Monday, September 24, 2007
The whole idea of having African-Americans fight for their freedom seemed to have been a sticky issue from the start. Freed slaves actually fought in the American Revolution as full-fledged members of George Washington’s Continental Army as well as several units that fought in the War of 1812. Most noted were the African-Americans who fought with Andrew Jackson’s army at the Battle of New Orleans.
By the time the Mexican War was being fought (1846-1848), Blacks had been barred from military service. It seemed that their past service had been largely forgotten amid racial prejudices. There was one exception, the Navy. In filling out crew rosters for their warships, Navy recruiters were not picky about who served as powder monkeys (usually boys who hauled bags of gun powder to the cannon), cannoneers, or riggers (needed for sail-powered ships). Many pictures of US Navy crews from the 1860’s showed not a few black faces among them.
As the Civil War began, many Northern African-Americans heeded President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers and rushed to recruiting stations, only to be turned away by the recruiting sergeants.
In the South, there was no question about Blacks serving in the Confederate Army, it was not happening. Officially, slave could be rented to the armies as teamsters, cooks, manual labor, wagon drivers, and other support functions. Unofficially, many of these African-Americans also held muskets and stood in volley lines, keeping up as good a fire as their White counterparts. When Major General Patrick Cleburne suggested that slaves should be allowed to serve in the army in exchange for their freedom, he was ripped apart in the realm of popular opinion and ended up losing his command for that opinion.
In New Orleans, a group of Free Blacks got together and began drilling as a unit. They were soon named the Louisiana Native Guards, a militia unit that pledge to help the defense of the city, an obvious target for a Union invasion. This group of African-Americans was pledging their services to the Confederacy! However, local defenders were not interested and abandoned the Native Guards to the advancing Federals. As a result, they switched allegiances to the Union. Among their duties, they garrisoned Ship Island, off Gulfport, MS, a major Union base in the region.
It was not until 1862 that the Federal Government, and especially Lincoln, saw the necessary of allowing Blacks into the Army. Their numbers would be sorely needed. This action resulted of two things; there was pressure from several African-American groups who were demanding that they be in the fight, also there was the need to put the war on a more moral footing. The second item stemmed from the recent issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, which changed the object of the war from just only a war to preserve the Union to the added object to ending Slavery once and for all. Blacks knew from that point that it was their fight too. Lincoln authorized the addition of 100,000 African-Americans to the army with one provision; all the officers had to be White.
Finding officers to command these new units were problematic as first. Many Northerners were as prejudiced as Southerners and would have no part in this enterprise. However, many officers, at first from abolitionist families, as well as a few enlisted, enticed with the promises of a commission, soon joined.
When this news hit the Confederacy, reaction was intense. The Confederate Congress quickly passed a law that allowed captured Black troops to be “returned to a state of slavery” (even if that soldier was a Free Black to begin with) and any officers who were captured while in command of African-American troops were to be subject to execution for “inciting servile insurrection.” Still that did not deter the Northerners.
In February of 1862 there was an effort already to put African-Americans in uniform. Union Major General David Hunter had been placed in command of the Union Department of the South, which covered the coastal areas of South Carolina, Georgia, and northeast Florida with 18,000 troops. Hunter felt that that was not enough to do the job, and Washington was not sending reinforcements any time soon.
13 April, 1862: General Hunter issued a declaration that all slaves of “enemies of the United States” were to be confiscated and declared free. The main object here was to deprive local plantations of needed labor. This also gave him a pool to tap for manpower.
Later that month, Hunter ordered able-bodied Blacks gathered in order to raise a regiment, named the 1st South Carolina (US) Infantry. They were initially used as labor, but it was intended to be a combat unit. That is, if the US Government would recognize the unit and fund it. This proved to be a problem since President Lincoln had already quashed the declaration. Since the government refused to pay and equip the unit, the experiment soon fell apart with it’s disbanding on 10 August, 1862.
27 September, 1862: The Louisiana Native Guards was officially accepted into Union service as the 1st Regiment Louisiana Native Guards. What was amazing at the time was the line officers (Captains and Lieutenants) were Black.
12 October, 1862: The 2nd Regiment Louisiana Native Guards was mustered into service.
29 October, 1862: The 1st Kansas (Colored) Volunteer Infantry took part in a skirmish at Island Mound, MO. This unit was locally raised and not yet in Federal service. This was the first time that Blacks fought in Missouri as a unit, rather than as individuals as they had been since the fighting began. That unit would receive Federal recognition on 1 January, 1863.
24 November, 1862: The 3rd Regiment Louisiana Native Guards was mustered into service.
Around that same time, the 1st and 2nd Regiments took part in operations in the Bayou La Fourche, south of New Orleans.
