Former U-T reporter pens bio on the incredible life of Black Civil War veteran in new book, ‘The Sergeant’

Shortly after 9/11, a group of Palestinian students had some questions for an American reporter about the lives and history of Muslims in America that sent him on a decadeslong journey, researching and writing about Muslims who had been in the United States since a few years after the Mayflower came ashore, through the American Revolution and the Civil War. Dean Calbreath, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former reporter with The San Diego Union-Tribune, ultimately focused on one man, featured in his new book, “The Sergeant: The Incredible Life of Nicholas Said.”

“Initially, my plan was to do a book about all of these Muslims that I encountered from history. … I actually did a whole anthology of these people that I found, looking for Muslim names,” said Calbreath, who was part of the Pulitzer-winning team that broke the story of former U.S. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham taking more than $2 million in bribes. One of the names Calbreath searched for was Mohammed, coming across Mohammed Ali ben Said, whose name was later changed to Nicholas. “That’s how I stumbled across his name and immediately felt drawn to him because of his wit, his urbane intelligence and sense of character, and also his love of travel, his love of learning languages. These are things that I also have, and I felt very close to him.”

Said (pronounced Sy-eed) was born in the kingdom of Borno, today known as northern Nigeria, to a famed general in about the 1830s. He was the 13th of his mother’s 19 children, his mother being among the four of his father’s wives. As a young teen, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery, which would eventually lead to his traversing Africa, Asia, Europe, and the United States. Here, he would join one of the first Black regiments in the Union Army, be appointed one of the first Black voting registrars in the nation during Reconstruction, work as a teacher to freed Black children and adults in the South, and tour the lecture circuit advocating for the education and equality of Black people.

Calbreath, author and retired journalist, spent 10 years composing his book on Said (which Harvard professor and historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. has called “essential reading”) and took some time to talk about his research, the incredible adventures of Said’s life, and the ways that he was surprised by Said’s life experiences and perspectives. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity. )

Q: How did you find the initial information about Nicholas Said, that told you that he was someone who loved to travel and who’d learned at least nine languages?

A: He actually wrote two versions of his memoirs that were both available on the internet, which was my first encounter with him. He wrote a story in The Atlantic in 1867, an 11-page article about his life where he describes his travels. He traveled through Africa, the Middle East, through Europe, the Caribbean, and he also described a number of languages that he spoke. He spoke French, Italian, German, Russian, Turkish, Arabic, English, and also Mandara and Kanuri, which were the African languages of his parents. His parents spoke two different languages because his father had captured his mother in war and she became one of his wives.

Q: How did he find himself in the U.S.? What brought him here?

A: For five or six years, he had been traveling through Europe as the valet de chambre — the gentleman’s gentleman — of a Russian prince. [A valet de chambre served as a kind of personal manager for their employer, taking care of appointments, attending to them during official functions, taking care of them when they were sick. They were also considered a higher class than other servants, like a footman or a butler, and were even forbidden from fraternizing with those other servants because of their class level.] He’d agreed to be with the prince for five years and ended up being with him for six years. At the end of that six years, he was in England and he told the prince, ‘Listen, it was great being with you, but I really need to get home to Africa.’ The prince was very upset and said, ‘Stay with me and I’ll give you enough money so you can retire by the age of 40.’ Nicholas was about 25 at the time and he really felt like he needed to go. He was preparing to go to Africa when a Dutch count encountered him and was looking for a gentleman’s gentleman that would accompany him and his fiancée on their honeymoon through the Americas. The count told him that America was a place that Nicholas had never seen before, that he’d encounter people he’d never seen before, and it was a great opportunity to stick with the count for a year and then go back to Africa. He says in his autobiography that he longs to go back to his homeland, but his spirit of adventure and travel kind of trumped those feelings. He really loved the adventures that he was getting along the way, so he joined this Dutch count on this honeymoon. At the end of the honeymoon, the count actually ran out of money in Detroit, and this happened maybe a month or two before the firing of the guns at Fort Sumter in the beginning of the Civil War. Nicholas was in Detroit when the war began, and he immediately went down to register in the Union Army. He wanted to fight; his father was a general, he had seen Black soldiers in the armies of Europe and France and England and Russia, and he knew of Black soldiers that served in these armies. He went to the recruiting office and found that, in the United States, ‘Sorry, it’s Whites only. Only Caucasians can participate in this war aimed at stopping Black slavery.’

