Notes on African-American History Since 1900 The history of chattel slavery from 1619 to 1863 is a history of African-American resistance to the American slave system. African captives resisted slavery in various forms; from insurrections on slave ships during the Middle Passage, sabotaging, maiming and killing animals, non-cooperation, work slowdowns, running away, suicide, and work strikes, to organized rebellion. During slavery some two hundred and four slave insurrections occurred. Slave plots were recorded in New York as early as 1712 and 1741. The Stono insurrection in South Carolina in 1720, and again in 1739, created utter fear in the slaveholders. There was a slave plot in Georgia in 1739, but the largest and most notable slave plots or insurrections were the Gabrial Prosser Conspiracy in Virginia in 1800, the slave revolt in Louisiana in 1811, the Demark Vesey Conspiracy in South Carolina in 1821 and the Nat Turner insurrection in Virginia in 1831.1 Probably the largest slave revolt in the United States took place near New Orleans in 1811. Four to five hundred slaves gathered after an uprising at the plantation of a Major Andry. Armed with cane knives, axes and clubs, they wounded Andry, killed his son, and began marching from plantation to plantation, their numbers growing. They were attacked by the U.S. army and militia forces; sixty-six were killed on the spot and sixteen were tried and shot by a firing squad.2 Resistance continued and became more intense along with anti-slavery agitation by white and African-American (Freedmen or runaways) abolitionists during the years preceding the Civil War. Sectional conflict, both within Congress and in the prairies and streets of America, became so violent, that with the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, the South seceded and attacked the Union. Economically slaves were being used increasingly as an industrial labor force for Southern industry prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.3 So, the question of which way the nation was to go, free labor or slave labor, was a paramount question for the developing white industrial class in northern cities. The combination of the Union Army and African-American ex-slaves (Union soldiers) destroyed the Confederacy and ended slavery. 4 During the Civil War, at various meetings and through promises from the Union generals, African-Americans came to believe the previous slave plantations would be broken up into individual 40 acre sections, and two mules would be loaned to them by the federal government, for their participation in helping the (North) Union win the Civil War.
African-Americans in the Civil War In the annals of American History, many historians consider the Civil War between northern and southern states, to be the most pivotal event in determining the course of the nation that was the United States of America. The Civil War lasted a little more than three years, and like many civil wars, pitted brother against brother, which resulted in feelings of distrust and animosity that have continued for over a century. African-Americans fought valiantly to change the course of history and their status in a young nation that heretofore regarded them primarily as chattel slaves, or second-class citizens providing a source of cheap, if not free, labor.
Hundreds of books have been written about the Civil War, but few focus on the contributions of African-Americans. In addition to the books about African-Americans in the Civil War, there are movies, websites that provide excerpts from journals, brief articles and reference lists.
In recent years popular films and historical documentaries focusing on African-Americans and specifically the 54th regiment have been produced to provide a more balanced historical account of the soldiers who fought in the Civil War. Many of the resources that focus on the role of African-Americans in the Civil War were written, or produced, by African-Americans. Primary data describing the war and the treatment of soldiers are available in the form of letters from African-American soldiers on the battlefield to their loved ones. As historians, and scholars with a passion for uncovering the truth, these accounts are critical sources for recording and interpreting Civil War events because they offer a perspective of the war from those who's contributions were unjustly marginalized. There are many important stories as told by the descendants of soldiers whose sacrifices have gone unrecognized by mainstream historians. Not surprising to many of us, most accounts of the Civil War only briefly mention the contributions of African-Americans in passing. The following is by no means a full account of African-Americans in the Civil War.
Treatment of African-Americans in the Civil War The contraband soldiers, as some were called, and other soldiers of African descent, were not viewed with the same degree of respect and reverence as white solders who fought in the war. African-American soldiers endured racist and prejudicial treatment when it came to medical treatment, training, and punishment as prisoners of war, rewards, and recognition as soldiers.
Events Leading African-American Soldiers into the Civil War A growing number of Northern abolitionists argued that the Southern system was morally wrong and must be abolished. Northern abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison founded an antislavery newspaper in 1831 named The Liberator, calling for the end of institutionalized slavery in the United States. Other influential African-American abolitionist leaders included prominent men such as Frederick Douglass, James Forten and David Walker. In 1829, Walker published his pamphlet in Boston entitled Walker's Appeal, two years before Nat Turner's rebellion in Southampton, Virginia, in 1831, urging slaves to rise up and kill their masters.
