During the Civil War, soldiers sometimes attempted to describe the nature of combat to friends and loved ones unfamiliar with warfare. In the years since the conflict, scholars have also tried to give us an idea. Soldiers and historians alike have used terms such as chaos, pandemonium, and bedlam in effort to relate the stressful battlefield situations that participants experienced. Some soldiers, especially those who had previously “seen the elephant,” and thus knew what was in store, were able to steady their nerves, hear commands, and will themselves to obey those commands despite the many surrounding dangers. Others, unable to stand the potential threats to life and limb, either froze up, ran away, or found other ways to make their personal safety their main priority.
The United States Colored Troops (USCT) soldiers who fought at the Battle of New Market Heights on September 29, 1864, likely included men who ranged the wide spectrum of combatants. After all, they were human. However, the African American men who fought at New Market Heights realized this engagement presented a unique opportunity to prove themselves in battle, and as black soldiers they had unique motivations that often compelled them to subdue their fears and do their duty come what may.
We do not have eye-witness documentation to tell us how well Pvt. Edward Williams held up to the furious fire dealt out to him and his comrades of the 6th United States Colored Infantry (USCI) at New Market Heights. But, the sheer number of casualties inflicted upon the regiment does give us some understanding of the trial by fire they endured that day. Pvt. Williams’s life journey to September 29, 1864, also tells us something of his character and commitment.
Born a free person of color about 1836, in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, most of Edward Williams’s young life went unrecorded. The earliest documentation appears to be the 1850 census in which he appears as a 13 year old “mulatto” laborer in the Montgomery County, Whitemarsh Township home of Henry (age 60) and Diana (age 42) Jackson. Also in the household are three young Jackson children: Rosan (7), James (4), and Hannah (1). Additionally listed are Edward Williams (13), Thomas Williams (19), and Susannah Cox (84). Perhaps Diana Jackson was Edward and Thomas’s mother, who had remarried to Henry Jackson and had the three youngest children with him. Susannah Cox may have been either Henry or Diana Jackson’s mother and the grandmother to the children.
It appears that Edward Williams’s next appearance in the public record is the 1860 census. In that enumeration, an Edward Williams who is African American, is living in the household of a white family in Montgomery County’s Upper Providence Township. Although the census taker recorded Edward’s age as 20, that information, which was about 4 years off, may have come by way of Martha Rambo, the head of household, who may have estimated Edward’s age.
Edward Williams also appears in a June 1863 draft registration listing for neighboring Chester County. On it Edward is a 28-year old single laborer. It was soon after Edward Williams registered for the draft that he volunteered, enlisting in Philadelphia on August 3, 1863, in Company C, 6th United States Colored Infantry. Williams’s enlistment provides a few more physical details about him. Described as 5 feet 8 inches tall, Williams’s complexion is noted as “black.”
As the 6th USCI filled with recruits, it trained at Camp William Penn, just outside of Philadelphia. Being in close proximity, perhaps Edward was able to see and communicate with family and friends during his time at Camp William Penn. Edward’s comrades of Company C came from diverse backgrounds. Included among the men were: shoemakers, barbers, farmers, miners, coopers, sailors, plasterers, teamsters, blacksmiths, gardeners, waiters, coachmen, porters, and like Edward Williams, general laborers.