American Abolitionists and Antislavery Activists:
Conscience of the Nation

Updated April 4, 2021

l to r: Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips

Black Soldiers

District of Columbia. Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, at Fort Lincoln. Photo: Library of Congress

District of Columbia. Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, at Fort Lincoln.  Photo: Library of Congress 

African American Soldiers in the Civil War, 1861-1865

Prepared by Eric Saul

With Amy Fiske

In Cooperation With

The Center for Jubilee, Reconciliation and Healing

Patt Gunn

June 30, 2019

"Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship."

- Frederick Douglass


Table of Contents


Black Soldiers in the Civil War

Black Soldiers – Personalities

US Colored Troops - Commanding Generals

US Colored Troops - Battles

Black Soldiers Timeline

Black Soldiers Bibliography

"Who would be free themselves must strike the blow....I urge you to fly to arms and smite to death the power that would bury the Government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave. This is your golden opportunity." 

- Frederick Douglass

“So, rally, boys, rally, let us never mind the past;
We had a hard road to travel, but our day is coming fast,
For God is for the right, and we have no need to fear,
The Union must be saved by the colored volunteer.”

- popular camp song


There were numerous all-African American regiments serving with distinction in the Civil War. 

There was a total of 186,000 Black soldiers who served in 163 units in the Union Army.  They fought in 449 engagements and 39 major battles.  Sixteen African American soldiers earned the Medal of Honor in combat.

Approximately 38,000 African American soldiers lost their lives in the war.  This was a killed-in-action rate that was 35% greater than among White troops.

Nearly 30,000 African Americans served as sailors in the US Navy.  This represented a larger proportion of servicemen than in the Union Army.

This made nearly a quarter of a million African American men who served for the Union forces.  This was ten percent of the overall strength of the Army.

From the beginning of the war, more than 500,000 enslaved individuals escaped servitude by entering Union lines.  Tens of thousands of these men and women, termed “contraband of war,” volunteered in the service of the US Army as scouts, spies, guides, laborers, pioneers, and aidmen.

African Americans were fighting not only for the preservation of the Union, but more importantly for their freedom and the freedom of their families. 

As a result of their service, the Union was preserved and slavery was abolished in the United States.

Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who commanded a Black regiment, stated: “Till the blacks were armed, there was no guarantee of their freedom.  It was their demeanor under arms that shamed the nation into recognizing them as men.”[1]

The Negro gave one in three of his number to the cause of freedom.  Did we with our valor do half as well?”

- New York Tribune, December 26, 1865


[1] Foner, 1974, p. 48.

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City Point, Virginia. Black soldier guarding 12-pdr. Napoleon.  Photo: Library of Congress

City Point, Virginia. Negro soldier guarding 12-pdr. Napoleon. (Model 1857?)  Photo: Library of Congress

Following is a chapter from an unpublished manuscript entitled Ready and Forward by by Eric Saul and David Morris.  Copyright Eric Saul, all rights reserved.

Black Soldiers in the Civil War


Who would be free themselves must strike the first blow.”

                                               Frederick Douglass
                                               March 2,

The cau
ses of the Civil War have been investigated,
mented, analyzed, debated, and argued. The net
result: Slavery was at the root of any and every "cause."

On eit
her side, blacks faced an irreconcilable situation:
Southern slaves had no reason to fight because a
Confederate victory would co
ntinue their enslavement,
yet they were i
mpressed by the South to serve as cooks
and laborers; the northern free blacks, with a desire
to vanquish the Confederacy and rid the unified
republic of slavery, were denied the right to help
free their brethren b
ecause the Union denied slavery
as a cause of the War.

Whether or not it started over slavery, the Civil
War quickly beca
me just that--a crusade against the
heinous institution--despite the protestations of the
Lincoln ad
ministration. The South left no doubt that
secession was the only
means of preserving the odious
institution following Lincoln's election. And the
public outcry that occurred over the return of escaped
slaves by the Union forces left no doubt as the
mary concern of the loyal states. The Lincoln
government was doing no more than had been made law by
the Congress in 1850 in the Compromise Act which
included a Fugitive Slave Act. This act required slaves
captured in northern, non-slave states be returned to
their owners. The incursion of slaveholders into free
states to repossess their human property gave
northerners an opportunity to see first hand the
arrogance of the owner and the indignity of the

The continuance of th
e, practice as runaways began
to escape to the "protection" of the Union lines,
appalled the citizens of the free states. The Yankees
fighting in the forefront, rushing the battlements
constructed by slave laborers, quickly began to realize
the military advantage being expl
oited by the rebels.
As a result, they began to resent having to return these
black workers, further abetting the Confederates in
their efforts to fortify the military objectives. The
South had a slave labor pool of more than three
million to draw upon; the potential effect of this
resource was frightening to Union military leaders and
at least three of the more aggressive--further,
mont, and Hunter--took matters into their own hands.

In May 1861, General Benja
min Butler was commanding
Union troops at Fort Monroe, Virginia, when three
slaves arrived from a Confederate labor force.
Butler i
mmediately labeled them "contraband of war."
As more an
d more of these "contra band”  began to
appear--900 by the end of July--Butler put them to
work, for wages, building and improving fortifications.

On Au
gust 6, 1861, Congress passed the First
Confiscation Act which, while it did not e
slaves, declared the
m to be enemy property and as
such not to be ene
my property and as such not to be
returned to their owners. This was a s
mall step
closer to freed
om for the slaves and an opportunity to
contribute to the Union efforts, but it freed only
those slaves who had been used in the service of the
Confederacy and were now behind Union lines--of
course, any
black in proximity to the battlefront could
be ass
umed to have been used in a support role of some

eanwhile, Major General John C. Fremont, commanding
the Union’s Western Depart
ment, added his own footnote
to the Confiscation Act. Following a Union defeat at
Wilson's Creek in Missouri, Fre
mont imposed martial
law which he applied to the entire state and added:

The property, real and personal, of all persons
in the State of Missouri who shall take up arms
gainst the United States, or who shall be directly
proven to have taken an active part with their
enemies in the field, is declared to be confiscated
to the public use, and their slaves, if any
they have, are hereby declared freemen.
Greeley, The American Conflict, v. 2, Hartford,
1866, p. 239.

The Lincoln government, however, was not ready to
acknowledge the conflict's focus and issued an order
to "conform" to the Confiscation Act and not "transcend"
its provisions. From the War's first cannon shot,
black men had petitioned the governors of their states,
Congress, and the President to permit them to serve in
the Union army. But Lincoln blocked every attempt
that would clearly label the War an anti-slavery
crusade and refused to open military ranks to those
who most directly might benefit from a defeat of the

In the fall of 1861 John Andrew Governor of Massachusetts declared that the utilization of Black troops would be necessary to a Union victory:

It is not my opinion that our generals…p. 34

Surprisingly enough, it was the navy that first opened
its doors for black participation
.in the War. In an
order to his co
mmanders, Secretary of the Navy Gideon
Welles wrote on September 25, 1861:

The Depart
ment finds it necessary to adopt a
regulation with respect to the large number of
persons of color, co
mmonly known as contrabands.
You are therefore authorized, when their service
can be
made useful, to enlist them for the naval
service, under the sa
me forms and regulations as
apply to other enlist
ments…(Official Records
of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the
Rebellion, v. VI, p. 252.)

One of the first black me
mbers of the Union navy
was a former slave from Charleston, South Carolina.
Hired out by his
master, Robert Smalls found work on
the Charleston waterfront as a sail
maker. This soon
led to work on coastal trading boats and the opportunity
to learn sailing and piloting. By 1861, S
malls had
acquired detailed knowled
ge of coastal navigation and
shown hi
mself to be a hardworking and loyal employee.
When the Confederacy requisitioned his ship, the
Planter, S
malls was required to stay on with the crew;
his diligence soon impressed the officers and he was
given the responsible position of wheelman.

