Oyster Bay Historical Society Executive Director Denice Evans-Sheppard spoke about her family's home in Pine Hollow. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

When the Civil War erupted in 1861, no one on Long Island had a more personal stake in the outcome than its Black residents.

Although free, they were keenly aware of the impact of slavery. Most were descendants of enslaved workers owned by Dutch and English colonists. Some had been born into slavery since New York did not abolish the practice until 1827. And others had escaped from bondage, fleeing from their owners in the South.

For many Black men, fighting slavery was the driving force for trying to enlist.

“I think for the most part, they wanted everybody to be free,” said Oyster Bay Historical Society Executive Director Denice Evans-Sheppard, whose great-great-grandfather, David Carll, fought with a Black regiment. “African Americans really served because they wanted to show their value.”

The Navy, like whaling and the rest of the maritime industry, was already integrated, and an estimated 18,000 Black sailors served during the war.

But for those looking to join the Union Army, most would have to wait two years, until the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, before they were allowed to enlist. Even then, they faced discrimination, with some white soldiers questioning their ability to fight. And they were only able to serve in segregated regiments commanded by white officers.

Despite these obstacles, military records show that by the end of the war, nearly 180,000 Black soldiers — 10 percent of the Union forces — had served in the Army. Among them were 204 Black Long Islanders.

“African American men — including more than 200 from Long Island — played a significant part in securing the Union’s victory in the Civil War,” said Harrison Hunt, a former senior curator of history for the Nassau County Department of Parks, Recreation and Museums and co-author of “Long Island and the Civil War.”

FAMILY ACCOUNTS CHALLENGED

Until recently their stories went untold, largely forgotten to history. And sometimes when their stories were told by descendants, they weren’t believed.

“In school, I used to be challenged by my teachers,” when she said her great-great-grandfather had fought for the Union, said Evans-Sheppard, who is 57. “But I think recently there may be more of an awareness because of the coverage that has been out there regarding African Americans and their participation in the Civil War.”

Indeed, there is an effort underway to posthumously award the Congressional Gold Medal to all Black soldiers and sailors who served during the war.

“Though often overlooked, hundreds of thousands of Black Americans valiantly fought to save the Union during the Civil War, helping end the evil institution of slavery and ensuring the United States would endure,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said in a 2023 statement, when legislation advancing the effort was reintroduced. “They served with distinction and honor during incredibly difficult circumstances, including the risk of enslavement and torture if captured.”

Denice Evans-Sheppard displays a recruiting account book.

Denice Evans-Sheppard displays a recruiting account book. Credit: Rick Kopstein

SEGREGATED REGIMENTS

A major factor in the increasing awareness of Black soldiers’ contributions was the 1989 film “Glory,” which told the story of the first Black regiment formed in the North, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, that recruited throughout New England and on Long Island.

Nathan Arch, of East Hampton, was one of the men recruited, though with the ranks of the 54th Regiment filled, he was placed in the 55th Massachusetts Colored Regiment. He saw action in Florida and South Carolina.

The majority of Long Island’s Black soldiers, including Carll and several of his neighbors, served in the 20th and 26th regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops, which were organized at Rikers Island in Queens.

The volunteers in the two regiments included four members of the Jackson family of North Wantagh, who lived in a Black community there called The Brush. David, Edward, Morris and Gilbert Jackson survived the war and were interred in what is known as the Old Burial Grounds, located at the former site of the community.

About three dozen Black recruits from Oyster Bay served. Carll is arguably the most well-known, thanks to the efforts of two of his great-great-granddaughters — Evans-Sheppard and singer and actress Vanessa Williams — and their cousin, Frances S. Carl (over the years, the family has dropped the second L in their surname). Evans-Sheppard and Carl collaborated on a biography of their ancestor, “Footsteps of a Forgotten Soldier.”

Evans-Sheppard grew up in a house built by Carll. She learned about her great-great-grandfather from her grandfather, Percy Carl Sr., who was 10 when Carll died in 1910.

“David’s father and mother, Lewis and Catherine Carll, were free people of color since 1795,” Evans-Sheppard said. “He purchased a coastal schooner and was able to find work transporting freight on Long Island Sound before he joined the war.”

In 1862, Carll married Mary Louisa Appleford in the first interracial marriage recorded in the hamlet of Oyster Bay. Carll, who lived in the whaling complex on the west side of Cold Spring Harbor before the war, enlisted in the Army on Jan. 2, 1864, along with friends Alex Conklin and William Cisco, after the Black regiments were approved by Gov. Horatio Seymour.

Carll’s regiment, the 26th, was sent to Beaufort, South Carolina, and fought several times during the late autumn of 1864, including at the Battle of Honey Hill, one of the Confederacy’s last significant victories and one of the three largest Civil War battles fought in South Carolina, according to that state’s Department of Archives and History.

Because of his maritime experience, Carll, who contracted malaria in South Carolina, was assigned to transport medicine from Rikers Island to the regiment encampment in Beaufort, according to his pension records in the National Archives.

LETTERS HOME

Carll was joined in Beaufort by his friend Simon Rappalyea, who served in the 20th Regiment.

