Mission Statement:

"To advance through research, education and symposia, an increased public awareness of the Cape Fear region's unique history."


Black Soldiers in Red, Blue and Grey


Cape Fear Historical Institute Papers


Confederate of Color


Runaway slave Crispus Attucks, killed alongside two white citizens

at the Boston Massacre in 1770, is a well-known black American

who served in the Revolution, as well as black slave Peter Salem,

who shot and killed British Major Pitcairn at Bunker Hill.

An all-black regiment under Colonel Christopher Greene distinguished

itself against Hessians at Newport, Rhode Island, repelling successive “furious onsets” by the mercenaries. The first woman Continental

soldier was Deborah Gannett, who concealed her gender and

served throughout the war under the alias of “Robert Shurtlif.”

Author Vernon Jordan states, “the role of the black (slave) in the Revolution can best be understood by realizing that his major loyalty

was not to a place, nor to a people, but to a principle (liberty)."

Though we recognize them as former slaves who fought bravely

for the American revolutionary cause, the real evidence suggests that

slaves who did serve in that conflict were more likely to join the

British side and fight against the independence of the colonists.

As there is no reliable record of how many blacks fought on either

side, it is estimated that 3000 fought on the American side,

and Thomas Jefferson placed the number of former slaves

fighting for the British at 30,000.

Eighty-eight years before Lincoln’s proclamation, an Act of

Lord Dunmore, Royal Governor of Virginia in November 1775 emancipated all slaves “able and willing to bear arms, joining

His Majesties Troops for more speedily reducing the colony

to a proper sense of their duty to His Majesty’s Crown and dignity.” 

In his "The Last of American Freemen," author Robert Weir states

that it was "not surprising that well before the news of (Dunmore's Proclamation) attempts to raise Virginia's blacks, Whigs in the

South believed that Royal officials planned to instigate slave

insurrections" to quell any American uprisings.

Dunmore's actions enticed many blacks to fight against American

liberty, but love of country kept some fighting on the colonist’s

side regardless of continued slavery in the new republic.  This love

of country continued beyond the revolution as many black's fought

to defend what they perceived as their homeland in 1861. It is indeed

ironic that black slaves would desert the plantations for the lure of

freedom within British lines, since it was English (and New England)

slave ships that brought enslaved Africans to North America.

Nonetheless, Lord Dunmore and his 1000 black troops posed a

serious threat to the revolutionary movements in Virginia and North Carolina.  Robert Howe with his Continental unit and Minutemen

from Edenton were immediately dispatched to Norfolk  with a dual purpose; to block any move by Dunmore toward North Carolina,

and to prevent Negroes from Pasquotank, Currituck and adjacent

counties from joining the British liberator. The Wilmington Safety Committee took defensive measures in July 1775, insisting that all

blacks be disarmed so as to keep the “Negroes in order” and it

instituted patrols to search for and take from Negroes

all kinds of arms.”  


After Lord Dunmore’s proclamation, Washington moved to enlist

free blacks to forestall them from joining the British.  Free blacks

appeared to have a greater inclination to join the Continental army

while slaves preferred the British forces, in part due to the colonist’s misgivings about arming them and partly due to the promise of

freedom from the British.  Only Maryland authorized slave

enlistments and subjected free blacks to the draft, but many

free blacks enlisted in the army or navy in Virginia,

North Carolina and other States. 

Perhaps as many as three-quarters of Rhode Island’s continental

troops were slaves who had been offered freedom in exchange

for their service.  It is remembered that Rhode Island served not

that many years earlier as the largest slaving port in North America,

and far more active than Massachusetts and New York. 

In the latter days of the struggle the British turned to blacks for

additional manpower along the battle lines as black troops fought

with the British at Savannah in 1779, Congarees in 1781 and Green

Spring near Jamestown, Virginia in 1781.  A British black cavalry

unit clashed with patriot forces outside Charleston in April 1782

with two black horsemen losing their lives.  Black contributions to

the war effort were aptly summed up by British General William

Phillips, who said…”these Negroes have undoubtedly been of

the greatest use”.  Other blacks fought with Loyalist militia under

such Tory leaders as Samuel Bryan in Rowan County and Samuel

Burke, a black Loyalist, was credited with killing 10 patriots

at Hanging Rock in August 1780.  Still other blacks served

on privateers that clashed with patriot vessels and

took them as prizes.


