Number 8: Negro Troops

NEGRO TROOPS” Excepted from

by BY- R. C. O. BENJAMIN. 1896.


The pen of the historian has been used as to almost exclude any reference to the service of Negro soldiers in the Union army. It is not known that any black men ever distinguished themselves as soldiers. None of the individual acts of unsurpassed bravery, courage, coolness, dash of the Negro regiments are recorded by those who have furnished us history. When the war clouds broke over the country the Negro man was counted on the outside of the issue. He was given to understand whenever he presented himself to enlist as a soldier, that it was a white man's war, a war to save the Union. Abraham Lincoln, in his letter to Horace Greeley, Aug. 22, 1862, said: "My paramount object is to save the Union, and not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that,"
Mr. Lincoln, on the 15th, of April, 1861, issued a call, providing for the raising of 75,000 troops to suppress the rebellion. From New York city to San Francisco black men promptly offered their services, which were as promptly declined. The Northern abolitionist said: "The colored people of the South are more than loyal to our flag; they are helping our army in prison dens, and those who have escaped from Southern pesthouses of starvation and death. These slaves are their only friends; we desire that they be enlisted as soldiers in our army. Give the colored man the bayonet bayonet; he deserves it. His ambition to use it is a sufficient test of his bravery."
The then Secretary of War, Hon. Simon Cameron, sent an order to Brigadier Gen. Sherman directing him to accept the services of all loyal persons who desired to aid in the suppression of the rebellion in and about Port Royal. Gen. Sherman was soon relieved by Gen. Hunter. The former turned over to him the instructions of the Secretary of War. There being no mention of color, and Gen. Hunter being a gentleman of broad, liberal and humane views, and having a desire to secure the enlistment of all "loyal persons," directed the organization of a regiment of black men. The opposition to Gen. Hunter's action was very powerful and strong, especially in the lower House of Congress, in which, on the 9th of June, 1862, Mr. Wickliffe, of Kentucky, introduced a resolution calling upon Gen. Hunter to explain to Congress his unprecedented conduct in arming Negroes to fight the battles of the Union.
Mr. Stanton, who was now at the head of the War Department, explained the matter by stating that Gen. Hunter had no authority whatever for such a procedure. In Louisiana thousands of black men sought the Federal camps. Brigadier Gen. J. N. Phelps, commanding the Union forces at Carrollton, reported the same to Gen. B. F. Butler, suggesting in the mean time the propriety of arming them as soldiers. Gen. Butler advised Gen. Phelps to employ these Negro contrabands for mere fatigue duty, and charged him not to use them as soldiers.
On the 31st of July, 1862, Gen. Phelps sent the following to Gen. Butler: "I am not willing to become the mere slave driver you propose, having no qualifications that way," and immediately tendered his resignation. Gen. Butler repented, however, and on the 24th of August, 1862, appealed to the free "colored men" of New Orleans to take up arms in defense of the Union. With alarming promptness they responded to the call, and in less than two weeks 1000 were organized into a'regiment; three weeks after, another and two batteries were raised. These regiments were officered by Negroes, save Colonel and Lieutenant Colonel. The war was now in full blast; the Union forces were being repulsed and routed. The friends of the Union came to the conclusion that a rigorous prosecution of the war was the only hope of the nation. Congress was forced from the position of "no Negro soldiers," and the President was compelled to make another call for troops--60,000. In the meantime, Senator Henry Wilson, of Massachusetts, had introduced a bill in the Senate amending the act of 1795, prescribing the manner of the calling forth of the militia to suppress insurrections, etc., and empowering the President to "accept persons of African descent for the purpose of constructing intrenchments or performing camp service, or any war service for which they may be competent." It went to the House where, under the championship of Thaddeus Stevens, it passed, and on the 17th of July received the signature of the President.
On the 26th of January, 1863, the Secretary of War, authorized Gov. Andrew, of Massachusetts, to raise two regiments of Negro troops to served three years.
The first of these regiments was filled by the 13th of May and called the 54th Massachusetts. This was the first regiment of free Negroes raised at the North. During this time Gen. Lorenzo Thomas was at work recruiting troops in the Mississippi Valley. On the 7th of August, 1863, President Lincoln wrote Gen. Grant, saying: "Gen. Thomas has gone to the Mississippi Valley with the view of raising Negro troops. I have no doubt that you are doing what you reasonably can upon the subject, for I believe it is a resource which, if vigorously applied now, will soon close the contest. It works doubly, weakening the enemy and strengthening us. We were not ripe for it until the river was opened; now I think 100,000 can and ought to be organized along its shores, relieving all the white troops to fight elsewhere."
Gen. Grant at once set about obeying Mr. Lincoln's orders. On the 11th day of July, seven days after he had received in part Gen. Pemberton's terms of surrender, Grant wrote the Adjutant General: "I am anxious to get as many of those Negro regiments as possible, and to have them full and completely equipped. I am particularly desirous of organizing regiments of heavy artillery from the Negro to garrison this place, Vicksburg, and shall do so as soon as possible."
