In 1863 federal military authorities in eastern North Carolina began actively recruiting and enlisting African Americans for the United States Colored Troops (USCT). Eventually three infantry regiments and one of artillery were enlisted from North Carolina’s black population. Those wishing to join a mounted unit would have to travel to Virginia to do so. Parker D. Robbins, a Bertie County free person of color of mixed African and Native American descent, did just that, enlisting in the 2nd U.S. Colored Cavalry Regiment on January 1, 1864 at Fort Monroe, Virginia, alongside his younger brother Augustus.
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With few exceptions, blacks were not allowed to hold commissioned ranks as officers, and the highest rank available was that of sergeant major. Demonstrating his leadership qualities, as well as the fact he was a well-respected mechanic in the area, Parker was promoted from private to sergeant major ten days after his enlistment. He was one of a handful of North Carolina blacks to achieve the rank during the war. His brother also rose through the ranks, first with a promotion to the rank of first sergeant within his company, and then to quartermaster sergeant of the regiment.
Parker D. Robbins served with his regiment for the remainder of the war, seeing combat in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. At the close of hostilities the unit remained in federal service and was sent to the U.S.-Mexico border to prevent the French intervention in Mexico from spilling over onto American soil. They were officially discharged from service in Texas in February 1866.
After the war Parker Robbins returned to Bertie County, where he was chosen as a delegate to the 1868 constitutional convention and served two terms as a state representative. Afterwards, he moved to Hertford County and became postmaster of the town of Harrellsville.
In 1877 Robbins moved to Duplin County, where he became a businessman, and owned a steamboat, sawmill, and cotton gin. He also became an inventor, and held several patents on saw sharpening machines. Robbins received a pension for his service, and was active in local Union veterans’ affairs. He died in Magnolia in 1917. His portrait is widely known and he has been the focus of attention in textbooks and museum exhibits since the rise in interest in black history in the 1970s.
Civil War Compiled Military Service Records and Pension Index, National Archives
1860, 1870, 1880, 1900 U.S. Census
Greg Mast, State Troops and Volunteers (1995)
Rodney Barfield, “The Indomitable Parker D. Robbins,” The State (February 1992): 12-13
Portrait of Parker Robbins in uniform.