The Black Troops of the Civil War

Since February is Black History month, a friend of mine suggested my topic be the “Buffalo Soldiers” which I thought was a great idea until another friend reminded me the name “Buffalo Soldiers” wasn’t acquired until about 1871 which was well after the Civil War. Then I was going to use the title United States Colored Troops, but that wasn’t what I wanted either as all the black troops weren’t USCT and I wanted to cover then all…. hence my title.

Depending on what source you read, there were some 178,000 to about 210,000 blacks (160+ units) who fought in the war with approximately 30,000 to 37,000 of them dying (again depending on the source). About 135,000 were recruited from states which had seceded and from the border states. Twenty-five percent, approximately 50,000, of the sailors in the Union Navy were blacks. Five from the Union Navy and 18 Union Army blacks, including Sergeant William H. Carey of the 54th Massachusetts (made famous in the movie “Glory”), were awarded the Medal of Honor by Congress.

Prior to the firing on of Fort Sumter April 12, 1861, seven states had seceded from the Union and after a convention in Montgomery, Alabama a constitution was adopted and Jefferson Davis was elected President. Four more states seceded leaving only 4 slave states in the Union. Lincoln, wanting to blockade the Confederate ports, called for 75,000 volunteers. Thousands showed up at the recruitment centers including thousands of free blacks in the north and newly escaped slaves in the south. The blacks were told it was a “white man’s war” and their services weren’t needed. President Lincoln wanted to save the Union without dealing with the slavery issue plus he didn’t want to alienate the border states which were slave states. He refused to allow the enlistment of men of African descent. However, there was some recruiting done as early as May 1862 by Sergeant C. T. Trowbridge into the First South Carolina. These men were poorly clothed, some had no shoes and there were no new uniforms provided. They camped at Hilton Head Island until the beginning of August, 1862 when the “Hunter Regiment” was forced to disband except for Co. A, which was sent to St. Simon’s where they did picket duty. In all that time they never got paid.

Congress passed two acts in July 1862 allowing blacks to enlist, however, “official” enrollment didn’t take place until after the Emancipation Proclamation. 1″On July 17, 1862 the Second Confiscation and Militia Act was passed by the U.S. Congress. Section 12 of this Act granted the President authorization to enlist competent African Americans into the U.S. Military and Naval Service. The primary functions of the military recruits would be building entrenchments, fatigue duty or any other physical labor necessary for the advancement of the Union cause. This Act also established a clear understanding that white troops and those of African descent would be treated differently in regards to pay. Because African Americans would not be fighting alongside white troops, their pay would be adjusted as such, ie., black privates received $10 per month, less $3 for clothing allowance (so they actually received only $7) while white troops received $13 per month plus $3.50 for clothing” While the war began solely to protect the Union, after President Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, it became a war not only to save the Union, but also to abolish slavery. On January 1, 1863 the official Emancipation Proclamation was issued and allowed regiments with black enlistees and white officers to be established. It was believed by many white soldiers and officers that black men didn’t have the courage to fight and to fight well. It didn’t take long to silence the skeptics when the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers repulsed the Confederates at the battle of Island Mound, Missouri. Then at Honey Springs, Indian Territory, on July 17, 1863, the 1st Kansas fighting under General James Blunt once again repulsed a strong Confederate force. After the battle General Blunt wrote; “I never saw such fighting as was done by the Negro Regiment… The question that negroes will fight is settled; besides they make better soldiers in every respect than any troops I have ever had under my command.”

On May 22, 1863 the Bureau of Colored Troops was established and approximately 160 regiments and 10 batteries of light artillery which had been organized by the Union in Confederate states or as state militia in the North were redesignated as United States Colored Troops. Four regiments maintained their State designations throughout the war… 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry Regiment, 29th Connecticut Infantry Regiment, the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiments. In a speech by Dr. Martha S. Putney on July 17, 1998 at a National Park Service ceremony at Ford’s Theater she said “Before the war ended, black troops had been involved in hundreds of skirmishes and engagements including thirty-five major battles. They were with General Grant when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.” However, the Black veterans weren’t allowed to march in the Union’s two day “Grand March” victory parade in Washington, DC.

You’ve all heard the stories of Harriet Tubman and Susie King Taylor, but did you know there were 4,000 black women, employed by the Women’s Nurses, working for the Union making $10 a month? Also, on the Naval Hospital Ship, the Red Rover, there were 9 black women.

The South proposed in 1864 using slaves as soldiers while further recommending offering slaves their freedom if they fought and survived. An order was issued March 23, 1865 and a few companies were raised but the war ended before they were used in battle.

