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"[Those] who would be free,
themselves must strike the blow,"
Frederick Douglass

United States Colored Troops

Colored Troops during the Civil War helped turn the tide in favor of the Union. From the fall of Fort Sumter on 14 April 1861 and President Abraham Lincoln's initial call for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion, the Army had no difficulty in meeting its recruitment quotas, as eager white volunteers flocked to the colors by the thousands. Many free black men had tried to enlist in the Union Army, only to be turned away.

By the summer of 1862, however, as the casualties mounted and the war seemed to grind on inconclusively, the U.S. War Department found it increasingly difficult to fill the Army's thinning ranks. To address the manpower shortage, Congress passed the Second Confiscation and Militia Acts on 17 July 1862, enabling the president "to employ as many persons of African descent" in the military service as he deemed necessary, and to "use them in such manner as he may judge best." The U.S. government set the black laborers' pay at $10 per month.

Escaped slaves, many of whom fled to the Union lines, were referred to as contrabands in the early stages of the war since they were seen as technically being property of the Confederates states.

Several regiments of black volunteers raised in the occupied South and in the newly established state of Kansas had already taken the field before the end of 1862. The first colored regiments to be organized were the First South Carolina, in whch the first enlistments were made May 9, 1862; the First Louisiana Native Guards, September 27, 1862; the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, February 9, 1863 the Second Carolina Volunteers, Feb ruary 23, 1863.

With the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863, Lincoln not only declared most of the slaves in the Confederacy free, but he also authorized the use of black men as soldiers "to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places."

The Emancipation Proclamation immediately freed some slaves, but not the vast majority of the 3 million held in the south and the border states. It did, however, make each succeeding northern battlefield effort a liberation campaign. Whatever the political implications, it was a decision that prompted widespread jubilation amongst blacks everywhere and flung open the doors of legalized military service for them.

In early 1863, the War Department granted Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew permission to raise a regiment of black soldiers. The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry thus became the first such unit organized in the North; two of Douglass' sons enlisted in the 54th. On 22 May 1863, the War Department issued General Orders 143, establishing the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT), and organizing it into three branches of what was then known as the line of the Army.

Most of the state-sponsored volunteer regiments were subsumed into the USCT, which grew to seven regiments of cavalry, more than a dozen of artillery, and over a hundred of infantry. Nearly 180,000 black soldiers served in the USCT, comprising about 10 percent of the Union Army's manpower total.

Of the USCT's roughly 5,000 commissioned officers, fewer than a hundred were black. At first, black privates were paid $10 per month, less a monthly clothing deduction of $3, leaving just $7. This was in contrast with the white enlisted men's monthly pay of $13. In June 1864, Congress granted equal pay to the black troops and made the action retroactive.

The Union Army was slow to use black soldiers in combat, limiting them mainly to fatigue, garrison, and guard duty—that is, until the worsening manpower situation dictated otherwise.

"No troops can be more determined or more daring," said Union Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks in reference the 1st and 2nd Regiments of the Louisiana Native Guards during the Siege of Port Hudson (La.) that took place in the late spring and early summer of 1863. "They made, during the day, three charges upon the batteries of the enemy, suffering very heavy losses, and holding their position until nightfall with the other troops..."

On 18 July 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry led the assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina, most likely because it was the largest regiment in its brigade. The 54th's numerical superiority quickly evaporated, for it suffered heavy casualties in a futile attempt to capture the Confederate stronghold. Though the attack was unsuccessful, the 54th's courage and tenacity under fire convinced many skeptical Northerners that black fighting men were the equal of their white counterparts.

After that, USCTs played a crucial role in many other battles, including the Battle of New Market Heights near Petersburg, Virginia, on 29 September 1864. For their valor in that engagement, fourteen black soldiers received the Medal of Honor.

As the war dragged on and Yankee intelligence operations became more sophisticated, African Americans were recruited with regularity. Freed blacks, including Harriet Tubman, were also spies, scouts, and agents. On 26 May 1863 Confederate General Robert E. Lee noted in frustration that “the chief source of information to the enemy is through our Negroes.”

