Now we sogers are men—men de first time in our lives. Now we can look our old masters in de face. They used to sell and whip us, and we did not dare say one word. Now we ain’t afraid, if they meet us, to run the bayonet through them.
—SERGEANT PRINCE RIVERS,
1ST SOUTH CAROLINA VOLUNTEERS,
UNITED STATES COLORED TROOPS1
Lieutenant, de old flag neber did wave quite right. There was something wrong about it,—there wasn’t any star in it for the black man. Perhaps there was in those you made in de North; but, when they got down here, the sun was so hot, we couldn’t see it. But, since the war, it’s all right. The black man has his star: it is the big one in the middle.
UNITED STATES COLORED TROOPS2
How extraordinary, and what a tribute to ignorance and religious hypocrisy, is the fact that in the minds of most people, even those of liberals, only murder makes men. The slave pleaded; he was humble; he protected the women of the South, and the world ignored him. The slave killed white men; and behold, he was a man.
—W. E. B. DU BOIS3
ON APRIL 12, 1864, George W. Hatton found cause for celebration and reflection. Three years had passed since Confederate batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter, and he could only marvel at the changes which had taken place in his own life and in the lives of his people. “Though the Government openly declared that it did not want the negroes in this conflict,” he noted, “I look around me and see hundreds of colored men armed and ready to defend the Government at any moment; and such are my feelings, that I can only say, the fetters have fallen—our bondage is over.” Hatton was a sergeant in Company C of the 1st Regiment, United States Colored Troops. The regimental chaplain—among the first black men ever so designated—was Henry McNeal Turner, a native of South Carolina but most recently pastor of the Israel Bethel Church in Washington, D.C. Encamped near New Bern, North Carolina, the regiment awaited the orders that would take them into Virginia for what promised to be the final assault on the Confederacy. To many of the soldiers in this regiment, it all seemed incredible. “Who would not celebrate this day?” Sergeant Hatton asked. “What has the colored man done for himself in the past three years? Why, sir, he has proved … that he is a man.”
Less than a month later, Hatton’s regiment reached Wilson’s Landing, only a few miles from Jamestown, where (as the sergeant duly noted) some 264 years earlier “the first sons of Africa” had been landed on American soil. The region took on a special meaning, too, for several of the soldiers in the regiment who had labored as slaves there. The memories they retained of those years were no doubt revived when several black women entered the camp, still bearing the marks of a severe whipping recently administered to them. While out on a foraging mission the next day, the soldiers captured the man who had meted out that punishment—“a Mr. Clayton, a noted reb in this part of the country, and from his appearance, one of the F.F.V.’s [First Families of Virginia].” Before an obviously appreciative audience, which included the black women he had whipped, the slaveholder was tied to a tree and stripped of his clothes; William Harris, one of his former slaves before fleeing to enlist in the Union Army, took up a whip and lashed him some twenty times, “bringing the blood from his loins at every stroke, and not forgetting to remind the gentleman of days gone by.” The whip was then handed over to the black women, who “one after another,” as Sergeant Hatton afterward wrote, “came up and gave him a like number, to remind him that they were no longer his, but safely housed in Abraham’s bosom, and under the protection of the Star Spangled Banner, and guarded by their own patriotic, though once down-trodden race.”
That night, Sergeant George Hatton tried to sum up his impressions of this almost unreal experience. He confessed that he was at a loss for the proper words. “Oh, that I had the tongue to express my feelings while standing upon the banks of the James river, on the soil of Virginia, the mother state of slavery, as a witness of such a sudden reverse! The day is clear, the fields of grain are beautiful, and the birds are singing sweet melodious songs, while poor Mr. C. is crying to his servants for mercy.”4
The war to save the Union had become, for scores of black people at least, nothing less than a war of liberation. This far-reaching change in the nature of the Civil War, like emancipation itself, had been achieved neither quickly nor easily.
WHEN THE CIVIL WAR BROKE OUT, Frederick Douglass, a black abolitionist leader and former slave, immediately called for the enlistment of slaves and free blacks into a “liberating army” that would carry the banner of emancipation through the South. Within thirty days, Douglass believed, 10,000 black soldiers could be assembled. “One black regiment alone would be, in such a war, the full equal of two white ones. The very fact of color in this case would be more terrible than powder and balls. The slaves would learn more as to the nature of the conflict from the presence of one such regiment, than from a thousand preachers.” But the North was not yet prepared to endorse such a revolutionary move, any more than it could conceive of the necessity or wisdom of embracing a policy of emancipation.5
Along with most northern whites, even ardent Union patriots tended to view the enlistment of blacks into the armed forces as an incendiary act contrary to accepted modes of warfare and “shocking to our sense of humanity.” The specters of Nat Turner and Santo Domingo were regarded as sufficient warnings of what might happen if armed black men were unleashed upon white slaveholding families. The history of slave insurrections, a Republican senator from Ohio reminded his colleagues, demonstrated that “Negro warfare” inevitably produced “all the scenes of desolation attendant upon savage warfare.” Besides, a border state congressman told his constituents, “to confess our inability to put down this rebellion without calling to our aid these semi-barbaric hordes” would prove “derogatory to the manhood of 20 millions of freemen.”6
Early conceptions of the Civil War as “a white man’s war” with limited objectives were not the only deterrent to raising a black army. Even if black enlistments should be deemed desirable, few whites believed that black men possessed the necessary technical skills, intelligence, and courage to become effective soldiers. “If we were to arm them,” President Lincoln conceded in September 1862, “I fear that in a few weeks the arms would be in the hands of the rebels.” No less threatening to many whites was the possibility that they were wrong and that the black man might actually prove himself in combat. “If you make him the instrument by which your battles are fought, the means by which your victories are won,” an Ohio congressman warned, “you must treat him as a victor is entitled to be treated, with all decent and becoming respect.” The use of black troops also threatened to undermine the morale of white Union soldiers, many of whom recoiled at the thought of serving alongside black comrades. “[I]t Will raise a rebelion in the army that all the abolisionist this Side of hell Could not Stop,” one Union soldier predicted. “[T]he Southern Peopel are rebels to the government but they are White and God never intended a nigger to put white people Down.”7
The exclusion of blacks from the armed forces, like President Lincoln’s reluctance to make emancipation a war objective, worked only so long as the government and northern whites remained confident of their ability to win the war. In the aftermath of Fort Sumter, with patriotic whites rallying to the flag, there seemed little reason to doubt that the rebellion would be easily and speedily crushed. Eighteen months later, the expected quick victory had not materialized, the war still raged with no end in sight, and a weary, frustrated North was forced to think about a different kind of war. Mounting casualties, the return home of the maimed and wounded, the alarming increase in desertions (more than 100,000 away without leave at the end of 1862), and the growing difficulty in obtaining enlistments encouraged a reassessment of the military value of emancipation and black recruitment. “If a bob-tail dog can stick a bayonet on his tail, and back up against a rebel and kill him, I will take the dog and sleep with him,” a Union officer declared, “and if a nigger will do the same, I’ll do the same by him. I’ll sleep with any thing that will kill a rebel.” Although this may have been a curious kind of recognition, the argument gained increasing acceptance with every casualty list. To enlist blacks was to preserve the more valuable lives of white men. The best men of the North were dying in the swamps of the South, an officer observed, and this was a loss the nation could ill afford. “[Y]ou can’t replace these men, but if a nigger dies, all you have to do is send out and get another one.”8
The same Administration that had summarily rejected black volunteers at the outset of the war began in mid-1862 to consider the employment of blacks in the armed forces. The initial proposals contemplated using such troops primarily for menial labor and for garrison duty in areas deemed unfit for white men, such as the malarial regions along the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River. The advantages of deploying blacks in these ways were obvious. “The blacks,” said the New York Times, “thoroughly acclimated, will be saved from the risks of the climate, while in the well-defined limit of fortifications they will be restrained from the commission of those revengeful excesses which are the bug-aboos of the Southern people.” In a series of articles on “Colored Troops,” a columnist for the Christian Recorder, the voice of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, seemed to share the prevailing belief that blacks were “especially adapted to service in the South” because they were less susceptible to diseases which easily felled white men. When Vicksburg surrendered, the black columnist noted, the hospitals were filled with southern white soldiers suffering from malarial diseases and fevers “from which colored men are almost exempt.” Citing the many advantages of black troops, he welcomed the proposal to use them to guard prisoners of war and to protect garrisons in the occupied areas. Such duty, he thought, would be especially “pleasant” to the emancipated slaves, enabling them “to stand guard over those who have so long abused the power they held over them.”9
To resolve the doubts which persisted about the military capabilities of black men, some suggested that they first be tested in battle against the Indians. If the experiment proved successful, black troops could then be deployed for combat duty in the South. Nothing came of this proposal, and it won little favor among blacks themselves. “I am very doubtful whether the negro could display his bravery as well against his co-sufferer, as he could against his enemy,” wrote Henry M. Turner, the black clergyman. “Like us,” the Indian has been “scattered and peeled.” How could blacks, of all people, share in a deliberate policy of racial extermination? The Indians, Turner observed, “cherished no special hatred against my race,” and the “scalping knife and tomahawk were not shaped nor moulded to injure us.” Rather than wage war on the Indians, Turner suggested that black people might well learn to emulate their bravery. “If we had one half of the Indian spunk, to-day slavery would have been among the things of the past.” Whatever the merits of Turner’s argument, blacks had been used to fight Indians in the past, and they would do so again in the postwar Indian wars, but to have employed them for this purpose in 1863 must have struck some blacks as a perversion of priorities.10
While the President refused to alter his position on emancipation and black enlistments, the Union Navy was using “contraband” slaves as apprentice seamen and the Army began to employ them extensively as laborers and officers’ servants. Limited and unauthorized attempts, moreover, had been undertaken in Kansas, Louisiana, and South Carolina to arm, drill, and use black soldiers. After General Benjamin Butler overcame his initial reluctance to enlist blacks, three regiments made up of free colored militiamen (previously organized by Confederate authorities) and even larger numbers of freed slaves were organized in Louisiana. With unconcealed enthusiasm, General David Hunter sought to mobilize blacks in the Sea Islands of South Carolina, explaining to the War Department that he had recruited no “fugitive slaves” but “a fine regiment of loyal persons whose late masters are fugitive rebels.” The Hunter project proved short-lived, largely because the government refused to recognize or assist it in any way, and aggressive recruitment tactics had antagonized both the freedmen and many of the northern white missionaries and teachers stationed there.11
Responding to new military reverses and stalemates, the War Department in August 1862 authorized the recruitment of a slave regiment in the Union Army—the 1st South Carolina Volunteers. In compliance with the proviso that white men serve as officers, Thomas Wentworth Higginson was appointed to command the regiment. Appropriately, this New England intellectual was also a fervid abolitionist and an old friend of John Brown. He eagerly accepted the commission, considering it a challenge that might well influence the entire course of the war and the destiny of black people in the United States. “I had been an abolitionist too long, and had known and loved John Brown too well,” he later wrote, “not to feel a thrill of joy at last on finding myself in the position where he only wished to be.”12
The 1st South Carolina Volunteers drew its recruits largely from the Sea Islands freedmen. Higginson insisted that his white officers treat the soldiers with respect, refer to them by their full names and never as “nigger,” and eschew any “degrading punishments.” After assuming command in November 1862, his first impressions were favorable, though heavily overladen with a condescending paternalism that characterized his New England contemporaries’ views of black people. He marveled at the religious devotions, songs, and “strange antics” that emanated from “this mysterious race of grown-up children.” He admired their inexhaustible “love of the spelling book.” He was impressed by their aptitude for drill and discipline and their capacity for imitativeness. To Higginson, they were always “a simple and lovable people, whose graces seem to come by nature, and whose vices by training.” He came to love them both as a military commander and as a father figure. “I think it is partly from my own notorious love of children that I like these people so well.” The immediate task at hand, as he interpreted his mission, was to educate these “perpetual children, docile, gay, and lovable,” to manhood and to mobilize them into an effective fighting force. He was fully confident of success.13
Against a background of military setbacks, mounting casualty lists, and unfilled recruitment quotas, President Lincoln issued in September 1862 a Preliminary Proclamation of Emancipation which stipulated that on January 1, 1863, in those states or portions of states still engaged in rebellion, the slaves would be “forever free.” Not only were Tennessee and the loyal border slave states thereby excluded but also the slaves in designated portions of Louisiana, Virginia, and West Virginia. Limited though it was and justified only as “a fit and necessary war measure,” the Proclamation marked a strategic shift in the President’s thinking about the military uses of black men. Henceforth, he decreed, they would be accepted into the armed forces for garrison duty and to man naval vessels. This fell far short of a commitment to a black army, but the wording was sufficiently vague to invite a variety of interpretations and proposals. “The best thing in the proclamation,” wrote a northern lawyer, “is the annunciation that the southern garrisons are to be Negros. We ought to have our standing army (after the rebellion) composed exclusively of Negros—a regular Janissary Corps, who propagate & recruit themselves.” The news was greeted with far less enthusiasm in the Union Army camps in the South, where white troops needed to weigh the advantages of combat replacements and labor relief against deeply entrenched racial attitudes. “The truth is,” one army private wrote, “none of our soldiers seem to like the idea of arming the Negros. Our boys say this [is] a white mans war and the Negro has no business in it.”14
After the Administration committed itself to the military employment of blacks as soldiers, the changes came so rapidly that Frederick Douglass could only describe them as “vast and startling.” Less than three weeks after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers marched through the streets of Beaufort, with a white regimental band leading the way. “And when dat band wheel in before us, and march on,” a black sergeant remarked afterwards, “my God! I quit dis world altogeder.” The astonishment of the native whites at this awesome spectacle was matched only by the obvious pride manifested in the eyes of the black soldiers, their faces set rigidly to the front. “We didn’t look to de right nor to de leff,” one of them recalled. “I didn’t see notin’ in Beaufort. Eb’ry step was worth a half a dollar.” Several weeks later, they made their initial contact with the enemy, and Colonel Higginson was deeply impressed. “Nobody knows anything about these men who has not seen them in battle. I find that I myself knew nothing. There is a fierce energy about them beyond anything of which I have ever read, unless it be the French Zouaves. It requires the strictest discipline to hold them in hand.” There could no longer be any doubt in Higginson’s mind that “the key to the successful prosecution of this war” lay in the unlimited use of black troops.
