The Civil War was by and large a young man’s conflict. Most enlisted men and noncommissioned officers fell within the 18-26 age group. A large number of commissioned officers also were under 30. It is a tragedy that so many of these young men fell victim to disease and battle. So many bright futures wiped out prematurely and so many generations left unrealized.
What motivated Lafayette Tibbs to enlist as a 19 year old? Were his reasons practical? Did he need steady income to help provide for his family? Were his reasons altruistic? Did he want to end slavery to help provide a brighter future for his race? Did he want to prove that black men were as brave as white men and thus as worthy of the rights of citizenship? Did he envision the promising future of an indivisible Union? Was it a combination of these things? We’ll likely never know, as his short life came to an end on October 19, 1864, succumbing to wounds he received at the Battle of New Market Heights.
Unfortunately, like so many men who served in the United States Colored Troops, little information is available about Lafayette Tibb’s developmental years. A small clue does survive with his appearance in the 1850 census, living in the household of his 50 year old mother Matilda Tibbs in Hocking Township, Fairfield County, Ohio. The seven year old Lafayette is the youngest of the five boys in the family. The whole family, all categorized as “mulatto,” were born in Virginia, except for Lafayette, who was born in Ohio. Perhaps Matilda and the other boys left enslavement in the Old Dominion and established a new life in the free state of Ohio either by self-emancipation or manumission by their former enslaver. Lafayette does not appear in the 1860 census, but Matilda and one of his older brothers are listed in the household of a man named John Brown, his wife, and their infant. At 17 years old, Lafayette may have been working locally elsewhere and missed by the census taker.
Lafayette Tibbs enlisted as a private in Company H, 5th United States Colored Infantry on June 27, 1863, at Lancaster, Ohio. Now, 19 years old, Tibbs measured five feet, eight inches tall, and was described as “yellow” in complexion. His given occupation was “farmer.” Tibbs officially mustered into service at Camp Delaware in Delaware, Ohio, where the 5th USCI trained, as well as the 27th USCI. Young Tibbs soon received a promotion to sergeant.
Tibbs must have adapted well to the demands of military life as evidenced by his promotion, and his appointment for service as a member of the 3rd Division, XVII Corps sharpshooter unit. It is unknown if Tibbs was operating as part of the sharpshooters, fighting as forward skirmishers, or within the ranks with Company H, when he received wounds during the assaults on September 29, 1864, at New Market Heights. Tibbs’ service records do not specify his wounds, but he received treatment for them after the battle at Balfour U.S. Army General Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia. He died there on October 19. The paperwork for his personal effects, completed four months later, lists no possessions.
A soldier’s life, however brief, deserves a soldier’s resting place. Sgt. Lafayette Tibbs rests in grave number 80 in Hampton National Cemetery. This beautiful cemetery sits among buildings at Hampton University, a historically black institution of higher learning. Sgt. Tibbs would likely be proud that so many African American young men and women have had the opportunity to obtain a quality education and pursue the livelihood of their choosing partly due to the sacrifices he and his comrades willingly made during the Civil War.