By Cliff McCarthy. The following article appeared in a slightly different version in Mysteries of Belchertown’s History, available from the Belchertown Historical Association.
An item, re-discovered in the records of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), indicated that white Belchertown resident George Mason Abbey had received a commission as an officer in the 91st Regiment of U. S. Colored Infantry – a fact which had been forgotten or ignored since his death. The fascinating story of George Mason Abbey touches on the largely unrecognized role of African Americans in the War Between the States.
George Mason Abbey was born in April of 1833 to George and Hannah (Gay) Abbey. He was called “Mason” after his grandfather, who was a Revolutionary War veteran and one of the early carriage makers in Belchertown. A published genealogy of the Abbe-Abbey family states:
In 1852 he joined the so-called “Hampton Colony” [sic: “Hampden Colony”, see Comment below] that settled in Neosho County [sic: the Neosho Valley], Kansas — at that time, the frontier of civilization. Many of the settlers died of malarial fever and ague, and this young pioneer was a victim of this malady. With two other boys who were sick, he started back for Kansas City with an ox team, for which they traded their claims. One of the boys died on the trail, the two remaining on arriving at Kansas City, sold their outfits for enough to get back to their Massachusetts homes.
The same source says that, at the outbreak of the Civil War, the 28 year-old mechanic and carpenter enlisted as a recruiting sergeant at Pittsfield and, when he had completed the roster of his second company, he mustered into it. That was Company F of the 31st Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, known as the “Western Bay State Regiment.” Several other Belchertown men were in Company F with Sergeant Abbey; among them were Captain Elliot Bridgman and Private Amos M. Ramsdell. The latter was the brother of Abbey’s wife, Sarah Aurelia (Ramsdell) Abbey.
The 31st Massachusetts was part of a force that would be given the mission to capture and hold New Orleans for the Union. The regiment sailed from Boston on February 20, 1862 and arrived at Ship Island, off the Mississippi coast, on March 23. With these troops on their journey was Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler, the rambunctious Massachusetts politician who would command the effort.
In April of 1862, the regiment was involved in operations against the Confederate Forts St. Philip and Jackson, south of New Orleans, during which they might have encountered, or heard of, an unusual sight – the African American troops of the Native Guards, Louisiana Militia. The Native Guards were Confederate militia units comprised entirely of free blacks. Even their officers were African Americans. How could this happen in a South so fearful of slave insurgency? In his book, Like Men of War, Noah Andre Trudeau described the formation of these units:
“This unique region [Louisiana and New Orleans], whose rich culture was infused with influences from France, Spain, and Africa, had fewer taboos against arming blacks than did the rest of the South. When, on May 22, 1861, the all-black Planche Guards unit was organized, it enjoyed both the sanction and the support of the New Orleans city government. By the end of May, a sufficient number of companies had formed that the state governor appointed a colonel and lieutenant colonel to command what was now styled the Regiment of Free Men of Color. Before year’s end there would be fourteen companies in all (about 440 men) in what became known as the Native Guards, Louisiana Militia…What arms they had were personal weapons; their uniforms were come by at their own expense; and they were assigned solely to rear-echelon duties. Yet all of these Native Guard companies would still be serving under the Louisiana Confederate flag when the Union invasion fleet appeared off the mouth of the Mississippi in early 1862.”
On April 24, Commodore David Farragut cunningly maneuvered a small fleet of warships past Forts Jackson and St. Philip and opened the mouth of the Mississippi to Union transport. The besieged Confederate forts fell to the Union troops shortly thereafter and the path was clear for a march on New Orleans. By May 1, the Crescent City was under Union occupation and General Butler was in command. The 31st Massachusetts was the first regiment to enter New Orleans after its surrender.
Capturing New Orleans proved easier than holding it, however, as the brash and controversial Butler soon learned. He was wildly unpopular with the leading citizens of New Orleans during his reign and he was soon dubbed, “The Beast.” Among his more ire-inspiring moves was to pass General Order No. 28, which threatened to punish any woman who insulted, by word or gesture, any Union soldier, by treating her “as a woman of the town plying her avocation.” This and other notorious policies of General Butler inspired, among other infamies, the placing of his image in chamber pots. Butler found himself desperate for ways to bolster his defenses without straining his insufficient forces.
When the Union troops had arrived in New Orleans, the Native Guard militia units had disbanded and refused to evacuate with rest of the southern troops. They mostly dispersed into the populace of the city to see what Union occupation would bring. Soon, however, the officers of the Native Guard were asking General Butler to allow them to recruit black troops for the Union. More out of desperation than any progressive racial ideology, Butler allowed the creation of a small number of units comprised of free black men. Those of us steeped in the lore of the 54th Massachusetts “Glory” Regiment will be surprised to learn that the first black troops in the Union Army were mustered into service, not in Massachusetts, but on September 27, 1862 as the 1st Regiment Louisiana Native Guard. Two more all-black regiments were formed and mustered into service within a month. These units saw action in several engagements in and around the Mississippi delta and generally fought well.
Another misconception is shattered when we learn that the line officers for the 1st and 2nd Regiments Louisiana Native Guards were black; the 3rd Regiment’s line officers were selected without regard to race and had both black and white officers. Contemporary observers commented on the level of education, knowledge, and “mental capacity” of the officers. The racism of the day, even in the Big Easy, led to difficulties for these officers, however. When Butler was relieved of command in December of 1862, he was replaced by General Nathaniel Banks, another Bay State politician. Banks, who was no champion of black soldiers, began purging black officers from the Native Guard units. Incidents of white enlisted men refusing to obey orders from Negro officers, usually led to the forced resignations of the black officers, rather than the reprimand of the white soldiers!
But Banks was an astute enough politician to know which way the winds were blowing and the army clearly saw the need for black recruits. In May of 1863, Banks allowed the recruitment of more African American soldiers from Louisiana and re-designated the Native Guard regiments as the “Corps d’Afrique.” Eventually, there would be as many as 30 regiments in the Corps d’Afrique – all with white officers.
Meanwhile, after four months of provost duty in New Orleans, George Mason Abbey and the 31st Massachusetts were returned to Fort St. Philip and Fort Jackson where the unit was assigned garrison duty. Later, three companies were deployed at Fort Pike.
Fort Pike was where the 20th Regiment of the Corps d’Afrique was organized in September of 1863. That month, Sergeant George Mason Abbey was discharged from the 31st Massachusetts to accept a promotion to Captain in this newly-formed unit. The other Belchertown men from Company F also followed suit: Captain Elliot Bridgman was commissioned as a Colonel and Private Ramsdell became a 1st Lieutenant in the new unit. Shortly after its creation the new unit was re-designated as the 91st United States Colored Infantry. Bridgman, Abbey, and Ramsdell were officers in Company B. They served with this unit until their discharge in July of 1864, when the 91st United States Colored Troops was re-organized and consolidated into the 74th U.S.C.T.
George Mason Abbey returned to Belchertown where he was a charter member and commander of the E. J. Griggs Post of the Grand Army of the Republic. In 1889, the last year of his life, he moved to Skagit County in Washington state, where he joined his sons who had moved there earlier. Supposedly, he was the first person buried in the cemetery at Bow, Washington.
The story is told that George Mason Abbey never applied for his veteran’s pension, reportedly responding, “My country and flag are welcome to all I have done for them.” However, after his death, his wife applied for and received a widow’s pension.