In 1866 Congress authorized blacks to enlist in the Regular Army and by 1869 there were four units which had formed, the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments. They became known as the “Buffalo Soldiers,” a name given to them by the Indians. The Indians in the Plains Wars respected the buffalo as well as the black troops. With their dark skin and curly hair, they thought they were the humanization of a buffalo. A great tribute. They were sent mainly to fight the Frontier Wars and were involved in approximately 100 clashes with the Indians. The Navy, during this time, mostly patrolled the seas and visited foreign ports as gestures of good will.

On a Saturday back in July 1998, under a cloudless sky, thousands of people gathered in Washington, DC for the unveiling of a monument. This wasn’t just any monument, it was the “Spirit of Freedom,” the nation’s first memorial dedicated to all the black soldiers and sailors who fought for the Union in the Civil War. It’s located in a predominantly black neighborhood, at Vermont Avenue & U Street. The Neighborhood was named after Col. Robert Gould Shaw who commanded the 54th Massachusetts during the war. On the statue are 4 black men, 3 from the Union Army and one from the Union Navy representing those African men who lived and died for their freedom. On the back of the monument are the faces of men, women and children affected by the boldness of all these soldiers and sailors. The names of some 200,000 plus men are engraved on metal plaques which are mounted on polished black granite walls.

The “Spirit of Freedom”

On December 16, 2000, Andy Bowman, grandson of Andrew Jackson Smith, Color Sgt. of the 55th Massachusetts received the Medal of Honor for his grandfather at the White House. Smith’s daughter Caruth Smith-Washington, age 93, also attended the ceremony. The ceremony was held in the Roosevelt Room, the reason?? Teddy Roosevelt also received a Medal of Honor for his bravery at San Juan Hill.

Smith was rejected back in 1917 even though his commander had written about his catching the fallen colors when the color sergeant carrying them had been shot. The government never acknowledged it. Suspecting racism, Caruth sought to reverse that decision. She went to Washington, DC where she lobbied politicians and contacted historians, but this being during the era that the Klan was growing and segregation strong, she found no one to help her. When she, due to old age, was no longer able to continue with her venture she asked her nephew, Andy Bowman, to continue this one last battle for his grandfather. Caruth gave him a box which contained Smith’s civil war pension records, a notarized statement from an eyewitness to the November 30, 1864 Battle of Honey Hill, along with letters and postcards. Also in the box was the rejection letter from January 3, 1917. Citing “conspicuous gallantry,” Smith had been nominated by a white surgeon who had served with him in the 55th Massachusetts.

Bowman visited archives in Pennsylvania and New York, courthouses in Illinois and Kentucky plus battlefields in Virginia, Florida and South Carolina finding even more evidence of his grandfather’s gallantry. After seven years of research, Bowman contacted a military official who wasn’t at all encouraging, saying too much time had elapsed. Finally he enlisted the help of Sharon McDonald, a military historian at Illinois State University. McDonald and one of her students submitted a new application using Bowman’s research and citing over 80 medals had been awarded during the war for saving the flag. They also noted that, being black, Smith would have been a prime target for the Confederates, making the action even more courageous.

Finally, last year, the military lifted the time restriction and approved the medal. Illinois U.S. Rep. Thomas Ewing from the county Smith was from introduced a bill to honor Smith. On December 16, 2000, the 80 plus year dream of Caruth Smith-Washington came true and Andrew Jackson Smith’s final battle had finally been won.

To read more about Smith you can go to
 (Black Civil War soldier earns Congressional
Medal of Honor) or
 (Civil War soldier finally honored for Lowcountry heroics 8/30/00.

The following poem “The Black Heroes,” author unknown, published in William Lloyd Garrison’s “Liberator” February 5, 1864 was shared with the members of the American Civil War History special interest group in the Genealogy Forum on AOL by Kathy Dhalle.

“When shell and ball were falling fast
Upon the battle plain,
Brave heroes fought of sable caste
Amid that leaden rain
No flinching eye or faltering step
Was seen along that line
But firm and bold their muskets kept,
And to the fire kept time.
O, must they calmly die at last,
Those heroes black and brave,
With prejudice still clinging fast —
O, must they die as slaves?
Ah, let the siege at Wagner tell
Of each heroic deed,
When Shaw and others bleeding fell,
How black men took the lead!
Brave Carney, too, of sable blood,
By patriot pride impelled,
Though wading through th’ opposing flood,
Our glorious flag upheld.
‘Ah! boys, it never touched the ground.’
Were the brave words he said,
When quietly they laid him down
Among the other dead.
And must such noble deeds
Our fetters stronger bind,
Or shall they to fair Freedom lead,
And make us all mankind?”

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