National Park Service black bar with arrowhead logo
NPS History E-LibraryScene in Antietam National Cemetery in Sharpsburg, Maryland
 
 

Civil War Series

The Civil War's Black Soldiers

   

BLACK OFFICERS

When Butler brought the Louisiana Native Guards into Federal service in August 1862, he appointed white and black officers alike, "precisely as I found intelligence." All told, he doled out commissions to some seventy-five black men as captains and lieutenants and one as a major. In Kansas, Jim Lane, who believed he needed no authorization to recruit a black regiment, also saw no need to seek approval for appointing a highly qualified black as captain. The prospects for black officers seemed promising.

FIRST SERGEANT STEPHEN SWAILS OF THE 54TH MASSACHUSETTS FIRST BLACK SOLDIER TO BE COMMISSIONED AN OFFICER IN A MASSACHUSETTS REGIMENT. (LC)

Just as swiftly, the door on black officership slammed shut. The War Department refused Lane's regiment and particularly his black captain. In early 1863, Governor Andrew sought permission to appoint a few patently qualified African Americans as officers in the 54th Massachusetts. The War Department rejected the suggestion. And when the War Department replaced Butler as commander of the Department of the Gulf with Banks, he immediately undertook efforts to rid himself of the black officers in the Native Guards. Banks insisted that a black officer "demoralizes both the white troops and the negroes." He challenged their competency, and when that failed, Banks humiliated them at every opportunity, until pride no longer permitted them to endure such abuse and they resigned.

In truth, the issue had little to do with qualifications and everything to do with racial prejudice. Whites did not like to serve alongside black privates, let alone black officers. Whites attempted to justify their opposition to black officership by claiming that men of African descent lacked leadership ability, or there were not enough satisfactorily educated black men in the entire country to fill the officers' slots in a single regiment. In certain instances, whites tolerated black chaplains and surgeons for black regiments, but they would go no farther.

SECOND LIEUTENANT WILLIAM H. DUPREE OF THE 55TH MASSACHUSETTS INFANTRY REGIMENT. (USAMHI)

Throughout their service black soldiers complained bitterly over the lack of opportunities for advancement into the officers' ranks. Certainly black officers had served well at Port Hudson. "All that we ask," pleaded a black sergeant, "is to give us a chance, and a position higher than an orderly sergeant, the same as white soldiers, and then you will see that we lack nothing." Frederick Douglass's son Lewis, a sergeant major and combat veteran, insisted that there was plenty of officer material in the USCT: "In regard to the capability of colored men to perform the duties of commissioned officers, we would respectfully suggest that there are hundreds of non-commissioned officers in the colored regiments who are amply qualified for these positions, both by education and experience." Black soldiers were not asking for any special favors. "Let the Board at Washington be opened for the examination of colored men," a black soldier suggested, "and I have no fear for the result."

In the late stages of the war a number of black soldiers did receive commissions as officers, primarily through the tireless efforts of Governor Andrew. Six enlisted men in the 54th and 55th Massachusetts gained lieutenancies in those regiments, and this breakthrough paved the way for five more men to acquire commissions, three of them in an artillery battery.

BLACK TROOPS WERE OFTEN ASSIGNED TO FATIGUE DUTY. THESE SOLDIERS ARE ON BURIAL DETAIL. (LC)

All told, perhaps 110 African Americans had made it into the officers' ranks. Other than those 75 men who secured commissions under the auspices of Butler, most were chaplains or surgeons. Those gains at the tail end of the war were a hollow victory because so many more blacks who genuinely merited promotions never received serious consideration for them.

Previous Top Next


 

History and Culture