Thomas Morris Chester is a name little-known in most households. But Chester was a remarkable pioneer.
The son of abolitionists George and Jane Marie Chester, he fought passionately – in the civil rights movement and in the Civil War – against slavery, and later became the first African American war correspondent to write for a major daily newspaper.
This was not the end of firsts for Chester, who, after the Union won the war in America, travelled across the Atlantic to study law at London’s Middle Temple, becoming England’s first African American barrister.
Coming of Age
Chester was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. His skill with the pen was surely inspired by his parents, who, as anti-slavery activists, sold the abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator.
In his younger years, Chester did not believe that racial equality could be achieved in the United States, given the weight of the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. So he left the United States for Liberia, where freed slaves had established a colony.
The idea of a colony run by freed slaves never really took off. Most African Americans wanted to stay in the land they were born in, and were ready to fight for their liberation in the American Civil War. When hostilities broke out in 1861, Chester returned to the States to play his part.
After Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, Chester wrote that it was ‘more glorious in its consequences than any since Plymouth Rock became the cornerstone of American liberty.’
He became an army recruiter, encouraging African Americans to enlist, helping raise the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiments, and was eventually given a role captaining a militia when his hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was threatened by Confederate attack. Change came slowly and his position was taken away when the threat subsided.
Chester had wanted to fight and bear arms, but, though some regiments did fight, black men who enlisted were often not trusted with weapons and were mainly consigned to manual labour.
Chester’s only way to get to the front-lines was by becoming a war correspondent, and when he was offered a job doing just that by the Philadelphia Press, he lapped up the opportunity.
‘Our own correspondent’
A few months after Union troops entered Richmond, Chester was embedded within the United States Colored Troops in the Army of the James. He was an experienced journalist, trained in shorthand, and was the first correspondent to enter the city limits of Richmond after the Union victory there.
He quickly became familiar to the troops, described as ‘our own correspondent’ by one Lieutenant Verplanck. Chester got straight to the point about the nature of the hostilities. He wrote on 22 August 1864 that:
Between the negroes and the enemy it is a war to the death. The coloured troops have cheerfully accepted the conditions of the Confederate government, that between them no quarter is to be shown. Those here have not the least idea of living after they fall into the hands of the enemy …
‘Seated in the Speaker’s chair, so long dedicated to treason, but in future to be consecrated to loyalty, I hasten to give a rapid sketch of the incidents which have occurred since my last dispatch,’ he began.
Being a black journalist in a hitherto Confederate controlled city was not easy. On 4 April 1864, Chester began writing his first dispatch from Richmond in a symbolic location; at the desk of the Confederate speaker of the House of Representatives.
However, he was rudely interrupted when a rebel officer, on parole, launched an attack on him. The attack was eyewitnessed by Charles Carleton Coffin of the Boston Journal, who reported the incident as follows:
“Come out of there, you black cuss!” Mr Chester raised his eyes, calmly surveyed the intruder, and went on with his writing.
“Get out of there or I’ll knock your brains out!” The officer bellowed. Pouring out a torrent of oaths; and rushing up the stairs to execute his threat, he found himself tumbling over chairs and benches, and was knocked down by one well-planted blow to the eyes.
Mr Chester sat down as if nothing had happened.
Chester was fearless. Nothing could deter his commitment to the Union, and his actions show a determined strength of character.
Given Chester’s background fighting for racial equality, the dispatches he sent back had a clear propaganda agenda: boosting morale and urging on victory for Union forces.
In another dispatch, Chester wrote:
The scenes which will soon be enacted here would, if not for our civilisation, which shudders at misery and sickens at the necessary sacrifices on the country’s altar, be regarded in the martial array of concentration; in the full equipments and appliances of armies; in the clash of steel, and in the victorious shouts of a triumphant army, as attaining a standard of sublimity unequalled in resources and power.
Not even the groans of the dying can altogether shade the glory of the living, though it has been achieved through fields of blood and carnage.
That said, he did not shy away from the horrors of war. Living amongst the troops, he was often exposed to the dangers of conflict, and wrote candidly about what he witnessed, here describing the scene of a picket that had been shelled:
… quivering pieces of flesh indicated the locality of the frightful scene, while fragments of the hearts and intestines were hanging upon the branches of the neighboring trees …
Chester’s portrayal of the heroism of Union forces captures the dramatic turning point in history that marked the end of the war. It is unsurprising, given that the forces he was with were on the cusp of triumph, that a grandiose sense of the courage and bravado of the Union Army is expressed in Chester’s work.
That said, his final verdict on the war left him with no illusions about the post-war challenges the country faced:
The sudden and complete triumph of the Union Army over the rebels found them wrapt up in all prejudices and hatred towards the national authority which four years of civil strife could possibly engender …
The inexorable logic of events is, however, fast dissipating all ideas of slavery, all delusions of State rights, and all dreams of a Southern confederacy.
IN CONTEXT: Thomas Morris Chester
Thomas Morris Chester grew up in a milieu of civil rights activists and journalists. He went to an African American school where his fellow classmates included Jeremiah A Brown, who went on to work on steamboats with Mark Twain and was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives, and Benjamin Tucker Tanner, who would become a prominent clergyman and editor.
After the Civil War, Chester travelled internationally, returning to Louisiana in the US in 1871, where he became brigadier general of the militia, superintendent of schools, and President of the Wilmington, Wrightsville, and Onslow Railroad. He died aged 58 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the town of his birth.
This article was published in the December 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.