While the organizing of Negro troops in the Mississippi Valley was going on, Capt. R. D. Mussey was recruiting Negro troops in Pennsylvania. In New York city the Union League Club applied to Horatio Seymour, the Governor, to grant them permission to enlist Negro men as soldiers, to which the Governor refused; the club, however, was granted permission by the National Government, and in 45 days raised and equipped 2000 Negro soldiers. Gen. Grant's attempt to carry out Mr. Lincoln's orders of organizing Negro troops all along the shores of the Mississippi Valley was somewhat handicapped by the unrelenting prejudice of his officers. Even the common soldier at first opposed the use of black troops, but when conscription became unavoidable, the prejudice against the employment of Negroes began to decrease in proportion to the increase of the chances of white men to be drafted. The idea rose in the minds of the white man soldiers that a Negro was as easy to hit as a white man.
Charles Godfrey Leland, in his biography of Lincoln, page 161, says: "I once heard of a soldier say: 'I used to be opposed to having black troops, but yesterday when I saw ten cart loads of niggers carried off the field, I thought it better that they should be killed than I." Negro soldiers were required by the act of Congress to fight for the Union at a salary of $10 per month, with $3 deducted for clothing--leaving them only $7 per month as their actual pay. White soldiers received $13 per month and clothing. In addition to their small pay, Negro soldiers had to run the gauntlet of the persecuting hate of white Northern troops, and if captured endure the most barbarous treatment of the rebels, without a protest on the part of the Government--for at least a year. Hootedat, jeered and stoned in the streets of Northern cities, as they marched to the front to fight for the Union; scoffed at and abused by white troops, under the flag of a common country, there was little of a consoling or inspiring nature in the experience of Negro soldiers.
The white man of America had been so accustomed to deny all manliness to the Negro, that few believed him capable of fighting, but when at Nashville they saw platoons of black soldiers lying dead in regular rows, just as they had been shot, facing the enemy, they believed the Negro capable of fighting. The correspondent of the New York Times, in a letter dated Sept. 4, 1864, wrote in extravagant praise of the Negro troops at Port Royal, then came Horace Greeley's able editorial on the 28th of March, 1863, in which he said: "Facts are beginning to dispel prejudice; enemies of the Negro race, who have persistently denied the capacity and doubted the courage of the blacks, are unanswerably confuted by the men whom they persecute and slander; the loyalty, heroism and bravery of the colored troops will crown our success."
Speaking of Gen. Saxton's Negro troops in the department of the South, immediately after the battle of Jacksonville (Florida), Mr. Greeley said, editorily, March 29, 1863: "This is an instance in which the white chivalry ventured to make a stand against them; the white were defeated and driven off the field by the blacks." The gallant charge of the Negro troops at Port Hudson was made the subject of a poem by George H. Baker, entitled, "The Black Regiment," which became known all over the country. Officers who at first refused the command of Negro regiments, were now making application to take charge of them. Nearly every white private expected the lightning to strike him. Men who but a few months before refused to fight as a private alongside the Negro soldier, now hoped to be commissioned as officers, and, therefore, had no prejudice against the men they hoped to command as superior officers. To prepare the large number of applicants for commissioned officers in Negro regiments, a free military school was established at No. 1210 Chestnut street, Philadelphia, which was officially endorsed by Secretary Stanton.
The nation asked the Negro, "Are you willing to fight for your freedom?" The answer to this is found in the eagerness manifested by Negroes to become soldiers. Their enthusiasm in this particular has no parallel in the history of the war. Every opportunity that was offered to enlist was at once embraced. From Port Hudson to Richmond the blood of Negro soldiers moistened the soil, their bones lie scattered in front of every demi-impregnable work. Wherever the fight was strong, they were; where the enemy's cyclone of fire swept they fell the thickest; when the enemy resorted to savage butchery (as the horrible massacre at Fort Pillow, April 18, 1864), they were the victims. Their iron nerve, patriotic valor, incomprehensible courage, indubitable heroism, their sufferings and privations, their long marches and stubborn fights, their impregnable alignments, the terrible charges endured and made for the freedom of their race and to keep the Government from being torn in twain, called forth from the Chief Magistrate the assertion "that no braver men than they ever stood before as brave an enemy; and that during the long night of war, not a traitor in black skin was found." Never did a race in all history of wars merit such a tribute.
The official list of battles, published by authority of the war office, shows that Negro regiments of calvalry, infantry and artillery took part in 57 of the recognized battles of the war, including seige, assault and capture--Petersburg, Charleston, Vicksburg, Nashville, Chattanooga, Olustee, Wagner, Hudson, Richmond, Dalton, Dallas, Fort Fisher, Memphis, Fort Pillow, Plymouth, Spanish Fort, Honey Hill, Jacksonville, Fort Donelson, Fair Oaks, James Island and Tupelo, as well as 137 actions and skirmishes. In these battles the Negro soldiers won for themselves golden opinions from the officers and men of the white organizations.
