Reference Entry

Gilchrist, Samuel (born 1839), Union Army Officer, Carpenter, Slave

Glenn Allen Knoblock

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Gilchrist, Samuel (born 1839), Union Army Officer, Carpenter, Slave

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Civil War soldier and Butler Medal recipient, was born in Surry County, Virginia. Likely a former slave, Gilchrist enlisted for service in the 2nd North Carolina Colored Volunteers Regiment at Hampton, Virginia, on 3 October 1863 for three years. Military records list his age as twenty-four, his height 5'10½”, his skin color as brown, and his occupation as carpenter. One of the regiment's enlistees at its inception, composed largely of blacks from North Carolina and Virginia, Gilchrist surely showed leadership qualities from the start as he soon rose from the rank of private to sergeant in Company K. He was likely promoted because of his aptitude, age, and size; nearly all of the other men in his company were farmers or laborers with an average age of approximately twenty-two years and averaged around 5'6” in height. Indeed, Gilchrist's intelligence, demonstrated by his skilled profession, and relative maturity and imposing physical presence were all desirable qualities in a non-commissioned officer.Gilchrist's official military service in the Union army, as well as that of the approximately 178,000 other black soldiers during the later half of the Civil War, was made possible by the War Department's General Order Number 143 on 22 May 1863, which established the Bureau of Colored Troops. Among the first black regiments were those established in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Massachusetts, and later in thirty-two other states, both North and South. Though black soldiers were discriminated against in the pay they received, and their use was controversial at times for political reasons, their excellent combat performance could not be denied. Indeed, it was the 54th Massachusetts Regiment's heroic actions during the assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina in July 1863, personified by the valor of the standard bearer Sergeant William Carney, that helped establish the fighting reputation of black soldiers in the public eye.Samuel Gilchrist's 2nd North Carolina Colored Volunteer Regiment was first established at the state level in October 1863, and thereafter was reorganized and accepted into the Union army as the 36th U.S. Colored Troop (USCT) Regiment in February 1864. Interestingly, among the soldiers in Gilchrist's Company K was one John Brown, 5'2” barber from New Castle, Maine, and one of over 100 black soldiers to serve in the Civil War from that state. The 36th USCT was first assigned to Wild's African Brigade in the Department of Virginia and North Carolina and subsequently at Point Lookout, Maryland, to guard Confederate prisoners and serving in several expeditions in the area through the end of June 1864. Gilchrist and the men of the 36th USCT went to the front lines at Richmond in July 1864 as part of Major Benjamin Butler's Army of the James during its siege of the Confederate capital. It was here that Gilchrist would earn his stripes as a company sergeant in fierce combat that would gain the Union's black regiments even further renown.Late September 1864 found the 36th USCT stationed near New Market Heights, south of Richmond. In an attempt to breach the enemy's ring of defenses, Ulysses S. Grant ordered Benjamin Butler's Army of the James, composed of many USCT regiments, to attack Confederate fortifications and capture four key forts. The two-day battle on 29–30 September 1864 resulted in some of the fiercest fighting of the Richmond campaign and over 5,000 Union casualties. Though Butler's army captured only one of the Confederate positions, Fort Harrison, and its success was short-lived, the Battle of New Market Heights proved yet again that black troops in combat were as determined, skilled, and brave as any white soldier in the Union army. In the early morning fighting on 29 September at New Market Heights, many white officers were killed in action, their places of leadership immediately taken over by black non-commissioned officers, first sergeants, like Samuel Gilchrist, James Bronson, Milton Holland, Powhattan Beaty, Robert Pinn, Edward Ratcliff, and others. Perhaps with the massacre of their fellow black troops at Fort Pillow in western Tennessee just five months earlier fresh in their minds, and with the rallying cry of “No quarter, No quarter” rising above the din of battle, Gilchrist of the 35th USCT and sergeants in other black regiments gallantly led their men in the assault on Confederate positions.Major General Benjamin Butler, always a friend to his black troops and rightfully proud of their conduct in battle, stated eleven days after the battle that at New Market Heights “The colored soldiers by coolness, steadiness, and determined courage and dash have silenced every cavil of the doubters of their soldierly capacity … this war is ended when a musket is in the hands of every able bodied negro who wishes to use one” (Official Records, 163). In commenting on the individual acts of heroism of several black sergeants that led their companies in battle, Butler would later “cause a special medal to be struck in honor of these gallant colored soldiers” (Official Records, 168). First called the Colored Troop Medal, and later more commonly referred to as the Butler Medal, this silver medal, engraved with the words “With distinguished courage—Campaign before Richmond 1864” and depicting black soldiers advancing toward enemy fortifications, was awarded to several hundred black soldiers during the campaign and would be the only army decoration ever approved solely for black troops. As for Samuel Gilchrist, he, too, was recognized for his heroism in leading the men of Company K; Butler's order of 11 October 1864 to the Army of the James succinctly states that Gilchrist “has a medal for gallantry” (Official Records, 169). Interestingly, while most of the sergeants so honored at New Market also received the Medal of Honor, Gilchrist is the only such man listed in Butler's order who did not. The explanation for this lack of a higher award for Gilchrist is unknown, but likely a simple error in the confused aftermath of battle.Following the battle of New Market Heights, during which he was severely wounded, Sergeant Samuel Gilchrist was hospitalized at the U.S. General Hospital at Fort Monroe, Virginia. He was subsequently mustered out of the army due to his disabilities on 17 June 1865. Though the details of Samuel Gilchrist's later life are uncertain, he nonetheless deserves recognition for his gallantry and courage in the Civil War, which served to exemplify the contribution of thousands of black soldiers to the Union cause and the higher ideals of freedom and equality.

Reference Entry.  1118 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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