A direct descendent of Elizabeth Hemings, John Freeman Shorter grew up in Washington, D.C. as a free man. By the spring of 1863, he was living in Ohio when he left for Boston to enlist in the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. A white officer once described Shorter as “tall, of muscular build, … hair light, complexion almost white, and blue eyes, whose lively expression brightened a face otherwise somewhat grave.” Shorter became one of only two other fully-commissioned black officers in the 55th Massachusetts—“Three as worthy men as ever carried a gun,” declared the chaplain of the 55th. All three of these officers were connected to Monticello. Shorter was the only direct descendent of the enslaved at Monticello; the other two were connected through marriage.
As the historian of the regiment wrote, Shorter had “every soldierly quality, from scrupulous neatness to unflinching bravery. He well merited the reputation of the best non-commissioned officer in the regiment. As such, he was selected for the first promotion from the ranks.” However, the army would not formally muster or recognize them as officers because of the color of their skin. Finally in the summer of 1865, when the fighting had ceased, the three men were officially commissioned as officers.
African American soldiers in the Massachusetts regiments were promised equal treatment, including equal pay. However, the men received half of the pay that their white counterparts received. Shorter became a leading force in the fight for equal pay. To protest this pay inequality, the soldiers went without pay for a year and a half. In July 1864, the men reached out to the president himself. By October, they finally received full pay. In a celebration at their camp on Folly Island, Shorter spoke on behalf of the regiment, saying that it was their primary responsibility as men to “prove our fitness for liberty and citizenship, in the new order of things now arising in this, our native land.”
Three weeks after this victory, the soldiers took up arms in the Battle of Honey Hill (South Carolina, November 1864). In this battle, Shorter was wounded in the leg, but he refused to stop fighting. As one soldier wrote, “Sergt. Shorter is wounded in the knee, yet will not go to the rear.” In August 1865, Shorter was honorably discharged, returning to Ohio to marry his fiancé. Sadly, Shorter succumbed to small pox, dying shortly before arriving home.
Source: Nancy Bercaw, Curator, Slavery and Freedom
A handwritten diary encased in a red leather cover with "Diary / 1865" embossed in gold lettering at top center surrounded by an ornate wreath. The diary is inscribed on the front endpaper in both pencil and ink. The diary begins with several printed pages including a page outlining eclipses that occurred in 1865, a calendar, a table of stamp duties and rates of postage. The diary entries were done predominantly in pencil. The diary begins on January 1, 1865 with the last entry occurring on September 30, 1865. The diary ends with a memorandum section and an accounts paid section. Both of these sections were used by Lieutenant John Freeman Shorter. A back pocket in the back of the diary contains two loose sheets of paper. One of the pieces of paper is a promotion certification for a second lieutenant in the 55th Massachusetts volunteer regiment. The document is written in ink. It is dated April 19, 1865. Additional notes are written in pencil on the other side of the document. The second piece of paper has a list of people’s names, dollar amounts and dates written on both sides in both ink and pencil.