Raising the African Brigade:
Early Black Recruitment in Civil War
Dr. Richard Reid
(By Special Permission of the NC Division
of Archives & History)
[Reprinted from North Carolina Historical Review, 70 (1993), pp. 266-301]
Despite discriminatory attitudes and overt violence, blacks continued to aid Northern efforts in the state, frequently providing information on Confederate troop movement. Perhaps as many as fifty of the freedmen worked continuously as "spies, scouts, and guides" for the Union forces. 29 During the summer of 1862 Confederate forces captured two blacks who had been "sent out as emissaries to induce others ... to run away and enlist." According to the Confederates, the two captives "had U.S. money and enlistment papers with them." The two men were hanged. 30 In New Bern, Burnside had formed the numerous black refugees into a pioneer corps despite the complaints of some soldiers in this command that they were "sick, tired and disgusted with the sight" of the many ex-slaves. 31 Rumors quickly spread among Confederates that "the Yankees were raising negro volunteers at Newbern," and there were exaggerated accounts "that eleven hundred up to Saturday evening had volunteered." 32 Months later the supervisor of black refugees at Elizabeth City, a former cavalry sergeant, claimed that "he could easily raise a company of [black] cavalry there and that he knew they would make splendid soldiers," He supported that claim by the fact that about fifty freedmen were already being used "as a sort of night-picket in half-defiance of the directions from head-quarters." Those men proved to be very effective at guarding the lines. Indeed, they were "models of courage, vigilance and trustworthiness, and the bands of rebel guerrillas who infest the out skirts and who caused almost constant alarms at night, before these men were put on, stand in the greatest dread of them." Their knowledge of local roads and paths, plus their capabilities as night fighters, made them formidable. In addition, they had exhibited "great eagerness to fight." The men had been formed into a unit and had developed some proficiency at drill before the "company was broken up by Gen. Foster's orders." 33
The general was soon forced to reconsider his actions. The number of Union troops under his command was reduced in the early spring of 1863, just as the Federal-occupied area was threatened by Confederate activities. Ten thousand of Foster's soldiers were transferred from North Carolina to the anticipated attack on Charleston. At almost the same time, Confederate General James Longstreet sent General D. H. Hill with reinforcements to move against New Bern and Washington. 34 The possibility of using black soldiers to defend against those attacks led at least some Union soldiers to have second thoughts about fighting. In mid-March Confederate planters claimed that some of the Federal soldiers at Plymouth, upon hearing rumors that black troops were to be sent there from Massachusetts, had threatened to "throw down their arms" if that happened.35 During the next month, however, the Confederate offensive highlighted the military capacities of blacks and convinced many white United States soldiers of their value. On March 16 two companies of the First North Carolina Union Volunteers, a white regiment, were attacked just outside the river town of Washington and driven back under fire to their boats. During the retreat a number of soldiers were saved from capture or death "by the self-sacrifice of a gallant negro, who, seeing [a] boat was aground.... jumped overboard and pushed the flat into the water. In the course of his heroic actions the brave man was hit by gunfire and fell lifeless into the water, but the launch floated away to a place of safety." 36 Two weeks later, when the Confederates laid siege to the town, the number of Union troops, only 1,139, was too small to defend the entire perimeter. As a result, the able-bodied black males were organized, armed, and put into the line. "This was the first experience with armed negroes," wrote William Derby, "and it was wonderful how quietly it was submitted to by many who had loudly declared 'they would never fight side of a nigger!' Whitworth shots, exploding shells and bullets tz-z-zps are wonderfully persuasive arguments on such a question, and settled it once and for all with the garrison of Washington." 37
Another Union soldier described the seriousness with which the ex-slaves took on their new roles. Led by blacks already employed as laborers in the white units, the new recruits began drilling and studying the field manual. He recorded the change in white opinion: "[O]ur colored recruits are already winning golden opinions for their soldierly qualities. Our most bitter negrophobists admit that they will fight, and one of their sincere haters has been detailed to officer them. Some of the poor fellows lie behind their breastwork with a spelling book in one hand and a musket in the other." 38 When D. H. Hill withdrew his attack on Washington, the hastily recruited freedmen gave back their guns, but their willingness to fight had convinced many that they could make useful soldiers. The demonstration of black military ardor coupled with the withdrawal of white Union troops was an effective catalyst for black recruitment in the state.
