Members of the public frequently contact museum staff with inquiries about items in the collection. Often, the resulting research leads to the discovery of new, exciting information.
This is just what happened last spring when an individual contacted museum curator Angela Goebel-Bain to ask about measurements of a Civil War great coat that was donated to the state of Maine nearly 90 years ago. The museum’s records contained no data about the coat, but Angela set to work and found a treasure trove of information in a 1934 Kennebec Journal newspaper.
The coat was donated by Rockland native Lt. Col. Oliver Nelson Blackington. He enlisted in Co. C. of the 4th Maine Infantry on April 24, 1861. His regiment participated in all the battles of the Army of the Potomac beginning with the first Battle of Bull Run. In December 1862, Blackington was severely wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg but returned to the field.
President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued in January 1863, made way for African American men to enlist in the Union Army. The Union Army formed the Corps d’Afrique in New Orleans in the summer of 1863 and in that year, Blackington was made a commanding officer and eventually rose to the rank of Lt. Colonel. The Corps d’Afrique was among the first African American regiments to fight for the Union. It was during this time that Blackington purchased the coat in Washington, DC. He later reported that he wore it in dress parades.
Eventually, all African American regiments merged to become part of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) and with this, Lt. Col. Blackington became commander of USCT Regiment 81, based in Louisiana. He was honorably discharged in 1866.
At the time, it was common for white officers to command African American regiments. Still, Blackington’s story is a complex one. He remained in Louisiana during Reconstruction and served as the Chairman of the Board of Registrars for Natchitoches Parish. He registered 192 white men and 1,354 Black to vote for the first time.
Blackington married Matilda Worrill (1849-1923) in 1865. She had come to Louisiana from Philadelphia to teach African Americans to read as a part of the Freedman’s Bureau in New Orleans.
Blackington and his family returned to Maine in 1870 and settled in Augusta. He worked as a teamster and became a clerk at Togus Veterans Home. He was active in the local Grand Army of the Republic, a Union soldiers’ veterans group. He died at the age of 95 and is buried in Augusta. Now, through his coat preserved at the Maine State Museum, Blackington’s story can be told more fully, thanks to an inquiry, a newspaper, and diligent research by a curator.