The revolutionary role of Black soldiers in the Civil War

Jul 3, 2014

A Black History Month tribute

On the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, it is obligatory to pay a special tribute to the Black soldiers who served in the Union Army. When the war first started, it seemed as if Black soldiers would never be allowed to fight in the Union Army. And yet ultimately, 180,000 of them served, playing a critical role in the defeat of the racist Confederacy.

A mix of racism and political logic initially prevented Black soldiers from joining the Union Army. Many in the North thought Black people too cowardly, or not intelligent enough to be soldiers.

Equally important was the initial perspective of the Union political-military leadership that had yet to see the revolutionary implications of the war. They hoped for a quick end to the war and a quick reconciliation with the Southern ruling class. Recruiting Black soldiers raised the specter of mass desertions from plantations, as well as massive slave uprisings. The Southern planters saw in Black troops the sign of their impending destruction, and this was not compatible with the “quick end and reconciliation” perspective.

Early in the war, prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, there were limited attempts to enlist Black soldiers to fight. Some were carried out by abolitionist officers, but many were the result of emergency measures taken to assist thinly manned Union outposts in captured Southern ports. Even after Emancipation, many of the Black men who joined the Army served only on “fatigue duty,” construction. They were kept out of combat, often by racist assumptions of officers who refused to believe they could fight.

This myth first began to recede at the Battle of Millikens Bend, La., in 1863. Black troops, with almost no real experience with firearms, held a Union position against a Confederate attack, in fighting that at times became hand-to-hand. Battlefield reports helped improve the image of Black soldiers in broader public opinion.

The real turning point came, however, when the the 54th Massachusetts saw its first combat in South Carolina in 1863.

‘Action … is the plain duty of the hour’

The 54th was no ordinary regiment. Initiated by Massachusetts’ abolitionist governor John Andrew, the 54th would be the first Black regiment raised in the North, and Andrew meant for it to be a striking refutation to all those who felt Blacks incapable of fighting. This was a revolutionary regiment, organized by and containing men who saw in this war the uprooting of the entire social edifice of the slave power.

Andrew employed recruiters who traveled all across the free states enlisting former slaves and life-long freemen. Fredrick Douglass was one of those recruiters, and his two sons were the first two enlistees from New York.

Andrews did not want any sort of officer either. In a letter, he laid out his qualifications: “Young men of military experience, of firm anti-slavery principles, ambitious, superior to a vulgar contempt of color, and having faith in the capacity of Colored men for military service.”

Despite initially rejecting the offer, the son of the letter recipient, Robert Gould Shaw, accepted command of the 54th. After training outside Boston, and marching triumphantly through the city’s streets to massive crowds, the 54th was sent to South Carolina, where the Union controlled several ports and the coastal islands.

Initially, the 54th fought under Col. James Montgomery. In the 1989 movie Glory, Montgomery was portrayed as a racist, thug-like individual. In reality, Montgomery was a militant, zealous abolitionist. He had been a participant in the anti-slavery Bleeding Kansas struggle and advocated hard measures against anyone who supported the Confederacy.

Shaw found Montgomery’s methods to be too harsh on non-combatants, but respected him for the depth of his conviction to a shared cause. Shaw knew, however, that the 54th needed more than foraging duty to prove the worth of Black troops, and after his troops performed well in a skirmish, he volunteered the 54th to lead an assault on Fort Wagner.

Wagner was situated on a peninsula at the tip of Morris Island, a position that allowed it to control traffic in and out of the vital Charleston Harbor. If the Union forces took Ft. Wagner, they would cut off the Confederates from a crucial port, speeding the fall of Charleston, a symbolic Southern city.

It would be a direct frontal assault on the Fort. The 54th marched down a narrow strip of beach leading to the only side of the fort exposed to land. The commander of the entire operation, Gen. Quincy Gillmore, was overconfident as he expected the massive artillery barrage he launched prior to the attack to decimate the fort’s defenses.

Unlike in Savannah, where the brick forts had crumbled, Wagner’s sand and wood structure absorbed all the blows the Union artillery fired at it. The 54th threw themselves into the murderous hail of cannon and musket fire from the fort. Some parts of the regiment were able to push forward over the top.

While standing atop a parapet, exhorting his men to follow, Col. Shaw was killed. A number of soldiers surged to their fallen leader, most cut down in the struggle to get him out. Soldiers of the 54th continued to fight, joined by several white regiments, in a vicious three-hour battle that became hand-to-hand at points.

Eventually the Union soldiers were forced to retreat, but from that point forward it was clear everywhere: Black soldiers could—and would –—fight.

Why they fought

Black soldiers would fight in approximately 449 battles and skirmishes. Nearly 180,000 served, 38,000 died, and 16 won the Medal of Honor. They served with distinction in every theater and in a number of crucial battles.

Until June of 1864, Black soldiers were paid $6 less than their white counterparts, a very significant sum at the time. That they were willing to fight for less pay highlights the fact that these soldiers were not mercenaries; they were revolutionaries.

They took up arms to liberate their brethren from the slavocracy, participating in a struggle that seemed pregnant with the potential for an entirely new world. They had the most invested in this conflict as the armed wing of a people struggling for recognition in this country they had helped build.

What exactly would come in the aftermath of the fighting was uncertain. Black soldiers fought regardless, knowing that any hope for Black Americans as a people hinged on the outcome. Thus, they welcomed death to hasten freedom.

On Jan. 15, 1864, in a letter to a newspaper, one soldier in the 54th Massachusetts wrote: “When I enlisted in this regiment it was not to secure the paltry wages that was offered, but it was that I might be one of the many that have come out to fight for the elevation of a downtrodden and oppressed race … wherever we are, whatever may be our fate, we shall always try to be an honor to the race we represent.”

Looking ahead to our future, we do know that the road to the emancipation of today’s downtrodden and oppressed culminates with the overthrow of capitalism. Just as Fredrick Douglass pointed out many years ago “Action … is,” again, “the plain duty of the hour.”

All Source Material From: Noah Andre Trudeau. Like Men of War: Black Troops In the Civil War 1862-1865 (Little, Brown & Co. 1998, New York)

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