of the Code Noir, to be sold by Blais). Greenup combed the records and failed to discover any proof of Cynthia’s indenture, and as a result, in December 1821, he issued an official declaration of Antoine’s freedom. Cynthia’s bravery seemed to have been typical of her character; she was clearly recognized as the matriarch of her large family. Often listed as the head of household (even when her adult sons were living with her), all of her descendants adopted the surname “Cyntha” in her honor.

Isidore’s mother’s path to freedom was a more recent one. In the years prior to his birth, she had been enslaved by at least two different families in Prairie du Rocher. Some early records find her in the household of Melanie Caillot dit LaChance, while later records place her in the household of André Barbeau. (She’s the same Lucile who served as godmother to John Therese.) Isidore’s parents had had children with previous partners before their own union, and one of his half-sisters, Marie Josephine Jeannoel, had married Frederic Joseph in 1856, meaning that the two soldiers, who enlisted together and would serve in the same unit, were also brothers-in-law. Indeed, all of the soldiers who enlisted from Prairie du Rocher were placed together in Company D of the regiment.

A week later, five more Randolph County men arrived in Alton to enlist in the regiment. Joseph Van Buren Rowlett, a gunsmith from Sparta, was assigned to Company A. Born in Tennessee in January 1846, Joseph had come to Randolph County with his parents and siblings in the 1850s. After the death of his father, his mother, Lucy, married Frank Morrison, solidifying the family’s Randolph County ties. They settled in Sparta, where a growing community of African-American residents was thriving. A school had been established for Black children in Sparta, and Joseph began attending. Of the eleven Black men from the area who served in the Civil War, Joseph appears to have been the only one who was literate. He was 18 when he enlisted in the military; by the time he mustered out of service, he had been promoted to the rank of corporal, perhaps in large part because he was able to read and write.

Joseph Rowlett was accompanied to Alton by another member of the extended Morrison family: Joseph Morrison, who had been born in the area in 1843. Later records suggest that the name of Joseph’s father was Reuben, and he could be the same Reuben who had been enslaved in the households of both Robert Morrison and William Morrison of Kaskaskia. By 1865, 22-year-old Joseph was living in Sparta, where he worked as a brick mason. He also had a wife: Mariah Isadore, whom he had married in Randolph County in the autumn of 1859. During his time with the 29th infantry, Joseph would serve with both Company C and Company D.

Levi Block, who was also 22 and living in Sparta at the time of his enlistment, hadn’t been born in Illinois; he had come to the state from across the river in Missouri. A year before joining the army, on April 7, 1864, Levi had married Isabella Jones in Randolph County. He left his young wife behind in Sparta to enlist in Company I of the regiment. He was joined in the same company by Joseph Griffin, who was also from Sparta and had also been born in Missouri. Joseph, who was 30 when he enlisted, worked as a farmer in Randolph County.

The oldest of the Sparta recruits to join the regiment on February 7 was 38-year-old Henry Coles. He was born in either Maryland or Virginia in 1822. There were other Black residents of Randolph County with the Coles surname in the nineteenth century, but it’s not clear which of them, if any, Henry might have been related to. Famously, Governor Edward Coles, who came to Illinois from Virginia in 1819, had inherited a large number of enslaved people from his father, and on his journey west, he had freed them, providing each of them with 160 acres of land in Illinois. Whether or not Henry was connected with any of them is not clear, but he did have another link to Randolph County: his wife, Mary Akins, whom he married in September 1863. After enlisting, Henry was assigned to Company C of the regiment.

The day after the five Sparta recruits had signed up for military service, a sixth Sparta resident arrived in Alton to join as well. Levi LaFleur, who was 29 and worked as a laborer, would have been a notable sight: at 6’1″, he was easily the tallest of the Black soldiers from the county. Levi was born in Illinois around 1837, and it’s not clear whether he was born in Randolph County, though his distinctive French surname was shared by residents of Kaskaskia. He also had family ties to another of the recruits: his wife, Jane Rowlett, was a sister of Joseph Van Buren Rowlett. He left Jane behind in Sparta with their young daughter, Ann, to join the regiment, and was placed in Company B.


