The 56th U.S. Colored Troops Infantry Regiment was originally organized at St. Louis as the 3d Arkansas Infantry Regiment (African Descent) because Missouri was not ready to recognize the colored troops being organized by the Union Army at that time. The 3d Arkansas was ordered from St. Louis to Helena, Arkansas and served on post duty there. The unit’s connections with Brig. Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte Buford from Tennessee, half-brother of Union cavalry leader and Gettysburg hero Maj. General John Buford, began in 1864. The unit was one of fourteen that N.B. Buford commanded in Eastern Arkansas. The unit was mustered out of the service on September 15, 1866, when stationed in Helena. On their way to St. Louis, the 56th was traveling aboard 2 steamers to be mustered out. During the trip several soldiers died of an undiagnosed illness. A surgeon had inspected the men and reported no cholera among them. The men arrived in St. Louis at night and were kept onboard until the next morning, rather than being allowed to roam the town. The next morning, it was clear that the 56th Regiment had cholera. Ordered back to Quarantine Station, the unit lost 178 enlisted men and one officer in the next few weeks. During its service the 56th Regiment lost a total of 674 men. Four officers and 21 enlisted men were killed in action or of wounds. Two officers and 647 enlisted men were killed by disease, 96 percent of their regiment’s losses.
This Regiment had seen action in 1864 at Indian Bay on April 13, at Muffleton Lodge on June 29, they were in charge of operations in Arkansas July 1-31. They then saw action at Wallace’s Ferry and Big Creek on July 26, 1864. Their expeditions took them from Helena up the White River from August 29 till September 3. Another expedition would take them from Helena to Friar’s Point, Mississippi, on February 19-22, 1865. They then had post and garrison duty at Helena, Arkansas till February of 1865. After the war ended, they had duty at Helena and other points in Arkansas till September 1866. During that time the troops would aid the local community at Helena to build Southland Institute.
Southland College, which was originally the Helena Orphan Asylum and eventually Southland Institute, was established for orphaned African American children on April 19, 1864. The original request for the creation of an orphanage had come from General Napoleon Bonaparte Buford who was the Federal Commandant at Helena during the civil war. After two years, in 1866, it was relocated 10 miles outside the city. Each officer and private soldier of the 56th U.S. C.T. Infantry (at the suggestion of Colonel Carl “Charles” Bentzoni) donated a days pay so that the new site could be purchased for the college.
Several enslaved African American men from St. Charles County served in the Union Army’s 56th U.S.Colored Troops. Among them was Benjamin Oglesby who was born in Bedford County, Virginia in the 1820s when his mother’s enslaver was Marshall Bird, and brought to Missouri during the 1830s. Benjamin and his wife and children worked Bird’s 260-acre farm. On this farm, Benjamin would work to cultivate corn, wheat, and tobacco, the last of which was their primary crop, producing 7000 pounds in 1860 alone. He and his wife Patsy (Martha) had jumped the broom, a custom establishing their marriage. Marriages by enslaved people were not legally recognized in the State of Missouri at that time. Together they would have several children, including Dora, Mary, Samuel, Sarah, Sophia, Oska, Albert and Belle before Benjamin enlisted in the U.S. Colored Troops of the Union Army in 1864. Benjamin’s owner, Marshall Bird did not claim the $300 Bounty he was entitled to for Benjamin’s services, when he joined the area’s enslaved men joining up. A Bounty that had been established by Lincoln with the Emancipation Proclamation. Benjamin signed on at German born George Senden’s store on St. Charles’ Main Street in November of 1864. Soon after Benjamin and at least fifty other area men were formally mustered in Benton Barracks, as forty-three year old Benjamin would become part of Company D and serve as a Private. His enrollment card says he is copper-skinned, had grey eyes and black hair and was 5 feet 8 inches tall.
After the war, Benjamin would return to his family and farm land that he rented near the Warren County border with St. Charles County south of Foristell. According to St. Charles County historian Ben Gall Benjamin purchased property in Sections 18 and 19 of Township 47 Range 1 East. [This property will become part of the St. Charles County Park system, named Oglesby Park in July of 2022 https://www.sccmo.org/2223/Oglesby-Park ] In 1871, he and several other formerly enslaved families, including the Abington family, would establish the Smith Chapel A.M.E. Church and Cemetery nearby. [See https://smithchapelcemetery.com/ ] Like so many other formerly enslaved families, education was very important. These families would also establish a schoolhouse for the local African American children which they named Douglass after the great orator, Frederick Douglass. Today the property is maintained by the Wesley Smith Church [https://www.facebook.com/WesleySmithChapel/]