“Lewis, a servant of Colonel Cogswell” – By Connor Smith
October 21st is the 160th anniversary of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, an 1861 Civil War battle in Leesburg, Virginia known primarily as the only battle in American history where a senator was killed in combat. This was U.S. Senator (and Colonel) Edward D. Baker, a 50-year-old Republican from Oregon and best friend of Abraham Lincoln, who he had shared a picnic with on the White House lawn the previous day. The volunteer force Baker commanded at Ball’s Bluff included dirt poor Bostonian shoemakers, Harvard students, and notably the first Black Union Army combatant of the war.
The battle turned into a Confederate rout after the death of Senator Baker, who was replaced in command by West Pointer Milton Cogswell. With his brigade backed up along the edge of a 100-foot-high bluff on the Potomac River, Colonel Cogswell abandoned a breakout attempt and opted to conduct a fighting retreat to safety on Union-held Harrison’s Island. During this desperate retreat, multiple sources record that a free Black man from Washington D.C. named Lewis A. Bell took up arms alongside soldiers of the 15th and 20th Massachusetts infantry regiments. This is an especially unique achievement because the Union Army did not officially enlist Black soldiers until January 1863 with the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Published in 1870, History of Worcester in the War of the Rebellion contains a chapter on the 15th Massachusetts at Ball’s Bluff, explaining 31-year-old Lewis Bell’s service:
“At this moment a negro first acted the part of a soldier in the war. Lewis, a servant of Colonel Cogswell, in the confusion, supplied himself with arms, and loaded and fired with great spirit, until captured with Lieutenant Greene. He was taken to Richmond, and treated as a prisoner of war.”
Since Black men were not yet allowed to serve in army combat roles, Bell’s baptism by fire came under duress when he was serving as an orderly (or paid servant) to Colonel Cogswell. There is convincing wartime corroboration for Bell’s service as an orderly in an October 25, 1861 Richmond Examiner article about the arrival of Union POWs from Leesburg to the Confederate capital in Richmond:
In the above account, the reporter claims that Bell was taken prisoner among Union soldiers at Ball’s Bluff and pretended to be a free Black citizen when he was really a fugitive slave from the Richmond area. In a follow-up on October 29, 1861 the Richmond Examiner continued to claim Bell had previously been enslaved in the area while acknowledging his claims of free status in Washington:
Another wartime account, “The Leesburg Battle” in the Richmond Whig, contains a claim that Bell was specifically targeted because he was Black:
“The same account mentioned several Confederates finally opening fire because they noticed that “a lusty negro, with brazen front, stood armed in the ranks,” a provocation that was “more than our mean could bear.”
Despite his contested free status, Bell was released from a Richmond prison camp in February 1862. A February 22, 1862 column in the New York Daily Tribune filed from Fort Monroe contains a list of “prisoners who arrived here this forenoon by a flag of truce from Richmond.” The list is filled with Ball’s Bluff veterans and halfway down column two of page six we find Bell listed among a group of prisoners, of which “The last four are negroes.”
Curiously, he is listed as being from Ohio rather than Washington D.C. which one historian maintains is an accurate representation of Bell, whom he maintains was “a freed slave from Ohio.”
Bell would have needed free status to serve as an orderly in 1861, meaning he was not enslaved at the outset of the war. But he may have been born to a free Black woman in Ohio before becoming enslaved, hence the Ohio hometown citation. Regardless of his birthplace, his wartime D.C. residency is confirmed by a “soldiers and sailors” burial citation on a Mt. Pleasant Plains Cemetery preservation website, a historic Black cemetery destroyed by development in modern Walter Pierce Park in Washington D.C.
Bell, Louis (Lewis), private, Co. E; widow Mary. Louis Bell died January 3, 1886, age 56, occupation laborer, at 1334 15th St. NW.
Bell’s 1886 death date suggests that he continued to live in D.C. after the war and gives us clues to his life after he was released as POW in February 1862. For example, he is listed as a Private in Company E of the 32nd U.S. Colored Infantry. This means that a few years after his release, he enlisted in a U.S. Army regiment organized outside of Philadelphia. The 32nd USCI provided mostly occupational duties in Hilton Head, South Carolina during William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea campaign beginning in 1864.
Bell’s postwar residence in the nation’s capital is further confirmed by 2 postbellum newspaper accounts. In the October 10, 1865 Cleveland Daily Leader, “Lewis A. Bell” is listed among the officers of the National Lincoln Monument Association organized in Washington (top).
And in the April 17, 1867 Washington Evening Star (bottom), “Louis A. Bell” is listed among other Black Union veterans in the marching order for an emancipation celebration procession in Franklin Square (right). Though his story has previously been lost to history, these primary documents enable us to recognize the service of the first Black man to take up arms with the U.S. Army during the Civil War, D.C.’s own Lewis A. Bell.
“Arrival at Richmond of Prisoners Captured at Leesburg,” October 28, 1861 reprint from Fayetteville Weekly Observer, and October 29, 1861 reprint from The Times-Picayune
Howard, B. (2018). The Battle of Ball’s Bluff: All The Drowned Soldiers. Charleston, SC: The History Press.
Marvin, A. (1870). History of Worcester in the War of the Rebellion. Worcester: The Author.
Morgan, J. (2011). A Little Short of Boats. El Dorado Hills: Savas Beatie.
 Howard, 2018, p. 103
 Marvin, 1870, p. 115
 Morgan, 2011, p. 148
 Howard, 2018, p. 80