Pennsylvania in the Civil War

Virtue ~ Liberty ~ Independence

History of African-Americans
in the Civil War

Once let the black man get upon his person the brassletters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulderand bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny thathe has earned the right to citizenship in the United States." FrederickDouglass

These words spoken by Frederick Douglass moved many African-Americans toenlist in the Union Army and fight for their freedom. With President AbrahamLincoln's issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, the Civil Warbecame a war to save the union and to abolish slavery.

Approximately 180,000 African-Americans comprising 163 units served in theUnion Army during the Civil War, and many more African-Americans served in theUnion Navy. Both free Africans-Americans and runaway slaves joined the fight.

On July 17, 1862, Congress passed two acts allowing the enlistment ofAfrican-Americans, but official enrollment occurred only after the September,1862 issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. In general, white soldiers andofficers believed that black men lacked the courage to fight and fight well. InOctober, 1862, African-American soldiers of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteerssilenced their critics by repulsing attacking Confederates at the battle ofIsland Mound, Missouri.By August, 1863, 14 Negro Regiments were in the field and ready for service. Atthe battle of Port Hudson, Louisiana, May 27, 1863, the African-Americansoldiers bravely advanced over open ground in the face of deadly artilleryfire. Although the attack failed, the black solders proved their capability towithstand the heat of battle.

On July 17, 1863, at Honey Springs, Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, the 1st Kansas Colored fought withcourage again. Union troops under General James Blunt ran into a strongConfederate force under General Douglas Cooper. After a two-hour bloodyengagement, Cooper's soldiers retreated. The 1st Kansas, which had held the center of theUnion line, advanced to within fifty paces of the Confederate line andexchanged fire for some twenty minutes until the Confederates broke and ran.General Blunt wrote after the battle, "I never saw such fighting as wasdone by the Negro regiment....The question that negroeswill fight is settled; besides they make better solders in every respect thanany troops I have ever had under my command."

The most widely known battle fought by African-Americans was the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina,by the 54th Massachusettson July 18, 1863. The 54th volunteered to lead the assault on thestrongly-fortified Confederate positions. The soldiers of the 54th scaled thefort's parapet, and were only driven back after brutal hand-to-hand combat.

Although black soldiers proved themselves as reputable soldiers,discrimination in pay and other areas remained widespread. According to theMilitia Act of 1862, soldiers of African descent were to receive $10.00 amonth, plus a clothing allowance of $3.50. Many regiments struggled for equalpay, some refusing any money until June 15, 1864, when Congress granted equalpay for all black soldiers.

African-American soldiers participated in every major campaign of 1864-1865except Sherman's invasion of Georgia. Theyear 1864 was especially eventful for African-American troops. On April 12,1864, at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, Confederate General NathanBedford Forrest led his 2,500 men against the Union-held fortification,occupied by 292 black and 285 white soldiers. After driving in the Unionpickets and giving the garrison an opportunity to surrender, Forrest's menswarmed into the fort with little difficulty and drove the Federals down theriver's bluff into a deadly crossfire. Casualties were high and only sixty-twoof the U.S. Colored Troops survived the fight. Many accused the Confederates ofperpetuating a massacre of black troops, and the controversy continues today.The battle cry for the Negro soldier east of the Mississippi River became "Remember Fort Pillow!"

The Battle of New Market Heights, Virginia (Chaffin's Farm) became one ofthe most heroic engagements involving African-Americans. On September 29, 1864,the African-American division of the Eighteenth Corps, after being pinned downby Confederate artillery fire for about 30 minutes, charged the earthworks andrushed up the slopes of the heights. During the hour-long engagement thedivision suffered tremendous casualties. Of the sixteen African-Americans whowere awarded the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, fourteen received thehonor as a result of their actions at New Market Heights.

In January, 1864, General Patrick Cleburne and several other Confederateofficers in the Army of the Tennessee proposedusing slaves as soldiers since the Union wasusing black troops. Cleburnerecommended offering slaves their freedom if they fought and survived. ConfederatePresident Jefferson Davis refused to consider Cleburne's proposal and forbade furtherdiscussion of the idea. The concept, however, did not die. By the fall of 1864,the South was losing more and more ground, and some believed that only byarming the slaves could defeat be averted. On March 13, the ConfederateCongress passed General Order 14, and President Davis signed the order intolaw. The order was issued March 23, 1865, but only a few African-Americancompanies were raised, and the war ended before they could be used in battle.

In actual numbers, African-American soldiers comprised 10% of the entireUnion Army. Losses among African-Americans were high, and from all reportedcasualties, approximately one-third of all African-Americans enrolled in themilitary lost their lives during the Civil War.

Direct questions or comments to pacivilwar@pa-roots.net

  Alice J. Gayley, all rights reserved

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