Soldiers of Company E, 4th United States Colored Infantry, ca. 1864
Soldiers of Company E, 4th United States Colored Infantry, ca. 1864

The eleven men from Randolph County were among the last of the recruits to enlist with the 29th US Colored Infantry Regiment. They were sent east to join the rest of the regiment, which was stationed in Virginia. On March 28, 1865, they joined their fellow soldiers near the Confederate capital of Richmond. The regiment then began to march to the front lines at Petersburg. The newly-recruited soldiers couldn’t have known that they’d joined just in time to be present for some of the final battles of the war. But, although their wartime experience wouldn’t be long, it was still consequential—and, for one soldier from Randolph County, tragic.

On March 30, 1865, the soldiers of the 29th participated in, according Edward Miller, an “operation” near Hatcher’s Run that left three men killed and two wounded in action. One of those who died was Jean-Baptiste Bisson, the 43-year-old soldier from Prairie du Rocher who had enlisted just two months earlier. He was initially reported as missing in action, but was declared dead after the end of the war. Bisson left behind a widow and several children. His wife, Agnes, would eventually remarry; her husband, Peter Johno, also served with the 29th, in Company E. They retired to Prairie du Rocher, and three of Bisson’s children (Marie Jeanette, Josephine, and John) lived in the community as well. As a girl, Josephine Bisson lived in the home of another of Bisson’s fellow veterans, John Therese. “Bee” would be the only Black Civil War soldier from Randolph County to lose his life in the conflict.

For the rest of the soldiers of the 29th, the war would soon be at an end. On April 2, they fought in the Third Battle of Petersburg, ending the months-long siege of the area. Soldiers from the regiment marched into the city singing the popular abolitionist song, “John Brown’s Body,” with its familiar refrain, “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!” The 29th then joined in the pursuit of General Lee’s army. On April 9, the final day of the war, they took part in the Battle of Clover Hill, just hours before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House.

Although the war was officially at an end, the service of the soldiers of the 29th was not. They moved to camp near Petersburg, staying there for the rest of April. Their rest was well earned; Miller notes that, although they had not been involved in heavy fighting, they had “covered two hundred and fifty miles” of territory since March 27. One officer, Miller shares, was especially complimentary of the regiment’s discipline: “Never saw troops march better. No stragglers.” Soon, the army had more plans for the men of the regiment. Rather than mustering them out and sending them back home to Illinois, the regiment was ordered to report to Texas, where they would be charged with restoring Union order to the state—and, significantly, to help enforce the emancipation of those who had been enslaved there. But because officers did not communicate plans for their next destination clearly or quickly, some soldiers from the regiment began to become understandably suspicious about what was coming next, worried that they’d be sent to work on plantations in the South, or even be taken to Cuba and sold. Eventually, the soldiers were put on steamships at Hampton Roads to sail down the coast and around Florida to get to Texas.

Of the ten remaining soldiers from Randolph County, one did not make the trip to Texas. Pierre Joseph fell ill in May 1865 while camped in Virginia and was taken to Point of Rocks Hospital, where he remained for several months. He finally left the hospital in August 1865, and he was granted discharge papers retroactive to June. Instead of heading to Texas to join the rest of the regiment, he returned back to Illinois. Levi LaFleur was also hospitalized at Fort Monroe in Virginia in May 1865, but he recovered in time to join the rest of the soldiers on their steamship journey south.

The soldiers’ time at sea was not pleasant. Miller reports that the conditions aboard the ships were poor, and three soldiers died on the journey from Virginia to Texas. Many more were sick enough on arrival to require hospitalization. But all nine of the soldiers from Randolph County survived the voyage, and it’s possible that some of them were present with part of the regiment in Galveston for a particularly 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 soldiers of the 29th arrived at their camp near the Rio Grande on July 22. They remained there, in desolate and hot conditions, with little to do, for months; the threats that the army had anticipated to come from Mexico, where Mexican soldiers had been battling with French imperial troops, did not materialize. The nine remaining soldiers from Randolph County were mustered out at Brownsville, Texas on November 6, 1865. They traveled to New Orleans, and then boarded riverboats to head up the Mississippi to Illinois. They returned to Camp Butler near Springfield, Illinois, to receive their pay, and then headed back home.


