The Civil War Immigrant Who Was a Slave in Africa, Asia, and Europe and a Free Man in the U.S.

0
4680
4th United States Colored Troops

Join The Immigrants’ Civil War on Facebook

The first two battle-ready black regiments in the Union Army were the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. The 54th would be immortalized in the film “Glory” for its gallant attempt to capture Fort Wagner. Together the two regiments made history, demonstrating that black men could fight as well as any white men. They helped pave the way for 179,000 black Union soldiers and ultimately for black citizenship.1

Although the 55th was a Massachusetts regiment, only 22 of the men in its ranks were born in that state. The regiment drew recruits from many places, and included more than 250 from the Southern slave states. 105 came from Virginia, 30 from North Carolina, 6 from Georgia, 5 from Alabama, 9 from Mississippi, 66 from Missouri, 68 from Kentucky, 21 from Tennessee, and one each from Louisiana and Arkansas. Five of the men of the regiment were immigrants, four from what is now Canada and one from Africa. The one African in the 55th Massachusetts had been a slave, but not in the American South. Nicolas Said was born to a black Muslim family in the Sudan in Africa. An unusual immigrant, he had been a slave in Africa and Europe and a freeman when he came to the United States. He would serve the Union in the war that ended slavery here.2

Nicholas Said
Nicholas Said

Born Mohammed Ali ben Said, the young man grew up in a country under severe stress. The Sudan of the 1830s and 1840s that Said was reared in was in a state of disintegrating conflict. Imperial ventures from the Ottoman Empire and Europe, as well as religious wars between Sudanese who followed indigenous religions and those who were Muslims led to internecine slaughter and to the enslavement of those captured in battle. Said’s own father and brothers died in the conflicts.3

When he was a teenager Mohammed Ali ben Said and some other boys were climbing in a tree to pick some fruit when a group of armed horsemen attacked. In the scramble to get out of the tree, Nicolas fell to the ground and was knocked unconscious. Said writes that:
“When I came to my senses I found myself behind a man on horse back, and tied to him with thongs. The warnings of my mother recurred to me and in very bitterness of spirit, I wished the whole horrid circumstance a dream. But, alas! it was too sternly real! I was in the hands of the dreaded, the cruel Kindills, a slave, and I could not form the slightest idea what was going to become of me.”4

Tripoli in 1860 Source: http://history.ly/en/paintings-of-libyan-cities-between-1860-and-1861/
Tripoli in 1860. Source: http://history.ly/en/paintings-of-libyan-cities-between-1860-and-1861/

Said was sold in an African slave market and taken across the Sahara Dessert. He was sold to a Turkish officer who proved to be a soft master. Said was able to educate himself, and he was sent to his owner’s father Hadji Daoud who lived in Tripoli. Hadji Daoud took him on pilgrimage to Mecca.5

Said described Mecca as “a fine looking city, with wide streets and houses of stone, well lighted and often three stories high. During the period of Haj, or general pilgrimage, the city is filled to the Kaaba,–apartments in every house are occupied by pilgrims and thousands encamp in the suburbs.” When Said returned from his months long pilgrimage to the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, Said found that his owner’s store had burned down and that he was to be sold.6

Said was purchased by an Ottoman cabinet minister who took him to Constantinople and gave him to his brother-in-law Reschid Pacha. His new owner “treated me very kindly, giving me holidays, almost every day, from breakfast to noon, and furnishing me with small sums of money to spend in my own gratification.”7

In spite of the decent treatment, Said wrote that “I began, this time to think that it was my fate to pass from hand to hand, with never a sure and definite resting place…” Even though decently treated by Rescid Pacha, Said was still property and one day he was sent as a present to the Russian minister in Constantinople Anatole Mentchikoff. When he accompanies his owner to Russia, he became the servant of Prince Nicholas Vassilievitch Troubetzkoy.8

No matter where fate and his owners took him, Said had remained true to his Muslim faith. His new master, however, insisted that he convert to Orthodox Christianity. After some resistance, Said consented to be baptized. He described the event:

“I was baptized in Riga on the 12th of November, 1855, leaving my Mohammedan name of Mohammed Ali Ben Said at the font, and bearing therefrom the Christian name of Nicholas. This performance ended, I thought the job was complete, but the next day the papa, or priest who had me baptized, sent for me, and on getting where he was, I found myself in a beautiful chapel, handsomely paved with marble of different colors. He caused me to kneel before an immense tableau of the Saviour for hours, asking pardons for my past sins.

