21 Sep Marching Societies
By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian
Continuing to talk about Emancipation celebrations, it’s worth looking at the Victorian practice of organizing groups to add spectacle to an event. These groups were usually politically oriented and were referred to as marching societies. As African Americans became involved in politics after the Civil War, they did the same, including here in Hamilton County.
The societies were vaguely military in look, primarily because many of them used surplus Civil War uniforms. The Ames Company had made uniforms and equipment during the war and, afterwards, they found a market in lodges and marching societies. Sometime the groups had musical instruments and sometimes they carried signs. They would drill to be able to march in step, but that wasn’t a primary focus. Enthusiasm probably counted for more
An African American marching society had its first important appearance in Hamilton County in 1872 for the re-election of Ulysses Grant. The groups that were formed were called “Grant Guards” and they participated in an event organized by the Hamilton County African American community. This was the Grant and Wilson pole raising which I did a previous post about. A later Noblesville newspaper article said, “Special trains were run from Indianapolis and a colored military company from Indianapolis, known as Grants Military Guards was present in a body to do the honors of the day.” It’s not clear if local people were part of the group. The Indianapolis Journal for August 8th said, “As the Guards moved down Meridian Street, their martial, soldier-like, and orderly appearance was the theme of universal admiration.”
In 1880, groups called “Porter Guards” were formed. The societies were named for the gubernatorial candidate (and eventual winner) Albert G. Porter. For this election, some groups would be known as “Garfield Guards” for the presidential nominee, James A. Garfield. The Hamilton County African American Porter Guard, (referred to in the newspaper as “Colored”), was organized in August and C. A. Roberts was elected president. The meeting was covered by the Republican-Ledger newspaper in their August 11 issue. There were many people from all over the county in attendance and 76 men immediately stepped forward to sign up.
The officers elected were:
Captain – John Gordon
1st Lieutenant – George Sweat from Jackson Township
2nd Lieutenant – Ned [Edward] Armstrong (his five sons would later serve in WWI)
1st Sergeant – William F. Thomas
2nd Sergeant – James Dempsey (probably related to Charles Dempsey)
3rd Sergeant – John Horde (later elected to City Constable)
There were fifty badges available saying “Porter Escort Guards” which were quickly snatched up. This was followed by speeches from supportive members of the white Hamilton County community – Joseph R. Gray, N. D. Levinson, and W. R. Hutchinson.
The Guards had their chance to show off in September of 1880 when Frederick Douglass came to Noblesville on a campaign trip to speak for Garfield. It was a grand event and hundreds of people attended. The Garfield Guards of Jackson Township came down with 120 uniformed members, both Black and white. The Noblesville Porter Escort Guards numbered about 50 and had new uniforms for the occasion. They raised the 130 foot flagpole that was the centerpiece of the day.
The story doesn’t describe the uniform that they chose, which could vary according to the group. Back in July, the African American Porter Guard in Indianapolis had adopted a uniform of white flannel shirt with blue cuff and collar, dark pants with a white stripe, and a white cap. The front of the shirt had a fabric shield with Porter’s initials stitched on it. A white Porter Guard troupe in Cambridge City had red vests, and red, white, and blue caps. The term “caps” probably meant kepis such as those worn during the Civil War.
The last reference that we have to African American marching societies is from 1900. The group was Barney Stone’s drum corps which marched in the grand Republican rally in Noblesville described in an earlier post. Unfortunately, the only reference that we have is from an unsympathetic newspaper.