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Black Soldiers in Red, Blue and Grey
Cape Fear Historical Institute Papers
This paper primarily reviews the service of black soldiers in the military
of the United States and Confederate States 1861-65, with a critical
view toward the recruiting methods of black soldiers by the
Northern States and their agents.
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 federal General Grant knew of the black support for the Confederacy, and he 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. 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.
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 subjugated 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.
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 provide 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 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.”
About the Author:
Bernhard Thuersam is the Executive Director of the Cape Fear Historical Institute in Wilmington. A native of Niagara Falls, New York, he has been a devoted student of world history since 1958. He
is a former Chairman of the Cape Fear Museum Board of Trustees.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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
©2006 Cape Fear Historical Institute