Among the general population, it was widely held that under the constitution, the United States government lacked the power to set slaves free. The rights of the states were considered beyond the reach of federal legislation. The sovereign right of states was the prevailing sentiment. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, few Northerners were willing to fight for the freedom of slaves. The North's war goal was clear and simple - restore the Union. However, after Southerners won several opening battles, it became increasingly clear that in order to defeat the Confederacy, it would be necessary to destroy the South's social and economic structure.
Abolition of slavery would be an important step in this destruction. To accomplish this, it would be essential to utilize all available means to win, including employing African-Americans in the military forces. Northerners and the Union army gradually accepted this basic policy. The abolitionist movement aided their cause. One of the most prominent abolitionists of the period was Frederick Douglass. Susan-Mary Grant writes about Frederick Douglass in Pride and Prejudice in the American Civil War. Douglass, an escaped slave, was an abolitionist and frequently gave speeches and wrote about the vestiges of slavery. The following comment, summarizes his thoughts on the matter of African-American soldiers in the civil war as compared to their participation in the revolutionary war,
Colored men were good enough to fight under Washington; they are not good enough to fight under McClellan. They were good enough to fight under Andrew Jackson. They are not good enough to fight under General Halleck. They were good enough to help win American independence but they are not good enough to help preserve that independence against treason and rebellion.5 Douglass wrote and spoke eloquently as an abolitionist and advocate for the use of slaves and African-Americans in the war effort:
Douglass wrote, "When first the rebel cannon shattered the walls of Sumter, and drove away its starving garrison, I predicted that the war, then and there inaugurated, would not be fought out entirely by white men. Every month's experience during these dreary years has confirmed that opinion. A war undertaken and brazenly carried on for the perpetual enslavement of colored men, calls logically and loudly for colored men to help suppress it. Only a moderate share of sagacity was needed to see that the arm of the slave was the best defense against the arm of the slaveholder. Hence, with every reverse to the national arms, with every exultant shout of victory raised by the slaveholding rebels, I have implored the imperiled nation to unchain against her foes, her powerful African-American hand. Slowly and reluctantly that appeal is being heeded."6 Americans went to war with each other in the 1860's partly because two very different societies had developed; one in the North, influenced by developing industry, and the other in the South, where agriculture remained dominant. Of these two societies, the South used Africans in much larger numbers as slaves for labor. Using slave labor was very expensive, allowing fewer than twenty percent of Southerners to own and maintain slaves. In the North, the vast majority of the citizens and immigrants labored for wages. The North enjoyed a higher standard of living, which allowed for the development of a middle class and the beginnings of an industrial working class. It was this economic advantage that was being threatened by the breaking up of the Union. The economic implications of maintaining or dismantling slavery were far more influential in shaping policy than the moral position denouncing slavery.
The new president, Abraham Lincoln, was also concerned about Europe's view of the United States. He was being forced to take into consideration the international status of the nation in making policy decisions related to the question of slavery because, if he could get Britain to support the North and boycott the South, it would affect the Southern economy. England could do this because it could get cotton for its textile mills from plantations in India that produced cotton. Closer to home, Lincoln was being pressured by northern abolitionists and African-Americans. He was very concerned about alienating Border States which, although technically Southern states, they still held solidarity with the Union as compared to those States which had already seceded from the Union. In response to the economic implications of a prolonged war and the military's inability to gain a solid victory against the Confederacy, a series of legislative policies were enacted.
In 1861, Congress had passed an act stating that all slaves employed against the Union were to be considered free. In 1862, Congress passed the Confiscation Act. This law stated that property used by the Confederates to further their rebellion could be seized by the U.S. government. Slaves, who had been Confederate property, were therefore considered "contraband of war" and could legally be taken from their owners. In an effort to placate the slave-holding Border States, Lincoln resisted the demands of radical Republicans for complete abolition. Yet some Union generals, such as General B. F. Butler, declared slaves escaping to their lines "contraband of war," not to be returned to their masters. Other generals decreed that the slaves of men rebelling against the Union were to be considered free. Congress, too, had been moving toward abolition.
