Monday, September 12, 2011

Do You Think I'll Make a Soldier?

During the Civil War, close to 180,000 African-American men, both free and former slaves, served in the United States Army.  That does not include the tens of thousands of freedmen who worked as laborers and servants to the U.S. military during the war.  Some of their stories have been told, as in the film Glory about the Massachusetts 54th Volunteers, many of whom died in the assault on Fort Wagner in 1863.  In my novel, The Rebel Wife, Simon comments that he was in the 12th U.S. Colored Infantry at the Battle of Nashville.  This piece of history is fascinating and little told.  Below are some of the details I was able to piece together about the raising and fighting of these troops.

The arming of black Americans in the Civil War was a hotly debated topic, both North and South.  In 1864 as Sherman was pushing his way to Atlanta, Confederate Major General Patrick Cleburne advocated the enlistment of slaves, who would then be granted freedom, to fight for the Confederacy.  The war was almost over before Jefferson Davis would pursue this as a policy.  In the North, however, there were individuals who were raising and arming African-Americans well before Lincoln was ready to enact it as military policy.   Frederick Douglass was a fierce advocate of allowing blacks to enlist, saying “Who would be free themselves must strike the first blow.”

In April of 1862, Major General David Hunter was secretly organizing black men on the South Carolina sea islands into troops that would ultimately become the First South Carolina Regiment.  These troops would serve under Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who left a vivid account of his experiences in the book Army Life in a Black Regiment, including a fascinating section on the songs the former slaves would sing.  General Benjamin Butler was organizing black troops in New Orleans about the same time.  In Kansas, James E. Lane was enlisting black troops by the fall of 1862.

Recruiting broadside for heavy artillery, paid meaningfully more than the average black infantryman

But official policy had to catch up with most of them.  By 1862, Lincoln and his advisors agreed that an active enlistment policy for black troops was important.  On July 17, 1862, Congress authorized the president to raise black troops “for any military or naval service for which they may be found competent.”  Lincoln waited for the Union victory of Antietam in September 1862 before announcing his policy, which became a part of the Emancipation Proclamation.  The policy would be effective as of January 1, 1863.

Secretary of War Stanton, who had secretly sent Union uniforms for David Hunter’s troops in South Carolina, began to authorize Northern state governors to raise black troops.  Governor John A. Andrew in Massachusetts was the first to be given this authority and the 54th and 55th Massachusetts was the result.  New Bedford, an important whaling port with a large free black and abolitionist population, was a major source of the recruitment effort, but ultimately there was not enough of a population to complete the regiments.  Philadelphia became a focal point for raising volunteers, in spite of popular sentiment against it.  The capture of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania by Confederate cavalry in mid-June 1863 helped give a push to acceptance and recruitment efforts.

Recruiting broadside that emphasizes the protection of black troops who were not typically treated as prisoners of war by the Confederates.  The sheet states that one Confederate prisoner will be killed for every black Union soldier killed.

In the North, there was still widespread antipathy to black troops and riots and violence ensued in many cities.  Where recruitment in the North was most successful, it seemed to be affiliated with a strong abolitionist community, like around Oberlin College in Ohio, which was an important support for the raising of the 5th U.S. Colored Troops.  The recruiting speeches urged political equality through service.  In other places, a strong Union League presence could be the impetus for raising troops, like in Philadelphia in June 1863 when the 6th U.S. Colored Infantry was raised, or in New York.  In the South amidst a large slave population, the situation would be very different.

Black infantry garrisoned at Fort Negley in Nashville during the Civil War

On May 23, 1863, the Bureau of Colored Troops was created with Major General Lorenzo Thomas in charge.  Another important recruiter was George L. Stearns, a Massachusetts abolitionist and former confidante of John Brown.  Stearns was sent to Nashville in September 1863 and began actively recruiting in that Union-held city, where he signed up 300 African-Americans in one day.  The black population of Nashville was organized and on October 20, 1863, a large meeting was held where black community leaders exhorted the freedmen of Nashville to fight:
Then let every able bodied descendant of Africa rally to arms, for arms alone will achieve our rights.  God will rule over our destinies.  He will guide us, for He is the friend of the oppressed and downtrodden…Slavery can never be what it has been, but let us not sit supinely by, but rather take a share in the great events transpiring.  Let us make a name for ourselves and race, bright as the noonday sun.
Band of the 107th U.S. Colored Infantry at Fort Corcoran
Outside of Southern cities held by the Union, recruitment was a different affair.  Near Union encampments, there also grew large camps of “contraband”, General Butler’s original term to refer to runaway slaves joining the Union for protection and freedom.  Many of the former slaves who gathered around Union camps ended up laboring for the army, digging fortifications or serving as servants, usually (for a man) at about $7 per month (the same rate black soldiers were ultimately paid in the war, less than their white counterparts).

Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, at Fort Lincoln
As an example, General Lorenzo Thomas ordered General S.A. Hurlburt, who was commanding the district of Western Tennessee in mid-1863, to raise six regiments of colored troops (a regiment was normally ten companies of 100 men each, or 1,000 men).  Hurlburt then commanded each head of a division of his brigade to raise one regiment.  These division commanders then appointed captains for each regiment (officers of black regiments were typically white, while musicians, privates and some non-commissioned officers were black).  The captains recruited themselves from the camps and vicinity—and they also relied on professional recruiting agents to help fill out their regiments.  For the regiment being raised by Captian Edward Bouton, he and his recruiting agents covered the area looking for recruits and took about six weeks before the regiment was raised.  This group of regiments was mustered into service on June 27th, 1863 as the First West Tennessee Infantry of African Descent.  The 1st West Tennessee ultimately combined with the 1st Alabama Infantry of African Descent and was redubbed the 59th U.S. Colored Infantry.