On the evening of May 12, 1862, S
malls seized an
opportunity he
had been seeking. With all white
members of the crew ashore, the wheelman and eight
black crew
men moved the Planter to a nearby wharf
where they picked up Smalls' wife and child, four
her women, and a child. The knowledge learned from
carrying troops and
munitions past the Confederate
forts now beca
me invaluable to Smalls; he used stealth
and disguise to delude the rebels guarding the coastline.
And the ship soon reached the U
nion fleet off
Otter Island, flyin
g a bedsheet for a flag of surrender.

The infor
mation about Confederate fortifications
movements along the coast, the ex-slave was able
to supply were of
great strategic importance to the
nion commanders. And Smalls' intelligence coupled
with his knowled
ge and experience created a unique
situation. Because of his status as 'contraband,"
malls could not be enlisted in the Union navy,
however, he was co
mmissioned a Second Lieutenant in
the United States Colored Troops and given the duty
of piloting the Planter as well as other ships. The
mer slave eventually went to Congress as the
representative of the South Carolina Sea Islands,
serving until the 1880s.

Robert S
malls had the good fortune to have entered
the co
mmand of Major General David Hunter. Hunter had
arrived in the Sea Islands during March 1862, assuming
a co
mmand that had primary responsibility for maintaining
a force along the coast and support for the blockading
navy. After considering th
e tenuous foothold his
troop has on the coast, Hunter issued an order:

All perso
ns of color lately held to involuntary
service by ene
mies of the United States in Fort
Pulaski and on Cockspur Island, Georgia,
hereby confiscated and declared free, in conformity
with law, and shall hereafter receive the fruits
of their own labor.
(Official Records…, V. XIV,
p. 333.)

Like Fre
mont's order before, Hunter's order was
d by Lincoln on May 19. Though the abolitionists had been making great gains among the general populace, Lincoln still feared for the loyalty of the border states and
continued the administration policy of a war to end
secession, one which had nothing to do with slavery.

Undaunted, in August of 1862, Hunter sent Robert
malls to Washington to argue for the arming of blacks
before the President and Secretary of War. Smalls
returned to the Sea Islands with a directive from
War Secretary Edwin Stanton authorizing General Rufus
Saxton to form five regiments of black troops
mmanded by white officers. However, it was not until
mber that the troops were officially mustered in as
the 1st South Carolina Volunteers.

The for
mation of this black military organization
followed a rather strange path. Congress had passed the
Second Confiscation Act in mid-July making all slaves
free upon reaching Union Lines; Lincoln had, simultaneously, began to draft an emancipation proclamation, in secret, which he submitted to his cabinet.
Secretary of State William H. Seward, other members
concurring, successfully argued that the proclamation
should be made only after a major Union victory.
However, direct orders were given to Hunter to disband
a group of black troops he had organized to work in
noncombatant roles. This he did in August--a few,
short weeks before Smalls relayed Stanton's order to

Needless to say, the nucleus of the First South
Carolina Volunteers came from Hunter's troops. In
November, Colonel Thomas Hi
gginson, a Massachusetts
abolitionist, took charge of the regi
ment. By
January 1863, Higginson reported:

No officer in this regi
ment now doubts that the
key to the successful prosecution of this war
lies in the unlimited employment of black troops.
Their superiority lies simply in the fact that
they know the country, while white troops do not,
moreover, that they have peculiarities
of temperament, position, and motive which belong
to them alone. Instead of leaving their homes and
families to fight they are fighting fore
their ho
mes and families, and they show the
resolution and the sagacity which a personal
purpose gives.
(War of the Rebellion: Official
Official Records of the Union and Confederate
Armies, v. XIV, pp.

Despite the official government position on

slavery and "contrabands, " historians reveal that
Lincoln had for sometime been looking for an opportunity
to set forth a new policy. One of the most critical
mmentators of the administration, Horace Greeley,
received a letter from Lincoln at the end of August
1862 which contradicted what Lincoln was even then
putting into writing:

My para
mount object in this struggle is to save
the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy
slavery…What I do about slavery, and the
colored race, I do because I believe it helps
to save the Union…I have here stated my
purpose according to my view of official duty;
and I intend no
modification of my oft-expressed
personal with that all
men everywhere could be

He was at least truthful in this last state

A month earlier, Lincoln had informed the cabinet
of his intent to issue an e
mancipation proclamation
applying to all slaves in the Confederate states.
Members of the cabinet that the victory at Antietam
made the way clear for a public reading of the preliminary
mancipation Proclamation. the proclamation
stated that on January 1,
1863 , "all persons held as
slaves within any State, or designated part of the
State, the people whereof shall be in rebellion
against the United States, shall be than, thenceforward,
and forever free."

While many abolitionists and radicals expressed
surprise at the sudden announcement, there had be a
progressive chain of events leading to the proclamation.
The Congress had passed a resolution on July 1861
absolving Union troops of any obligation to capture or
return slaves entering their lines. In August,
the First Confiscation Act was passed. In September,
Secretary of the Navy Welles had authorized the
enlistment of blacks in the navy. That fall, Lincoln
had proposed a plan for co
mpensated emancipation;
the President approved a resolution based on this
plan in April 1862. That same
month, the slaves in
the District of Columbia were freed, again, on the
basis of Lincoln's recommendation and the vote of
Congress. Finally, on July 17, the Second Confiscation
Act was passed by Congress, freeing all slaves
of rebel
masters who crossed into Union territory.
Stanton had authorized black troops to be recruited
from ex-slaves in the Department of the South.

In spite of this promising trend, Frederick
Douglass stated in a letter to a friend:

I think the nation was never
more completely in
the hands of the slave power. This government
is now in the hands of the Army; and the Army
is in the hands of the very worst type of
American Democracy.
(Douglass to Gerrit Smith,
mber 8, 1862. Smith Papers, Syracuse
University Library. Quoted in James M.
McPherson, The Negro's Civil War, New York:
Vintage Books,
1965, p. 48.)

weeks later, Douglass was in the forefront of
those who gloried in the Preliminary Emancipation

Oh! Ye
millions of free and loyal men who have
sought to free your bleeding country
m the dreadful ravages of revolution and
anarchy, lift up now your voices with joy and
giving for with freedom to the slave will
me peace and safety to your country. (Douglass
Monthly, October 1862, p. 722.

The Lincoln administration could no longer deny
the root cause of the War or turn its back on blacks
seeking to enter the army to fight for the freedom of
race. Since the firing on Fort Sumter, black
spokesmen and organizations had petitioned the government
to use them in co

 (Jacob Dodson, I desire to infor
m you that I know of some
three hundred of reliable colored
free citizens
of the City, who desire to enter the service
for the defence of the City.

War of the Rebellion…, p. 106, v. I.)

…colored citizens of
Massachusetts earnestly
desire your honorable body to cause to be stricken
forthwith from the militia law of the State the
word “white,'' by which they are now
precluded from defending the Co
gainst its enemies. (Liberator, May 17, 1861.)

Let us be awake, therefore
brethren; a generous
emulation in a common patriotism, and a special
call to defend our rights alike bid us to be on the
alert to seize arms and drill as soon as the
government shall be willing to accept our
(Anglo-African, September 14, 1861.)

…upon receiving the sanction of Your
Excellency…that we will i
mmediately proceed
to raise an efficient n
umber of regiments, and so
fast as ar
ms and equipments shall be furnished,

we will bring the
m into the field in good
discipline, and ready for action.
(Pine and Palm, October 12, 1861.)

