Elgin, William b. 1838
Rank : Chaplain
Regiment : 70th Indiana Infantry Regiment. Co. I (1862-1865);
United States. Army--Infantry Regiment (Colored), 14th (1863-1866)
Service : 1862 August 8-1865 May 15
At the outbreak of the Civil War, William Elgin was a student at Franklin College of Indiana and preached on alternate Sundays at the Baptist Church in Southport, Ind. Following Lincoln's call for 300,000 troops in July, 1862, he enlisted with his peers at Franklin College in Co. I of Benjamin Harrison's 70th Indiana Infantry. At the time of his enlistment, Elgin was being considered for ordination by the church council at Southport which, if approved, would have allowed him to apply for a commission as chaplain. He was, however, denied ordination, apparently over doctrinal disputes, but was informed that if he could secure a Chaplain's commission, ordination would follow. Despite presenting a petition signed by 33 of the 40 officers in the regiment supporting him, the church council refused to reconsider, leaving him "in the lurch," and Rev. Allen was commissioned chaplain instead.
Elgin served as a private with the 70th Indiana for 15 months, mostly on detached service as regimental postmaster, but resigned from the regiment in October, 1863, to accept a chaplaincy in the 14th U.S. Colored Infantry. The 14th U.S.C.T. was raised among teamsters, cooks, servants and camp followers in Gallatin, Tenn., under the command of Thomas J. Morgan, the Lieutenant of Elgin's Company, and an ardent supporter of forming Colored regiments. Unlike many other Colored regiments, the 14th was recruited to be a fighting regiment, receiving intensive drill and training to that end. They were commonly held up as an example of the high level of discipline and ability that could be achieved among "Colored" soldiers. Like Morgan, Elgin was a staunch, anti-slavery Republican, a Baptist with a strong moral sense, and a believer in the education and intellectual equality of African-Americans.
After receiving ordination in December, 1863, Elgin officially mustered in to the 14th U.S.C.T. on January 1st, 1864. The regiment was stationed initially at Chattanooga, where they became the first Colored regiment to be seen by most of the Army of the Cumberland. There, Elgin pressed forward with an ambitious effort to teach the soldiers the basics of reading and writing as well as the Bible. "I must educate before I can successfully impart religious truth to them," he wrote, "Their minds must be awakened and disciplined" (p. 62). Within two weeks of arriving at Chattanooga, Elgin had taught 380 men the alphabet, and the number of those able to read somewhat had increased from 10 to 127. He later attempted to establish a school near Chattanooga for the education of freedmen.
In March, 1864, the regiment performed their first military duty, a scouting expedition to Sparta, Tenn., on which they covered over 400 miles on foot in less than four weeks. Carrying heavier knapsacks than white troops, Elgin noted that some men were permanently disabled by the march, and that others would die from overexertion, but in so doing, in his mind, they proved their mettle as soldiers and men.
At the same time as he stressed education and self-advancement for the soldiers in his ministry, Elgin suffered from serious doubts about his own abilities as a chaplain, about his education and the direction of his life. He was contemplating leaving the regiment to resume his education on August 15th, 1864, when the regiment took part in their first major action, at the battle at Dalton, Ga., where they lost one man and had two more seriously wounded. Thereafter the 14th participated in the Union counter movements to Wheeler's Raid of August-September, 1864, covering 500 miles in 12 days by rail, but not firing a shot, and skirmished with Forrest's Cavalry at Pulaski, Tenn., on September 27th. They also saw significant action in the battle of Decatur, Ala., October 29th (where they lost 3 officers and 50 enlisted men), and near Nashville during the Franklin and Nashville Campaign of December 1864-January, 1865. At the start of the Franklin campaign, the 14th was rushed to the works surrounding Nashville. In maneuvering around the city, the 44th U.S.C.T. and several companies of the 14th were trapped in a blockhouse, managing their escape in the dead of night only with heavy loss. The 14th performed reconnaissance duty and were engaged several times in skirmishes around the defences of Nashville, acquitting themselves well throughout.
Off the battlefield, the regiment also saw action of sorts. The men of the 14th Infantry were involved in a racially-motivated riot on November 13th, 1864, started during a disagreement with an Illinois Artillery Company. As the men of the regiment defended themselves, shots were fired, and when the affair ended, two white and one African-American soldiers were dead, and three men were wounded. Elgin wrote, "The engaged very likely became aware of the fact that the men of this Regt have pride enough in their manhood to defend themselves -- at least in their own camp" (p. 68).
Elgin resigned his commission on May 15th, 1865, and apparently returned to Indiana. The 14th U.S.C.T., like many Colored regiments, remained in the service long after the war officially ended, mustering out on March 26th, 1866.