The War of 1812:

Black soldiers served on both sides in this war, with black regulars

serving with four US regiments in the 1814 Niagara Campaign, but

many blacks working as servants, teamsters and laborers. There is unreliable information that blacks served with Canadian militia, but

the British used most of their black troops in the American South.

In the Southern campaign against the Americans, the British again

utilized Lord Dunmore’s tactic of slave revolt as Secretary of State

for War, Earl Bathurst set British official policy regarding blacks as

to encourage slaves to desert their owners and join the liberating army

to fight against their former oppressors. This was so successful that

British Captain Robert Barrie stated, “the slaves come off by

every opportunity…slaves are willing to serve as local guides…

and there is no doubt but the blacks of Virginia and Maryland

would cheerfully take up arms and join us against the Americans.”

The British ordered newly-raised black regiments to raid North and

South Carolina, and Georgia, seeing that “black troops roaming and plundering freely would enhance the fear of slave rebellions.”

This so alarmed American leaders that General Thomas Brown

mobilized militia cavalry units near Wilmington in the summer of 1812

to guard against black rebellion fomented by the enemy. Ironically,

it was the British (and New Englanders) who brought the bulk of

enslaved Africans to these shores, and in both the Revolution and

War of 1812, used slave rebellion as a brutal tactic with which to

subdue American political independence. It was not far into the

future that Abraham Lincoln and the radical Republicans used

that same strategy in subduing another American

war of independence.     



The War Between the States and Confederate Black Troops:

In an early effort to convince Northern leaders to recruit

black soldiers, black abolitionist Frederick Douglas reported

his concern early in the war that: “there are at the present

moment many colored men in the Confederate army doing

duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but real soldiers

having muskets on their shoulders and bullets in their pockets,

ready to shoot down loyal troops, and do all that soldiers

may do to destroy the Federal government . . . There were such

soldiers at Manassas and they are probably there still.” 

(Frederick Douglas, Douglass' Monthly, IV, Sept. 1861, pp. 516)

Even Northern General Grant knew of the black support for

the Confederacy and instructed his officers late in the war

to capture as many blacks as possible to avoid having them

carry arms for the South or support it in any way.


In 1860, there were approximately 4 million blacks both free and

slave in the United States and the vast majority either fought for or supported the American Confederacy, with the number of opposing

US Colored Troops amounting to only a little over 186,000 men. 

Of the latter, it is questionable whether they were freely recruited

or were impressed into service to replace Northern white soldiers

who sought substitutes. Little known is the fact that Louisiana enlisted

black soldiers in New Orleans nearly a year in advance of the

Northern States. More on this later.  

In 1861, many free black companies were formed throughout the

South with a Lynchburg newspaper commenting on the enlistment

of 75 free blacks to fight for the defense of the State, concluding

with “three cheers for the patriotic Negroes of Lynchburg!” 

The “Richmond Howitzers” who saw action at First Manassas

in 1861 were an integrated artillery unit and at least two regiments,

one free and one slave, fought in the battle. By integrated it is meant

that black soldiers were not segregated into all-black units as in the

North, and rosters might note a "c" after a name to indicate a

colored soldier in a company. It is estimated that

between 50,000 to 65,000 blacks fought as combatants

in Confederate forces and nearly all on an unofficial basis. 

In March of 1865 the Confederate government officially authorized

the enlistment of black soldiers when Congress passed an act that

enrolled slaves into the military with a quota of 300,000 soldiers. 

To serve, they had to be emancipated by their owners, and as veterans were given bounty lands.  With this official act, 83% of Richmond’s

black male population volunteered for duty and before Richmond fell,

many black Confederates were drilling in the streets.  General Lee

was fully behind the enlistment of black troops and in March 1865 expressed in a letter to General Ewell his regret that more owners

would not release their slaves for service. Over 3000 black soldiers

served with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in its fighting retreat

from Petersburg to Appomattox.

