Black Americans In The US Military From The American Revolution To The Korean War: The Civil War

By 1860 there existed 4 million slaves, 1/7 of the American population. The success of large plantations forced many White southerners out of the economy and into the military, where they served as nighttime guards against possible slave uprisings. The Northeastern U.S. relied on the booming cotton economy for its own shipping industry: In the 1850’s, cotton accounted for 50% of all American exports. The Black man, despite services rendered to the U.S. military, remained enslaved by the U.S. economy.

At Harper’s Ferry, a rebellion led by former slave “Captain” John Brown. This army had 17 Whites and only five Blacks. At night, this army seized a weapons armory, the rifle factory, the fire-engine house, and the Baltimore & Ohio Railway Bridge, but failed to stop the eastbound midnight train, which enabled the news to reach Washington. Halfway through the morning, Brown’s group found itself surrounded by Federal as well as Virginia militia troops. This rebellion occurred due to a failure of American slavery policy to change. As noted earlier, President Jefferson had officially abolished slavery in 1808.

The southern states felt under-represented in the House of Representatives during the 1850’s as only one-third of the American population lived within its territory. During the elections of 1860, the Democratic Party split, Stephen Douglas representing the North and John Breckenridge representing the south. Amongst this chaos, Abraham Lincoln won the elections as a moderate Republican, opposing slavery. South Carolina threatened to secede from the Union if Lincoln won the election. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded. Not too much later Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas followed.

Initially Blacks had only been used in the Union Navy during the Civil War. The War Department refused to recruit Black troops despite losing the Battle of Bull Run in July of 1881, and later in October in the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in Virginia. Ironically, the south employed Blacks and Native American as military support before the Union. Republican-dominated Congress passed a bill proclaiming all slaves that supported the Confederate Army free. Only in October of the next year were Blacks used by the Union in combat. In response to the move made by Republican-led Congress, Major General John C. Frémont proclaimed all Missouri border state slaves free if they joined the Union Army. President Lincoln later fired Frémont from the Army, infuriated by Frémont’s refusal to repeal his order. Lincoln did not feel ready to start declaring slaves in the South as free.

Despite actions taken against Frémont, Brigadier James H. Lane formed the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers. The Kansas Volunteers fought in combat against guerillas in Butler Missouri. Later this regiment also won at Island Mound, Missouri and at Honey Springs in a battle against Confederate-backed Native Americans.

Blacks soon gained the opportunity to join the Union, when President Lincoln signed the Second Confiscation Act. It allowed all slaves freedom upon entering the Union territory. When Louisiana was captured, General Benjamin F. Butler fully took advantage of this act, recruiting Black volunteers. Included also were members of the 1st Regiment of Louisiana Native Guards. They had offered themselves to the Confederacy but were turned down.

On January 1, 1863, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves within the Confederate-controlled territory. Shortly thereafter the first Black volunteer regiment formed in the northeast, the 54th Massachusetts, founded by leading abolitionists. Most of the volunteers were working class Blacks from Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, South Carolina, Missouri, Canada and the Caribbean. Most of the officers were White abolitionist Harvard graduates with good social status. The War Department had initiated order 143, allowing Blacks to enlist into the Union Army. The Blacks did not receive fair pay, however, receiving only $7 per month no matter their rank. On the other hand White chaplains received $100 per month, White sergeant majors $21, and the lowest ranking Whites as privates earned $13 per month. Sergeant William Walker complained of this disparity, and along with other volunteers in the 3rd South Carolina Volunteers, refused to fight. He was executed on March 1, 1864.

Nevertheless, the 54th Massachusetts fought valiantly, suffering 50% casualties in its attack on Fort Wagner. Bad intelligence was to blame, as they were informed of facing 300 Confederate soldiers, while really facing 1700. The leader of the 54th, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, died in this battle while leading the charge. Shaw was buried in an unmarked mass grave alongside the other Black soldiers who perished in this battle. White officers of the 54th received decent burials from the Confederates, however.

Amidst the anger and chaos that embodied the Civil War, atrocities against Black soldiers occurred. General Nathan Bedford Forrest lost the battle of Fort Anderson, Kentucky, despite his Confederate troops outnumbering their Union counterparts. In order to get revenge, Bedford brought a force of 1500 Confederate cavalry and surrounded Fort Pillow, a base manned by 600 men. The 11th U.S. Colored Troops and the White Unionists of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry manned Fort Pillow. In the ensuing attack, 231 Union soldiers died, mostly Blacks, while 168 Whites and only 58 Blacks were taken hostage. Southern reports claimed that the soldiers all died fighting, but the Union witnesses reported that most of the Blacks were massacred after surrendering. Blacks were buried alive, set afire, and even mutilated. Black women and children living inside the base were also massacred. This act of hatred was clearly aimed more at revenge against Blacks than it was at military success. General Forrest later became the first Imperial Dragon of the K.K.K., the most notorious racist and extremist organization in U.S. history.

The 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers suffered similar atrocities 6 days later at Poison Spring, Arkansas. As the Union forces retreated, any Black soldiers who were wounded or wished to surrender were shot. These acts of hate did nothing more than inspire the Black troops to fight even more valiantly, chanting “Remember Fort Pillow!” in the east and “Remember Poison Spring!” in the west.

The Union Army continued to wear down the Confederacy, at a high price. The U.S. Colored Troops 1st Regiment helped capture Fort Fisher on January 15, 1865. It was the Confederacy’s only remaining point of supply. The 54th and 55th Massachusetts were the first forces to enter Charlestown when it surrendered a month later. Before the fall of Richmond, the Confederate Congress decided to use slaves as soldiers. Being a last minute move of desperation, it also promised freedom to any slaves to join the Confederate Army.

Written by David Omahen

See also:

The American Revolution to 1808
The War of 1812
The Civil War
The Indian Wars
The Spanish American War and the Philippine Insurgency
The Brownsville Incident and Teddy Roosevelt
World War One
The Spanish Civil War
World War Two
The Korean War
Conclusion and Bibliography