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February 03, 2017

Charles Dempsey – Buffalo Soldier

SantiagoCharles Dempsey – Buffalo Soldier

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

February is Black History Month, so I will be focusing my posts on the African American history of Noblesville and Hamilton County.  I thought would begin by looking at the life of a man that I mentioned in another post here.

He was the only soldier from Hamilton County to have seen combat during the Spanish-American War – Charles A. Dempsey.

There is a story that I mentioned in yet another post of the Dempsey family being slaves who were purchased just before the Civil War, brought to Indiana, and freed.  This doesn’t appear to match up to known facts.  Records show that Charles’ father, George, was born in Indiana in 1843.  Evidently, military service ran in the family because George served in the Civil War as part of the 28th USCT.

George enlisted on February 5, 1864 and service records show that he was entitled to a $300 bounty.  He spent the early part of his term in the hospital.  The records say that it had to do with an “irritable stomach” and was serious enough that he was sent to a large hospital in Pennsylvania.  He returned to duty on September 18, 1864, and was assigned guard duty at a prisoner of war camp at Point Lookout , Maryland.  He was discharged from the army on November 8, 1865, and returned to Noblesville.  When a reunion of his regiment was held in Indianapolis in 1895, he was elected president of the organization.  He died in 1935.

George married Nancy Winslow on February 24, 1867.  Their first son, Frank, was born in 1868 and Charles was born on his parents’ anniversary in 1869.  A sister named Mamie was born in 1871.  George later left the family, taking Mamie with him, and had remarried by 1878.  Frank and Charles were raised by their mother.  Interestingly, the Hamilton East Public Library has its circulation record from the 1880’s and there are a number of library visits by “C. Dempsey” and “F. Dempsey” – this was very likely the two brothers.  They checked out books on variety of subjects.

Charles first enlisted in the army at Cincinnati on November 9, 1887.  He was assigned to the 10th Cavalry,  who were known as the “Buffalo Soldiers”.  Unfortunately, there are no records of his service.  He was discharged as a private on February 19, 1890, in San Carlos, Arizona Territory.  He came back to Noblesville and married Ruth Freeman on November 27, 1890.

El Caney

When the Spanish-American War threatened, he reenlisted in Indianapolis May 9, 1898, and was assigned to the 24th infantry, Company G. Again, there are no records of his service, but later newspaper accounts said that he was part of the Battle of El Caney and the siege at Santiago from July 1 to July 4.  The 24th Infantry was an important part of the charge up San Juan Hill, but we don’t know if he was part of that.  He was back in Noblesville on September 30 for a city celebration of the soldiers at the county courthouse courtroom.  The large crowd made several calls for him to speak since he was the only county resident to see action.  He was discharged from the army on January 27, 1899, as a private with a good record.  A February 3 newspaper report that he had needed a cane to walk because of rheumatism contracted in the trenches at Santiago, but was getting better.

San Juan

Ruth Dempsey died April 21, 1900, after an eight month illness, and Charles married Elizabeth Spinks on December 20, 1900.  He became involved in community activities.  He began preaching at the First Baptist church in March 1903, and was awarded an army pension in August of that year.  However, racial tensions may have been growing.  He took a political stand in 1904 when he wrote a letter to the Indianapolis Recorder newspaper on March 12.   He talked about how Black men like Levi Scott, Rev. John Burden, and Fred J. Hord were being turned down and forced off the county Election Board.  This may have been the reason that he had moved to Chicago by 1910.

By the 1920’s, he was living in Los Angeles California, and working as a bricklayer.  He applied to live in a soldiers’ home due to his many physical problem, but he was still at home in 1930.  He died December 9, 1955, and was buried at Fort Gibson National Cemetery in Oklahoma.

The illustrations for this post are from an 1899 book on African American soldiers in the Spanish-American War.