“Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle upon his button and a musket on his shoulder…and there’s no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.” Frederick Douglass.
When Fort Sumter was attacked on April 12, 1861, free African-Americans in the North immediately volunteered for military service in the Union Army. Initially, their patriotism was scorned, and their offers to serve as combatants were rejected. Most Northerners objected to the use of African-Americans, whether free or slave, as soldiers. While the overwhelming majority of Southerners were vehemently opposed to engaging African-Americans as combatants, they had no reservations about using slave labor to build fortifications and artillery batteries or to mend roads and repair bridges. The prevailing opinion of the times — fueled by racial prejudice and stereotyping — was that African-Americans were “natural cowards” and would run away rather than stand and fight.
African-American abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany steadfastly championed the right of African-Americans to enlist in the Union Army. Douglass regarded military service as a tool for achieving social justice and relentlessly kept up the political pressure in favor of African-American enlistment.
African-Americans were resolved to seize an active role in the fight to preserve and defend the Union — and to prove themselves as soldiers as well. Initially, their offers to volunteer as soldiers were rebuffed, but African-Americans were eventually extended the opportunity to fight in what they had initially been told was a “white man’s war.”
The Militia Act of July 17, 1862 authorized President Abraham Lincoln to recruit African-Americans for “any military or naval service for which they may be found competent.” This Congressional act — combined later with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 — essentially paved the way for African-Americans to secure their personal freedom and an opportunity for them to join the fight to liberate those who remained in bondage. Recruitment handbills went up in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston urging free African Americans to “strike a blow for liberty” by enlisting in the Union Army.
“This is our golden moment. Let us rush to arms. Fail now and our race is doomed on this the soil of our birth,” challenged an early handbill . “If we would be regarded as men, if we would ever silence the tongue of calumny, of prejudice and hate; let us rise now and fly to arms,” admonished the same placard.
Ultimately, more than 186,000 African-Americans served in the Union Army in segregated units commanded by white officers, and over 30,000 African-American sailors served in the Union Navy during the Civil War.
The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment was the first African-American unit recruited in the North. John A. Andrews, the governor of Massachusetts, enlisted Frederick Douglass and other African-American abolitionists to persuade the “cream of the free black population” to join the volunteer unit. Douglass even convinced two of his sons — Lewis and Charles — to muster into the governor’s new unit. Bostonian Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the son of affluent abolitionists, was selected to command the regiment. The officers and men of the 54th Massachusetts regarded their unit as a critical test of the aptitude of African-American men for soldiering and citizenship.
When the 54th Massachusetts was selected to spearhead the assault on Fort Wagner, a Confederate battery guarding the entrance to Charleston Harbor in South Carolina, the regiment of volunteers embraced the opportunity to prove themselves. Colonel Shaw led the charge and was shot through the heart as the 54th reached the fortification. Repulsed several times by determined Confederate defenders and artillery fire from Fort Sumter, the battered Union troops finally conceded and returned to their lines. More than 1,500 Union soldiers had perished in the fighting while the Confederate defenders had suffered 174 casualties.
The 600 infantrymen in the 54th sustained 272 casualties. Although the attack failed, no one could deny the gallantry of the 54th. The men of the 54th had distinguished themselves; they had proven beyond any doubt that they were soldiers.
Sergeant William Harvey Carney won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his conspicuous gallantry during the 54th’s bloody assault on Fort Wagner. Sergeant Carney was the first African-American soldier to be cited for the high honor based on his valor at Fort Wagner, the inspirational and climactic battle depicted in Edward Zwick’s 1989 film Glory.
On June 18, 1863, during the thick of the fighting at Fort Wagner, Carney witnessed the Union standard bearer fall and seized the falling American flag before it touched the ground. Carney, shot in both legs and wounded in the chest and right arm, forged ahead with the colors and reached the parapet. When the order to retreat was given, Carney picked up the flag and returned the banner to the Union position — to the cheers of his comrades. “The old flag never touched the ground, boys,” Sergeant Carney proudly told his brothers-in-arms.
