During the Civil War, hundreds of reporters from Union and Confederate newspapers published stories from battles on land and sea. Only one of those reporters was a Black man: Thomas Morris Chester, the nation’s first African American war correspondent.
The invention of the telegraph in 1844 by Samuel Morse had made it possible for newspapers to turn out editions in a matter of hours, quickly spreading war news around the country. The correspondents filing those front-line stories—and shaping Americans’ perceptions about the war—were mostly white men recording the conflict primarily through the lens of other white men and their families. Theirs were the only perspectives conveyed in the mainstream press—until the white-owned Philadelphia Press hired Chester in 1864 to cover the Black troops in Virginia.
Writing under the pseudonym “Rollin,” the 30-year-old Harrisburg, Pennsylvania native whose mother had escaped slavery, became the first and only African American correspondent during the war for a major newspaper. Embedded with the United States Colored Troops in the Army of the James from August 1864 until June 1865, Chester, who had recruited Black men to the Union Army, gave voice and dignity to the Black soldiers struggling for their right to fight, for parity with white troops—and for the right to be treated with the respect due to men willing to lay down their lives for their country. Writing in the Philadelphia Press, Chester said of Black troops, “Every man looked like a soldier, while inflexible determination depicted upon every countenance.”
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Chester Gave Voice to Black Soldiers of the Army of the James
Formed in April 1864 to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, the Army of James contained two divisions of white troops of the 24th Corps and one division of Black troops of the 25th, which consisted of two brigades containing 5,000 men from seven regiments. Chester, who embedded with the 25th on the front lines, didn’t shy away from describing the carnage these soldiers experienced, as in this description of two pickets that had been shelled: “…quivering pieces of flesh indicated the locality of the frightful scene, while fragments of the hearts and intestines were hanging upon the branches of the neighboring trees.”
On April 3, 1865, the Black troops of the 25th Corps were among the first Union soldiers to enter the Confederate capital, signaling the war’s imminent conclusion. For the Philadelphia Press, Chester wrote: “When Union infantrymen entered Richmond, the citizens stood, gaping in wonder at the splendidly equipped army marching along under the graceful folds of the old flag… The pious old negroes, male and female, indulged in such expressions: 'You've come at last,' 'We've been looking for you these many days,' 'Jesus has opened the way.'” Unlike other war correspondents, Chester refrained from quoting his Black sources in dialect.
“The soldiers, black and white,” he wrote, “received these assurances of loyalty as evidence of the latent patriotism of an oppressed people, which a military despotism has not been able to crush."
Lieutenant Robert Verplanck, a white officer who trained the Black troops, called Chester “our own correspondent” in one of his letters. Chester also knew how to frame the plight of all Black people in the context of the war and the troops fighting for their freedom. “Between the Negroes and the enemy, it is a war to the death,” he wrote on August 22, 1864. “The colored troops have cheerfully accepted the conditions of the Confederate government, that between them no quarter is to be shown. Those here have not the least idea of living after they fall into the hands of the enemy.” Many Black prisoners of war received harsh treatment from the rebels—some tortured, some killed and others sold into slavery.
Chester Gave a Confederate Officer a Black Eye
A day after entering Richmond with the Army of James, Chester sat down in the Speaker’s chair at the Virginia state capitol building, a symbol of Confederate power. According to his biographer R.J.M. Blackett, Chester was well “aware of the irony and eager to thumb his nose at the Confederacy.” Datelining his story, “Hall of Congress, Richmond April 4, 1865, Chester began it this way: "Seated in the Speaker's chair, so long dedicated to treason, but in the future to be consecrated to loyalty, I hasten to give a rapid sketch of the incidents which have occurred since my last dispatch."
A paroled Confederate soldier saw Chester seated in the Speaker’s chair and called out, "Come out of there, you black cuss!" For once, Chester became the focus of the news as a fellow correspondent, Charles C. Coffin of the Boston Journal reported the whole scene. Coffin wrote: "Mr. Chester raised his eyes, calmly surveyed the intruder and went on with his writing. 'Get out of there, or I'll knock your brains out!' the officer bellowed, pouring out a torrent of oaths, and rushing up the steps to execute his threat, found himself tumbling over chairs and benches."
Eventually, the New York Tribune reported, “Chester planted a black fist and left a black eye and prostrate Rebel” and went on to complete his dispatch to the Philadelphia Press—but not before the Confederate officer demanded the sword of a Union soldier to cut the “n-word’s heart out.”
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Chester Went on to Practice Law
After the war, Chester moved to England, where he earned a law degree. When he returned to the United States, he became an activist in Reconstruction Louisiana politics, where he became the first African American in that state to practice law. While he would accomplish much over his life before his death of a heart attack in 1892 at the age of 58, his legacy endures as the only Black Civil War correspondent for a major newspaper who provided a perspective that was both reflective of the Black troop experience and the crucial final year of the war. “Chester effectively captured the frustration of black veterans who believed that their contributions to Union victory went largely unnoticed,” wrote Gary Gallagher, a history professor at the University of Virginia and the author of several books on the Civil War.
Some years after the war, Chester complained about the lack of recognition of Black Civil war veterans for their efforts for the Union cause. On the Battle of New Market Heights, where a brigade of Black troops performed bravely against Confederate forces just outside the gates of Richmond, Chester wrote, “It is source of complaint, and very justly too, that the colored troops and their officers have not received their meed of praise from the chroniclers of events in the army, for their splendid advance and gallant bearing.” Ultimately, 14 Black soldiers were awarded medals of honor for their valor in this battle, the first African Americans in U.S. history to receive this recognition.