Prior to the E
mancipation Proclamation, these requests
had been s
ummarily turned down, some without even a
courteous reply. A
great many were discouraged by
the ad
ministration’s official stand on the issue:

I have observed with
much indignation and shame,
their willin
gness to take up arms in defence of
this unholy, ill-begotten, would be Republican
government, that summons all its skill, energy,
might, of money, men, and false philosophy
that a corrupt nation can bring to bear, to
support, extend, and perpetuate that vilest
of all vile syste
ms, American slavery. (Wesley
W. Tate, Pine and Palm, Nove
mber 23, 1861.)

There was no doubt in the minds of
most Union
military co
mmanders that they and their troops did not
want to fight alongside blacks. There was the deep-seated
racial prejudice that no procla
mation could
erase and the widespread feeling that the black had
been enslaved too long to develop in a short time the
aggressiveness needed to be successful in war. However,
me officers, seeing the ex-slaves working in menial
labor, were convinced that these
men had the dedication
and i
mpetus to fight for their freedom if they were
given a sincere opportunity.

addition to the efforts of General Butler,
General Ja
mes H. Lane had organized two regiments
of ex-slaves and freedmen in Kansas. The black troops
had accompanied the Jayhawkers into
Missouri in October
but were driven off by the state
militia. That same
month, five of Lane's companies of black soldiers
a large guerrilla force in Bates County, Missouri:

It is useless to talk any
more about negro courage.
The men fought like tigers, each and every one
of them, and the
main difficulty was to hold them
well in hand…these are the boys to clean out
the bushwhackers.
(Official Army Register, VIII
p. 256.)

Six companies were belatedly
mustered into federal
service on January 13, 1863, as the 1st Kansas

The first official black entry in the war, however,
was beginning in Louisiana, and the chief role was being
carried out by General Benjamin Butler.

In April 1862, Butler was sent to capture
Orleans accompanied by Admiral David Farragut and
Brigadier General John W. Phelps. Where Butler
had readily employed "contrabands as laborers in
Virginia, he now expressed the view that blacks were
not desirable as soldiers. This observation was
occasioned by the existence of a black Confederate
militia that had approached Butler to discuss "the
question of the continuance of their organization,
and to learn what disposition they would be required
make of their arms." (Benjamin F. Butler, Private
and Official Correspondence of General Benjamin F.
Butler during the Period of the Civil War, V. I, p. 519
Butler to Stanton, 5/25/62.)

Phelps, co
mmanding Camp Parapet near New Orleans,
had in the
meantime developed an entirely different
attitude. Slaveholders began to complain to Butler
about Phelps' encouraging blacks to desert their
masters and join the Union forces; their contention
was that the slaves were committing cri
mes and
depredations before seeking refuge at Ca
mp Parapet.
Butler and Phelps exchanged views and orders until
Phelps insisted on being allowed to resign; the
decisive argument was the result of a Butler order
requiring Phelps to e
mploy blacks as laborers which
Phelps interpreted as exchanging one
master for

The disagreement with Phelps had, however,
opened Butler's mind to the possibilities of using
black regulars. Receiving additional encourage
m Secretary of War Stanton and becoming more
cognizant of changing public senti
ment, Butler was
eventually convinced there was wisdom in utilizing black
troops in co
mbat. The Second Confiscation Act passed'
on July 17, 1862, was a likely factor in his decision.
But even
more likely was another act passed that same
day which authorized the use of free blacks as soldiers.
He also may have been infor
med of the authorization given
to General Saxton; although this
message was not issued
until August 25, it is possible that a general decision
had been reached earlier.
In any event, Butler issued
a directive on August 22 calling for free blacks of
Louisiana to enlist in the Union army.

On September 1, Butler informed Stanton:
have succeeded wonderfully well in my enlistments
of Volunteers here.
A full regiment, three
mpanies of cavalry--Six hundred to form a new
ment and more than 1200 men enlisted in the
old regi
ments to fill up the ranks…I shall
also have within ten days a Regi
ment 1000 strong
Native Guards…(Butler, Correspondence,
v. II, p. 224.)

The 1st Regi
ment Louisiana Native Guards was
mmissioned on September 27, 1862; the 2nd Regiment
on October 12; and the 3rd Regi
ment on November 24.
Originally, the Native Guards were led by 75 black

officers commissioned by Butler until countermanded by
Nathaniel P. Banks. The noncommissioned officers were
made up of white soldiers who were attracted by an offer
of co
mmissions. These NCOs were replaced by blacks
when the whites became disgruntled over the failure of
their co
mmissions to take place as early as they had expected.

The 1st Louisiana beca
me the first official combat
troops in the Union ar
my although Lane's marauders had
been in action for so
me time in Missouri. At that,
Butlers first assig
nments for the Native Guard were
to build and repair fortifications. Finally, in the
spring of 1863, the 1st and 3rd Re
giments were
ordered to Port Hudson, a rebel-held fort on the lower

The river above and below Port Hudson was Union-
However, the rebel fort commanded a
stretch of the
Mississippi that was the strategic key
to Vicksburg, 200
miles north. Major General Banks
was ordered to capture or neutralize Port Hudson in
coordination with Grant's drive on Vicksburg.

The attack on Port Hudson be
gan early on the morning
May 27 with a 4-hour Union artillery bombardment.
At ten o'clock, the black troops, nu
mbering more than
1,000 attacked the ra
mparts. The well-fortified
Confederate positions were practically unreachable
across open ground, but
many of the men managed to
attain the objective before they were
thrown back. Three
mes the regiments attacked and each time they were
repulsed. Fro
m an entirely tactical point of
view, nothing had been achieved at a high loss of life
many casualties. But there was more to be gained
than the physical objective:

Whatever doubt
may have existed heretofore as to
the efficiency of organizations of this character,
the history of this day proves conclusively to
to those who were in a condition to observe
the conduct of these re
giments, that the Government
will find in this class of troops effective
supporters and defenders. The severe test to
which they encountered the ene
my, leaves upon my
mind no doubt of their ultimate success.
(Official Records…, v. XXVI p. 45.)

The price paid for their co
mmander's commendation and
the approval of the public was very dear:
37 killed,
155 wounded, and 116
missing in action--out of 1,080.

The Civil War had a two-year head start on the black
troops, but there was as yet no obvious victor. The
South had taken a defensive stance. For Lincoln
make the Union whole once again required the return
of the secessionist states the north would at some point,
have to become the aggressor and invade the Confederate states. The Union's first step was to blockade southern
ports and control the western river approaches to the
rebel states. The first
movement of Union troops
was to occupy and
maintain control of the border
states, particularly Missouri and western Virginia,

and defend Washington.

The bulk of the Confederate army was
moved in force to
Centerville and Harper's Ferry. The first union attack
on the Confederacy was ai
med at the confederate capitol, Richmond Virginia.

On the 21st of July, the two
met near a small stream, Bull Run, where the
Union troops were routed back to Washington by a

Confederate army that found itself, the victor, in equal disarray. Most of the rest of the year was given to training men, obtaining equipment, and building fortifications while the North waited for the South to begin to feel the effects of
its naval blockade.

early 1862, a victory by General Grant in Western Tennessee virtually returned the state to the Union and established control over most of the Mississippi River. Also, the Union naval blockade had begun to secure ports in the South to facilitate blockade operations and its effectiveness was growing in strength monthly.

