AFRICAN AMERICAN CIVIL WAR SOLDIERS
"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 pockets, and there is no power on earth
which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States." -- Frederick Douglass
Port Hudson, Louisiana
May 21 - July 9, 1863
The May 1, 1863 New York Tribune summed up many Northerners' feelings about
African American soldiers when it declared, "Loyal Whites have generally become willing that they should fight, but the great
majority have no faith that they will really do so. Many hope they will prove cowards and sneaks -- others greatly fear it."
In their first major battle, at Port Hudson, Louisiana, on May 27, 1863, African Americans proved their courage beyond a doubt.
Port Hudson served as the linchpin of Confederate control over the Lower
Mississippi. Among the Union regiments attacking the well-fortified position were two African American units: the First Louisiana
-- which was one of the few units commanded by African American officers -- and the Third Louisiana. Although they did not
inflict a single casualty on the enemy, the units showed conspicuous bravery, charging repeatedly against blistering artillery
and rifle fire. All told, the two regiments sustained nearly 200 casualties. Among those impressed that day was Union general
Nathaniel P. Banks, who reported, "The severe test to which they were subjected, and the determined manner in which they encountered
the enemy, leaves upon my mind no doubt of their ultimate success."
Milliken's Bend, Louisiana
June 7, 1863
In one of the bloodiest battles of the war, African American troops from
the 9th Louisiana Infantry, 1st Mississippi Infantry, and the 13th Louisiana Infantry fought alongside white troops from
the 10th Illinois Cavalry and the 23rd Iowa Infantry. The most seasoned of the black troops had been soldiers for only about
a month. But they engaged attacking Confederates in fierce hand-to-hand combat, fighting with bayonets, fists, and rifle butts,
or firing their weapons at extremely close range. Finally, with their backs to the Mississippi, they received the support
of a Navy gunboat, and their line held.
Brigadier General Henry McCullough, who commanded the Confederate forces,
later noted that his "charge was resisted by the negro portion of the enemy's force with considerable obstinacy, while the
white or true Yankee position ran like whipped curs almost as soon as the charge was ordered." The African American troops
paid dearly for their bravery. Heaviest hit was the 9th Louisiana Infantry. Almost 45% of the unit's men were killed or mortally
wounded -- one of the highest percentages killed in a single Civil War battle.
Fort Wagner, South Carolina
July 18, 1863
African American soldiers
and white officers from across the North comprised the celebrated 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Like most African American
units, the 54th was led by a white man, a blue-blood named Robert Gould Shaw, who had
years of military experience but little of it in battle. Two sons of abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass also joined the regiment, as did a grandson of Sojourner Truth.
Fort Wagner, an island stronghold
that protected the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, presented a significant obstacle to Union forces. Defended
by the sea, a marshy shoreline, Confederate artillery batteries on nearby islands, and a three-foot moat, it was close to
impregnable. A first Union assault, on July 10th and 11th, had ended in failure. Shaw volunteered his men to lead the second
attack on Wagner, and on the night of July 18, in complete darkness, they started across the sand in the face of rebel artillery.
Shell blasts tore huge holes in the ranks, but the men closed them and marched on, eventually breaking into a charge. Deadly
Confederate fire raked the attackers from three sides, but a number of troops breached the fort's outer walls before being
driven back. Wounded numerous times, Shaw fell dead just outside the outer wall.
Owing to his association with black soldiers, Confederates denied Shaw an
officer's burial, declaring "We have buried him with his niggers!" When Shaw's father was told that his son had been buried
in a common grave with the African American soldiers he had led, he replied that there was no better place for his son to
rest than on the field of battle.
Fort Pillow, Tennessee
April 12, 1864
In late 1862, Confederate President
Jefferson Davis declared that African Americans fighting for the Union were guilty of insurrection, a crime punishable by
death. The following spring, the Confederate Congress passed a law that allowed the death penalty for white officers of black
units and provided for captured black soldiers to be returned to slavery. But the sentiment the new laws aroused -- along
with the ingrained hostility of many Confederate soldiers -- set the stage for wartime atrocities. The most notorious incident
occurred at a small Federal outpost north of Memphis, Tennessee.
