Early involvement of Black Troops fighting in the Civil War
Among the first black regiments involved in combat were James H. Lane’s troops, who battled Confederate guerrillas in Kansas in late 1862. While the early efforts of these black soldiers failed to attract the attention, and thus the praise that they deserved, the exploits of other black soldiers fighting under prominent white abolitionist officers in the Sea Islands of South Carolina began to capture the minds of the Northern public. Aided by their soldier’s intimate knowledge of the surrounding terrain, Union forces swept from Port Royal to northern Florida, and in the process liberated hundreds of slaves from the interior. The writings of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the commander of the First South Carolina Volunteers, published in the Northern abolitionist press helped to further refute the arguments of those of who believed that black men lacked the characteristics to become effective soldiers. The bravery shown by black soldiers during the battles of Port Hudson and Milliken’s Bend in Louisiana in May and June respectively, and Fort Wagner in South Carolina in July 1863, silenced any doubts about black men’s willingness or capability as soldiers. In a letter to his superiors, the commander of the District of North-eastern Louisiana, Elias S. Dennis gives an account of the battle at Milliken’s Bend in June 1863. Dennis explains how the enemy were able to easily charge the African Regiment, who were “inexperienced in the use of arms,” some only having been “drilled but a few days,” which resulted in “a most terrible hand to hand conflict.” He singles out Colonel Lieb, “who by his gallantry and daring, inspired his men to deeds of valour, until he fell, seriously, though not dangerously wounded.” Even one Confederate officer paid tribute to the determination of the black soldier at Milliken’s Bend, stating that “they had resisted with considerable obstinacy, while the white or true Yankee portion ran like whipped curs.”
President Lincoln on the importance of Black soldiers to the Union cause
A month after the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, President Lincoln wrote a letter to his friend James C. Conkling. Lincoln recounts the contribution of black soldiers to the war effort since their enlistment: “I know as fully as one can know the opinions of others, that some of the commanders of our armies in the field who have given us our most important successes, believe the emancipation policy, and the use of ‘colored’ troops, constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion; and that, at least one of the most important successes, could not have been achieved when it was, but for the aid of black soldiers.” Lincoln is quick to point out that the commanders who held those views are not confined to men of abolitionist or Republican sway, but have formed their opinions solely on the basis of military successes.
These opinions, Lincoln believes, are worthy rebuttals to the arguments of those who disagree with the wisdom and integrity of arming black men. Lincoln adds that “while you (Conkling) will not fight to free negroes, some of them seem willing to fight for you.” He suggests that if that is the case, then Conkling should fight “exclusively to save the Union.” He also reiterates the importance of black soldiers to the Union cause, acknowledging that their input lessens the burden on the white soldier. Lincoln asks rhetorically, “Why should they do anything for us if we do nothing for them?” “If they stake their lives for us,” Lincoln says, “they must be prompted by the strongest motive – even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made must be kept…”
In a thinly veiled attack on those opposed to the Emancipation Proclamation and black enlistment, Lincoln states that after the war ends, black men will be able to look back with pride, knowing that they “have helped mankind on to this great consummation” whereas some white men, will be unable to forget that “with malignant heart and deceitful speech” they “strove to hinder it.”
From June 1863 the army began paying all black soldiers, regardless of rank, in line with the Militia Act of July 1862, “a decision which according to historian Ira Berlin and colleagues, “ignited a firestorm of protest that raged for a full year.” For Berlin et.al “no transgression caused as much hardship or so blatantly insulted the dignity of black soldiers as the policy of discriminatory pay.” What it also proved, Berlin et al. argue, is that “racial prejudice pervaded Northern as well as Southern society.” As few newly emancipated slaves “escaped bondage with more than the clothes on their backs…a few extra dollars a month could mean the difference between subsistence and destitution.” Prior to the decision, all Union privates, black and white, were paid $13 per month, plus an allotment of clothing or its equivalent cash value of $3.50, with non-commissioned and commissioned officers receiving higher wages.” The decision made in June reduced all black soldiers pay to $10 per month, a sum that had been originally thought specific only to former fugitive slaves now labouring for the army. To add insult to injury, black soldiers also had to pay for their own clothing, which reduced their pay by a further $3 per month, effectively almost halving their pay in one foul swoop. The decision ensured that the highest-ranking black sergeant earned less than a white private.