Their superiority lies simply in the fact that they know the country, which White troops do not; and, 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 for their homes and families; and they show the resolution and sagacity which a personal purpose gives. It would have been madness to attempt with the bravest White troops what I have successfully accomplished with Black ones.15
The “vast and startling” changes manifested themselves throughout the occupied South. While black troops marched in Beaufort, a regiment recruited largely from fugitive slaves out of Arkansas and Missouri went into combat as the Kansas 1st Colored Volunteers Infantry. “I believe the Negro may just as well become food for powder as my son,” the commander of this regiment had previously declared. In the lower Mississippi Valley, meanwhile, the thousands of slaves crowding the Union camps were being mobilized into military units, and in Louisiana the previously organized free colored and slave regiments were augmented despite bitter objections from native whites. “When we enlisted,” one black soldier wrote, “we were hooted at in the streets of New Orleans as a rabble of armed plebeians & cowards.” On May 27, 1863, two of the Louisiana black regiments joined in the assault on Port Hudson, a major Confederate stronghold on the lower Mississippi River. That morning, Henry T. Johns, a white private, wrote: “I am glad to know that on our right and on our left are massed negro regiments, who, this day, are to show if the inspiration of Freedom will lift the serf to the level of the man. Whoever else may flinch, I trust they will stand firm and baptize their hopes in the mingled blood of master and slave. Then we will give them a share in our nationality, if God has no separate nationality in store for them.” Although the attack was repulsed with heavy losses, the blacks had proven themselves in battle, and a Union officer confessed that his “prejudices” in regard to black troops had been dispelled in a single day. Private Johns thought, too, that the question of black troops had been firmly settled, “and many a proud master found in death that freedom had made his slave his superior.” To many observers, in fact, Port Hudson was the turning point in white recognition of the Negro as a combat soldier. And when two regiments made up of freedmen successfully resisted a Confederate assault on Milliken’s Bend the following month, even the Confederate officer commanding the attack was duly impressed. “This 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.”16
Six months after the Emancipation Proclamation, more than thirty black regiments had been organized, camps had been established to receive and train them, recruiting was taking place almost everywhere, and several units had already participated in combat action. That was only the beginning. By December 1863 over 50,000 blacks had been enrolled in the Union Army, and the President was assured that this number would rapidly increase as Federal troops moved deeper into the Confederacy. Before the end of the war, more than 186,000 would be enlisted, including 24,000 in Louisiana, 17,800 in Mississippi, and 20,000 in Tennessee. The President even overcame his initial reluctance to organizing black regiments in the loyal border states of Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland. Although he tried to restrict enlistments in those states to the slaves of disloyal masters, army recruiters made little or no effort to enforce such discrimination, and the promise of freedom to enlistees and their families went far, in fact, to undermine the entire institution of slavery in those regions excluded from the Emancipation Proclamation. “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me,” President Lincoln wrote to a Kentucky newspaper. “Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation’s condition is not what either party or any man devised, or expected.” Christopher A. Fleetwood, a Baltimore free black who had enlisted in the Union Army, voiced almost the same sentiments when he noted in his diary at the end of 1863: “This year has brought about many changes that at the beginning were or would have been thought impossible. The close of the year finds me a soldier for the cause of my race.”17
The transformation of public sentiment on the enlistment of blacks pointed up the extent to which military necessity managed to surmount prevailing racial attitudes. The passage of the Draft Act in March 1863, reflecting as it did the desperate need for more troops, broke down still further the remaining objections to blacks as soldiers. For many war-weary Northerners, especially those who were now subject to military conscription, the arming of the black man suddenly took on a new meaning. The immediate and widespread popularity of a song ascribed to Irish Americans testified not so much to its melodic quality as to its persuasive logic:
Some tell us ’tis a burnin shame
To make the naygers fight;
An’ that the thrade of bein’ kilt
Belongs but to the white;
But as for me, upon my soul!
So liberal are we here,
I’ll let Sambo be murthered instead of myself
On every day in the year.18
Capitalizing on the apparent changes in public sentiment, black spokesmen and newspapers in the North insisted that the very nature of the Civil War had been fundamentally altered. “The strife now waging is not between North and South,” a black meeting declared in mid-1863, but between “barbarism and freedom—civilization and slavery.” For the North to lose this war would “rivet our chains still firmer” and seal “our perpetual disfranchisement.” The most effective remedy for what ailed blacks, the meeting resolved, was “warm lead and cold steel, duly administered by two hundred thousand black doctors.” Now that the Civil War promised to liberate the slaves, the necessity for defeating the Confederacy was coupled with the urgency of black people helping to strike the decisive blow and setting themselves free. “Liberty won by white men,” Douglass maintained, “would lose half its luster.” But by breaking the chains themselves, he told prospective black volunteers, “you will stand more erect, walk more assured, feel more at ease, and be less liable to insult than you ever were before.” Few welcomed this opportunity more readily than did many of those who had only recently been slaves. “A year ago, where was we?” asked a soldier with the 7th Regiment Corps d’Afrique. “We was down in de dark land of Slavery. And now where are we? We are free men, and soldiers of de United States. And what have we to do? We have to fight de rebels so dat we never more be slaves.”19
Although emancipation did not directly affect northern blacks, they were urged to act upon the sympathy they had long expressed for their enslaved southern brethren. Participation in the war, moreover, could not help but improve their own precarious place in American society and break down the barriers white Northerners had erected against them. “There never was, nor there never will be, a better opportunity for colored men to get what they want, than now,” the Washington, D.C., correspondent of the Christian Recorder wrote in June 1863. “Suppose,” he asked, “500,000 colored men were under arms, would not the nation really be under our arms, too? Would the nation refuse us our rights in such a condition? Would it refuse us our vote? Would it deny us any thing when its salvation was hanging upon us? No! never!” Whether in the North or in the South, then, the prospects for black Americans seemed inseparable from their military exploits—the way to the ballot box, into the classroom, and onto the streetcar was through the battlegrounds of the Confederacy. The rifle and the bayonet, Douglass insisted, would speak more forcefully for civil rights than any “parchment guarantees.”
Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.
To learn the use of arms, moreover, was “to become familiar with the means of securing, protecting and defending your own liberty.… When it is once found that black men can give blows as well as take them, men will find more congenial employment than pounding them.”20
Once an advocate of nonresistance and only recently a major critic of President Lincoln for refusing to endorse emancipation, Frederick Douglass agreed in early 1863 to become a recruiting agent for the United States Army. “There is something ennobling in the possession of arms,” he told a meeting in Philadelphia, “and we of all other people in the world stand in need of their ennobling influence.” Having undertaken the mission of enlisting blacks in the newly formed 54th Massachusetts Regiment, Douglass toured western New York seeking volunteers. “In Rochester,” he wrote in April 1863, “I have thirteen names, my son heading the list.”21
THE CIVIL WAR provided Americans with various opportunities to exploit the nation’s military needs for personal profit and advantage. That white men should have used the recruitment of black regiments for such purposes is not altogether surprising. With the end of racial restrictions on enlistments, state and local bounties and military conscription instantly made black men valuable and marketable commodities. Capitalizing on the law which permitted a draftee to send a person in his place, the “substitute broker” viewed the black man as a likely candidate; his lowly economic position often made him easier and cheaper to purchase, some were intimidated into enlisting, and the broker’s commission for finding a “substitute” justified whatever method he needed to employ. The practice became so widespread, in fact, that the War Department finally interceded and ruled that Negroes could substitute only for other Negroes. That decision not only forced brokers to look elsewhere but depressed the price which some blacks had been asking (and obtaining) for a substitute enlistment.22
Mixing patriotism and personal profit in varying degrees, more than a thousand “state agents” combed the cities and countryside, particularly in the occupied South, for prospective black soldiers. The incentive was a new congressional law, enacted on July 4, 1864, which provided that blacks recruited in the Confederate states could be credited to the draft quotas of the loyal states. Acting sometimes as emissaries of northern governors and authorized to offer handsome bounties, the “state agents” used every conceivable method to obtain recruits and often defrauded them of the promised bonus. The number of military officers who accepted bribes to turn over slave refugees “to particular agents” will never be known. But one court-martial trial revealed how a Massachusetts white man had formed a thriving business by purchasing blacks in New Bern, North Carolina, from a Union officer, inducting them into the Army, and then crediting them to the quotas of various Massachusetts towns in proportion to the amount of money the townspeople had contributed for bounty payments. The agent in this case testified that his share of the profits had amounted to $10,000. Stories such as these prompted one Massachusetts officer to express his revulsion at “this traffic of New England towns in the bodies of wretched negroes, bidding against each other for these miserable beings who are deluded, and if some of the affidavits I have in my office are true, tortured into military service.”23
Employing both persuasion and strong-arm methods, the Army sought most of its black recruits in the occupied South. With “soul-stirring music and floating banners,” a correspondent reported from Maryland, recruiting parties would march through a neighborhood and “sweep it clean of its black warriors.” Wherever the Union Army was in control, recruitment offices were opened and specially designated agents (or raiding parties made up of a dozen men and a noncommissioned officer) were dispatched to the countryside to round up potential recruits. The usual procedure was for the agent to enter a town, address a hastily convened meeting of local blacks, tell them what the President had done for the colored people, display the attractive recruitment poster, and promise anyone who joined both financial and moral compensation. Appointed to recruit black troops in northern Alabama, James T. Ayers found himself frequently forced to adopt direct personal pleading. “I want your man,” he told a black woman who had urged her husband not to enlist. “You ought to be a slave as long as you live and him too if he is so mean as not to help get his Liberty.” Far more effective, in some instances, was the use of black soldiers to obtain additional recruits. Not only were black troops frequently dispatched with instructions to enlist any able-bodied slaves they could locate but they might be necessary to protect the recruits from white retaliation. The black soldier also often appeared as the featured speaker at meetings of his people, and invariably he would appeal to the race pride and manhood of his audience. “Don’t you remember how afraid they used to be that we would rise?” Jerry Sullivan asked a Nashville gathering in 1863.