A successful ca
mpaign had been waged against the Confederacy on the peninsula below Richmond, but the army had been withdrawn after the Seven Days’ Battle. In August, the Battle of Manassas was lost to Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson thereby negating the earlier gains in Virginia. Finally, in September, the rebel forces were across the Potomac from Washington and had crossed the upper Potomac into Pennsylvania and

The Union army was rushed to reinforce Maryland
above the Blue Ridge
Mountains. There the federal
troops were victorious at Antietam. With the Union five days later, on Septe
mber 22, Lincoln issued the Preliminary
mancipation Proclamation. The proclamation had the
effect of simultaneous victories: Although it freed
no slaves since those it dealt with were behind
Confederate lines, the liberal countries of Europe
suddenly forced out of their neutrality, at least philosophically. It did keep the major European powers from recognizing the right to independence of the Confederacy and co
ming to their assistance.

Subsequent victories in Kentucky cleared not only
that state of rebel forces but
most of Tennessee as
well. But in Dece
mber, the Union forces met Lee and
Jackson again at Fredericksburg, Virginia, and suffered
a devastating defeat. At the close of 1862, the outcome of the war was still very much in doubt.

Before the end of 1862, the 1st South Carolina
was in action, raiding the Confederate outposts along
the Georgia and north Florida coastlines. Of their
first action, with
Lt. Colonel Oliver Beard leading
mpany A on a raid, General Saxton reported:

…the negroes fought with a coolness and
bravery that would have done credit to veteran
s. There was no excitement, no flinching,
no atte
mpt at cruelty when successful. They
med like men who were fighting to vindicate their
manhood and they did it well. (Official Records
…, v. XIV, p. 189, Saxton to Stanton, 11/12/62.)

The word was to passed on to the
public and it be
gan to spread fear throughout the
South--black troops were not only being recruited
and trained, but were now being used successfully
in battle by the Union:

…late advices from Kansas and Florida give
details of engagements between the rebels and
United States negro troops in which, the latter
behaved with distinguished coolness and brave
courage, and achieved decided success…these
mental fights…inspires the rebels
with indescribable horror, and bids fair to
work important changes in the policy of the
government toward the negroes.
(New York
mes, 11/17/62.)

Another raiding party later that year
found the rebels were waiting for them-
Fortunately the a
mbush was unsuccessful in that the
objective was achieved by the black soldiers--
300,000 board feet of lu
mber--at a cost of four
wounded troopers. There was to be no further action
in 1862 because of a new commander being assigned
to the 1st South Carolina, Colonel Thomas Higginson
of the 54th
Massachusetts Infantry.

Higginson was well aware of the status of the black
troops: They were very
much in the public eye now and
open to the severest criticism for the slightest
misstep. He immediately set to work to make them
a crack outfit, not that he wasn't convinced of their
value in a fight but that he wanted to i
mbue in them
the appearance and discipline and the pride that
would e
mbellish the reputation already earned in

The first few days on duty with a new regiment
must be devoted almost wholly to tightening
reins…Most of them are wholly raw, but
there are many who have already been for months
in camp in the abortive 'Hunter Regiment,' yet
in that loose
kind of way which, like average
militia training, is a doubtful advantage.

It needs but a few days to show the absurdity of
distrusting the
military availability of these
people. They
have quite as much average comprehension
as whites of the need of the thing, as
much courage (I doubt not), as much previous
knowledge of the
gun, and, above all, a readiness
of ear and of limitation, which, for purposes
of drill, counterbalances any defect of
training…There is no trouble about the drill;
they will surpass whites in that…they are
better fed, housed, and clothed than ever in
their lives before, and they appear to have few
inconvenient vices. They are simple, docile, and
affectionate almost to the point of absurdity.
The same
men who stood fire in open field with
perfect coolness, on the late expedition, have
come to
me blubbering in the most irresistibly
manner on being transferred from one
company in the regiment to another.

After the first of the year which included a great
celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, Higginson
himself led more than
100 of his men on a raid. After
marching several miles, they were suddenly confronted
by the rebel cavalry:

…at the first shot a
man fell at my elbow.
I felt it no more than if a tree had fallen,
--I was so busy watching
my own men and the enemy,
and planning what to do next. Some of our
soldiers, misunderstanding the order, "Fix
bayonets," were actually charging with them, dashing
off into the dim woods, with nothing to charge
at but the vanishing tail of an imaginary
horse,--for we could really see nothing.
This zeal I noted with pleasure, and also
with anxiety, as our greatest danger was
from confusion and scattering; and for infantry
to pursue cavalry would be a novel enterprise
…our assailants, dividing, ride along
each side through the open pine-barren, firing
into our ranks, but
mostly over the heads of
the men. My soldiers in turn fired rapidly,--too
rapidly, being yet beginners,--and it was
evident that, dim as it was, both sides had
opportunity to do some execution.
(Army Life
in a Black Regiment, Thomas Wentworth Higginson,
as quoted in The Black Soldier, David and Elaine
Crane, eds., New York: Morrow, l971.)

engagement was considered  a victory for the
small force, having had confirmation
' of at least one
Confederate officer being killed, but it had also
extracted a
measure from the raiding party:

In the morning,
my invaluable surgeon, Dr.
Rogers, sent me his report of killed and wounded
man killed instantly by ball through
the heart, and seven wounded, one of whom will
die. Braver men never lived. One
man with two bullet-
holes through the large muscles of the
shoulders and neck brought off from the scene
of action, two miles distant, two
muskets; and not a
murmur escaped his _lips. Another, Robert Sutton,
with three wounds,--one of which, being on the
may cost him his life,--would not report
himself till compelled to do so by his officers.
While dressing his wounds, he quietly talked of
what they yet could do. To-day I have had the
Colonel order him to obey me. He is perfectly
quiet and cool, but takes this whole affair
with the religious bearing of a
man who realizes
that freedom is sweeter than life. Yet another
soldier did not report hi
mself at all, but
mained all night on guard, and possibly I
should not have known of his having had a
buck-shot in his shoulder, if so
me duty requiring
a sound s
houlder had not been required of him
11 This last, it may be added, had
persuaded a co
mrade to dig out the buck-shot,
for fear of being ordered on the sick-list.
And one of those who were carried to the vessel--a
man wounded through the lungs--asked only if I
were safe, the contrary having been reported.
An officer
may be pardoned some enthusiasm for
men as these. (Higginson)

An important consequence of Higginson's raid
occurred the following day, as a continuous parade
of slaves began to arrive at the landing carrying
little bu
ndles of clothing and personal effects:

"De brack sojers so presumptious !” This he
repeated three ti
mes, slowly shaking his head
in a ecstasy of ad
miration. It flashed upon me
that the apparition of a black soldier must a
those still in bondage,
much as a butterfly just
from the chrysalis might astound his fellow-grubs.
I inwardly vowed that my sodiers, at least, should
be as "presu
mptious" as I could make them…
…As soon as possible, skirmishers were
thrown out through the woods to the farther edge
of the bluff, while a party searched the houses…

Again I had the exciting sensation of being
within the hostile lines…Presently a horse's
tread was heard in earnest, but it was a squad of our
men bringing in two captured cavalry soldiers.
One of these, a sturdy fellow, submitted quietly
to his lot, only begging that, whenever we
should evacuate the bluff, a note should be left
behind stating that he was a prisoner. The other,
a very young man, and a
member of the "Rebel Troop,"
a sort of Cadet corps among the Charleston youths,
came to
me in great wrath, complaining that the
corporal of our squad had kicked him after he had
surrendered. His air of offended pride was very
rueful, and it did indeed seem a pathetic reversal
of fortunes for the two races.
To be sure, the
youth was a scion of one of the foremost families of
South Carolina, and when I considered the wrongs
which the black race had encountered from those
of his blood, first and last, it seemed as if
most scrupulous Recording Angle might tolerate
one final kick to square the account. But I
reproved the corporal, who respectfully disclaimed
the charge, and said the kick was an incident of
the scuffle. It certainly was not their habit to
show such poor
malice; they thought too well of

Higginson's regiment was joined in early 1863 by a
second black regiment commanded by James Montgomery.
In March, they captured Jacksonville, Florida.