As 1863 dawned, the commander of Union forces in Louisiana at the time, Major General Nathaniel Banks, succumbed to pressure from locals, who believed that the presence of Black troops would cause problems, sent the 2nd Regiment to Ship Island and the 1st to the old Confederate forts of Jackson and St. Philip. The 3rd was used in operations around Baton Rouge between February and May of 1863. Other operations included a skirmish at Pascagoula, MS on 9 April, 1863 and an assault on Port Hudson, LA on 27 May, 1863.
These actions began to answer a question that was in the minds of the Northern public (as well as a few generals and politicians); will the Black Man fight. Notwithstanding that African soldiers had been in several armies throughout history. The answer to that question was a resounding YES!
In Massachusetts, there was an effort to raise an African-American regiment. They put out a call for volunteers and received a response from not just Massachusetts men, but from all over the US. This group included Northern Free Blacks as well as those who just escaped slavery in the South. This group was designated the 54th Massachusetts and command was given to Robert Gould Shaw, a son of a prominent abolitionist family. Shaw had troubles from the start, getting his green troops trained for battle amid rumors that they would only be used only for manual labor and as garrison troops, getting his troops the equipment they needed from reluctant supply officers, and the biggest insult of all, the pay.
Union Privates received a monthly pay of $13.00 a month and their clothing was taken care of. The War Department declared that African-Americans would receive $10.00 a month, with $3.00 taken for uniforms. In a world in which $10.00 was a small fortune, that was a lot of money lost. In order to quell a possible riot, Shaw and his officers pledged not to receive their pay until the inequality was addressed.
28 May, 1863: The 54th MA paraded through the streets of Boston, to the delight of both Blacks and Whites, and boarded transports to South Carolina. They soon arrived at St. Simeon’s Island and Shaw reported to the garrison commander, Colonel James Montgomery.
11 June, 1863: Elements of the 54th MA and the 2nd South Carolina (US) African Descent marched to Darien, GA where the raid that Colonel Montgomery was carrying out resulted in burning the town down. Shaw was not happy at the operation and felt that the honor of the 54th was dirtied. He managed to have his regiment transferred to Charleston, SC.
8 July, 1863: The 54th MA was quickly transferred to James Island, where they would take part in operations against Confederate defenses there.
11 July, 1863: Shaw and his troops arrive.
16 July, 1863: The 54th gets their first taste of combat. While performing picket duty on Sol Legare’s Island, about 300 Confederates attacked. The purpose of this attack was to capture the camp of the 10th Connecticut and capture as many of the soldiers as possible. The African-Americans of the 54th MA held their ground, losing several troops in order to give the 10th CT time to get away. Their losses were 14 killed, 18 wounded, and 13 missing (those missing were found to have been captured and executed).
Having proved themselves, Shaw volunteered for another mission. There had been an attempt to take a Confederate artillery position called Battery Wagner. This position was at the north end of Morris Island and covered the harbor entrance to Charleston. On 10 July, Federal forces were savaged an attempt to take the fort. The Union commander, Brigadier General Quincy Gilmore, decided to soften up the place with both land-based and naval bombardment. As plans were made to assemble another ground assault, Gilmore would have heard of the request to include the 54th MA and approved their transfer.
18 July, 1863: 9:00 a.m.: As the 54th MA arrived on Folly Island, south of Morris Island, the bombardment was already in progress. Gilmore thought that after he was through, units like the 54th would only need a mopping-up operation to secure the fort.
Gilmore had experience in battering down forts, he was the one who took out Fort Pulaski, near Savannah, GA. There was a difference; Pulaski was a brick fort that could be battered down. Wagner was a sand and earth fort that swallowed incoming shells while its garrison rested in shelters called bombproofs.
5:00 p.m.: Shaw and his troops were ferried across to Morris Island, where he was offered the honor of being the first regiment into the attack. The 54th would be backed up by the 6th Connecticut, 48th New York, 3rd New Hampshire, 9th Maine, and 76th Pennsylvania. They were backed up by three artillery batteries.
The entire formation had to march up a narrow strip of sand between a marsh and the Atlantic Ocean. As they approached the fort, they would be subject to artillery fire from the Confederate defenders.
About 6:00 p.m., the formation began to advance.
First thing the Federals found out was that not all the Confederate guns were destroyed, solid cannon shells began to pound the approaching formations. Shaw told his men to lie down among the dunes until darkness fell.
7:45 p.m.: Shaw gave the order, “Move in quick time until within a hundred yards of the fort, then double quick and charge.” With that he yelled “FORWARD!” The formation moved as one, despite the shell and grapeshot that began to pepper the Federals. Every hole that appeared in the line was quickly filled in as the 54th approached the wall, where they found a moat that had to be crossed before the wall could be climbed. On the wall were troops of the 31st, 51st, and 61st North Carolina, firing down into the mass of Union troops.