And you know we would, too, if we could. (Cries of “that’s so.”) I ran away two years ago.… Come, boys, let’s get some guns from Uncle Sam, and go coon hunting; shooting those gray back coons that go poking about the country now a days. (Laughter.) … Don’t ask your wife, for if she is a wife worth having she will call you a coward for asking her. (Applause, and waving of handkerchiefs by the ladies.)24
The job of a recruiting agent in the South was beset with difficulties, frustrations, and personal danger. The whites regarded him as an incendiary (he proposed, after all, to arm black men), and slaveholders were naturally incensed by anyone who threatened to make soldiers of their laborers. Unless accompanied by a detachment of troops, both the agent and his prospective recruits might find it difficult to return to the nearest Union camp. In Kentucky, the provost marshal enumerated cases in which slaves had been whipped, mutilated, and murdered for trying to enlist and recruiting agents had been “caught, stripped, tied to a tree and cowhided” before being driven out of town. What made the work of the agent all the more exasperating was his frequent lack of success in obtaining many enlistments. The reports of white violence no doubt discouraged prospective volunteers but this may not adequately explain the disturbing report of a Federal official that in nearly four months of recruitment work, more than a thousand men had been employed to enlist a total of 2,831 blacks. More likely, many blacks simply shared with their white countrymen an aversion to the hardships and risks of military service. “The negroes re-indicate their claim to humanity,” an officer wrote from South Carolina, “by shirking the draft in every possible way; acting exactly like white men under similar circumstances.” He conceded, however, that the black conscript was less likely to desert than his white counterpart. Some recruiting agents came away disgusted with the refusal of blacks to yield to their appeals. Initially enthusiastic about his recruiting mission in northern Alabama, James T. Ayers, who had been an antislavery Methodist preacher in Illinois, urged blacks to accept the responsibility for liberating their brethren from bondage. But his best efforts did not produce the results he had expected, and less than a year after his appointment Ayers was a thoroughly disillusioned man. “I feel now much inclined to go to Nashville and throw up my papers and Resign, as I am hartily sick of Coaxing niggers to be Soaldiers Any more. They are so trifleing and mean they dont Deserve to be free.”25
After making their way to the Union camps, many slave refugees eagerly volunteered for military service, believing that this act would confirm their freedom. The more reluctant blacks might be inducted anyway. “It seems that pretty nearly all the refugees join the army,” a Federal official wrote from South Carolina. “You wish to know whether the refugees are kept in the guard house until they are willing to volunteer. I do not know whether they are kept confined till they do volunteer but I know that they always let them out when they do volunteer.” Increasingly, the Army resorted to forcible impressment, though in some regions they would try to balance the demand for recruits with the need to maintain plantation labor. The effectiveness of the recruitment campaign in the lower Mississippi Valley rested partly on the insistence that slaves who had left their masters should be forced to serve either as soldiers or as military laborers; the methods employed by officers in this region were often questionable but they achieved spectacular results. “The plan for ‘persuading’ recruits,” one officer wrote from Memphis, “while it could hardly be called the shot-gun policy was equally as convincing, and never failed to get the ‘recruit.’ ” The commissioner entrusted with raising black troops in Maryland simply conceded that “no recruits can be had unless I send detachments to particular localities and compel them to volunteer.”26
Despite assurances to South Carolina blacks of voluntary enlistment, freedmen in the Sea Islands region stood in perpetual fear of raiding parties—often composed of black soldiers—which descended upon communities and plantations in the dead of night to carry them away to nearby military camps. “Not a man sleeps at night in the houses,” a missionary teacher wrote, “except those too old to be taken. They have made a camp somewhere and mean never to be caught.” Prospective recruits here and elsewhere often hid out in the woods or swamps for considerable periods of time rather than be inducted into the Army. Having already experienced forced separations from their loved ones, black women did not necessarily look with favor upon similar disruptions undertaken by their professed liberators; in South Carolina, women field workers attacked a black impressment party with their hoes, shouting that white men were too frightened to fight and only wanted blacks to do their dirty work for them. “The womens all hold back der husbands,” a black sergeant complained, “didn’t want them to go sogering, ’cause they get killed. Women worse than the men, and some hide the men in the woods.… I feel ’shamed for our women.”27
Impressment of Sea Islands freedmen not only alarmed the intended victims and forced many of them into hiding but provoked some furious protests from the white teachers and missionaries who had come there from the North to ease their transition to freedom. The coercive recruitment practices reminded them, they said, of what they had only recently criticized in their indictments of slavery. What was impressment, after all, if not the forcible enslavement of blacks, albeit under different auspices? After Union troops had carried away still another black man during the night, one missionary observed that only recently Confederate soldiers had shot and killed black men for refusing to go along with them. How were the freedmen, she asked, to know the difference? “It strikes me as very important,” a high-ranking Federal official wrote to a Union officer, “to avoid all things likely to impair the self respect of the emancipees. Fresh from slavery, if they enlist freely they must feel themselves very different persons from what they would regard themselves if forced into the ranks.”28
Despite a flurry of protests, army commanders defended their conduct not only on the grounds of military necessity but as in the best interests of the blacks. That recruitment had been progressing more slowly than expected was only one reason why General Hunter wanted to impress all blacks not regularly employed as officers’ servants or military laborers. Military discipline, Hunter insisted, was the best way to lift these people to “our higher civilization.” The slaves, moreover, could never adequately appreciate freedom until they realized “the sacrifices which are its price.” And finally, he noted, the recruitment of black men made a servile insurrection less likely. In defending the conduct of impressment parties in Washington, D.C., a black resident singled out the contemptuous way in which some of his people responded to recruitment appeals. When asked to enlist, they would “make light” of the proposal and demand to know “what am I going to fight for? this is a white man’s war,” and accompany their response with verbal abuse. “Well, now,” the observer added, “the colored soldiers think this is too much; they suffer enough at the hands of the white race, without being buffeted by their own race, whose sympathies should be in their behalf.”29
Less coercive methods were employed in the North, where state governors and patriotic citizens’ committees were initially responsible for mounting recruitment campaigns. To mobilize support among northern blacks, mass meetings were called, broadsides were circulated (the most popular of which was written by Frederick Douglass), and the few black newspapers sought to inculcate their readers with the obligations of black men in a war of liberation. Although the Christian Recorder had initially disapproved of the war and the resort to violence, it now urged black men to take up arms for their country and race. “Shame on him who would hang back at the call of his country,” the newspaper declared, in supporting the efforts to raise a black regiment in Philadelphia. “Go with the view that you will return freemen. And if you should never return, you will die with the satisfaction of knowing that you have struck a blow for freedom, and assisted in giving liberty to our race in the land of our birth.”30
Critical to the raising of a black army in the North were, in fact, the black recruitment agents. When Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts was authorized in January 1863 to organize a Negro regiment, he immediately recognized the far-reaching implications of his new responsibility. Since this would be the first black regiment raised in the North, he thought the success or failure of the effort would “go far to elevate or to depress the estimation in which the character of the Colored Americans will be held throughout the World.” Although two companies were quickly formed in Boston and New Bedford (including black men whom the governor had been forced to reject at the outset of the war), there were insufficient numbers of blacks in Massachusetts to make up an entire regiment. The governor thereupon secured the support of a wealthy abolitionist who agreed to help finance the enlistment of blacks throughout the North, largely by employing as recruitment agents such leading black spokesmen as Martin R. Delany, John Mercer Langston, John S. Rock, William Wells Brown, Charles Lenox Remond, Henry Highland Garnet, and Frederick Douglass. These were all familiar names in black abolitionism, most of them had worked actively to eradicate racial discrimination in the North, and several of them had only recently endorsed emigration to Haiti or Central America before being dissuaded by the reality of an antislavery war. “Action! Action! not criticism, is the plain duty of this hour,” Douglass declared, in a broadside intended to attract blacks to the Massachusetts regiment. “The iron gate of our prison stands half open. One gallant rush from the North will fling it wide open, while four millions of our brothers and sisters shall march out into liberty.”31
The recruitment drive was highly successful. By May 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the most celebrated of the northern black regiments, was ready to leave Boston for Hilton Head, South Carolina, where it had been ordered to report to General David Hunter. With some 20,000 cheering Bostonians lining the streets, and the regimental band playing the John Brown anthem, the troops made their way to the Battery Wharf. “Glory enough for one day; aye, indeed for a lifetime,” remarked William C. Nell, a veteran black abolitionist. Frederick Douglass was there, not only to view the results of his recruitment activities but to see off his two sons, Lewis and Charles, who had been the first New York blacks to enlist in the regiment. Martin R. Delany’s eighteen-year-old son, Toussaint L’Ouverture Delany, had left his school in Canada to join the regiment. And on the balcony of Wendell Phillips’ house, overlooking the parade, stood none other than William Lloyd Garrison, who was observed resting his hand on a bust of John Brown.32
Two months later, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment made its famous assault on Fort Wagner, a Confederate stronghold situated at the entrance to Charleston harbor. The attack was repulsed, with considerable loss of life (Robert Shaw, the white regimental commander, was among those killed), but black troops had fought valiantly. And that was what mattered. “It made Fort Wagner such a name to the colored race,” proclaimed a New York newspaper, “as Bunker Hill has been for ninety years to the white Yankees.” Even the enormous expenditure of black lives could be viewed as a necessary sacrificial offering. “Do you not rejoice & exult in all that praise that is lavished upon our brave colored troops even by Pro-slavery papers?” abolitionist Angelina Grimké Weld asked Gerrit Smith. “I have no tears to shed over their graves, because I see that their heroism is working a great change in public opinion, forcing all men to see the sin & shame of enslaving such men.” Two days after the battle, Lewis Douglass informed Amelia Loguen, his future wife, that he had not been wounded. “Men fell all around me. A shell would explode and clear a space of twenty feet, our men would close up again, but it was no use we had to retreat, which was a very hazardous undertaking. How I got out of that fight alive I cannot tell, but I am here.… Remember if I die I die in a good cause. I wish we had a hundred thousand colored troops we would put an end to this war.”33
With the successful organization of two Massachusetts regiments (the surplus of volunteers for the 54th became the 55th Massachusetts Regiment), several northern states undertook to form similar contingents and employed black leaders to find the necessary men. The enthusiasm which brought about the Massachusetts regiments, however, proved to be less contagious than had been expected. Although several thousand northern blacks did respond to the call for military service, the anticipated stampede to the recruitment offices failed to materialize. “Before an opportunity was presented for them to do so,” a disillusioned black soldier told a gathering of his people in Washington, D.C., “many of the black people were spoiling for a fight—they were ready and anxious to die for their race—but now whar are dey? What do you want Mr. Linkun to do—feed you on ice-cream? Suppose these white men here were about to be drove into Slavery, wouldn’t they fight? Certainly they would; but you—you would stand tamely and let your hands be crossed behind your back, and told to go on dar, nigger, without resisting it.”34
If this disgruntled soldier had looked around him, he might have perceived why some blacks had declined to enlist. The Civil War had expanded as Massachusetts volunteers, not as the United States colored forces or as military laborers’; moreover, Governor Andrew had promised them “the same treatment, in every respect, as the white volunteers receive.” In the appeals for enlistments, recruiters repeatedly assured blacks of the same wages, rations, equipment, protection, bounties, and treatment as enjoyed by white troops. “I have assured myself on these points,” Frederick Douglass told prospective black recruits, “and can speak with authority. More than twenty years unswerving devotion to our common cause, may give me some humble claim to be trusted at this momentous crisis.”37
The promises seemed sufficiently clear, and Douglass and other recruiters no doubt believed in them, but the equal treatment they insisted upon never came to pass. And since such promises had comprised a considerable element of the recruitment appeals, initial disappointments had a way of turning into a sense of betrayal. Substantial numbers of black soldiers, mostly those recruited in the North, charged that they had been deceived. “We were promised three hundred dollars bounty and thirteen dollars a month, or whatever the white soldiers got,” a Pennsylvania soldier declared; “but, God help their poor lying souls! Now that they have us where they want us, they have forgotten all their promises.” His complaint was well grounded. Whatever the assurances upon enlisting, the experience of the black soldier revealed a double standard in enlistment bounties, benefits for dependents, promotions, pay, and time spent in fatigue duty. And since blacks were called upon to perform the same duties as white soldiers, these distinctions made no sense at all. “Do we not fill the same ranks?” asked one soldier. “Do we not cover the same space of ground? Do we not take up the same length of ground in the grave-yard that others do? The ball does not miss the black man and strike the white, nor the white and strike the black.… [A]t that time there is no distinction made.”38
