Thomas Morris Chester knew the kind of danger he faced as an African-American war correspondent serving at the Virginia front during the Civil War. He was aware that he could be killed or sold into slavery if Confederates captured him while working as a Black reporter on the front lines. Yet, he willingly accepted to cover the Union Army’s campaign against the Confederate capital of Richmond during the war for the Philadelphia Press.
His bravery shouldn’t come as a surprise though. Born in Harrisburg, Pa., on May 11, 1834, his mother was equally brave. She was a fugitive slave who had escaped slavery from Maryland at age 19. She later married George Chester, who operated a popular restaurant on Market Street in Harrisburg while she worked as a maid for Dauphin County Judge Mordecai McKinney.
It was through Judge McKinney that Chester developed a passion for education growing up and decided to become a lawyer, according to a report by pennlive.com. And he did become a lawyer, traveling the world and fighting for racial justice.
But while growing up in the U.S., Chester did not believe that racial equality could be achieved there considering the political, economic and social restrictions imposed on Black people. Thus, he left the United States for Liberia, where freed slaves had established a colony. But by 1861 when many Black people were ready to fight for their liberation in the American Civil War, he returned to the U.S. to get involved.
In January 1863 when President Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, it also came along with a call for the enlistment of Black soldiers. Chester at the time had been to Africa four times, been a teacher there and launched a newspaper in Liberia’s capital Monrovia, the report by pennlive.com said. Now a public speaker and an influential person in the Black community, he started recruiting local Blacks to serve as soldiers.
He helped raise the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiments and was given a role captaining a militia when his hometown of Harrisburg was threatened by Confederate attack, as stated by Military History Matters. When there were no more threats, his position was taken away.
Chester wanted to pick up a gun and fight. And knowing that most Black men who enlisted were usually kept in inferior positions, paid less and given substandard weapons, Chester realized that the only way for him to get to the frontlines was by becoming a war correspondent. So when the Philadelphia Press offered him that opportunity in August 1864, he gladly accepted it.
Becoming the first African American to serve as a war correspondent for a major daily newspaper, he focused more on Black troops, telling the truth about Black men in combat, a report by Civil War Times said. He spent most of his time as a war correspondent with the Army of the James, which had large numbers of Black troops. They fought near the cities of Petersburg and the Confederate capital, Richmond.
The dispatches Chester sent included the dangers of war, the bravery of the Union soldiers and the names of those killed and wounded. His dispatches also boosted morale while “urging on victory for Union forces.” As he lived among the troops, he was also usually exposed to the dangers of conflict.
And what history says was the high point of his journalistic career was when Richmond surrendered in April 1865 and he entered the fallen capital with the victorious Union Army that had a Black regiment serving as one of its lead units. Here he was, a Black journalist in an area that was previously Confederate controlled. He would start writing his dispatch from Richmond at the desk of the Confederate speaker of the House of Representatives.
“Chester’s newspaper dispatches from the Richmond and Petersburg fronts in 1864-1865 are extremely valuable. They are well written, with important descriptions of life in the trenches and just behind the lines,” Pulitzer Prize winning Civil War historian James McPherson said in 2013.
Chester practiced law in Pennsylvania and in England after the war. He later became part of the Reconstruction government in Louisiana and returned home to Harrisburg where he died at the age of 58.
On October 13, 2004, Riverside Elementary School in the Harrisburg School District was renamed the Thomas Morris Chester School to honor Chester’s legacy.