Memorial Day weekend is upon us and as we prepare to attend ceremonies for members of the U.S. military who died in service to this country, I want to salute those black men and women who fought so that my people could gain their freedom.
Black soldiers, including more than a dozen Congressional Medal of Honor winners, fought in 449 Civil War battles. More than one-third of them died during the war.
This is more than just a political or historical issue. It is also personal, since my great grandmother Amelia Weaver's brother Dennis Weaver served in Company D, 1st Regiment, United States Colored Troops (USCT). He served and survived—and spent the rest of his life fighting to get his pension, as did his wife Delia after his death. My dad’s grandfather, John Oliver, served in the 17th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry, and fought at the Battle of Nashville.
The fact that this country has a very long list of Confederate memorials to racism and slavery is deeply troubling. Frankly, it's too damn long. Though I celebrated as the good people of New Orleans cheered recent removals of Confederate statues, we have a long way to go to eradicate the shrines to hate and bondage that still tarnish our nation.
Confederate memorials number in the hundreds while the list of memorials for black Union troops is a short one, numbering about 30. As the author of "Monuments to the United States Colored Troops (USCT) [African American Civil War Soldiers]: The List" points out:
“Of note is that at least fifteen of these monuments were erected in the past 20 years. My speculation is that this recent interest in memorializing the USCT got its impetus from the 1989 movie Glory, which is a fictionalized account of the 54th Massachusetts regiment that served in the Union army.”
The most well-known, the African American Civil War Memorial depicted in the photo above, is located in Washington, DC at the corner of Vermont Avenue, 10th St, and U Street NW.
Across the street from the Memorial is the African American Civil War Museum.
Here’s a snippet from the history of the memorial and museum:
The African American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation was incorporated in 1992 to tell the largely unknown story of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). As a tribute to these soldiers, the African American Civil War Memorial was dedicated in July of 1998 under the leadership of Dr. Frank Smith Jr., and Colin Powell. In honor of these American soldiers who fought for freedom during the American Civil War, the Spirit of Freedom: African American Civil War Memorial sculpture and its Wall of Honor, was situated in the heart of the historic “U” Street district, and serves as a reminder of the courageous story of the USCT. The sculpture portrays uniformed soldiers and a sailor at a height of ten feet with a family depicted on the back of the sculpture, and is situated in the center of a granite-paved plaza, encircled on three sides by the Wall of Honor. The wall lists the names of 209,145 USCT drawn from the official records of the Bureau of United States Colored Troops at the National Archives, on 166 burnished stainless steel plaques arranged by regiment.
The African American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation & Museum is an important contribution to the “U” Street neighborhood community of Washington, DC, which has been revitalized, throughout recent years, as a center of African American history and culture. At no other time, since the 1950s, has the “U” Street district seen such energizing forces as those that are seen today—it is a neighborhood of eclectic and diverse cultures, an artistic hub of music, theatre, and art, and is highlighted with a plethora of new businesses and restaurants with an international essence—all amid the historical sites, sounds, and flavors of previous times. In addition, the African American churches played an integral role in the history of the “U” Street neighborhood—serving as not only religious centers, but as social and cultural institutions, and were often included as stops on the Underground Railroad. Slaves and runaways held religious services in tents during the Civil War— some tents later became churches. Many post-Civil War contraband camps were established in the “U” Street neighborhood – Camp Barker, the Campbell Hospital, and the Wisewell Barracks – as well as the Freedman’s Hospital, which later became part of Howard University’s Medical School.
The African American Civil War Museum [“AACWM”] opened its doors in January of 1999 and communicates the stories of the USCT through photographs, documents, artifacts, seminars by staff, and historic presentations by community members – volunteer re-enactors, to help visitors understand the largely unknown role of soldiers who fought for freedom from slavery during the Civil War. The museum serves as a unique resource for teachers, scholars, students and professionals of museum studies, descendants of USCT soldiers, and the general public. More than 200,000 visitors come to the Memorial and Museum each year. In April of 2011, the African American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation and Museum moved to its new permanent location within the “U” Street District, the historic Grimke Building. The Grimke Building is named after Archibald Grimke [1849-1930], born a slave in Charleston, South Carolina yet, ultimately, became the second African American to graduate from Harvard Law School. The Grimke family was recognized as one of the most prominent African American families in Washington, DC history, leaving a remarkable legacy in education, civil rights, religion, and the arts.