Who had betrayed them? Although the Federal government obviously reneged on its promises, dissatisfied soldiers tended to place much of the responsibility on the recruitment agents who had beguiled them with visions of patriotic service, handsome bounties, and equal rights. “They made us a great many sweet and charming promises just to get us into the service,” one soldier charged, “which they were very anxious to do, as it saved them from going themselves.” The active role played by black leaders in their recruitment only compounded the bitterness. Before the 14th Rhode Island Regiment had even left for the South, Martin R. Delany, the principal recruitment officer, stood accused of having betrayed young men “taught to hold his name sacred.” Of those who had participated in organizing the regiment, one soldier observed, Delany was “the most heartily despised.” The complaints of the soldiers were legitimate, but the charges leveled at the black recruitment agents were, most likely, closer to half-truths. “Some unprincipled agents” acting “under me” or “even in my name,” Delany conceded, may have been guilty of deceiving black recruits, but he vigorously defended his own record as “the constant and consistent defender of colored soldiers’ rights and claims.” Rather than accept a economic opportunities, and black people shared to some extent in the wartime prosperity. While a black resident of Washington, D.C., described a substantial increase in black employment, a white Bostonian was complaining that “the blacks here are too comfortable to do anything more than talk about freedom.” Nor did northern blacks feel as intensely that inducement of freedom which moved their southern brethren to enlist in far greater numbers; some insisted that they could serve their race more effectively if they remained at home, where important campaigns also needed to be waged. “I am pleased to learn that you were fortunate enough to escape the draft,” William H. Parham, a black school principal in Cincinnati, wrote to a prominent Philadelphia black leader, “as I believe you will be able to do more for the race where you are than you could by going to the battlefield. When this war is over, the next struggle will be against prejudice, which is to be conquered by intellect and we shall need all the talent that we have among us or can possibly command. Then will be your time to be found in the thickest of the fight; where the battle rages fiercest and the danger is most imminent.” When Parham himself was enrolled under the Conscription Act and thereby made subject to the draft, he searched desperately for some way to avoid military service. “Many have escaped the enrollment,” he wrote, “but I am not one of the fortunate ones.… If I am drafted, I do not think I shall go.” Aside from his obvious reluctance to serve in the Army, Parham had heard “discouraging” reports that black soldiers were not being accorded the same pay, bounties, and treatment as white recruits.35
WITH THE ENLISTMENT of black men, the question of how they would be treated in the United States Army quickly surfaced. It was understood from the outset that blacks would serve in separate regiments and be commanded largely by white officers. But still other questions required clarification, and some blacks demanded answers before committing their services. “What are to be the immunities of the colored soldiers?” one black newspaper asked. “Will they receive bounties, as well as the white? If they are maimed for life, will they receive pensions from the Government? If they are captured by the enemy, will they be treated as prisoners of war?—or will they be hung up by the rebels, shot or quartered, as the case may be, without redress?”36 These were not easy questions to answer, and many of the problems they raised were never satisfactorily resolved.
Although the War Department stipulated on several occasions that black soldiers were entitled to the same pay and benefits accorded whites, there was no legal basis for such promises. But most of the recruits had no way of knowing this, and they generally assumed they would be treated like other troops. After all, one black soldier wrote, “we were mustered in reduction in the bounties paid to black enlistees, Delany refused to do any more recruiting for the Rhode Island regiment. Frederick Douglass, after protesting the failure of Federal authorities to ensure equal protection and treatment to black troops, also vowed to discontinue his recruitment activities. “I owe it to my long abused people, and especially those of them already in the army,” he explained, “to expose their wrongs and plead their cause. I cannot do that in connection with recruiting.… The impression settles upon me that colored men have much overrated the enlightenment, justice and generosity of our rulers at Washington. In my humble way I have contributed somewhat to that false estimate.” Hoping to regain his faith in the government’s assurances, Douglass requested a meeting with President Lincoln.39
Readily conceding that inequalities existed between white and black soldiers, Federal officials argued that expediency justified and perhaps even demanded the maintenance of racial distinctions, for the self-respect of the common Yankee soldier was being sorely tested. The fact that he was now asked to live and fight alongside blacks not only challenged his deeply held racial prejudices but also raised the humiliating implication that he had not been able to win the war without black support. To place the two races on the same level, some argued, was to degrade and demoralize the white soldier. The inequalities, President Lincoln told Frederick Douglass, were a regrettable but necessary concession to popular prejudices; nevertheless, he suggested, blacks had more compelling motives to enlist and should be willing to serve under almost any conditions. Ultimately, he promised Douglass, black soldiers would be accorded equal treatment. That vague assurance was good enough for Douglass, who resumed his recruitment activities.40
But many of the black troops in the field, especially those from the North, found themselves unable to share Douglass’ renewed confidence. “I have always been ready for any duty that I have been called upon to perform,” a soldier wrote from Jacksonville, Florida, “but things work so different with us from what they do with white soldiers, that I have got discouraged; and not only myself, but all of our company.” Comparing their condition and treatment with that of whites, black soldiers could not understand why they should receive less pay (“We do the same work they do, and do what they cannot”), spend more time in fatigue duty (“I fancy, at times, that we have exchanged places with the slave”), eat inferior food (“All the rations that are condemned by the white troops are sent to our regiment”), and be subjected to inferior officers (“They try to perpetuate our inferiority, and keep us where we are”).41
Of the many grievances, the most deeply felt and resented was the inequality in pay—the fact that white privates were paid $13 a month plus a $3.50 clothing allowance, while blacks received $10 a month, out of which $3.00 might be deducted for clothing. This was not only “an unequivocal breach of contract,” blacks charged, but a hardship on their families at home. “I could not afford to get a substitute, or I would not be here now,” a draftee wrote from Yorktown, Virginia. Although “it made me feel somewhat proud to think that I had a right to fight for Uncle Sam, … my wife’s letters have brought my patriotism down to the freezing point,” and he indicated that most of his regiment shared this feeling of despair. If they were at home, a number of soldiers insisted, they would at least make enough to provide adequately for their families. “I am not willing to fight for anything less than the white man fights for,” a Massachusetts soldier declared. “If the white man cannot support his family on seven dollars per month, I cannot support mine on the same amount.”42
The inequality in pay assumed a significance for many soldiers that went beyond the question of dollars and cents and family support. The distinction branded them as second-class soldiers and citizens, and this seemed particularly galling at a time when the nation called upon them for patriotic service, perhaps even the sacrifice of their lives. “When the 54th left Boston for the South,” a soldier wrote, “they left many white men at home. Therefore, if we are good enough to fill up white men’s places and fight, we should be treated then, in all respects, the same as the white man.” Nor did blacks find altogether persuasive the oft-repeated argument (which the President himself had made to Douglass) that they had greater motives for fighting this war and should thus be willing to serve under any conditions. Why should they necessarily feel a greater obligation than the white man to preserve the Union or even to liberate the slaves? “I want to know if it was not the white man that put them in bondage?” a Massachusetts soldier asked. “How can they hold us responsible for their evils? and how can they expect that we should do more to blot it out than they are willing to do themselves?” Besides, he argued, “if every slave in the United States were emancipated at once they would not be free yet. If the white man is not willing to respect my rights, I am not willing to respect his wrongs.”43
How to combat the government’s discriminatory policy while fighting an antislavery war posed a real dilemma for the black soldier. Not only would a refusal to fight subject him to a court-martial and probable execution, but any serious interruption of the war effort would delay the liberation of his enslaved brethren. “Shall it be said that when adversity overshadowed our land, when four million bondmen prayed for deliverance, that the free colored man looked on calmly and with folded arms on account of a paltry dollar or two?” This question, raised by a black newspaper, could not be easily dismissed. Yet to submit to these racial distinctions was to confirm their inferiority. The experience of black people in American society afforded certain lessons which a Pennsylvania soldier, stationed in South Carolina, hoped his men would heed: “Our regiment is to be pitied, for we are always ready to take hold of any thing we are ordered to do, and never have we refused to obey orders. This is why we are imposed on; for the horse that draws the most willingly, generally gets the lash the most freely, and the least recompense for it.” Shortly after their arrival in the South, this soldier noted, his unit was notified that they would receive less pay than the white troops. Immediately, “despair passed over the whole regiment,” and on payday only a few men signed the payroll, “and those who did a great many of us tried to influence to the contrary.”44
Even as the black regiments went into combat, the reaction to unequal pay assumed the form of organized protest. Until Congress recognized the legitimacy of their position, several regiments refused to accept any pay at all. “The enemy is not far off, and we expect an attack every day,” a soldier with the Rhode Island regiment reported, after which he noted that the paymaster had offered them their seven dollars a month “and the boys would not take it.” What was at stake, black troops insisted, was nothing less than their self-respect. Although the protest was largely confined to the northern regiments, Colonel Higginson reported that at least one third of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, “including the best men in the regiment,” had quietly refused to accept the government’s pay. “We’s gib our sogerin’ to de Guv’ment, Cunnel,” one of the men told him, “but we won’t ‘spise ourselves so much for take de seben dollar.” With such convictions, many of the regiments held out, some for as long as eighteen months. “Here we are,” a sergeant with the 54th Massachusetts Regiment reported, “toiling and sweating beneath the burning rays of the sun, for nothing … but our hard tack and salt pork, and a constant attendance of the blues.”45
While Congress failed to act on their grievances, resentment among the black troops mounted. “Fifty-two of the non-commissioned officers are going to hold a meeting upon the subject,” a soldier with the 1st District of Columbia Regiment reported; “we don’t feel like serving the United States under such an imposition.” Henry M. Turner, who was serving as a chaplain to that regiment, confirmed growing apprehension that the hitherto peaceful protests might assume other forms. Unless the troops received their full pay soon, Turner wrote, “I tremble with fear for the issue of things.” Discontent in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment reached mutinous proportions, with reports that one soldier had been court-martialed and executed and two had been shot and wounded for refusing to obey orders. “The fact is,” a corporal reported, “this regiment is bordering on demoralization.” The commanding officer confessed his sympathy with the men, “and yet,” he added, “military necessity has compelled me to shoot two of them.” Conditions in the 55th Massachusetts Regiment were also close to open rebellion, with more than half the men indicating they were ready to stack arms and perform no more duties unless fully paid. Sergeant William Walker of the 3rd South Carolina Volunteers did more than threaten action; he marched his company to the captain’s tent and ordered them to stack arms and resign from the Army. Since the government had broken its contract with his men, he explained, it had no right to demand their allegiance. Sergeant Walker was court-martialed and shot for mutiny.46
Confronted with growing resentment of discrimination and the still pressing need to attract more recruits to a war of liberation, black spokesmen on the home front pressed for equal rights in the Army while at the same time urging more enlistments. After assuring black recruits that the “magnanimity” of this nation would speedily grant them equal pay, Frederick Douglass suggested that some blacks might be overreacting to the issue. “Do you get as good wages now as white men get by staying out of the service? Don’t you work for less every day than white men get? You know you do.” Similarly, the influential Christian Recorder, which had wavered between protest and patriotic accommodation, lamented the inequality in pay but fully supported black enlistments and expressed the hope “that our men will not stand now on dollars and cents.” What greater inducement was necessary to fight, John S. Rock asked a black regiment, than “two centuries of outrage and oppression and the hope of a glorious future?” What greater inducement was necessary, a black newspaper in New York asked, than “a chance to drive a bayonet or bullet into the slaveholders’ hearts?” It was even possible to argue, as did a broadside calling for black volunteers, that the inequality in pay and bounties should, “rightly considered,” act as “a fresh incentive” to enlist. Here was the opportunity to demonstrate “that you are actuated not by love of gain but by promptings of patriotism.”47
That the refusal to accept unequal pay was essentially a northern protest is undeniable. This raised the inevitable charge that, not being slaves, northern blacks had less of a stake in the war and were more apt to be moved by such mundane matters as pay, bounties, and benefits. Disagreement prevailed among the various black regiments as to how they should respond to unequal treatment, whether this was the proper time or place for protests, and whether the grievances warranted any kind of protest. “Those few colored regiments from Massachusetts make more fuss, and complain more than all the rest of the colored troops in the nation,” observed Garland H. White, a former Virginia slave who had escaped to Ohio before the war. He regarded their protests as a disservice to the great mass of black people, whom he urged to rebuke the “spirit of dissatisfaction and insolence” and compel the “rebellious” troops “to be quiet and behave themselves like men and soldiers.”48
With an even greater sense of urgency, the regiments made up largely of former slaves questioned the protests of their northern brethren. After noting “some pretty hard grumbling” among the northern regiments in South Carolina, two soldiers with the 78th United States Colored Troops (recruited from slaves and free Negroes in Louisiana) conceded “that we are pretty much in the same boat with them” but thought they had “put it on a little too thick.” Although their own regiment had enlisted under the same expectations of full pay, the two soldiers suggested that southern blacks had entered military service with more compelling motives than those which moved the northern blacks.
