Douglas R. Egerton sets the record straight about the role of black soldiers in the Civil War

Historians in the News
tags: Civil War, black soldiers

Douglas Egerton is the Merrill Family Visiting Professor in History at Cornell University and a professor of history at Le Moyne College. His latest book is Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America.

1. Nearly 180,000 African Americans fought for the Union. Why write about these three Massachusetts regiments?

For the first two years of the conflict, the Lincoln administration not only refused to recruit black soldiers, but when free blacks across the North attempted to enlist in the days after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, the War Department declined their offer. After the final Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, however, the president permitted governors to raise black troops. Conservative Democrats were reluctant to act, so John A. Andrew, a Massachusetts Republican, was the first free state governor to begin recruiting. For black men who wished to serve during the spring of 1863, catching the train to Camp Meigs outside of Boston was their only option.

2. Were other black men already under arms?

Antislavery politicians and officers in Kansas and coastal Carolina began to surreptitiously enlist (and even conscript) runaway slaves as early as 1862, but Secretary of War Edwin Stanton declined to give either effort official sanction for political reasons. When in May 1863 the War Department created the Bureau of Colored Troops and began recruiting black men into U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) regiments, those two units, the First Kansas Colored Volunteers and the First South Carolina Volunteers, were reorganized as the Seventy-ninth and Thirty-third USCT. To maintain pride of place as the first regiments to be acknowledged by the Lincoln administration, the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth never dropped their state designations.

3. Why was black military service so controversial during the first years of the war?

Despite the fact that roughly five thousand black men had served in the Patriot ranks during the Revolution, in the following decades northern states passed a host of discriminatory laws. Black males could vote on an equal basis with white men only in New England; New York State imposed a property qualification on blacks only, and not a single black male could vote in Lincoln’s Illinois in 1860. Many northern Democrats insisted that African Americans were not citizens of the United States, a view ratified by the Supreme Court in 1857. Antislavery activists hoped that if black men fought in the Union cause, the nation would have to accept their political claims. As Frederick Douglass, who recruited for the Fifty-fourth, remarked, once a black man could “get an eagle on [his] button and a musket on [his] shoulder,” all of “the devils in Jeff Davis’ dominions cannot keep [him] out of citizenship.”

4. What was the Confederate response to black regiments like the Fifty-fourth?

Aware that the final Emancipation Proclamation was due to go into effect on January 1, 1863, Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued a proclamation on the previous Christmas Eve, declaring that “all negro slaves captured in arms be at once delivered over to the executive authorities of the respective States to which they belong to be dealt with” as rebels and runaways. Those white “commissioned officers of the United States” who were “found serving in company with armed slaves” would not be regarded as “soldiers engaged in honorable warfare” but as “criminals deserving death.” Officers of black regiments, in short, were to be considered as John Browns, and “whenever captured reserved for execution.”

5. Did these first black soldiers face discrimination in the North as well?

Northern Democrats and politicians from those slave states that had not seceded were especially incensed by the idea of black soldiers. Kentucky’s John J. Crittenden, who had condemned the Emancipation Proclamation, charged that white officers would be unable to control their men, and the result would be “a servile war” of plunder and rape. One white recruiting officer for the Fifty-fourth was jeered by white mariners in New Bedford, who laughed at the thought that “the Negroes will fight.” One Manhattan journalist insisted that black men would drop their weapon and flee at the first shot, sneering that “fifty thousand white men are worth more to any army than five hundred thousand negroes.”

6. When did such attitudes change?

The Fifty-fourth first saw action on July 16, 1863, on James Island, South Carolina, as Union forces sought to take Charleston harbor. A white regiment, the Tenth Connecticut, was surprised by eight hundred Confederates, and three companies from the Fifty-fourth (three hundred men) held their ground and protected the Connecticut retreat. Newspapers across New England praised their “bravery” and wrote of how “these dark-skinned heroes fought the good fight.” But by the war’s end, even rank and file Confederates shared that view. In early 1865, three Confederate deserters arrived at their camp to surrender. “You black soldiers fight like the devil,” one admitted. “It is twice we met you. Once at James Island, and the other day at Olustee [Florida]. We know all the Massachusetts flags. You peppered us like hell.”

7. The Fifty-fourth is largely remembered today thanks to the 1989 film Glory. What was the national impact of the failed July 18, 1863, assault on Battery Wagner?

Had the soldiers faltered outside of Charleston harbor, that would have been an end to Washington’s brief experiment in black enlistments. Despite grim odds, the Fifty-fourth fought with enormous courage. Of the 650 men who marched up the beach, 272, or 42 percent, were listed as casualties. And of the 34 men immediately killed in action, 23 were white officers, including the regiment’s young colonel, Robert Gould Shaw. After the battle, once-critical journalists and politicians promptly changed course. As the Democratic publisher of the Chicago Tribune admitted, “the thing, therefore, is now settled—the negroes will fight.” The Lincoln administration hastened to enlist black soldiers, eventually filling 175 USCT regiments, which comprised one-tenth of all U.S. forces by Appomattox.

8. How accurate is the film Glory?

The movie is wonderfully-acted and directed, and of course it won Denzel Washington his first Oscar. Unfortunately, the film manages to get nearly every aspect of the story wrong. The film implies that the vast majority of the men in the Fifty-fourth were runaway slaves, while in fact the two regiments were comprised largely of men like Charles and Lewis Douglass, black men born free in the North. Pennsylvania supplied the largest contingent of men in the unit, with New York and Ohio close behind. Of the six main characters in the film, only one—Rob Shaw—was a real person. The rest are composite characters or loosely based on real soldiers. Most of all, the film ends with the assault on Wagner; in fact, the two infantry regiments and the all-black Fifth Cavalry served for two more years and became armies of occupation in Charleston and Richmond after the Confederate surrender.

9. How many soldiers served in the two regiments, and how did you decide which ones to write about?

Roughly 1,500 men served in the Fifty-fourth, with another 1,200 in the Fifty-fifth and just less than that in the Fifth Cavalry. Some men transferred from one unit to the other, and Charles Douglass, the youngest son of the great abolitionist, was a company clerk in all three regiments. Rather than write a traditional regimental history, I focused on fourteen men, ten of them black. Some were born slaves, others were sons of privilege. Of the group, most survived the conflict, and some did not. Their saga began well before the guns of Sumter, continued into the battles of the Reconstruction era, and even stretched into the first decades of the twentieth century.

10. How was their experience different from those white soldiers who fought for the North?

They faced discrimination within the army for most of the war. Until June 1864, they were paid less than white privates, who received thirteen dollars each month. The men in the Fifty-fourth were paid ten dollars per month, with three dollars of that deducted to cover the cost of uniforms (a fee not charged to white soldiers). Although they refused to accept a racially-based pay scale, the army continued to deduct money for uniforms, so the men who died at Wagner perished in debt to the government. Until the last months of the conflict, they were not allowed to rise into the ranks of commissioned officers; after being wounded on numerous occasions—once from friendly fire—Stephen Swails of the Fifty-fourth became the first black lieutenant in the entire army, just weeks before Charleston fell. White soldiers fought for reunion, but these men sought to transform a white man’s war into a revolutionary struggle for freedom and to advance their claims for citizenship and equal rights.

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