Charles Henry Coxe letters
Writing from Harvard University during his second year as a student there, Charles Henry Coxe shared these seven letters dating from 1861 to 1866 with his brother, Frank, concerning various scenes of college life and personal reflections and judgments on the major events of the day—namely the Civil...
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Writing from Harvard University during his second year as a student there, Charles Henry Coxe shared these seven letters dating from 1861 to 1866 with his brother, Frank, concerning various scenes of college life and personal reflections and judgments on the major events of the day—namely the Civil War. The letters reveal, both Charles and his brother served during the civil war, but they contain only glimpses into the war itself, as well as college life, and there very little personal information present on either Charles or his brother.
Coxe severed as a captain in the 24th U.S. Colored Infantry, Company B. He enlisted February 24, 1865, and was mustered out October 1, 1865. Some scholars have written that the standards for the officers to serve over colored troops were quite high, to appease the sensibilities of the Northerners who worried or had some issue with blacks serving in the military. Accordingly, the examination committee established for recruiting offers into the United States Colored Troops put forth the following criteria for captains, whereby college men like Charles would have to meet: “If a Captain, he must possess all the qualifications prescribed for a Lieutenant, but must be more thoroughly posted, and should be proficient in Battalion movements, and have a better general education." Further, the committee’s standards desired the following from all ranks to lead colored troops: "No talents, no zeal, no sympathy for the colored race, unless attended with military knowledge, and power to command men in battle, can avail; and no amount of pretence or number of testimonials of influential friends will answer the purpose; the applicant must give reasonable evidence of his ability to command. If pretence without merit, or zeal without knowledge, or mere recommendations of personal and political friends would be sufficient evidence of fitness to command, an examination would be an idle and useless ceremony. It is the obvious duty of the Board of Examiners to select the best officers possible from those who come before it." (Webster 1863, p.1).
Though few in number, the letters reveal Charles as a young man of an earnest comportment who favors the Union Army. Of the college scenes included he writes of his course in mathematics which proved a difficult subject to him, and for which mush time in study was required. He records a rather amusing observation of fellow pupils: “one or two were present rather high from the effects of drink” (Cambridge, December 15, 1861); and brief encounters with Harvard’s social life including an initiation of social society where the membership consisted of “the wealthiest juniors and seniors of the class” and class day exercises for which he thought “[i]t is esteemed a far gr[e]ater honor to be orator ex pres [sic] on this occasion than to graduate number one” (Cambridge, Sunday, January 12, 1862); and, then, there are the two classmates, Crowninshield and Washington, who entered the war on opposite sides meeting each other on the battle field and, pondering what it might have been for them, Charles wrote, “You can imagine the feelings of the two at such a meeting” (Cambridge, April 7, 1862).
Upon entering the war, he communicates in a letter to his brother offering a number of reasons why he’d rather serve a “colored” regiment. He stated, “as to any choice between a black and white regiment I believe I would be an officer in the former rather than in the latter. Because I want to the rebels not only whipped but humiliated,” further offering, “a feat at the hands of colored soldiers would on the other hand the more effectually crush their pride.” Toward this end, too, would confer upon the Black men in the war “the rights and respect they deserve” (Philadelphia, Wednesday, September 23, 1863). Noting briefly Orland Brown’s association with the Freedman’s Bureau, he describes his assignment as “a camp for destitute freedmen and takes its name from the hill on which it is situated, and which is one of the nine that the geographies give to Richmond . . . [w]e are hear pleasantly situated on an airy eminence from the brow of which is obtained a good view of the James for miles either way” (Camp Chimbarago, Richmond, VA, August 21, 1865). It appears that by January 1866 he had returned to Philadelphia, as he wrote to Frank, pleased that he too might be mustered out of service saying, “too many colored troops have been included in the several recent orders from the War Department to disband that we expect soon to hear of your turn coming.” It seems the Freedman’s Bureau was also of considerable concern to Charles.
Of the final letter in the collection – dated May 11, 1866 – Charles was quite pleased with the city to which he returned. He takes note of the politics of the day and the renewal of Philadelphia’s built city and environs since his and Frank’s departures: “Of course you will be prepared to see a great many changes in Philadelphia. During you absence it has grown largely, and what a short time ago was suburbs, is now a part of the busy lively crowded town. Broad St[reet] has already in it much promise of the splendid avenue it is destined to be.”