Far to the north in
Massachusetts, the next chapter
of the black American soldier was being written with
the recruitment of the 54th
Massachusetts Volunteers.
The 54th was to be
made up of free northern blacks,
not only from
Massachusetts but from throughout the

By July, the new black force was filled, trained,
and stationed on the Sea Islands. Their first objective
was to be Fort Wagner, which defended Charleston,
South Carolina. Here again, as at Port Hudson, the
black troops were hurled at heavily entrenched veteran ·
Confederate forces. Although the rebels were greatly
outnumbered, the Union artillery bombardment failed to
weaken the
garrison sufficiently to allow its capture.
The 54th was repelled after a valiant, persistent
drive to storm the ramparts: Nearly
half of the 600
black soldiers in the vanguard of the Union troops
lost their lives including the white co
mmander Colonel
Robert Shaw

The southern black troops were accepting of being
detailed for
menial service and manual labor. The
attitude of the northern blacks toward subservience
was completely different: They were determined to
help their brothers gain their freedom, that fight
not, however, include cleaning the quarters of
the white troops.

assachusetts was the first state to act on the
President’s proclam
ation, followed by Pennsylvania,
Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Recruitment of the
Massachusetts started on February 9, 1863, and
men began training at Readville before the month
was out. Colonel Robert Shaw took command shortly
after his
muster in mid-April. By mid-July, they
were facing Fort Wagner near Charleston:

At daylight, on the morning of the 12th of
July a strong column of our troops advanced swiftly
to the attack of Fort Wagner. The rebels were well
prepared, and swept with their guns every foot of
the approach to the fort, but our soldiers pressed
on, and
gained a foothold on the parapet; but, not
being supported by other troops, nor aided by the
guns of the fleet, which quietly looked on, they
were forced to retreat, leaving
many of their
comrades in the hands of the enemy.
Black Phalanx, p. 250 --author not cited)

Interestingly enough, this battle was equally
chronicled on either side leaving a parallel view
of history: Major General Taliaferro, C.S.A.:

The fort was in good condition, having been
materially strengthened since the former assault…

The garrison was esti
mated at one thousand seven
hundred aggregate …

…The positions to be occupied were well known
to every officer and
man and had been verified repeatedly
by day and night, so there was no fear of confusion,
mistake or delay in the event of an assault. The troops
of course were not ordered to these positions when
at 6 o'clock it was evident a furious bo
mbardment was
mpending, but, on the contrary, to the shelter of
the bo
mb-proofs, sand-hills and parapet; a few
sentinels or videttes were detailed and the gun
hments only ordered to their pieces…

About a quarter past 8 o'clock the storm broke,
ship after ship and battery after battery, and then
apparently all together…The sand came down in
avalanches; huge vertical
.shells and those rolled
over by the ricochet shots from the ships, buried
mselves and then exploded, rending the earth and
forming great craters…thousands upon thousands
of shells and round shot, shells loaded with balls,
shells of guns and shells of
mortars, percussion
shells, exploding upon i
mpact, shells with graded
fuses--every kind apparently known to the arsenals
of war…So
me men were dead and no scratch appeared on
their bodies; the concussion had forced the breath
from their lungs…

eanwhile, the Union troops watched and waited the
move forward:

Were the rebels all dead? Had they fled from the
pitiless stor
m which our batteries had poured down
upon them for so
many hours? Where were they?

…The Fifty-fourth
Massachusetts led the
attack, supported by the 6th Conn., 48th N.Y., 3rd
N.H., 76th Penn. and the 9th Maine Regi
Onward swept the i
mmense mass of men, swiftly and
silently, in the dark shadows of night. Not a flash
light was seen in the distance! No sentinel
hoarsely challenged the approaching foe! All
was still save the footsteps of the soldiers, which
sounded like the roar of the distant surf…

Fort Wagner:

…The buried cannon were at once exhu
med, the guns
remounted and the garrison ordered to their appointed
posts…the echoes of the Federal guns had hardly
died away before
more than three-fourths of the
ramparts were lined with troops…


The silent and shattered walls of
Wagner all at
once burst forth into a blinding sheet of
vivid light
…the hissing shot, the shrieking bombs, the
whistling bars of iron, and the whispering bullet
struck and crushed through the dense
masses of our

The ditch is reached; a thousand
men leap into it,
clamber up the shattered ra
mparts, and grapple with
the foe, which yields and falls back to the rear of
the fort. Our
men swarm over the walls, bayoneting
the desperate rebel cannoneers…

Fort Wagner:

…They fell by hundreds, but they pushed on,
reeling under the frightful blasts that almost blew
them to pieces, some up to the Confederate bayonets.
The southeast bastion was weakly defended, and into it
a considerable body of the enemy
made their way
but they were caught in a trap…


But now came another blinding blast from concealed
guns in the rear of the fort, and our men went down
by scores…our
men rally once more; but, in spite
of an heroic resistance, they are forced back again
to the edge of the ditch. Here the brave Shaw, with
scores of his black warriers [sic] went down,
fighting desperately…
Nearly two thousand of our
brave boys lay dead on the ramparts of the
fort, in its broad ditch, and along the beach at its

Fort Wagner:

The carnage was frightful. It is believed the
Federals lost
more men on that eventful night than
twice the entire strength of the Confederate
The Confederates lost about fifty killed and one
hundred and fifty wounded altogether from the bo
and the assault…One of the assaulting regiments was
composed of negroes and to it was assigned the honor
of leading the white columns to the charge. It was a
dearly purchased compliment. Their Colonel was killed
upon the parapet and the regiment almost annihilated,
although the Confederates in the darkness could not
tell the color of their assailants…(
Black Phalanx 254-263)

The young commander of the 54th, Colonel Robert
Shaw, had led the regiment to the fortress, had
been with them in the withering rifle fire, and had
attempted to lead them back to safety. He died with
men in the shadow of Fort Wagner. The morning after
the battle a truce was arranged to bury the dead. The
Confederates, however, had completed the task earlier.
A specific request was
made for the body of Shaw. The
reply, "We have buried him with his niggers, " earned
for him a high position in the growing esteem for the
black soldiers. Along with Shaw, the 54th had lost 247
soldiers out of some 600 who entered the assault.

Officers in the Department of the South had for some
months been aware of the courage shown by the southern
Now, there could be no doubt as to the same
dedication being ingrained in the northern negroes.
General Gillmore, following the attack on Fort
Wagner, ordered all racial discrimination within his
mmand to cease. While the attack on Fort Wagner
had failed, the black troops once again purchased a
measure of equality with their blood.

The siege of Fort Wagner continued through the
end of 1863 with no further offensive being
The black troops, which now included the 8th Pennsylvania,
North Carolina, 2nd South Carolina, and 55th Massachusetts. The first three regiments along with six white regiments landed at Jacksonville, Florida, with an expectation
of occupying the entire states against only token

The 40th Massachusetts, a white mounted infantry
made a dash into the rebel's Camp Finnigan
outside the city, capturing prisoners and equipment.
The 6.,000 troops then began a
march across Florida
along the Florida Central Railroad, camping on the
night of the 19th at Barbour's Station.

On the
morning of the 20th, the troops started for
Lake City. In the early afternoon, th
e force reached
a country road crossing the railroad track, two miles
east of Olustee. Here, Confederate pickets began to
fire on the Union troops and fall back. The surprised
Yankees had not expected to reach any concentration of
troops for several
miles and, supposing this to be a
mall force, attacked. The rebel skirmishers were
quickly forced back to their lar
ger units, but the
leading Union soldiers now found the
mselves flanked
on both sides.

