12 Unbelievable Obstacles Black Soldiers in the Civil War Faced
12 Unbelievable Obstacles Black Soldiers in the Civil War Faced

12 Unbelievable Obstacles Black Soldiers in the Civil War Faced

John killerlane - January 30, 2018

12 Unbelievable Obstacles Black Soldiers in the Civil War Faced
Black Regiment. pinterest.com

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.”

12 Unbelievable Obstacles Black Soldiers in the Civil War Faced
Black Regiment. New England Historical Society

The Damaging Effects of Excessive Fatigue Duty

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.

12 Unbelievable Obstacles Black Soldiers in the Civil War Faced
Nathan Bedford Forrest ebay

Confederate policy toward black soldiers

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.

12 Unbelievable Obstacles Black Soldiers in the Civil War Faced
Abraham Lincoln. biography.com

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.”

12 Unbelievable Obstacles Black Soldiers in the Civil War Faced
Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood who received a Medal of Honor for his bravery during the Civil War.

Battles and Medals of Honour

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.

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