Henderson McRoberts: African-American Civil War Veteran

     In the latter part of August, 1866, the 56th Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops, was ordered from eastern Arkansas to St. Louis to be mustered out of service.  During the trip north, soldiers began dying aboard the two steamboats transporting the regiment.  Cholera was suspected, but a surgeon who inspected the men could not confirm the presence of the deadly disease.  When the men arrived in St. Louis, however, they were kept on board overnight as a precautionary measure.  The next morning, cholera was confirmed.  The steamboats were immediately order to a quarantine station where, during the next few weeks, 179 members of the regiment died.  One of the survivors was Henderson McRoberts, probably a former slave.  McRoberts would spend the rest of his life in southern St. Charles County.

     Although it is impossible to prove, it seems very likely that Henderson McRoberts was born into slavery.  His 1919 death certificate lists his place of birth as St. Charles County and his age as “unknown, about 70 yrs.”  Based on his Civil War enlistment, it is much more likely he was about 75 when he died.  This would mean he was born around 1845; indeed, the federal census of 1880 indicates he was born in 1842 or 1843.  While a slave did not always use his master’s surname, it was common practice.  Preston McRoberts is mentioned in 1844 circuit court records for St. Charles County.  The federal censuses of this era did not count slaves, but the 1852 Missouri state census did.  Preston McRoberts, who is listed in every federal census from 1850 until his death just after the turn of the century as living in Callaway Township, owned seven slaves, including three males, in 1852.  He farmed about 500 acres on both sides of what is now Highway N. 
    Preston McRoberts may have been the owner of Peter McRoberts, a former slave who is listed in the 1870 and 1880 federal censuses as living in Femme Osage Township in or near Augusta.  Records indicate he was born around 1815 in either Kentucky or St. Charles County, but Kentucky seems more likely.  On January 28, 1866, Peter McRoberts married Lucy Jane Carter in Femme Osage Township.  The marriage certificate lists McRoberts’ children as Auvelia McRoberts, Henderson McRoberts, and John McRoberts.  It is important to remember that slaves were not allowed to marry, which explains why Henderson was about twenty years old when his father finally married.  If his father could not marry until after the Civil War because he was a slave, it seems likely Henderson McRoberts, born in the early 1840’s, was also a slave, perhaps one of the three males owned by Preston McRoberts in 1852.

     During the August, 1863, Henderson McRoberts enlisted at St. Louis in Company E of the Arkansas Volunteers 3rd Infantry Regiment (African Descent) which shortly thereafter became the 56th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry.  This regiment was posted to the Helena, Arkansas, area.  Besides doing garrison duty, the regiment was in action three times, fighting in minor battles at Indian Bay, Meffleton Lodge, and Wallace’s Ferry.  It was during one of these encounters that Henderson McRoberts was shot in the face near the right eye.  Pension records indicate that McRoberts received four dollars every month because of this wound, after his application was approved in 1881.  When the regiment was mustered out in 1866, after its tragic encounter with cholera, it had lost twenty-five men in battle and 649 men to disease, about half of its original strength.

     Henderson McRoberts returned to southern St. Charles County after the war.  His first son, Adam, had been born in 1860, perhaps into slavery.  In 1866 his first daughter, Julia, was born.  By this time had married Tiny Bush.   In 1871 Henderson and Tiny were living in the Hamburg area, where their son Henry was born.  Six other children would follow, including George and Ida sometime before 1876, and Mary in 1879.  Three children apparently died at birth or as infants.  In 1876 the McRoberts family was living in Femme Osage Township.  Federal census records of 1880 suggest the family was renting a house near the Chandler Hill Winery.  McRoberts is described as a farm laborer.  1883 pension records give McRoberts’ address as the Schluersburg post office. 

1905 map
     Sometime during the 1880’s Henderson McRoberts, also known as “Hence,” purchased eighty acres almost exactly midway between Howell and Hamburg, in what is now the Weldon Spring Conservation Area, from Wilhemine Navo, the widow of Johanne Navo, who had died in 1873.  McRoberts was also supplementing his farming income by delivering mail around Howell and Hamburg.  His annual pay as a mail contractor was $190 for route 45837.  He was still delivering mail in 1907.  It is somewhat of a mystery as to how he was able to deliver mail since federal census records indicate he was illiterate.

     Henderson McRoberts died of heart disease on May 4, 1919, and was buried in the McRoberts Cemetery on his farm in an unmarked grave.  This former slave and wounded veteran of the Civil War is a part of the area’s history that is certainly worth remembering.      

Sources: 56th United States Colored Troops Monument (findagrave.com); 1852 Missouri Census - St. Charles County; 1868 Missouri State Census; 1876 Missouri State Census; 1883 Pensioners on the Roll, St. Charles, Missouri (web.archive.org); 1905 Atlas Map of St. Charles County; The Black Phalanx (J. T. Wilson and D. T. Cornish); Civil War Veterans of St. Charles County (St. Charles County Geneological Society); Colored Paths: Marriages of People of Color: Ex-Slaves of St. Charles County, Missouri, 1865-1871; Crow’s Nest (Lilian Hays Oliver); Federal Censuses (1850-1910); Missouri State Board of Health death certificates (sos.mo.gov/archives); Official Register of the United States, Vol. 2: The Postal Service (1907); St. Charles County Historical Society; United States Colored Troops (encyclopediaofarkansas.net)