They seem to be fighting for one thing, and we for another. They, for the money they are to get, and we, to secure our liberation. Tell them to hold up a little on grumbling. They say a great deal about the distress of their families at home. They don’t know any thing about distress, till they come to look at ours. There is not a man of them but knows where his family is; but hundreds of us don’t know where our families are. When they came away from home, they left their families in the care of their friends; but we left ours among their enemies, looking only to God to preserve them.49
When Congress finally acted in June 1864 to resolve the controversy over unequal pay, the resulting legislation only partially satisfied black demands. Although racial distinctions in pay were abolished, the new law made a curious distinction in retroactive payments between free Negroes (those free before April 19, 1861), who would be paid from the date of their enlistment, and freedmen, whose retroactive payments would begin on January 1, 1864. This posed a considerable problem in the regiments which included both free Negroes and ex-slaves. It “divides the colored soldiers into two grades,” one abolitionist charged, and “does honor to injustice with a vengeance.” In the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, Colonel E. N. Hallowell worked out a rather ingenious solution. Since the commanders of black regiments were to determine which of their men were free Negroes, he simply had them all take an oath that on or before April 19, 1861, they “owed no man unrequited labor.” This was satisfactory for the 54th, which included very few former slaves, but such a solution was deemed unacceptable in the regiments made up almost exclusively of freedmen. “If a year’s discussion … has at length secured the arrears of pay for the Northern colored regiment,” an irate Colonel Higginson remarked, “possibly two years may secure it for the Southern.” Still, the action of Congress placated the northern regiments, and the first payday (October 1864) under the new law took on a festive air. “Two days have changed the face of things,” an officer with the 54th Massachusetts Regiment observed. “The fiddle and other music long neglected enlivens the tents day and night. Songs burst out everywhere; dancing is incessant; boisterous shouts are heard, mimicry, burlesque, and carnival; pompous salutations are heard on all sides.”50
Perhaps, though, the real struggle had only begun. Despite the equalization of pay, black soldiers had not yet been accorded the same rights and recognition as whites. The question of equal protection for black prisoners of war persisted, as did the absence of black representation in court-martial proceedings, the exclusion of blacks from the military academies, and the small number of black commissioned officers. Both race pride and the brutal conduct of some white officers prompted increasing demands for the appointment of blacks to command black troops. But even some of the firmest advocates of black recruitment found the idea of black officers difficult to accept, violating as it did the white man’s sensibilities and racial stereotypes in ways that enlisting blacks as common soldiers had not. Since childhood, blacks had been trained “to obey implicitly the dictates of the white man” and to believe that they belonged to an inferior race. This might still make them good soldiers but hardly leaders of men. “Now, when organized into troops,” a Union officer observed, “they carry this habit of obedience with them, and their officers being entirely white men, the negro promptly obeys his orders.” The impression that blacks would naturally serve white officers more loyally was difficult to dispel, and some observers seriously questioned if black troops would be willing to serve under black officers. In the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, “the universal feeling among the soldiers,” a regimental officer told an antislavery meeting, was that they did not want “a colored man to play the white man over them.” But many blacks denied these inferences, charged that the relative absence of black officers helped to perpetuate the idea of racial inferiority, and insisted that blacks be judged for promotions and commissions on the same basis as whites. “We want black commissioned officers,” one soldier argued, “because we want men we can understand, and who can understand us.… We want to demonstrate our ability to rule, as we have demonstrated our willingness to obey.”51
Shortly after the Civil War broke out, Martin R. Delany, still reflecting the racial pride that had made him an emigrationist and black nationalist in the 1850s, contemplated “a corps d’Afrique” modeled after the black Zouaves who had served the French in the Algerine War. Characteristically, he stressed that the origin, dress, and tactics of the Zouaves d’Afrique were uniquely African. Along similar lines, Henry M. Turner, whose racial pride matched that of Delany but whose advocacy of emigration still lay in the future, expressed the hope that there would be no racial intermingling in the newly organized black regiments. “If we do go in the field, let us have our own soldiers, captains, colonels, and generals, and then an entire separation from soldiers of every other color, and then bid us strike for our liberty, and if we deserve any merit it will stand out beyond contradiction.” But Turner’s proposal, like Delany’s, was premature. Having made the decision to use blacks as soldiers, the government was not prepared to flaunt numbers of black officers before an already apprehensive white public.52
No sooner had Congress equalized the pay of white and black soldiers than various schemes for a black army were revived, the most ambitious plan remaining Martin Delany’s “corps d’Afrique.” This time he took his idea directly to President Lincoln. What he proposed was a black army commanded by black officers that would operate essentially as a guerrilla-type force in the interior, emancipating and arming the slaves wherever they went. “They would require but little,” Delany assured the President, “as they could subsist on the country as they went along.” President Lincoln, as Delany described his reaction, could barely contain his enthusiasm. “This is the very thing I have been looking and hoping for,” he told Delany, “but nobody offered it.” Having agreed to command and raise such an army, Delany was commissioned a major and ordered to South Carolina. The war ended before he could put his plan into operation, but Delany remained in South Carolina and subsequently embraced and acted upon still another vision—political power in a state where blacks comprised a majority of the population.53
WHEN 1,100 UNION PRISONERS OF WAR were marched through Petersburg, Virginia, in August 1864, the spectators who lined the streets viewed with particular curiosity and mixed emotions the 200 black soldiers. To the whites in the crowd, few sights could have been more distasteful. At the very least, a Richmond newspaper observed, the black prisoners should have been separated from the white Yankees and driven “into a pen” until their status was determined and their owners located. “Two hundred genuine Eboshins sprinkled among the crowd of prisoners, and placed on the same footing, was a sight, the moral effect of which upon the slaves of Petersburg could not be wholesome.” Equally concerned, Emma Holmes of South Carolina wondered how Confederate authorities would deal with the black prisoners recently brought in—“barefoot, hatless and coatless and tied in a gang like common runaways.” To have them treated like other prisoners, she confessed, was not only “revolting to our feelings” but “injurious in its effects upon our negroes.”54
The Confederacy faced a real dilemma. When the North chose to enlist blacks as soldiers, the white South immediately conjured up visions of thousands of armed black men descending upon defenseless families. To contemplate one rebellious Nat Turner was sufficient cause for alarm, but to think that the same government which had been empowered by the Constitution to help suppress insurrections was now arming slaves and using them to fight white men provoked cries of disbelief. “Great God, what a state of helpless degradation,” a Virginia slaveholder exclaimed, “our own negros—bought by our own ancestors from the Yankees, the purchase money & interest now in their pockets, who first rob us of the negros themselves, & then arm them to rob us of every thing else—even our lives.” Although the white South kept insisting that the Negro would fail as a soldier, fears were expressed that he might succeed. There was an obvious urgency, then, about the question of how to dispose of captured black soldiers. What was said to be at stake was not only the security of white men, women, and children but also the well-being of the slave population.55
No matter how the black soldier might perform in combat, the initial reaction of the Confederacy was to call for “sure and effective” retaliation. Since the North had determined to arm blacks and wage a war of extermination, there was little left for the white South to do but wage “a similar war in return.” Nor was there any reason to be overly scrupulous about this problem. Once the black man became a soldier, he was as much an outlaw as the men who trained and commanded him. And once black men, whether northern freedmen or southern slaves, were corrupted by military service, an Atlanta newspaper declared, they could “scarcely become useful and desirable servants among us.” The message was clear enough.56
But the Confederacy was never able to resolve this question in any consistent manner. When the North began to recruit black regiments in the Mississippi Valley, the Confederate Secretary of War informed the commanding officer at Vicksburg that captured black soldiers were not to be regarded as prisoners of war. The official position of the Confederate government, as stated on numerous occasions, was in no way ambiguous: captured black soldiers (usually designated as “slaves in arms”) and their commissioned officers had forfeited the rights and immunities enjoyed by other prisoners of war. Any officer who helped to drill, organize, or instruct slaves, with the intention of using them as soldiers, or who commanded Negro units, was defined as an “outlaw” and deemed guilty of inciting servile insurrection. Upon capture, he was to be executed “or otherwise punished at the discretion of the court.” But black captives were to be turned over to state authorities and treated in accordance with the laws of the state in which they had been taken prisoner. These laws invariably demanded their execution as incendiaries or insurrectionists.57
Although this official position was never repealed, authorities chose to modify its enforcement. Whatever the guidelines or legislation, most of the actual decisions were made in the field by unit commanders and lesser officers. How many blacks were held as captives was never easy to determine, largely because Confederate officials refused to report such captives as prisoners of war. Some black soldiers and military laborers were executed or sold into slavery, but most of them were held in close confinement, handed over to civilian authorities, or put to work on military fortifications. “After arriving at Mobile,” one black captive testified, “we were placed at work on the fortifications there, and impressed colored men who were at work when we arrived were released, we taking their places. We were kept at hard labor and inhumanly treated; if we lagged or faltered, or misunderstood an order, we were whipped and abused; some of our men being detailed to whip others.” In the aftermath of the assault on Fort Wagner, eighteen black soldiers were placed on trial under the insurrectionary laws of South Carolina but the state failed to win a conviction and the men were interned as prisoners of war. For many whites, including some of the highest-ranking Confederate officials, it was preferable to think that blacks, especially former slaves, who served in the Union Army had been duped. And since they were little more than “deluded victims of the hypocrisy and malignity of the enemy,” the Confederate Secretary of War advised, they should be treated with mercy and returned to their previous owners, “with whom, after their brief experience of Yankee humanity and the perils of the military service, they will be more content than ever …”58
The Confederate government refused to agree to any general exchange of black prisoners of war for prisoners held by the Union Army. This attitude reflected to some degree a distinction made by Confederate officials between free Negroes and slaves. That the North might employ its own black residents for military service seems to have been conceded; that is, the North had as much right to use black men against them as it did to use elephants, wild cattle, or dogs. But the North had no right to arm a slave against his master. Nor did the South have any obligation to return such slaves. In a war, property recaptured from the enemy reverted to its owner, or could be disposed of in any way the captor deemed proper—and slaves were property. In March 1864, a Confederate lieutenant inquired of his commanding officer if he could sell the four black soldiers he had captured and divide the profits among those who had participated in the mission; the commanding officer advised him “not to report any more such captures.” What complicated the question of prisoner exchange were certain principles said to be immutable that outweighed any legal considerations. To argue an equality between white and black prisoners, as one Richmond newspaper observed, was nothing less than an act of northern insolence. “Confederates have borne and forborne much to mitigate the atrocities of war; but this is a thing which the temper of the country cannot endure.”59
