A recent issue of Philadelphia Weekly (Feb.4-11, 2015) posed the question, “What figure in Black history inspires you?” Of course the answer could easily be found, by drawing from a variety of categories, as many African-Americans played major roles in numerous aspects of our national history from Martin Luther King to Malcolm X. As this year wraps up the 150th Anniversary Commemoration of the Civil War, most people are familiar with such heroic military organizations as the 54th Massachusetts,as portrayed in the movie Glory, or with famed Black personalities as naval hero Robert Smalls (1839-1915), Miles James or John Lawson, and their exploits during the War Between the States. Few people though are aware or have even heard of the service rendered by William Staines.
Prior to the Battle of Belmont fought on November 7th, 1861 in Missouri, General Ulysses S. Grant led a Union contingent comprised of infantry, cavalry, and artillery units down the Mississippi River, near the Kentucky shore-linesome nine miles below Cairo, Illinois. Receiving word that a Confederate force was on its way from Gen. Leonidas Polk, to reinforce Confederate Gen. Sterling Price, Grant decided to attack Belmont. He encountered six Confederate regiments in the thickly wooded area. The fight would range from early morning until sunset. One federal officer present during the engagement was the Kentucky-born and Illinois-raised General John Alexander McClernand (1812-1900), who’d served in Congress but had left the legislature to accept a brigadier-general’s commission.
Newspaper reports throughout the country later reported the bravery of Gen. McClernand, but also recounted the stirring actions of his “body servant…a Mulatto named William Stains, of Decatur…” William Stains (or Staines) in 1860was residing at Decatur, Macon County, Illinois with his wife Emily and children. Stains worked as a cooper. McClernand resided in the adjacent county of Sangamon. Census records list his birth-place as Washington, DC., where a Staine family of color did reside according to the 1850 Federal Census returns within the Capitol’s 5th Ward.
Once again, newspaper reports summarizing the Battle of Belmont, Missouri, emphatically declare how “during the thickest of the fight,” William Stains “was close by the General during the whole engagement, cheering the soldiers and swearing that he would shoot the first man that showed the white feather.” One account entitled, “The Fighting Negro,” as published in Philadelphia’s paper, The Daily Evening Bulletin, related how many of the soldiers took Stain’s statement to be comical “while the bullets flew like hail about us.” However, the Union soldiers soon discovered that William Staines meant what he said. This is made even more surprising given that Black soldiers were not even officially permitted to enlist or fight within the Federal or Union Armies.
Perhaps it is best to simply relate what the newspapers of the day said occurred: “In the course of the fight, a Captain of one of the companies was struck by a spent ball, which disabled him from walking. The mulatto boy, who was mounted, rode up to him and shouted out, “Captain, if you can fight any longer for the old stars and stripes, take my horse and lead your men!” He then dismounted and helped the wounded officer into his saddle. When he was walking away, a rebel dragoon rushed forward at the officer to take him prisoner.”
At this point, a correspondent of the Chicago Tribune took up the account, later describing the events at Belmont: Staines drew “his revolver and put a ball through the rebel’s head, scattering his brains all over the horse’s neck.” The newspaper reporter voiced how he was relating “these little circumstances so that merit may be justly dealt with, even if the hero” was a Black man, he was nevertheless “a brave fellow.”
Gen. John A. McClernand, in his official report of the engagement at Belmont to his superiors on November 8th, remarked how the “battle was a terrible one, lasting several hours, and the loss of life on both sides heavy…Many officers are lost.” The captain to whom Staines gave his horse may have been that of Alexander Bielaski, a native of Poland and Aide-de-Camp to McClernand, who lost his life during the battle.
William Staines is just one of many African-American civilians who still fought for the Union at a time when members of his own race weren’t even recognized or permitted to fight for their own freedom. As history would reveal, such prejudices proved unfounded. Thus Staines stands with his Black brothers-in-arms who bled and died for their liberty, along with their white counterparts, in our nation’s worst internal conflict. He should not be forgotten.