Back in April, 2012, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield caused quite a splash when they announced the acquisition of a photograph of a black Civil War veteran from Illinois. It was of such great interest because identified photographs of any of Illinois’ black Civil War veterans are so vanishingly rare.
In fact, the formal portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes of NaAuSay Township here in Kendall County acquired by the Lincoln Library is the only identified example we know of.
For local residents it was, of course, of great interest to know that such a historic photograph is an image of a Kendall County resident. For those of us who volunteer at Oswego’s Little White School Museum, though, it was of even more interesting since the museum has had an identical original print of the portrait in its collections for several years.
And a fine portrait it is, too, taken by Sigmund Benesohn in his Yorkville studio. Neither the Lincoln Library’s nor the Little White School’s prints are dated, but we figured it was probably taken in 1893 to observe the Hughes’ 10th anniversary. Nathan and Jane Lucas Hughes were married in Kendall County on Oct. 17, 1883.
Benensohn bought Charles Sabin’s Yorkville photo studio in April 1893. As Kendall County Record Publisher John R. Marshall reported on May 17: “Our new Yorkville photographer, Mr. Benensohn, is doing very fine work. He is an expert in his line, having learned the best points of artistic photography in Europe.”
And thanks to the marvels of newspaper advertising, we know exactly when that exceedingly rare photo of Nathan Hughes and his wife was taken. On July 19, 1893, Marshall plugged Benesohn’s new business again, fortunately adding a critical detail: “Artist Benensohn is making some extra fine pictures of Fox river scenery with his new view camera—an instrument that cost nearly $150. His river and street views are wonderfully fine and make us more proud than ever of our picturesque village. Take a look at his show-case in front of the Hobbs block. His portraits of Comrade and Mrs. Nathan Hughes are true to the life, and shows how excellent is Benensohn’s work in every line of photography.”
The resulting portrait does indeed show Nathan Hughes sitting comfortably with Jane standing at his left, arm resting on his shoulder. Nathan is wearing a formal frock coat with a boutonniere and, most interestingly, a Grand Army of the Republic membership pin on his left lapel, thus Marshall’s “Comrade” formulation.
The GAR was the Civil War veterans’ organization, the American Legion and the VFW of its day rolled into one. Membership pins were bronze, symbolically cast from melted-down barrels of rebel cannons. In Kendall County, GAR posts were established at Plano and Yorkville. Hughes—as well as Marshall—was a member of the Yorkville post, where he sometimes served as an officer, a tribute to his war service. In fact, Hughes was the only Black GAR member in Kendall County.
He deserved the organization’s tribute because he really had to work to serve. The first time he fought for his own freedom was as a young man who had a wife and three children, all living as slaves in Scott County, Kentucky. Hughes managed to escape from his owner, though he had to leave his family behind as he made his way north. He eventually ended up in northern Illinois.
Unfortunately, no one interviewed Hughes during his lifetime, so we don’t know what his feelings were when the South attacked the U.S. Army’s Fort Sumpter starting the Civil War, but it’s likely he was eager to do his part. At that time, blacks were not allowed to serve in the military, other than as support personnel such as teamsters and cooks. But the times were gradually changing and with the positive examples of such all-black military units as the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the idea that black Americans could be good soldiers began to be accepted.
It was an idea partly driven by practical need as the war dragged on and the pool of eligible recruits dwindled. So it was almost inevitable when, on May 22, 1863, the War Department issued General Order 143, establishing the United States Colored Troops.
Illinois Gov. Richard Yates began recruiting a Black regiment—eventually designated the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment—late in 1863, but the early efforts were slow, due to factors including lower pay for black soldiers and the brutal treatment black prisoners of war received at the hands of the rebels. But gradually the regiment’s companies were filled out with volunteers from all over the state. It was formally mustered into U.S. service at Quincy on April 24, 1864. Eventually, some 1,400 Prairie State Black soldiers would serve against the South in the 29th and other units.