Some evidence regarding the struggle for equal pay comes from the diary and other writings of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who served as colonel of the first slave regiment federally authorised in the Civil War, the First South Carolina Volunteers. Higginson tells of how Sergeant William Walker of the Third South Carolina regiment was “shot by order of court-martial” for leading his company to stack arms before their captain’s tent” in protest of unequal pay.
In a letter to the editor of the New York Tribune dated the 22nd January 1864, Higginson says that “it is not a matter of dollars and cents only; it is a question of common honesty – whether the United States Government has sufficient integrity for the fulfilment of an explicit business contract.” Higginson was referring to Secretary of War Stanton’s authorisation on the 25th of August, 1862, which permitted General Rufus Saxton to enlist 5,000 black troops who “were to receive the same pay and rations as are allowed by law to volunteers in the service.”
Higginson also points out that equal pay is only half the issue for his men, with arrears making up the other half. He adds that black soldiers “understand the matter thoroughly,” that each had “volunteered under an explicit written assurance from the War Department that he should have the pay of a white soldier,” and that for “five months the regiment received that pay” before it was cut for some “inscrutable” reason. “What they do not know,” Higginson says, is that their pay is not only to be cut by a further three dollars to $7 dollars a month, but all previous “overpay” will also be deducted, “leaving them a little more than a dollar a month for six months to come, unless Congress interfere!” Higginson adds that his men also have to suffer the indignity of “seeing white soldiers beside them, whom they knew to be in no way their superiors for any military service, receiving hundreds of dollars for re-enlisting from this impoverished Government.” The men also see, Higginson adds, “other colored men who refused to volunteer as soldiers” working for “more honest paymasters than the United States Government,” and who were now “exulting in well-filled pockets, and able to buy the little homesteads that the soldiers need” for their families.
Higginson concludes his letter by highlighting that the “mere delay in the fulfilment of this contract has already inflicted untold suffering, has impaired discipline, has relaxed loyalty, and has begun to implant a feeling of sullen distrust in the very regiments whose early career solved the problem of the nation, created a new army, and made peaceful emancipation possible.”
The 54th Massachusetts, which contained two of Frederick Douglass’ own sons, Lewis and Charles, were among the first regiments made up of Northern free black men, to lead the protest against discriminatory pay. They rejected Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrews offer to make up the difference from the state coffers on principle, even though they had received no pay by July of 1863. However, their dignified stand came at a price. Letters from their families bore news of great hardship, which served to only further inflame the soldier’s protest.
A freeborn corporal in the 54th Massachusetts, named James Henry Gooding, wrote to President Lincoln on behalf of his comrades on the 28th September 1863. Reacting to the news that their pay was to be cut, Gooding asks the President in his letter, “are we Soldiers, or are we LABOURERS?” Gooding alludes to the bravery of his regiment at Fort Wagner just a couple of months prior and states that “we have done a soldier’s duty. Why can’t we have a soldier’s pay?” Gooding also highlights the hypocrisy of the Union calling for equal treatment of captured black soldiers from the Confederacy when it wasn’t even willing itself to pay its own soldiers on equal terms. Writing on behalf of his men on the 23rd November 1863, Colonel Edward N. Hallowell, Commander of the 54th Massachusetts, informed Governor Andrew of their decision to refuse his offer. Acceptance for them would imply that because they have “African blood in their veins, they are less men, than those who have Saxon.”
