There are many ‘turning points’ in history that highlight changes or new direction or, sometimes, even desperation. Such was the time when during the Civil War, the Union made the decision to form “Colored” Regiments, i.e., regiments consisting almost solely of African-Americans who were ready to fight in the war. The 54th and 55th Massachusetts Regiments were the first results of that decision, and many black men of the Miami Valley, including Miami County and Troy, served in those regiments. I would like to share a simple story of one of those men. It is not a story of great acts of heroism, but one of an average person, who became a pioneer and hero, none-the-less.
According to his death record, William Henry Hunt was born in Urbana, Ohio on 4 December 1840 to James and Matilda (Barton) Hunt, who were free African-Americans. At this time, it is not known if James was born free, obtained his freedom or escaped slavery. There is a James Hunt in the 1830 federal census of Urbana, who is listed as a “free negro” of 24-34 years of age, with four people in the household. He again appeared in 1840 and his family had expanded to eight people. William would be added to that family at the end of the year.
William H. Hunt, likely lived a typical life of a free black man in the 19th century, in that his life of work consisted mostly of manual labor. According to his obituary, he had an excellent ability with the paint brush, i.e., painting fences, houses, etc., and as a result, was in very high demand.
William’s whereabouts in 1850 has not been confirmed, but by 1860, he is living with a Richard Winans family in Staunton Township. In 1862, he married in Miami County to young Evaline Hall, who was born in Tennessee, as were her parents, but had settled in Mercer County prior to 1850.
William’s life of labor and his family life, including the birth of a son Charles, were briefly interrupted when he signed on to the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and served from 1863-1865. At one point during his service, he attained the rank of Corporal.
The movie “Glory” mainly focusses on the history and the men of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, but the story of the 55th and its men is just as important and interesting. The 55th was formed because so many African-Americans had turned out to sign up and the 54th had quickly reached its capacity. Of the 375 men from the Midwest who enrolled in the 55th Massachusetts, 222 were from Ohio.
These men fought in harsh conditions, braved untold horrors and still fought courageously for the preservation of the Union. Many were killed in battles in South Carolina and other locations, but William Hunt was blessed to return home. Approximately 20 years after the war, William would receive a pension from the government as an “invalid,” resulting from his time of service.
Following his return, William, Evaline and Charles lived in Champaign County for a time before moving to and living the rest of their lives in Troy. The young couple purchased a house at 707 Sherman Ave, which, at the time, was what is now known as W. Franklin St. Their home was situated on the now empty lot to the east of Zion Baptist Church. Here, for the remainder of their lives William and Evaline Hunt lived their lives, became involved in fraternal orders and were very active and consistent members of the St. James AME church, just a few blocks away.
William’s obituary glows with accolades of him being a talented and well-known man, as well as having many friends in the community, both white and black.
His life was one of simplicity. His stature, at 5’4” was not impressive; he did nothing that was outstanding in what we might classify as heroic. But, he matured; took on responsibility; married; was a father and husband for 57 years; served his country, and, in faith, served the Lord through his church for many years. I would hope for such a tribute as this.
When you walk by the small Civil War stone in Riverside Cemetery in Troy, and read, “Wm Hunt Co. G, 55th Mass. Inf.,” it reveals a small portion of this man’s story, but not the whole story.
If you are interested in reading more about the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the Local History Library has a book titled, “Voices of the 55th: Letters from the 55th Massachusetts Volunteers, 1861-1865.”
Patrick D. Kennedy is archivist at the Troy-Miami County Public Library’s Local History Library, 100 W. Main St., Troy. He may be contacted by calling (937) 335-4082 or sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org