The history of African Americans in the U.S. Civil War is marked by 186,097 (7,122 officers, 178,975 enlisted) African Americans comprising 163 units served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and many more African Americans served in the Union Navy. Both free African Americans and runaway slaves joined the fight. On the Confederate side, blacks, both free and slave, were used for labor, but the issue of whether to arm them, and under what terms, became a major source of debate amongst those in the South.
The U.S. Congress passed a confiscation act in July 1862 that freed slaves of owners in rebellion against the United States, and a militia act that empowered the President to use freed slaves in any capacity in the army. President Abraham Lincoln, however, was concerned with public opinion in the four border states that remained in the Union, as well as with northern Democrats who supported the war. Lincoln opposed early efforts to recruit black soldiers, even though he accepted their use as laborers. Union Army setbacks in battles over the summer of 1862 forced Lincoln into the more drastic response of emancipating all slaves in states at war with the Union. In September 1862 Lincoln issued his preliminary proclamation that all slaves in rebellious states would be free as of January 1. Recruitment of colored regiments began in full force following the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863.
The United States War Department issued General Order Number 143 on May 22, 1863, establishing a “Bureau of Colored Troops” to facilitate the recruitment of African-American soldiers to fight for the Union Army. Regiments, including infantry, cavalry, light artillery, and heavy artillery units, were recruited from all states of the Union and became known as the United States Colored Troops (USCT). Approximately 175 regiments of over 178,000 free blacks and freed slaves served during the last two years of the war, and bolstered the Union war effort at a critical time. By war’s end, the USCT were approximately a tenth of all Union troops. There were 2,751 USCT combat casualties during the war, and 68,178 losses from all causes.
USCT regiments were led by white officers and rank advancement was limited for black soldiers. The Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments in Philadelphia opened a Free Military Academy for Applicants for the Command of Colored Troops at the end of 1863. For a time, black soldiers received less pay than their white counterparts. Famous members of USCT regiments were Martin Robinson Delany, and the sons of Frederick Douglass. Soldiers who fought in the Army of the James were eligible for the Butler Medal, commissioned by that army’s commander, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler.
USCT regiments fought in all theaters of the war, but mainly served as garrison troops in rear areas. The most famous USCT action took place at the Battle of the Crater during the Siege of Petersburg, where regiments of USCT troops suffered heavy casualties attempting to break through Confederate lines. Other notable engagements include Battery Wagner and the Battle of Nashville. USCT soldiers often became victims of battlefield atrocities, most notably at Fort Pillow. The prisoner exchange cartel broke down over the Confederacy’s position on black prisoners of war. Confederate law stated that blacks captured in uniform be tried as slave insurrectionists in civil courts””a capital offense. Although this rarely, if ever, happened, it became a stumbling block for prisoner exchange. USCT soldiers were among the first Union forces to enter Richmond, Virginia, after its fall in April 1865. The 41st USCT regiment was present at the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. Following the war, USCT regiments served as occupation troops in former Confederate states.
In actual numbers, African American soldiers comprised 10% of the entire Union Army. Losses among African Americans were high, and from all reported casualties, approximately 20% of all African Americans enrolled in the military lost their lives during the Civil War. Notably, their mortality rate was significantly higher than white soldiers:
[We] find, according to the revised official data, that of the slightly over two millions troops in the United States Volunteers, over 316,000 died (from all causes), or 15.2%. Of the 67,000 Regular Army(white) troops, 8.6%, or not quite 6,000, died. Of the approximately 180,000 United States Colored Troops, however, over 36,000 died, or 20.5%. In other words, the mortality rate amongst the United States Colored Troops in the Civil War was thirty-five percent greater than that among other troops, notwithstanding the fact that the former were not enrolled until some eighteen months after the fighting began.
- Herbert Aptheker
In general, white soldiers and officers believed that black men lacked the ability to fight and fight well. In October 1862, African American soldiers of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers silenced their critics by repulsing attacking Confederate guerrillas at the Skirmish at Island Mound, Missouri in October of 1862. By August, 1863, 14 Negro Regiments were in the field and ready for service. At the Battle of Port Hudson, Louisiana, May 27, 1863, the African American soldiers bravely advanced over open ground in the face of deadly artillery fire. Although the attack failed, the black soldiers proved their capability to withstand the heat of battle, with General Banks recording in the his official report; “Whatever doubt may have existed heretofore as to the efficiency of organizations of this character, the history of this days proves…in this class of troops effective supporters and defenders.”
The most widely known battle fought by African Americans was the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry on July 18, 1863. The 54th volunteered to lead the assault on the strongly-fortified Confederate positions. The soldiers of the 54th scaled the fort’s parapet, and were only driven back after brutal hand-to-hand combat. Despite the defeat, the unit was hailed for its valor which spurred further African-American recruitment, giving the Union a numerical military advantage from a population the Confederacy did not attempt to exploit until the closing days of the war.