Samuel Smith, who served with the 119th US Colored Infantry, with his wife and daughters after the war
Samuel Smith, who served with the 119th US Colored Infantry, with his wife and daughters after the war

Back in Sparta and Prairie du Rocher, the lives of these Civil War veterans continued on, with family matters taking up a large part of their time attention. Twenty-one-year-old Pierre Joseph, who had been the first to return to Randolph County, soon married. His new wife, Therese Adeline Jeannoel, was a half-sister of one of his fellow soldiers, Isidore Cyntha. (She was also a sister of Frederic Joseph’s wife, Marie Josephine Jeannoel, making Pierre and Frederic brothers-in-law as well as nephew and uncle.) By 1870, he was firmly settled in Prairie du Rocher, where he lived with Therese and their three children (Mary, Baptiste, and Julia) and worked as a farm laborer. By 1880, they’d added three more children to the family. Only two years later, at the age of 40, Pierre died. He was buried in the cemetery at St. Joseph’s in Prairie du Rocher. His Civil War pension, one of the only recognitions of his military service, was paid first to Therese and then to their youngest son, Charles.

Pierre’s brother-in-law, Isidore Cyntha, also married after returning home to Prairie du Rocher after the war. His choice of bride linked the two families even more closely. He married Marie Hortense Joseph, Pierre’s older sister, in April 1871. The two already had two children, Henry Ambrose and Marguerite, and they appeared to be ready to embark on a long family life in Prairie du Rocher. Tragically, though, Marie Hortense died only two months after their wedding. Their son, Henry, also died as a teenager, and both Isidore and Marguerite appear to have vanished into history. He does not appear to have filed to receive his pension, which suggests that he and his dependents may have died before those funds were available.

After the war, Frederic Joseph also returned to Prairie du Rocher to reunite with his wife, Josephine, and their children. The state census of 1865 finds him living in the village as head of a household with six occupants. Eventually, the family would grow to include as many as thirteen children; many of his children remained in Prairie du Rocher, but some moved on to places like East St. Louis, where they could easily find working in growing industrial enterprises. Frederic, though, continued to work as a farmer in his hometown for the rest of his life, drawing his pension in 1883. He died on November 2, 1889, in Prairie du Rocher, at the age of 54. He was buried at St. Joseph’s. The following year, Josephine (who would live until 1906) filed to continue to receive his war benefits.

The fourth surviving veteran from Prairie du Rocher, John Therese, had the longest life. He remained in Prairie du Rocher for the duration. Shortly after returning to Illinois, he married Julia Morrison. On October 29, 1866, she gave birth to their only child, a son they named George Augustin. The small family maintained close ties with their church and their community. As they raised their son, they also took in other members of the family to their household, including nieces and nephews, as well as John’s elderly mother, who had become known in Rocher as “Grandma Therese.” In 1870, the census notes that John and Julia had also become guardians of Josephine Bisson, the daughter of his fallen comrade, Jean-Baptiste Bisson. John and Julia both lived until the 1920s, long enough to become caretakers for a member of yet another generation of the family: their grandson, Augustus. John died on May 21, 1929, and was buried in the cemetery at St. Joseph’s. He was 85 years old.

In Sparta, Joseph Van Buren Rowlett, who had been promoted to the rank of corporal during his war service, returned home to his mother and siblings. He stayed with them, living next door to his sister and brother-in-law, Levi and Jane LaFleur, until 1873, when he married a local girl, Harriett Goode. The couple had a large family, eventually welcoming seven children, all of whom were raised in Sparta. His military service was clearly a source of inspiration for his family, as two of his sons, Joseph Gilbert Rowlett and John Clay Rowlett, followed in their father’s footsteps and served in the army. In his later years, Joseph became one of the most financially prosperous of the group of soldiers. By 1900, Joseph was cultivating a large farm near Sparta that he owned outright. (Ultimately, the family farm would become a matter of contention, leading to a power struggle and some legal action between John and one of his sons.) Harriett Rowlett died in 1922, leaving John a widower. After her death, he made a major move, leaving Sparta behind for the city of St. Louis. There, he married Mattie Lee Wade, remaining with her in Missouri until his death from a stroke at their home on Channing Street in 1925. His final resting place, though, would be Sparta.

Levi LaFleur, Joseph’s brother-in-law, would call Randolph County home for the rest of his life. He and Jane raised a large family, emphasizing education and sending their children to school in Sparta. By 1880, they were living near Coulterville, where Levi and his older sons were farming. Like Joseph Rowlett’s sons, Levi LaFleur’s descendants followed in his military footsteps as well. Two of his grandsons would serve their country in the military: Prentice LaFleur served in the 350th Machine Gun Battalion in World War I, and Horace LaFleur, Jr., served in the navy in the wake of World War II. Sadly, Levi did not live long enough to meet his grandsons. He died in Sparta on September 18, 1883, and was buried in the Old Bethel Cemetery between Sparta and Eden. His Civil War pension was later claimed by his youngest son, Horace, with Joseph Rowlett serving as the boy’s guardian.