While this was a late effort to emancipate, it was nonetheless discussed

in the Confederate armed forces as well as in the Confederate Congress

for a long white -- Secretary Judah Benjamin was a strong supporter

of this measure. As Northern armies ravaged further into Southern

States the poplucae was more willing to use whatever measures

would help achieve political independence, including the

emancipation of slaves and a new labor system in the South.

Dr. Edward Smith, Dean of American Studies at American

University, estimated that by February 1865, 1150 blacks had

served in the Confederate Navy which amounts to about 20%

of total naval personnel.  Benjamin Gray, for example, was a

12-year old black youth who enlisted in Wilmington and saw

combat as a powder boy on the CSS Albemarle.


The US Sanitary Commission inspector Dr. Louis Steiner observed

in September, 1862 that over 3000 of General Jackson’s 64,000

man army was composed of armed blacks who were fully outfitted

as soldiers, not servants, and were “manifestly and integral portion

of the Southern Confederacy army.” 

At Fort Fisher’s capitulation in January, 1865, black Privates

Charles & Henry Dempsey of the 36th NC Regiment and Private

James Doyle and Daniel Herring of the 40th North Carolina Regiment surrendered to Northern forces.  A total of nine black Southern

soldiers surrendered at the battle of Fort Fisher though it is probable

that many more served along their white counterparts as it was

common to see integrated Southern units.  Also, there were many

blacks who fought with John Hunt Morgan’s Mississippi raiders

and General Nathan Bedford Forrest freed black slaves fighting

with his cavalry forces. 

President Jefferson Davis was so impressed with the service of

black Southerners, he stated in his annual message in November, 1864

that the numbers should be increased and emancipation would follow

their service.

Despite widespread fears in the first year of the war that the slaves

were preparing for a major revolt, nothing of the kind occurred. “War…has now existed for nearly 4 years” noted Virginia

Congressman Thomas S. Gholson in early 1865, “and yet . . .

there has been no insurrection or attempt at insurrection . . .

our wives and children have been left on our plantations frequently

with no other protection than that offered by our slaves.”


Let’s look at the black soldiers of 1861 New Orleans. 

In James Hollandsworth’s “The Louisiana Native Guards”,

he states that the city was the most multi-cultural of any city

in the United States with a prominent and cultured black

population of doctors, dentists, cigar-makers, silversmiths

and architects, which is contrasted by Philadelphia and

New York being most discriminatory toward blacks. 

By 1860, this black population had accumulated more than

$2 million in property in New Orleans.  It is also true that the

South in 1860 held the largest percentage of Jews in the

United States with David Yulee (Levy) of Florida and

Judah Benjamin of Louisiana holding US Senate seats

from those States.

Here were 731 black enlisted men with 33 black officers aligned

in ranks alongside their white Louisiana Militia counterparts. 

Governor Thomas D. Moore accepted the black regiment as

part of the Louisiana militia on 2 May 1861 and issued commissions

for the line officers, all black.

When Gen. Benjamin Butler captured New Orleans in late April 1862,

the Native Guards were disbanded.  With Butler’s command of the

City threatened by nearby Confederate forces, and the so-called loyal

Irish & German immigrants of the City resisting enlistment in the

Northern army, Butler reinstated the Native Guard but succeeded

in only enlisting 11% of the original State militia organization, with the

other 89% of the organization being newly captured slaves. 

And 70% of the black former officers avoided service with the new incarnation of the regiment, with none of the men who had taken a prominent role in the organization of this regiment in the Confederate service reenlisting on the Northern side.

Further, the soldiers of the occupation duty 13th Maine regiment in

early 1863 refused to follow the orders or authority of the black officers and abolitionist General Nathaniel Banks solved this dilemma by tricking the black officers into resigning their commissions due to a federal technicality, and replaced them all with white officers. 