Writing to the chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs on the 30th May 1864, the adjutant general of the army, Lorenzo Thomas, further aided the fight for equal pay. Regarding black men as having been “fully tested as soldiers,” Thomas suggests that the time had come to raise their pay to that of white soldiers. Thanks to the efforts of others on their behalf – such as Secretary of War Stanton, who in his annual report in December 1863 recommended that Congress begin paying black soldiers in line with white soldiers – Congress had the previous month equated both white and black privates pay, both of whom were now paid $13 per month. The same measure was implemented for higher-ranking black soldiers, who too received the same pay as their white counterparts. Attorney General Edward Bates’ ruling in July 1864 saw an end to black soldiers’ pay being determined by the terms of the Militia Act, and the fact that the Second Confiscation Act did not include any pay restrictions, allowed black soldiers finally to receive equal pay with white soldiers. However, even at this stage, Congress saw fit to discriminate between those black men who were free and those who were not before the Civil War. Those who were free prior to the war would have their pay backdated to the time of their enlistment, while those who were not, would only have their pay backdated to the 1st of January 1864. The following month, the War Department ordered regimental commanders to ascertain which of their soldiers were free or not at the outset of the Civil War. black soldiers had to take the “Quaker’s Oath,” devised by Colonel Hallowell of the 54th Massachusetts, swearing that at the start of the war that “no man had the right to demand unrequited labor of you,'” and their pay would be backdated to the time of their enlistment. While black regiments consisting of Northern freemen rejoiced at the victory after their long and arduous struggle, the black regiments of South Carolina despaired. Their struggle would continue for another nine months. Victory for them would eventually come in March 1865 with the passing of the Enrollment Act, where Congress finally acknowledged as legally binding, the order which Stanton had issued to Saxton in August 1862.
Discrimination in terms of attaining higher ranks in the Union Army
Discrimination against black soldiers was not solely confined to pay, these men were also discriminated against in terms of promotions within the army. They were denied the right to hold a commissioned rank, i.e. lieutenant and higher. Some black men successfully held commissioned rank outside of the military chain of command, becoming chaplains and surgeons within the Union army. Just as black soldiers had protested for equal pay, they similarly campaigned to try to bring an end to this discriminatory policy.
A document, which was found in a street in New Orleans, dated September 1863 written by an anonymous author, sheds light on the way some black men felt not only about fighting under white officers but also about the war itself: “We care nothing about the union, we have been in it slaves over two hundred and fifty years. Liberty is what we want and nothing shorter.” The author of the document believes that neither the Union nor the Confederacy cares for the well-being of the slave, and that is why black men if they have to fight for the Union, should be allowed to “fight for their rights under Colored officers.”
Responding to requests from soldiers in the 54th and 55th Massachusetts infantry regiments, Governor Andrew offered Sergeant Stephen A. Swails a lieutenancy. The War Department quickly intervened and refused to authorise the measure. However, according to Berlin and colleagues, “the combined pressure of black soldiers, Northern black abolitionists, and white proponents of black equality weakened the opposition to black officers.” Further aided by the support of prominent Republican politicians, the War Department finally relented and agreed to commission Swails in early 1865. Naturally, this late reversal of policy meant that only a small number of black men ever reached the commissioned ranks.
Illness and erroneous beliefs about black men’s resistance to disease
Whereas some black men raised in certain environments had developed immunity to different diseases, the mistaken stereotype that all black men were physiologically more resistant to life in subtropical climates resulted in the deaths of thousands of black men. Of the 179,000 black men who enlisted in the Union army, 33,000 out of the 36,000 who died during the Civil War, died from disease. An example of this mistaken belief is found in a letter from J. G. Foster, the commander of the Department of North Carolina, to Secretary of War Stanton on the 5th May 1863.
Foster requests that the 54th Massachusetts and other “Negro” Regiments relieve white regiments in South Carolina, who are “liable to the malarious influences of the climate, which of course the negro troops can stand.” While Foster’s contention may have been true for some of the black soldiers enlisted in the army, such as those former slaves brought over from West Africa, it spelt disaster for others. Unfortunately for the Union’s black soldiers, Foster was not alone in his belief about their physiological superiority.
