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A 'heroic' Minnesota racist in Lincoln's Union Army

Thomas Montgomery led freed slaves in the Civil War, but his commitment to the cause had its self-interested limits.

Thomas Montgomery led freed slaves in the Civil War, but his commitment to the cause had its self-interested limits. Minnesota Historical Society

Thomas Montgomery enlisted in the U.S. Army on August 12, 1862. Ten days later he was at war.

Montgomery, 21, was the son of Northern Irish Protestant farmers who settled in southern Minnesota when Thomas was 4. The precocious young Montgomery had his eye on a plot of 162 acres’ worth of homestead land. He dropped that interest to answer the call to battle of the U.S.-Dakota War.

Montgomery saw limited action. His most dramatic involvement came after the hostilities.

In a letter that December, he apologized to family that he would not make it home for Christmas. Instead, he invited them to join him in Mankato to witness that “great day” of December 26, when the 38 convicted prisoners of war he’d been guarding—“murderers,” he called them—were to be hanged in the public square.

In 1863, Montgomery shifted from one domestic conflict to another, as he and the Seventh Minnesota Regiment sailed from Fort Snelling to St. Louis to join Abraham Lincoln’s Union Army. It was there Montgomery first encountered black men—freed slaves, enlisted men who “do good duty.” Montgomery applied to command an all-black regiment, leaping in rank from corporal to lieutenant in the United States Colored Troops unit.

“Great changes will at times occur in a man’s life,” Montgomery wrote his family, “and undoubtedly it has in this instance in mine.”

His wartime experiences are documented in The Children of Lincoln, a book coming this fall by Augsburg professor Bill Green, the state’s preeminent black historian. Green saw in Montgomery’s prolific letter-writing “a treasure trove of insight into his value system.”

Montgomery “wrapped himself in the nobility of leading the struggle to make all men free.” He idolized Lincoln and believed in his cause, expressing pride in the men in his regiment, who capably handled missions to capture “rebs,” but spent much of the war guarding valued territory.

They grew close, this white immigrant and his black charges. Montgomery dispatched one woman, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Estell, back to Minnesota to live with and work for his mother. In almost all of his letters home, Montgomery took care to state that Lizzie’s husband, William, one of his men, was doing well, and missed her.

Men entrusted him with their lives and money, asking him to deliver modest savings to their families if they died in the war. Scores did. In Louisiana, smallpox and other illness struck Montgomery’s men down by the dozen.

Their superior met these tragedies coolly, speculating in letters whether there wasn’t something wrong, some inner weakness, within the African race. (When a swath of whites had taken ill earlier in the war, Montgomery blamed the rain.)

And yet, as the war drew to an end in 1865, the lieutenant took seriously a proposal from Abner Tibbetts, a family friend tasked with distributing lands seized from the Dakota and Winnebago. He wondered: Would Montgomery’s troops be interested in homesteading some of the most fertile land in North America?

Montgomery’s reply reflected their concerns. Was the land swampy or dry? Would they have access to timber for homebuilding, and the river for transporting goods? “I will hasten to send you names and money,” wrote Montgomery, who said he wanted to “do all I can for them,” with one condition. “I will not involve myself in any trouble.”

And trouble there must have been, for the notion of settling dozens of decorated black veterans in Minnesota vanishes from the paper trail, Green writes, “as if the overture had never existed.”

The historian can envision the source of resistance. When Minnesota rejected extending the vote to blacks that year, voters in Montgomery’s Le Seur County fell against it three-to-one.

Meanwhile, the swings in Montgomery’s character, from righteous to selfish, can leave a caring reader with vertigo. One moment he delights in black students at a Louisiana school—“one little girl… spelled a word of 21 syllables,” he marveled—and dares losing Confederates to start a race riot with his unit. (“We are prepared to give them a warm welcome.”)

The next, he pulls the rug out from a plan to better the lives of his troops for generations.

Montgomery was “complicated,” Green says, like the other subjects in his book, 19th-century progressives who embraced racial equality—and inevitably butted up against the limits of their commitment.

Men like Montgomery “did these heroic things” on behalf of black people, Green says. “But he didn’t seem to let their interests get in the way of his own.”

In January 1867, Montgomery sailed back up the Mississippi and soon married an English immigrant, a “proper lady.” He formed a business partnership with another white veteran, engaging in law, insurance, debt collection, and real estate, fulfilling the interest he’d put on hold to become a soldier. His firm profited from the purchase and sale of the land he once dangled in front of his soldiers.

A few loose ends remain, including the end of Lizzie Estell, whose name never reappears in Montgomery’s correspondence. Green suspects her husband died of illness, and that Montgomery’s claims of his well-being were a ploy to keep Lizzie working for his mother. If he ever again considered the welfare of the people he’d nobly fought to free, there is no record of it.

But he was right. Great changes will at times occur in a man’s life. Rarely do they occur in a man.

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