150th Anniverary Of Black Soldiers
By William A. Gladstone
(May 2012 Civil War News - Preservation Column)
EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Gladstone knows more about blacks’ Civil War service than anyone we know. For this column about black Civil War soldiers we had to omit some information. We would be happy to share the original column with readers by email.
From the onset of the firing on Fort Sumter free black men wanted to enlist in the U.S. military. They were turned away because a 1792 Federal law barred Negroes from bearing arms for the U.S. Army, although they served with George Washington in the American Revolution and with Andrew Jackson the War of 1812.
African Americans had always served in the U.S. Navy on shipboard as firemen, stewards, coal haulers, and even as boat pilots.
Historian John Hope Franklin wrote that at the beginning of the Civil War, ”In almost every town of any size there were large numbers of Negroes who sought service in the Union army; failing to be enlisted they bided their time and did whatever they could to assist.”
They were often told this was a “white man’s fight.” Black men from the North began to form their own regiments and tried to perform their patriotic duty in many Northern cities only to find this effort unwelcomed.
By mid‑1862, the escalating number of former slaves (contrabands), the declining number of white volunteers, and the increasing pressing personnel needs of the Union Army pushed the government to reconsider the ban on blacks in the military.
On July 17, 1862, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act declaring free any slave who left a disloyal owner and escaped to a Union garrison or who stayed at home in Confederate-held territory to await the arrival of an advancing Federal army.
The Militia Act of July 17, 1862, allowed African Americans to participate in the Civil War prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. It provides for persons of African descent in any military or naval service for which they may be found competent.
The militia act also granted freedom to slaves so employed, as well as to their mothers, wives and children if they belonged to disloyal owners.
On July 22, President Lincoln presented the preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet.
Union battle casualties and disease had diminished Union ranks. This made it possible for Lincoln to consider the black man as a soldier. The 1860 census showed about 100,000 free black men as well as more than 800,000 slaves who would be of military age by 1863.
There were five black state regiments, two of which engaged the enemy, before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on Jan. 1, 1863.
The 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers engaged Confederate troops as a state-recognized regiment in the Battle of Island Mound, Mo., Oct. 27 and 28, 1862.
The 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (African Descent [A.D.]) began its formation in May 1862. It engaged the enemy in three separate events along the Southern coast in November 1862, before being recognized by the government on Jan. 31, 1863.
On Sept. 22, Oct. 12 and Nov. 24, 1862, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Regiment Louisiana Native Guards, A.D. respectively were organized.
They were organized for three years and had black captains and lieutenants. The 2nd even had a black major. Black officers engaged the enemy in battle at Port Hudson, May 22‑July 8, 1863
The Emancipation Proclamation declared free all slaves in the seceding states, except of those in seven Virginia counties, 13 occupied Louisiana parishes as well as the newly formed state of West Virginia.
The passage in the seventh paragraph gave the military authority “to such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations and other places and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”
Permission was given to raise the “Glory” regiment, the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, in February 1863.
In Baton Rouge, April 1863, Gen. Daniel Ullman organized five regiments of black soldiers designated as the United States Volunteers. The brigade eventually was redesignated into the Corps D’Afrique which, in 1864, was redesignated into the United States Colored Troops.
On May 16, 1863, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks organized the Corps d’Afrique. It contained one cavalry regiment, one heavy artillery regiment, five engineer regiments and 22 regiments of infantry.
The most famous battle in which black soldiers participated was the Battle of Battery (Fort) Wagner, July 18, 1863. The 54th Massachusetts was not victorious in this battle but was victorious with public opinion of their bravery in battle.
Black soldiers participated in different commands as black state regiments, U.S. Volunteers and Corps d’Afrique regiments. At the same time there was the USCT. At one time the United States Volunteers were redesignated into the Corps d’Afrique.
In 1864 there were two branches of black soldiers: state regiments and the U.S. Colored Troops. In 1866 there were two branches: the USCT regiments, which were mustered out in December 1867, and the U.S. Army, which had four infantry and two cavalry regiments.
At times the black man fired a weapon at a Union soldier. That did not mean he was a soldier. In order to be a soldier he had to be duly sworn in the Confederate army.
Slaves finally became soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia with the passing of the Negro Soldier Act of March 15, 1865. Two Confederate Negro companies paraded on Capitol Square, Richmond.
On April 5 a battalion of black soldiers participated in the fighting at Paine’s Cross-Roads, Va. This was the first time any officially “mustered in” black Confederates participated in the fighting. These men were trained and drilled and learned how to march. Their battalion accompanied Custis Lee’s command.
Some black soldiers were in Confederate regiments because they passed the color line. Just because a small number of black soldiers were in the Confederacy does not mean it was the policy of the Confederates to have back soldiers until the passage of the Negro Soldier Act.
If there is a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the black soldier in the Union Army this would be the 147th anniversary of the black Confederate soldier.
William A. Gladstone is author of Men of Color (Thomas 1993) and many articles. A longtime purveyor of black military artifacts, Gladstone has sold images, books, documents, objects and art from his collections to the Library of Congress, Pamplin Historical Park, Gettysburg National Military Park and Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.