 The North Seeks Another Source of Troops:

 Being aware that the Northern public would support a war to maintain

the union, Lincoln also knew that he could not count on that support

for a war to end black slavery or for a war that employed black troops.  This was especially true in the border regions, those slave States that

both remained in the original union and contributed troops to the

war effort.  In rejecting the use of black troops

in the summer of 1862,

Lincoln argued that “…the nation could not afford to lose

Kentucky at this crisis…, “ and that “arming blacks would

turn 50,000 bayonets from the loyal border States against us…”

While black companies and regiments were raised in Southern cities

and offered to the Confederate army, mob violence was threatened

against black citizens in Cincinnati when they sought to organize a

militia unit.  Enthusiastic blacks in New York City rented a hall to

practice military drill but had to abandon their activity in the face of

a police order and a similar threat of mob violence. 

The Draft Riots of July 1863 speak volumes regarding northern labor hostility against blacks, free or slave.

Emancipation and employment of black troops soon became

a matter of vital military importance by December 1861 as

Lincoln was showing signs of frustration with the lack of

progress in subjugating the South.  By mid-1862 Lincoln

admitted, “we had about played our last card and must

change our tactics or lose the war.” 


It was time to resurrect Lord Dunmore’s emancipation proclamation.

Congressional action actually preceded Lincoln’s proclamation on

17 July 1862 with its alteration of the 70-year old militia act that

barred blacks from military participation. Secretary of State

William Seward agreed with the substance of Lincoln’s January

1863 “preliminary emancipation proclamation” but questioned the

timing of its release.  Issued now, in the shadow of major Northern

military defeats, the declaration might appear to be a desperate

act by a government on the verge of defeat and he urged a delay

in its issuance until a Northern victory was in hand.  

Lincoln also clearly understood that Europeans would see the

proclamation for what it was…nothing but “an attempt to incite servile

and insurrection” to imitate the horrors of Haiti and Santo Domingo,

as Dunmore intended.

A lesser-known provision of the emancipation proclamation officially authorized the implementation of the Militia Act of 1862, the raising

and using of black federal troops.  This pronouncement in January

1863 sanctioned a practice that several maverick federal officers

had already attempted.  But at the same time, the Proclamation was

so unpopular in the North that the fall 1863 elections in New York,

New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin

went against the Republicans.  Enlistments to fill the deserted

Northern ranks came in slowly and blacks who had gone within

federal lines or had been kidnapped, were purposely driven into

the army.  This is a significant fact.


Northern Governors Replace White Troops With Black:

Faced with the necessity of drafting their own constituents in a

very unpopular war, the Northern governors looked for another

source of troops and they took up the abolitionist demand that

blacks should be fighting and dying.  Under pressure from the

governors who feared losing the next election due to a backlash

from the unpopular draft, Lincoln issued the preliminary

emancipation proclamation and permitted the enlistment of

black troops.  The day after the proclamation, Lincoln

suspended the writ of habeus corpus and ordered the

governors to force men into the militia.

An Act of Congress, passed on 4 July 1864 authorized

Northern Governors to send recruiting agents into the South

to recruit blacks who shall be credited to the State which may

procure the enlistment.  The occupied Southern States were

soon swarming with recruiting agents competing with each

other over who could enlist the most black recruits to save

white citizens from serving.  These agents found the pickings

very meager, enlisting fewer than 6000 former slaves. 

The reason for this low number were twofold: one, the

Northern Generals were hostile to anyone tampering with

their black military laborers, and two, the rivalry of the

Northern government itself which launched its own program

in March 1863 to raise an army of blacks, the United States

Colored Troops. 

In August 1864, Massachusetts Governor Andrew and Boston

Mayor Alexander were concerned over the number of draft age

male citizens leaving the State to avoid the draft and their inability

to meet the State’s quota of troops.  They both encouraged

Lincoln to obtain recruits from abroad to go as volunteers. 

Andrew wrote to Secretary Stanton on 1 April 1863 that

“if the United States is not prepared to organize a brigade

in North Carolina, I would gladly take those black men

who may choose to come, receive our State bounty, and be

mustered in.”  Neighboring New York is credited with

providing 4125 black soldiers to the Northern army

ranks and it is doubtful that any were citizens

of that State either.