In the early years of the war, the enthusiasm of African-Americans to contribute to the war was declined and thwarted continuously. By the end of 1861, only in the Union Navy had they been granted any opportunity, however limited, to prove their worth as men. The Confederacy used its colored population when and where it wanted. The North continued the policy of allowing states to use their discretion in whether or not to use slaves in the war effort. Lincoln was hoping to gain favor with the Border States by allowing them to decide for themselves on the question of slaves as soldiers. The Crittenden Resolution passed the U.S. House of Representatives on July 22, 1861, affirming the fact that the war was being fought to preserve the Union and not to interfere with slavery. In 1862, another act stated that all slaves of men who supported the Confederacy were to be considered free.7 Lincoln, aware of the public's growing support of abolition, issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, declaring that all slaves in areas still in rebellion were, in the eyes of the federal government, free. Congress eventually passed the Enrollment Act, which authorized equal pay for African-American soldiers.
Treatment of African-American Soldiers The Emancipation Proclamation declared that as of January 1, 1863 all slaves in rebellious territories were forever free. The Emancipation Proclamation expanded the Union cause to include freedom for slaves. Therefore, African-American recruits were enrolled into segregated units led by white officers.
The War Department sanctioned the recruitment of African-American troops in August 1862 but, African-American troops were not properly raised until after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1st, 1863.8 The decision came at a time when the war was not going well for the Union, and coincided with the first draft in the North. In some ways this helped. Racist objections to the arming of former slaves could easily, if cynically, be countered on the grounds that it was better that an African-American soldier die than a white one. As John M. Broomall, Congressman from Pennsylvania noted:
I have never found the shakiest constituent of mine, who, when he was drafted, refused to let the blackest Negro in the district go as a substitute for him.9
Some generals, such as William T. Sherman, did not want the African-Americans in their army, but most Union officers reported that African-American men made good soldiers who were highly motivated, did not get drunk, obeyed their officers, and rarely deserted. Principally, they were given non-combat assignments like garrison and occupation duty. These men guarded prisoner of war compounds, supply depots, and labor details such as building roads, digging fortifications, and driving mule powered wagons. Ironically, they also worked on cotton and sugar cane plantations confiscated by Union authorities. Although many African-American soldiers earned respect for hard work and courageous fighting, the price was high. Nearly one in three died in combat, while others died of wounds and disease. Medical supplies were limited, treatment was crude, and the best trained medics were assigned to white soldiers.
Despite their achievements on the battlefield, they suffered from discrimination and prejudice. Because African-Americans were not considered equals by Confederates, many were murdered instead of being taken prisoner and thrown into mass graves. When the Union began using African-American troops in combat, the Confederates announced that they would consider any African-American soldier they could capture not as a prisoner of war but as a fugitive slave. Many Southerners announced unofficially that they would execute any African-American soldier they captured. On April 12, 1864, General Nathan B. Forrest made this threat very real when his cavalry attacked a Union base at Fort Pillow, Tennessee. After the white and African-American solders of the Union army surrendered to Forrest's men, the Confederates proceeded to shoot their prisoners.10 It is estimated that between 277 and 297 Union soldiers were either killed or fatally wounded at what would be known as the massacre at Fort Pillow. The mortality rate among the African-American troops was a staggering 64 percent.11 Word of the massacre spread quickly.
The most profound and immediate impact of Fort Pillow was felt by the African-American men already in the Union ranks, and by the white officers who commanded them. From Fort Pickering in Memphis, 2nd Lieutenant W.A Price of the 55th USCT put down his thoughts for New York's Anglo-African newspaper:
While I meditate for a moment of the Fort Pillow massacre my very blood chills within my veins. I often ask myself the question; "Shall we as officers and men of colored regiments, ever be found with prisoners in our possession?" I can only answer for myself; I would be tempted in such circumstances to mow the infernal rebels to the ground, as I would mow the grass before my scythe. I know not how soon I may be called to share the fate of the gallant officers and men at Fort Pillow. God forbid that such should ever be my lot.12 It is reported that one regiment from Ohio led by Lieutenant Viers, was defeated and left twenty three wounded men on the battlefield who fell into the rebel's hands. Of the twenty-three prisoners, eleven died in Confederate hands. Five others met unknown fates after their capture and one soldier among those being held prisoner died in Richmond after being enslaved. Seven of the soldiers and their commander, Lieutenant Viers, received paroles.13 In another incident, one soldier who survived imprisonment to tell his story was Sergeant Rodney Long of the 29th USCT. After being released from prison in Danville, Virginia where he spent seven months in Confederate detention, he recalled "We suffered terribly while in prison and most of our men died there. His fellow prisoner, who survived capture because his bloody face disguised the fact that he was African-American, also said, "I never knew what it was to get anything respectable to eat while in prison, and there was not one third enough of the vile stuff that was given us. He said, "I was punished severely on account of my color. Out of 180 colored prisoners taken, only seven survived.”14 Reports of the severe treatment and killing of prisoners resulted in abolitionists and recruiters demanding fair treatment of prisoners of war.
