Union Army finally accepts black soldiers

In 1862, the Union Army suffered a series of defeats at the hands of the Confederates. This led to low morale among the troops and difficulty attracting white volunteers. As a result, public opinion about allowing blacks to fight gradually began to change. By this time, several Union generals had tried to set up black regiments despite the lack of government approval, including General James Lane (1814-1866) in Kansas, General David Hunter (1802-1886) in South Carolina's Sea Islands, and General Benjamin Butler in New Orleans. On July 17, 1862, the U.S. Congress passed two new laws that officially allowed black men to serve as soldiers in the Union Army. But they were only allowed to join special all-black units led by white officers.

The first black regiment (unit), the First South Carolina Volunteers, was formed in August 1862. Massachusetts abolitionist Thomas Went-worth Higginson (1823-1911) was appointed colonel of this regiment. In January 1863, he led his troops on a raid along the St. Mary's River, which formed the border between Georgia and Florida. He reported back to his superior officers that he was very pleased by his unit's performance. "The men have been repeatedly under fire; have had infantry, cavalry, and even artillery arrayed against them, and have in every instance come off not only with unblemished honor, but with undisputed triumph," General Higginson wrote. "Nobody knows anything about these men who has not seen them in battle. I find that I myself knew nothing. There is a fiery energy about them beyond anything of which I have ever read." In March, Higginson's regiment and another black regiment under James Montgomery (1814-1871) joined forces to capture Jacksonville, Florida. As the success stories of black troops in battle began rolling in, several more black regiments were organized.

Although some black men were eager to join the Union Army, those in Northern cities tended to be more reluctant to enlist than they had been earlier in the war. For one thing, they were able to find good jobs in factories that were busy producing goods for the war effort. In addition, some black men worried about what would happen to them if they were captured by the Confederates. The Confederate government had said that it intended to ignore the usual rules covering the treatment of prisoners of war and deal with captured black soldiers in a harsh manner. It issued a statement saying that black soldiers would be "put to death or be otherwise punished at the discretion [judgment] of the court," which might include being sold into slavery. Many people thought that the Confederacy was just trying to discourage blacks from joining the Union Army, but a few well-publicized incidents convinced other people that they were serious.

One such incident was the "Fort Pillow massacre" of 1864. Fort Pillow was a Union outpost on the Mississippi River, north of Memphis, Tennessee. Half of the 570 Union soldiers stationed there to guard the fort were black. On April 12, the fort was captured by Confederate forces led by General Nathan Bedford Forrest. An unknown number of black soldiers (estimates range from twenty to two hundred) and a few white officers were killed after they had surrendered, in violation of the basic rules of war. This incident received a great deal of news coverage in the North. While it made some black men hesitant to volunteer, it made others determined to fight in order to take revenge on the Confederates.

Another reason that some black men were reluctant to enlist in the Union Army was that the army

The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment

In January 1863, the U.S. government authorized Governor John Andrew (1818-1867) of Massachusetts to put together a regiment of black soldiers from his state. Since there were not enough black men living in Massachusetts at that time, Andrew called upon prominent abolitionists and black leaders to recruit men from all over the North to form the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment. The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts would be the first all-black regiment to represent a state in battle during the Civil War. Many white people in the North were opposed to allowing black soldiers to fight for the Union Army, so Governor Andrew and his recruiters staked their reputations on the success or failure of the regiment. "Rarely in history did a regiment so completely justify the faith of its founders," James M. McPherson wrote in The Negro's Civil War.

Since black men were not allowed to become officers in the Union Army, the governor selected several white men to lead the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts. Andrew knew that the regiment would receive a great deal of publicity, so he chose these officers carefully. He asked a young, Harvard-educated soldier named Robert Gould Shaw (1837-1863) to become colonel of the regiment. Shaw accepted the position and immediately began training his troops for battle. "May we have an opportunity to show that you have not made a mistake in entrusting the honor of the state to a colored regiment—the first state that has sent one to the War," Shaw wrote to Andrew.

