April 12: Confederates attack Fort Sumter, inaugurating the Civil War.
May 24: General Butler declares fugitive slaves at Fort Monroe, Virginia “contraband” and puts them work for the Union with pay.
August 6: The First Confiscation Act nullifies slave-owners’ claims to fugitive slaves who have previously been put to use in the Confederate war effort.
August 30: General Frémont declares all slaves of rebel slave owners in Missouri free; Lincoln will order Frémont to rescind his proclamation in the following month.
September 21: Navy Secretary Gideon Wells authorizes recruiters to enlist former slaves in the Union navy.
April 3: General Hunter begins to recruit to black soldiers in South Carolina on his own authority after his request for permission has gone unanswered.
May 9: General Hunter declares all slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida free.
May 19: Lincoln nullifies General Hunter’s emancipation edict and urges border states to embrace gradual, compensated emancipation and colonization.
June-August: Senator Lane begins to recruit the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry, making Kansas the first state to officially recruit and train military units comprised of black soldiers.
July 17: Congress passes the Second Confiscation Act and the Militia Act.
August 22: General Butler incorporates several Louisiana Native Guard units of free black soldiers into Union forces and musters the first official all-black forces in the Union army.
August 25: After having withheld permission, the War Department authorizes Hunter’s recruitment of black soldiers in the South Carolina Sea Islands.
September 22: Lincoln issues the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation announcing that all slaves in areas still in rebellion as of January 1, 1863 will be declared free.
October 28: In the first use of black troops in combat during the Civil War, the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry fight at Island Mound, Missouri.
December 23: Jefferson Davis issues a proclamation ordering that black Union soldiers captured by Confederate troops are not to be treated as prisoners of war but remanded to Confederate state authorities and that their white officers will be executed.
January 1: Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation liberating slaves in Confederate states and announcing the Union’s intention to enlist black soldiers and sailors.
March 26: Adjutant General of the Army, Lorenzo Thomas, begins a large-scale effort to raise and administer black troops in the Mississippi Valley.
May 22: The Bureau of Colored Troops is established.
May 27: The Louisiana Native Guards play a vital role in the assault on Port Hudson, Louisiana.
June 7: The 1st Mississippi Volunteers of African Descent soldiers repel a Confederate attack at Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana.
July 13-16: In what will become known the New York City Draft Riots, predominantly Irish mobs, angered by Congressional laws initiating a draft, attack African Americans in New York City and burn down an orphanage for black children.
July 18: The 54th Massachusetts spearheads an assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina.
July 30: Lincoln’s Order of Retaliation states that Union soldiers, black or white, are entitled to equal protection if captured by the enemy and threatens retaliation for Confederates who enslave or kill of black prisoners of war.
October 3: The War Department orders full-scale recruitment of black soldiers in Maryland, Missouri, and Tennessee, with compensation to loyal owners.
April 12: Confederate troops massacre black soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tennessee.
June 15: Congress equalizes the pay of black and white soldiers.
June 15: USCT XVIII Corps help to capture and secure regions around Petersburg, the supplier of the Confederate capital, Richmond, initiating the longest siege in American history.
July 30: USCT IX Corps fight at the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg.
September 29: Black soldiers are crucial to the success of the Battle of New Market Heights near Richmond. Fourteen black soldiers will receive the Medal of Honor for this battle.
December 15: USCT regiments help to achieve victory at the Battle of Nashville, Tennessee.
March 23: The Confederate War Department issues an order to recruit enslaved men as soldiers and emancipate them upon completion of loyal service starting in April.
April 9: Black Union troops are present for Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
May 12: The 62nd US Colored Infantry fight in the final battle of the Civil War at Palmito Ranch, Texas.
Figure 1: After the Election of President Lincoln, the nation’s most prominent abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, published the following essay in his publication Douglass’ Monthly in December 1860. Because the issues surrounding abolition, racial equality, and the arming of black soldiers would become inextricable with the start of Civil War, this essay usefully sheds light on Lincoln’s stance on slavery just before the start of the war. While Douglass did not feel confident that Lincoln would further the cause of abolition, a charge he believed that was issued by Lincoln’s opponents, Douglass argued that Lincoln’s election was significant because it signaled a challenge to the South’s longstanding domination of national politics. Douglass would ultimately serve as a recruiter for the U.S. Army during the war, and two of his sons served in the 54th Massachusetts.
“The Late Election” by Frederick Douglass excerpts
. . . The clamor now raised by the slaveholders about “Northern aggression,” “sectional warfare,” as a pretext of dissolving the Union, has this basis only: The Northern people have elected, against the opposition of the slaveholding South, a man for President who declared his opposition to the further extension of slavery over the soil belonging to the United States. Such is the head and front, and the full extent of the offense, for which “minute men” are forming, drums are beating, flags are flying, people are arming, “banks are closing,” “stocks are falling,” and the South generally taking on dreadfully.
By referring to another part of our present monthly, our respected readers will find a few samples of the spirit of the Southern press on this subject. They are full of intrigue, smell of brimstone, and betoken a terrific explosion. Unquestionably, “secession,” “disunion,” “Southern Confederacy,” and the like phases are the most popular political watch words of the cotton-growing States of the Union. Nor is this sentiment to be entirely despised. If Mr. Lincoln were really an Abolition President, which he is not; if he were a friend to the Abolition movement, instead of being, as he is, its most powerful enemy, the dissolution of the Union might be the only effective mode of perpetuating slavery in the Southern States—since if it could succeed, it would place slavery beyond the power of the President and his Government. But the South has now no such cause for disunion. The present alarm and perturbation will cease; the Southern fire-eaters will be appeased and will retrace their steps.—There is no sufficient cause for the dissolution of the Union. Whoever lives through the next four years will see Mr. Lincoln and his Administration attacked more bitterly for their pro-slavery truckling, than for doing any anti-slavery work. He and his party will become the best protectors of slavery where it now is, and just such protectors as slaveholders will most need. In order to defeat him, the slaveholders took advantage of the ignorance and stupidity of the masses, and assured them that Lincoln is an Abolitionist. This, Mr. Lincoln and his party will lose no time in scattering to the winds as false and groundless. With the single exception of the question of slavery extension, Mr. Lincoln proposes no measure which can bring him into antagonistic collision with the traffickers in human flesh, either in the States or in the District of Columbia. . . .
With an Abolition President we should consider a successful separation of slave from the free states a calamity, greatly damaging to the prospects of our long enslaves, bruised and mutilated people; but under what may be expected of the Republican party, with its pledges to put down the slaves should they attempt to rise, and to hunt them should they run away, a dissolution of the Union would be highly beneficial to the cause of liberty. . . .
What, then, has been gained to the anti-slavery cause by the election of Mr. Lincoln? Not much in itself considered, but very much when viewed in the light of its relations and bearings. For fifty years the country has taken its law from the lips of an exacting, haughty and imperious slave oligarchy. The masters of slave have been masters of the Republic. . . . Lincoln’s election has vitiated their authority, and broken their power. It has taught the North its strength, and shown the South its weakness. More important still, it has demonstrated the possibility of electing, if not an Abolitionist, at least an anti-slavery reputation to the Presidency of the United States. . . .