African American soldiers participated in every major campaign of 1864”“65 except Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign in Georgia. The year 1864 was especially eventful for African American troops. On April 12, 1864, at Battle of Fort Pillow, Tennessee, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest led his 2,500 men against the Union-held fortification, occupied by 292 black and 285 white soldiers. After driving in the Union pickets and giving the garrison an opportunity to surrender, Forrest’s men swarmed into the fort with little difficulty and drove the Federals down the river’s bluff into a deadly crossfire. Casualties were high and only sixty-two of the U.S. Colored Troops survived the fight. Many accused the Confederates of perpetrating a massacre of black troops, and the controversy continues today. The battle cry for the Negro soldier east of the Mississippi River became “Remember Fort Pillow!”
The Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, Virginia became one of the most heroic engagements involving African Americans. On September 29, 1864, the African American division of the Eighteenth Corps, after being pinned down by Confederate artillery fire for about 30 minutes, charged the earthworks and rushed up the slopes of the heights. During the hour-long engagement the division suffered tremendous casualties. Of the twenty-five African Americans who were awarded the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, fourteen received the honor as a result of their actions at Chaffin’s Farm.
Although black soldiers proved themselves as reputable soldiers, discrimination in pay and other areas remained widespread. According to the Militia Act of 1862, soldiers of African descent were to receive $10.00 a month, with a optional deduction for clothing at $3.00. In contrast, white privates received thirteen dollars per month plus a clothing allowance of $3.50. Many regiments struggled for equal pay, some refusing any money until June 15, 1864, when Congress granted equal pay for all black soldiers. Besides discrimination in pay, colored units were often disproportionately assigned laborer work. General Daniel Ullman, commander of the Corps d’Afrique, remarked “I fear that many high officials outside of Washington have no other intention than that these men shall be used as diggers and drudges.”
Like the army, the Union Navy’s official position at the beginning of the war was ambivalence towards the use of either Northern free blacks or runaway slaves. The constant stream, however, of escaped slave seeking refuge aboard Union ships, forced the navy to formulate a policy towards them. Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Wells in a terse order, pointed out the following:
It is not the policy of this Government to invite or encourage this kind of desertion and yet, under the circumstances, no other course…could be adopted without violating every principle of humanity. To return them would be impolitic as well as cruel…you will do well to employ them.”
- Gideon Wells, Secretary of the Navy
In time, the Union Navy would see almost 16% of its ranks supplied by African American’s, performing in a wide range of enlisted roles. In contrast to the Army, the Navy from the outset not only paid equal wages between white and black sailors, but offered considerably more for even entry-level enlisted positions. Food rations and medical care were also improved over the Army, with the Navy benefiting from a regular stream of supplies from Union-held ports.
Becoming a commissioned officer, however was still out of reach for black sailors. Only the rank of petty officer would be offered to black sailors, and in practice, only to free blacks (whom often were the only one’s with long enough naval careers to justify the rank).
Jane E. Schultz in her essay “Seldom Thanked, Never Praised, and Scarcely Recognized: Gender and Racism in Civil War Hospitals” wrote, “Approximately 10 percent of the Union’s female relief workforce was of African descent: free blacks of diverse education and class background who earned wages or worked without pay in the larger cause of freedom, and runaway slaves who ought sanctuary in military camps and hospitals.”
“Nearly 40% of the Confederacy’s population were unfree…the work required to sustain the same society during war naturally fell disproportionately on black shoulders as well. By drawing so many white men into the army, indeed, the war multiplied the importance of the black work force.” Even Georgia’s Governor Joseph E. Brown noted that “the country and the army are mainly dependent upon slave labor for support.”
The impressment of slaves, and conscription of freedmen, into direct military labor, initially came on the impetus of state legislatures, and by 1864 6 states had regulated impressment (Florida, Virginia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, in order of authorization) as well as the Confederate Congress. Slave labor was used in a wide variety of support roles, from infrastructure and mining, to teamster and medical roles such as hospital attendants and nurses.
The idea of arming slaves for use as soldiers was speculated on from the onset of the war, but not seriously considered by Davis or others in his administration. As the Union saw victories in the fall 1862 and the spring of 1863, however, the need for more manpower was acknowledged by the Confederacy in the form of conscription of white men, and the national impressment of free and slave blacks into laborer positions. State militias composed of freedmen were offered, but the War Department spurned the offer. One of the more notable state militias was the all black 1st Louisiana Native Guard, a militia unit composed of free men of color. The unit was short lived, and forced to disband in February 1862. The unit was “intended as a response to demands from members of New Orleans’ substantial free black population that they be permitted to participate in the defense of their state, the unit was used by Confederate authorities for public display and propaganda purposes but was not allowed to fight.” A Union army regiment was later formed under the same name after General Butler took control of the city.
In January 1864, General Patrick Cleburne and several other Confederate officers in the Army of the Tennessee proposed using slaves as soldiers in the national army to buttress falling troop numbers. Cleburne recommended offering slaves their freedom if they fought and survived. Confederate President Jefferson Davis refused to consider Cleburne’s proposal and forbade further discussion of the idea. In fact, a number of prominent generals dissented, including Howell Cobb, Beauregard, and Anderson.
