When I first visited Beaufort National Cemetery, Beaufort, South Carolina, six years ago, I had no idea that I’d encounter a little-known freedom fighter from Tidewater, Virginia. HIs name was Jackson Copeland, and he served with Company E of the 26th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry.
Jackson Copeland was born about 1841, into a free African American family, in Nansemond County (Suffolk), Virginia. In the 1850 Census of Nansemond, Jackson was documented in the household of Elias Newby, a free man of color born about 1795. Other members of the household included Catherine Copeland, aged forty, Silas Copeland, aged ten, Louvenia Copeland, aged eight, Henry Copeland, aged four, and Weston Copeland, aged one.2
Sometime between 1857 and 1862, Jackson left Nansemond County, and moved north to Plattekill, Ulster County, New York, where he was documented as a resident in 1863. At this point, Jackson would’ve found himself in New York directly before, during, or immediately after the horror of the New York Draft Riots, which occurred July 13-July 16, 1863, driven by anger over the institution of the Conscription Act of 1863.
“The riots were at once a four-day insurrection against President Abraham Lincoln’s Republican government and its discriminatory draft and a pogrom of the desperate against the more desperate, in which the Irish poor aimed there murderous fury at their black neighbors. By the time quiet was restored, at least 119 were dead, many of them rioters killed by the military in its battle to retake the city but at least twelve of them African Americans slaughtered by the white rioters.”SLAVERY IN NEW YORK, IRA BERLIN AND LESLIE M. HARRIS, EDS.
Why did Jackson travel North? Though born free from slavery, he nevertheless lived in the constant shadow of it. Some of my own ancestors were free born African Americans. Over the years, I’ve collected their “freedom papers,” essentially, certificates to prove their free status that they were legally bound to carry, at all times. Any white person could demand to see these certificates, or require proof that a free African American was documented as such by the local registrar. Failure to prove, or possess the documentation to prove, their free status. would often result in imprisonment, or a forfeiture of freedom and enslavement.
“Free Negroes or mulattoes shall be required and numbered in a book to be kept by the town clerk, which shall specify age, name, color, status and by whom, and in what court emancipated. Annually the Negro shall be delivered a copy for twenty-five cents. A penalty is fixed for employing a Negro without a certificate; the Negro may be committed to jail. Every free Negro shall once in every three years obtain a new certificate.”BLACK LAWS OF VIRGINIA, 1793
In example is the “free negro” certificate of Joel Elliott (ca. 1821-1862), my paternal great-great-great-great-grandfather. Joel was officially registered as a “free negro” in Nansemond County Court on November 12, 1849. On the certificate, he is described as “a black man, twenty eight years of age, five feet six inches high, who has a scar on the forefinger of the right hand and who was free born.” Jackson Copeland would’ve been registered and described in a similar manner, and forced to carry his “free negro” certificate daily.
Perhaps Jackson went North, as my ancestors did, specifically to join the Union army, to help put a stop to these and other punitive measures, and to fight for freedom for all African Americans. Wiley Holland, a free African American landowner, born and raised in Nansemond County, was a patriarch of a family interred in historic Oak Lawn Cemetery. Asked why he lent support to the Union after the Civil War, he stated: “I was a free man of color, I had no vote.”
On December 22, 1863, Jackson Copeland enlisted with the Union Army, and mustered in on February 27, 1864, with the newly organized 26th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry, at Riker’s Island, New York Harbor. At the time of his enlistment, he was described as five feet, eight and one half inches tall, with a “black” complexion, eyes, and hair. His occupation was noted as “laborer.” Jackson and the soldiers of the 26th regiment were presented a regimental flag before their departure south on March 27, 1864, for duties in and around Beaufort County, South Carolina.3
While members of the 26th U. S. Colored Infantry were involved in several battles, including the Battle of Burden’s Causeway (Bloody Bridge, July 1864), Johns Island, and the Battle of Honey Hill (November 30, 1864), Jackson’s enlistment record does not indicate that he engaged in battle.
Pvt. Jackson Copeland succumbed to the effects of “typho-malarial fever” on July 13, 1865, one of one hundred and twelve men of the Twenty-Sixth Regiment who died from disease between 1864, and August 28, 1865, when the regiment mustered out at Hilton Head, South Carolina. Jackson was interred the following day in grave number 2898, in Beaufort National Cemetery. The cemetery, developed on a sixty-five acre tract of land known as “Jolly’s Grove,” was purchased by Maj. General David Hunter at auction for a sum of ninety dollars in 1863.4
My visit to Beaufort National, to study the United States Colored Troops interred there, happened to coincide with the “Wreaths Across America” program scheduled for the cemetery, an annual event that has increased in size and attendance over the years. There must’ve been hundreds of volunteers present. I discreetly took as many photos of USCT graves as I could manage until the program began. Below, I share some of the photos taken that day.