. . . Notwithstanding the many cowardly disclaimers, and miserable concessions to popular prejudice against the colored people, which Republican orators have felt themselves required, by an intense and greedy desire of success, to make, they have been compelled also to recur to first principles of human liberty, expose the baseless claim of property in man, exhibit the hideous features of slavery, and to unveil, for popular execration, the brutal manners and morals of the guilty slave-masters. . . .
Reprinted in Lincoln on Black and White: A Documentary History, edited by Arthur Zilversmit, Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company, 2000 , pp. 70-73.
Figure 2: This anonymous writer in the New York Herald in September of 1860 demonstrates the primacy of white supremacy in the psyche and culture of many white Americans, North and South, during this period. For many white Americans, white supremacy was fundamental to their national as well as their individual identity; therefore, for these individuals, the idea of African American equality threatened to degrade the nation as well as white people personally.
“Our Historic Development—Shall It Be Superceded by a War of Races?”
Party divisions among us have hitherto been based on questions of policy in government, but without departing from the great principles of the rightful preponderance of the white race. Thus, in the first division of parties after the establishment of the constitution, the lines of the federal and republican organization were drawn on the great questions of a stronger of weaker form of federal government, involving the right of controlling personal liberty, the freedom of the press, and other questions of similar character which marked, which marked our legislation and political agitation during the closing years of the last century. This was succeeded by party divisions on the question of a second war with England in defense of our rights on the ocean, and the patriotic sacrifices the war party then led the country to make in the face of the bitter opposition of “the Massachusetts school” were the foundations of our present commercial glory. After this came the great division under Jackson, on the questions of bank, tariff and internal improvements by the general government. All of these questions were discussed with partisan bitterness, but in them the doubt of the right of the white man to rule never entered.
The only party division that exists to-day, aside from the bickering of the selfish and unscrupulous leaders, who each endeavoring, with their petty cockle boats, to gather the fragments upon the tide of party revolution, involves a far deeper and older question than any that has previously been discussed among us during our national career. The issue that is presented by the black republican party involves the whole question of our social and national existence. Black republicanism, founded on and animated by the anti-slavery idea, and pursuing an exaggerated notion of individual rights, involves not only an attempt to equalize dissimilar and discordant races in their social and immunities, but also the most destructive theories in regard to the organization of society….
This anti-slavery idea aims to establish a new social policy in this country—the policy of an equalization of the white and black races—which had never produced anything but bloodshed in other parts of the world, and which can only result in the subjugation or destruction of the numerically weaker race. There is no possibility of the black and the white existing harmoniously together in social and political equality…. …[T]he Southern States, where four millions of blacks are now held in a position of social subjection, which contributes to their own moral and material welfare, and to that the whole community in which they exist. The triumph of antislavery sentiment, through the election of Lincoln to the Presidency, will initiate a social revolution among us which require generations, and perhaps centuries, for its consummation, of we exist through it so long. Such a war of races will absorb all the power of our society, diverting them from the prosecution of domestic industry and foreign trade. Above all, it will produce division and conflict among ourselves, as it has divided the whites everywhere that it has prevailed, while the blacks, without other policy or impulses, will be united by the bond of color….
The real question, therefore, now presented to the people of the United States is the question of our social development for generations yet to come, and involving our very existence as a nation. If we once begin the war of races, which will inevitably follow from the triumph of the abolition idea and its control of our government, it cannot cease until the black race had been exterminated or driven from among us. Such a war will involve the cessation of the prosecution of many of the industrial pursuits that now constitute our prosperity and national greatness. It will consume all the elements that how contribute to our intellectual and material development. With such certainty before us, involving out posterity for centuries in conflict and ruin, it becomes every man to take heart and do his utmost to defeat the fanatical and revolutionary black republicans, who, blinded by their own zeal, following a fallacy that elsewhere has conducted only to destruction, and obstinately refusing to learn wisdom from the experience and disasters from other lands and nations, are bent on establishing here the most destructive conflict of races that the world has ever witnessed.
Published by an anonymous author in the New York Herald, September 19, 1860. Republished in The Civil War: Primary Documents on Events from 1860 to 1865, edited by Ford Risely, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004, pp. 19-21.
Figure 3: Ohio Democrat, William Scott, published this letter in the Marietta Register in November 1861. Scott correctly noted that hundreds of thousands of former slaves would liberate themselves during the conflict of the war. A supporter of the war, Scott worried about how to manage former slaves, whom he did not view as his equals nor as American citizens.
Whatever may be the result of the civil war in our Country, many thousands, yes hundreds of thousands, of negroes will escape from their masters. When the way, along the borders of the Slave States, becomes opened by the Federal troops, there will doubtless be a continual stampede of slaves. The Union men will suffer in this way as will the rebels. We can see no way to avoid it. In the face of all this, what is to be done for the helpless blacks, to preserve them from starvation and ruin, as well as to protect ourselves from such a horde of semibarbarians let loose upon the public?
Shall the Government arm them—as some have suggested, and employ them against their masters? We think a Christian people could never think of such a thing. If our course is of such a nature, as to be necessary to resort to such means to forward it, it is high time for us to consider whether we ought not to abandon it at once. Shall the Government employ them in its fortifications until the close of the war and then have them disposed of, paying the loyal men for their services? 3,000,000 or 4,000,000 will not be easily taken care of for that length of time.
Shall they be colonized in South Carolina—as the [Marietta] Intelligencer has suggested, making the whites their slaves—thus making an independent nation of them? Or shall they be permitted to run at large, flooding the entire North with a worthless set of paupers? This would be a fatal step, both for their own interests as well as ours. They, when thus situated, would be a greater barrier to the prosecution of the war, than they would be were they at the disposal of the rebels. . . .Surely, this is a very inopportune time to have such a care, when our entire country is in a state ill prepared to supply the wants of our own poor citizens.
This will undoubtedly be a question for our State Legislature, the coming winter. Some of the Western States have already legislated against their coming within their borders. It is very likely—the rest will be compelled to do the same thing.
From the Marietta Register, November 22, 1861, authored by William Scott. Reprinted in Ohio’s War: The Civil War in Documents, edited by Christine Dee, Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006, p. 66-67.
Figure 4: This letter from Jacob Dodson to Secretary of War Simon Cameron indicates the desire on the part of many free black men to serve in the Union army in April 1861. Dodson was a free black man from Missouri who had accompanied John C. Frémont on expeditions to Utah and California in the 1840s. Lincoln refused the service of the 300 men Dodson recruited.
WASHINGTON, April 23, 1861
Hon. SIMON CAMERON,
Secretary of War:
SIR: I desire to inform you that I know some 300 reliable colored free citizens of this city who desire to enter the service for the defense of the city.
I have been three times across the Rocky Mountains in the service of the country with Frémont and others.
I can be found about the Senate Chamber, as I have been employed about the premises for some years.
Yours, respectfully, JACOB DODSON (Colored).
From The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, edited by John Moody, et. al. U.S. War Records Ofice, p. 107.
Figure 5: This is Lincoln’s reply to Henry Raymond who had sent the president a letter from a member of the Mississippi legislature, William Smedes. The reply speaks to the profound anxiety of many white Americans regarding the idea of African American equality.