The 54th was not the only ones there, the 6th CT and 48th NY were at the southeast corner trying to get in themselves.
Sergeant William Carney found his unit’s National Flag next to its fallen color bearer. He picked it up and, despite being wounded several times, kept the flag up in the face of the enemy. He would become the first African-American to receive the Medal of Honor for that.
Shaw rallied his men to the top of the forts wall, where he was fatally wounded. The other top officers were either killed or wounded. Captain Louis Emilio became the de-facto commander of the 54th MA and rallied his men to the top of the wall.
The first wave of the assault was hung up along the wall. There was a delay in sending in the second. When they were finally sent in, that wave was also stopped.
Emilio had the task of reassembling what was left of the 54th MA, even as scattered unite had managed to get into the fort itself, where very few came out.
When everything was finished, the 54th MA lost 256 in the assault, including most of the officers.
Shaw was buried with several of his soldiers. The Confederates refused to send his body across the lines, stating, “We buried him with his n*****s.” Shaw’s father, however, considered that an honor.
The heroics of the 54th Massachusetts proved to be the spark that opened the way for more African-Americans to join the US Army. So many units were being formed that a new designation was needed: United States Colored Troops.
In 1864, there were other opportunities for African-American troops to prove their worth.
20 February, 1864: Olustree, FL: The 54th MA was in battle again, along with the 8th USCT, the 1st North Carolina (US) Colored and the 2nd South Carolina (US) African Descent. Union forces were attempting to push their way from Jacksonville to Tallahassee when they were repulsed by 1200 Confederates under Brigadier General Joseph Finnegan. The African-American troops covered the retreat, buying time with their lives.
There were also tragedy thrown at them.
12 April, 1864: A garrison of African-Americans and Tennessee Unionists were overrun at Fort Pillow, on the Mississippi River, by Confederates under Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Whether it was done after the surrender, or because they refused to surrender, most of the garrison was massacred.
There was the also the issue of prisoners of war. The official Confederate position was that African-Americans in uniform was not to be afforded POW status. There were black troops in prisons like Andersonville, GA and Belle Island, VA, but they were used for manual labor. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief of all Union forces, stopped the practice of prisoner exchanges until his African-Americans were given the same status as White troops.
During the Overland Campaign against the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, African-Americans made up two brigades of IX Corps and fought from the Wilderness to Petersburg.
In contrast, Major General William Sherman’s armies did not have a single Black soldier. It seemed that Sherman had no use for them.
30 July, 1864: The Battle of the Crater: The plan for when the mine was detonated had both African-American brigades spearhead the assault. As a matter of fact, they had trained for a straight month while the mine was being dug. Sadly, General Grant had ordered the IX Corps commander, Major General Ambrose Burnside, not to send in the Black troops for political and public relations reasons. An unprepared brigade, led by a drunkard and coward, was sent in first. The African-Americans were sent in later, after the assault had bogged down, losing scores in the process.
Despite the bravery of the African-Americans, only one, Sergeant Decatur Dorsey, 39th USCT, received the Medal of Honor.
On the Confederate side, the debate about using Black troops was not decided until it was becoming too late. Despite protests from hard-liners, the Confederate Congress approved the enlistment of African-Americans into the Confederate Army. Two regiments of mixed White and Black troops drilled to the delight of Richmond residents, but it was too little, too late.
As Richmond fell on 3 April,1865, the first Union troops to enter the former Confederate Capital were members of the 28th USCT. This spoke volumes to the defeated Confederates. Other units were involved in the Appomattox campaign, resulting in the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.
The last engagement of the Civil War, at Palmito Ranch, TX (11-12 May, 1865) also saw the last use of African-American troops as the 62nd USCT made up a large part of the Union force that was repulsed.
Following the war’s conclusion, African-African troops made up a large part of the force needed to police the former Confederate States. This action left bad feelings amongst the local population that might have contributed to the Black Codes that were enacted following the end of Reconstruction. They were also involved in operations along the Rio Grand River that were conducted to keep Imperial Mexico from invading.
Even so, the pace of disbanding Black units were not as fast as the White ones, but in the course of time, the volunteer regiments were disbanded. Those who wanted to continue in the Army were assigned to the 9th and 10th US Cavalry, who would become known as “Buffalo Soldiers” and would see large scale battle again in the Spanish-American War (at times alongside former Confederates). The 24th and 25th US Infantry was also authorized.
African-Americans earned their citizenship at places like Fort Wagner and the Crater. Sadly, that reward was not realized until the 1960’s, one hundred years after their battles.
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