The colu
mn of soldiers following the leading
giments was rushed in as reinforcements, only to find
the battlefield in chaos and little roo
m to group
maneuver. As quickly as a line of skirmishers
could be assembled it was sent to attack the entrenched
rebels or
to defend the embattled artillery.

The 54th Massachusetts and 1st North Carolina were
reserve units, brin
ging up the rear. They were marched
forward into the battle and were within easy range of
the ene
my, 100 yards, before they realized the difficult
ment. They formed themselves wading through
mps with the rebels firing volleys into their midst
from concealed positions. At last, they were ordered
to fall back. With a coolness that belied the chaotic
situation, they withdrew and stood their ground in
aiding their co
mrades to retreat.

The failure of the officers to realize the strength
and position of the Confederates caused an inordinate
number of casualties: So
me 1,400 over all, of whom 800
were from the black regiments. Not only had the enemy been
sorely underestimated, but the Union officers had
ordered the unite to attack without reconnoitering.
And then, none had the foresi
ght to withdraw to
defensive positions, utilizing the artillery, until an
ment and battle plan could be made.

That night, under cover of darkness, the re
of the regiments be
gan a disorganized retreat to
Barbour's Station. The following morning, the wounded
were loaded on flat cars and without benefit of
motives, the open-air ambulances were towed by the
soldiers the
mselves. The bloody, bedraggled units
arrived in Jacksonville on the morning of

February 22, having raveled through the night. Again,
the war had destroyed any attempt at segregation and
mination; the wounded and dying, black and white,
were aboard each of the flatcars pulled by "en
of black and white.

Colonel Higginson, who had re
mained behind at
Beaufort with the 1st South Carolina, has left a
moving account of the arrival of a steamer carrying
the first com
munication of the action as well as its
battered human cargo:

There was a sound of revelry by night at a ball
in Beaufort las night, in a large building beautifully
decorated…General Gillmore only came, I supposed,
to put a good face upon the matter. He went away soon,
and General Saxton went…as we all stood wondering
we were aware of General Saxton who strode hastily
down the hall, his pale face very resolute, and looking
most sick with anxiety. He had just been on board the
mer; there were two hundred and fifty wounded men
just arrived, and the ball must end…

Later, I went on board the boat
, Among the long
lines of wounded, black and white intermingled, there
was wonderful quiet which usually prevails on such occasions.

The 54th was engaged in some of the bloodiest
of the War, but none perhaps, was
more pathetic than
that fought after the surrender at Appomattox. The
regiment was in the western hills of South Carolina,
far from direct com
munication with Union headquarters:

…We had literally fought every step of the way
from Georgetown to Camden, and the enemy
made a last
desperate stand at this place (Boykin's Mill).
better position could be found for a defense, as the
only approach to it, was by a narrow embankment about
200 yards long, where only one could walk at a time.
The planks of the bridge over the mill-race were torn
up, compelling the troops to cross on the timbers and
cross-ties, under a
galling fire which swept the
bridge and embankment, rendering it a fearful
of death." The heroes of Wagner and Olustee did not
shrink from the trial, but actually charged in single
file. The first step upon the fatal path, went down like
grass before the scythe, but over their prostrate bodies
came their co
mrades, until the enemy, panic-stricken
by such determined daring, abandoned their position
and fled.
(Higginson, Army Life in Black Regiment)

The agony was at an end for the 54th and, at last,
the war was ended and they were
mustered out on
mber 23, 1865, in Boston.

After the failure on the peninsula, General
John Pope was relieved of his co
mmand in the Department
of the West in order to renew the drive on Richmond, again,
m Washington. Lee and Stonewall Jackson once
again outmaneuvered t
he Army of the Potomac, this
me at Manassas Junction on August 29 and 30 1862.
Lincoln then returned McClellan to command the
defense of Washington, fearing the successes of the
Confederacy might
make them bold enough to attempt
an invasion of the capitol. Instead, Lee
moved north,
crossing the Poto
mac into Maryland above Harper's Ferry.

Lee had decided to take the offensive, but his
goal was Harrisburg. Here in central Pennsylvania,
he hoped to sever Yankee rail co
mmunication with
their ar
my in the west. Jackson was detailed south to
capture Harper's Ferry while Lee continued on to the

This ti
me McClellan had anticipated the movement
--assisted by a recovered copy of the Confederate
battle plan—and
cut Jackson's troops off at South
Mountain. Lee ordered his co
mmand to reinforce
Jackson and the co
mbined force faced McClellan at
m on September 17.

Although caught in a difficult position and outnumbered
most three to one, Lee was able to inflict
higher casualties on the Union troops than were
sustaineded by his co
mmand. They were, however,
casualties the rebels could ill afford. Lee
returned his ar
my to Virginia to regroup.

The defeat and retreat at Antietam brought forth
the preliminary Emancipation Procla
mation and forced
the European powers away from recognizing the right of
Confederate independence. Within weeks, the Confederacy
had suffered another
major defeat at Perryville.
And the Union
generals enjoyed the greatest advantage
of the
18-month war.

The Army of the Potomac, once again,
moved forward
toward Richmond. As before, the move
ment was too long
delayed to have the desired effect. The Army of
Northern Virginia cut them off and
made their stand
at Fredericksburg. Still enjoying a vast advantage
in numbers, the Union army, now under Ambrose
attempted a frontal assault. The Confederate army,
commanding high
ground, six times drove the federal
troops back, inflicting extensive damage while
receiving less than
half the Union casualties.

As 1863 began, Lincoln's resolve to "restore
the Union" was as strong as ever, but the means to do
so were still to be found.
The first four months of
the new year were spent in resupplying the army with
men and materiel. Lee, meanwhile, was planning
a new campaign in Pennsylvania, feeling the
way to
bring the Union to its knees was to
divide it. The Confederate army reached Pennsylvania
in Late June, just as Lincoln was appointing yet
another commander, General George Meade.

The Army of Northern Virginia was moving on Harrisburg,
but Lee had turned most of his army east into South
Mountain, encamping on the slopes above Gettysburg.
Meade had taken a defensive position south of town
and waited for Lee to commit his troops
to battle.

The fight began just outside Gettysburg as a
minor battle, but soon the warring armies had committed
the bulk of their troops. For three days the battle at
Gettysburg raged with attacks and counterattacks
being exchanged. Lee, the brilliant tactician, was
not the battlefield genius the Union armies had
faced earlier; Meade was a different kind of soldier than his
predecessors. And the federal forces eventually wore
down the rebels by
maintaining strong defensive positions.
Pickett's Charge against fortified Union troops on
Cemetery Ridge was a marvel of daring and persistence,
but it also epito
mized the hopelessness of the secession.

Despite the defeat, Lee kept his army in position
through July 4, finally withdrawing toward Virginia on
the following day. The flooded Potomac stopped the
s retreat near Sharpsburg and presented Meade
with an opportunity to possibly, end the War through
a rapid and aggressive attack. Once again, the
Confederate Army
made good its retreat.

In the west, General Rosecrans and Grant had contained
the Confederacy and gained control of the Mississippi
except for the stretch between Port Hudson and Vicksburg.
And the Army of the Tennessee had moved as far south
as Memphis and Corinth, Mississippi. Vicksburg
remained the
key to further extensive advances and
a difficult objective, sitting high on bluffs above
the Mississippi,
garrisoned by 56,000 Confederate
troops. The siege of Vicksburg required Grant to
deploy a great percentage of his army around the
city and withdrawing large numbers of troops from
other strategic positions such as Milliken's Bend.