The most efficient way to deal with the vexing issue of black prisoners was to take no prisoners. This was not even necessarily a racial matter but a time-honored military principle. Few wars have failed to arouse charges and countercharges regarding the disposition of soldiers after they have surrendered. In the Civil War, the presence of armed black men, most of them former slaves, thereby aggravated an already sensitive issue. For the common Confederate soldier, the need to confront blacks in armed combat was still difficult to accept, and the military setbacks he suffered exacerbated his frustrations and hatreds. “I hope I may never see a Negro soldier,” a Mississippian wrote to his mother, “or I cannot be … a Christian Soldier.” After the Battle of Milliken’s Bend, in which black troops distinguished themselves, the Confederate commander reported that substantial numbers of blacks had been killed and wounded; “unfortunately,” he added, “some fifty, with two of their white officers were captured.” The nature of warfare dictated that such matters could not be easily controlled by official edicts, whether these emanated from Richmond or from the immediate commanding officer. Every black prisoner “would have been killed,” a Confederate soldier wrote after the Battle of the Crater, “had it not been for gen Mahone who beg our men to Spare them.” Still, as he noted, one of his fellow soldiers, who had already killed several blacks, could not restrain himself. Even when General Mahone told him “for God’s sake” to stop, the soldier asked to kill one more, as “he deliberately took out his pocket knife and cut one’s Throat.” Late in the war, as white southern frustrations mounted, a clash with black troops at Mark’s Mill, Arkansas, resulted in a battlefield “sickening to behold.” “No orders, threats, or commands,” a Confederate soldier reported, “could restrain the men from vengeance on the negroes, and they were piled in great heaps about the wagons, in the tangled brushwood, and upon the muddy and trampled road.”60
Whether or not these were the normal atrocities of warfare, the reports out of the South aroused blacks already deeply disturbed over other manifestations of unequal treatment for black soldiers. The failure of the government to guarantee protection for black troops, in the event of their capture, had already reportedly caused a slackening in the recruitment campaigns. To ensure “full rights and immunities” for all prisoners, regardless of color, black spokesmen urged the Lincoln administration to adopt a policy of retaliation: “For every black prisoner slain in cold blood, Mr. Jefferson Davis should be made to understand that one rebel officer shall suffer death, and for every colored soldier sold into slavery, a rebel shall be held as hostage.” When Frederick Douglass resigned his post as a recruiting agent, he was most emphatic about this particular issue. Even “the most malignant Copperhead,” Douglass charged, could hardly criticize President Lincoln for “any undue solicitude” for the rights and lives of black soldiers. The Confederates murdered blacks in cold blood, shot down black military laborers, threatened to sell black prisoners into slavery, and yet, Douglass noted, “not one word” from the President. “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!’ ” Until that time, Douglass declared, “the civilized world” would hold the President and Jefferson Davis equally responsible for these atrocities.61
Calling the attempts to enslave prisoners “a relapse into barbarism and a crime against the civilization of the age,” Lincoln decreed in July 1863 that for every Union soldier killed “in violation of the laws of war,” a Confederate soldier would be executed; and for every Union soldier enslaved or sold into slavery, a Confederate soldier would be placed at hard labor on the public works. Although this pronouncement appeared to satisfy black demands, the President, as well as some black leaders, fully recognized that the real problem lay with implementation. “The difficulty is not in stating the principle,” Lincoln remarked, “but in practically applying it.” And once applied, he advised Douglass, there was no way to know where it might end. Among the questions raised by the President’s order was whether the northern white public was actually prepared to accept this kind of retaliation. At least one black newspaper remained skeptical. If any attempts were made to retaliate for the murder of black soldiers, the editor suggested, Confederate authorities were counting on the probability “that Northern sentiment, already weak on the subject, will revolt against taking the life of white men for ‘Niggers.’ ”62
The battle fought on April 12, 1864, at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, where blacks comprised nearly half the garrison, provoked the most bitter black protest of the Civil War. “We had hoped,” a black newspaper declared, “that the first report might have been exaggerated; but, in this, we have been doomed to disappointment.” Nearly 300 Union soldiers (the precise number varied with every report) were slain after they had thrown down their arms and surrendered. The conflicting accounts of what happened were never satisfactorily resolved. Subsequent testimony, however, leaves little doubt as to the indiscriminate slaughter undertaken by Confederate troops. Only the extent of the annihilation remains uncertain. To black people, and to much of the white northern public, it became known as the “Fort Pillow Massacre.” But to General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who commanded the Confederate forces, it was simply that place on the Mississippi River, “dyed with the blood of the slaughtered,” where his troops had conclusively demonstrated “to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.” The total number of Union dead, Forrest observed, “will never be known from the fact that large numbers ran into the river and were shot and drowned.” The casualness with which the general treated the massacre suggested no need to defend his conduct or the murders committed under his command.63
Although shocked by the Fort Pillow Massacre, angry blacks expressed little surprise. Since the United States government refused to recognize black soldiers as equal to whites, why should the Confederacy? The tragedy, blacks charged, only underscored the tardiness with which the Lincoln administration and Congress had acted upon their demands for equal protection, equal treatment, and equal rights. “I do not wonder at the conduct and disaster that transpired at Fort Pillow,” a Massachusetts soldier wrote from South Carolina. “I wonder that we have not had more New York riots and Fort Pillow massacres.” Perhaps, though, these deaths had not been in vain, suggested Richard H. Cain, a black clergyman. At the very least, he hoped, what transpired at Fort Pillow might serve to educate the northern public. “None but the blacks of this land, have heretofore realized the hateful nature of the beast: but now, white men are beginning to feel, and to realize what its beauties are.” From these deaths, the Reverend Cain vowed, a new spirit would pervade black troops, and he offered them some words of advice. In future clashes with the enemy, “give no quarter; take no prisoners; make it dangerous to take the life of a black soldier by these barbarians.” When that happens, he promised, “they will respect your manhood, and you will be treated as you deserve at the hands of those who have made you outlaws.”64
Several months after the Fort Pillow affair, the anger had not yet subsided. In the wake of new reports of black soldiers “mown down like grass at Petersburg,” the Reverend H. H. White told a mass meeting called by Boston Negro leaders that a sense of despair prevailed among the people. But he refused to be discouraged. Whatever the losses sustained by black people, the thought that should remain uppermost in their minds is that God had brought about the sacrifice of millions of men in other countries “for the cause of liberty and humanity.” The speakers who followed, however, found it impossible to share the Reverend White’s optimism or explanation. The most forceful disclaimer came from William Wells Brown, a veteran black abolitionist and former advocate of emigration who had recently helped to recruit the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. “Mr. White’s God is bloodthirsty!” Brown charged. “I worship a different kind of God. My God is a God of peace and good will to men.” Although he had once urged black men to fight, in order to convince “this God-forsaken nation” that they could be as courageous as other men, he now confessed his doubts and disillusionment. “Our people have been so cheated, robbed, deceived, and outraged everywhere, that I cannot urge them to go.… We have an imbecile administration, and the most imbecile management that it is possible to conceive of. If Mr. White’s God is managing the affairs of this nation, he is making a miserable failure.”65
Since editorial outrage, mass meetings, and executive decrees were obviously insufficient to deal with the problem, black troops were left to consider actions that might produce the effect initially intended by the President’s order. An officer with the 22nd United States Colored Troops made explicit a growing feeling among many of the black soldiers: “Sir, we can bayonet the enemy to terms on this matter of treating colored soldiers as prisoners of war far sooner than the authorities at Washington can bring him to it by negotiation. This I am morally persuaded of.” Six days after the fall of Fort Pillow, Confederate troops in Arkansas routed Union forces in the Battle of Poison Spring, including soldiers belonging to the 1st Kansas Colored Regiment. Not only were some black prisoners summarily executed but captured Union wagons were also driven back and forth over the bodies of wounded blacks. That was more than sufficient inducement for the men of the 2nd Kansas Colored Regiment to vow to take no more prisoners, and in a subsequent clash at Jenkins Ferry, Arkansas, the black regiment charged the Confederate lines, shouting “Remember Poison Spring,” and inflicted heavy losses on the enemy. But they fell slightly short of their avowed goal; one Confederate prisoner was taken—apparently by mistake—and he was returned to his regiment to impart the lessons of this battle. When black troops at Memphis reportedly took an oath “on their knees” to avenge Fort Pillow and show no mercy to the enemy, General Nathan Bedford Forrest, of all people, lodged a Confederate protest, charging that the oath had been taken in the presence of Union officers. “From what I can learn,” a Union general replied, “this act of theirs was not influenced by any white officer, but was the result of their own sense of what was due to themselves and their fellows who had been mercilessly slaughtered.”66
The Fort Pillow Massacre obviously had a different impact than General Forrest intended. If blacks were not to be treated as prisoners of war, they would fight that much harder to avoid capture. “As long as we are not recognized by the Federal Government,” a black corporal wrote, “we do not expect the enemy to treat us as prisoners of war; and, as there is no alternative left for us, we will kill every rebel we capture.” Writing from his camp near Petersburg, Virginia, a black sergeant noted that his regiment had gone into battle shouting “Remember Fort Pillow!” and that “more rebels gave themselves up that day than were actually taken prisoners.” No matter how inflated may have been some reports of black vengeance, sufficient instances were recorded to suggest that black troops fought with even greater ferocity and determination, some of them apparently convinced that to be captured was to be murdered in cold blood. The fact that Confederate officers tried to disclaim any such intentions partly reflected a growing concern over the morale of their own troops. “The Johnnies are not as much afraid of us as they are of the Mokes [black troops],” a white Union soldier wrote from Petersburg. “When they charge they will not take any prisoners, if they can help it. Their cry is, ‘Remember Fort Pillow!’ Sometimes, in their excitement, they forget what to say, when they catch a man they say: ‘Remember what you done to us, way back, down dar!’ ”67
WHEN UNION GUNBOATS came up the Combahee River in South Carolina, the slave laborers on the rice plantations dropped their hoes and ran. Few of them knew what to expect of the Yankees, and some no doubt believed the atrocity stories related by their masters and mistresses. Imagine the surprise of these slaves when they finally caught their first glimpse of the invaders. None of their “white folks” had thought to tell them that the Yankee devils might also be black men. In this instance, the soldiers belonged to the newly formed 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, which had been recruited largely from former slaves. Colonel James Montgomery, the white commanding officer, had fought with John Brown in the Kansas guerrilla wars. And the “scout” who accompanied him on this raid was none other than Harriet Tubman, known to many of the slaves as “Moses” for the forays she had made into the South before the war to escort fugitives to freedom. This time she had the backing of Federal guns as she supervised the removal of slaves from the Combahee River plantations.
