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Blacks braved bigotry to fight

About 40,000 African-Americans gave their lives during the Civil War, fighting for respect, acceptance and citizenship

September 12, 2012|By MARIE GILBERT | marieg@herald-mail.com
  • Robert J. O'Connor, shown inside Dunker Church at Antietam National Battlefield, has written books on the Civil War and is researching the role of blacks in battle.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

The muster rolls tell a unique story of the Civil War — one that contradicts the stereotype of a struggle between white farmers, North and South.

Scan the record books and you'll find Union Shawnee and rebel Choctaws, Confederate rabbis and Arab immigrants.

There were units called the Slavonian Rifles and the Irish Brigade and one individual who defied classification — Sgt. Frank Mayne from Pennsylvania, who was discovered to be a woman by the name of Frances Day.

There also was a group of people who many believe were onlookers to the war — African-Americans. After all, why would those who were denied their civil rights want to fight on a battlefield alongside those who practiced discrimination?

But blacks braved both bigotry and cannon fire during the war between the states — fighting for respect, acceptance and citizenship.

"They knew America was not a perfect country, but they had strong hopes that the flaws would mend one day," Willie L. Hensley, former director of the Center for Minority Veterans in the Department of Veterans Affairs, said in a speech in 1998. "They would rather die fighting than die as slaves."

About 40,000 blacks gave their lives during the Civil War and 4,000 of that number are buried at Arlington National Cemetery under stones that bear the initials USCT — U.S. Colored Troops.

Yet, despite those statistics, the fact that blacks had a role on the battlefield often comes as a surprise, even to some African-Americans, said Robert J. O'Connor, who writes and speaks on topics concerning the Civil War.

O'Connor, who lives in Charles Town, W.Va., is considered one of the country's experts on the subject of black soldiers and has addressed numerous national African-American conferences.

"It was always thought that the records were not there. But that is not true," O'Connor said. "I work with a database in which the average file on a black soldier has probably 30 pages."

O'Connor said black soldiers did not participate in the war until the battle of Island Mount, Mo., on Oct. 27, 1862, not long after Antietam. Those troops were the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry.

"The U.S. Colored Troops were not officially formed until Order No. 143 organized the Bureau of Colored Troops on May 22, 1863," he noted. "However, several black units were organized prior to that, including, obviously, the Kansas infantry, the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantries, the 6th and 7th Louisiana Infantries, the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers and the 3rd Tennessee Infantry."

O'Connor said there is no record showing that black soldiers fought at the Battle of Antietam.

Local National Park Service historian Ted Alexander agrees.

"Officially, no African-Americans served on either side during the Battle of Antietam," he said. "It was not until the final Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863, that African-Americans were recruited into the all-black regiment known as the United States Colored Troops."

"However, as with every rule, there are exceptions," Alexander added. "Recent research by noted Iron Brigade scholar Lance Herdegen has uncovered the existence" of two mixed-race soldiers "who passed for white and were serving in the ranks of this famous unit."

Alexander said that in recent years, the role of African-Americans serving the Confederate Army has been exaggerated. However, there are instances where servants took up arms and fought alongside their masters, who were mostly officers.

Then there was Charles Lutz, Alexander noted, the son of a white father and a mixed race mother, who served in Company F 8th Louisiana Infantry and fought at Antietam. "Lutz, however, was the exception rather than the rule," he said.

Alexander said blacks did serve with both armies as teamsters, cooks, laborers and servants at the time of Antietam.

O'Connor said a soldier, by definition, means having enlisted, having a service record, receiving pay and receiving a pension at the end of service.

"Yes, blacks accompanied their masters, were teamsters and such alongside the Confederate soldiers," he said. "But they were not soldiers."

"Historians do believe that as many as 90,000 blacks loyally served their masters by going to battle with them as body servants, etc. In fact, the Confederate leaders were totally opposed to arming the blacks. The most convincing argument against arming slaves in the Civil War was that it opened the Confederate government to charges of hypocrisy. Slavery was one of the basic principles of the Confederacy.

"Their primary justification for slavery had been that it was in the interest of both blacks and whites because the blacks were inferior and incapable of taking care of themselves. To arm the slaves in the Confederacy would be a reversal on its official position completely."

It wasn't until late 1864, O'Connor said, that Confederate President Jefferson Davis decided that the idea of allowing blacks to become soldiers wasn't a bad one, after all.

"General Lee was running out of men, which eventually led to his surrender," O'Connor said. "By the end of the war, two companies — 200 men — of black soldiers were being trained by the Confederacy in Richmond. They never served because the war ended."

By comparison, "there were over 200,000 black Union soldiers, using the same definition listed above, and another 9,695 Union sailors who fought in 449 battles, including 39 major battles," O'Connor said.

"Of note, 10 years ago, a Virginia historian offered publicly to pay $500 for each black Confederate soldier record sent to him," O'Connor said. "In 10 years, he has not paid one cent to anyone."

O'Connor said discrimination and segregation existed in the Union Army, where blacks were kept apart from whites in the same units, even though they fought the same battles. But the Union Navy was integrated.

Even as they fought to end slavery in the Confederacy, black Union soldiers were fighting against another injustice. The U.S. Army paid black soldiers $10 a week, minus clothing allowance in some cases, while white soldiers got $3 more, and often, a clothing allowance.

Congress passed a bill authorizing equal pay for both black and white soldiers in 1864.

One of the major differences between black troops and their white counterparts was the danger they faced if they were captured and became prisoners of war.

"Their biggest danger was actually making it to the prison," O'Connor said. "They were the lucky ones. Many who were captured were murdered or sold back into slavery."

President Abraham Lincoln issued a General Order that threatened reprisals on Confederate prisoners if black troops were mistreated. But cases of extreme abuse still occurred. One of the more significant incidents took place during the fight of Fort Pillow, Tenn., when Confederates shot to death all black prisoners.

O'Connor said black women also contributed to the war effort.

Lizzie Hoffman from Winchester, Va., reportedly enlisted in the 45th U.S. Colored Infantry and was arrested along with her entire company while they were sailing aboard a steamer. She was sent to the Central Guard House in Washington, where it was discovered that she was a woman.

Martha Lewis disguised herself as a white man and served for eight months in the 8th New York Cavalry fighting alongside her male counterparts. In April of 1865, she presented herself to abolitionists in Alexandria, Va., who were aiding freed slaves.

It is estimated that more than 180 black nurses, some of them male, served in hospitals and convalescent homes in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.

One of the more famous black females who made significant contributions to the war was Harriett Tubman, who served as a spy, a volunteer nurse and a freedom fighter.

And Mary Elizabeth Bowser worked at the Confederate White House in Richmond, where she was able to pass herself off as an illiterate slave while using her photographic memory to gain access to important information. She was said to have run the most productive espionage operation during the war.

Although blacks were not meant to be officers, per regulations, records show that about 100 did rise to that rank, and dozens of black soldiers and sailors were decorated for their service.

By the time the war ended in 1865, blacks comprised about 10 percent of the total Union fighting force. Most were former slaves from Confederate states. About half of the rest were from the loyal border states and others were free blacks from the North.

It is estimated that of the approximately 40,000 black soldiers who died, 10,000 were killed in battle and 30,000 died from disease or infection.

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