Even before Hill had abandoned his siege of Washington, Secretary of War Stanton had decided to accept Andrew's plan to raise black troops in North Carolina. In less than two weeks, Edward A. Wild, colonel of the Thirty-fifth Massachusetts Volunteers, was authorized to form a brigade of four regiments from North Carolina's African-American population. 39 Wild had not been Andrew's first choice. The governor had initially proposed Brigadier General Francis C. Barlow of New York. 40 Nevertheless, Wild had much to recommend him. Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1825, he had graduated from Harvard before going on to practice medicine. At the outbreak of the Crimean War, he had sailed for Constantinople and offered his services to the Turkish government. He was commissioned as surgeon of artillery with the rank of lieutenant colonel and attached to the army corps of Omar Pasha, commander in chief of the Turkish forces. For several years he supervised Turkish hospitals before returning to Brookline. An active member of the Independent Corps of Cadets in Boston, Wild immediately helped to raise a company of volunteers in Brookline and Jamaica Plain when the Civil War began. In May 1861 he was mustered in as captain of Company A in the First Massachusetts Volunteers. During the next eighteen months he fought in six major engagements and gained a reputation as an effective and courageous officer. His right hand was badly maimed at the Battle of White Oak Swamp. A "warm personal friend" of Governor Andrew, Wild was promoted colonel of the Thirty-fifth Massachusetts Volunteers in August 1862, but only three weeks later, at the Battle of South Mountain, "an exploding bullet" struck him in the left arm. After several operations, surgeons removed the arm at the shoulder joint "under his own direction." 41
Col. Edward Augustus Wild of the Thirty-fifth Massachusetts Volunteers, authorized to form and lead an African-American brigade, staffed the first regiment with experienced officers, many of them from Massachusetts units. Photograph of Wild in 1861 as captain of Company A, First Massachusetts Volunteers, from the Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, Cornell University Library, Ithaca, N.Y.
While Wild recuperated in Boston from the last wound, Andrew asked him to help in the effort to raise the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth black regiments. His tasks were to "receive applications for commissions, to read and judge of their recommendations, to see and examine candidates, and to advise with Col. Robert G. Shaw and Lt. Col. N. P. Hallowell, commanders of the Fifty-Fourth and Fifty-fifth regiments respectively, in the selection of their officers." 42 Those activities not only familiarized him with a number of qualified officer candidates whom he would later appoint to his own regiments but also confirmed Andrew's faith in his ability to raise and lead black trciops. In a number of ways Wild was well prepared for his new assignment. He was sympathetic to the problems facing black Americans, and he held a firm belief in the value of black troops. He could draw upon his abolitionist connections throughout the Northeast. Above all, he had demonstrated, through two years of arduous campaigning, his courage and capability as a military leader. He could not be accused by officers contemptuous of black troops that he was just a political appointment who knew nothing of war. On the other hand, Wild's abolitionist background and his wartime experiences embittered him toward a Southern slaveholding class. The loss of his left arm and part of his right hand, wounds that ended his career as a physician, may partly explain the deep hatred that he displayed at times against "rebels." 43 Nevertheless, he made a positive impression on many people. Robert Shaw told his mother that Wild "is an excellent man," although Shaw expressed concerns that, because of his wounds, the commander "may not be able to remain in active service, though he is determined to try it." 44
The work that Wild had done in screening commission applicants for Andrew was put to immediate use as he began to organize his prototype regiment, the First North Carolina Colored Volunteers (NCCV). His first objective was to staff the regiment with the proper type of officers. For both him and Andrew that meant men with previous military experience who were ardently committed to both abolition and temperance. 45 For both men it also meant including some African Americans as officers. 