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Civil War Series

The Civil War's Black Soldiers

   

CONTRIBUTIONS TO UNION VICTORY

Charleston, the hotbed of secession, fell into Union hands in early 1865. Fittingly, the 21st U.S. Colored Infantry were the first Federals to enter the city, followed closely by two companies from the 54th Massachusetts. Richmond, the Confederate capital, held out until April. Again, the honor of being the first Union troops to occupy the city went to black soldiers.

At first, they were an unexploited resource, but once the Lincoln administration lifted the ban, African Americans pulled on the uniform and contributed mightily to the ultimate victory. Almost 179,000 black men served in the Union army. They fought in 41 major battles and 449 minor engagements. Sixteen received Medals of Honor for valor on the battlefield; many more deserved them but their conduct went unrecognized. By the war's end, almost 37,000 black soldiers gave their lives to the restoration of the union and the destruction of slavery.

THE 55TH MASSACHUSETTS COLORED REGIMENT MARCHES INTO CHARLESTON. (HARPER'S WEEKLY)

Shortly after the Confederate surrender, Major Martin Delany, one of the highest-ranking black officers in the war, announced to a black audience, "Do you know that if it was not for the black men this war never would have been brought to a close with success to the Union, and the liberty of your race if it had not been for the Negro?"

These words sound bold, perhaps even overblown. But his statement differed little from Abraham Lincoln's own assessment. As early as mid-1863, Lincoln foresaw emancipation and black enlistment as the policy that would eventually win the war. "I believe it is a resource which if vigorously applied right now, will soon close out the contest," he predicted to Grant. One year later, Lincoln argued that any true supporter of the Union war effort must also endorse black military service. "And now let any Union man who complains of the measure," he challenged, "test himself by writing down in one line that he is for subduing the rebellion by force of arms; and in the next, that he is for taking these hundred and thirty thousand men from the Union side, and placing them where they would be but for the measure he condemns. If he cannot face his case so stated, it is only because he cannot face the truth."

A SKETCH OF BLACK SOLDIERS MUSTERING OUT OF SERVICE IN ARKANSAS. (LC)

The following month, in even blunter terms, Lincoln admitted that the Union could not win without the aid of African Americans. "Any different policy in regard to the colored men," he explained, "deprives us of his help, and this is more than we can bear. We can not spare the hundred and forty or fifty thousand now serving us as soldiers, seamen, and laborers. This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force which may be measured and estimated as horsepower and Steam-power are measured and estimated. Keep it and you can save the Union. Throw it away, and the Union goes with it."

By the end of the war, black soldiers had won the grudging respect of virtually all white Union troops. The bulk of white men in Union blue knew that the USCT had contributed in real and significant ways to Union victory. Most of them retained their prejudices, but few would dispute the assertion that blacks made good soldiers. And while many were reluctant to grant African Americans the right to vote at that time, quite a number did believe that the government should single out black soldiers and bestow on them the franchise as a reward for honorable wartime service. In 1870, adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution resolved the debate by granting black people the right to vote.

MEMBERS OF THE UNITED STATES COLORED TROOPS BURIED AT STONES RIVER NATIONAL CEMETERY. (PHOTO BY LOU SMITH)

Many of the black units remained on active service long after Appomattox, performing occupation duty in the Southern states and serving in the West. But by 1867, the government had mustered them all out of service. The USCT was no more. Six black Regular Army regiments, later cut to four—24th and 25th Infantry Regiments and 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments—when Congress reduced the size of the army, stood as its legacy.

Once they reached home, black soldiers were local heroes for the important part they played in winning freedom for their race. Many of them assumed leadership roles in the black community. Numerous black politicians served in the USCT, while other black veterans occupied positions of central importance outside the political arena. Elijah Marrs, for example, rose to become a prominent clergyman in the postwar world.

Returning soldiers had other advantages as well. Perhaps a half or more learned to read and write in military service, which placed them in a better position to succeed in freedom. With the pay and enlistment bounties, black veterans were able to buy land, invest in businesses, or finance more schooling, some of them even earning college degrees.

AFTER SERVING BRAVELY IN THE CIVIL WAR, AFRICAN AMERICANS WON THEIR FREEDOM BUT NOT EQUALITY IN THE EYES OF MANY. (FW)

While many black soldiers benefited from their time in the Union army, others struggled in their postwar years. If they returned to the secessionist states, local whites made them feel unwelcome. They and their families endured harassment, physical abuse, and economic discrimination.

Some men had marched off to war in prime condition and returned as physical wrecks. Veterans suffered debilitating wounds or illnesses and were incapable of performing manual labor. They eked out meager existences for the remainder of their lives, often dependent on a small army pension as the source of their subsistence.

Saddest of all, though, with the passing of each decade, the white population forgot more and more about black military service in the war. And by the time of the First World War, black Americans had to fight all the same stereotypes that their Civil War ancestors had battled half a century before.

BACK COVER: 54TH MASSACHUSETTS VOLUNTEER INFRANTRY, BATTLE OF OLUSTEE, FLORIDA, BY TODD HASKIN FREDERICKS, BURNSVILLE, MN.
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