On 19 July 1864, General Halleck wrote Grant; “we are

now receiving one-half as many (men) as we are discharging. 

Volunteering has virtually ceased.”  And he further says that

about the middle of June 1864 after Grant crossed the James

River and was attacking Petersburg…”reinforcements were

constantly sent to Grant, but they were for the most part

mercenaries, many of whom were diseased,

immoral or cowardly.” 

Rhodes says in his History of the United States, to justify the

conscription act of Congress approved 3 March 1863,

“volunteering had practically ceased….and only a pretty

vigorous conscription could furnish the soldiers needed.”  

Emancipation was far from being universally popular in the

North and Grant’s casualty lists were endless and heartbreaking. 

The draft was hated most as victory was most certain and the

draft dragnet for the insatiable demands of the Generals

caused political worries among Lincoln’s friends in many

States who pleaded for its suspension. This is why nearly

200,000 federal soldiers were furloughed in November

1864 to go home and vote. 


To this end, Assistant Secretary of War, Charles A. Dana

reported that, “all the power and influence of the War Dept.

was employed to secure the reelection of Lincoln,” and Northern

soldiers were furloughed at election time to vote Republican,

and be present at the polls.

It should be remembered too, that by the end of the War, 1 out

of 3 federal soldiers were of German extraction.  The Homestead

Act of 20 May 1862 offered extraordinary inducements for

foreigners to flock to the shores of the Northern States, and

another Act was passed on 4 July 1864 providing that foreigners

might enter into contracts for the payment of their passage money

out of their post-arrival earnings.  This was done at the time

of dwindling enlistments in Mr. Lincoln’s armies when

volunteers were scarce.  

United States Colored Troops Formed:

Approximately 160 regiments and 10 batteries of light artillery were organized by Northern authorities as State militia or re-designated as

US Colored Troops after the establishment of the Bureau of Colored Troops on 22 May 1863.  Only the 29th Connecticut, 54th &

55th Massachusetts and 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry

maintained State designations throughout the war. 

There were 186,017 colored enlisted men who served under

the Bureau of Colored Troops, with 104,387 being ex-slaves

taken from the Confederate States.  Another 44,000 were from

the border States and the remainder recruited in the Northern

States, Colorado Territory, and Canada.  Tennessee alone

produced 20,133 colored troops. 

In his book “Civil War & Reconstruction in Alabama,”  author

Walter Fleming states that many Negroes who enlisted in northern

Alabama were credited to Northern States.  Instead of the

official figure of 4969, he claims that a conservative estimate

of the Negroes actually enlisted from Alabama would be

near 10,000. Though the number of blacks appears small in

relation to total Northern troops in the War, black soldiers

in blue and impressed German immigrants alone outnumbered

total Southern armies in the field. 

In Tom Brooks “All Men Are Brothers”, he states that the

largest source of “free men of color” came from the six

British colonies in North America (Canada) with a black

population of about 40,000 in 1860, a majority of them

living in Canada West, present day Ontario.  Much of this

population were recently freed slaves and were therefore

American born.  The blacks from Nova Scotia and

New Brunswick were free blacks whose ancestors fled

the South in 1783 as Loyalists.


The well-publicized 54th Massachusetts regiment formed in

May, 1863 was the second black regiment raised in a Northern

State, and it recruited heavily in Canada West. Many “Canadian”

blacks went South for the bounty money but did not count as

Canadians, so the actual numbers from Canada are probably low.

At least 18 of the 54th were Canadian and the 57th Massachusetts

had 99 Canadian blacks in the ranks.  Fourteen Canadian blacks

served in the 3rd USCT with half of them being hired as substitutes

for American blacks who did not want to serve, and the 18th

USCT had 24 Canadian blacks on the roster, all substitutes. 

George Washington was a Canadian-hired black substitute who

deserted on 16 September 1864, one month after his enlistment. 

The primary enticement for Canadian blacks was the $100. bounty

paid upon enlistment.  The State of Massachusetts lacked a

black population sufficient to raise 2000 black enlistments and

Governor John Andrew quickly targeted Philadelphia, the city

with the largest black population in the free States.  Black

Philadelphians composed most of the 54th’s “B” Company

and nearly all of that regiments ten companies included

black Pennsylvania recruits.


