Civil War Letters of John C. Brock

The book Making and Remaking Pennsylvania’s Civil War is a collection of essays about the events and legacies of the Civil War in Pennsylvania.  The essay “The Civil War Letters of Quartermaster Sergeant John C. Brock, 43rd Regiment, United States Colored Troops,” edited by Eric Ledell Smith, focuses specifically on the issue of African-American troops from Pennsylvania.  The first part of the chapter contains a synthesis of the history of African-American troops during the Civil War in general and specifically in Pennsylvania.  The second part contains nine letters written by John C. Brock to the Christian Recorder, a newspaper published in Philadelphia by the African Methodist Church.  Smith gives a good biography of Brock and explains the context and background of each letter.  John C. Brock was born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1843, and he enlisted in the army at Camp William Penn in April 1864.   One of the exceptions to the general rule of not assigning colored regiments to combat duty, the 43rd regiment arrived in Virginia as part of the rear guard to the Army of the Potomac and Brock shared, “You cannot imagine with what surprise the inhabitants of the South gaze upon us.”  Later, when his regiment proudly passed through Fairfax, Virginia “armed to the teeth, with bayonets bristling in the sun,” Brock echoed the same sentiment: , “The inhabitants… looked at us with astonishment, as if we were some great monsters risen up out of the ground.”  His letters cover a wide range of topics, from religion to food and supplies to other African-American troops from Pennsylvania.  Unfortunately, although his regiment was present at the Battle of the Crater, Brock does not mention it in his letters, and he also rarely elaborates on the issue of slavery, instead choosing to focus on topics more relevant to his everyday life in the army.  His last letter in March 1865 briefly broaches the topic with eloquence and a great deal of optimism: “The hydra-headed monster slavery which, a few short years ago, stalked over the land with proud and gigantic strides, we now behold drooping and dying under the scourging lash of universal freedom…. The bondmen of the South have heard that single word ‘liberty,’ and they will not heed the siren voice of their humbled masters.”  Brock is clearly proud to have had a part in defeating the South and the institution of slavery.  These letters are a valuable resource for studying the Civil War from a perspective that is often overlooked, that of an African-American soldier in combat duty.

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