Training

The first attempt to "form company" xuas a crucial lest of the faith of the new officer. No uniform clothing had been issued, and many of the recruits had scarcely rags enough to hide their nakedness. I confess that I was staggered, almost appalled, at the thought of the self-imposed task.

(Henry Romeyn, on taking charge of a company in the 14th

USCI Regiment)

Less promising material for soldiers than the newly recruited African American troops was hard to find in Civil War America. Most slaves were unfamiliar with firearms. It was illegal for slaves to use them. Most were uneducated. It was a felony to teach slaves to read and write. 14 "Keep books and guns out of slave hands if you want to keep them slaves," was how Joe Higgerson, a slave who joined the Union Army, explained ante-bellum policy in his narrative. Even in free states, the ability of black freemen to own guns was highly restricted. Most literate Northern blacks were self-educated.

"The enlisted men of my regiment were mostly slaves from the plantations of those counties of Maryland and Virginia which he east of the Chesapeake Bay," stated George R. Sherman, a white officer in the 7th USCI, in "The Negro as a Soldier." "These recruits came to us ignorant of anything outside their own plantation world." Ignorant slaves were slaves less likely to hold disruptive opinions.

The black soldiers of the USCT possessed two things that allowed them to overcome this handicap: experienced officers and a willingness - by the private soldier - to learn and work hard.

White regiments elected their company officers. Of USCT regiments, only two of the three Louisiana Native Guard regiments raised by Gen Butler had officers assigned that way. The rest were appointed. The first regiments had white officers appointed by state governors who wished to see the experiment of using black troops succeed. Later the officers, almost all white, were appointed by the Army, and had to pass an examination prior to receiving a commission.

At a minimum these men had seen combat, and were experienced in military life. White officers could gain promotion as field officers in an African American regiment - major, lieutenant-colonel, or colonel. Non-commissioned officers, even privates, could receive the shoulder strap of a company officer. This drew numerous volunteers. The Army could be (and was) choosy about giving promotion. Candidates had to demonstrate that they possessed the skills to operate their command -whether a company or a regiment - and that they were motivated to become officers in an African American regiment for reasons beyond the financial gain and additional status this potentially easy route to promotion brought.

To ensure an adequate supply of competent officers, supporters of using black troops created an officer-training academy in Philadelphia. Enlisted whites seeking a commission in the African American regiments could obtain leave to attend this preparatory academy prior to a board examination. The experiment was so successful that it was imitated in the Spanish-American War.

The recruits were also highly motivated to learn to be soldiers. For ex-slaves the payment for success would be freedom. For Northern freemen, it was the opportunity to gain respect, and the rights of citizenship. George Sherman stated, "They are quick to learn the manual of arms, and the evolutions of the army drill. In these they took great pride and pleasure, and when well uniformed their appearance was always good."

The first task was organizing the thousand men in a regiment. Recruits were broken into 100-man companies. Often the companies, identified by letter, were organized along with the regiment, the

Learning to handle firearms transformed slaves into soldiers. Blacks and their white officers knew that someone who could shoot was too dangerous to keep as a slave. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Puerto Rico Playing Dominoes
When a shortage of qualified officers for the African American regiments developed, a training school was established in Philadelphia. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

first men enlisting being assigned to Company A, with the final hundred assigned to Company K. (There was no Company J.) Thomas Morgan "assigned them to companies according to height, putting men of nearly the same height together. When the regiment was full, the four center companies were composed of tall men, the flanking companies of men of medium size, while the little men were sandwiched between. The effect was excellent... It was not uncommon to have strangers who saw it on parade for the first time, declare the men were all of the one size."

For members of the USCT training meant drill, drill, and drill, followed by more drill. Jacob Bruner, an officer in the 9tli Louisiana Volunteers (Colored), wrote to his wife in May 1863: "We have about one hundred men recruited. We drill twice each day. I am detailed to drill a squad tomorrow. They learn very fast and 1 have no doubt they will make as rapid progress as white soldiers."

Units that could fire their muskets more quickly and more accurately than their opponents, units that could maneuver more quickly than their opponents, won. Achieving proficiency meant practicing the steps to load, aim, and fire a musket until it became instinctive. It meant practicing marching and changing formation until such actions became as natural as breathing. So officers constantly drilled their men. Henry V. Freeman described training his regiment, the 12th USCI, in "A Colored Brigade in the Campaign and Battle of Nashville":

Drill was incessant. The whole regiment was at first an extremely awkward squad. But some of the men proved apt pupils. The more intelligent were soon able to assist their more awkward comrades. In what seems now a remarkably short space of time the men were making good progress in company and regimental drill, and were a fair way to become soldiers, so far as drill and a knowledge of camp duties could make them such.

In On the Altar of Freedom James Gooding wrote of the evolution of his unit, the 54th Massachusetts (Colored), and the pride that the men showed in their accomplishment:

During the past week things have assumed a more military shape than before, owing to the fine state of the weather, permitting outdoor drilling. Since the men have been in camp the drilling has been conducted in empty barracks, until the past week. It is quite enlivening to see squads of men going through their evolutions.