As the marble was harder than my knees, I was in perfect agony during the greater portion of the time, and became so enraged with the papa, that I fear I committed more sins during that space of time than I had done in days before.

In fact, I am not sure but that a few ungainly Mohammedan asperities of language bubbled up to my lips. But I managed to get through without any overt act of rebellion.” 9

The prince took Said all over Europe, to Germany, Italy, France, and other places. Finally, the two went to England where the prince gave his slave 300 British Pounds and freedom to travel. Said set sail for the Americas with a Dutch couple who eventually stole his money and left him stranded in Canada.10

Said moved to Detroit, where he tutored children in French. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, whatever Said’s view of the conflict was, black men like him were barred from serving in the United States Army. Black civil rights leaders and their white allies insisted that African Americans be allowed to enlist. They believed that once black blood was shed in defense of the Constitution, whites could not deny that some level of equality had been earned.11

White conservatives were vehement in their opposition to black soldiers. “The only motive for adopting the black soldier system was the fanatical idea of negro equality,” a conservative New York newspaper argued, “and the determination of the radicals to do everything possible to raise the negro to the social and political level of the white.”12

The Civil War would be more than a year old before Congress and President Lincoln would decide whether blacks could be United States soldiers.13

Video: Medical Care for Black Troops in the Civil War

Resource:

The Autobiography of Nicholas Said is available for free online. The autobiography is generally reliable, however Said does not describe his experiences during the Civil War years. Historians have argued that because he settled in the South after the war, he was reluctant to write about the time he served in the Union army.

Sources:

1. Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R. Egerton published by Basic Books (2016); The Negro As A Soldier in the War of the Rebellion by Norwood Penrose Hallowell published by Little, Brown (1897); The Autobiography of Nicholas Said; a Native of Bornou, Eastern Soudan, Central Africa by Nicholas Said published by Shotwell & Co. (1873); Summary of the Autobiography of Nicholas Said by Patrick Horn; “Mohammed Ali Ben Said: Travels on Five Continents,” by Allan Austin published in Contributions in Black Studies: Vol. 12, Article 15 (1994). Available at: http://scholarworks.umass.edu/cibs/vol12/iss1/15

2. The Negro As A Soldier in the War of the Rebellion by Norwood Penrose Hallowell published by Little, Brown (1897) p. 8

3. The Autobiography of Nicholas Said; a Native of Bornou, Eastern Soudan, Central Africa by Nicholas Said published by Shotwell & Co. (1873) pp. 30-33

4. The Autobiography of Nicholas Said; a Native of Bornou, Eastern Soudan, Central Africa by Nicholas Said published by Shotwell & Co. (1873) pp. 35-41

5. The Autobiography of Nicholas Said; a Native of Bornou, Eastern Soudan, Central Africa by Nicholas Said published by Shotwell & Co. (1873) p. 79

6. The Autobiography of Nicholas Said; a Native of Bornou, Eastern Soudan, Central Africa by Nicholas Said published by Shotwell & Co. (1873) pp. 93-95

7. The Autobiography of Nicholas Said; a Native of Bornou, Eastern Soudan, Central Africa by Nicholas Said published by Shotwell & Co. (1873) p. 122

8. The Autobiography of Nicholas Said; a Native of Bornou, Eastern Soudan, Central Africa by Nicholas Said published by Shotwell & Co. (1873) pp. 121-122, 124, 128-140

9. The Autobiography of Nicholas Said; a Native of Bornou, Eastern Soudan, Central Africa by Nicholas Said published by Shotwell & Co. (1873) pp. 145-146

10. The Autobiography of Nicholas Said; a Native of Bornou, Eastern Soudan, Central Africa by Nicholas Said published by Shotwell & Co. (1873)

11. The Autobiography of Nicholas Said; a Native of Bornou, Eastern Soudan, Central Africa by Nicholas Said published by Shotwell & Co. (1873), Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R. Egerton published by Basic Books (2016)

12. Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R. Egerton published by Basic Books (2016) pp. 3-4

13. Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R. Egerton published by Basic Books (2016)

 


Warning: A non-numeric value encountered in /home/longisl2/public_html/wp-content/themes/Newspaper/includes/wp_booster/td_block.php on line 326

LEAVE A REPLY