He remained in Detroit and became a well-respected teacher of French at a school privately held by African American business leaders in the Detroit community. It was important for their children to learn French, to cross into town and do business, traveling; French was the language of the intellectual class of that time. So, he taught French there, but as soon as Abraham Lincoln opened the army to African American troops, Nicholas Said joined. He got on a train and went 800 miles to Boston, Mass., which was the first state to launch a regiment of freeborn African Americans. There were regiments in the South when the Union Army was freeing slaves down there. They would form regiments out of these freed slaves, but this was the first northern regiment that was accepting African Americans and he became a sergeant, which was almost as high as he could get in the army at that time. Every post for lieutenant and above was reserved for White soldiers. He joined the 55th Massachusetts Regiment, which was the regiment right after the 54th, the sister regiment (which was featured in the film “Glory,” starring Denzel Washington). Like the 54th, they fought in the Carolinas, Florida, and Georgia.

Q: You spent 10 years working on this book? Can you talk a bit about your research process?

A: I traveled to Detroit, to the public library, and found papers, the diaries of one of the key individuals who helped him adjust to life in the United States, a Presbyterian minister who had a very, very detailed diary of his encounters with Nicholas Said.

I went to Boston to track down his military records and also tracked down the correspondence and diary of one of his Union commanders who was very impressed by Said. I went to Cornell University to track down the diaries of a Union surgeon that worked with Said at the hospital of the 55th Regiment and, again, who details a few things about Said. I went to Washington, D.C., to track down military records, again. Then, to Alabama, where he spent some of the latter years, about three or four years, which was one of the longest times he ever spent anywhere, to track down his wedding record (he got married in Alabama). I also found newspaper articles and corresponded with archives in Russia and Latvia, which is where he was baptized. Russia was where he was a servant to a couple of Russian princes. London, where he was when the Dutch count encountered him, and Amsterdam because that count’s correspondence is in the Dutch archives.

Q: What were some of your initial expectations of Said and who he was?

A: My initial expectations were that I was really hoping to find Said was a practicing Muslim when he came to the United States. Part of this was motivated by writing about the history Muslims. I was hoping to find this outspoken, kind of Frederick Douglass-figure who would be an advocate of civil rights and pushing for greater freedoms in the United States. What I found was, by the time he got to the United States, he totally gravitated away from Islam. He’d been kind of pressured to convert to Russian Orthodoxy when he was working for those Russian princes and that’s where he got the name Nicholas. (His employer at the time was Nicholas Troubetzkoy, who became his godfather and gave him the name Nicholas, instead of Mohammed Ali ben Said. His godfather was the godson of Czar Nicholas, so in a way Nicholas Said is named after the czar.) I’d been hoping to find a practicing Muslim, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. He gravitated toward what was a very mystical philosophy by this Swedish theologian in the 1700s, who had a great sway over the transcendentalists of Boston. It was through one of his colleagues in the 55th Massachusetts that he encountered this guy, [Emanuel] Swedenborg, and his mystical ideas about the universe.

Another surprise was that he was actually a bit more conservative than I thought he would be. He was much more like Booker T. Washington than Frederick Douglass. He believed that if African Americans pursued a course of education and economic betterment, that they would gradually get the civil rights and freedoms that they deserved, but he wasn’t an advocate of pushing immediately for those rights. He thought those rights would come over time, and it turned out to be a very naïve belief, in retrospect. On the other hand, it was kind of natural because that’s the way he had been treated in Europe, that’s the way he felt throughout his travels. Achieving education and achieving higher status would open doors for him that weren’t opened for African Americans. He did not, I think, fully appreciate the amount of ingrained racism that was created by slavery, so that was also a surprise.

Q: Did he talk about why he wanted to join the Union army and fight?

A: He didn’t really address it. On the other hand, there were hints in his autobiography about how he felt. One thing he said in his [memoir from The Atlantic in 1867, later quoted in “The Sergeant”] was “I prayed earnestly to be enabled to do some good to my race. … I thought I would willingly sacrifice my life, if need be, in realizing my dreams.” He was very interested in learning about Western military tactics because, at that time, there were a lot of European incursions into Africa. This was really the beginning of European colonization of Africa. Much of the interior of the continent still had not been colonized by Europe, including his homeland of Borno, so at the time of these incursions, he wanted to learn Western military tactics so he could go back to Africa and relay those to his homeland. He wasn’t specific about that being in service in the war because, again, he was trying to hide his service in the war, but it’s pretty clear that that’s what he was talking about.

Q: After fighting in the Civil War, what did his fight for equality come to look like, in practice?

A: After the war was over, he immediately started teaching the children of freed slaves, and freed adults. He started teaching them how to read and write, which they had been denied throughout the South. Sometimes, even for African American freedmen living in the South during that time, education was banned. You could not educate an African American as a teacher. A Black teacher could be sentenced to jail, whipped, and fined; a White teacher could be sentenced to jail and fined. Once the liberation occurred, then education was seen as a real top priority in the South for African Americans. There was a convention of freedmen in Charleston, which is where he was at the time, and the top thing that they wanted was public schools for freedmen. This was the beginning of public education in the South. Most education at the time had been private, even for Whites because there were a number of White working-class people who couldn’t afford to go to what were, essentially, the private schools. Public education was very rare. Also at that time, under the pressure of the Union Army and the Bureau of Freedmen, public schools really took hold in the South for both Blacks and Whites. He was really at the forefront of that movement. …He was kind of like Johnny Appleseed, spreading education wherever he went, from school to school. He taught in at least half a dozen schools from Georgia to Alabama, and Tennessee and South Carolina.

He was also one of the nation’s first Black voting registrars, helping freed slaves to vote in South Carolina. He was appointed by the Union governor of South Carolina to be a voting registrar. In addition, he went on a lecture tour where the whole point of the tour was to show both African Americans and White Americans the things that could be “accomplished by the African,” in his words. He wanted to show the capabilities of Africans, using himself as a prime example. He could speak nine languages; he was an extremely intelligent guy, always picking up more languages. He said he could speak nine languages, but he could probably speak about 12 or so. (There were a couple of other languages that he didn’t count in his own account. He met an activist in the Jewish community in Charleston who introduced him to Hebrew and he learned Hebrew very fast. That Presbyterian minister up in Detroit taught him biblical Greek and within a month or two, he could be reading the books of the New Testament in Greek. He was just a sponge for languages. There is testimony from other people that he could speak them.) This was his contribution to the drive for political equality and civil rights—helping people vote, helping people learn, and showing himself as an example of the things you can accomplish with a good education.

Q: I know “The Sergeant” was just released, but I would imagine this isn’t the last we’ll be hearing about Said. What else would you like to see happen with Said and his story?

A: I would love it if Hollywood took a look at this, not because I wrote about it, but because I really have a lot of respect for him, and I want his name to be out there. I have this feeling of kinship to this person who’s been dead for a century. I think it would be great if it was a Hollywood miniseries with one episode concentrating on his life in Africa, another on his life in Europe, another on the Civil War, and another one on Reconstruction. His life was so varied, I think it would hard to make it into some kind of two-hour movie because it just included such disparate elements. Thankfully, with the “Black Panther” movies and everything, most Americans have hints that there were these vibrant civilizations in Africa. Of course, Wakanda is to reality what Camelot is to reality — they are fantasies, yet they are based in the fact that Africa has these vibrant kingdoms. The kingdom of Borno where [Nicholas Said] was from, had its own literature, had its own art, had its own sciences. Europe had expanded and reached a level of technology and sciences that outstripped it by the 1800s, but for much of their history, the lives of people in African kingdoms was very similar to the lives of people in European kingdoms. It’s nice that people are beginning to get that sense of African history, and I would hope Said’s life would have them take an even closer look at that.

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