On April 12, 1864, approximately 1,500 Confederate cavalrymen under
Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked Fort Pillow, which was garrisoned by about 500 troops. More than half of the
soldiers were black. The superior Confederate force overwhelmed the fort's defenders; Union casualties were high. But after
the Federals surrendered, Forrest's men shot and killed a number of unarmed soldiers and officers, both black and white. If
the Confederates hoped such executions would have a chilling effect, the opposite was true. After the "Fort Pillow Massacre,"
many African American troops fought with extra vigor, to avoid capture and to avenge their murdered comrades. "Remember Fort
Pillow" became a popular battle cry.
Battle of the Crater, Petersburg, Virginia
July 30, 1864
In a bold attempt to break the siege of Petersburg, General Ulysses S. Grant decided
to tunnel beneath the Confederate lines, blow a hole through the breastworks with gunpowder, and send troops charging through
the gap. General Ambrose Burnside chose black troops from the Fourth Division of the Ninth Army Corps to lead the assault.
But Major General George Meade overruled him, fearing that if a slaughter ensued, he would be blamed for using black troops
as cannon fodder.
When ignited, the gunpowder blew a huge gap through the Confederate line,
creating a huge crater in the earth, but almost nothing else went as planned. Union officers had failed to create a plan for
getting troops over the physical barricades that existed beyond the breastworks. The Confederate defenders quickly reorganized
and directed heavy fire into the crater, which had now become a deathtrap. Union commanders then sent in the African Americans
of the Fourth Division. They fought valiantly, moving beyond the trapped soldiers and nearly breaking through the line before
being forced to retreat.
The bravery of many African American soldiers was anchored in a deep faith
in God and dedication to the cause of liberty. In a letter to a friend, one black sergeant wrote: "If I fall in the battle
anticipated, remember I fall in defense of my race and my country."
Chaffin's Farm, Virginia
September 29-30, 1864
Positioned to block
Confederate efforts to resupply Petersburg, Virginia, with men and materiel, soldiers from the 4th and 6th U.S. Colored Infantry
joined white soldiers in an attack on Confederate fortifications at Chaffin's Farm, also known as New Market Heights. Although
one arm of the assault succeeded, the rest was repulsed. Casualties were extremely heavy. Out of an initial force of 1,300
men, African Americans suffered 455 casualties.
High casualty rates were common for African American units -- usually for
two reasons. First, since blacks had not previously served in the U.S. Army, they were inexperienced fighters. Second, feeling
social pressure to prove themselves as men, they often took risks on the battlefield that their white counterparts would not. Of the 180,000 African Americans who fought for the Union, at least 30,000 died. Numerous
African Americans were awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's most prestigious military decoration. Fourteen of those men earned their medals at Chaffin's Farm.
October 2, 1864
On the march toward Saltville, Union white troops verbally harassed the African Americans who would
soon be fighting beside them. Such day-to-day prejudice was a common experience for black soldiers -- at least until whites
saw them perform under fire.
Among the troops who attacked Southern positions at Saltville on October
2 were soldiers of the 5th United States Colored Cavalry. Fighting with white soldiers from the 11th Michigan and 12th Ohio
Cavalries, the colored cavalry charged, overran, and held the Confederate left. After holding their position for some time
without receiving essential support, they were forced to withdraw.
At Saltville, Confederate soldiers executed unarmed black prisoners, even
raiding a hospital on two separate occasions and murdering wounded blacks in their sickbeds. But behind Union lines, the African
American soldiers would no longer be taunted by their white comrades. They had proven themselves the equal of any Union soldier.
Reading: The Sable Arm: Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (Modern War Studies). Description:
A bona fide classic, The Sable Arm was the first work to fully chronicle the remarkable story of the nearly 180,000 black
troops who served in the Union army. This work paved the way for the exploration of the black military experience in other
wars. This edition, with a new foreword by Herman Hattaway and bibliographical essay by the author, makes available once again
a pioneering work that will be especially useful for scholars and students of Civil War, black, and military history. Continued
Civil War Times
Illustrated: "One of the one hundred best books ever written on the Civil War."
