The Forced Enlistment of Southern Blacks Into the U.S. Army

Much is said about ex-slaves who enlisted in the U.S. army to “fight for their freedom.” Much evidence is available to dispute the totality of this statement.

In South Carolina, Brigadier General Rufus Saxton, Military Governor, U.S. Forces at Beaufort, on December 30, 1864, reported to Secretary of War Stanton: “I…report my doings for the current year….The recruiting (into the U.S. Army of former slaves) went on slowly, when the major-general commanding, General John G. Foster,
ordered an indiscriminate conscription of every able-bodied colored man in the department….The order spread universal confusion and terror. The Negroes fled to the woods and swamps….They were hunted to their hiding places….Men have been seized and forced to enlist who had large families of young children dependent upon them for support.”

“Three boys, one only fourteen years of age, were seized in a field where they were at work and sent to a regiment in a distant part of the department without the knowledge or consent of their parents. A man on his way to enlist as a volunteer was stopped by a recruiting party. He told them where he was going and was passing on when he was again ordered to halt. He did not stop and was shot dead, and was left where he fell….The soldiers desired to bring him in and get the bounty offered for bringing in recruits….” “I found the prejudice of color and race here in full force, and the general feeling of the army of occupation was unfriendly to the blacks. It was manifested in various forms of personal insult and abuse, in depredations on their plantations, stealing and destroying their crops and domestic animals, and robbing them of their money.”

“The women were held as the legitimate prey of lust….Licentiousness was widespread….The influences of too many [officers and soldiers] was demoralizing to the Negro, and has greatly hindered the efforts for their improvement and election. There was a general disposition among the soldiers and civilian speculators here to defraud the Negroes in their private traffic, to take the commodities which they offered for sale by force, or to pay for them in worthless money.”

Edward L. Pierce, special agent, Treasury Department, wrote Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase on May 12, 1862, from Port Royal Island, South Carolina. “This has been a sad day on these islands…The scenes of today…have been distressing…Some 500 men were hurried…from Ladies and Saint Helena to Beaufort,…and then carried to Hilton Head…The Negroes were sad…The superintendents…aided the military in the disagreeable affair, disavowing the act. Sometimes whole plantations, learning what was going on, ran off to the woods for refuge. Others, with no means of escape, submitted passively to the inevitable decree…This mode [of enlistment by] violent seizure and transportation…spreading dismay and fright, is repugnant.”

The next day at Pope’s Plantation, Saint Helena Island, Pierce wrote to U.S. Major General David Hunter: “…scenes transpiring yesterday in the execution of your order…The colored people became suspicious of the presence of the companies of soldiers detailed for the service, who were marching through the islands during the night…They were taken from the fields without being allowed to go to their houses even to get a jacket…” “There was sadness in all. As those on this plantation were called in from the fields, the soldiers, under orders, and while on the steps of my headquarters, loaded their guns, so that the Negroes might see what would take place in case they attempted to get away…” “On some plantations the wailing and screaming were loud and the women threw themselves in despair on the ground. On some plantations the people took to the woods and were hunted up by the soldiers…I doubt if the recruiting service in this country has ever been attended with such scenes before.”

On May 13, L.D. Phillips at Dr. Pope’s Plantation, also wrote to Pierce: “The whole village, old men, women, and boys, in tears, (were) following at our heels. The wives and mothers of the conscripts, giving way to their feelings, break into the loudest lamentations and rush upon the men, clinging to them with the agony of separation…Some of them, setting up such a shrieking as only this people could, throw themselves on the ground and abandon themselves to the wildest expressions of grief…” “The old foreman [at Indian Hill]…said it reminded him of what his master said we should do…I have heard several contrast the present state of things with their former condition to our disadvantage.” “This rude separation of husband and wife, children and parents, must needs remind
them of what we have always stigmatized as the worst feature of slavery…Never, in my judgment, did major-general fall into a sadder blunder and rarely has humanity been outraged by an act of more unfeeling barbarity.”

Five and a half months later on October 29, Brigadier General Rufus Saxton in Beaufort informed Secretary of War Stanton, “When the colored regiment was first organized by General Hunter no provision was made for it’s payment, and the men were discharged after several months’ service, receiving nothing for it. In the meantime their families suffered…This failure to pay them for their service has weakened their confidence in our promises for the future and makes them slow to enlist.”

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