16 February 2010

"Uncle Alex" of Lewistown MT, First to Enlist in Civil War in Famed 54th Massachusetts Regiment

Was the First to Enlist in the 54th Mass. Volunteers. Served Through Entire Period of the Civil War From 1863 to 1865. [Photo: Alexander “Uncle Alex” Branson, Lewistown Pioneer, Was First Colored Soldier to Enlist in the North in 1863]

A Resident of Montana For 43 Years “Uncle Alex” One of Lewistown’s Best Known Characters, Leaves to Spend Last Days in the East.



“Uncle Alex,” as he is familiarly known in Lewistown, where he had made his home for the past 43 years, claims that he was the first colored man living in the north, east of the Mississippi river, to enlist in the Civil war, and the records of his company and regiment bear him out in the claim. He was a member of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and the history of that regiment was written by Luis F. Emilio, and comprises a volume of about 450 pages.

It was early in 1863 that Governor John A. Andrew, war governor of Massachusetts succeeded in obtaining the permission of President Lincoln to recruit a regiment of colored men in that state. Only three colored regiments had been recruited prior to that time; General Butler began organizing the Louisiana Native Guards from free negroes in the fall of 1862; General Saxon formed the First North Carolina from contrabands in October of the same year and Colonel James Williams had organized the First Kansas Colored about the middle of the summer of ‘62.

When Governor Andrew was given his order by Secretary Stanton he immediately set about toward organization and at once appointed Captain Shaw of his state as Colonel and the post of Lieutenant-Colonel was given to Captain Hallowell, also of Massachusetts. Both men accepted.

They were on duty in the south at the time and Captain Hallowell was the first to start north to help organize the new regiment. He stopped en route to Boston to visit relatives at Philadelphia for a few days and while there he recruited a number of colored men for the new Massachusetts regiment.

Alexander Branson was the first man to sign up with Hallowell, and as no recruiting had yet been started in Boston, he was in fact, the first recruit of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts. So great was the sentiment against allowing olored men to take up arms that Captain Hallowell was compelled to slip his colored recruits out of Philadelphia by stealth, in small squads, and Branson was in the first squad to be sent to Boston. He served until April 1865.

Out of a former good-sized post of the G. A. R. in Lewistown only six living members remain and “Uncle Alex” is one of them.

Alex. Branson came to Montana in 1872 and lived for some time in Helena. In 1881 he moved into the Judith Basin, before there was such a town as Lewistown, and engaged in stock raising. When the town began to grow he moved into Lewistown and started a barber shop and later was engaged in the saloon business, when that business was legal.

He retired several years ago by reason of the infirmities of old age, being nearly 85, and with what property he had accumulated and his pension from the government he has lived comfortably until the last winter when he was striken with rheumatism and has since been unable to help himself.

At this writing he is preparing to go back to the home of his niece, in Pittsburg, Pa., where he hopes to spend his remaining days in peace and happiness, which he richly deserves.

“Uncle Alex” has long been a noted character around Lewistown and all during the eyars of his residence there has enjoyed the respect and good will of the “white folks” as well as his colored friends.

It was his greatest desire to attend the National Encampment of the G. A. R. in Boston this year, and see the Boston Commons where he was mustered out nearly 60 years ago, but ill-health prevented.

“Uncle Alex” is true to the type of fast disappearing contingent of our citizenry whom all delight to honor in their declining days. [Montana Newspaper Assocation 13 Oct 1924 Judith Basin County Press]

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