As desperate as Abraham Lincoln was to muster more men into the Union Army, he vowed never to use African-Americans. That finally changed in September 1862 in advance of the Emancipation Proclamation when the president caved in and affirmed a move that many abolitionists and black leaders had been urging since the beginning of the Civil War.
"Let the slaves and free colored people be called into service, and formed into a liberating army, to march into the South and raise the banner of emancipation among the slaves," Frederick Douglass had demanded, but powerful conservative voices opposed the idea, maintaining that blacks would never fight, so that arms given to them would simply be seized by the Confederates.
Still, Lincoln was reluctant to use black troops. The Emancipation Proclamation, he noted, was designed to persuade Confederates to return to the Union within 100 days or else lose their slaves, so it was illogical and counterproductive to announce at the same time that slaves successful in escaping from their masters would be turned against them as soldiers.
The president's preferred solution was to send emancipated blacks to colonies in Africa, but the movement to enlist black troops had become unstoppable and once converted to the cause, as Lincoln so often did when his mind had been changed, he began actively urging his commanders to enlist blacks and by the spring of 1863 supported a massive recruiting drive.* * * * *Black troops comprising the 1st Rhode Island Regiment had fought along side General George Washington in the Revolutionary War, but as it was Lincoln had the legal underpinning to create black regiments. The Confiscation Act of 1862 specifically authorized African-American troops and some state and local militia units already had begun doing so. These included the Black Brigade of Cincinnati, raised to help provide manpower to repel a feared Confederate raid on the Ohio city.
By the time the war had ended, African-American soldiers comprised 10 percent of the entire Union Army and 16 percent of the Union Navy. Their losses were high and by some estimates 20 percent of all black soldiers perished as compared to 15 percent for their white counterparts.Many white soldiers believed that black men lacked the ability to fight, let alone fight well, but their critics were soon silenced when in October 1862 African American soldiers of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers repulsed attacking Confederate guerrillas at the Skirmish at Island Mound in Missouri.
By August, 1863, 14 so-called Negro Regiments were in the field and ready for service. They were quickly tested.
At the Battle of Port Hudson in Louisiana in May 1863, they bravely advanced over open ground in the face of deadly artillery fire. Although the attack failed, the black soldiers proved their capability to withstand the heat of battle, with General Nathaniel Banks recording in the his official report: "Whatever doubt may have existed heretofore as to the efficiency of organizations of this character, the history of this days proves . . . in this class of troops effective supporters and defenders."
Not surprisingly, black soldiers still suffered from discrimination despite proving themselves on the battlefield.According to the Militia Act of 1862, soldiers of African descent were to receive $10 per month, with a optional deduction for clothing at $3.00. In contrast, white privates received $13 per month and a $3.50 clothing allowance. Congress eventually granted equal pay in June 1864, but many blacks were assigned work digging ditches.
At the Battle of Fort Pillow in Tennessee in April 1864, Confederate General Nathan Forrest led his 2,500 men against the Union-held fortification, occupied by 292 black and 285 white soldiers.
After driving in the Union pickets and giving the garrison an opportunity to surrender, Forrest's men swarmed into the fort with little difficulty and drove the Yankees down the river's bluff into a deadly crossfire. Casualties were high and only 62 of the black troops survived the fight. Many accused the Confederates of perpetrating a massacre of black troops, and the battle cry for black soldiers became "Remember Fort Pillow!"
At the Battle of Chaffin's Farm in Virginia in September 1864, the African American division of the Eighteenth Corps, after being pinned down by Confederate artillery fire, charged an earthworks and rushed up the slopes of a heights, suffering tremendous casualties during the hour-long engagement. Some 25 blacks were awarded the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, 14 as a result of their actions at Chaffin's Farm.
Perhaps the most famous black unit was the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which campaigned extensively during the last two years of the war and was the subject of Glory, the 1989 moving starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman.
IMAGES (From top to bottom): Detail from the Black Civil War Memorial, Washington, D.C.; Frederick Douglass; 4th USCT Infantry; Black and white soldier in camp; Black riflemen; Buffalo soldiers; Black unit marching at Lincoln's second inaugural.