Gen. B. F. Butler, commanding a number of Negro troops at Fort Harrison on the 29th of September, after white troops had been driven back by the enemy, ordered his Negro troops to storm the fortified position of the enemy at the point of the bayonet. The troops had to charge down a hill, ford a creek, and preceded by axmen, who had to cut two lines of abatis, then carry the works held by the infantry and artillery. They made one of the most brilliant charges of the war, and carried the works in a short time. Gen. Butler, years after the battle, in speech in Congress on the Civil Rights bill, said of this affair: "It became my painful duty to follow in the track of that charging column, and there, in a space not wider than the clerk's desk, and 300 yards long, lay the dead bodies of 543 of my colored comrades, fallen in defense of their country, who had offered up their lives to uphold its flag and its honor as a willing sacrifice; and as I rode along among them, guiding my horse this way and that way, lest he should profane with his hoofs what seemed to me the sacred dead, and as I looked on their bronzed faces, upturned in the shining sun, as if in mute appeal against the wrongs of the country for which they had given their lives, whose flag to them had only been a flag of stripes, on which no star of glory had ever shone for them--feeling I had wronged them in the past and believing what was the future of my country to them; among my dead comrades there, I swore to myself a solemn oath: May my right had forget its cunning, and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I ever fail to defend the rights of those men who have given their blood for me and my country that day and for their race forever and, God helping me, I will keep that oath,"--and he kept it. The Negroes of this country had no stauncher friend than Benjamin F. Butler.
Gens. Sherman, Phelps, Ord, Dwight, Strong, Banks, and Gen. Godfrey Weitzel have time and again expressed the estimate placed upon the services of Negro soldiers in the Union army. Negroes did fatigue duty in every department of the army. Negro men built most of the fortifications and earthworks for Gen. Grant in front of Vicksburg. The works in and about Nashville were cast up by the strong arm and willing hands of loyal Negro men. The corduroy roads and miles of earthworks at Dutch Gap were made by Negroes. At the siege of Petersburg, June 18, 1864, Hink's division was composed entirely of Negro troops.
It was the Negro calvalry under Gen. Kautz that cut the Nelson road below Petersburg and destroyed the Danville railroad, whilst the Negro troops under Col. Robert West were rushing from Williamsburg across the Chickahominy to Harrison's Landing. They were the first to enter Petersburg. It was Negro troops who fortified City Point, Fort Powhattan and Wilson's Wharf. At the latter place they defeated Gen. Fitzhugh Lee's calvalry on the 24th of May, 1864. It was the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Colored Volunteers; under Colonels Higginson and Montgomery, who in March, 1863, ascended the St. John's river in Florida as for as Jacksonville and reoccupied that important town. On the 26th of September, 1864, the Negro troops, under Gen. Ord, crossed the James river and carried by assault Battery Harris, capturing 22 pieces of heavy ordnance, the strongest of the enemy's works around Richmond and within the very gates of the Confederate capital. On the 26th of October, 1863, the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th and 22nd United States Colored Troops, and the 2d United States Cavalry, carried the enemy's works at New Market Heights.
The last guns fired at Lee's army at Appomatox were in the hands of Negro soldiers. On the 16th of May, 1865, at Palmetto Ranch, Tex., the 63d Regiment of Negro troops fired the last volley of the war; and when President Lincoln lay low in death, a Negro regiment guarded his remains. It is not intended here to show that the Negro soldiers fought better than their white brothers. The white soldier is deserving of great praise, but the qualities, heroism and patient devotion of the Negro soldiers are dwelt upon because they fought under vastly more disadvantageous circumstances.


The Negro has not been idle. He has not only been coming since his liberation, but he is here climbing against the greatest odds. History furnishes no example of emancipation under circumstances so unfavorable as that of the American Negro. When Russia emancipated her serfs, Alexander declared that "liberty without the means of living was a fatal gift." "Liberty and Land" was the Russian watchword, and every free-man was provided a homestead. The American Negro was suddenly thrown upon the world, ignorant, poor, helpless, and without a foot of land; still in the thirty-three years, (from 1863 to 1896,) he has struggled to full manhood. The progress in music, in education, in the professions, in literature, and in the accumulation of wealth, made by the American Negro, is one of the marvels in history. No people ever had such an experience of great and sudden transition, slaves yesterday, free-men to-day, scholars tomorrow.


To begin with, at the close of the Rebellion it was asserted, without contradiction' that the Negro would "die out," the double and rapidly increasing population of the Negro, however, has fully demonstrated that he is a living and not a dying race. The idea of his becoming extinct finds no support in this fact. The Negro population of 1870 was 4,800,000; of 1880, 6,580,000, of 1890 nearly 10,000,000; 600 Negro children are born every day. At the present rate of increase, in 1985 there will be 192,000,000 Negroes in the United States.

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