Our Documentary Heritage showcases holdings drawn from the vast collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

The son of wealthy Philadelphia sailmaker and noted abolitionist James Forten (1766–1842), Robert Bridges Forten was born in Philadelphia on May 12, 1813, and followed in his father’s footsteps as a successful businessman and distinguished antislavery activist. Although he was more than fifty years old and in London when he learned the Union Army was enlisting African Americans in dedicated “colored” regiments, Forten promptly returned home and enlisted as a private in Company A, 43rd Regiment, United States Colored Troops (USCT), on March 2, 1864. Pennsylvania recruited more than eight thousand African American soldiers to fight in the American Civil War.

Forten’s extraordinary leadership skills were immediately recognized, and he was promoted to sergeant major, serving as a persuasive recruiter for the regiment. Contracting erysipelas, a type of streptococcal infection, while drilling in the rain at Camp William Penn in Harrisburg, he died on April 25, 1864. In covering his funeral in Philadelphia, the May 13, 1864, edition of the Liberator recounted that “the remains of a colored man . . . was buried with military honors due his rank.” Abolitionists Lucretia Coffin Mott (1793–1883) and James Miller McKim (1810–1874) spoke at the funeral. The Pennsylvania State Archives holds Record Group 19, Records of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, Office of the Adjutant General, Series 19.11, which includes the Civil War Muster Rolls and Related Records, 1861–1866, for the Field and Staff Muster-Out Roll of the 43rd Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops. Information about Forten’s military service is contained in this muster roll.

Prominent members of the Forten family included Robert Forten’s sisters, Harriet (1810–1875) and Sarah Louisa (1814–1883), who married the abolitionist brothers Robert (1810–1898) and Joseph Purvis (1812–1857). A daughter, Charlotte Forten Grimke (1837–1914), an early member of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society in Massachusetts, later wrote poetry published by the Liberator and the Anglo-African. During the Civil War she served as a teacher in the Sea Islands mission to South Carolina and chronicled her experiences in “Life on the Sea Islands” in the May and June 1864 editions of the Atlantic Monthly. In 1878, she married Presbyterian minister Francis J. Grimke (1852–1937), a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and nephew of noted abolitionists Sarah (1792–1873) and Angelina Grimke (1805–1879).

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) recently launched “Save Our Stories” to raise funds for the conservation of the muster rolls, including those of the USCT, safeguarded by the Pennsylvania State Archives.

On Saturday, November 6, 2010, PHMC, in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Affairs, will stage a reenactment of the Grand Review of the USCT, which was held in Harrisburg on November 14, 1865. Penn State Harrisburg students and interns at the State Archives are developing more than one hundred biographical profiles of representative soldiers whose names appear in the USCT muster rolls.