Rappalyea, born in Oyster Bay in 1828, enlisted on Jan. 5, 1864, as a private. Within a few months, he was in South Carolina. On Sept. 11, 1864, he wrote his wife that, “Our folks has taken Atlanta with 25 thousand prisoners, today our Regiment has fired 100 guns as cheers for it.” (Days before, the Confederate troops had abandoned the city after a monthslong battle waged by the Union Army commanded by Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.)

That same month, Rappalyea also wrote his wife, “I think we will get paid soon and then I will send you more money. You must keep good spirits, I think I shall get home once more.”

In writing about his pay, Rappalyea touched on an issue that set him apart from white soldiers in the early days of Black enlistment. He complained about receiving less pay — only $6 a month — compared to soldiers in white regiments, who were getting $16. This would lead to some Black soldiers refusing their pay until the inequality was rectified, as depicted in “Glory.”

While Black soldiers faced discrimination, the war also offered them certain benefits.

Carll, for example, received $300 for enlisting at Rikers Island. He spent $200 of the money to purchase property in the Black community of Pine Hollow, which was established in the late 1600s on the southern edge of Oyster Bay.

After his discharge in 1865, Carll and his wife built a home for their nine children on the land, which was eventually called Carll’s Hill. Evans-Sheppard’s son is the seventh generation of the family to live there.

Carll and Rappalyea are buried in the Pine Hollow Cemetery just south of Carll’s property. The graveyard is the final resting place of many members of Carll’s family and other Black residents, including 11 other Civil War veterans. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2018.

Denice Evans-Sheppard at Pine Hollow Cemetery.

Denice Evans-Sheppard at Pine Hollow Cemetery. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

VOTING FROM THE FRONT

Black soldiers from New York took advantage of a wartime law that allowed soldiers to vote while in the field, regardless of their race. Most Black men were unable to vote until 1870, when the 15th Amendment was ratified.

Wait Mitchell, of Oyster Bay, who fought with the 26th regiment, was among them.

According to Oyster Bay Town Historian John E. Hammond, who has written about the town’s Civil War history, a soldier could cast his vote by absentee ballot by completing a form called “Soldier’s Power of Attorney,” which would then be signed by his commanding officer and sent to the soldier’s local voting district.

Mitchell filed an affidavit, now in the town archives, with Justice of the Peace John Rushmore that authorized the official to vote on his behalf in the Nov. 8, 1864, general election. According to Hammond, included in the envelope with the form was a “small piece of paper with the name Horace Greeley printed on it, indicating the voting preference of Wait Mitchell.”

Greeley was a New York elector for President Abraham Lincoln, who was then running for a second term.

Oyster Bay Town Historian John E. Hammond holds the original...

Oyster Bay Town Historian John E. Hammond holds the original affidavit letter mailed by Wait Mitchell to vote in the 1864 election. Credit: Rick Kopstein

FROM SLAVERY TO LONG ISLAND

One of the most prominent Black Civil War veterans from Long Island is Samuel Ballton. A private in the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, Ballton was born into slavery on a plantation in West Moreland, Virginia, but escaped to Union lines with five other enslaved people.

He became a cook with the 6th Wisconsin Infantry, returning twice to the South to attempt to free his wife, Rebecca, whom he had married in 1861, when she was enslaved on a neighboring plantation. On his second trip south, Ballton and his wife walked 50 miles in 14 hours to freedom. Then he enlisted in the Black regiment from Massachusetts.

Ballton settled in Greenlawn in 1873 to farm and by the late 1890s he was working as a sharecropper for the owner of the largest farm in the hamlet. He earned the moniker the “Pickle King” when he grew a record 1½ million cucumbers, used for making pickles, in a single harvest.

Ballton was later able to buy his own farm and used the profits to build homes to sell. He died in 1917 and was buried in Huntington Rural Cemetery.

Hunt, the historian, noted that because of the prejudice of many white government officials and top Army officers, many of the Black volunteers were initially “assigned to menial tasks such as building fortifications or working as teamsters [wagon drivers].”

But, he said, “These jobs were important to the war effort. Eventually, tens of thousands of [Black] men were assigned to bear arms, helping to turn the tide for the Union.”

NATIVE AMERICANS IN THE WAR

Black men were not the only Long Islanders of color who served in the Civil War.

Native Americans fought in segregated units raised in New York or nearby states. Among them were Shinnecocks Warren Newton Cuffee and Stephen Cuffee, Montaukett Stephen Pharaoh and Unkechaug Edward Edwards.

Warren Cuffee, born in 1842 in Sag Harbor, mustered into the 20th U.S. Colored Infantry as a private on Dec. 21, 1863, at the age of 21, according to Southampton Town Historian Julie Greene. He married Frances Bunn in 1867 and the couple had four children. While working to salvage the grounded Circassian, a cargo ship that wrecked off the coast of Mecox Bay near Bridgehampton, he and nine other Shinnecock Reservation residents died in December 1876 when the vessel was destroyed in a storm.

Pharoah served with the 29th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. He was also known as Stephen Talkhouse — a name commemorated by a music club in Amagansett. He was renowned for his long walks around the South Fork before he died in 1879 and was buried under a stone slab in what is now Montauk County Park.

— Bill Bleyer

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