December 18, 1860
Hon. H. J. Raymond
My dear Sir
Yours of the 14th. is received. What a very mad-man your correspondent, Smedes is. Mr. Lincoln is not pledged to the ultimate extinctinction [sic] of slavery; does not hold the black man to the equal of the white, unqualifiedly as Mr. S. states it; and never did stigmatize their white people as immoral and unchristian; and Mr. S. can not prove one of his assertions true.
. . . . .
. . . . Yours truly
There is a photocopy of this letter in the collections of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Springfield, Illinois. It has been reprinted in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 4, edited by Roy Basler, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990 , p. 156 and Lincoln on Black and White: A Documentary History, edited by Arthur Zilversmit, Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company, 2000 , p. 75.
Figure 6: This is a letter from Lincoln to his friend Orville H. Browning, a Republican Senator from Illinois. In it, Lincoln not only expresses his concern that arming African Americans would turn the border states against the Union, he also writes the now famous line that “to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.”
Executive Mansion, Washington
September 22, 1861
Private & confidential
Hon. O. H. Browning
My dear Sir
Yours of the 17th is just received; and coming from you, I confess it astonishes me. That you should object to my adhering of a law, which you had assisted in making, and presenting to me, less than a month before, is odd enough. But this is a very small part. Genl. Freemont’s proclamation, as to confiscation of property, and the liberation of slaves, is purely political, and not within the range of military law, or necessity. If a commanding General finds a necessity to seize the farm of a private owner, for a pasture, an encampment, or a fortification, he has the right to do so, and to so hold it, as long as the necessity lasts; and this is within military law, because within military necessity. But to say the farm shall no longer belong to the owner, or his heirs forever; and this as well when the farm is not needed for military purposes as when it is, is purely political, without the savor of military law about it. And the same is true of slaves. If the General needs them, he can seize them, and use them; but when the need is past, it is not for him to fix their permanent future condition. That must be settled according to laws to make my law-makers, and not by military proclamations. The proclamation in the point in question, is simply “dictatorship.” It assumes that the general may do anything he pleases—confiscate the lands and free the slaves of loyal people, as well as of disloyal ones. And going the whole figure I have no doubt would more popular with some thoughtless people, than that which has been done! But I cannot assume this reckless position; nor allow others to assume it on my responsibility. You speak of it as being the only means of saving the government. On the contrary it is itself the surrender of the government. Can it be pretended that it is any longer the government of the U.S.—any government of Constitution and laws,--wherein a General, or a President, may make permanent rule of property by declaration?
I do not say that Congress might not with propriety pass a law, on the point, just such as General Freemont proclaimed. I do not say I might not, as a member of Congress, vote for it. What I object to, is, that I as President, shall expressly or impliedly seize and exercise the permanent legislative functions of the government.
So much as to principle. Now as to policy. Now doubt the thing was popular in some quarters, and would have been more so it had been a general declaration of emancipation. The Kentucky Legislature would not budge till that proclamation was modified; and Gen. Anderson telegraphed me that on the new of Gen. Freemont having actually issued deeds of manumission, a whole company of our Volunteers threw down their arms and disbanded. I was so assured, as to think it probable, that the very arms we had furnished Kentucky would be turned against us. I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we can not hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us. We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this capitol. On the contrary, if you will give up your restlessness for new positions, and back me manfully on the grounds upon which you and other kind friends gave me the election, and have approved in my public documents, we shall go through triumphantly.
. . . . .
. . . . Yours friend as ever A. LINCOLN
This letter is in the Illinois State Historical Library, Springfield, Illinois. It has been reprinted in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 4, edited by Roy Basler, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990 , pp. 551- 553 and Lincoln on Black and White: A Documentary History, edited by Arthur Zilversmit, Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company, 2000 , pp. 78-79.
Figure 7: The Civil War song, “Sambo’s Right to be Kilt,” was first published in the New York Herald in 1862. Writing under the pen name, Private Miles O’Reilly, the author of the verse was Charles C. Halpine, a staff officer who served under the command of General David Hunter. In April of that year, Hunter had issued a proclamation, initially overturned by Lincoln, freeing the slaves of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida and enlisted black soldiers. Even when federal policy began to support Hunter’s practices, many Northern whites were highly critical. Halpine’s verse was an effort to defend Hunter’s decision and countered the unease of many whites who believed that serving alongside black soldiers would demean them.
SAMBO'S RIGHT TO BE KILT by Private Miles O'Reilly
Some tell me 'tis a burnin' shame
To make the naygers fight,
And that the trade of bein' kilt
Belongs but to the white.
But as for me, upon my soul!
So lib'ral are we here,
I'll let Sambo be shot instead of myself
On ev'ry day in the year.
On ev'ry day in the year, boys,
And in ev'ry hour in the day,
The right to be kilt I'll divide wid him,
And devil a word I'll say.
In battle's wild commotion,
I shouldn't at all object,
If Sambo's body should stop a ball
That's coming for me direct;
And the prod of a Southern bagnet
So ginerous are we here,
I'll resign and let Sambo take it
On every day in the year.
On ev'ry day in the year, boys,
And wid none 'iv your nasty pride,
All my right in a Southern bagnet prod
Wid Sambo I'll divide.
The men who object to Sambo
Should take his place and fight;
And it's better to have a nayger's hue
Than a liver that's wake and white.
Though Sambo's black as the ace of spades,
His fingers a trigger can pull,
And his eye runs straight on the barrel sight,
From under his thatch of wool.
On ev'ry day in the year, boys,
Don't think that I'm tippin' you chaff,
The right to be kilt we'll divide with him, boys,
And give him the largest half.
Thanks to Benjamin Tubb of The Music of the American Civil War (1861-1865)
Figure 8: The following is a series of excerpts from the diary of Salmon P. Chase from July 1862. At the time, Chase was Secretary of the Treasury. Chase’s entries shed light on the federal government’s shifting approaches to arming African Americans.
Monday, July 21, 1862
. . . . .
. . . . I received a notice to attend a Cabinet meeting, at 10 o’clock. It has been so long since any consultation has been held that it struck me as a novelty.
I went at the appointed hour, and found that the President had been profoundly concerned at the present aspect of affairs, and had determined to take some definitive steps in respect to military action and slavery. He had prepared several Orders, the first of which contemplated authority to Commanders to subsist their troups in the hostile territory—the second, authority to employ negroes as laborers—the third requiring that both in the case of property taken and of negroes employed, accounts should be kept with such degrees of certainty as would enable compensation to made in proper cases—another provided for the colonization of negroes in some tropical country.
A good deal of discussion took place on these points. The first Order was universally approved. The second was approved entirely; and the third, by all except myself. I doubted the expedience of attempting to keep accounts for the benefit of the inhabitants of rebel States. The Colonization project was not much discussed.
. . . . .
Tuesday, July 22, 1862
. . . . .
Went to Cabinet at the appointed hour. It was unanimously agreed that the Order in respect to Colonization should be dropped; and the other were adopted unanimously, except that I wished North Carolina included among the States named in the first order.
The question of arming slaves was then brought up and I advocated it warmly. The President was unwilling to adopt this measure, but proposed to issue a proclamation, on the basis of the Confiscation Bill, calling upon the States to return their allegiance—warning the rebels the provisions of the Act would have full force at the expiration of sixty days—adding, on his own part, a declaration of his intention to renew, at the next session of Congress, his recommendation of compensation to States adopting the gradual abolishment of slavery—and proclaiming the emancipation of all slaves within States remaining in insurrection on the first of January, 1863.
