President Lincoln, in his role as Commander-in-Chief, frequently intervened on behalf of individual soldiers. Their letters came to him from many sources, through different agencies and agents, and he read a great deal of them, commented on many, and interceded when he felt it necessary or the writer moved him in some way. He granted indulgences, released prisoners, and approved or disapproved countless courts martial proceedings, promotions, dismissals, and applications for appointment.
Many of the letters were from common citizens who just wanted an opportunity to serve their country, but had been denied enlistment for various reasons, like age, disability, or color. Willis A. Bogart was hardly a common citizen or even an American citizen at all, and he was having trouble finding a legitimate way to enter the service. He was a free man of color, the son of Harriet Bogart, a well-known former servant of Secretary of State William H. Seward (1). His letter to the President written on April 14, 1863 from Auburn, Cayuga County, New York, clearly set him apart. The letter written in Bogart’s own strong, legible handwriting speaks for itself:
To the Hon Abraham Lincoln
Sir in the present condition of our country I deem it the duty of Everyman to do What lays in his power for the good of his Country as I am a colored man Not exactly Sound I am refused the rights of a soldier In the 54 Reg Mass Vols. I have been in the Battles of Fort Henry, Donelson, Corinth And With the 51st Ills Vols from the appearance Till General Popes Command of Virginia. I have always Travelled in all their Marches, stood Guard and taken and active part in every thing that came along foraging or in Reconnoitering I am well Drilled in artillery Infantry and I Am A dead shot. I have never been sick But once in my Life. Have been Able to take care of myself For 20 years am 34 years old, strait (sic) as an Arrow can run A mile inside of 5 Minutes and can shoulder 300 lbs and yet can’t be mustered in service. The defect is that I have been shot in My Left Arm 14 years ago as to the cupatability (sic) of Work I can refer you to the Hon Wm. H. Seward for whom I Have worked in 58. I want to get back in the field some way of other I am dying to get Back I have been in the Service 16 Months. (2)
He goes on to ask if he can be given a place in a “Colored Regiment.”
It is not clear whether President Lincoln actually did anything for Bogart. Lincoln’s endorsements or comments are conspicuously absent. He had been trying, unsuccessfully, to enter the famous unit of African American soldiers memorialized in the film Glory, the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Willis was eventually enlisted in the 29th Regiment United States Colored Troops Infantry, in Chicago in December 1863.
It is almost impossible to confirm Bogart’s previous claims of battle participation, since he refers to service with the 51st Regiment Illinois Infantry, which was a unit that was not at Fort Henry or Fort Donelson. The fact that there is a lack of available records for him in the 29th USCT Infantry (there was only one card abstracted) also makes confirmation of Bogart’s claims difficult (3).
The record shows that he served at various times as hospital nurse and regimental clerk until being discharged in October 1864 on a Surgeon’s Certificate of Disability. The Certificate (the actual copy as found in his pension application) clearly states that Bogart was born at Bebden Bridge, England. This is in West Yorkshire, a place very far removed from Chicago where he enlisted and very odd to consider, but there is no real reason to doubt it. It also states that he was wounded in the arm on account of “…disrespectful and mutinous language to his superior officers…,” and besides that he was suffering from a hernia (4).
He was apparently never brought up on charges and was not subject to a court-martial, so the circumstances surrounding his discharge remain mysterious. He never did receive that pension, and it seems he eventually ended up in prison for theft sometime soon after the war (5).
He could run a mile in under five minutes and could shoulder 300 pounds but couldn’t be mustered. He participated in battles and performed his duty. It appears that being nearly a top physical specimen, smart, literate and possessing military experience did little to help him. Being a foreign-born, well-connected, freeman also did little to shield Willis A. Bogart from the prejudices of his time, yet he did enough to get noticed. His voice was heard at the highest levels of society at the time and resounds to this day.
Bogart sources (including external links)
(1) Information on Bogart’s family origins and connection to Seward found here linked from this website
(2) This letter found at the National Archives in RG94 (Records of Adjutant General’s Office), entry 409 (Enlisted Branch Letters Received), file BKO166-eb1863.
(3) This is confirmed by the CMSR carded record found on fold3.com, and in NARA (RG94, entry 518, Civil War Carded Records, USCT, et al.)
(4) Pension application found at the National Archives in RG15 (records of Veterans Administration), Civil War pension case-file, Bogart, 29 USCT, application #123560, (no certificate).
(5) Convicted of Larceny