The 9th and 11th Louisiana, the 1st Mississippi,
and a detachment of white cavalry were stationed at
Milliken's Bend overlooking the Mississippi River.
Most of the men in the black regiments were recruits
and the post, in addition to controlling that portion
of the river, was an excellent site in which to
supply the training the
men needed. Unfortunately,
they were in for a crash course.

General Henry McCulloch with 3,000 rebel soldiers
ked from the east, driving the Union troops to
their riverfront positions. Feeling they had
successfully penned the enemy for the night, the
rebels rested until the early
morning hours.

In the gray, pre-dawn of June
7, 1863, the superior
numbers of
the rebel units were charging the barricades
with fixed bayonets, yelling, "No quarter!” Of the
600 men who defended the position, 500 were black
soldiers. The attacking force has been estimated as
high as 3,000, but was
most likely between 1,500 and

The ferocity of the onslaught, at first, drove
the defenders back as the Confederates practically
overran the entrenchments. The intent of the enemy became
quickly clear to the black soldiers--complete annihilation.
With calm determination, the garrison began to stand its
ground and, supported by two small Union gunboats on
the river, drive the rebels from their positions.

In no battle of the Civil War was it
more readily
apparent to the black soldiers that they were fighting
for their freedom. As one participant later described

It was a horrible fight, the worst I was ever
engaged in,--not even excepting Shiloh. The enemy
cried, "No quarter" but some of them were very glad
to take it when
made prisoners…

This battle satisfied the slave-masters of the
South that their charm was
gone; and that the negro
as a slave, was lost forever. Yet there was one
fact connected with the battle of
Milliken's Bend which
will descend to posterity, as testimony against the
humanity of slave-holders; and that is, that no negro
was ever found alive that was taken a prisoner by
the rebels in this fight.
(Wilson, The Black
Phalanx, quoting Captain Miller, p. 205)

After the battle was ended and the assessments
the black troops had impressed all those who had
witness to their
achievement. A Confederate report
stated that the “rebel charge was resisted by the
negro portion of the enemy’s force with considerable
obstinacy, while the white or true Yankee portion
ran like whipped curs almost as soon as the charge
was ordered.”  General Henry McColloch

On the other side of the line, General Grant
reported to the Adjutant General: "Their conduct
is said…to have been
most gallant, and I
doubt not but with good officers they will make good
troops." And the commanding officer at Milliken's
Bend, General
Dennis said, "It is impossible
for men to show greater gallantry than the Negro
troops in that fight." (Official Records, v.
pp. 447-448, Dennis to ,Grant, June 12, 1863)

The action at
Milliken's Bend was one of the last
attempts of the Confederacy to break the siege of
Vicksburg. Grant's army
had advanced across Mississippi
below the city, marching nearly 200 miles in 18 days,
winning five battles and taking 8,800 prisoners.
Vicksburg was surrendered on the 4th of July, 1863,
and its defeat caused Port Hudson, to the south, to
do likewise.

Now began Sherman's
, march to the sea: Chickamauga
on September 19; Chattanooga, November 22-23; Chattahoochee River, July 17, 1864; and Savannah, December 10. Sherman's troops then turned north to the Carolinas, seizing Columbia on February 17, 1865, Fayetteville
March 11, and Goldsboro on March 23.

In the north, despite a raid by General Jubal Early
which threatened Fort Stevens on the outskirts of
Washington, D.C., during mid-July 1864
the Union army was finally asserting
control. General Grant was given command on March
1864, immediately began a concerted campaign to take
Richmond. The Union army lost almost 18,000 men in
the Wilderness, while Lee lost no more than half than
number. But the die was cast, and Grant had no intention
of being deterred from his objective. The federal
troops next engaged the Confederates at Spotsylvania.
The rebel troops were well entrenched and fighting
with their backs to the wall: and more than 12,000

more Union soldiers went down. Once more Grant
forged ahead, this time the armies
met at Cold
Harbor and for ten days the armies battled, the Union
losing 12,000 more men. This time, Lee withdrew his
forces to Petersburg and Grant laid siege to the city;
the attack of Union forces on June 15-18 cost the
army another 8,000
men. Grant now settled his army
in for a siege that lasted nine
months, but allowed
Sherman to do his work in the heartland of the South.

December 1864, Nashville fell to the Union and
Lee began to feel the pinch of the encircling armies.
Sherman, now in the Carolinas, was in position to
close from the south. Lee was now faced, in addition
to the tactical problems, with
mass desertions; the
Confederate soldiers were well aware of the fact
which Jefferson Davis continued to ignore-there
was no longer a chance of winning independence
through battle with the Union army.

Lee's army left Petersburg in early April and
marched into Richmond. The Confederate
flight to the west was cut off by General Sheridan and
the stage was set for Lee to surrender at Appomattox
Court House on April 9, 1865.

Five days later, on April 14, President Lincoln was shot and died in Washington.

The su
mmer of 1863 saw the recruitment of black units
proceeding at full speed, spurred on by the reputations
earned at Milliken' s Bend, Port Hudson, and Fort
gner. By the end of July, there were 14 black
infantry re
giments and a battery of artillery;
being organized at the sa
me time were 24 more
black re

Even at this ti
me there was widespread argument as
to whether these units should be used in co
mbat or
mployed in support and garrison positions to free
white soldiers for battle. In spite of their proven
abilities, so
me commanders were reluctant, if not
mant, to commit the black regiments in major

By the end of October, there were a
total of
58 regiments in the Union army with a total
gth of 37,482. The regiments came from 15 states
and the District of Columbia. Louisiana alone
contributed 21 re
giments, Tennessee mustered five,
and South Carolina recruited four. In his message
to the Congress in 1864, Lincoln infor
med them that
"100,000 are
now in the United States military service,
about one-half of which number actually bear ar
in the ranks." On October 20, 1864, Major Charles
Foster of the Bureau for Colored Troops reported 140
gro regiments now enlisted totaling more than 100,000
men in artillery, cavalry, and infantry unite. This
number would eventually reach 186,000 who served
the Union during the Civil War.

For the most part black regi
ments continued to
find full utilization and glory in the minor battles
of the War, although
many of their numbers contributed
at Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg as well.

One such action which brought the
m more recognition
was fou
ght near Moscow, Tennessee, in early December
1863. There the 2nd West Tennessee Infantry of
African Descent received a unit citation fro
General Stephen Hurlbut:

The recent affair at
Moscow, Tennessee, has
monstrated the fact that colored troops, properly
disciplined and co
mmanded, can and will fight well,
and the general co
mmanding the corps deems it to be
due to the officers and
men of the Second Regiment
West Tennessee Infantry of African Descent thus
publicly to return his personal thanks for their
gallant and successful defense of the i
position to which they had been assigned, and for the
manner in which they have vindicated the wisdom of
the Governm
ent in elevating the rank and file of
these regi
ments to the position of freedmen and soldiers.
(Official Records XXIX, 975-976)

m the beginning of 1864, the black regiments were
more and more as combat soldiers; where in 1862
they were officially en
gaged in only one battle and
only 28 in 1863, in 1864 there were 170 involving
black soldiers. While these official records
not include all the en
gagements involving black
troops, they do give a clear picture of how their
hard-won reputation was beginning to affect the
mmanding generals in each department of operation.