The negative effect of excessive fatigue duty on the health of black soldiers is evident in the following unsigned letter to an unnamed official. Its anonymous author explains how “we the 20th U.S. Colored troops got up in the state of New York” are being used solely as labourers. “Instead of the musket,” he says, “It is the spad and the Whelbarrow and the Axe cuting in one of the most horrible swamps in Louisiana stinking and misery.” He says that some men who are “scarc Able to get Along the Day Before” are being put on fatigue duty, and that because of this “meney are throwen Back in sickness wich thay very seldom get over.” He points out the self-defeating nature of the policy, and asks “how can we stand them (the Confederate Army) in A weak and starving Condition.” In another letter, dated September 13th, 1863, Colonel James C. Beecher, commander of a regiment of former slaves from North Carolina protests against the soldiers being used as military labourers for white regiments. Beecher describes how men that were ordered to Morris Island on fatigue duty, were now “laying out and policing camps of white soldiers on the island,” and that another sixty men sent to New York were also carrying out the labour which should be done by the regiments own soldiers. Beecher writes that “they have been slaves and are just learning to be men,” and by ordering them to carry out the manual work that these regiments should be doing themselves, “simply throws them back where they were before and reduces them to the position of slaves again.”
Progress was eventually made when General Quincy A. Gilmore, commander of the Department of the South issued General Orders, No. 77, which “prohibited the use of black soldiers to prepare camps and perform menial duties for white troops.”
A letter from Surgeon John Rush on the 30th May 1864 to the Superintendent of Tennessee Black Troops, Captain George Mason, reveals some of the causes of illnesses among the 4th U.S. Heavy Artillery. At the time of his inspection, 111 of the 936 men were ill. Rush reports that the 4th H. Arty “being negroes” were made to carry out all the labour, which included loading and unloading steamboats and storing supplies. The combination of “excessive labour and exposure” had “reduced their vitality” to such an extent that they had been hospitalised since.
Rush’s letter provides further evidence that some former slaves who were recruited were in no position physically to carry out the duties required of a soldier. Physicians often would approve fugitive slaves “regardless of health to secure their liberty,” to protect them from recapture by “vengeful masters and slave catchers.” But the good intentions of these physicians often brought with them fatal consequences, as men weakened from the hardship of slave life succumbed quickly to the various contagious diseases within the crowded contraband camps.
Mistaken beliefs about the superior physiological resistance of black men often saw them replacing white troops in particularly unhealthy areas with equally disastrous consequences. The same erroneous theory accounted also for the disproportionate assignment of black men to arduous fatigue duty, a measure which further weakened and made them more susceptible to contracting life-threatening diseases. As more and more African men became ill, the consequent burden of additional labour imposed on the healthy soldier increasingly took its toll and exacerbated the problem further.
Whereas some black men had specific immunities, others, such as former slaves who had resided solely on plantations, had no resistance to highly contagious diseases such as measles. As the death toll increased, individual officers of abolitionist background began to address the health crisis directly. They concluded that the three main factors contributing to spiralling levels of disease among black soldiers were, “their unbalanced diet, inadequate shelter, and excessive fatigue duty.” Despite these efforts on behalf of their men, they ultimately failed to establish any meaningful changes, and despite occasional improvements, it did little to benefit the general health of black soldiers.
Another factor, which contributed to the high mortality rate, was the attitude of some medical officers toward black soldiers whom were placed in their “care.” Some accused soldiers of feigning illness, just as “masters and overseers had accused slaves of shirking work,” an attitude that undoubtedly led to the deterioration of the condition of many a genuinely ill soldier. Even the quality of care received while in hospital could have a more detrimental than helpful effect on a soldiers condition, with limited knowledge of the aetiology of wartime diseases being a significant factor.
Confederate policy during the war was to treat captured black soldiers – not as prisoners of war, but as slaves in insurrection – and their white officers as instigators of slave rebellion. As both black soldiers and their white officers faced the same fate should they be captured, the policy served to strengthen the bond between them. Such was the fear engendered by the Confederate policy that even after a Union commander surrendered to Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest in Athens, Alabama in September 1864, the black soldiers pleaded with him to fight on, knowing that surrender meant certain death.
Responding to the massacre at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, an black man named Theodore Hodgkins wrote to Stanton on behalf of black soldiers who were fighting for the Union. In his letter, Hodgkins highlights that the President has “again and again” failed to follow up on his warning to retaliate when the Confederacy failed to treat captured black soldiers as prisoners of war. Hodgkins believed that the same number of Confederate prisoners of war should be executed by “two or three regiments of ‘colored’ troops” to show the Confederacy that its threats of retaliation were to be taken seriously. Lincoln and his cabinet ultimately decided that it would only take action against those directly involved in the massacre, but warned the Confederacy that a number of captured officers would be singled out for retaliation should any further atrocities be carried out in the future. The policy, however, was never put into effect.
