The issuance of General Order 135 during the Civil War was the beginning stages of a concentrated effort by the Union Army to recruit men for the United States Colored Troops (USCT). This order, which compensated slave owners up to $300 for each slave they enlisted, not only provided soldiers for the Union, but also resulted in the freedom and education of many who had previously lived in bondage. Once many of these former slaves turned combat-hardened soldiers tasted the empowerment of an education while serving in uniform, they often dedicated the rest of their lives to teaching others, leading to the establishment of fine institutions such as Lincoln University.
John Jeffreys, according to his death certificate, was born in Virginia on March 31, 1844, and began his journey toward freedom while living as a slave in Missouri. According to “Descriptive Recruitment Lists of Volunteers for the United States Colored Troops for the State of Missouri, 1863-1865,” accessible through the Missouri State Archives, the young slave was enlisted in the Union army by his owner, Arthur Paine of Boone County, on December 2, 1863 in Jefferson City.
Assigned to the 1st Colored Missouri Infantry, Jeffreys and other black recruits traveled to Benton Barracks—a training site established in St. Louis in 1861 by General John C. Fremont. (Benton Barracks was located on the present day site of Fairground Park.) Their battles for equality were only beginning, even within the military forces they were enlisted to support, as the soldiers contended with a lack of proper food, poor sanitary conditions and a shortage of adequate clothing. Historical records indicate that as many as one-third of the black soldiers enlisted had died at the post from various undiagnosed diseases.
Attached to the “District of St. Louis, Mo., to January 1864,” as noted in Volume 1 of the Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, the regiment was later ordered to Port Hudson, La., where they were redesignated the 62nd Colored Infantry on March 11, 1864. Despite many prejudices the men of the regiment were forced to overcome, they proved their mettle in training and so impressed Brigadier General Daniel Ullman that he wrote of the men on July 30, 1864, “This regiment is the best under my command …”
Expectations for learning soon became a reality within the 62nd through persuasions such as General Order No. 31 dated July 3, 1864. In the order, Lt. Col. David Branson stated, “All non-Commissioned officers of this command who shall fail to learn to read by or before the 1st day of January 1865 will be reduced to the ranks and their places filled by persons who can read.”
Weeks later, while the regiment was stationed at Brazos Santiago, Texas, an order was issued that, although intended to stop gambling among the soldiers of the regiment, was added to a handful of previous orders—all of which would later inspire the founding of an educational institution in Jefferson City. In her book “Busy Hands: Images of the Family in the Northern Civil War Effort,” author Patricia Richard explains that “literacy was used as a punishment for gambling” and any offenders “were placed standing in some prominent position in the camp with book in hand, and required then and there to learn a considerable lesson in reading and spelling.”
As their service in the war progressed, Jeffreys and the 62nd participated in notable military engagements including the Battle of Palmito Ranch (Texas) on May 12-13, 1865, which has the distinction as the last battle fought in the Civil War and was considered a Confederate victory, resulting in 118 Union casualties. After the war’s end, the men of the 62nd remained in Texas until March 1866, during which Jeffreys and fellow soldiers of both the 62nd and 65th USCT donated money to raise funds for what would later become Lincoln University.
Having attained the rank of sergeant major—the highest enlisted rank and evidence of his performance of duty—Jeffreys was discharged on March 31, 1866, as noted on muster rolls from the Missouri State Archives.
Though it is uncertain as to any specific role Jeffreys played in the founding of Lincoln University other than donations to help establish the institution, newspaper records note he embarked upon a personal vocation of helping to educate black citizens of Mid-Missouri as early as the 1870s.
“The colored school was provided for by the election of J.O. Jeffreys, the most successful teacher that has yet had charge of that school,” stated an article in the July 5, 1877 edition of the Rolla Herald. The ensuing years saw the veteran continue to leverage the education he received while in the service when, in 1879, he was “unanimously elected as principal of the colored school (in Rolla).” The same year he married Minerva Marr and the couple raised two sons and a daughter.
Property inventories available through the Missouri Office of Historic Preservation note that in 1882, “the (Rolla) school board voted to improve the African American school, to be called Lincoln School.” The school remained in operation until the 1950s and the original brick building remains a historical landmark in the community. In 1890, Jeffreys left teaching and purchased what eventually became the Rolla Steam Laundry, which he operated until failing health required him to retire. The veteran passed away on November 5, 1922 and is buried in Rolla Cemetery.
Once property of another, Jeffreys admirably fought on behalf of a nation struggling to come to terms with the concept of “inalienable rights,” choosing instead to focus his energies in establishing a path to an education that he and other black citizens had once been denied. And if we might assume there were ever any words wholly embraced by Jeffreys and the founders of Lincoln University, it was the command issued to the men of the regiment by Lt. Col. David Branson on July 3, 1864.
“All soldiers of this command who have by any means learned to read & write, will aid and assist to the extent of their ability their fellow soldiers to learn these invaluable arts.”
Decades later, Lincoln University continues to serve as an enduring tribute to men such as Jeffreys, who sought to extend the privilege of hard-earned freedom and share the benefits of the education they received while serving their nation.
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America
Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.