I said that I should give to such a measure my cordial support; but I should prefer that no new expression on the subject of compensation should be made, and I thought that the measure of Emancipation could be much better and more quietly accomplished by allowing Generals to organize and arm the slaves (thus avoiding depredation and massacre on the one hand, and support to the insurrection on the other) and by directing the Commanders of Departments to proclaim emancipation within their Districts as soon as practicable; but I regarded this as so much better than inaction on the subject, that I should give it my entire support.
The President determined to publish the first three Orders forthwith, and to leave the other for some further consideration. The impression left upon my mind by the whole discussion was, that while the President thought that the organization, equipment and arming of negroes, like other soldiers, would be productive of more evil than good, he was not willing that Commanders should, at their discretion, arm, for purely defensive purposes, slaves coming within their line.
. . . . .
Sunday, August 3
. . . . .
. . . . I received a summons to a Cabinet meeing.
. . . . .
There was a good deal of conversation on the connection of the Slavery question with the rebellion. I expressed my conviction for the tenth of twentieth time, that the time for the suppression of the rebellion without interference with slavery had passed; that it was possible, probably, at the outset, by striking the insurrectionists wherever found, strongly and decisively; but we had elected to act on the principles of a civil war, in the which the whole population of every seceding state was engaged against the Federal Government, instead of treating the active secessionists as insurgents and exerting our utmost energies for their arrest and punishment;—that the bitterness of the conflict had now substantially united the white population of the rebel states against us;—that the loyal whites remaining, if they would not prefer the Union without Slavery, certainly would not prefer Slavery to the Union; that the blacks were really only the loyal population worth counting; and that, in the Gulf States at least, their right to Freedom ought to be at once recognized, while, in the Border States, the President’s plan of emancipation might be made the basis of the necessary measures for their enfranchisement;—that the practical mode of effecting this seemed to me quite simple;—that the President had already spoken of the importance of making of the freed blacks on the Mississippi, below Tennessee, a safeguard to the navigation of the river;—that Mitchell, with a few thousand soldiers, could take Vicksburgh;—assure the blacks freedom on condition of loyalty; organize the best of them in companies, regiments etc. and provide, as far as practicable for the cultivation of the plantations by the rest;—that Butler should signify to the slaveholders of Louisiana that they must recognize the freedom of their workpeople by paying them wages;—and that Hunter should do the same thing in South-Carolina.
Mr. Seward expressed himself as in favor of any measures likely to accomplish the results I contemplated, which could be carried into effect without Proclamations; and the President said he was pretty well cured of objections to any measure except want of adaptedness to put down the rebellion; but did not seem satisfied that the time had come for the adoption of such a plan as I had proposed.
. . . . .
From “Diary and Correspondence of Salmon P. Chase,” American Historical Association, Annual Report for the Year 1902, 2 vols., Washington D.C. Government Printing Office, 1903, and reprinted in Lincoln on Black and White: A Documentary History, edited by Arthur Zilversmit, Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company, 2000 , pp. 91-94.
Figure 9: John Boston was a fugitive slave from Maryland who served in a Brooklyn regiment. He was clearly grateful for his successful escape to freedom but pained by his separation from his family. Boston’s spelling errors attest to the fact that few slaves received literary instruction.
Upton Hill [Va.] January the 12 1862
My Dear Wife it is with grate joy I take this time to let you know Whare I am i am now in Safety in the 14th Regiment of Brooklyn this Day i can Adress you thank god as a free man I had a little truble in giting away But as the lord led the Children of Isrel to the land of Canon So he led me to a land Whare fredom Will rain in spite Of earth and hell Dear you must make your Self content i am free from al the Slavers Lash and as you have chose the Wise plan Of Serving the lord i hope you Will pray Much and i Will try by the help of god To Serv him With all my hart I am With a very nice man and have All that hart Can Wish But My Dear I Cant express my grate desire that i Have to See you i trust the time Will Come When We Shal meet again And if We dont met on earth We Will Meet in heven Whare Jesas ranes Dear Elizabeth tell Mrs Own[ees] That i trust that She Will Continue Her kindness to you and that god Will Bless her on earth and Save her In grate eternity My Acomplements To Mrs Owens and her Children may They Prosper through life I never Shall forgit her kindness to me Dear Wife i must Close rest yourself Contented i am free i Want you to rite To me Soon as you Can Without Delay Direct your letter to the 14th Reigment New york State malitia Uptons Hill Virginea In Care of Mr Cranford Comary Write my Dear Soon As you C Your Affectionate Husban Kiss Daniel For me
Give my love to Father and Mother
John Boston to Mrs. Elizabeth Boston, 12 Jan. 1862, enclosed in Maj. Genl. Geo. B. McClellan to Hon. Edwin Stanton, 21 Jan. 1862, A-587 1862, Letters Received, ser. 12, Adjutant General's Office, Record Group 94, National Archives. The envelope is addressed, in a different handwriting, to "Mrs. Elizabeth Boston Care Mrs. Prescia Owen Owensville Post Office Maryland."
Published in The Destruction of Slavery, pp. 357-58, in Free at Last, pp. 29-30, and in Families and Freedom, pp. 22-23.
Figure 10: Lincoln’s letter addressing critics in Illinois regarding his policy of arming of black troops was published in the Richmond Daily Dispatch in September 1863. His description of the policy’s resounding success illustrates a dramatic change in Lincoln attitude toward arming African Americans.
September 7, 1863
Latest from the North
Letter from Lincoln — how and when peace is to be obtained — the Enlistment of negro troops.
Executive Mansion, Washington, August 26.
Hon. James E. Conkling:
My Dear Sir
--Your letter inviting me to attend a mass meeting of unconditional Union men, to be held at the Capitol of Illinois on the 3d day of September, has been received. It would be very agreeable to me to thus meet my old friends at my own home, but I cannot just now be absent from this city so long as a visit there would require.
The meeting is to be of all those who maintain unconditional devotion to the Union, and I am sure my old political friends will thank me for tendering, as I do, the nation's gratitude to those other noble men whom no partisan malice or partisan hope can make false to the nation's life. They are those who are dissatisfied with me. To such I would say: You desire peace, and you blame me that we do not have it. But how can we obtain it? There are but three conceivable ways. First, to suppress the rebellion by force of arms. This I am trying to do. Are you for it? If you are, so far we are agreed. If you are not for it, we are not agreed.
A second way is to give up the Union. I am against this. If you are, you should say so plainly. If you are not for force, nor yet for dissolution, there only remains some imaginary compromises. I do not believe that any compromises embracing the maintenance of the Union is now possible. All that I learn leads to directly the opposite belief. The strength of the rebellion is its military — its army. That army dominates all the country and all the people within its range. Any offer of terms made by any man or men within that range, in opposition to that army is simply nothing, for the present, because such man or men have no power whatever to enforce their side of the compromise, if one were made with them.
