MIDDLETOWN — Sgt. James H. Powers was one of a handful of free blacks from Middletown who volunteered to fight in the Civil War, leaving their jobs and families for the good of the country.
Powers was born around 1839 in Saybrook and worked as a seaman in Middletown, where he lived with his wife, Margaret, according to records at the Middlesex County Historical Society,
He enlisted at age 24 with the 29th Regiment, Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, on March 3, 1864, in New Haven along with hundreds of other African American volunteers. He was made a private, assigned to Company I, and was promoted to sergeant during training on May 1 of that year.
There are few details about Powers' life, but there is evidence to suggest that he was probably educated and had good character. His quick promotion to sergeant indicates he was probably among the most highly educated in the company.
The 29th Regiment trained in South Carolina before it was sent to Virginia, where it was involved in five engagements.
The regiment's first battle was on Aug. 15, 1864, in Petersburg, Va., just a week after it left training camp. The unit would be involved in several other skirmishes before the fierce battle at Kell House in October, where 80 to 100 of its members died.
After its combat service was completed, the 29th was moved to Brazos de Santiago, Texas, where it faced a perilous trip to Brownsville before sailing to New Orleans, then to New York City to return home.
Soldiers from the 29th Regiment witnessed several important events, including escorting Abraham Lincoln into Richmond and hearing Frederick Douglass speak in January 1864. The speech came just a few months after Connecticut Gov. William A. Buckingham signed a state law allowing black soldiers to enlist. Douglass encouraged black soldiers to fight for their country as pioneers of their race.
"They wanted to take part in their own freedom and liberty," said Kevin Johnson, a library technician at the Connecticut State Library who portrays William Webb, a private in the 29th Regiment. Johnson has told Webb's story more than 500 times, in part, he said, to draw attention to the remarkable service of soldiers like Webb and Powers.
Powers served with the 29th until it was discharged in Hartford at the end of November 1865.
Powers died at age 28 on March 25, 1868, less than 2 1/2 years after he was mustered out, and is buried in the Washington Street cemetery in Middletown. His death is listed in records at the State Library; the cause of death is listed as "disease of the heart."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun