William P. Stewart was a prominent Wisconsin Farmer and Civil War veteran. Stewart was born on December 9, 1839, as a free person of color to Walden and Henrietta Stewart in Sangamon County, Illinois. He had five other siblings, four brothers and one sister.
At the start of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln resisted the idea of African Americans serving in the military. However, by 1862, he was convinced that in order to militarily weaken the Confederacy, and agreed that slavery had to be abolished in those states of rebellion (Emancipation Proclamation) and there was a great need for the recruitment of black men into the Union Army.
When Stewart heard the recruitment had reached Illinois, he jumped at the opportunity to enlist into the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment on February 1, 1865, at the age of twenty-five. Stewart who stood at almost 5’6″ farmer served for less than a year in the Union Army.
The last few months of the war, Stewart, and his fellow officers fought near Petersburg and in the Appomattox Campaign in Virginia. Stewart got a case of severe diarrhea which excused him from serving active duty in the trenches in Petersburg. Instead, he was assigned to working as a mess cook assistant.
In May 1865, the regiment was sent to a final assignment in Texas along the Rio Grande River as part of the XXV Corps, an all-black unit stationed along the border with Mexico to challenge French control of that nation. Some black soldiers actually crossed the Rio Grande to fight with troops loyal to Mexican President Benito Juarez. While in Texas, Stewart contracted rheumatism, a fate many soldiers experienced. In November 1865, the 29th Infantry disbanded.
After the war, Stewart moved back to Wisconsin where he met and Elizabeth “Eliza” Thornton on October 25, 1868, in Logansville. The couple had one son, Vay, a year later in 1869. To support his family, Stewart found work as a lumber laborer in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, until he and his family relocated to the community of Snohomish in Washington State in 1899.
Stewart eventually was able to purchase a farm one mile east of the city and became a well-respected citizen. He also became a member of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a national fraternal organization comprised of veterans of the Union Army.
For the rest of his life, Stewart suffered debilitating bouts of stomach illness and rheumatism due to the time he served in the military. His pension from the government’s disability pension plan was $8 per month at the time of his death. Stewart died from a stomach-related illness on December 11, 1907.