Many of you probably saw the movie Glory, which garnered an Oscar for best supporting actor Denzel Washington and heightened public interest in the USCT.
Glory is a celebration of a little-known act of mass courage during the Civil War. Simply put, the heroes involved have been ignored by history due to racism. Those heroes were the all-black members of the 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, headed by Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the son of an influential abolitionist. Despite the fact that the Civil War is ostensibly being fought on their behalf, the black soldiers are denied virtually every privilege and amenity that is matter of course for their white counterparts; as in armies past and future, they are given the most menial and demeaning of tasks. Still, none of the soldiers quit the regiment when given the chance. The unofficial leaders of the group are gravedigger John Rawlins and fugitive slave Trip, respectively representing the brains and heart of the organization. The 54th acquit themselves valiantly at Fort Wagner, SC, charging a fortification manned by some 1,000 Confederates.
Today is the anniversary of the date in 1863 that the 54 Mass left Boston. Contrary to the linked article, the 54 Mass was not the first.
In the June 2009 Civil War Times edition (p. 32) the author states, [The] “54th Volunteer Massachusetts . . . [was] the first black regiment raised in the North.” This is not entirely accurate. The 54th Mass was the first Union black regiment formed in Massachusetts, but NOT the first-ever black Union troops raised to fight for the North. The 54th was initially formed in late February 1863 and then began to be mustered into service in late March 1863.
The first Union black regiment to be raised and formed was the 1st South Carolina Infantry. The story of how the approval for the first black regiment came about is fascinating.
Escaped slave and Union war hero Robert Smalls went to Washington in August with Mansfield French to seek permission from President Abraham Lincoln to allow blacks to serve in the Union forces. That meeting took place on August 20, 1862. Lincoln no doubt remembered meeting Smalls in late May 1862 when he awarded Smalls his reward-bounty for turning the Confederate steamer – The Planter – over to the Union navy in mid May. Smalls surely used his leverage as a war hero to implore the President to allow the first black troops to be officially organized. On August 25th, 1862, Secretary of War Stanton officially authorized the raising of the first black soldiers under the command of Brigadier General Rufus Saxton.
Some of this history is discussed in "The True Story Behind the Movie Glory," a discussion held with several USCT historians.
Glory told the story of the USCT’s valor at Battery Wagner. What other USCT stories need to be told?
Ludger K. Balan: Glory was a great catalyst to raise awareness about the 54th, but it should be noted that it was not the first African American unit—there were the Kansas Colored Troops, for instance. Being a New Yorker, I take great pride in honoring the 20th, 26th, and 31st USCT, the three black units that were raised in New York City, at Rikers Island and Hart Island (which then served as military training bases). They comprised about 4,500 free black men from all walks of life and of diverse African heritage, not only from New York State but from across the Americas and beyond.
EDL (Elizabeth D. Leonard): In fact, by the end of the war approximately 175 regiments of black soldiers had been in service. Many of these regiments were engaged in battles that contributed in crucial ways to the defeat of the Confederacy, and not just in the eastern theater of the war.
It would do us good as a culture and a society to pay more attention to the important and heroic work that black soldiers performed at places other than Fort Wagner: at Port Hudson and Milliken’s Bend in the summer of 1863, for example, in conjunction with Grant’s ultimately successful campaign to force the surrender of Vicksburg, and, a year later in Virginia, during the siege of Petersburg. We could benefit from learning more about each of the 16 black men who earned the Congressional Medal of Honor during the war, and about the experiences, courage, tenacity, and dignity of the tens of thousands of United States Colored Troops who, as white soldiers mustered out after Appomattox, remained on very dangerous occupation duty with their units in the angry and unreconstructed South.
