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Biography of James Monroe Trotter

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the biography of James Monroe Trotter. The son of a southern landowner and former slave, Trotter spent his life advocating for equality for African Americans and fought in the Union's all-black 55th Massachusetts Regiment.

Fighting for Change

Throughout history, for every great man or woman there are seemingly hundreds, if not thousands, who work toward similar goals but are simply not as well known. For example, in the women's suffrage and civil rights movements, for every Susan B. Anthony or Martin Luther King Jr. there were thousands of regular people who organized and attended rallies, marched, and staged other means of passive resistance.

The same is true of the abolitionist movement in the 19th century. For every Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman there were many lesser known individuals who worked toward equality for black Americans in their own way. One such man is the subject of this lesson, James Monroe Trotter.

Early Life

Trotter was born in 1842, the son of a southern landowner and a slave. Trotter lived on his father's plantation with his mother and siblings until 1854 when his father married a white woman. A married man now, Trotter's father sent his slave with whom he had three children (Trotter had two sisters) and the children to live free lives in Ohio.

Despite living apart, Trotter kept his father's surname. He attended school in Cincinnati. Trotter was employed in various jobs as a teenager to help support the now fatherless family, working as a bellboy and cabin boy in Cincinnati hotels and riverboats. Later on, Trotter attended Albany Manual University.

Civil War

Afterwards Trotter taught school for a time in southwestern Ohio, though his life turned when the Civil War began. The United States Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, encouraged the creation of regiments of black troops, and recruiters soon found their way to Ohio. In 1863, Trotter joined the segregated 55th Massachusetts Regiment.

A group of all-black soldiers in the Civil War
All-black soldiers, Civi War

The regiment was intended to have entirely white officers, though Trotter quickly distinguished himself. He rose through the ranks and was made a second lieutenant in April 1864. Trotter and his African-American compatriots faced racism throughout the war despite serving on the Union side. For example, Trotter and three other African-American officers-to-be waited 15 months for their commissions as the War Department at first refused to commission black officers. Additionally, black soldiers were supposed to be paid less and often had to wait long periods of time to be paid at all.

Trotter was uniquely vocal in speaking out against the injustice he and his fellow African-Americans faced in the military. He and others refused to accept any pay at all unless it was equal to that of the white soldiers, prompting rush legislation through Congress that eventually corrected the injustice.

Trotter was wounded in 1864. He spent the remainder of the war working menial assignments away from the front and teaching his fellow soldiers to read and write.

Post-War and Politics

After the war was over, Trotter ended his military service and moved to Boston. One of the more progressive cities of the era, Trotter lived there and worked in the Boston Post Office. In 1868, Trotter married a woman whom he had met while living in Ohio, who was also the child of a former slave. Trotter moved his wife to Boston.

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