The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts got an opportunity to prove itself on July 18, 1863. The regiment was chosen to lead an assault on Fort Wagner, a Confederate stronghold that guarded the entrance to Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. The soldiers had marched all of the previous day and night, along beaches and through swamps, in terrible heat and humidity. But even though they were tired and hungry by the time they arrived in Charleston, they still proudly took their positions at the head of the assault. The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts charged forward on command and were hit with heavy artillery and musket fire from the Confederate troops inside the fort. Colonel Shaw was killed, along with nearly half of his six hundred officers and men. But the remaining troops kept moving forward, crossed the moat surrounding the fort, and climbed up the stone wall. They were eventually forced to retreat when reinforcements did not appear in time, but by then they had inflicted heavy losses on the enemy.

The next day, Confederate troops dug a mass grave and buried Shaw's body along with his fallen black soldiers, despite the fact that the bodies of high-ranking officers were usually returned by both sides. The Confederates intended this action to be an insult, since they believed that whites

Black Csa Soldier

Actors Jihmi Kennedy (left) and Denzel Washington in Glory, a 1989 film about the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment.

(Reproduced by permission of AP/Wide World Photos, Inc.)

Actors Jihmi Kennedy (left) and Denzel Washington in Glory, a 1989 film about the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment.

(Reproduced by permission of AP/Wide World Photos, Inc.)

were superior to blacks and thus deserved a better burial. Several weeks later, when Union forces finally captured Fort Wagner, a Union officer offered to search for the grave and recover Shaw's body. But Shaw's father, a prominent abolitionist, refused the offer. "We hold that a soldier's most appropriate burial-place is on the field where he has fallen," he wrote.

Even though the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts did not succeed in capturing Fort Wagner, their brave performance in battle was considered a triumph. "In the face of heavy odds, black troops had proved once again their courage, determination, and willingness to die for the free dom of their race," McPherson wrote. Newspapers throughout the North carried the story, even those that had opposed the enlistment of blacks in the Union Army. As abolitionist Angelina Grimke Weld (1805-1879) said of the regiment: "I have no tears to shed over their graves, because I see that their heroism is working a great change in public opinion, forcing all men to see the sin and shame of enslaving such men." The success of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts and other black regiments not only helped the North win the Civil War, but also led to greater acceptance of blacks in American society.

In 1989, director Edward Zwick turned the story of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment into a major movie called Glory, starring Matthew Broderick (1962- ) as Colonel Shaw and Morgan Freeman (1937- ) and Denzel Washington (1954- ) as two of his soldiers. Based in part on Shaw's letters and diaries, Glory traces the opposition to blacks serving as soldiers in the Civil War, follows the recruitment and training of the historic regiment, and ends with the assault on Fort Wagner. It was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Picture of 1989 and won Oscars for Best Cinematography, Best Sound, and Best Supporting Actor (Washington). In his book Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War, James M. McPher-son praised the movie's realistic combat footage and called Glory "the most powerful movie about [the Civil War] ever made."

Black Soldiers The Civil War Pictures
Two black soldiers sit outside their tent. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

still had policies that discriminated against blacks. For example, black soldiers were not allowed to be promoted to the rank of officer, meaning that they were stuck being followers rather than leaders. Black regiments were always led by white officers. In addition, black soldiers received lower pay than white soldiers of the same rank. Black soldiers with the rank of private were paid $10 per month, with $3 deducted for clothing. But white privates received $13 per month, plus an additional $3.50 for clothing. Finally, black soldiers often performed more than their fair share of hard labor and fatigue duty, such as pitching tents, loading supplies, and digging wells and trenches. These policies began to change when black regiments proved themselves in battle. But it took a protest by two black regiments from Massachusetts—who refused to accept any pay until they were treated equally with white soldiers—to convince the War Department to make the changes official in June 1864.

By late 1864, the Union Army included 140 black regiments with nearly 102,000 soldiers—or about 10 percent of the entire Northern forces. Black men fought in almost every major battle during the final year of the Civil War and played an important role in achieving victory for the Union. Approximately 37,300 black men died while serving their country, and 21 received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their bravery in battle.

The black regiments fighting for the Union were so successful that the Confederates even considered arming slaves late in the war. Most Southern whites opposed this idea because they believed that blacks were inferior and worried that it would promote slave rebellions. But as the Union Army advanced through the South, the Confederate government became desperate enough to consider it. In 1865, the Confederate Congress passed the Negro Soldier Law and established a few companies of black soldiers in Richmond, Virginia. But the Union won the Civil War before any of these troops could be used in battle.

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