The 6th US Colored Troops (present at Fort Fisher) presents

an interesting cross-section of enlistments policies as it consisted

of 43% volunteers, 31% conscripted and 26% substitutes.  In this

unit as an example, 57% of the troops were not volunteers and

questions the notion that blacks flocked to the military in order to

free their brethren.  The recruits came from 23 different States,

both North and South as well as DC, and over 36% claimed

Pennsylvania as their birthplace. Twenty-two recruits were

from Canada who sought bounty money.

Philadelphia was described by Frederick Douglas as,

“a city in which prejudice against color is…rampant” and

recruiting black soldiers had to be done clandestinely and

gathering places held in secret. 

It should be noted that in 1838, the Philadelphia headquarters

of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society had been burned by

an anti-black mob.


In James Paradis’s “Strike the Blow For Freedom,” an excellent

book about the 6th USCT, the author states that “the black troops

raised in that city (Philadelphia) had to drill eight miles from town

in order to quell the concerns of the white population and to keep

black recruits out of the city.  It was named Camp William Penn,

which insulted the local Quakers who objected to naming a

military camp after one of their pacifist founders. 

In September 1863, the 3rd USCT marched off to war through Philadelphia with the Mayor compelling the troops to march unarmed

and in civilian clothes so as to not infuriate the white citizens. 

When the 6th USCT marched the following month, only the white

officers were armed though the troops carried muskets but were

not trusted with ammunition.

The white officers who served in colored regiments were usually

more abolitionist and anti- slavery in their political beliefs than

most Northern whites, and the noncoms were usually white. 

At first it was difficult to obtain white officers for the USCT as

regular army men were generally opposed to blacks in the

service, and “West Pointers were especially adverse to the

idea of commanding black troops and ostracized their fellow

officers who undertook the task.”

The black soldiers were to be paid a $75 enlistment bounty in

addition to $10 per month pay, with $3 deducted for food and

clothing allowance, which was less than half of what the white

Northern soldiers were paid. In New York, relief funds for the

families of black recruits was to be paid by the City as was done

with white, but the Supervisors in many towns and in the City

refused to support the wives of colored men. 

The Union League in New York City discovered that many

black recruits were defrauded of their bounties, and in some

cases had every reason to suppose that the black men had

been drugged before enlisting.  Others had been deceived as

to the service expected of them.  The New York Herald

printed editorials in which it claimed that unsavory

methods of recruitment were the only way

to fill the State quota. 

While some black recruits never received their bounties,

others enlisted on the promise of a 30 day furlough that

was never granted, at the end of which they would receive

their bounty. It is also reported that the 54th Massachusetts

served for a year without pay to protest the discriminatory

pay policies. One wonders why they served -- which meant

heavy fortification labor, guard duty and sickness -- without

pay and in conditions far worse than that of the plantation

and being near their families.

Federal General Milton Littlefield, recruiting for his Florida

expedition, called attention to the government bounty each

black recruit would receive and another bounty from the State

where he was accredited.  There was a gap between the $300

he promised to black recruits and the $700. Jefferson County

(New York) actually paid, as it is possible that some of the

bounty money stuck to the hands of his friends and associates

who took part in the recruiting. 

During the war, the Northern States paid nearly $300,000,000

in bounties for recruits to fight their war against the Southern States,

which was more than sufficient to purchase the freedom of every

slave in the United States in 1860. Littlefield became the notorious

“Prince of Carpetbaggers” in the postwar South, and was the

architect of railroad bond frauds in several States,

including North Carolina.

The USCT built fortifications along the coasts and up the various

rivers as the war progressed.  They were engaged in so many menial

tasks, instead of fighting, that their officers made numerous complaints,

as they themselves would not ascend in rank without combat service. 

In 1864 General Lorenzo Thomas issued an order in his department

to end “excessive impositions on Negro troops…and that they will

only be required to take their fair share of fatigue

duty with white troops.”