Petersburg saw the largest concentration
of black troops in one battle during the entire War.
Nine regi
ments totaling 4,300 men were sent to
assault the Confederate lines where a giant
was used to create a breech. Anticipating heavy
casualties, General Grant decided not to use the
black bri
gades to lead the charge:

eneral Burnside wanted to put his colored division
in front and I believe if he had done so it would have
been a success. Still, I a
greed with General Meade in
his objection to that plan. General Meade said that
if we put the colored troops in front, (we had only
that one division) and if it should prove a failure,
it would then be said, a
nd very properly, that we
were shovin
g those people ahead to get killed because
we did not care anything about the
m. But that could
not be said if we put white troops in front.
of the Co
mmittee on the Conduct of the War on the
Attack on Petersburg the 30th Day of July,7 1864
gton, 1865, p. 5

Whatever the reasoning, it was a regretful decision.
The white division thrown into battle had been fatigued
by prolon
ged action for some time before the action and
ir officers were poorly informed as to what awaited
m. The black division, when finally committed, had
to battle their way throu
gh retreating soldiers and
onto to a battlefield filled with wounded and dead.
Despite the obstacles, they were able to forge ahead
of the positions held by their predecessors. But
the positions were untenable, all coordinated plans
were dissolved
in a chaotic muddle of disorganized
men and units, and the regiments were forced to

The rout was criticized greatly in the press and
a scape
goat was sought. Since the black units had
been an integral part of the assault, they were
singled as the cause of the failure. Quickly, the
survivors among the officers rushed to set the
record straight:

It is a fact that the black troops broke and ran
to the rear in considerable
of a panic, which indicates
misbehavior; but they went in late, found in the
my's works quite a mass of our own troops unable to
advance, and durin
g their formation, and in fact during
their advance between the two lines, they were subjected
to probably the hottest fire that any troops had been
subjected to durin
g the day; and I do not know that it
is reasonable to suppose that after the loss of so
great a portion of their officers they could have
been expected to
maintain their position. They certainly
moved forward as gallantly under the first fire and until
their ranks were broken as any troops I ever saw in
(Burnsides, Report of the Committee…)

They went up as well as I ever saw troops go up-well
closed, perfectly enthusiastic. The ca
me back
very badly. They ca
me back on the run, every man for
mself…It is but justice to the line officers to
say that more than two-thirds of them were shot, and
to the colored troops that the white troops were running
back just ahead of the
m. (Colonel Henry Thomas,
mmander of the second brigade of black regiments--
19th, 23rd, 28th, 29th, and 31st, Report of the Committee

At Deep Bottom, Virginia, in mid-August, four
ments of black soldiers renewed any loss of faith
might have occurred as a result of the crater
episode. In battles around Deep Botto
m, the blacks
fought well and, for once, their
casualties were
relatively low.

From Deep Bottom, the X Corps assaulted, first,
on New
Market Heights, and Fort Gilmer and, second, Fort
Harrison--both referred to as the battle of Chaffin' s
Farm. General Benja
min Butler, commanding the XVIII
Corps, led the early morning assault on September 29 up
New Market Heights. The troops entered the fortifications and, with bayonets fixed, chased the garrison out. Butler had no doubts as to what the action proved: “…the capacity of
the negro race for soldiers had then and there been
fully settled forever” (Butler’s Book, pp. 731-733)

The troops assaulting rebel positions at
Fort Gilmer were not as successful. The strongly
fortified and
manned position was-strategically
mportant. Of the four companies of black troops
who took part in the attack, only three returned to
safety; the rest were all killed, wounded, or
captured. Under deadly rifle fire and within
range of hand
grenades, the black soldiers had
tried to cross the fortifications by
standing on each others shoulders in a
ditch surrounding the Confederate positions.

The black troops were well used in the balance
of the war. And, toward the end of 1864, were
briefly for
med into their own corps--the XXV Army
Corps under
Major General Godfrey Weitzel.
While this new organization promised real opportunity
for recognition and i
mportant engagements it was
not to be:

orders for the spring
dispelled our illusions and scattered our hopes. We
found our corps broken up, our divisions taken from
General Weitzel and placed under strangers; our
brigades scattered, our regi
ments ordered into
mporary service with white brigades, our fractured
command placed in the rear and on the flank. It
clearly not intended that the colored troops should
.any glory in the last events of the war. (William
Birney, General William Birney's Answer to Libels
Clandestinely Circulated by James Shaw,
Washington, 1878, p. 8)

But the
war was not over for the black soldiers and
was the glory. On August 15, 1864, the 14th U.S.
Colored Troops saw their first action at Dalton,
gia. Facing an attack by General Joe Wheeler,
the troops stood their
ground before the Confederate
cavalry and routed the enemy so completely that a
nearby re
giment of white troops gave them a
"three rousing cheers."

A month later, the 14th USCT was placed to thwart
the path of General Nathan Forrest, who had commanded
the Confederate force at Fort Pillow. Whether the
black soldiers were aware of their foe's identity or
not, they repulsed the Confederates at Pulaski,
Tennessee. Performing squally well in subsequent
battles, the 14th was positioned at Nashville in
December. (See McPherson pp. 228-234)

The two colored brigades were given the
gnment of going into battle first to draw
Confederate attention. Once the action had
mmenced, the bulk of the Union force would
attack. However, someone must have forgotten to
inform the soldiers that their move
ment was to
be only diversionary. Once more, their casualties
ran high, but so did their desire and "what was
intended merely as a demonstration was
converted into an actual assault." On the second
attempt, Overton Hill, the objective was taken and
the enemy lines overrun:

The severe loss of this part of my
troops was in their brilliant charge on the enemy's works
on Overton Hill…I was unable to discover that color
made any difference in the fighting of my troops.
-white and black, nobly did their duty as soldiers, and
evinced cheerfulness and resolution Ruch as I have
never seen excelled in any campaign of the war in
which I have borne a part.
" (Official Records, XLV
p. 508. Henry Stone “Hood’s inaction of Tennessee”, Century
Magazine V. XII, Aug. 1887 p. 615)

The black contribution to the Union effort
in the
Civil War cannot be easily disregarded. To do
so is patently unfair to the me
mory of the 186,000
African American soldiers, nearly 70,000 of whom died or were missing in action. When given the opportunity, the
results they achieved could never be denigrated:
They were loyal, coura
geous, and well-disciplined.

As General Grant said, they were the equal of any troops
as long as they were well led.

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Arlington, Va. Band of 107th U.S. Colored Infantry at Fort Corcoran.  Photo: Library of Congress

Arlington, Va. Band of 107th U.S. Colored Infantry at Fort Corcoran.  Photo: Library of Congress

Black Soldiers Bibliography




Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography, 1888, Vols. I-VI.


Aptheker, Herbert, ed., with preface by W. E. B. Du Bois. A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States. New York: Citadel Press, 1951, vols 1 and 2.


Astor, Gerald. The Right to Fight: A History of African Americans in the Military. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1998.


Bergman, Peter M. The Chronological History of the Negro in America.  New York: Bergman/Harper & Row, 1969.


Brown, William Wells, with introduction and notes by William Edward Farrison. The Negro in the American Rebellion: His Heroism and His Fidelity. New York, Citadel Press, 1971.


Cornish, Dudley Taylor. The Sable Arm. New York, 1956.


Foner, Jack D. Blacks and the Military in American History. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974.


Long, E. B., with Barbara Long, forward by Bruce Catton. The Civil War Day by Day: An Almanac 1861-1865. New York: Da Capo Press, 1971.


McPherson’ James M. The Negro’s Civil War. New York, 1965.


Meyer, Howard N., ed. The Magnificent Activist: The Writings of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1823-1911. Da Capo Press, 2000.


Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the Civil War. Boston, 1953.


Ward, Andrew. The Slaves’ War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves. Boston: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin, 2008.

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Bermuda Hundred, VA. African-American teamsters near the signal tower. Photo: Library of Congress

Bermuda Hundred, VA. African-American teamsters near the signal tower.  Photo: Library of Congress