To illustrate: Suppose a refugee from the South and the peace men of the North get together and frame and proclaim a compromise embracing the restoration of the Union, in what way can that compromise be used to keep Gen. Lee's army out of Pennsylvania? Gen. Meade's army can keep Lee's army out of Pennsylvania, and I think can ultimately drive it out of existence, but no paper compromise to which the controllers of Gen. Lee's army are not agreed can at all affect that army. In an effort at such compromise we would waste time which the enemy would improve to our disadvantage, and that would be all.
A compromise, to be effective, must be made either with those who control the army or with the people first liberated from the domination of that army by the success of our army. Now, allow me to assure you that no word or intimation from the rebel army, or from any of the men controlling it, in relation to any peace compromise has ever come to my knowledge or belief. All charges or intimations to the contrary are deceptive and groundless, and I promise you that if any such proposition shall hereafter come it shall not be rejected and kept secret from you.
I freely acknowledge myself to be the servant of the people according to the bond of service — the United States Constitution--and that as such I am responsible to them. But, to be plain, you are dissatisfied with me about the negro. Quite likely there is a difference of opinion between you and myself upon that subject. I certainly wish that all men could be free, while you, I suppose, do not. Yet, I have neither adopted nor proposed any measure which is not consistent with even your views, provided you are for the Union. I suggested compensated emancipation, to which you replied that you wished not to be taxed to buy negroes. But I had not asked you to be taxed to buy negroes, except in such a way as to save you from greater taxation, to save the Union exclusively by other means. You dislike the emancipation proclamation, and, perhaps, you want to have it retracted. You say it is unconstitutional. I think differently. I think that the Constitution invests its Commander-in- Chief with the law of war in time of war. The most that can be said — if so much — is that slaves are property. Is there, has there ever been, any question that by the law of war the property both of enemies and friends may be taken when needed? And is it not needed whenever taken it helps us or hurts the enemy? Armies, the world over, destroy the enemy's property when they cannot use it, and even destroy their own to keep it from the enemy. Civilized belligerents do all in their power to help themselves or hurt the enemy, except a few things recorded as barbarous or cruel. Among the exceptions are the massacre of vanquished foes and non-combatants, male and female.
But the proclamation as a law is valid or is not valid. If it is not valid it needs no retraction. If it is valid it cannot be retracted any more than the dead can be brought to life. Some of you profess to think that its retraction would operate favorably for the Union. Why better after the retraction than before the issue? There was more than a year and a half for trial to suppress the rebellion before the proclamation was issued, the last one hundred days of which passed under explicit notice it was coming unless averted by those in revolt returning to their allegiance.
The war has certainly progressed as favorably for us since the issue of the proclamation as before. I know, as fully as one can know the opinions of others, that some of the commanders of our armies in the field who have given us our most important victories, believe that the emancipation policy and the aid of the colored troops constitutes the heaviest blows yet dealt to the rebellion; and that at least one of those important successes could not have been achieved when it was, but for the aid of the black soldiers.
Among the commanders holding these views are some who have never had any affinity with what is called Abolitionism, or with Republican party polities, but who hold them purely as military opinions. I submit their opinions as being entitled to some weight against the objections often urged that emancipation and the arming of the blacks are unwise as military measures, and were not adopted as such in good faith.
You say that you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem to be willing to fight for you; but no matter, fight you, then, exclusively to save the Union. I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union. Whenever you shall have conquered all resistance to the Union, if I shall urge you to continue fighting, it will be an apt time then for you to declare that you will not fight to free negroes.
I thought that in your struggle for the Union, to whatever extent the negro should cease helping the enemy, to that extent it weakens the enemy in his resistance to you. Do you think differently? I thought that whatever negroes can be got to do as soldiers, leaves just so much less for white soldiers to do in saving the Union.
Does it appear otherwise to you? But negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do anything for us if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us they must be prompted by the strongest motive, even the promise of freedom; and the promise being made must be kept.
The signs look better. The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea; thanks to the great Northwest for it; nor yet wholly to them. Three hundred miles up they met New England, the Empire, Keystone, and New Jersey showing their way right and left. The Sunny South, too, in more colors than our, also lent a hand on the spot. Their part of history was jotted down in black and white. The poet was a great national one, and let none be banned who bore an honest part in it; while those who have cleared the great river may well be proud.
Even that is not all. It is hard to say that anything has been more bravely and better done than at Antietam, Murfreesboro', Gettysburg, and on many fields of less note.
Nor must Uncle Sam's noble fleet be forgotten. At all the water's margins they have been present. Not only on the deep sea, the broad bay, the rapid river, but also up the narrow, muddy bayon, and wherever the ground was a little damp, they have been and made their tracks.
Thanks to all, for the great Republic, for the principles by which it lives and keeps alive for man's vast future! Thanks to all!
Peace does not appear so distant as it did. I hope it will come soon, come to stay, and so come as to be worth the keeping in all future time. It will then have been proved that among freemen there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet, and that they who take such an appeal are sure to lose their case and pay the cost; and then there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongues, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation, while I fear that there will be some white men unable to forget that with malignant heart and deceitful speech they have to hinder it.--Still, let us not be over sangume of a speedy and final triumph. Let us be quite sober, let us diligently apply the means, never doubting that a just God, in his own good time, will give us the rightful result.
Yours, very truly,
Figure 11: Captain C. B. Wilder, the superintendent of contraband at Fort Monroe, testified regarding the actions of fugitive slaves, officially deemed “contrabands,” before the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission on May 9, 1863. Over the course of the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of slaves liberated themselves and fled to Union lines. Slaves liberated themselves in large numbers during earlier conflicts as well; while some former slaves served alongside other Americans during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, others took the opportunity afforded by the uprisings to permanently flee slavery and resettle in the Caribbean and Canada.
[Fortress Monroe, Va.] May 9, 1863.
. . . .
Question How many of the people called contrabands, have come under your observation?
Answer Some 10,000 have come under our control, to be fed in part, and clothed in part, but I cannot speak accurately in regard to the number. This is the rendezvous. They come here from all about, from Richmond and 200 miles off in North Carolina There was one gang that started from Richmond 23 strong and only 3 got through.
. . . .
Q In your opinion, is there any communication between the refugees and the black men still in slavery?
A. Yes Sir, we have had men here who have gone back 200 miles.
Q In your opinion would a change in our policy which would cause them to be treated with fairness, their wages punctually paid and employment furnished them in the army, become known and would it have any effect upon others in slavery?