I think many—perhaps most—Americans still tend to “remember” the Civil War overwhelmingly as a clash of white men against other white men, and I would suggest that truncating the story in this way has troubling implications for how we understand ourselves as a nation and a people.
Until I started researching my own family, I knew very little about the USCT. I knew even less about black women and their role, other than that of Harriet Tubman. I only learned about women like Susie King Taylor when I wanted to discuss women in the military with the students in my women’s studies course.
Five black nurses served under the direction of Catholic nuns aboard the Navy hospital ship Red Rover. Four of their names—Alice Kennedy,Sarah Kinno, Ellen Campbell and Betsy Young—have been recorded. Black nurses are in the record books of both Union and Confederate hospitals. As many as 181 black nurses—both female and male—served in convalescent and US government hospitals in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina during the war.
Susie King Taylor, Civil War nurse, cook, and laundress, was raised a slave on an island off the coast of Georgia. In April of 1861, Major General Hunter assaulted Fort Pulaski and freed all the slaves in the area,including Mrs.King. When Union officers raised the First South Carolina Volunteers (an all-black unit), Mrs. King signed on as laundress and nurse.Able to read and write, she also set up a school for black children and soldiers.
Mrs. King’s experiences as a black employee of the Union Army are recounted in her diary. She wrote of the unequal treatment,
The first colored troops did not receive any pay for eighteen months, and the men had to depend wholly on what they received from the commissary…their wives were obliged to support themselves and children by washing for the officers, and making cakes and pies which they sold to the boysin camp. Finally, in 1863, the government decided to give them half pay, but the men would accept none of this… They preferred rather to give their services to the state, which they did until 1864, when the government granted them full pay, with all back due pay.
Susie King was never paid for her service.
I was very happy to know my efforts were successful in camp, and also felt grateful for the appreciation of my service. I gave my services willingly for four years and three months without receiving a dollar. I was glad, however, to be allowed to go with the regiment, to care for the sick and afflicted comrades.
Following the war, Mrs. King established another school forfreed slaves. When her husband, Sergeant Edward King of the First South Carolina Volunteers, died in 1866, she collected a widow’s pension. In 1879,she married Russell Taylor. For the remainder of her life, she continued heradvocacy for black Civil War troops.
Taylor’s book is titled Reminiscences of My Life in Camp: An African American Woman's Civil War Memoir.
Near the end of her classic wartime account, Susie King Taylor writes, "there are many people who do not know what some of the colored women did during the war." For her own part, Taylor spent four years―without pay or formal training―nursing sick and wounded members of a black regiment of Union soldiers. In addition, she worked as a camp cook, laundress, and teacher. Written from a perspective unique in the literature of the Civil War, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp not only chronicles daily life on the battlefront but also records interactions between blacks and whites, men and women, and Northerners and Southerners during and after the war.Taylor tells of being born into slavery and of learning, in secret, to read and write. She describes maturing under her wartime responsibilities and traveling with the troops in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. After the war, Taylor dedicated herself to improving the lives of black Southerners and black Union Army veterans. The final chapters of Reminiscences are filled with depictions of the racism to which these efforts often exposed her.
This volume reproduces the text of the original 1902 edition. Catherine Clinton's new introduction provides historical context for the events that form the backdrop of Taylor's memoir, as well as for the problems of race and gender it illuminates.
You can also read it free online.
One of the books about black troops in the Civil War which is deeply engraved in my memory is Remembering The Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, by Kevin M. Levin.
The battle of the Crater is known as one of the Civil War's bloodiest struggles -- a Union loss with combined casualties of 5,000, many of whom were members of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) under Union Brigadier General Edward Ferrero. The battle was a violent clash of forces as Confederate soldiers fought for the first time against African American soldiers. After the Union lost the battle, these black soldiers were captured and subject both to extensive abuse and the threat of being returned to slavery in the South. Yet, despite their heroism and sacrifice, these men are often overlooked in public memory of the war.