Upon learning about the treatment of members of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry taken as prisoners, Frederick Douglass wrote a letter to George L. Stearns explaining why he refused to continue his recruiting efforts for the Union army:
Douglass asked, "How many 54ths must be cut to pieces, its mutilated prisoners killed, and its living sold into slavery, to be tortured to death by inches, before Mr. Lincoln shall say, 'Hold, enough!15 Douglass was one man among many calling for the fair treatment of African-American soldiers. Finally, when African-American soldiers were captured in an engagement before Charleston and the confederates refused to exchange the captured soldiers according to the terms of a previous agreement, President Lincoln issued the following order:
"Executive Mansion, Washington, July 30th, 1863. "It is the duty of every government to give protection to its citizens of whatever color, class, or condition, and especially to those who are duly organized as soldiers in the public service. The law of nations and the usages and customs of war, as carried on by civilized powers, permit no distinction as to color in the treatment of prisoners of war, as public enemies. To sell or enslave any captured person, on account of his color, and for no offense against the laws of war, is a relapse into barbarism, and a crime against the civilization of the age. The government of the United States will give the same protection to all its soldiers; and if the enemy shall enslave or sell any one because of his color, the offense shall be punished by retaliation upon the enemy's prisoners in our possession. It is therefore ordered that for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier shall be executed, and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on public works, continued at such labor until the other shall be released and receive the treatment due to a prisoner of war.
"ABRAHAM LINCOLN" "By order of the Secretary of War”
"E.D. Townsend, Ass't. Adjt.-General."16
In addition to the mistreatment of African-American prisoners of war, there was also the difference in how the African-American soldiers were paid. At first African-Americans were paid only $7 per month plus $3 clothing allowance as compared to $13 allowed for a white private. For ranks other than private, the pay differential was much larger. Since African-American sergeants received the same pay as African-American privates, they received eleven dollars less a month than their white counterparts, or less than half their pay.17 In many cases, the pay that the soldier received for serving in the USCT was less than he would have been earning at home. One soldier, Lieutenant Scroggs, wrote in his diary about the treatment of prisoners of war and the effect of unequal pay on the African-American soldiers,
The rebels have not yet recognized or treated such colored soldiers as have fallen into their hands as prisoners of war, but have butchered, starved and even burnt them to death. Yet to these men, who voluntarily brave these dangers, our government pays but the poor pittance of $4 27/100 per month. Should this Congress adjourn without doing full and complete Justice to the free colored -volunteer it will deserve that "perfidious" be attached to its number in history. I did not enter this service from any mercenary motive but to assist in removing the unreasonable prejudice against the colored race, and to contribute a share however small toward making the Negro an effective instrument in crushing out this unholy rebellion.18 In an attempt to rectify the discrepancy in pay, a statute of June 15, 1864, equalized the wage scale for all soldiers retroactive to January 1, allowing African-Americans to collect back pay for 1862 and 1863, provided they had been free as of April 19, 1861.19 For the African-American soldiers who had either escaped slavery to enlist or who had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, the statute would have no impact on their pay. To get around this requirement, the commander of the 54th Massachusetts asked the soldiers to affirm the simple statement, "You do solemnly swear that you owed no man unrequited labor on or before the 19th day of April, 1861. So help you God."20With that statement, for the first time in their war service, the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment were paid.