Hughes was among those enlisting in the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry, where he was assigned to the regiment’s Company B. At the time, Hughes was no youngster. His military records state he was 33 years old; family tradition, however, says he was born in 1824, which would have made him 40 at the time of his enlistment. It’s possible he shaved seven years off his age in order to assure the army would take him.
After some brief training, the 29th traveled east by rail, where they marched down 14th Avenue in Washington, D.C. on their way to the front in Virginia. As it happened, the regiment marched right past President Abraham Lincoln who was also riding down 14th Street that day.
The 29th had an eventful war, participating in Grant’s (unsuccessful) attempt to trap Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia before it reached the fortifications around Richmond, then in the disastrous Battle of the Crater in the Richmond fortifications at Petersburg, Va., as well as battles at Boydton Plank Road and Hatcher’s Run. As Victor Hicken observed in Illinois and the Civil War: “This was hard soldiering.”
Hughes was badly wounded during the Battle of the Crater, shot in the left leg near his hip. He must have been a tough guy, because unlike so many of his wounded comrades, he recovered from both his wound and being treated in one of the military hospitals of the era. He was released from the hospital just in time to march and fight (and be wounded again, this time in the hand) with the 29th all the way to Appomattox Courthouse where he was on hand for Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865.
But there were areas of the country yet to liberate even after Lee’s surrender. On May 9, 1865, Gen. Gordon Granger was ordered to concentrate his XIII Corps at Mobile, Alabama and then sail along the Gulf Coast to secure the area for the Union. Granger was a familiar name to Kendall County residents since he’d commanded the 36th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment—along with many others—at the Battle of Missionary Ridge outside Chattanooga back in 1863. In fact, the 36th had been the first unit to plant its regimental flag atop the ridge. The 36th included four companies of Kendall County residents, Company D, the Lisbon Rifles; Company E, the Bristol Light Infantry; Company F, the Newark Rifles; and Company I, the Oswego Rifles.
By June 18, Granger had arrived at Galveston, Texas with Major General Joseph A. Mower’s division of the XIII Corps. Granger intended to make a point with the soldiers he brought. Units that reportedly went ashore with Granger at Galveston on June 18 were all comprised of Black soldiers and included the 28th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment, recruited in Indiana; the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry, recruited in Illinois; and the 26th and the 31st U.S. Colored Infantry Regiments, both recruited in New York.
It’s interesting to contemplate what the residents of Galveston must have thought seeing those 2,000 smartly uniformed and well-armed Black soldiers disembark and march through their city, especially since it’s more than likely the only Black Americans most of them had ever seen had been slaves.
On June 19th—a day that would be celebrated by Black Americans for ever after as Juneteenth—Granger issued his General Order Number 3 and had it read at three locations throughout Galveston so there would be no confusion about the new situation in which Texas found itself. Granger’s order read:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor. The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
And the thing is, there were a LOT of slaves in Texas in 1865. As Union armies had moved through the Confederate states east of the Mississippi, worried slaveowners had sent more and more of their enslaved people west to Texas. In 1861, there were 275,000 slaves in Texas. By 1865, there were 400,000.
So Nathan Hughes was not only on hand for the rebel army’s surrender at Appomattox, but was also on hand to witness the first Juneteenth that celebrates the final legal liberation of slaves in the United States.
After his regiment was mustered out of U.S. service, Hughes went to Kentucky and brought his three children north to Kendall County. His wife decided to stay in Kentucky, apparently unwilling to travel north to live in unfamiliar country in Illinois.
Hughes and his children settled on a small farm along Minkler Road south of Oswego. He outlived his first two wives, Mary Lightfoot and Analinda Odell before marrying Jane Lucas, became a respected member of the Minkler Road farming community, and lived to see his grandchildren become the first Black students to graduate from high school in Kendall County. As the Kendall County Record put it in Hughes’ 1910 obituary: “It is a pleasure to bear testimony to his worth as a man and a patriot; he was loyal to his country and in all his associations was a quiet, self-possessed man of the best of traits…A good citizen, he has left a vacant place in the ranks of the ‘boys in blue.’”