Carney certainly wouldn’t be the last African-American to earn the Medal of Honor during the Civil War.
At the Battle of Newmarket Heights, also known as Chaffin’s Farm, in Henrico County, African-American troops stubbornly attacked an extremely well-protected Confederate position. General John Gregg’s brigade of Texans and the 24th Virginia Cavalry discharged a shower of shot so intense the African-Americans of the 4th, 5th, and 6th USCT expired by the score. The rest were pinned down from withering Confederate firepower; finally, the enemy barrage slackened and what remained of three brigades of USCT infantry stormed the Confederate earthworks — only to find that most of the Rebel defenders had withdrawn. General Charles Paine’s USCT infantry regiments had sustained more than 800 casualties in little more than an hour. African-American bravery was so extraordinary during the Battle of New Market Heights that fourteen African-American soldiers were eventually awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for “gallantry in action” in recognition for their courage under fire.
General Benjamin F. Butler was so impressed with the gallantry of his African-American troops during the Battle of New Market Heights that he commissioned a special silver medal to honor the men under his command. Officially called the Army of the James Medal, the Butler Medal was inscribed with “Distinguished Courage Campaign Before Richmond 1864.” Butler awarded the medal to two hundred men.
During the Siege of Petersburg, nine USCT infantry units participated in the Battle of the Crater. Union troops tunneled under the Confederate position at Eliots Salient near Petersburg and packed the end of the tunnel with four tons of black powder.
When the gunpowder was detonated, Union forces were supposed to charge through the opening caused by the blast, sweep the Confederate trenches to the left and right, and continue to push directly through the crater to seize Cemetery Hill.
Initially, African-American regiments under the command of General Edward Ferraro were selected and trained to lead the attack. At the last minute, General Meade and General Grant altered the plan partly because they feared that if the assault failed that they would be accused of callously sending African-American soldiers to their deaths. General Ledlie’s division was selected to lead the attack.
The gunpowder exploded just before dawn and left a huge crater — 200 feet long, 60 feet wide, and 30 feet deep — in the Confederate defenses. Ledlie’s white troops led the attack, and Ferraro’s USCT units followed in a subsequent wave. Poor organization and lack of effectual leadership allowed Confederate defenders an opportunity to recover from the initial blast and regroup. Confederate infantry and artillery directed fire down upon the lead troops in the crater. When the African-American infantry units charged into the crater, they had to fight through retreating white troops while being attacked from both flanks by enemy fire.
After fighting courageously for a short time, the USCT regiments finally turned and dashed back to the relative safety of the Union trenches. The Battle of the Crater was a tactical fiasco. The Union casualty totals were unbelievable — roughly 3,500 killed or wounded. African-American soldiers in the USCT division suffered the most. Of the 4,500 soldiers in the USCT division, 1,327 were either killed or wounded.
While many African-Americans served the Union Army in United States Colored Troops (USCT) labor battalions, they also served in 120 infantry regiments, 7 cavalry regiments, 12 heavy artillery regiments, 10 light artillery regiments, and 5 engineer regiments. African-Americans served the army in more than 160 units.
USCT units participated 39 major battles and a total of 449 engagements throughout the war. While serving in the Union Army, more than 3,000 African-Americans sacrificed their lives on the battlefield. An additional 40,000 – 70,000 expired from their battlefield wounds — or disease. Seventeen African-American soldiers and four African-American sailors were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for gallantry during the war. At the conclusion of the Civil War, African-Americans accounted for twenty-five percent of the enlisted personnel in the Union Navy and ten percent of the total number of soldiers in the Union army.
“This was the biggest thing that ever happened in my life,” wrote one African-American Civil War veteran — a former slave. “I felt like a man with a uniform on and a gun in my hand. I felt freedom in my bones.”
The extraordinary courage that many African-American soldiers exhibited during the Civil War demonstrated to both their white comrades and a skeptical country that African-American soldiers could and would fight as bravely as any other soldiers for the cause of liberty and the promise of freedom.
-By Bob Ruegsegger