A Yes—Thousands upon Thousands. I went to Suffolk a short time ago to enquire into the state of things there—for I found I could not get any foot hold to make things work there, through the Commanding General, and I went to the Provost Marshall and all hands—and the colored people actually sent a deputation to me one morning before I was up to know if we put black men in irons and sent them off to Cuba to be sold or set them at work and put balls on their legs and whipped them, just as in slavery; because that was the story up there, and they were frightened and didn't know what to do. When I got at the feelings of these people I found they were not afraid of the slaveholders. They said there was nobody on the plantations but women and they were not afraid of them One woman came through 200 miles in Men's clothes. The most valuable information we recieved in regard to the Merrimack and the operations of the rebels came from the colored people and they got no credit for it. I found hundreds who had left their wives and families behind. I asked them "Why did you come away and leave them there?" and I found they had heard these stories, and wanted to come and see how it was. "I am going back again after my wife" some of them have said "When I have earned a little money" What as far as that?" "Yes" and I have had them come to me to borrow money, or to get their pay, if they had earned a months wages, and to get passes. "I am going for my family" they say. "Are you not afraid to risk it?" "No I know the Way" Colored men will help colored men and they will work along the by paths and get through. In that way I have known quite a number who have gone up from time to time in the neighborhood of Richmond and several have brought back their families; some I have never heard from. As I was saying they do not feel afraid now. The white people have nearly all gone, the blood hounds are not there now to hunt them and they are not afraid, before they were afraid to stir. There are hundreds of negroes at Williamsburgh with their families working for nothing. They would not get pay here and they had rather stay where they are. "We are not afraid of being carried back" a great many have told us and "if we are, we can get away again" Now that they are getting their eyes open they are coming in. Fifty came this morning from Yorktown who followed Stoneman's Cavalry when they returned from their raid. The officers reported to their Quartermaster that they had so many horses and fifty or sixty negroes. "What did you bring them for" "Why they followed us and we could not stop them." I asked one of the men about it and he said they would leave their work in the field as soon as they found the Soldiers were Union men and follow them sometimes without hat or coat. They would take best horse they could get and every where they rode they would take fresh horses, leave the old ones and follow on and so they came in. I have questioned a great many of them and they do not feel much afraid; and there are a great many courageous fellows who have come from long distances in rebeldom. Some men who came here from North Carolina, knew all about the [Emancipation] Proclammation and they started on the belief in it; but they had heard these stories and they wanted to know how it was. Well, I gave them the evidence and I have no doubt their friends will hear of it. Within the last two or three months the rebel guards have been doubled on the line and the officers and privates of the 99th New York between Norfolk and Suffolk have caught hundreds of fugitives and got pay for them.
Q Do I understand you to say that a great many who have escaped have been sent back?
A Yes Sir, The masters will come in to Suffolk in the day time and with the help of some of the 99th carry off their fugitives and by and by smuggle them across the lines and the soldier will get his $20. or $50.
. . . .
Excerpts from testimony of Capt. C. B. Wilder before the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, 9 May 1863, filed with O-328 1863, Letters Received, ser. 12, Record Group 94, Adjutant General's Office, National Archives. Topical labels in the margin are omitted.
Published in The Destruction of Slavery, pp. 88-90, in Free at Last, pp. 107-10, and in Families and Freedom, pp. 31-33.
Figure 12: African American corporal James Henry Gooding wrote this letter to the president on behalf of the Massachusetts 54th to protest racial disparity in soldiers’ pay. His is but one of several such letters of protest. The soldiers also protested the injustice by refusing to accept the substandard wages. Note the distinction Gooding makes here between black freemen and former slaves and his invocation of Lincoln’s Order of Retaliation to support his case.
Morris Island [S.C.]. Sept 28th 1863.
Your Excelency will pardon the presumtion of an humble individual like myself, in addressing you. but the earnest Solicitation of my Comrades in Arms, besides the genuine interest felt by myself in the matter is my excuse, for placing before the Executive head of the Nation our Common Grievance: On the 6th of the last Month, the Paymaster of the department, informed us, that if we would decide to recieve the sum of $10 (ten dollars) per month, he would come and pay us that sum, but, that, on the sitting of Congress, the Regt would, in his opinion, be allowed the other 3 (three.) He did not give us any guarantee that this would be, as he hoped, certainly he had no authority for making any such guarantee, and we can not supose him acting in any way interested. Now the main question is. Are we Soldiers, or are we LABOURERS. We are fully armed, and equipped, have done all the various Duties, pertaining to a Soldiers life, have conducted ourselves, to the complete satisfaction of General Officers, who, were if any, prejudiced against us, but who now accord us all the encouragement, and honour due us: have shared the perils, and Labour, of Reducing the first stronghold, that flaunted a Traitor Flag: and more, Mr President. Today, the Anglo Saxon Mother, Wife, or Sister, are not alone, in tears for departed Sons, Husbands, and Brothers. The patient Trusting Decendants of Africs Clime, have dyed the ground with blood, in defense of the Union, and Democracy. Men too your Excellency, who know in a measure, the cruelties of the Iron heel of oppression, which in years gone by, the very Power, their blood is now being spilled to maintain, ever ground them to the dust. But When the war trumpet sounded o'er the land, when men knew not the Friend from the Traitor, the Black man laid his life at the Altar of the Nation,—and he was refused. When the arms of the Union, were beaten, in the first year of the War, And the Executive called more food. for its ravaging maw, again the black man begged, the privelege of Aiding his Country in her need, to be again refused, And now, he is in the War: and how has he conducted himself? Let their dusky forms, rise up, out the mires of James Island, and give the answer. Let the rich mould around Wagners parapets be upturned, and there will be found an Eloquent answer. Obedient and patient, and Solid as a wall are they. all we lack, is a paler hue, and a better acquaintance with the Alphabet. Now Your Excellency, We have done a Soldiers Duty. Why cant we have a Soldiers pay? You caution the Rebel Chieftain, that the United States, knows, no distinction, in her Soldiers: She insists on having all her Soldiers, of whatever, creed or Color, to be treated, according to the usages of War. Now if the United States exacts uniformity of treatment of her Soldiers, from the Insurgents, would it not be well, and consistent, to set the example herself, by paying all her Soldiers alike? We of this Regt. were not enlisted under any "contraband" act. But we do not wish to be understood, as rating our Service, of more Value to the Government, than the service of the exslave, Their Service is undoubtedly worth much to the Nation, but Congress made express, provision touching their case, as slaves freed by military necessity, and assuming the Government, to be their temporary Gaurdian:— Not so with us—Freemen by birth, and consequently, having the advantage of thinking, and acting for ourselves, so far as the Laws would allow us. We do not consider ourselves fit subjects for the Contraband act. We appeal to You, Sir: as the Executive of the Nation, to have us Justly Dealt with. The Regt, do pray, that they be assured their service will be fairly appreciated, by paying them as american SOLDIERS, not as menial hierlings. Black men You may well know, are poor, three dollars per month, for a year, will suply their needy Wives, and little ones, with fuel. If you, as chief Magistrate of the Nation, will assure us, of our whole pay. We are content, our Patriotism, our enthusiasm will have a new impetus, to exert our energy more and more to aid Our Country. Not that our hearts ever flagged, in Devotion, spite the evident apathy displayed in our behalf, but We feel as though, our Country spurned us, now we are sworn to serve her.
Please give this a moments attention
James Henry Gooding
Corporal James Henry Gooding to Abraham Lincoln, 28 Sept. 1863, enclosed in [Harper & Brothers] to [Abraham Lincoln], 12 Oct. 1863, H-133 1863, Letters Received, ser. 360, Colored Troops Division, Adjutant General's Office, Record Group 94, National Archives.
Published in The Black Military Experience, pp. 385-86, in Free at Last, pp. 461-63, and in Freedom's Soldiers, pp. 114-16.
Figure 13: Under the command of General David Hunter, Charles Taylor Trowbridge served as the white captain of the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry. His response here to the manuscript of Susie King Taylor confirms her account and acknowledges her service as an army nurse despite the failure of official recognition, pay, or pension. Taylor, a slave during her childhood, had attended secret schools in Savannah, Georgia in an era when it was illegal for a slave to do so. Her education made her a valuable asset to the Union army.
