Reference Entry

Union Army, African Americans in

Barton A. Myers

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195167771
Union Army, African Americans in

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Black Americans fought in virtually every war of the early Republic, but not until the Civil War were black regiments formally recognized, sanctioned, and mustered into service by the United States government. On 17 July 1862 Congress empowered President Abraham Lincoln to allow enrollment into the U.S. army of all African Americans, free or enslaved, needed to put down the Confederate rebellion. The commander in chief was hesitant to call up black troops, however, until the action was necessitated by the manpower shortages and dim battlefield prospects experienced by the Union army. Lincoln, ever the perceptive politician, realized that the country was not yet ready for black soldiers in the summer of 1862. Looming racism in the North would keep Lincoln from publicly asking blacks to serve in the Union army until after he issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in the fall of 1862. , photographed in dress uniform. Fleetwood, who was from Baltimore, served in the U.S. Fourth Colored Troops and was awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry in action at Chaffin's Farm near Richmond, Virginia, on 29 September 1864. Despite the recognition he received for heroics and the high rank he achieved in military service, like many other black veterans he became disillusioned with the army's treatment of black soldiers and veterans. Library of Congress. Growing pressure from both military and civilian leaders across the country, however, made black military service a reality before it was formally approved by the federal government. The generals David Hunter and Benjamin Franklin Butler, along with the Kansas senator James H. Lane and the Massachusetts governor John Albion Andrew, were some of the earliest advocates of black soldiers. In 1862, at the urging of Senator Lane and without War Department approval, Kansas officers began accepting black soldiers into their military units; Kansans were the first blacks to see combat in the Union army during the conflict. General Butler, though initially reluctant to enlist black soldiers, ultimately supported mustering the all-black Louisiana Native Guard into the service. On 27 September 1862 the First Louisiana Native Guard became the first black unit officially recognized by the War Department; the Second and Third regiments followed on 12 October and 24 November 1862, respectively. General Hunter's initial efforts at bringing the First South Carolina Colored Infantry into existence were unsuccessful, but the regiment nonetheless entered federal service in early 1863 under another commander. Governor Andrew, an abolitionist, pushed the Lincoln administration incessantly for permission to recruit black men. Indeed, on 26 January 1863 Andrew's lobbying efforts yielded permission from the secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, to raise the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment—the first black unit recruited in the North and the most famous black regiment of the period. From the beginning of the war the African American leader Frederick Douglass was a forceful proponent of enlisting black soldiers to fight. Douglass himself acted as one of the country's most effective recruiters, inspiring untold numbers of blacks to join the service through his public speeches. Douglass's sons Charles and Lewis were the earliest New York volunteers for the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts; Lewis Douglass became the regiment's first sergeant major. In May 1863 the Bureau of Colored Troops was established by the War Department to administer the new African American federal units. The bureau's chief, Charles W. Foster, oversaw the organization and staffing of each new black regiment; by the end of the war roughly 186,000 men served under the bureau's direction. These black Union soldiers served in 449 different engagements, although the names of only a handful have reverberated through historical memory, such as Milliken's Bend, Fort Pillow, Port Hudson, and Fort Wagner. African American troops served with distinction despite the many obstacles placed in their path. Racism was the principal impediment black soldiers faced with respect to entering the service and performing well once there. White Southerners and Northerners alike held racist ideas about blacks' abilities; many whites viewed them as childlike, uncontrollable, and unintelligent. As a result of such racial beliefs, only white officers commanded blacks in combat, and only a handful of black soldiers rose beyond the base rank of the enlisted man. Pay discrimination was another of the hardships black soldiers were forced to endure. When Congress authorized President Lincoln to recruit black soldiers for the Union cause in July 1862, it stipulated that the new recruits be paid the wage of ten dollars per month earned by military laborers as opposed to the white soldiers' compensation, which was thirteen dollars per month. A month later Secretary of War Stanton assured a Union commander recruiting black soldiers in the South that blacks would receive pay equal to that of white soldiers; nonetheless, when black regiments began entering the service in 1863 they were paid the laborer's wage. The soldiers of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, considering the discrepancy to be racial discrimination, refused pay entirely for their first eighteen months in the army. Governor Andrew attempted to defuse the situation by securing the additional three dollars per month from the Massachusetts legislature, but the men of the Fifty-fourth refused the gesture based on principle. For blacks recruited in the North, the issue of unequal pay lingered until congressional legislation in 1864 provided for retroactive pay equality; not until 1865 did blacks recruited in the South receive thirteen dollars per month from their date of enlistment. , at Fort Lincoln, Washington, D.C., photographed c. 1863–1865. In its various engagements the Fourth lost three officers and 102 enlisted men killed or fatally wounded; this was one of the highest mortality rates among U.S. colored infantry regiments. Members of the Fourth received four medals of honor. Library of Congress. Black Union soldiers confronted a different form of racism at the hands of Confederate legislators. For many white Southerners, the addition of black soldiers to the Union armies was terrifying. In response to the enlistment of blacks, the Confederate Congress passed legislation providing that any slave or free black captured in a Union uniform would be immediately enslaved. Equally harsh treatment was devised for white officers captured while in command of blacks: these whites faced execution for the crime of inciting servile insurrection. On more than one occasion the racial fears of white Southerners translated into battlefield massacres of black soldiers. Racial atrocities at Fort Pillow, Tennessee; Plymouth, North Carolina; and the battle of the “Crater” during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia, shocked Northern citizens and stiffened the resolve of black soldiers. Between 1862 and 1865 a total of thirty-seven thousand black men lost their lives in Union military service. Yet, despite their distinguished record, the U.S. armed forces would remain a segregated institution until the Korean War. Nevertheless, black Civil War soldiers took the first important steps toward breaking down racial barriers in the U.S. military. See also Andrew, John Albion; Butler, Benjamin Franklin; Civil War; Civil War, Participation and Recruitment of Black Troops in; Confederate Policy toward African Americans and Slaves; Confederate States of America; Discrimination; Douglass, Charles Remond; Douglass, Frederick; Douglass, Lewis Henry; Emancipation Proclamation; Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment; Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment; Lincoln, Abraham; Military; Race, Theories of; Racism; and Stereotypes of African Americans.

Reference Entry.  1292 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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