A HISTORY OF THE 1ST NORTH CAROLINA
Jonathan William Horstman
Table of Contents
Battle of Olustee, Florida
(Courtesy of Tennessee State Library and Archives)
The African-American's Civil War: A History of the
1st North Carolina Colored Volunteers
The American Civil War began as a "white man's" war for the Union army, but with increasing pressure upon President Lincoln and the War Department, the door opened in 1863 for black soldiers to participate in large numbers. The purpose of this study is to review the military activities of the 1st North Carolina Colored Volunteers (NCCV) and place it within the context of employing black troops at large. It will examine the process of recruiting the men and officers of the regiment and will also address two issues. The first concerns the ability of blacks in general to perform as soldiers and the second deals with the argument that ex-slaves were less capable than free blacks.
The idea of blacks fighting for the Union was anathema for most northern whites. Racial discrimination was as prevalent in the North as it was in the South. The draft riots in New York City during the summer of 1863 provide ample proof of the underlying racial sentiments among the working class. War aims had just shifted from bringing the South back into the Union to freeing the slaves. When the government initiated the draft in 1863, mobs of poor Irish working men and women roamed the streets ransacking the homes of prominent Republicans and venting their anger on the black community. Dozens of blacks were lynched during the four day outburst of uncontrollable rioting, and the Colored Orphan Asylum was burned to the ground.
When blacks donned the blue uniform, life was no easier. Some white units refused to fight once blacks were allowed to bear arms. The first black regiments to be mustered into service were given the task of turning the opinion of northern whites. Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, commander of the fifth black regiment to be organized, soon realized the importance of a clean slate. "A single mutiny . . . a single miniature Bull Run . . . and it would have been all over with us," he reported after receiving his commission.
As in subsequent wars, black soldiers found themselves up against two fronts. The Confederacy threatened to treat black prisoners of war as fugitive slaves and punish them accordingly. Also, white Federal commanders displayed racial discrimination in no uncertain terms. Black troops often found themselves serving white commands in slave-like fashion, performing menial tasks and taxing garrison duty. Even by their own white officers, according to one historian, blacks were viewed more as children with no self-control than as adults. Most officers had preconceived, stereotyped images of blacks that proved difficult to overcome when they were commissioned to serve in black regiments. The performance of the 1st NCCV in two battles, though the Federals lost both, helped to exonerate black troops in the eyes of white commanders and helped to open the door for widespread recruitment of blacks. It also proved that ex-slaves were as capable as free blacks in wielding a musket.
The War Department authorized Brig. Gen. Edward A. Wild to raise four regiments of infantry in eastern North Carolina. Wild was given exclusive authority to select his officers and to designate rank. New Bern served as the central location for recruiting blacks. After the initial response, the number of recruits dwindled. The black brigade was not completed until 1864, and only three regiments of infantry were mustered into the Union army. The fourth regiment was designated as heavy artillery. The recruitment and experiences of the 1st NCCV offer a unique view of the circumstances and conditions surrounding black soldiers who fought in the Civil War.
I am indebted to several people for their help in completing this project. I would like to thank the personnel in the Reference Department, Circulation Department, and Maps Department of Hunter Library for their kind assistance. W. T. Jordon of the Archives and History in Raleigh provided helpful insight as to the location of available sources. Also I would like to give special thanks to Dr. Joyce Faison, professor at the College of Aeronautics in New York, for her assistance in locating valuable sources and for her generosity in sending some of her findings.
I would like to thank my thesis committee members, Dr. Max Williams, Dr. John Bell, and Dr. Gael Graham, for their guidance, helpful recommendations, and patience. I am indebted to Joe Ginn for his encouragement and assistance. I would like to acknowledge Jacqueline B. Painter and George Frizzell for their helpful suggestions, and Sheila MacFarlane and Mary Jane Ellsworth for their editing skills. A very special thanks goes to my parents, Arden & Sally Horstman, whose support made graduate school possible. Above all I would like to thank my wife, Marcia, for her much needed encouragement and for her ability to maintain our family over the past two years.
(Courtesy of Jonathan William Horstman)
Copyright 1998, 1999 by the NCUSCT Project. All rights reserved.