LETTER FROM COL. C. T. TROWBRIDGE
ST. PAUL, MINN., April 7,1902.
MRS. SUSAN KING TAYLOR:
DEAR MADAM,--The manuscript of the story of your army life reached me to-day. I have read it with much care and interest, and I most willingly and cordially indorse it as a truthful account of your unselfish devotion and service through more than three long years of war in which the 33d Regiment bore a conspicuous part in the great conflict for human liberty and the restoration of the Union. I most sincerely regret that through a technicality you are debarred from having your name placed on the roll of pensioners, as an Army Nurse; for among all the number of heroic women whom the government is now rewarding, I know of no one more deserving than yourself.
Yours in F. C.&L.,
C. T. TROWBRIDGE,
Late Lt.-Col. 33d U. S. C. T.
From Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33D United States Colored Troops Late 1st S.C. Volunteers, Susie King Taylor, Boston, Published by the Author, 1902.
Figure 14: This New York Times article makes a stark comparison between the assault on African Americans during the New York City Draft Riots in July 1863 and the city’s reception of black troops eight months later in March 1864. During the Draft Riots, numerous white residents of New York City, many of whom were of Irish descent, grew violent in response to Lincoln’s issuing the Enrollment Act of Conscription (which permitted exemptions for wealthier Americans), and many made African Americans their target. The author here contrasts the violence that African Americans met with during the riot with the exaltation of black soldiers months later. In some respects, the author is correct to recognize the arming of black soldiers as a “revolution” signaling the beginning of African American social equality and citizenship; however, in light of the persistence of racial discrimination after the Civil War, the claims in retrospect may seem overly optimistic.
The New York Times, Monday, March 7, 1864.
The Ovation to the Black Regiment.
There has been no more striking manifestation of the marvelous times that are upon us than the scene in our streets at the departure of the first of our colored regiments. Had any man predicted it last year he would been thought a fool, even by the wisest and most discerning. History abounds with strange contrasts. It always has been an ever-shifting melo-drama. But never, in this land at least, has it presented a transition so extreme and yet so speedy as what our have just beheld.
Eight months ago the African race in this City were literally hunted down like wild beasts. They fled for their lives. When caught, they were shot down in cold blood, or stoned to death, or hung to the trees or the lamp-posts. Their houses were pillaged; the asylum which Christian charity had provided for their orphaned children was burned; and there was no limit to the persecution but in the physical impossibility of finding further material on which the mob could wreak its ruthless hate. Nor was it solely the raging horde in the streets that visited upon the black man the nefarious wrong. Thousands and tens of thousands of men of higher social grade, of better education, cherished precisely the same spirit. It found expression in the contumelious speech rather than in the violent act, but it was persecution none the less for that. In fact the mob would never have entered upon that career of outrage but for the fact that it was fired and maddened by the prejudice which had been generated by the ruling influences, civil and social, here in New York, till it had enveloped the City like some infernal atmosphere. The physical outrages which were inflicted on the black race in those terrible days were but the outburst of malignant agencies which had been transfusing the whole community from top to bottom, year after year.
How astonishingly has all this been changed! The same men who could not have shown themselves in the most obscure street in the City without peril or instant death, even though in the most suppliant attitude, now march in solid platoons, with shouldered muskets, slung knapsacks, and buckled cartridge-boxes down through our gayest avenues and our busiest thoroughfares to the pealing strains of martial music, and are everywhere saluted with waving handkerchiefs, with descending flowers, and with the acclimations and plaudits of countless beholders. They are halted at our most beautiful square, and, amid an admiring crowd, in the presence of many of our prominent citizens, are addressed in an eloquent and most complementary speech by the President of our chief literary institution, and are presented with a gorgeous stand of colors in the name of a large number of the first ladies of the City, who attest on parchment, signed by their own fair hands, that they “will anxiously watch your career, glorying in your heroism, ministering to you when wounded and ill, and honoring your martyrdom with benedictions and tears.”
It is only by such occasions that we can at all realize the prodigious revolution which the public mind everywhere is experiencing. Such developments are infallible tokens of a new epoch.
Figure 15: This Boston Commonwealth article describes a successful raid led by Harriet Tubman in June 1863. In addition to her work during the Civil War as a Union nurse, spy, courier, and scout, Tubman became the first American woman to command an armed military raid when she guided Colonel James Montgomery and the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers up the Combahee River.
Boston Commonwealth, July 10, 1863 Number 45
HARRIET TUBMAN excerpts
Col. Montgomery and his gallant band of 300 black soldiers, under the guidance of a black woman, dashed into the enemy’s country, struck a bold and effective blow, destroying millions of dollars worth of commissary stores, cotton and lordly dwellings, and striking terror into the heart of rebeldom, brought off near 800 slaves and thousands of dollars worth of property, without losing a man or receiving a scratch. It was a glorious consummation.
After they were all fairly well disposed of in the Beaufort charge, they were addressed in strains of thrilling eloquence by their gallant deliverer, to which they responded in a song. “There is a white robe for thee,” a song so appropriate and so heartfelt and cordial as to bring unbidden tears.
The Colonel was followed by a speech from the black woman, who led the raid and under whose inspiration it was originated and conducted. For sound sense and real native eloquence, her address would do honor to any man, and it created a great sensation...
Since the rebellion she had devoted herself to her great work of delivering the bondman, with an energy and sagacity that cannot be exceeded. Many and many times she has penetrated the enemy’s lines and discovered their situation and condition, and escaped without injury, but not without extreme hazard.
Figure 16: In his letter to a recruiter of African American troops in Louisiana, a white Union officer, Elias Strunke, describes the valor of black solders, many of whom were former slaves, at Port Hudson, Louisiana. Strunke’s letter challenged the common charge by whites that black soldiers would not fight. Considering the many earlier examples of black military prowess, such as the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812, the Seminole Wars, or the defeat of Napoleon’s forces during the Haitian Revolution, the frequent charge stemmed from cultural prejudice.
Baton Rouge [La.] May 29th/63.
General. feeling deeply interested in the cause which you have espoused, I take the liberty to transmit the following concerning the colored Troops engaged in the recent battles at Port Hudson.
I have arrived here the evening of the 26th Inst, was mustered and reported to Maj. Tucker for duty—
During the night I heard heavy connonadeing at Port Hudson. Early next morning I obtained permission and went to the front. But so much was detained, I did not rach out lines until the fighting for the day had nearly ceased— There being no renewal of the engagement the following day—I engaged in removing and administering to the wounded, gathering meantime as much information as possible concerning the battle and the conduct of our Troops. My anxiety was to learn all I could concerning the Bravery of the Colored Reg. engaged, for their good conduct and bravery would add to your undertakings and make more popular the movement. Not that I am afraid to meet unpopular doctrines, for I am not. But that we may show our full strength. the cause should be one of general sanction.
I have ever believed, from my idea of those traits of character which I deemed necessary to make a good soldier, together with their history, that in them we should find those characteristics necessary, for an effective army. And I rejoice to learn, in the late engagements the fact is established beyond a doubt.