In Remembering The Battle of the Crater: War is Murder, Kevin M. Levin addresses the shared recollection of a battle that epitomizes the way Americans have chosen to remember, or in many cases forget, the presence of the USCT. The volume analyzes how the racial component of the war's history was portrayed at various points during the 140 years following its conclusion, illuminating the social changes and challenges experienced by the nation as a whole. Remembering The Battle of the Crater gives the members of the USCT a newfound voice in history.
The book opens with “Chapter 1: THE BATTLE—'Until Every Negro Has Been Slaughtered:'
THE PRISONERS WERE placed in formation, in lines four abreast. Officers led the way, followed by alternating ranks of four black and four white soldiers. The column was ordered to parade through the streets of Petersburg in full view of the town’s remaining civilian population. The roughly 1,500 black and white Union prisoners, who had been captured the day before, July 30, 1864, after their failed assault, were being used to send a strong message: to the men serving in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, to the remaining white residents of Petersburg, and to the Confederacy as a whole. As the prisoners marched and countermarched through the streets, they were subjected to taunts and verbal abuses from spectators at the street level and on verandas, which offered perhaps the best view of this unusual scene. Lieutenant Freeman S. Bowley recalled years later that once the column entered the city, “we were assailed by a volley of abuse from men, women and children that exceeded anything of the kind that I ever heard.” The cries of “See the white and nigger equality soldiers” and “Yanks and niggers sleep in the same bed!” suggest that the intended message of this interracial march of prisoners had come through loud and clear, accomplishing all it had set out to do and more.
The order to march both black and white Union prisoners through Petersburg served to remind soldiers and civilians alike of just what was at stake as the American Civil War entered its fourth summer. The torrents of abuse hurled that early Sunday morning were directed first and foremost at the black Union soldiers (now stripped of their uniforms), some of whom were once the property of Virginia slave owners. Their presence on the battlefield reinforced horrific fears of miscegenation, the raping of white Southern women, and black political control that had surfaced at various times throughout the antebellum period and that many had come to believe would ensue if victory were not secured.
The fear that animated the black soldiers as they endured the taunts of their captors and the sting of public humiliation was of a different sort. For these men the recent fight had been an opportunity to finally prove themselves on the field of battle and impress upon both their white officers and the rest of the nation that they were worthy of respect as men, as soldiers and, potentially, as future citizens of a nation reborn out of the ashes of slavery. Now, as they marched through the city, they couldn’t be certain that they would escape the fate of their black comrades who had been executed in the immediate wake of the battle. In addition to the bursts of rage exhibited on the streets by a restless public, black soldiers also had to cope with resentment and anger from many of their fellow white soldiers, who felt humiliated at having to march in formation with them rather than in their normal segregated units, as well as from their own white officers, some of whom chose to lie about their unit identification.
You can listen to a C-Span lecture Levin gave on his book and the battle, or view this presentation.
*Warning — strong language and descriptions of atrocities.*
The battle is best remembered for the detonation of 8,000 pounds of explosives under a Confederate salient outside of Petersburg, Virginia on the morning of July 30, 1864 and the close-quarter fighting that ensued. It is also, however, the first time in the Eastern Theater of war that an entire division of United States Colored Troops was employed on the battlefield. The well-documented massacre of many of these men by Confederate soldiers as well as the reaction to their use by white Union soldiers is one of the least understood aspects of this battle, but it is crucial to understanding how soldiers on both sides came to terms with profound changes brought about by emancipation and black enlistment. The performance of black soldiers on battlefields such as the Crater and their contribution to Union victory forced Americans to confront questions of citizenship and, ultimately, the legacy and meaning of the Civil War itself.
Levin also has a fascinating blog titled “Civil War Memory.”
In his book he talks of those who survived the Crater slaughter with grave wounds.
The Washington Post article titled “Black vet who lost arm, leg finally gets grave marker” tells Martin’s tragic tale.
U.S. Colored Troops Pvt. Lewis [Louis] Martin, who was badly wounded at the Battle of the Crater in 1864, will have a cemetery marker for the first time Nov. 2 when it is dedicated at Oak Ridge cemetery in Springfield, Ill.
