History Of the Colored Troops in the American Civil War
Approximately 180,000 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 Africans-Americans and runaway slaves joined the fight. On July 17, 1862, Congress passed two acts allowing the enlistment of African-Americans, but official enrollment occurred only after the September, 1862 issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. In general, white soldiers and officers believed that black men lacked the courage to fight and fight well. In October, 1862, African-American soldiers of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers silenced their critics by repulsing attacking Confederates at the battle of Island Mound, Missouri. 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 solders proved their capability to withstand the heat of battle.
On July 17, 1863, at Honey Springs, Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, the 1st Kansas Colored fought with courage again. Union troops under General James Blunt ran into a strong Confederate force under General Douglas Cooper. After a two-hour bloody engagement, Cooper's soldiers retreated. The 1st Kansas, which had held the center of the Union line, advanced to within fifty paces of the Confederate line and exchanged fire for some twenty minutes until the Confederates broke and ran. General Blunt wrote after the battle, "I never saw such fighting as was done by the Negro regiment....The question that negroes will fight is settled; besides they make better solders in every respect than any troops I have ever had under my command."
The most widely known battle fought by African-Americans was the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, by the 54th Massachusetts 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.
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, 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.
African-American soldiers participated in every major campaign of 1864-1865 except Sherman's invasion of Georgia. The year 1864 was especially eventful for African-American troops. On April 12, 1864, at 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 perpetuating 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 New Market Heights, Virginia (Chaffin's Farm) 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 sixteen African-Americans who were awarded the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, fourteen received the honor as a result of their actions at New Market Heights.
In January, 1864, General Patrick Cleburne and several other Confederate officers in the Army of the Tennessee proposed using slaves as soldiers since the Union was using black troops. 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. The concept, however, did not die. By the fall of 1864, the South was losing more and more ground, and some believed that only by arming the slaves could defeat be averted. On March 13, the Confederate Congress passed General Order 14, and President Davis signed the order into law. The order was issued March 23, 1865, but only a few African-American companies were raised, and the war ended before they could be used in battle.
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 one-third of all African-Americans enrolled in the military lost their lives during the Civil War.
Where Death and Glory Meet: Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry
The history of how our culture determines manhood. Although a rather detached supporter of abolition, Shaw was skeptical about the fighting abilities of freedmen, and initially declined the command. When he did accept, he was aware that the eyes of the nation were on his regiment, and his training of them was relentless. The 54th measured up by proving itself in battle
Black Southerners in Confederate Armies
Official records, newspaper articles, and veterans' accounts to tell the stories of the Black Confederates. This well researched collection is a contribution to the discussion about the numbers of black Southerners involved and their significant history.
District of Columbia. Company E, 4th US Colored Infantry at Fort Lincoln
Johnsonville, Tenn. Camp of Tennessee Colored Battery
Black slaves who fled to Union lines, or "contrabands," often proved themselves extremely useful, even before the government enlisted them into service. A group of "contrabands" appear on this calling card. Calling cards, or cartes de visite, with photographs were popular during this era partly because photography was relatively new and the cards provided a means of sharing likenesses with friends and relatives. This one includes images of white officers of the 2nd Rhode Island Camp at Camp Brightwood in the District of Columbia. On the left is Capt. B. S. Brown. In the center is Lt. John P. Shaw, killed in action at the Wilderness, Virginia, May 5, 1864, and on the right is Lt. T. Fry. The "contrabands" with them are not named.
A group of "contrabands." [Stereograph]
ca.1861 published later
Click to enlarge
"A Black Woman's Civil War Memoirs," by Susie King Taylor, was
First published in 1902. A new edition, edited by Patricia Romero and featuring an introduction by Willie Lee Rose, appeared in 1988. In that new intro Rose declared, "There is nothing even vaguely resembling Susie King Taylor's small volume of random recollections in the entire literature of the Civil War, or in that of any other American conflict insofar as I am aware." Indeed, this book is a rare and valuable historical document.
Taylor was born a slave in 1848 on an island off the coast of Georgia. She gained her freedom and worked as a laundress for an African-American Union regiment during the war.
Taylor recalls how she learned to read and write and then herself became a teacher. She offers fascinating details about her life with the troops. She had many different duties beyond laundry service. I loved the episode where she recalls concocting "a very delicious custard" from turtle eggs and canned condensed milk, and serving it to the troops.
Taylor condemns the lack of appreciation shown for both black and white Civil War veterans. She also condemns early 20th century racism. Reading her book I was reminded of W.E.B. Du Bois' classic "The Souls of Black Folk," which was first published around the same time; I think the two books complement each other well.
Taylor ends on a note of hope and pride, noting "my people are striving" for better lives. This book is, in my opinion, an important milestone in African American literature.
U.S. National Park Service
U.S. Library of Congress.