USCT serving in Vicksburg in 1864 complained bitterly that

their wives had been taken away from them and sent to

camps or plantations unknown to them.  Many of the

problems of black desertions can be traced to concern for

their families.   Laura Haviland, a Northern relief worker

among black soldiers in 1864 Vicksburg overheard one

ex-slave say that “we are concluding to leave our

regiment and build something to shelter

and house our children.”

Recruiting Methods and Corruption:

Major General David Hunter’s infamous order from Hilton Head

in 1864 stated that  “All able bodied colored men between the ages

of 18 and 50 within the military lines of the Department of the South,

who have had an opportunity to enlist voluntarily and refused to

do so, shall be drafted into the military service of the United States,” indicating that there was really no choice in the matter. 

General Sherman said of his march through Georgia, “when

we reached Savannah we were beset by ravenous (Northern)

State agents from Hilton Head…who enticed and carried away

our servants and the corps of (labor) Pioneers…we had organized. 

On one occasion, my aide de camp found at least one hundred

poor Negroes shut up in a house and pen waiting for the night,

to be conveyed stealthily to Hilton Head.  They appealed to

him for protection alleging that they had been told that they

must be soldiers, that Mr. Lincoln wanted them….I knew

that the State agents were more influenced by the profit they

derived from the large bounties than by any love of country

or of the colored race.”  

From the “Diary of James T. Ayers, Civil War Recruiter” we learn

that Private James T. Ayers received his appointment as recruiting

agent for USCT on 25 December 1863 and he began his duties

in northern Alabama.  He raised black troops for the 17th USCT

and his diary is one of the best first hand accounts of enlisting blacks

during the war.  Though at times naïve and bungling in his attempts

to convince blacks to join the army,

Ayers nevertheless was reasonably successful, especially when he

had armed black soldiers to assist him.  After a town had been

taken by Northern forces, Ayers would move in and proceed

to enlist Negro recruits.  He would nail up attractive posters

provided by the Adjutant General’s office and announce a meeting

at which he would speak.

If he succeeded in assembling a number

of Negroes, he would appeal to them along two lines; one would

be to impress upon his hearers the importance of getting into the fight

in order to extend the blessings of liberty to their more unfortunate

brothers still enslaved, then he would say that the ten dollars a month

would give them security and independence.  He further assured

the recruits that their families would be protected from Southerners

if they enlisted.

While opposition by white Southerners was to be expected, Ayers

found surprising the initial reluctance and lack of enthusiasm by the

slaves and ex-slaves to join the USCT, complaining frequently that

the blacks offered all manner of excuses not to enlist. 

He gradually became disappointed and disillusioned by the slow

recruiting process and wrote in September 1864 that he was heartily

sick of coaxing black soldiers to enlist, as they are so trifling and

don’t deserve to be free.  He had encountered, to his surprise,

many blacks who were not interested in fighting for freedom.

As a result of his corrupt recruiting efforts, Ayers was arrested in September 1864 on charges of kidnapping blacks and was sent under guard to Huntsville, Alabama by order of a General Granger.


In a letter to General Grant, General John Logan wrote

that “a major of colored troops is here with his party capturing Negroes, with or without their consent”.  General Palmer

reported from Virginia to General Benjamin Butler that 

“the Negroes will not go voluntarily, so I am obliged to

force them.….The matter of collecting the colored men for

laborers has been one of some difficulty . . . they must be

forced to go”.  In the words of General Rufus Saxton,

“men have been forced to enlist who had large families”,

and on one occasion “three boys, one only 14 years of age

were seized in a field where they worked

and sent to a regiment”.

Author Peter Maslowski in his  “Treason Must Be Made Odious, Reconstruction in Wartime Tennessee, he states that “a third major impressment took place in August and September of 1863 when

Union authorities needed 2500 men to work on the Nashville

and Northwestern Railroad. By now the military had developed sophisticated impressments techniques.  For instance, the patrols

would wait until Sunday morning and then raid the crowded

black churches.  And the troopers did not hesitate to use

violence and threats.  During one church raid, they shot and

killed a black man and threatened others with a similar fate

if they tried to escape.”