Reading: A Grand Army of Black Men:
Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army 1861-1865 (Cambridge
Studies in American Literature and Culture). Description: The Civil War stands vivid in the
collective memory of the American public. There has always been a profound interest in the subject, and specifically of Blacks'
participation in and reactions to the war and the war's outcome. Almost 200,000 African-American soldiers fought for the Union in the Civil War. Although most were illiterate ex-slaves, several thousand were well educated,
free black men from the northern states. The 129 letters in this collection were written by black soldiers in the Union army
during the Civil War to black and abolitionist newspapers. Continued below...
a unique expression of the black voice that was meant for a public forum. The letters tell of the men's experiences, their
fears, and their hopes. They describe in detail their army days--the excitement of combat and the drudgery of digging trenches.
Some letters give vivid descriptions of battle; others protest racism; while others call eloquently for civil rights. Many describe their conviction that they are fighting not only to free the slaves but to
earn equal rights as citizens. These letters give an extraordinary picture of the war and also reveal the bright expectations,
hopes, and ultimately the demands that black soldiers had for the future--for themselves and for their race. As first-person
documents of the Civil War, the letters are strong statements of the American dream of justice and equality, and of the human
Reading: Black Union
Soldiers in the Civil War. Description: This book refutes the historical slander
that blacks did not fight for their emancipation from slavery. At first harshly rejected in their attempts to enlist in the
Union army, blacks were eventually accepted into the service—often through the efforts of individual generals who, frustrated
with bureaucratic inaction in the face of dwindling forces, overrode orders from the secretary of war and even the president.
By the end
of the Civil War, African American soldiers had numbered more than 180,000 and served in 167 regiments. Seventeen were awarded
the nation’s highest award for valor and heroism--the Medal of Honor.
Theirs was a remarkable achievement whose full story is finally revealed.
Reading: The Negro's Civil War:
How American Blacks Felt and Acted During the War for the Union. Description: In this
classic study, Pulitzer Prize-winning author James M. McPherson deftly narrates the experience of blacks--former slaves and
soldiers, preachers, visionaries, doctors, intellectuals, and common people--during the Civil War. Drawing on contemporary
journalism, speeches, books, and letters, he presents an eclectic chronicle of their fears and hopes as well as their essential
contributions to their own freedom. Continued below...
words of these extraordinary participants, both Northern and Southern, McPherson captures African-American responses to emancipation,
the shifting attitudes toward Lincoln and the life of black soldiers in the Union army. Above all, we are allowed to witness
the dreams of a disenfranchised people eager to embrace the rights and the equality offered to them, finally, as citizens.
Reading: Like Men of War.
Description: Although countless books have been written about the Civil War, the role of black
troops has been consistently underrepresented until recently. Nearly 180,000 of them fought--mostly for the North, but a handful
even took up arms for the slaveholding South. Many wanted to serve at the start of the conflict, but a variety of factors
kept them on the sidelines. Until Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation
in 1862, many Union leaders--including the president--held that the war was not about slavery. Racist views caused some to
question further the value of black soldiers; there was also genuine concern about how Confederates would treat captured blacks.
But, as Noah
Andre Trudeau reveals, black soldiers demonstrated bravery and professionalism from the moment they suited up. He recounts
well-known events, such as the 54th Massachusetts' attack on Fort Wagner, as well as less familiar ones, such as blacks' involvement in the war's last
directed combat one month after Lee's surrender. There were atrocities, too: in 1864, Confederates slaughtered black prisoners
of war at Fort Pillow
(historians once disputed this brutal act of cold-blooded murder, but many scholars accept it as true today). Although Trudeau
sometimes sacrifices his narrative drive to excessive detail, Like Men of War remains a compelling book full of strong battle
Reading: Black Profiles in Courage:
A Legacy of African-American Achievement. Description: With all the flair of his last-second game-winning sky hooks, Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar delivers a well-written and important collection highlighting the lives of America's greatest black heroes. Taking his title cue from John Kennedy's Profiles
in Courage, Abdul-Jabbar brings to life the exploits of a wide variety of African Americans, including Estevanico, a Moorish
slave who discovered Arizona and New Mexico; Cinque, a kidnapped African slave who led a mutiny aboard the slave ship Amistad
and later won his freedom in the U.S.; and Harriet Tubman, who brought hundreds of slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
In a time when
the media beams negative images of African Americans around the world, Black Profiles in Courage is indispensable for young
adults of other races as well as African-American youth, showing that attributes like courage are not coded by color. For
those young blacks who feel distant from America because of racism, books like this are a small but potent antidote against
prejudice, reminding them of the important contributions African Americans have made to their country.