Regiments of Note Nearly 180,000 African-American men enlisted, of whom 134,000 hailed from the southern slave states. They formed 166 regiments and fought almost 500 battles. In so doing they earned 23 Congressional Medals of Honor.21 The 1st South Carolina Colored Volunteers was the fifth regiment to African-American soldiers to join the ranks of the Union Army when it was mustered in on January 31, 1863. However, the first large scale, organized effort to arm African-American soldiers was Hunter's experiment at Beaufort. Even though Hunter failed, his work was continued by Rums Saxton and Captain Trowbridge's Company A, as it was known was officially mustered into service by General Saxton in November 1862, making it the first organization of African American Soldiers.
Two regiments made up of ex-slaves, Corps d'Afrique, from New Orleans became well-known for their heroic charge at Port Hudson, Louisiana. Units of both races fought side-by-side at the Battle of the Crater during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia. Confusion during the surrender of Fort Pillow in western Tennessee led to the accusation that Forrest's cavalry had deliberately massacred African-American and white members of the garrison.
The 54th Massachusetts Infantry was one of the first African-American Civil War Regiments to be formed. The 54th was formed in March 1863 at Camp Meigs, in Readville, Massachusetts. Enlistees included former slaves and free African-Americans from the north. The most well-known of the recruits were Frederick Douglass' sons, Lewis N. Douglass and Charles Douglass. Their bravery and courage changed the minds of many who doubted their ability and inspired many other African-Americans to join in their ranks. It was organized in the north by Robert Gould Shaw, who was from a prominent Boston abolitionist family. Massachusetts's governor John A. Andrew appointed him colonel of the 54th in February 1863. Prior to that, he had served in the Seventh New York National Guard and the Second Massachusetts Infantry.
The 54th Massachusetts Infantry proved its strength and importance at Fort Wagner South Carolina after Brigadier General George C. Strong's brigade failed to take the fort. Union artillery on Folly Island together with Rear Admiral John Dahlgren's fleet of ironclads opened fire on Confederate defenses of Morris Island. The bombardment provided cover for Brigadier General George C. Strong's brigade, which crossed Light House Inlet and landed by boats on the southern tip of the island. Strong's troops advanced, capturing several batteries, to within range of Confederate Fort Wagner. At dawn, July 11, 1863, Strong attacked the fort. Soldiers of the 7th Connecticut reached the parapet but, unsupported, were thrown back.
After the July 11 assault on Fort Wagner failed, Gillmore reinforced his beachhead on Morris Island. At dusk July 18, Gillmore launched an attack spearheaded by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, an African-American regiment. After recruitment and training, the unit was sent to Hilton Head, South Carolina. It was there that their actions proved their competence. On July 18. the troops were ordered to lead the attack at Fort Wagner. They charged ahead as they were bombarded by gunfire from Confederate soldiers. Casualties were high, and by the end of the battle, 250 troops had died, including Shaw. While the attack was unsuccessful, this battle brought them recognition. The regiment received praise for their bravery. William Carney, especially, was given individual praise for his heroism. Carney was a 23-year-old enlistee assigned to Company C. While wounded in his head, leg, and hip, Carney saw that the soldier who was carrying the flag had been wounded. He got up, ran to the flag through a volley of bullets, and delivered it to his regiment. As he fell to the ground he cried, "Boys, the old flag never touched the ground!" For his actions, Carney received the Medal of Honor. He was the first African-American to receive it. The flag now hangs in Boston's Memorial Hall, near the bronze mural honoring the 54th Infantry.22 After Shaw's death, Edward N. Hallo well from Medford, Massachusetts became the new commander. The regiment participated in other battles in Charleston during the rest of 1863. In February 1864, the regiment was assigned to help the forces in Jacksonville, Florida. From Jacksonville they went on to the battle of Olustee where their assistance was in great need. The 54th, along with the 35th United States Colored Troops, helped the Union regiments on the front line. In addition to the 54th's participation in several battles, it was equally notable that even though they were paid less than white soldiers, they remained steadfast in their commitment. They did their best despite the inequality that existed. Little did the 54th know that while they fought in Olustee, Congress was busy passing a bill, which guaranteed equal pay for African-American soldiers. At the time, African-American soldiers were paid $7 a month while white soldiers were paid $10 a month. This was soon changed with the passage of the congressional bill. The 54th Infantry surprised its critics as they proved to be a strong force against Confederate troops. They received praise for their courage and bravery and became a vital part of the Civil War. Even today, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry is the most recognized African-American Civil War regiment.
Timeline of Major Civil War Battles Involving African-American Soldiers