April 6, 2013, 2:00 pm
By ADAM ARENSON
Thomas Peter Riggs was not like most soldiers. A private in the 54th Massachusetts regiment, his race would have stood out first to contemporary observers: Riggs was black, and his unit was the first to be organized in the North, after President Lincoln and the Union Army acquiesced to expanding the power of the Emancipation Proclamation with African-Americans fighting as soldiers.
Riggs was striking in other ways. He was freeborn, in Schenectady, N.Y.— not a Southerner and not an ex-slave, as is popularly assumed about members of the United States Colored Troops. But, perhaps most unusual was that, when in March 1863 he went “to Buffalo for the purpose to enlist into a Company of Colored troops, that was there recruited for the 54. Mass. Regt,” he and his traveling companion, John W. Moore, crossed into the United States from Canada, leaving behind their American-born families and work on the warehouse docks of Hamilton, Ontario.
At the time of the outbreak of the Civil War, they were not even in the United States — they were living comfortably in freedom in Canada. So why did they return to fight?
Most Americans assume the Underground Railroad was a one-way ticket to freedom, that African-Americans escaping the threat or reality of enslavement in the United States by escaping into Canada stayed there. They also assume that the African-Americans who moved north were all escaped slaves.
Many were, of course, and many did remain. But recently, scholars have tempered the celebration of such escapes with a focus on the difficulties faced by those of African descent north of the American border — and, I have found in my ongoing research — the large numbers who returned to the United States during the Civil War and Reconstruction, to determine whether they could find work, fight for citizenship and gain a sense of equal rights and opportunities in a nation now committed to ending slavery.
I call these men African North Americans, individuals of African descent who crossed or re-crossed the United States-Canada border in the years between 1850 and 1930. African North Americans sought a place to live securely with their families, to make and remake communities and to claim equal rights. Some stayed in the United States the rest of their lives. Others found Canada beckoning again; still others moved to Jamaica, Liberia and other countries. But many moved repeatedly around the Great Lakes and between the United States and Canada, seeking economic and social opportunities, without regard to the border.
The 54th Massachusetts gained its fame through its valor in the battle for Fort Wagner, outside of Charleston, S.C., in July 1863, the battle captured in the climactic scene of the movie “Glory.” It was there that Riggs; the regiment’s white commanding officer, Robert Gould Shaw; and many other members of the 54th lost their lives in an unsuccessful charge on the fort. The Confederate soldiers threw the bodies of Shaw and his soldiers together into one trench — an act intended as an insult, but embraced as a point of pride by Shaw’s family.
Our account of Riggs comes from his mother’s pension application, and from the testimony of John W. Moore, his fellow American-born dockworker who came that day to enlist with Riggs in Buffalo. For a number of years before his 1877 testimony, Moore was living in Detroit, alongside the Riggs family, though there was no sign if he had been employed as a gunsmith, his occupation when enlisted.
As Moore explained, he had met Riggs in the winter of 1861-62, as they chopped wood together outside “Georgetown a town situated in Canada between Toronto and Guelph.” Moore was born in Ontario County, N.Y., and appears in the 1861 Canadian census, with his wife and four children, in Trafalgar, Halton County, Ontario, on the other side of the lake. Riggs’s family had traversed regularly from Schenectady to Prescott, Leeds County, Ontario, and to Howard, Kent County, Ontario.
Even when dictated to lawyers and signed with an X — as John W. Moore’s deposition was — these documents reveal the continuity of ties between antebellum experiences in Canada, shared wartime experiences, and a postwar life back on the American side of the Great Lakes borderlands, for United States Colored Troops veterans and those they left behind.
In Detroit and Windsor today, there is an International Underground Railroad Memorial, two related sculptures by Ed Dwight that demonstrate the uncertainty of life as a fugitive in the United States, and the joy passengers on the Underground Railroad felt upon reaching the Canadian side. Considering it, the historian Nora Faires wrote, “For African-descended people between the 1830s and the end of the U.S Civil War, this boundary was vivid, thick, and saturated with meaning.”
The experience of John Moore, Thomas Riggs and tens of thousands of others demonstrate that the journeys for freedom and the fight for rights continued for these African North Americans, whether in the South, North — or beyond the borders of the United States.