Despite the suppression of Cleburne’s idea, the question of enlisting slaves into the army had not faded away, but had become a fixture of debate amongst the columns of Southern newspapers and southern society in the winter of 1864. Representative of the two sides in the debate were the Richmond Enquirer and the Charleston Courier:
…whenever the subjugation of Virginia or the employment of her slaves as soldiers are alternative propositions, then certainly we are for making them soldiers, and giving freedom to those negroes that escape the casualties of battle.
- Nathaniel Tyler in the Richmond Enquirer
Slavery, God’s institution of labor, and the primary political element of our Confederation of Government, state sovereignty…must stand or fall together. To talk of maintaining independence while we abolish slavery is simply to talk folly.
- Charleston Courier
On January 11, 1865 General Robert E. Lee wrote the Confederate Congress urging them to arm and enlist black slaves in exchange for their freedom. On March 13, the Confederate Congress passed legislation to raise and enlist companies of black soldiers. The legislation was then promulgated into military policy by Davis in General Order No. 14 on March 23, 1865. The emancipation offered, however, was reliant upon a master’s consent;”no slave will be accepted as a recruit unless with his own consent and with the approbation of his master by a written instrument conferring, as far as he may, the rights of a freedman.”
Despite calculations of Virginia’s state auditor, that some 4,700 free black males and more than 25,000 male slaves between eighteen and forty five years of age were fit for service, only a small number were raised in the intervening months, most coming from two local hospitals-Windsor and Jackson- as well as a formal recruiting center created by General Ewell and staffed by Majors Pegram and Turner. A month after the order was issued, the number was still “forty or fifty colored soldiers, enlisted under the act of congress”. In his memoirs, Davis stated “There did not remain time enough to obtain any result from its provisions”
A few other lesser known Confederate militia units of free men of color were raised throughout Louisiana at the beginning of the war. These units included: the Baton Rouge Guards under Capt. Henry Favrot, portions of the Pointe Coupee Light Infantry under Capt. Ferdinand Claiborne, and the Augustin Guards and Monet’s Guards of Natchitoches under Dr. Jean Burdin. The only official duties ever given to the Natchitoches units were funeral honor guard details.
One account of an unidentified African American fighting for the Confederacy, from two Southern 1862 newspapers, tells of “a huge negro” fighting under the command of Confederate Major General John C. Breckinridge against the 14th Maine Infantry Regiment in a battle near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on August 5, 1862. The man was described as being “armed and equipped with knapsack, musket, and uniform”, and helping to lead the attack. The man’s status of being a freedman or a slave is unknown.
THE BATTALION from Camps Winder and Jackson, under the command of Dr. Chambliss, including the company of colored troops under Captain Grimes, will parade on the square on Wednesday evening, at 4 o’clock. This is the first company of negro troops raised in Virginia. It was organized about a month since, by Dr. Chambliss, from the employees of the hospitals, and served on the lines during the recent Sheridan raid.
Richmond Sentinel, March 21, 1865
Naval historian Ivan Musicant has written that there were blacks who served in the Confederate Navy. Muscicant wrote:
Free blacks could enlist with the approval of the local squadron commander, or the Navy Department, and slaves were permitted to serve with their master’s consent. It was stipulated that no draft of seamen to a newly commissioned vessel could number more than 5 per cent blacks. Though figures are lacking, a fair number of blacks served as coal heavers, officers’ stewards, or at the top end, as highly skilled tidewater pilots.
Prisoner exchanges between the Union and Confederacy were suspended when the Confederacy refused to return black soldiers captured in uniform. In October 1862, the Confederate Congress issued a resolution declaring all Negroes, free and slave, that they should be delivered to their respective states “to be dealt with according to the present and future laws of such State or States”. In a letter to General Beauregard on this issue, Secretary Seddon pointed out that “Slaves in flagrant rebellion are subject to death by the laws of every slave-holding State” but that “to guard, however, against possible abuse…the order of execution should be reposed in the general commanding the special locality of the capture.”
However, Seddon, concerned about the “embarrassments attending this question”, urged that former slaves be sent back to their owners. As for freemen, they would be handed over to Confederates for confinement and put to hard labor. The experience of colored troops and their white officers in prison life was not significantly different than members of white units.
SPECIAL REQUEST FOR TCD FANS: The San Francisco Chronicle is pondering the addition of new cartoons for their paper – a process that seems to be initiated by Darren Bell, creator of Candorville (one of my daily reads – highly recommended). You can read the Chronicle article here and please add your thoughts to the comments if you wish. If anything, put in a good word for Darren and Candorville.
I am submitting Town Called Dobson to the paper for their consideration. They seem to have given great weight to receiving 200 messages considering Candorville. I am asking TCD fans to try to surpass that amount. (I get more than that many hate mails a day, surely fans can do better?)
This is not a race between Darren and I, it is a hope that more progressive strips can be represented in the printed press of America.
So if you read the San Francisco Chronicle or live in the Bay Area (Google Analytics tell me there are a lot of you), please send your kind comments (or naked, straining outrage) to David Wiegand at his published addresses below. If you are a subscriber, cut out your mailing label and staple it to a TCD strip and include it in your letter.
Executive Datebook Editor
The San Francisco Chronicle
901 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94103
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