The slaves looked on in amazement as armed black men came ashore and burned down the homes of white men. “De brack sojer so presumptious,” one slave kept muttering, his head shaking with admiration and disbelief at what he was witnessing. “Dey come right ashore, hold up dere head. Fus’ ting I know, dere was a barn, then tousand bushel rough rice, all in a blaze, den mas’r’s great house, all cracklin’ up de roof.” It had to be an impressive spectacle, and this slave seemed to relish every minute, making no move to put out the flames. “Didn’t I keer for see ’em blaze?” he exclaimed. “Lor, mas’r, didn’t care notin’ at all. I was gwine to de boat.” For the soldiers, as for the slaves who were now rushing to the gunboats, a holiday atmosphere prevailed. “I nebber see such a sight,” an exultant Harriet Tubman declared—“pigs squealin’, chickens screamin’, young ones squallin’.” Elderly couples vied with the young to reach the boats, determined to leave “de land o’ bondage”; numerous women came aboard, one of them balancing a pail on her head (“rice a smokin’ in it jus’ as she’d taken it from de fire”), most of them loaded down with baskets and bags containing their worldly possessions. “One woman brought two pigs, a white one an’ a black one,” Harriet Tubman recalled; “we took ’em all on board; named de white pig Beauregard, and de black pig Jeff Davis.” With more than 700 slaves aboard, the gunboats finally set out for Beaufort.68
Nowhere in the Confederate South was the impact of the Civil War more graphically demonstrated than in the sight of armed and uniformed black men, most of them only recently slaves, operating as a liberation and occupation army. The grievances of the black soldier often took on a diminished importance when he contemplated his role in this war. “Men and women, old and young, were running through the streets, shouting and praising God,” one soldier wrote after his regiment had entered Wilmington, North Carolina. “We could then truly see what we had been fighting for, and could almost realize the fruits of our labors.” With his regiment nearing Richmond, another soldier exulted, “We have been instrumental in liberating some five hundred of our sisters and brethren from the accursed yoke of human bondage.” The scenes which greeted black soldiers in their march through the South—abandoned plantation houses, joyous celebrations of freedom, reunions of families separated by slavery, the shocked and angry faces of white men and women—were bound to make a deep and lasting impression. For many of the northern blacks, this was their first look at the South and the Southerner. “I have noticed a strange peculiarity among the people here,” a soldier with the 54th Massachusetts Regiment noted. “They are all the most outrageous stutterers. If you meet one and say, ‘How are you?’ as you pass, you could walk a whole block before he could sputter out the Southern, ‘Right smart, I thank-ee.’ ” The soldiers were moved not only by the effusive welcomes they usually received from the slaves but also by observing at first hand the effects of a lifetime of bondage. “I often sit down and hear the old mothers down here tell how they have been treated,” a Pennsylvania soldier wrote. “It would make your heart ache.… They have frequently shown me the deep marks of the cruel whip upon their backs.” Many of the black soldiers located family members and revived old friendships, while some began courtships that would result in new relationships.69
Perhaps most memorable were the occasions on which the soldiers who had once been slaves were afforded the opportunity to manifest their contempt for the relics and symbols of their enslavement. “We is a gwine to pay our respectable compliments to our old masters,” one soldier declared, summing up the sentiments of his regiment. While marching through a region, the black troops would sometimes pause at a plantation, ascertain from the slaves the name of the “meanest” overseer in the neighborhood, and then, if he had not fled, “tie him backward on a horse and force him to accompany them.” Although a few masters and overseers were whipped or strung up by a rope in the presence of their slaves, this appears to have been a rare occurrence. More commonly, black soldiers preferred to apportion the contents of the plantation and the Big House among those whose labor had made them possible, singling out the more “notorious” slaveholders and systematically ransacking and demolishing their dwellings. “They gutted his mansion of some of the finest furniture in the world,” wrote Chaplain Henry M. Turner, in describing a regimental action in North Carolina. Having been informed of the brutal record of this slaveholder, the soldiers had resolved to pay him a visit. While the owner was forced to look on, they went to work on his “splendid mansion” and “utterly destroyed every thing on the place.” Wielding their axes indiscriminately, they shattered his piano and most of the furniture and ripped his expensive carpets to pieces. What they did not destroy they distributed among his slaves. And when the owner addressed one of the soldiers “rather saucily,” he was struck across the mouth and sent reeling to the floor. Chaplain Turner, who witnessed the action, obviously thought no explanation was necessary for the punishment meted out to this planter. “It was on Sabbath,” he noted, and “as Providence would have it,” the men had halted their march to eat and rest near the home of this “infamous” slaveholder.
Oh, that I could have been a Hercules, that I might have carried off some of the fine mansions, with all their gaudy furniture. How rich I would be now? But I was not. When the rich owners would use insulting language, we let fire do its work of destruction. A few hours only are necessary to turn what costs years of toil into smoke and ashes.
Besides, after observing the work of General Sherman’s armies, Chaplain Turner concluded that “we were all good fellows.”70
Had such scenes been imagined at the outset of the Civil War, the sensibilities of white Americans would no doubt have been shocked. Yet, but two years later, black soldiers of the United States Army, most of them freed slaves, engaged their former masters in combat, marched through the southern countryside, paraded and drilled in southern towns and villages, and brought the news of freedom to tens of thousands of slaves. “The change seems almost miraculous,” a black sergeant conceded. “The very people who, three years ago, crouched at their master’s feet, on the accursed soil of Virginia, now march in a victorious column of freedmen, over the same land.” When violating southern codes and customs, black soldiers appeared to be fully aware of the significance of their actions. “We march through these fine thoroughfares,” a soldier wrote from Wilmington, North Carolina, “where once the slave was forbid being out after nine P.M., or to puff a ‘regalia,’ or to walk with a cane, or to ride in a carriage! Negro soldiers!—with banners floating.” And with unconcealed delight, James F. Jones wrote from New Orleans how he had “walked fearlessly and boldly through the streets of a southern city … without being required to take off his cap at every step, or to give all the sidewalks to those lordly princes of the sunny south, the planters’ sons!”71
Nor would any black soldier soon forget that exhilarating moment when he and his men marched into a southern city amidst crowds of cheering slaves who rushed out into the streets to embrace them and to clasp their hands. It seemed to one soldier that the slaves “look for more certain help, and a more speedy termination of the war, at the hands of the colored soldiers than from any other source; hence their delight at seeing us.” Although some slaves greeted them initially with suspicion and disbelief (“Are you the Yankees?”) or even with hostility (“wild Africans”), the restraints broke down quickly in most places and what ensued were celebrations that lasted far into the night. “I was indeed speechless,” a black sergeant wrote from Wilmington after the tumultuous reception given his regiment. “I could do nothing but cry to look at the poor creatures so overjoyed.” To the disgust of a white resident of Camden, South Carolina, the black troops staged a regular camp meeting to which local blacks were invited—“tremendous excitement prevailed, as they prayed their cause might prosper and their just freedom be obtained.”72
When black troops entered Charleston singing the John Brown song, they found themselves immediately surrounded by the black residents. Upon seeing the soldiers, one elderly slave woman threw down her crutch and shouted that the year of the Jubilee had finally arrived. Some of the soldiers and their officers, after what they had witnessed, confessed that “the glory and the triumph of this hour” simply defied description. “It was one of those occasions which happen but once in a lifetime.” Several weeks later, newly commissioned Major Martin R. Delany arrived in Charleston, still hoping to consummate his vision of a “corps d’Afrique.” He could barely restrain himself at the thought of entering the city “which, from earliest childhood and through life, I had learned to contemplate with feelings of the utmost abhorrence.” After pausing momentarily to view “the shattered walls of the once stately but now deserted edifices of the proud and supercilious occupants,” he found himself “dashing on in unmeasured strides through the city, as if under a forced march to attack the already crushed and fallen enemy.”73
After a Virginia planter heard from his father alarming reports of black occupation troops, he vowed to keep the letter for his children in order to aid him “in cultivating in their hearts an eternal hatred to Yankeedom.” The expression “What I most fear is not the Yankees, but the negroes” summed up the apprehensions that gripped southern whites as Union troops neared their homes. Having expected little else, black soldiers grew accustomed to the cold stares and defiant looks on the faces of the defeated whites. “You cannot imagine, with what surprise the inhabitants of the South, gaze upon us,” a black sergeant remarked. “They are afraid to say anything to us; so they take it out in looking.” The sight of black troops patrolling the city streets and passing through the plantations, and the fact that many of their own slaves were among these regiments, constituted for many whites the ultimate humiliation of the Civil War. “There’s my Tom,” one planter muttered, his face reddening, as he viewed some passing soldiers. “How I’d like to cut the throat of the dirty, impudent good-for-nothing!” Some of the whites he observed, Henry M. Turner noted, appeared to be uncertain “as to whether they are actually in another world, or whether this one is turned wrong side out.”74 No matter how hard whites tried to keep their thoughts to themselves, the indignation they felt could not always be contained. They shook their fists at the passing troops, spit at them from behind the windows where they were standing, ordered them to stay out of their yards, and expressed rage and disbelief whenever any black regiment was kept in the town or neighborhood as an occupation force. “Those dreadful negro wretches, whose very looks betokened their brutal natures,” one white woman observed, “caused an indefinable thrill of horror and loathing.”75
Although the black soldier made few attempts to provoke the whites, he, too, had difficulty in containing his feelings. The position he now held, moreover, gave him a novel opportunity to demand obedience from whites and impress upon them how the old relationships had been rendered obsolete. When several “white ladies and slave oligarchs” came to Henry M. Turner at regimental headquarters to request government rations, they entered his office, he said, “in the same humiliating custom which they formerly would have expected from me.” And it gave him immense satisfaction, he confessed afterwards, to see them “crouching before me, and I a negro.” Several weeks later, Chaplain Turner accompanied his regiment as they crossed a river near Smithfield, North Carolina. Before wading through the stream, the men stripped off their clothes. “I was much amused,” Turner wrote, “to see the secesh women watching with the utmost intensity, thousands of our soldiers, in a state of nudity.”