The following is (in substance) a statement personally made to me, by 1st Lt. Co. F. 1st R[egiment]. La. Native Guard who was wounded during the engagement.
“We went into action about 6. A.M. and was under fire most of the time until sunset.
The very first thing after forming line of battle we were ordered to charge— My Co. was apparently brave. Yet they are mostly contrabands, and I must say I entertained some fears as to their pluck. But I have now none— The moment the order was given, they entered upon its execution. Valiantly did the heroic decendants of Africa move forward cool as if Marshaled for dress parade, under a most murderous fire from the enemies guns, until we reached the main ditch which surrounds the Fort. finding it impassible we retreated under orders to the woods and deployed as skirmishes— In the charge we lost our Capt. and Colored sergeant, the latter fell wraped in the flag he had so gallantly borne— Alone we held our position until 12. o’clock when we were relieved—
At two o’clock P.M. we were again ordered to the front where we made two separate charges each in the face of a heavy fire from the enemies Battery of seven guns—whose destructive fire would have confuse and almost disorganized the bravest troops. But these men did not swerve, or cowardice. I have been in several engagements, and I never before beheld such coolness and daring—
Their gallantry entitles them to a special praise. And I already observe, the sneers of others are being tempered to eulogy—”
It is pleasant to learn these things, and it must be indeed gratifying to the General to know that his army will be composed of men of almost unequaled coolness & bravery—
The men of our Reg. are very ready in learning the drills, and the officers have every confidence in their becoming excellent soldiers.
Assuring you that I will always, both as an officer of the U.S. Army and as a man, endeavor to faithfully & fully discharge the duties of my office, I am happy to Subscribe Myself, Very Respectfully, Your Most Obt. Servt,
ALS Elias D. Strunke
From Freedom’s Soldiers: A Documentary History, edited by Ira Berlin, et. al,, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 94-96.
Figure 17: The following article praises the courage of a black South Carolina regiment after a successful raiding expedition into St. Mary’s, Georgia. Like the previous letter, this was written by a white author in an attempt to counter public concerns over the efficacy of black combatants.
New-York Tribune, February 11, 1863.
“Negro Soldiers on Duty”
The bravery and good conduct of the regiment more than equaled the high anticipation of its commander. The men were repeatedly under fire, were opposed by infantry, cavalry, and artillery, fought on board of a steamer exposed to heavy musketry from the back of a narrow river—were tried in all ways, and came off invariably with honor and success. They brought away property to a large amount, capturing also a cannon and a flag, which the Colonel asks leave to keep for the regiment, and which he and they have fairly won.
It will not need many such reports as this—and there have been several before it—to shake our inveterate Saxon prejudice against the capacity and courage of negro troops….No officer who has commanded black troops had yet reported against them. They are tired in the most unfavorable and difficult circumstances, but never fail. When shall we learn to use the full strength of our formidable ally who is only waiting for a summons to rally under the flag of the Union?
Col. Higginson says: “No officer in this regiment now doubts that the key to the successful prosecution of this war lies in the unlimited employment of black troops.” The remark is true in a military sense, and it has a still deeper political significance. When Hunter has scattered 50,000 muskets among the negroes of the Carolinas, and Butler has organized the 100,000 or 200,000 blacks for whom he may perhaps shortly carry arms to New Orleans, the possibility of restoring the Union as it was, with Slavery again its dominant power, will be seen to have finally passed away. The negro is indeed the key to our success.
Published by an anonymous author in the New-York Tribune, February 11, 1863. Republished in The Civil War: Primary Documents on Events from 1860 to 1865, edited by Ford Risely, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004, pp. 203-204.
Photo 1: Christian A. Fleetwood earned a Congressional Medal of Honor for his service at the Battle of New Market Heights. After the war, he was promoted to major and led the Washington Cadet Corps, a battalion that became the first National Guard unit in the nation to be composed exclusively of African Americans in 1887.
Photo 2: This is a photo of Company E, the 4th U.S. Colored Infantry at Fort Lincoln, Washington. The exact date it was taken is not known.
Berlin, Ira, Joseph Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland. Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998—contains documents reprinted from the National Archives. The editors use letters, affidavits, and memorials to describe the complexity of the experiences and impact of black soldiers and sailors during the Civil War. Their analysis highlights how the actions and persistence of African Americans forced the end of the institution of slavery and their service in Union forces, despite formidable political and social obstacles.
Burkhardt, George S. Confederate Rage, Yankee Wrath: No Quarter in the Civil War. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007—uses contemporary newspaper accounts and soldiers’ letters to explore the reactions of white soldiers to the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War. Burkhardt’s study examines the Confederate practice of executing the Union’s African American soldiers rather than treating them as prisoners of war.
Cornish, Dudley Taylor. The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1956—among the earliest works to chronicle the experiences of the Civil War’s African American soldiers. This pioneering and detailed military history is now considered a classic.
Forbes, Ella. African American Women During the Civil War. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998—an examination of the experiences and contributions of black women as nurses, spies, recruiters, laundresses, cooks, camp aids, educators, and combatants during the Civil War.
Glatthaar, Joseph T. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1990. An in-depth and well-researched study of the relationships between white officers and black soldiers that brings the entrenched racism and prejudice faced by black soldiers as well as their triumphs to the fore.
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Army Life in a Black Regiment. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Co., 1910—a memoir of a white colonel and abolitionist who commanded the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first regiment of former slaves raised during the Civil War.
McPherson, James M. The Negro’s Civil War: How American Negroes Felt and Acted During the War for the Union. New York: Vintage Books, 1965—an analysis of the experiences of African Americans during the Civil War based on and interwoven with relevant documents from the period.
Ramold, Steven J. Slaves, Sailors, Citizens: African Americans in the Union Navy. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002—an engaging and well-documented analysis of the conditions and battles faced by black Union sailors during the Civil War. Ramold’s study suggests that black sailors faced far less discrimination than their counterparts in the army.
Risley, Ford. The Civil War: Primary Documents on Events from 1860-1865. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004. This book is a collection of newspaper articles published during the Civil War. The chapters “Lincoln Elected President,” “Black Soldiers,” and “Arming the Slaves” are particularly useful for illuminating the issues that surrounding the question of arming African American men in the minds of several Americans at the time.
Shaffer, Donald R. After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004—examines the lives of African American soldiers during and after the Civil War. Shaffer’s study illuminates the difficulties black veterans faced in a white supremacist society and their achievements as community leaders.
Smith, John David, ed., Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002—a collection of fourteen essays that examine different aspects of the experiences of African American soldiers during the Civil War with a shared focus on their performance under fire. The essays effectively illuminate the controversies that surrounded African American military service.
Taylor, Susie King. A Black Woman’s Civil War Memoirs: Reminiscences of my Life in Camp with the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops, Late 1st South Carolina Volunteers. New York: Markus Weiner Publishing, Inc. 1988 —an account of the war through the eyes of a formerly enslaved woman who served as an army nurse and camp aide.
Zilversmit, Arthur. Lincoln on Black and White: A Documentary History. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company, 1971. This volume is a collection of documents, primarily letters and speeches, that illuminate Lincoln’s views on race and slavery. Several of the documents, particularly those written during the years of the Civil War, speak directly to the issues surrounding the arming of African American soldiers.