African American Soldiers

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African American Civil War Soldiers History

African American Soldiers Civil War History, What was it like to be a black soldier in the Union Army, US Army Colored Troops African Americans Soldier life of blacks during Civil War United States Summary Facts Experience

Port Hudson, Louisiana
May 21 - July 9, 1863
The May 1, 1863 New York Tribune summed up many Northerners' feelings about African American soldiers when it declared, "Loyal Whites have generally become willing that they should fight, but the great majority have no faith that they will really do so. Many hope they will prove cowards and sneaks -- others greatly fear it." In their first major battle, at Port Hudson, Louisiana, on May 27, 1863, African Americans proved their courage beyond a doubt.
Port Hudson served as the linchpin of Confederate control over the Lower Mississippi. Among the Union regiments attacking the well-fortified position were two African American units: the First Louisiana -- which was one of the few units commanded by African American officers -- and the Third Louisiana. Although they did not inflict a single casualty on the enemy, the units showed conspicuous bravery, charging repeatedly against blistering artillery and rifle fire. All told, the two regiments sustained nearly 200 casualties. Among those impressed that day was Union general Nathaniel P. Banks, who reported, "The severe test to which they were subjected, and the determined manner in which they encountered the enemy, leaves upon my mind no doubt of their ultimate success."
 
Milliken's Bend, Louisiana
June 7, 1863 
In one of the bloodiest battles of the war, African American troops from the 9th Louisiana Infantry, 1st Mississippi Infantry, and the 13th Louisiana Infantry fought alongside white troops from the 10th Illinois Cavalry and the 23rd Iowa Infantry. The most seasoned of the black troops had been soldiers for only about a month. But they engaged attacking Confederates in fierce hand-to-hand combat, fighting with bayonets, fists, and rifle butts, or firing their weapons at extremely close range. Finally, with their backs to the Mississippi, they received the support of a Navy gunboat, and their line held.
Brigadier General Henry McCullough, who commanded the Confederate forces, later noted that his "charge was resisted by the negro portion of the enemy's force with considerable obstinacy, while the white or true Yankee position ran like whipped curs almost as soon as the charge was ordered." The African American troops paid dearly for their bravery. Heaviest hit was the 9th Louisiana Infantry. Almost 45% of the unit's men were killed or mortally wounded -- one of the highest percentages killed in a single Civil War battle.
 
Fort Wagner, South Carolina
July 18, 1863
African American soldiers and white officers from across the North comprised the celebrated 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Like most African American units, the 54th was led by a white man, a blue-blood named Robert Gould Shaw, who had years of military experience but little of it in battle. Two sons of abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass also joined the regiment, as did a grandson of Sojourner Truth.
Fort Wagner, an island stronghold that protected the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, presented a significant obstacle to Union forces. Defended by the sea, a marshy shoreline, Confederate artillery batteries on nearby islands, and a three-foot moat, it was close to impregnable. A first Union assault, on July 10th and 11th, had ended in failure. Shaw volunteered his men to lead the second attack on Wagner, and on the night of July 18, in complete darkness, they started across the sand in the face of rebel artillery. Shell blasts tore huge holes in the ranks, but the men closed them and marched on, eventually breaking into a charge. Deadly Confederate fire raked the attackers from three sides, but a number of troops breached the fort's outer walls before being driven back. Wounded numerous times, Shaw fell dead just outside the outer wall.
Owing to his association with black soldiers, Confederates denied Shaw an officer's burial, declaring "We have buried him with his niggers!" When Shaw's father was told that his son had been buried in a common grave with the African American soldiers he had led, he replied that there was no better place for his son to rest than on the field of battle.
 
Fort Pillow, Tennessee
April 12, 1864
In late 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis declared that African Americans fighting for the Union were guilty of insurrection, a crime punishable by death. The following spring, the Confederate Congress passed a law that allowed the death penalty for white officers of black units and provided for captured black soldiers to be returned to slavery. But the sentiment the new laws aroused -- along with the ingrained hostility of many Confederate soldiers -- set the stage for wartime atrocities. The most notorious incident occurred at a small Federal outpost north of Memphis, Tennessee.
On April 12, 1864, approximately 1,500 Confederate cavalrymen under Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked Fort Pillow, which was garrisoned by about 500 troops. More than half of the soldiers were black. The superior Confederate force overwhelmed the fort's defenders; Union casualties were high. But after the Federals surrendered, Forrest's men shot and killed a number of unarmed soldiers and officers, both black and white. If the Confederates hoped such executions would have a chilling effect, the opposite was true. After the "Fort Pillow Massacre," many African American troops fought with extra vigor, to avoid capture and to avenge their murdered comrades. "Remember Fort Pillow" became a popular battle cry.
 
