26 December 2012

Private Joseph W. Meek of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment


Civil War Heritage 150 Years
Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:
Private Joseph W. Meek

By Ken Robison
For The Great Falls Tribune
GFT October 30, 2011 Sunday Life
When Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and his 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first African American regiment raised in the North during the Civil War, paraded through Boston Common on their way to war, Private Joseph Meek marched in their ranks. Today, Private Meek rests in Mayn Cemetery, White Sulphur Springs, after a life of adventure during the Civil War and in the mountains of Montana. This is his story.

Joseph W. Meek was born in 1843, son of Solomon and Amanda Maria Meek, slaves on a plantation in Tennessee. Late in the1850s, Joseph and his younger brother Charles either escaped or were freed and made their way north. In 1858, Joseph Meek and wife Laura were living in Illinois, and son Henry was born that year.

When President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, Joseph Meek, age 20, worked as a shoemaker in Springfield, Ohio. Like other young blacks, Meek anxiously waited the opportunity to join the Union Army. On May 12, 1863, he enlisted for three years at Readville, Massachusetts in Company E, 54th Massachusetts Regiment.

Two weeks later, on May 28, Colonel Shaw led the 54th Regiment past the largest crowd in Boston history, through the streets and into glory. Private Joe Meek marched in rank holding his new Enfield rifle, before boarding the transport ship DeMolay bound for combat in South Carolina.

The regiment saw duty in small skirmishes until moving to Morris Island in Charleston harbor. The 54th Massachusetts was chosen to lead an assault on Fort Wagner protecting Charleston. Colonel Shaw deployed his 624 men in two columns, five companies in the first line and five in the second with Company E on the right flank of the second line. At 7: 45 p.m. Shaw raised his sword, and the 54th Massachusetts started down the beach.

The assault of the 54th on Fort Wagner became legend, most recently honored in the movie Glory. Brigade commander General Strong reported "Under cover of darkness [the 54th] stormed the fort, faced a stream of fire, faltered not till the ranks were broken by shot and shell; and in all these severe tests, which would have tried even veteran troops, they fully met my expectations, for many were killed, wounded, or captured on the walls of the fort." While the 54th suffered 272 casualties in their tactical defeat, their bravery under fire was acclaimed throughout the North.

Private Joseph Meek and the other survivors went on to further action in South Carolina and Florida. They took part in battles at Olustee, Honey Hill, and Boykin Hill. Private Joseph Meek mustered every month throughout the war until his discharge on August 20, 1865.

After the war, Joseph and Laura Meek and son Henry moved to Kansas City, Missouri. In the late 1870s, Joe Meek left his family with his parents in Kansas and went up the Missouri River to Fort Benton. Settling in the Little Belt Mountains in 1880, Meek worked as shoemaker. That fall, with friend Samuel Spaulding, Meek began prospecting at the Barker mines, where the Benton Record reported “two lucky prospectors” returned to Fort Benton with samples of ore taken from a new lode, named “Laura” for Joseph’s wife.

One year later, while hunting on Old Baldy Mountain, Joe Meek discovered a ledge of silver ore up in a region of perpetual snow. With help from friends, Meek drove off claim jumpers and opened the “Meek lode,” packing ore down the mountain two miles on a mule for the smelter at Barker. With his mining success, Meek brought his wife and son to Barker.

After years of successful small-scale mining, Joe Meek and his family moved to White Sulphur Springs. He continued prospecting and mining while his wife served as nurse and midwife assisting Drs. Kumpe and MacKay. The Meek home was located along a hill just northeast of the famed Castle at White Sulphur Spring.

Joseph W. Meek was a respected member of the White Sulphur Springs community. He died August 27, 1912 and is interred in Lot 28 at Mayn Cemetery, his grave marker proudly bearing the inscription marking his Civil War service, “Jos. W. Meek Co. E. 54 Mass. Inf.”

Note: This continues a monthly series commemorating Union and Confederate veterans of the Civil War who settled in central Montana. Descendants of Montana Civil War veterans are encouraged to send their stories to mtcivilwar@yahoo.com.

Photos:

  1. Marching off to war at Boston Common May 28, 1863. Monument by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
  2. Home of Joe Meek at White Sulphur Springs, MT in 1904.
  3. Civil War Gravestone Marker Private Joseph W. Meek, Mayn Cemetery, White Sulphur Springs.

Sources:

[1] “Joseph W. Meeks” by Verle Rademacher. Mountains of Gold, Hills of Grass A History of Meagher County. Written and Complied by Lee Rostad. Edited by Joan Rostad. Martinsdale, MT: Bozeman Fork Publishing, 1994.
[3] National Archives Civil War Records
[4] History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-65. By Luis F. Emilio. Boston: The Boston Book Company, 1891.
[5] Great Falls Tribune 1 Aug 1914, p. 8.
[6] So Be It A History of The Barker Mining District Hughesville and Barker. By Donna Wahlberg. 1989.

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