Field and staff officers (all white) of the 39th U.S. Colored Infantry at Petersburg, Virginia
Thomas J. Morgan was the colonel of the 14th U.S. Colored Infantry and commanded a brigade of four colored regiments at the Batlle of Nashville.  He was ordered to organize a regiment in November 1863 and wrote this of the experience:
By order of Major Stearns, I went to Gallatin, Tennessee, to organize the 14th United States Colored Infantry…There were at that time several hundred negro men in camp, in charge of, I think, a lieutenant.  They were a motley crowd—old, young, middle-aged.  Some wore the United States uniform, but most of them had on the clothes in which they had left the plantations, or had worn during periods of hard service as laborers in the army...We had no tents, and the men were sheltered in an old filthy tobacco warehouse, where they fiddled, danced, sang, swore or prayed, according to their mood…One by one the recruits came before us à la Eden, sans the fig leaves, and were subjected to a careful medical examination, those who were in any way physically disqualified being rejected.  Many bore the wounds and bruises of the slave-driver’s lash, and many were unfit for duty by reason of some form of disease to which human flesh is heir.  In the course of a few weeks, however, we had a thousand able-bodied, stalwart men…They proved very efficient, and had the war continued two years longer, many of them would have been competent as commissioned officers.
One recruiting agent with a remarkable record of success was Augustus L. Chetlain, Brigadier General of Volunteers.  He kept offices for recruiting black troops in Knoxville, Chattanooga, Nashville, Corinth, Mississippi, and Columbus, Kentucky.  He inspected troops in places as various as Paducah, Kentucky, Nashville, Knoxville, Johnsonville, and Athens, Alabama.  He organized a total of 18 regiments of infantry, three of heavy artillery of 1,700 men each, and one battery of light artillery.

"Marching on!"  The Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Colored Regiment singing John Brown's March in streets of Charleston, February 21, 1865

Another recruiting agent was the elderly former clergyman James M. Ayres.  In his diary on May 4, 1864, when stopping over in Huntsville, Alabama to recruit, he wrote the following about his work:
Sometimes it had been attended with great danger and Risk.  And many unpleasant things has occurred.  I have stood almost as A lone tree where A forest once was, forsaken by all the South, and while my Brother Soaldiers and officers would occasionally meet a smile from Southern faces, in Shape of Southern Women, My Lot was Sneers and Curses.  ‘Ther goes that oald nigger Recrueter, that’s that oald man was at our House the other day and took pops or dads Niggers Away.’ And Oh such Eyes and Daggers I got.
Taylor, a drummer boy with the 78th Regiment U.S. Colored Infantry
The men of the 12th U.S. Colored Infantry, the regiment to which the character Simon in The Rebel Wife belonged, were organized at an army encampment by the Elk River Bridge crossing of the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad.  This road went from Chattanooga south-westerly to Stevenson, Alabama and then swung up to Nashville after crossing the Tennessee.  The bridge crossing would likely have been in between the current towns of Winchester and Tullahoma, Tennessee, not far from the Alabama state line.

Check back later for a post giving more detail about the service of Colored Infantry regiments and their role in the Battle of Nashville.  There were eight regiments of African-American troops in the Army of the Cumberland who all did important service in the battle.

Thanks as always to the amazing Providence Athenaeum as well as the resource rich libraries of Providence at Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design and the Providence Public Library.
  Berlin, Ira, ed.  FREEDOM, A documentary history of emancipation, 1861-1867.  New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  Cornish, Dudley Taylor.  The Sable Arm:  Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 1966.
  Cowden, Colonel Robert.  A Brief Sketch of the Fifty-Ninth Regiment of United States Colored Infantry.  Dayton, Ohio:  United Brethren Publishing House, 1883.
  Glatthaar, Joseph T.  Forged in Battle:  The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers.  Baton Rouge:  Louisiana State University Press, 2000.
  Lardas, Mark.  African American Soldier in the Civil War, USCT 1862-66.  Warrior/Osprey, 2006.
  Mays, Joe H.  Black Americans and Their Contributions Toward Union Victory in the American Civil War, 1861-1865.  New York:  University Press of America, 1984.
  McPherson, James.  The Negro’s Civil War:  How American Negroes Felt and Acted During the War for the Union.  New York:  Pantheon Books, 1965.
  Paradis, James M.  Strike the Blow for Freedom:  The 6th United States Colored Infantry in the Civil War.  Shippensburg, Pennsylvania:  White Mane Books, 1998.
  Quarles, Benjamin.  The Negro in the Civil War.  Boston:  Little, Brown and Company, 1953.
  Trudeau, Noah Andre.  Like Men of War:  Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865.  New York:  Little, Brown & Company, 2002.
  Washington, Versalle F.  Eagles on Their Buttons:  A Black Infantry Regiment in the Civil War.  Columbia, Missouri:  University of Missouri Press, 1999.
  Williams, George Washington.  A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1865.  New York:  Harper & Brothers, 1888.
  Wilson, Keith, ed.  Honor in Command:  Lt. Freeman S. Bowley’s Civil War Service in the 30th United States Colored Infantry.  Gainesville, Florida:  University Press of Florida, 2006.


  1. Mr. Polites,

    I am interested in where you found the Camp Nelson broadside? Is it in an archive or did you find in one of the books you referenced?


    Pellom McDaniels

    1. Hello Dr. McDaniels,
      Thank you so much for your interest! Unfortunately, I cannot find the original source for the broadside, although more research in the cited sources will probably turn it up. I also found the website for the 12th USCHA, which might interest you.

      Please let me know if you have any other questions--and I will take a look at the sources the next time I am in the library.

      All best,