He is best known for a photograph taken of him after a surgeon removed part of his right arm and left leg at a military hospital just outside Washington, D.C. The iconic picture shows a handsome young man staring dispassionately at the camera while displaying his two amputations.
If not for that image, his name and what happened to him after the war may never have been known. Columnist Dave Bakke of the State Journal Register in Springfield has publicized and supported an effort to have Martin properly honored at the cemetery where he was buried in the paupers’ section in January 1892.
Martin, a private in Co. E of the 29th USCT, moved back to Springfield when the war ended and his unit had been disbanded. Whatever attention the hospital picture may have brought him did him little good in Springfield. The local residents saw him as a useless, disabled black man and not as a Union veteran who had helped win the war. Eventually, he turned to drinking heavily. When he died, the local paper commented that Martin’s military pension “went to local saloon-keepers.”
Fortunately for those of us who are interested in this history, there are currently more books on the USCTs than there were a few decades ago. Some suggestions:
Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 by William A. Dobak
The Civil War changed the United States in many ways—economic, political, and social. Of these changes, none was more important than Emancipation. Besides freeing nearly four million slaves, it brought agricultural wage labor to a reluctant South and gave a vote to black adult males in the former slave states. It also offered former slaves new opportunities in education, property ownership—and military service. From late 1862 to the spring of 1865, as the Civil War raged on, the federal government accepted more than 180,000 black men as soldiers, something it had never done before on such a scale.
Known collectively as the United States Colored Troops and organized in segregated regiments led by white officers, some of these soldiers guarded army posts along major rivers; others fought Confederate raiders to protect Union supply trains, and still others took part in major operations like the Siege of Petersburg and the Battle of Nashville. After the war, many of the black regiments took up posts in the former Confederacy to enforce federal Reconstruction policy. Freedom by the Sword tells the story of these soldiers' recruitment, organization, and service. Thanks to its broad focus on every theater of the war and its concentration on what black soldiers actually contributed to Union victory, this volume stands alone among histories of the U.S. Colored Troops
Soldiers in the Army of Freedom: The1st Kansas Colored, the Civil War's First African American Combat Unit, by Ian Michael Spurgeon.
It was 1862, the second year of the Civil War, though Kansans and Missourians had been fighting over slavery for almost a decade. For the 250 Union soldiers facing down rebel irregulars on Enoch Toothman’s farm near Butler, Missouri, this was no battle over abstract principles. These were men of the First Kansas Colored Infantry, and they were fighting for their own freedom and that of their families. They belonged to the first black regiment raised in a northern state, and the first black unit to see combat during the Civil War. Soldiers in the Army of Freedom is the first published account of this largely forgotten regiment and, in particular, its contribution to Union victory in the trans-Mississippi theater of the Civil War. As such, it restores the First Kansas Colored Infantry to its rightful place in American history.
Composed primarily of former slaves, the First Kansas Colored saw major combat in Missouri, Indian Territory, and Arkansas. Ian Michael Spurgeon draws upon a wealth of little-known sources—including soldiers’ pension applications—to chart the intersection of race and military service, and to reveal the regiment’s role in countering white prejudices by defying stereotypes. Despite naysayers’ bigoted predictions—and a merciless slaughter at the Battle of Poison Spring—these black soldiers proved themselves as capable as their white counterparts, and so helped shape the evolving attitudes of leading politicians, such as Kansas senator James Henry Lane and President Abraham Lincoln. A long-overdue reconstruction of the regiment’s remarkable combat record, Spurgeon’s book brings to life the men of the First Kansas Colored Infantry in their doubly desperate battle against the Confederate forces and skepticism within Union ranks.
My intent today is not to diminish the service of white Union soldiers. My own great-great-grandfather James Bratt was one of them, serving in the 6th Independent Battery, Wisconsin Light Artillery.
The aim here is to help fill in the gaps in the record. Perhaps as we move toward removing Confederate shrines to shame, we can replace them with monuments to USCT bravery.