PROVIDENCE —Just two weeks after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that slavery was dead, a letter was sent to Rhode Island Governor William Sprague IV from then Adjutant General of the Union Army Lorenzo Thomas. He was asking Sprague to help recruit an infantry regiment of volunteers who were of African descent to help the Union win the bloody Civil War.
Hundreds of Black men volunteered to form the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment, which was then labeled as “colored,” and would later be called the 11th US Colored Heavy Artillery Regiment.
Recruits were organized and brought to Providence in 1863. Other nearby Union states, like Connecticut, were slow to establish Black combat units to serve in the Civil War. Therefore, the Rhode Island colored regiment was able to recruit more than 1,800 Black soldiers from Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and elsewhere. In addition, 77 white men who served as officers also joined the regiment, according to documents. The recruits were trained on Dexter Field throughout that summer and fall.
“The appearance of three hundred muskets in the hands of as many sturdy stalwart Black men was a novel sight in Providence,” read a Providence Journal article published in August 1863. “There are many excellent soldiers in these companies and they are trusty and faithful men.”
One of those recruits brought to Providence was Abraham Lee, according to records within the US Department of the Interior.
To the Honorable the General Assembly of the State of Rhode Island at the January Session, 1866
Capt. Sisson of Buffalo NY promised a bounty of three hundred dollars if he would go to Rhode Island and enlist in said regiment that being induced by said promises, he did leave his home and go to Rhode Island, and did enlist in said regiment; that he has not received the bounty which was promised him, but has only received, as bounty, from the State of Rhode Island, the sum of two hundred and fifty dollars…
As with many Black men and women of the time, not much is known about Lee. However, a single document housed within the Rhode Island State Archives at the State Department showed that Lee had petitioned the Rhode Island General Assembly in January 1866, a little less than a year after the Civil War ended. His handwritten petition read that he was not fully paid for his service in the Union army.
The petition said Lee was honorably discharged after “faithfully serving” in the regiment and was asking for his full promised payment.
He explained to the General Assembly that he previously lived in Hamilton, which is a city in Ontario, Canada, and was recruited there by a Mr. Hale.
… There is now therefore due him the sum of fifty dollars; that he never signed any contract to accept any bounty less than three hundred dollars; that after he reached Louisiana, when the other men of the Regiment were receiving the bounty he applied for his to the agent of the state commissioner & was told by him that his bounty had been sent to his wife, he then wrote to his wife to ascertain this fact & was informed by her that she had never received it.
He then wrote to Amos D. Smith 3rd for that bounty, the reply to him was that the bounty had been sent to his wife in Hamilton Canada west & advising him to have the money letter office and the Express office carefully searched as he, Col. Smith, could not remember by which it was sent, that your petitioner there wrote to his father asking him to have the search made as now needed by Amos D. Smith 3rd, State Commissioner, and some office received a reply, Reply stating that the search had been made and nothing could be found of the money and the order that he then gave that information by letter to Col. Amos D. Smith 3rd, state commissioner, and in that letter stated that he said Smith ought to know where the money went to, or he ought to have the Express receipts or the Post office receipts, to that letter your petitioner received a reply that he could search his records and see where the money had gone to.
After training, Lee’s regiment was deployed to Dutch Island to defend the West Passage in Narragansett Bay, operating eight artillery pieces on the island, according to historical records.
That following winter, in 1864, the regiment was sent to the coast of Texas, which was when they became the 11th US Colored Heavy Artillery Regiment and were deployed to the defenses of New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
Your petitioner waited some five or six weeks after that and then wrote sent Amos D. Smith 3rd again asking him whether he had found the money and if so if he would send it to your petitioner and he [ineligible] received from said Smith a fifty dollar bill in a letter
That he has never been able to obtain the balance of fifty dollars, after his discharge he called on Amos D. Smith 3rd, and he said he had paid it on an order to some one, but he could not exactly find the order; that after that he went to the Governor’s office with Col. by then [ineligible] and there met Mayor Sanford who expressed great pleasure at seeing your petitioner and said he had heard of this petitioner before, and that a Mr. Hale had presented an order for $50 balance due and collected it from Paymaster Francis. Your petitioner replied that he had never given any such order and if any such was produced that it was a forged order, Sanford then told your petitioner that if he would go to Paymaster Francis, he could see the order that he thought it was on file here [ineligible], your petitioner went to an office nearly opposite the Governor’s office, to see Col. Francis’s serve six or eight times but could not find him in, and never saw the order, that the next week your petitioner went to the office of Col. Amos D. Smith 3rd later come [ineligible] with some men of the Regt. to show them where the office was they wishing to obtain the balance of their bounty, said Smith then said to your petitioner that then said to your petitioner that more men’s bounty had gone where his had gone. Not the rascally recruiting agents had prevented them and taken it...
...Wherefore he prays that the said sum of fifty dollars may be paid to him by the order of this Honorable Assembly, and that such other relief may be granted him as to your Honor shall seem meet. And he, as in duty bound, will ever pray...
While being recruited, Lee was promised by a captain in Buffalo, New York, that he would receive $300 if he left his home and enlisted in Rhode Island.
However, he claimed he was shorted by $50.
“He never signed any contract to accept any bounty less than three hundred dollars,” read the petition.
The petition went on and said that after he arrived in Louisiana, when other men in the regiment had received their full payment, he contacted the state allotment commissioner, Col. Amos D. Smith, who then told him that the rest of his pay was sent to his wife. Lee said he wrote to his wife, but she replied and said she never received it.
I, Abraham Lee, of the city and county of Providence and State of Rhode Island, late of Co. G. 11th Reg. U.S. (Colored) Heavy Artillery – formerly 14th Reg. Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, on oath say that in my petition to the General Assembly subscribed and sworn for by me January 16th 1866.
I did not intend to cast any imputation or accusations on the official character of Col. Amos D. Smith; that the $100 deposited with him, as per bounty certificate, for me was promptly and duly paid to me by him – the remaining $150 of the $250 acknowledged in my said petition as having been received; having been paid me in $75 installments as same to in my said petition.
-- Abraham Lee
In the petition, Lee explained that he was given the “run around,” and visited countless offices to check where the remaining sum of his payment had gone. However, he never heard word from the state and was bringing the matter to the General Assembly.
“I did not intend to cast any imputation or accusations on the official character of Col. Amos D. Smith,” wrote Lee.
Justice of the Peace Elisha L. Mowry signed the document, claiming that Lee made an oath to the truth.
It’s said that the Rhode Island regiment had the highest number of deaths of any Black regiment in the Civil War, and more than 300 men died from disease and another 100 received medical discharges. Serving as a Black soldier took bravery, according to historians, as Confederate officers typically refused to treat captured African Americans as prisoners of war. Instead, they were executed as if they had escaped enslavement. The white officers of these regiments were also executed, if captured, because they were seen as “traitors.”
Nearly 180,000 Black soldiers fought with the Union Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy. According to the US National Archives, about 40,000 Black soldiers died over the course of the Civil War — 30,000 from disease or infection alone. Only 16 African Americans received the Medal of Honor.
And it’s unclear if Lee ever received the rest of his bounty.
The transcription of Mr. Lee’s petition has been slightly edited for length. This document was transcribed with help from the staff at the Rhode Island State Archive.