Durham’s Civil Rights Heritage
Durham County Library
Robert Fitzgerald moved from Pennsylvania to Hillsborough and then to Durham after the Civil War to educate people freed from slavery. During the war, he was determined to help the Union cause, despite a policy that prevented blacks from joining the military.
The Union needed a large number of men to move supplies from the North to the battlefields of the South, and Robert, along with his father and brothers, signed on with the Quartermasters’ Department. When the restrictions on African Americans in the military were lifted, he joined the navy, which did not discriminate in pay based on race as the army did.
His naval career ended in a matter of months because of sickness and partial blindness from a bullet wound he had received in the Quartermasters’ Corps. Determined to serve, the day after his naval discharge he enlisted in the army and was accepted. His moment of glory came when his regiment charged toward fleeing Confederates and captured a 12-pound howitzer (a short cannon).
His granddaughter Pauli Murray writes in her book “Proud Shoes” that “For the rest of their lives they [the members of the regiment] would be telling their children and grandchildren how the blacks swept up that hillside and how the Rebs turned tail and skedaddled back toward Petersburg at the very sight of them. They had stood the test of fire and had a twelve-pound howitzer to prove it.”
He served for only a few months until contracting typhoid fever, during which his blindness returned and he was discharged again, this time for good. It would take him years of reconstructing and verifying his war record to prove his eligibility for pension payments, which the government denied he was owed.