Local writer uncovers Ottawa County’s African-American connection

Most of us are familiar with the history of the Civil War - a war that began when Confederate soldiers fired on the Union Army's Fort Sumter base on April 12, 1861. The war ended on April 9, 1865, when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Va. This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, in which more than 600,000 soldiers were killed.
Len Painter
Apr 14, 2011


Perhaps the most recognizable person from Northwest Ottawa County who served in the Union Army was Noah Ferry, who called Grand Haven his home. Maj. Ferry was killed at the battle of Gettysburg.

But what may not be as well-known to many is that 21 African-Americans from Northwest Ottawa County served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Wally Ewing, local historian and author, writes about those soldiers in his new book, “Slaves Soldiers Citizens,” which is being released Monday. The book is about the African-Americans who settled in Northwest Ottawa County, some as early as 1845, and includes a chapter about the African-American soldiers from Ottawa County.

“My interest in this topic started in 2005 when I learned that the KKK made a brief but unforgettable foray into Grand Haven in the mid-1920s,” Ewing said of his interest in writing about African-Americans.

Ewing said he was surprised to learn that large numbers of African-American individuals and families migrated to the area early in its settlement. Just as impressive to Ewing was that 21 area residents participated in the Civil War.

In his book, Ewing wrote that a July 25, 1863, letter from Michigan Gov. Austin Blair authorized the organization of a regiment of African-American troops in Michigan. The first regiment, Ewing wrote, was organized on Feb. 17, 1864, and was named the 1st Michigan Colored Infantry. Later that year, the regiment was renamed the 102 United States Colored Troops after the regiment was shifted from state control to U.S. jurisdiction.

The regiment mostly fought Civil War battles in South Carolina. The black troops were paid $10 a month and one ration per day, while the white troops received $13 a month, according to Ewing.

Ewing writes about the black troops in his book — including Rutson (Rudson) Bennett, son of Alfred and Louisa Bennett of Spring Lake. He enlisted at the age of 19 on March 12, 1863, and was discharged in 1863. Rutson Bennett, according to Ewing, worked as a barber in Grand Haven following his discharge.

Ewing also writes about George Dudley, who enlisted when he was 37 years old. He had been working as a barber and cook before enlisting. Dudley died in a hospital in Beaufort, S.C., on July 5, 1864.

Another African-American from Grand Haven was George Godfrey, who enlisted in the 102th U.S. Colored Infantry on Dec. 28, 1863. Ewing wrote that Godfrey’s military papers noted that he was freed in 1861.

Ewing said that after President Abraham Lincoln called for 70,000 volunteers, many from Northwest Ottawa County responded to the call, including Noah Ferry.

The son of Rev. William Ferry, Noah Ferry recruited a company of men in White River and named it the White River Guard. Maj. Ferry was killed in the battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. He was buried on July 17, 1863, at Lake Forest Cemetery in Grand Haven.

A total of 1,547 men from Ottawa County served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and 207 never returned. Ewing said five of them — Albert DeGroot, Darius Markham, Hendricus Nyland, Albert Simmons and Nathan Tompkins — died at Andersonville, a Confederate prison.


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