Following both Generals Hunter and Phelps bold attempts to arm slaves in 1862, the Confederate War Department issued an order on the 21st August 1862, condemning them as “outlaws” and stated that should any officer so engaged be captured in the future, he would not be “regarded as a prisoner of war, but held in close confinement for execution as a felon.” In December 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered that each black soldier and white officer captured be dealt with according to the laws of the State to which they belong.
Possible punishments for black soldiers included re-enslavement or sale into slavery as well as execution. Officers faced imprisonment or even execution. Responding directly to President Davis the following April, which Hunter considered “long enough” for Davis to “reflect on his folly”, he gave the president “notice” that unless his is order was “immediately revoked” he would “cause the execution of every rebel officer, and every rebel slaveholder” in his possession.
President Lincoln reflects on the Emancipation Proclamation
By the summer of 1863, the war was beginning to turn markedly in the Union’s favour. Victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg had stalled the Confederate offensive in the North and divided the Confederacy. The loss of Vicksburg, and thus the loss of the Mississippi River, compelled one Mississippi planter, O G Eiland, to write to the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, to plead for the enlistment of “every able-bodied Negro man from the age of sixteen to fifty years old” to save the Confederacy. Such delusional beliefs about the willingness of slaves to fight for the Confederacy were however not entertained by the high command, who more practically sought to forcibly “refugee” slaves to the interior to prevent their capture and enlistment into the Union army.
In a letter to A. G. Hodges on the 4th of April 1864, Lincoln acknowledges the changing nature of the war and also reveals why he took certain decisions at various stages during the war. Lincoln begins by stating that he is “naturally anti-slavery,” that “if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” Lincoln, however, adds that he never at any stage “understood that the Presidency conferred upon him an unrestricted right to act officially upon his personal judgement and feeling” regarding slavery. Lincoln declares that he has “done no official act in mere defence to my abstract judgement on the moral question of slavery,” and that all decisions were directly influenced by his official responsibility to preserve and respect the constitution.
Lincoln offers explanations for some of his earlier decisions to overturn the actions of individual Union generals who had attempted to act independently in relation to emancipation. His decisions to reverse both General Fremont’s attempt to emancipate slaves in Missouri and Hunter’s proclamation liberating all slaves in South Carolina, Florida and Georgia, were made, because, he felt that at the time them, not an “indispensable necessity” to save the Union. Lincoln provided the same reason for objecting to General Cameron, the then Secretary of War when he proposed that the Union begin arming black men early in the war.
Lincoln also highlighted the changing nature of the war and the refusal of the border states to yield to his request to adopt a policy of gradual, compensated emancipation, for necessitating the use of black men in the Union effort. The decision to incorporate black men into the Union cause, Lincoln adds, was made in the hope that it would evoke “greater gain than loss, but of this,” Lincoln admits, that he was “not entirely confident.”
The decision, in fact, had proved to be a masterstroke. It neither damaged “foreign relations” nor “popular sentiment at home or in the army” as he feared it might, but what it had done, was provide the Union with a “gain of quite a hundred and thirty thousand soldiers, seamen, and laborers.” Lincoln is also quick to downplay his own contribution, claiming, “not to have controlled events, but that events had controlled him.”
Black soldiers served with distinction while fighting in a number of battles during the Civil War. Black soldiers fought the Confederate Army at the Battles of Milliken’s Bend, Port Hudson, The Crater during the siege of Petersburg, Nashville, New Market Heights, Fort Wagner and infamously at Fort Pillow where Union soldiers, the majority of whom were black, were massacred by General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s troops after they had surrendered.
According to www.civilwar.org, 16 black soldiers and 6 naval officers received the prestigious Medal of Honor Award for their heroism during the U.S. Civil War. Of all the battles fought by black soldiers, none was more important than the battle for their liberty.