If captured, black soldiers could not expect to be treated as prisoners of war. In accordance with a Confederate presidential proclamation, many USCTs — along with their white officers — could be tried for engaging in a servile insurrection, a capital crime in most Southern states. Worse yet, many Confederate soldiers simply refused to take black prisoners. The most notorious such atrocity was the Fort Pillow Massacre on 12 April 1864. After capturing the fort, numerous Southern troops under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest [a former slave trader who later foudned the Ku Klux Klan] gave no quarter, shooting down Union soldiers who were in the act of surrendering. Over two-thirds of the 281 fatalities were black troops, and only 62 survived the battle. The incident became a cause célèbre in the North: "Remember Fort Pillow" became a popular rallying cry, and USCTs wore badges emblazoned with the slogan.

Occupied by Union forces since February 1862, Nashville was one of the most heavily fortified cities in the South, protected by an elaborate system of entrenchments that included seven forts and redoubts. Exploiting a series of steep ridges, the soldiers constructed an eight-mile semicircular fortification that shielded the southern approaches to Nashville.

On 15 December 1864 Thomas attacked Hood’s army. On the extreme Union left, Maj. Gen. James B. Steedman’s division would launch a diversionary attack on Hood’s right. Steedman’s command consisted of two brigades of USCTs and a small brigade of white troops. They advanced south along the Murfreesboro Pike under the cover of an artillery barrage, with the black troops leading the way.

The Confederate's devastating fire proved too much for the black soldiers, most of whom were seeing combat for the first time. Almost all were shot down, while the rest turned and fled to the rear. Steedman’s white brigade, meanwhile, attempted to storm the lunette but was easily repulsed.

After a lengthy delay, the Union assault began around midafternoon on 16 December, and Steedman’s two USCT brigades and two brigades of Brig. Gen. Samuel Beatty’s IV Corps division attacked Clayton’s line, advancing into a storm of canister and minié balls that claimed over a thousand casualties. The USCTs’ line of battle swept across a cornfield and diverged when it came to an overgrown thicket. The line began to fragment as the men climbed over a rail fence and worked their way through a series of felled trees; then the line dissolved as the soldiers became ensnared in the tangled branches of the abatis or hugged the ground on the forward slope of Overton Hill. On Steedman’s right, Beatty’s assault also failed to penetrate the Confederate line.

Nashville Nashville

At this point, the 13th USCT raced up the slope past their prone comrades and headed straight for the enemy’s works. Clayton’s troops concentrated all their firepower on the 13th USCT, whose color-bearer brought the regimental flag to the Confederate parapet before he was shot down. Five more soldiers seized the colors and met the same fate. Within minutes, the regiment lost 220 officers and men, roughly 40 percent of its strength. Brig. Gen. James T. Holtzclaw, the Confederate commander in that sector, paid tribute to the valor of the 13th USCT in his after action report. “I have seen most of the battle-fields of the West,” he wrote, “but never saw dead men thicker than in front of my two right regiments.”

This time, however, Steedman’s diversionary assault achieved its objective: Hood ordered Cheatham to rush two brigades of Cleburne’s division to the right flank, even though Cheatham had already stretched his own line to the breaking point in order to cover his overextended left flank. In the end, the combination of darkness, exhaustion, and a driving rainstorm brought the Federal pursuit to a halt, saving the Army of Tennessee from probable destruction.

In addition to contributing to Union victory, the U.S. Colored Troops served as an occupation force in the South after the war and were among the last volunteer soldiers to be mustered out. Some of the veterans went on to enlist in one of the Regular Army's new black regiments, while the vast majority returned to civilian life. "For the tens of thousands who had served in the ranks," writes historian William A. Dobak, "their discharges released them into a new world in which most of them were free for the first time; a world that, whatever its imperfections, their own efforts had helped to shape."

By the time the war ended in 1865, more than 620,000 people had died. More than 36,000 blacks are included in that number [three-fourths due to disease]. The casualty rate of the entire African-American troop contingent throughout the Civil War was more than 30 percent, which was 35 percent higher than their white counterparts. Their participation was a determining factor in the war's outcome. And although their sacrifices didn't guarantee black people total freedom, it was a critical contribution toward that aspiration.

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Page last modified: 05-02-2018 13:19:26 ZULU