African Americans in mid-nineteenth century America experienced the road to freedom differently. Some found the course short and straight. They claimed personal liberty as a right of birth by place or circumstance. However, being a free person of color—regardless of residence in a free state or slave state—still often did not entitle them to the same rights afforded to white citizens. Others had a longer, steeper path, filled with hurdles and detours. Yet, in spite of the many obstacles placed in their way, many individuals made their way to freedom and went on to fight for liberty and equality for others.
Documents that help tell Pvt. Thomas Young’s biography are sparse. Gathering bits and pieces of information here and there we can only gain a small picture of his life before enlisting in the United States Colored Troops. Born in South Carolina around 1836—likely enslaved—Young somehow someway relocated to Ross County, Ohio, where he lived before enlisting. A draft registration from 1863 lists Young’s occupation as a farmer.
Young apparently married Margaret Hawkins in May 1863. Although Young does not appear in the 1860 census for Ross County, Hawkins does. At that time the future Mrs. Young lived in the household of Mary Jackson, perhaps her mother. Margaret, 14-years old at that time, attended school and was born in Ohio. Ms. Jackson was born in North Carolina. In their small family was six-year old Louis Jackson, also born in Ohio.
Enlisting on June 17, 1863, in Company A, 127th Ohio Infantry, which soon received designation as the 5th United States Colored Infantry (USCI), Young mustered in with his comrades at Camp Delaware on August 7. At enlistment, Young stated his age as 27, and blacksmith as his occupation. He was a half inch over 6 feet tall, and the enlisting officer described his complexion as “black.” At several places in Young’s service records the note “free on or before April 19, 1861” appears, which indicates that he was entitled to equal wages and allowances when Congress finally passed a bill in June 1864, equalizing pay between white and black soldiers that retroacted to January 1, 1864.
Pvt. Young likely went through the same process that hundreds of thousands of other Civil War soldiers endured as they transitioned from civilian to military life. At Camp Delaware, Young drilled, learned army protocol, and formed close bonds with his mess mates, and other comrades in his company and regiment. He probably complained about the lack of variety in his rations, the long hours of drill, the high prices of the sutlers, and those officers he found overbearing. Regardless, his service records indicate he remained ever faithful to his military commitment, as he appears present for duty on each and every muster card.
Transferred to the seat of war, the 5th USCI reported to Norfolk, Virginia, in the fall of 1863, and participated in expeditions into eastern North Carolina. Moved to Yorktown, Virginia in early 1864, forays into the Old Dominion’s countryside freed enslaved people and helped recruit more men into the USCT ranks.
As part of Brig. Gen. Edward Hinks’ Division of the XVIII Corps, the 5thUSCI found themselves in camp near City Point, Virginia, when May turned to June 1864. While much of May involved fatigue duty building fortifications to protect the Union army’s hold on City Point, June brought the 5th their first experience in combat. They performed marvelously during the first attacks on Petersburg on June 15, 1864. Both in the capture of an advanced Confederate position at Baylor’s Farm that morning, and later that evening in helping capture parts of the Dimmock Line at Petersburg, Hinks’ USCTs began changing doubtful minds about their ability in battle. During that day’s fighting, Pvt. Young received a wound of some kind. It may have been minor, as he was again present for duty the following month.
For Pvt. Young and many of his comrades, their next fight would be their final one. The September 29, 1864, Battle of New Market Heights tested the resolve of Brig. Gen. Charles J. Paine’s 3rd Division of the XVIII Corps, but they proved true to the task. The first assault came from the 4th and 6th USCI regiments of Col. Samuel Duncan’s brigade. Taking heavily causalities among the double rows of abatis, they fell back. The 5th USCI of Col. Alonzo Draper’s brigade led the second attack. The 5th, along with the 36th and 38th ultimately proved successful in driving out the entrenched Confederate defenders along the banks of Four Mile Creek. During the fighting, numerous enlisted men, non-commissioned officers, and officers performed courageous acts under a terrible hail of rifle and artillery fire. As officers fell killed and wounded, NCOs and privates stepped up and led the way to victory. Four soldiers from the 5th USCI received Medals of Honor for their courageous fighting at New Market Heights.
During the furious battle, Pvt. Thomas Young received an undescribed wound. Evacuated from the field and transported by hospital steamer down the James River, ultimately to Balfour Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia, Young battled for his life until he finally succumbed on December 5, 1864.
Today, Pvt. Young’s grave, number 1859, is among the thousands of United States soldiers in Hampton National Cemetery. Young’s participation as a soldier helped secure freedom for millions formerly held in bondage. It was his and his comrades’ hard service that helped ensure the Constitutional amendments of African American citizenship and male suffrage. Young’s commitment to duty and the hope of a better future outweighed the pains of battle and the chance of death. He fell in a noble cause, attempting to hold the United States accountable for the promises enclosed in its founding documents, while seeking a “more perfect Union.”