Competition developed between the various units in a regiment. Lt Col Nelson Viall, of the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery (Colored), noted:

It was gratifying to observe when a new company was mustered into service a strong feeling to emulate and excel the companies previously organized. In company movements they took especial pride. It was no uncommon occurrence where several companies were drilling together, for one company to rest awhile and observe closely the movements of the others. (Chenery, The Fourteenth Regiment)

Union Army Training
African American troops undergoing training drills. (Author's collection)

Even the most skeptical officers in the Union Army conceded after watching African American regiments that had finished training, "Men who can handle their arms as these do, will fight." Gen George H. Thomas, a Virginian who initially doubted the utility of African American troops, after watching Thomas Morgan's regiment, told Morgan that he "never saw a regiment go through the manual of arms as well as this one."

Part of the training process was developing non-commissioned officers - sergeants and corporals. While white NCOs were used initially, blacks quickly replaced most. An infantry regiment had 55 sergeants and 86 corporals. An artillery or cavalry regiment required 65 sergeants and 102 corporals.

NCOs were chosen for literacy, leadership, intelligence, and appearance. Senior sergeants - sergeant majors, the company first sergeants, and the quartermaster and provost sergeants - all had to handle paperwork. That demanded literacy - or a very good memory.

Literate recruits could be found in Northern regiments. Many ex-slaves could read and write. Black newspapers published in the North and informal networks formed before the war taught black runaways to read. Becoming literate was seen as a first step towards being truly free. The 54th Massachusetts and 29th Connecticut recruited the cream of the North's blacks. A shopkeeper in civilian life, Alexander Newton became quartermaster sergeant of the 29th Connecticut because he already possessed the skills for the job.

Among regiments raised in slave states finding literate individuals was more difficult. Henry Romeyn, with the 14th USCI raised in Kentucky, picked someone from outside that state. "I had one man -free born - from north of the Ohio who could read and write and made him my first sergeant."

Thomas Higginson, of the 1st South Carolina (Colored), was able to find slaves among the runaways who enlisted and had secretly taught themselves to read and write. Of Prince Rivers, who eventually became the regiment's sergeant major, he wrote in Army Life in a Black Regiment

There is not a white officer in this regiment who has more administrative ability, or more absolute authority over his men; they

Camp William Penn

Camp William Penn outside Philadelphia was one of the biggest training camps for African American troops. Here one regiment (probably the 127th USCI) stands in mass formation. (National Archives)

William Penn And Philadelphia

Camp William Penn outside Philadelphia was one of the biggest training camps for African American troops. Here one regiment (probably the 127th USCI) stands in mass formation. (National Archives)

The Presentation of Colors was a solemn ritual that marked the entry of a regiment into service. Here the 22nd USCI receives its colors in a public ceremony. (Potter Collection)

do not love him, but his mere presence has controlling power over them. He writes well enough to prepare for me a daily report of his duties in the camp; if his education reached a higher point, I see no reason why he should not command the Army of the Potomac.

Illiteracy was not always a bar to promotion, especially in regiments raised in the South. Higginson promoted the initially illiterate Robert Sutton to corporal, later writing of the man, "If not in all respects the ablest, he was the wisest man in our ranks... Not yet grounded in the spelling-book, his modes of thought were clear, lucid, and accurate."

For many blacks, especially those enlisted from slavery, it was the first opportunity they had ever had to assume a responsible position of leadership. While some fell short, most thrived in their positions. Thomas Morgan wrote of his NCOs, 'They proved very efficient, and had the war continued two years longer, many of them would have been competent as commissioned officers." It was a remarkable concession in a bigoted age.

Former slaves had to adjust to the concept of fellow blacks having authority over them. '"He needn't try to play the white man over me,' was the protest of a soldier against his corporal the other day," stated Col Higginson in his memoirs. "To counteract this I have often to remind them that they do not obey their officers because they are white, but because they are their officers; and guard duty is an admirable school for this, because they readily understand that the sergeant or corporal of the guard has for the time more authority than any commissioned officer who is not on duty."

During training, the regiment was presented with its regimental colors. These were two flags - the national colors and a regimental standard unique to the unit. The symbol of the regiment, the colors were used to rally the regiment on the battlefield. Capturing an enemy's colors was an ultimate honor for a regiment and losing its own was an ultimate disgrace. To protect the colors each regiment appointed a color guard - two sergeants who held the colors and eight corporals who defended them. Joseph Califf described the formal ceremony in which the colors were presented to the 7th USCI:

At dress-parade on this day the regimental colors were brought out for the first time, and a color-sergeant and color guard selected. In doing it, Col. Shaw called the non-commissioned officers of the regiment together and stated to them the danger as well as the honor of the position to be filled, and then called for volunteers. Nearly all stepped to the front, and a selection was made from among those volunteering.

When training had been completed - a process that took 60 to 90 days - the regiment was ready to march to war.

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