Battle of the Crater, Petersburg, Virginia
July 30, 1864
In a bold attempt to break the siege of Petersburg, General Ulysses S. Grant decided to tunnel beneath the Confederate lines, blow a hole through the breastworks with gunpowder, and send troops charging through the gap. General Ambrose Burnside chose black troops from the Fourth Division of the Ninth Army Corps to lead the assault. But Major General George Meade overruled him, fearing that if a slaughter ensued, he would be blamed for using black troops as cannon fodder.
When ignited, the gunpowder blew a huge gap through the Confederate line, creating a huge crater in the earth, but almost nothing else went as planned. Union officers had failed to create a plan for getting troops over the physical barricades that existed beyond the breastworks. The Confederate defenders quickly reorganized and directed heavy fire into the crater, which had now become a deathtrap. Union commanders then sent in the African Americans of the Fourth Division. They fought valiantly, moving beyond the trapped soldiers and nearly breaking through the line before being forced to retreat.
The bravery of many African American soldiers was anchored in a deep faith in God and dedication to the cause of liberty. In a letter to a friend, one black sergeant wrote: "If I fall in the battle anticipated, remember I fall in defense of my race and my country."
 
Chaffin's Farm, Virginia
September 29-30, 1864
Positioned to block Confederate efforts to resupply Petersburg, Virginia, with men and materiel, soldiers from the 4th and 6th U.S. Colored Infantry joined white soldiers in an attack on Confederate fortifications at Chaffin's Farm, also known as New Market Heights. Although one arm of the assault succeeded, the rest was repulsed. Casualties were extremely heavy. Out of an initial force of 1,300 men, African Americans suffered 455 casualties.
High casualty rates were common for African American units -- usually for two reasons. First, since blacks had not previously served in the U.S. Army, they were inexperienced fighters. Second, feeling social pressure to prove themselves as men, they often took risks on the battlefield that their white counterparts would not. Of the 180,000 African Americans who fought for the Union, at least 30,000 died. Numerous African Americans were awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's most prestigious military decoration. Fourteen of those men earned their medals at Chaffin's Farm.
 
Saltville, Virginia
October 2, 1864
On the march toward Saltville, Union white troops verbally harassed the African Americans who would soon be fighting beside them. Such day-to-day prejudice was a common experience for black soldiers -- at least until whites saw them perform under fire.
Among the troops who attacked Southern positions at Saltville on October 2 were soldiers of the 5th United States Colored Cavalry. Fighting with white soldiers from the 11th Michigan and 12th Ohio Cavalries, the colored cavalry charged, overran, and held the Confederate left. After holding their position for some time without receiving essential support, they were forced to withdraw.
At Saltville, Confederate soldiers executed unarmed black prisoners, even raiding a hospital on two separate occasions and murdering wounded blacks in their sickbeds. But behind Union lines, the African American soldiers would no longer be taunted by their white comrades. They had proven themselves the equal of any Union soldier.

Source: PBS

Recommended Reading: Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement. Description: With all the flair of his last-second game-winning sky hooks, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar delivers a well-written and important collection highlighting the lives of America's greatest black heroes. Taking his title cue from John Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, Abdul-Jabbar brings to life the exploits of a wide variety of African Americans, including Estevanico, a Moorish slave who discovered Arizona and New Mexico; Cinque, a kidnapped African slave who led a mutiny aboard the slave ship Amistad and later won his freedom in the U.S.; and Harriet Tubman, who brought hundreds of slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Continued below...

In a time when the media beams negative images of African Americans around the world, Black Profiles in Courage is indispensable for young adults of other races as well as African-American youth, showing that attributes like courage are not coded by color. For those young blacks who feel distant from America because of racism, books like this are a small but potent antidote against prejudice, reminding them of the important contributions African Americans have made to their country.

