Military history of African Americans in the American Civil War
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The history of African Americans in the American Civil War is marked by 186,097 (7,122 officers, 178,975 enlisted/soldiers & sailors):12 African Americans comprising 163 units who served in the United States Army, then nicknamed the "Union Army" during the Civil War. Later in the War many regiments were recruited and organized as the "United States Colored Troops", which reinforced the Northern side substantially in the last two years.
Many more African Americans served in the United States Navy also known as the "Union Navy" and formed a large percentage of many ships' crews. Both free African Americans and runaway slaves joined the fight.
On the Confederate/Southern side, both free and slave Blacks were used for manual labor, but the issue of whether to arm them, and under what terms, became a major source of debate within the Confederate Congress, the President's Cabinet, and C.S. War Department staff. They were authorized in the last month of the War in March 1865, to recruit, train and arm slaves, but no significant numbers were ever raised or recruited.
The issue of raising African American regiments in the Union's war efforts was at first met with trepidation by officials within the Union command structure, President Abraham Lincoln included. Concerns over the response of the border states (of which one, Maryland, surrounded the National Capital of Washington D.C.), the response of white soldiers and officers, as well as the effectiveness of a colored fighting force were raised.:165–167
On July 17, 1862, the U.S. Congress passed two Acts allowing for the enlistment of "Colored" troops (African Americans) but official enrollment occurred only after the final issuance of the "Emancipation Proclamation" in January 1863. However, State and local militia units had already begun enlisting Blacks, including the "Black Brigade of Cincinnati", raised in September 1862 to help provide manpower to thwart a feared Confederate raid on Cincinnati from Kentucky.
In actual numbers, African American soldiers eventually comprised 10% of the entire Union Army (United States Army). Losses among African Americans were high, in the last year and a half and from all reported casualties, approximately 20% of all African Americans enrolled in the military lost their lives during the Civil War.:16 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".||”|
Non-combatant labor duty
A number of officers in the field experimented, with varying degrees of success, in using "contrabands" first, for manual labor, around Union Army camps and on the march to later raising Black regiments, of soldiers, including Gen. David Hunter, (1802-1886), U.S. Sen./Gen. James H. Lane, (1814-1866), and Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, (1818-1893), of Massachusetts.:165–167In early 1861, General Butler was the first known Union commander, to use black contrabands, in a non-combatant role, to do the physical labor duties, after he refused to return escaped slaves, at Fort Monroe, Virginia, who came to him for asylum, from their masters, who would try to capture and reenslave them. In September, 1862, free African American men, were forcefully conscripted and impressed, into forced labor, for constructing defensive fortifications, by the white citizens, of the pro-slavery, city of Cincinnati, Ohio, who came to be known as the "Black Brigade of Cincinnati". Because of the harsh, working conditions and the extreme brutality, of their Cincinnati police guards, the Union Army, under General Lew Wallace, stepped in to restore order and ensure that the black conscripts received fair treatment, due to soldiers, including the equal pay of privates.
Early battles in 1862 and 1863
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 Infantry in one of the first engagements involving Black troops, silenced their critics by repulsing attacking Confederate guerrillas at the Skirmish at Island Mound, Missouri in the Western Theatre in October 1862. By August, 1863, 14 more Negro State 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 Nathaniel P. Banks, (1816-1894), recording in his official report: "Whatever doubt may have existed heretofore as to the efficiency of organizations of this character, the history of this day's proves...in this class of troops effective supporters and defenders."
Fort Wagner, Fort Pillow, and beyond
The most widely known battle fought by African Americans was the assault on Fort Wagner, off the Charleston coast, South Carolina, by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry on July 18, 1863. The "54th" volunteered to lead the assault on the strongly fortified Confederate positions of the earthen/sand embankments (very resistant to artillery fire) on the coastal beach. 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 large segment of the population the Confederacy did not attempt to exploit until too late in the closing days of the War. Unfortunately for any African American soldiers captured during these battles, imprisonment could be even worse than death. Black prisoners were not treated the same as white prisoners. They received no medical attention, harsh punishments, and would not be used in a prisoner exchange because the confederate states only saw them as escaped slaves fighting against their masters.
African American soldiers participated in every major campaign of the War's last year, 1864–1865 except for Sherman's Atlanta Campaign in Georgia and the following "March to the Sea" to Savannah, by Christmas 1864. The year 1864 was especially eventful for African American troops. On April 12, 1864, at the Battle of Fort Pillow, in 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 still 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 Black troops. 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 Congressional Medal of Honor during the Civil War, fourteen received the honor as a result of their actions at Chaffin's Farm.
Discrimination in pay and assignments
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 an optional deduction for clothing at $3.00. In contrast, white privates received Twelve dollars per month plus a clothing allowance of $3.50. Many regiments struggled for equal pay, some refusing any money and pay until June 15, 1864, when the Federal Congress granted equal pay for all black soldiers.