In the 1864 Annual Report of the Superintendent General of

Negro Affairs, Department of Virginia & North Carolina, Major

George J. Carney, US Army relates that, “colored soldiers

were first recruited on Roanoke Island…after the passage by

Congress of the Bill permitting the enlistment in rebel States of

soldiers to be counted upon the quota of the loyal States

enlisting them, the City of New Bern was flooded with

recruiting agents and able- bodied Negroes were in

great demand. 

But of the 250 who were enlisted from this District, and

who were said to have received heavy (enlistment) bounties,

few presented any appearance of having been thus furnished. 

Their families are nearly as dependent on the government for

food as if no bounty had been offered or paid, suggesting

the suspicion that the money found its way into the

wrong pocket. 

While some of the recruiting agents in North Carolina

were persons of integrity and honor…it is not too much to

say that others were scoundrels of the deepest dye, who

left the District enriched with ill-gotten gains.”

Of those 186,000 black soldiers in the Northern army,

68,000 died.  Of that number, only 2000 died in battle with

the remaining 66,000 died of sickness and disease. 

After disappointing performances at the Crater in Petersburg,

Battery Wagner near Charleston, and Olustee in Florida, black

troops were relegated to support roles behind white units.

At the Forks Road battlefield near Wilmington in February 1865,

USCT were severely repulsed several times by General Robert

Hoke’s veteran troops, with author Mark Moore (The

Wilmington Campaign, 1999) stating their “attack crested

within 150 yards” of Hoke’s entrenchments.


The Legacy of the Black Soldier of the War Between the States:

In the May 1865 Grand Review of Northern forces in Washington, black soldiers who served in the United States Colored Troops

were intentionally excluded---unfortunately revealing how little appreciated their efforts were.  The few blacks in the Review

marched as parts of pick-and-shovel brigades or were included

as comic relief.  Two large black soldiers with Sherman’s army

were displayed riding on very small mules, their feet nearly

touching the ground, and neither the black former slave nor

the free black soldier was to be the hero

of this national pageant.

In contrast, Dr. Edward Smith tells us that the first military

monument that honors the black soldier is the Confederate

Monument at Arlington National Cemetery. It was designed

in 1914 by former-Confederate soldier Moses Ezekiel, a Southern

Jew, who wanted to accurately portray the make-up of Southern

forces.  It shows a black soldier marching in step with white

soldiers, and a white soldier giving his child to a black

woman for protection.”


Selected Sources:

Cotton & Capital, Richard H. Abott, UMass Press, 1991

Lincoln and the Radicals, T. Harry Williams, University of Wisconsin Press, 1965

Treason Must Be Made Odious, Peter Maslowski, KTO Press, 1978

Prince of Carpetbaggers, Jonathan Daniels, JB Lippincott, 1958

Strike the Blow For Freedom, James Paradis, White Mane Books, 1998

Glorious Contentment, The GAR, Stuart McConnell, UNC Press, 1992 

 Lincoln And The Negro, Benjamin Quarles, Da Capo Press, 1962/1990

The Real Lincoln, Charles L.C. Minor, Sprinkle Publications, 1992

The Diary of James T. Ayers, LSU Press, 1947/1999

The Wilmington Campaign, Mark A. Moore, Savas Publishing, 1999

After Slavery, The Negro In South Carolina, Joel Williamson, UNC Press, 1965

Black Civil War Soldiers of Illinois, The 29th USCT, Edward Miller, USC Press, 1998

Army of Amateurs, Army of the James, Edward G. Longacre, Stackpole Books, 1997

A Regiment of Slaves, The 4th USCT, Edward Longacre, Stackpole Books, 2003

The Louisiana Native Guards, James Hollandsworth, LSU Press, 1995

Black Southerners in Confederate Armies, Segars & Barrow, Southern Lion,, 2001

Amongst My Best Men, Afr-Americans in War of 1812, G. Altoff, Perry Group, 1996

The Last of American Freemen, Robert M. Weir, Mercer University Pres, 1986