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Recommended Reading: The Negro's Civil War: How American Blacks Felt and Acted During the War for the Union. Description: In this classic study, Pulitzer Prize-winning author James M. McPherson deftly narrates the experience of blacks--former slaves and soldiers, preachers, visionaries, doctors, intellectuals, and common people--during the Civil War. Drawing on contemporary journalism, speeches, books, and letters, he presents an eclectic chronicle of their fears and hopes as well as their essential contributions to their own freedom. Continued below...
Through the words of these extraordinary participants, both Northern and Southern, McPherson captures African-American responses to emancipation, the shifting attitudes toward Lincoln and the life of black soldiers in the Union army. Above all, we are allowed to witness the dreams of a disenfranchised people eager to embrace the rights and the equality offered to them, finally, as citizens.
 

Recommended Reading: Black Union Soldiers in the Civil War. Description: This book refutes the historical slander that blacks did not fight for their emancipation from slavery. At first harshly rejected in their attempts to enlist in the Union army, blacks were eventually accepted into the service—often through the efforts of individual generals who, frustrated with bureaucratic inaction in the face of dwindling forces, overrode orders from the secretary of war and even the president. Continued below...

By the end of the Civil War, African American soldiers had numbered more than 180,000 and served in 167 regiments. Seventeen were awarded the nation’s highest award for valor and heroism--the Medal of Honor. Theirs was a remarkable achievement whose full story is finally revealed.

 

Recommended Reading: A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army 1861-1865 (Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture). Description: The Civil War stands vivid in the collective memory of the American public. There has always been a profound interest in the subject, and specifically of Blacks' participation in and reactions to the war and the war's outcome. Almost 200,000 African-American soldiers fought for the Union in the Civil War. Although most were illiterate ex-slaves, several thousand were well educated, free black men from the northern states. The 129 letters in this collection were written by black soldiers in the Union army during the Civil War to black and abolitionist newspapers. Continued below...

They provide a unique expression of the black voice that was meant for a public forum. The letters tell of the men's experiences, their fears, and their hopes. They describe in detail their army days--the excitement of combat and the drudgery of digging trenches. Some letters give vivid descriptions of battle; others protest racism; while others call eloquently for civil rights. Many describe their conviction that they are fighting not only to free the slaves but to earn equal rights as citizens. These letters give an extraordinary picture of the war and also reveal the bright expectations, hopes, and ultimately the demands that black soldiers had for the future--for themselves and for their race. As first-person documents of the Civil War, the letters are strong statements of the American dream of justice and equality, and of the human spirit.

 

Recommended Reading: The Sable Arm: Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (Modern War Studies). Description: A bona fide classic, The Sable Arm was the first work to fully chronicle the remarkable story of the nearly 180,000 black troops who served in the Union army. This work paved the way for the exploration of the black military experience in other wars. This edition, with a new foreword by Herman Hattaway and bibliographical essay by the author, makes available once again a pioneering work that will be especially useful for scholars and students of Civil War, black, and military history. Continued below...

Civil War Times Illustrated: "One of the one hundred best books ever written on the Civil War."

 

Recommended Reading: Like Men of War. Description: Although countless books have been written about the Civil War, the role of black troops has been consistently underrepresented until recently. Nearly 180,000 of them fought--mostly for the North, but a handful even took up arms for the slaveholding South. Many wanted to serve at the start of the conflict, but a variety of factors kept them on the sidelines. Until Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, many Union leaders--including the president--held that the war was not about slavery. Racist views caused some to question further the value of black soldiers; there was also genuine concern about how Confederates would treat captured blacks. Continued below...

But, as Noah Andre Trudeau reveals, black soldiers demonstrated bravery and professionalism from the moment they suited up. He recounts well-known events, such as the 54th Massachusetts' attack on Fort Wagner, as well as less familiar ones, such as blacks' involvement in the war's last directed combat one month after Lee's surrender. There were atrocities, too: in 1864, Confederates slaughtered black prisoners of war at Fort Pillow (historians once disputed this brutal act of cold-blooded murder, but many scholars accept it as true today). Although Trudeau sometimes sacrifices his narrative drive to excessive detail, Like Men of War remains a compelling book full of strong battle scenes.

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