In 1861 when President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 troops I engaged myself for the great Civil War, the War of the Rebellion. The United States was not taking Negro troops.

(Alexander H. Newton [a free black living in New York City],

Out of the Briars.)

For the Civil War's first two years slavery was the elephant in the room - an unavoidable object whose presence was denied. The Union government was determined to show that the war was not about slavery. It was about preserving the union or states' rights -although both sides knew that slavery was the only states' right that could rupture the union. The Civil War started as a white man's war. The Union refused to enlist blacks for fear of further alienating the rebelling states, and losing the states that had not seceded but were unsupportive of abolition.

To win European support for the Confederacy, the South employed "show units" of unofficial state militia regiments in New Orleans and Memphis. These had no official duties except to march in parades when foreign newspapermen were present. These men had to provide their own weapons and equipment, apart from when the South abandoned Newr Orleans and gave the blacks worn-out muskets to cover the retreat of the white units. With this unusual exception, the Confederacy refused to allow participation by freed blacks, and was not yet sufficiently desperate for manpower to arm slaves. African Americans could serve only as auxiliaries: servants, teamsters, or cooks.

On May 26, 1861, the Union general Benjamin Butler, then commanding Fort Monroe, Virginia, refused to return three runaway slaves to their owner - a colonel in the Confederate Army. Butler held that runaway slaves belonging to owners in rebellion against the United States were "contraband of war." Like any property providing military advantage they could be seized. Congress approved of his logic: it ratified Butler's position on August 6, 1861, passing the First Confiscation Act, which directed the armed forces to confiscate property employed in the service of the rebellion - including slaves.

This was aimed more at harming rebellious slave-owners than emancipating slaves. Yet large numbers of "contrabands" collected wherever the Union established outposts in the Confederate states. The Army was barred from using these blacks. Congress passed the Militia

Act on July 17, 1862, allowing the Army to hire contrabands as laborers, to be paid one ration a day, and $10 per month, $3 worth of which should be provided as clothing. African Americans could be hired only as laborers - not as soldiers.

Some generals attempted to recruit blacks to fill shortages in their numbers. One Union commander, Gen David Hunter, unofficially raised a regiment of runaway slaves in South Carolina in April 1862. Ordered to disband the regiment, he refused to do so, and was relieved. Benjamin Butler was more successful in September 1862. Commanding Union forces in New Orleans, Butler raised three regiments of black troops. He cleverly used the fiction that he was recommissioning and expanding the regiment of Free Men of Color that had served in the Confederate Army.

In reality, fewer than 10 percent of the members of the Confederate regiment reenlisted in the Union Native Guard regiments raised by Butler. Despite claims that all the recruits were freemen, half were slaves, most runaways, when they enlisted. In one regiment, a company was raised from slaves owned by a free black, Francis Dumas - who received a captain's commission.

Butler commissioned the 1st Native Guard Regiment on September 27, 1862. A few days earlier, on September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. This only freed slaves in regions "in rebellion against the United States." As with the Confiscation Act, it was primarily intended to harm the Confederacy. The Emancipation Proclamation also ended any chance of European intervention - unless the Confederacy similarly eliminated slavery. Additionally, the casualties of the Peninsular Campaign were hard to justify in a war merely to "preserve the union."

Shifting the war aim towards emancipation, as well as union, removed barriers to African Americans serving in the Army. Butler kept his regiments. To the west, the State of Kansas was also in the process of raising a regiment of African American troops - in this case acknowledged

Battle Mine Creek
Gen Benjamin Butler (seated) declared these runaways to be contraband of war, when their master, a Confederate officer, tried to claim them. Butler later raised the first three African American regiments using this premise. (Author's collection)

runaways from Missouri. That fall, Hunter's unofficial regiment was reconstituted as the 1st South Carolina (Colored) Regiment, commanded by Col Thomas W. Higginson, an abolitionist Unitarian minister who had supported John Brown and the anti-slavery Jayhawkers in Kansas before the Civil War. By January 1, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, additional African American regiments were being raised in North and South Carolina, and Louisiana. The New England states, Massachusetts foremost among them, were clamoring for permission to raise African American regiments.

The common soldiers' opposition to fighting alongside African Americans faded. Many objected to African Americans, but the casualty lists at Fredericksburg convinced other white soldiers of the virtue in the "racially tolerant" view that:

The right to be killt I'll divide with him,

And give him the bigger half!

(William W7ells Brown, The Negro in the American Rebellion)

Conscription further weakened opposition to African American soldiers. When the Federal Conscription Act took effect in July 1863, riots protesting against the Act took place in some Northern cities. Often led by white Irish immigrants, the rioters turned their resentment at being conscripted to liberate slaves - viewed as potential competitors for their jobs - against blacks in those cities. In New York City African Americans were hunted down by mobs, and a black orphanage was burned down.

As William Wells Brown recorded in his history of African American participation in the Civil War, most people seriously expected that the "niggers won't fight." But fight they did. Sometimes, as at Port Hudson and Fort Wagner, they lost. At other early actions, most notably at Honey Springs and bloody Milliken's Bend, they won. The Union Army, hungry for men, realized that the experiment was successful, and expanded it. Black men could fill conscription quotas as well as whites. States were willing to persuade, pay, or compel blacks to join. By the end of 1863 over 50,000 blacks had joined the Army. By the war's end 178,975 blacks had enlisted.

Blacks were segregated, serving in African American regiments, not as part of white formations. With the exception of Butler's Native Guard regiments, the officers appointed to African American regiments were white. Owing to white prejudice, only a handful of blacks received commissions in the new regiments, most in 1865 or 1866.

Members of African American units faced death if captured. Some of the first prisoners captured from such a regiment were executed: the African Americans were summarily executed as slaves in rebellion, and the whites tried and hanged them for inciting slave rebellion. One of the commanders in the West, Ulysses S. Grant, hearing what had happened, promised to execute one Confederate prisoner for every member of an African American unit executed for rebellion. The official killing stopped, but these soldiers still risked unofficial acts of murder, massacre, and maltreatment if they fell into Confederate hands.

African American regiments were initially given state names. Federal, not state authorities, raised the regiments with Southern state names. Few Union states were eager to claim African American regiments. The effort

The "contraband" policy encouraged slaves owned by secessionists to escape to freedom. These contrabands provided a pool from which the first African American regiments drew strength. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

was federalized; a Bureau for Colored Troops was created, and the African American regiments became the United States Colored Troops (USCT). The 1st US Colored Infantry Regiment (USCI - United States Colored Infantry) came into existence on the eve of Gettysburg. By the beginning of 1864 the existing state regiments-except for those from Massachusetts and Connecticut, states with abolitionist governors and state legislatures -were renumbered under the Federal system. For example, the 1st South Carolina (Colored) became the 33rd Regiment, USCT.

By the war's end, the USCT regiments earned the respect of those they fought with - and against. They proved to be among the best units in the Union Army: dogged in defense, relentless in attack, and disciplined when on garrison duties.

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