Besides discrimination in pay, colored units were often disproportionately still assigned laborer work, rather than the possibility of actual front-line combat assignments.:198 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."
African American contributions to Union war intelligence
Blacks, both slave and free, were also heavily involved in assisting the Union in matters of intelligence, and their contributions were labeled Black Dispatches. One of these spies was Mary Bowser. Harriet Tubman was also a spy, a nurse, and a cook whose efforts were key to Union victories and survival. Tubman is most widely recognized for her contributions to freeing slaves by the Underground Railroad. However, her contributions to the Union Army were equally important. She used her knowledge of the country's terrain to gain important intelligence for the Union Army. She became the first woman to lead U.S. soldiers into combat when, under the order of Colonel James Montgomery, took a contingent of soldiers in South Carolina behind enemy lines, destroying plantations and freeing 750 slaves in the process.
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 slaves 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 July 22, 1861
In time, the Union Navy would see almost 16% of its ranks supplied by African Americans, 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 nearly all black sailors. With rare exceptions, only the rank of petty officer would be offered to black sailors, and in practice, only to free blacks (who often were the only ones with naval careers sufficiently long to earn the rank). Robert Smalls, an escaped slave, was given the rank of captain of the steamer "Planter" in December 1864.
Union relief workers
"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 sought 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.":62 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 six 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.:62–63
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 of 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.:19
One of the more notable state militias was the all black 1st Louisiana Native Guard, a militia unit composed of free men of color. It was the first of any North American unit to have African American officers. 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 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 but did not completely dismiss the idea. On November 7, 1864, in his annual address to Congress, Davis hinted at arming slaves. 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.:4 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.||”|
|“||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.||”|
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." According to historian William C. Davis, President Davis felt that blacks would not fight unless they were guaranteed their freedom after the war.
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.:125 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"
African Americans in the CSA
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.
After an August 1861 battle near Hampton, Virginia, Union army Colonel John W. Phelps, of the 1st Vermont Infantry reported on the Confederate forces he faced there. Colonel Phelps' report reflects his scouts as reporting that among the Confederate artillery there was the Richmond Howitzer Battery that was manned by negroes.
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.
Following the July 1862 Surrender of Murfreesborough, Tennessee, Lieutenant Colonel John G. Parkhurst of the 9th Michigan Infantry reported on African Americans serving with the Confederate First Regiment Texas Rangers and the First Georgia Rangers. His report states "There were also quite a number of negroes attached to the Texas and Georgia troops, who were armed and equipped, and took part in the several engagements with my forces during the day."
Several African Americans are known to have participated in some capacity on the Southern side in the Battle of Gettysburg. After the battle in July 1863, "reported among the rebel prisoners were seven blacks in Confederate uniforms fully armed as soldiers." Dr. Lewis Steiner, Chief Inspector of the United States Sanitary Commission while observing Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson's occupation of Frederick, Maryland, in 1862: "Over 3,000 Negroes must be included in this number [Confederate troops]. These were clad in all kinds of uniforms, not only in cast-off or captured United States uniforms, but in coats with Southern buttons, State buttons, etc. These were shabby, but not shabbier or seedier than those worn by white men in the rebel ranks. Most of the Negroes had arms, rifles, muskets, sabers, bowie-knives, dirks, etc.....and were manifestly an integral portion of the Southern Confederate Army."
Union Brigadier General David Stuart observed that "...the enemy, and especially their armed negroes, did dare to rise and fire, and did serious execution upon our men. The casualties in the brigade were 11 killed, 40 wounded, and 4 missing; aggregate, 55...."
The number of African-Americans, both slave and free, that served in the Confederate Army in a direct combat capacity was minor, and was never official policy. After the war, the State of Tennessee granted Confederate Pensions to nearly 300 African Americans for their service to the Confederacy. Discussions amongst CSA officers on the potential enlistment of slaves is highlighted in the section above. While an accurate estimate of the number of African Americans who served in the Confederate armed forces may never be known, the United States Census of 1890 lists 3,273 African Americans who claimed to be Confederate veterans
Naval historian Ivan Musicant has written that there were blacks who served in the Confederate Navy. Musicant 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.
United States colored troops as prisoners of war
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. Black troops were actually less likely to be taken prisoner than Whites, as in many cases, such as the Battle of Fort Pillow Confederate troops murdered them on the battlefield; if taken prisoner, Black troops and their White officers faced far worse treatment than other prisoners.
In the last few months of the war, the Confederate government agreed to exchange of all prisoners, White and Black, and several thousand troops were exchanged until the surrender of the Confederacy ended all hostilities.
- German Americans in the American Civil War
- Hispanics in the American Civil War
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- Native Americans in the American Civil War
- Foreign enlistment in the American Civil War
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- African Americans and the Civil War - slideshow by Life magazine
- Rhode Island College LibGuide - African Americans and the Civil War