After Levi’s death, one of his daughters reinforced the bonds of the group even further. Lucinda LaFleur married Joseph Morrison, one of Levi’s fellow Civil War veterans, in 1886. Joseph was almost three decades older than his new wife, and he had already been married previously and had children of his own. They formed a new blended family in Sparta, living at 913 E. Main Street with their five children (Virginia, Ben, Eva, and Letha) and Joseph’s son, Thaddeus. The records of Joseph’s life at the time form a stark contrast with those of his fellow veterans from Prairie du Rocher; he indicates on the 1900 census that he does not know precisely when his birthday is, and he isn’t sure where his parents were born. But the family he founded in Sparta changed that trend, becoming a part of the fabric of the community. (One of his daughters, Eva Morrison Bardo, lived a particularly long life in Sparta, passing away in 1993 at the remarkable age of 99.) Joseph died on April 29, 1910, in Sparta, and was buried at Caledonia Cemetery.

Two more of the veterans from Sparta stayed in the area after returning from the war. Levi Block returned home to his wife, Isabella, and their young children. After working for years as a farmer, he eventually also took on day laboring jobs. He filed for his Civil War pension as an invalid in 1884, but after that, his path becomes difficult to trace. His comrade, Joseph Griffin, remained in Randolph County as well, settling in Eden. He was married several times, and when he died in 1891, his pension was claimed by his last spouse, a woman named Margaret. But, intriguingly, Edward Miller writes that Griffin’s name was later used by someone attempting to commit pension fraud. He writes that a “late application was filed in 1913 by a Mary Griff claiming to be … the widow of Joseph Griffin.” He adds that the “application and supporting papers were entirely fraudulent, but the US attorney declined to prosecute on the basis of insufficient evidence.”

While nine of the surviving Black Civil War soldiers from Randolph County returned home for good after the war, one of the men ended up embarking on a westward journey as a veteran. Henry Coles, who was 38 at the time of his service, lived in Sparta for a few years after he was mustered out of the army. But the 1880 census finds him with his wife and children in Leavenworth, Kansas, where he is working as a coal miner. By 1884, when he files to receive his pension benefits, the family is living in Nebraska. And on July 3, 1896, Henry registered to vote in Los Angeles, California. He was living with his family at 413 Colyton Street, where he was working as a junkman. He lived long enough to cast his vote in the presidential election that autumn, but he died of consumption shortly afterward, on November 30, 1896. His widow, Mary, filed for his pension benefits a few weeks later, and after her death, the funds were granted to their youngest daughter, Beulah.

Henry Coles is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles, and an official military headstone was provided by the government to mark his grave. Similar headstones were also ordered by the families of Levi LaFleur and John Therese. But, for the most part, little attention was given to the military service of these Black Civil War veterans after the end of the conflict. Back in 1865, the service of the veterans of the 29th US Colored Infantry Regiment had been celebrated with some fanfare near Camp Butler before they departed. Governor Yates attended one reception, but his remarks to the soldiers weren’t particularly positive. Miller notes that Yates told the soldiers that they belonged to “a downtrodden and enslaved race, with the whole white race prejudiced against them, and he wished he could say it was all gone.” He also stated that, while he “was sure blacks had made a contribution to the war,” he “was unaware what it was.”


The Spirit of Freedom statue at the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The Spirit of Freedom statue at the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

These statements—faint praise at best, offensive at worst—would sadly be some of the only formal acknowledgements of the Civil War service of the state’s Black soldiers. Miller adds that “The soldiers’ departure day from Springfield for their homes in Illinois … was the last time the unit met; it did not organize a veterans’ association, and the regiment’s accomplishments were largely forgotten.”  All eleven of the Black men from Randolph County who served their country in the Civil War, risking (and even giving up) their lives and their freedoms to do so, deserve to have their service properly remembered. A national memorial to the service of Black men who fought in the war was dedicated in Washington, D.C., in 1998. It would be a fitting tribute to recognize these veterans with a local memorial as well.


The Black Civil War Soldiers of Randolph County were inducted into the Randolph Society in 2021.