William P. Woodlin
Company G, 8th U.S. Colored Troops
1842 – Unknown
Black Soldiers have played an essential role in every conflict the United States has fought. Still, before the Civil War, their role in the Army was small. However, after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Army began officially accepting Black Soldiers into segregated units. Sources such as Pvt. William Woodlin’s diary provide valuable information on Black Soldier’s daily lives while at war, and the struggles they faced on and off the battlefield.
Born in Louisiana in 1842, Woodlin was enslaved by John Palfrey at Forlorn Hope Plantation. Palfrey died in 1843, leaving his land and enslaved persons to his son John G. Palfrey. A Unitarian minister and abolitionist living in Boston, he did not want to run his father’s plantation. Palfrey emancipated the remaining enslaved population at Forlorn Hope and made arrangements to move them north to new homes. He found families and employment for these newly freed persons in several states and helped them with the move. The young Woodlin made his way north, and first appears on official records in 1850 in New York.
After moving to New York, Woodlin went by the name William Palfrey. He was only nine when he moved in with David and Edna Thomas in Cayuga County, New York. Woodlin stayed around Cayuga County the rest of his young life and at some point changed his last name to Woodlin, officially severing any ties he had with his former enslaver. He worked on Alfred and Mary King’s farm, until he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1863 in the midst of the Civil War.
In July 1862, Congress began allowing Black Soldiers into the Army. The Army only created a few regiments before 1863, but with the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, the Army began to recruit Black Soldiers beginning in January 1863. Woodlin enlisted in New York on August 20, 1863, for a three-year term with the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT). He mustered into Company G of the 8th USCT Regiment on November 3. Ultimately, Black Soldiers made up over 10% of the Army and more than 25% of the Navy.
Woodlin received the rank of corporal upon joining the 8th but asked for a demotion to private in order to join the regimental band. As a member of the band he did not fight during battle, but he served on the frontline nonetheless along with his fellow Soldiers. It is unknown what instrument Woodlin played, but according to his diary, he played a brass instrument. The band not only played in the field, providing entertainment and helping keep Soldiers in step during marches, but also played on official occasions such as dress parades, color reviews, church services, and funerals. Documenting his early days in the Army, Woodlin describes the day he turned in his gun for an instrument: “We were called up and dressed up in our Zouave Suit today, and played for Dress Parade. We also got our leggins [sic]; and gave up our guns, who belong to the band, we did not have very good success.”
The 8th was one of the over 100 regiments raised in response to the flood of Black Soldiers signing up for battle. Commanded by Col. Charles W. Fribley, the regiment trained at Camp William Penn near Philadelphia. The 8th was primarily made up of free Blacks from Pennsylvania but had enlistees from across the country, including formerly enslaved Blacks from the south, and even recruits from Jamaica. Woodlin and the 8th served through the end of the war, serving in campaigns all along the east coast. The 8th first saw combat in Florida but only engaged in a limited number of battles. They stayed in Florida until August 1864 when they moved to Virginia and joined the Army of the Northern Potomac. They served in Virginia until the end of the war taking part in battles at Fair Oaks and Petersburg. Finally, the 8th helped pursue Lee’s army en route to the rebels’ ultimate surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865.
Unfortunately, historians know little about the Black Soldiers who fought in the USCT during the Civil War. Many were illiterate and, outside of normal service records, left few recollections of their time in the Army. However, Woodlin’s diary provides great insight into Black Soldiers’ lives during the Civil War. One example of the chaos and bravery shown by colored troops in battle comes from an entry describing the fighting the 8th and other USCT regiments faced at Malvern Hill, Virginia in August 1864:
” We were marched up to the front about a mile to some breast works where we lay all day expecting an attack which came just at sundown on the extreme right. heavy but soon change to the center where it was very fierce. Our Regt stood their ground loosing but 3 men wounded. the 9th drove them back and charged on them. It then broke out with extreme fierceness on the left like a continued roar of musketry. the Artillery then opened and drove them back the forces then fell back.”
Woodlin documented many of the battles the 8th faced and the tenacity they and other USCT regiments showed on the battlefield. Yet, he made sure to include life off the battlefield too. He not only documented his life as a musician but all aspects of daily life from the pay dispute for Black Soldiers, tales of capturing alligators, to seeing Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and other famous officers and regiments in the field. Woodlin’s diary gives a unique insight into what Black Soldiers experienced during the Civil War and how they survived both on the front lines and in camp.
Black Soldiers played a vital role in the fight to reunify the country during the Civil War. They participated in major battles across the war and showed bravery on many fronts. Yet little was written down about their lives outside of these battlefields. Unfortunately, little is known about Woodlin’s life following the war. However, his story and diary play a crucial role in telling the Black Soldiers’ full story during the Civil War and what they faced every day. From long marches to battle to discussing the number of rations they received, Woodlin helps give valuable insight into Army life.
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