I suppose they desired to see whether these audacious Yankees were really men, made like other men, or if they were a set of varmints. So they thronged the windows, porticos and yards, in the finest attire imaginable. Our brave boys would disrobe themselves, hang their garments upon their bayonets and through the water they would come, walk up the street, and seem to say to the feminine gazers, “Yes, though naked, we are your masters.”76
With obvious pride and satisfaction, some black soldiers chose to visit their old masters and mistresses. After the Battle of Nashville, a nineteen-year-old black youth from Tennessee used his furlough for this purpose. His former mistress seemed happy to see him. “You remember when you were sick and I had to bring you to the house and nurse you?” she asked him. He replied affirmatively. But now, she exclaimed, “you are fighting me!” “No’m, I ain’t fighting you,” he replied, “I’m fighting to get free.”77
BY THE END of the Civil War, more than 186,000 black men, most of them (134,111) recruited or conscripted in the slave states, had served in the Union Army, comprising nearly 10 percent of the total enrollment. Almost as many blacks, men and women, mostly freedmen, were employed as teamsters, carpenters, cooks, nurses, laundresses, stevedores, blacksmiths, coopers, bridge builders, laborers, servants, spies, scouts, and guides. “This army would be like a one-handed man, without niggers,” a Union soldier conceded. “We have two rgts. of fighting nigs. and as many more of diggers.… The nigs. work all night, every night, planting guns and building breast-works.” Seldom paid (if at all), herded together and marched from their tents to work, sometimes under the watchful eyes of overseers, black military laborers often perceived little change in their lives, except for the acknowledgment of their “freedom.”78
Among both the soldiers and the laborers, the Civil War exacted a heavy price in human lives. Some one third of the black soldiers—an estimated 68,178 men—were listed as dead and missing, 2,751 of them killed in combat. For both white and black soldiers, the overwhelming majority of deaths resulted from disease rather than military action. Among the more unglamorous statistics of the Civil War is the fact that deaths from diarrhea and dysentery alone exceeded those killed in battle. And most diseases did not discriminate according to race any more than enemy fire in their devastation of the ranks. Despite the claim that blacks were less susceptible to diseases which felled whites, the death rate from disease was nearly three times as great for black soldiers as for whites.79
When blacks were first recruited, considerable doubt prevailed as to how they would perform as soldiers, particularly under enemy fire. “Many hope they will prove cowards and sneaks,” a New York newspaper perceived, while “others greatly fear it.” Two years of experience with black troops made believers of most of the doubters. The evaluations made by Union officers, while agreeing rather remarkably on the military capabilities of blacks, also revealed that the very qualities often stressed in racial stereotypes as marking blacks different from (hence “inferior” to) whites made them commendable soldiers. Since they were “more docile and obedient,” blacks were thought to be easier to control and command. “Their docility, their habits of unquestioning obedience,” one soldier observed, “pre-eminently fit them for soldiers. To a negro an order means obedience in spirit as well as letter.” Accustomed as they were to heavy menial labor, black soldiers were found to work “more constantly” and “obediently” than whites and to offer fewer “complaints and excuses.” Although blacks were considered to be excessive in their religious worship (“Their singing, praying, and shouting in camp had to be arrested, sometimes, at the point of the bayonet”), this characteristic, too, could be viewed as a military virtue. The fact that blacks were “a religious people” suggested to one Union officer “another high quality for making good soldiers,” while it prompted Major General David Hunter, who had organized the first slave regiment in South Carolina, to observe that “religious sentiment—call it fanaticism, such as you like … made the soldiers of Cromwell invincible.” The white man had also conceded to blacks a natural gift for music and rhythm, and this helped to explain their aptness for military drill and marching. “In mere drill they must beat the whites,” one soldier conceded; “for ‘time,’ which is so important an item in drilling, is a universal gift to them.” But even if blacks clearly had the potential for becoming good soldiers, the assumption prevailed that only white men could properly lead them, largely because blacks were accustomed to obeying whites and had too little regard for their own race. “They certainly need white officers for a while, and the best of officers, too,” a sympathetic white soldier argued, “for they will, like children, lean much on their superiors.”80
Although former slaves made up the largest portion of black troops, disagreement prevailed over whether they were better soldiers than the northern blacks who had never experienced bondage. Ignoring the question of motivation (which black commentators usually cited), a Union officer from New York thought the northern blacks had more self-reliance and came closer “to the qualities of the white man in respect to dash and energy”; several other officers in his unit concurred with this judgment and they unanimously agreed that slaves were less desirable as soldiers. The most vigorous defense of the slave as soldier was made by Colonel Higginson, whose South Carolina regiment consisted almost exclusively of recently held bondsmen. He preferred them as soldiers, he explained, because of “their greater docility and affectionateness” and “the powerful stimulus” which prompted men to fight for their own homes and families. The demeanor of his men, moreover, he considered superior to “that sort of upstart conceit which is sometimes offensive among free negroes at the North, the dandy-barber strut.” But Higginson refused to argue, as did some Union officers, that slavery with its emphasis on submission and obedience had prepared slaves for military service. “Experience proved the contrary,” he insisted. “The more strongly we marked the difference between the slave and the soldier, the better for the regiment. One half of military duty lies in obedience, the other half in self-respect. A soldier without self-respect is worthless.”81
The prevailing assessment of the black soldier in combat was that he conducted himself as well as the white man. That in itself was a substantial concession. “They seem to have behaved just as well and as badly as the rest and to have suffered more severely,” concluded a white officer who but two years earlier had warned that the use of blacks as soldiers would be a serious blunder (like “Hamlet’s ape, who broke his neck to try conclusions”). Some black soldiers deserted under fire, though proportionately fewer than in the white regiments. Much like the white soldiers, blacks complained of camp conditions, oppressive officers, and punishments out of proportion to the offenses committed—and some blacks argued that racial discrimination aggravated each of these grievances. Like the white soldiers, blacks suffered the moments of disillusionment, frustration, and weariness that are characteristic of any war, particularly a struggle as agonizing and brutal as the Civil War. “More than one half of our whole command was … sacrificed without gaining any particular object,” a black soldier remarked after a battle in which 231 of the 420 men in his outfit had been killed or wounded. The same observation might have been made by the common soldier of any war in history.82
Both white and black soldiers shared a capacity for incredible valor (seventeen black soldiers and four black sailors were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor), battle fatigue, and outright fear. “I prayed on the battle field some of the best prayers I ever prayed in my life,” one black soldier readily confessed, and “made God some of the finest promises that ever were made.” And for some blacks, as for some whites, the level of violence and inhumanity reached in this war was too much to bear. “I sho’ wishes lots of times I never run off from de plantation. I begs de General not to send me on any more battles, and he says I’s de coward and sympathizes with de South. But I tells him I jes’ couldn’t stand to see all dem men layin’ dere dyin’ and hollerin’ and beggin’ for help and a drink of water, and blood everywhere you looks.” But when it came down to the real test, most of the black soldiers fought, and many of them died, and that was all the evidence most observers required. Nor did the black soldier who had been a slave evince any hesitation about facing his former master in the field of combat. “Our masters may talk now all dey choose,” a black soldier replied when told that slaves loved their old masters too much to fight them; “but one ting’s sartin,—dey don’t dare to try us. Jess put de guns into our hans, and you’ll soon see dat we not only knows how to shoot, but who to shoot. My master wouldn’t be wuff much ef I was a soldier.”83
The white Yankee soldier gradually grew accustomed to the sight of uniformed blacks. In some regions, the initial hostility subsided when black regiments relieved the whites of fatigue and garrison duties and did a disproportionate share of the heavy labor. “Never fear that soldiers will be found objecting to negro enlistments,” a Massachusetts private noted. “One hour’s digging in Louisiana clay under a Louisiana sun, and we are forever pledged to do all we can to fill up our ranks with the despised and long-neglected race.” With additional experience, moreover, impressions of the military capabilities of blacks also became more favorable. When he first undertook to train black troops in South Carolina, Lieutenant Colonel John S. Bogert thought it would take some time “to make soldiers of my darkies” but he was determined to succeed. “I will either make soldiers of them or make them wish they were slaves again.” Two weeks later, he was confident of making a disciplined regiment out of them. “You would be surprised to see how they improve by being kindly treated, they begin to act like men & they soon feel that they are of some account & have very curious ways of showing their dignity.”84
But even as black soldiers were said to be creating “a revolution in thinking” in the Union Army, the initial sources of hostility were not so easily displaced, and deeply entrenched racial antipathies still had a way of surfacing. For some whites, the black soldiers were never more than comic relief. “There are about three regiments of darkies raised here for Wilde’s brigade,” a Massachusetts soldier wrote home, “regular Congoes with noses as broad as a plantation and lips like raw beefsteaks, Yah!” Although some white officers warned that they would withhold their troops from any engagement in which blacks were placed in command as commissioned officers, this never became a problem. Far more serious were the racial antagonisms that erupted into bloody encounters between white and black soldiers. After one such clash at Ship Island, Mississippi, white gunners disregarded orders to cover the advance of three black companies; instead, they turned the field pieces on their black comrades.85 But such occurrences proved to be rare. The conduct of the black soldier was such as to convince even white Yankees who refused to give up their racial hatreds that military necessity dictated a policy of recognition and cooperation. “I never believed in niggers before,” a Wisconsin cavalry officer confessed, “but by Jasus, they are hell in fighting.”86
Not only did the black soldier impress many of his white comrades but he proved himself to his own people, did wonders for their racial pride, and gave them some genuine heroes and prospective leaders. “Dey fought and fought and shot down de ‘Secesh,’ and n’er a white man among ’em but two captains,” a newly freed slave boasted to one of the white missionary teachers. When Robert Smalls, hero of the Planter affair, visited New York City in 1862, he was acclaimed and feted by the black populace for having performed a military feat “equaled by only a few events in any other war.” The black people of his native South Carolina would honor him in the next several decades by electing him to the state legislature and to the United States Congress. But even if few blacks reached such heights, the uniform and the rifle, as Douglass had predicted, were capable of effecting significant changes in the demeanor of many black men. “Put a United States uniform on his back and the chattel is a man,” one white soldier observed. “You can see it in his look. Between the toiling slave and the soldier is a gulf that nothing but a god could lift him over. He feels it, his looks show it.”87
The fact that black men had played a significant role in liberating their enslaved brethren and preserving the Union would remain a source of considerable pride, even as it led them to expect much of the future. Once the war ended, the black soldier expected that a grateful nation would accord him and his people the rights of American citizens. He had demonstrated his loyalty. He had fought for his country’s survival. On the battlefields of the South—at Port Hudson, Battery Wagner, Milliken’s Bend, Olustee, and Petersburg—he had disproved those widely held notions about his inability to handle firearms or meet the test of fire. What more could white Americans expect of him? Like any victor, was he not entitled to share in the triumph? If he expected much of the United States, it was because he had served its citizens well. Reflecting upon the role of blacks in the war, Thomas Long, a former slave and a private in the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, suggested to the men of his regiment that they had faced and surmounted obstacles almost unprecedented in the history of warfare—the test of enemy fire and the suspicions and hostility of their own comrades.
We can remember, when we fust enlisted, it was hardly safe for we to pass by de camps to Beaufort and back, lest we went in a mob and carried side arms. But we whipped down all dat—not by going into de white camps for whip um; we didn’t tote our bayonets for whip um; but we lived it down by our naturally manhood; and now de white sojers take us by de hand and say Broder Sojer. Dats what dis regiment did for de Epiopian race.
If we hadn’t become sojers, all might have gone back as it was before; our freedom might have slipped through de two houses of Congress and President Linkum’s four years might have passed by and notin’ been done for us. But now tings can neber go back, because we have showed our energy and our courage and our naturally manhood.
Whatever happened to them after the war, Private Long declared, the memory of their participation in that conflict would be handed down to future generations of black people. “Suppose,” he speculated, “you had kept your freedom witout enlisting in dis army; your chilen might have grown up free and been well cultivated so as to be equal to any business, but it would have been always flung in dere faces—‘Your fader never fought for he own freedom’—and what could dey answer? Neber can say that to dis African Race any more.”88
That black men managed to win the respect of white America only by fighting and killing white men was an ironic commentary on the ways in which American culture (like many others) measured success, manliness, and fitness for citizenship. “Nobly done, First Regiment of Louisiana Native Guard!” a New York newspaper proclaimed after the assault on Port Hudson. “That heap of six hundred corpses, lying there dark and grim and silent before and within the works, is a better proclamation of freedom than President Lincoln’s.” Some seventy years after the Civil War, W. E. B. Du Bois suggested that it may have required “a finer type of courage” for the slave to have worked faithfully while the nation battled over his destiny than for him to have plunged a bayonet into the bowels of a complete stranger. But the black man, Du Bois noted, could prove his manhood only as a soldier. When he had argued his case with petitions, speeches, and conventions, scarcely a white man had listened to him. When he had toiled to increase the nation’s wealth, the white man had compensated him with barely enough for his subsistence. When he had offered to protect the women and children of his master, many white men had considered him a fool. But when the black man “rose and fought and killed,” Du Bois observed, “the whole nation with one voice proclaimed him a man and brother.” Nothing else, Du Bois was convinced, had made emancipation or black citizenship conceivable but the record of the black soldier.89
Recognizing his former master among the prisoners he was guarding, a black soldier greeted him effusively, “Hello, massa; bottom rail top dis time!” Observing black soldiers with rifles and bayonets demanding to verify the passes of white men and women, a Confederate soldier returning home after a prisoner exchange could hardly believe his eyes. “And our own niggers, too,” he exclaimed. “If I could have my way, I’d have a rope around every nigger’s neck, and hang ’em, or dam up this Mississippi River with them. Only eight or ten miles from this river slaves are working for their masters as happily as ever.” Both scenes, each of them incredible in its own way, pointed up much of the confusion into which a rigidly hierarchical society had been thrown. Nor would that confusion of roles end with the war itself. “I goes back to my mastah and he treated me like his brother,” recalled Albert Jones, who had spent more than three years in the Union Army. “Guess he wuz scared of me ’cause I had so much ammunition on me.”90
Whether by guarding prisoners, marching through the South as an army of occupation, or engaging Confederate troops in combat, the black soldier represented a sudden, dramatic, and far-reaching reversal of traditional roles—as spectacular as any in the history of the country. What made this reversal even more manifest, however, was the conduct of the slaves on the plantations and farms that lay in the path of the advancing Union Army. Once the Yankees made their presence felt, or earlier, at the first sound of distant guns, the ties that bound a slave to his master and mistress, including loyalties and mutual affections that had endured for decades, would face their most critical test.