46 Their hopes were mostly thwarted, and the fact that officers, with only a few exceptions, remained white throughout all the United States black regiments reflected the enormous difficulties that they faced. It also highlights what they were able to accomplish. Wild was hampered in his search for white noncommissioned officers with military experience to serve as officers because he could not draw any of them from the Army of the Potomac and, therefore, had to select them from units stationed elsewhere or from soldiers who had in some way become disabled. Not surprisingly, Wild looked first to Massachusetts regiments stationed in New England or just completing service in North Carolina. The limitation on where he could draw officers, however, was more than balanced by the unusual freedom granted him by the War Department in assigning commissions. Officers in the African Brigade, unlike officers seeking positions in other black regiments, did not have to face a board of examiners or be assigned a rank considered appropriate by the Bureau of Colored Troops. Instead, Wild had been given authority to select men who he felt were qualified and to establish their relative seniority in his regimental structure. That allowed him to staff the First NCCV quickly and effectively. Three days after he formally accepted his appointment to raise the brigade and became a brigadier general, he had selected most of the regiment's officers, including virtually all of the junior officers. 47
The ability to select whom he wished, he later wrote, was "by far the most valuable privilege attached to my mission." It allowed him "to get the very best men for my particular work and to secure a unanimity of feeling and a harmony of action unparalleled, and unattainable otherwise." 48 Wild wanted men of practical experience. Even the civilians he commissioned were all old soldiers. "Not one man have I taken," Wild later wrote, "who has not seen service (chaplain excepted). Most are real veterans. Not a few were discharged from the ranks crippled by wounds, but not disabled from using the sword or pistol, and again facing the enemy in his bitter mood." 49 He was particularly pleased to be able to combine many of those qualities in soldiers who had already served part of their military terms in North Carolina and who were therefore somewhat familiar with the state and the nature of black refugees in towns such as New Bern, Washington, and Plymouth. Seven officers were drawn from the Seventeenth, Twenty-third, and Twenty-fifth Massachusetts Volunteers, all regiments that had been stationed in eastern North Carolina, while most of the remaining officers had served in other regiments from Massachusetts. 50 The case of one individual, Leonard Lorenzo Billings, revealed the political connections and the personal convictions that influenced Wild in his selection of officers. Billings had served as a corporal in the Twenty-ninth Massachusetts Volunteers and had seen combat. He was recommended to Wild by Edward W. Kinsley, a close friend of Governor Andrew who, in a letter that included the governor's warm greeting, summarized the corporal's qualifications. "He is," wrote Kinsley, "Anti-Slavery. Temperance ultra--and a good soldier." Billings received a commission as a second lieutenant. 51 At the same time another candidate, W. H. R. Brown, who was apparently well qualified and had letters of recommendation, was unsuccessful. He had served in the Thirty-ninth Illinois Volunteers and claimed that he wanted to lead "African troops." A notation on his application indicated that his wife objected "to seeing niggers with stripes on." 52
Although the vast majority of the officers of the First NCCV had served in Massachusetts regiments, the two senior officers had not. Wild's first choice to lead the regiment, Colonel Edwin Upton of the Twenty-seventh Massachusetts Volunteers, was unavailable. Instead, Wild selected James Chaplin Beecher, son of the prominent minister Lyman Beecher and half brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Beecher had most recently held the rank of lieutenant colonel in the 141st New York Regiment. Unlike Wild, however, he may have joined the service in part to escape domestic troubles, and he had a history of nervous breakdowns. 53 The lieutenant colonel of the regiment William N. Reed, was also a resident of New York and had been selected because of his abolitionist sentiments and his military bacqround. Reed had graduated from the military school at Keil, Germany, and had reached the rank of etat major in the imperial army. He was very competent and interested in the welfare of his men. Some resources describe Reed as a mulatto, in which case he may have been the highest-ranking African American in the Union army, although he was not recognized as such. 54
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29. Vincent Colyer, Brief Report of the Services Rendered by the Freed People to the United Suites Army in North Carolina in the Spring of 1862, after the Battle of Newbern (New York: Vincent Colyer, 1864), 9.
30. Beth G. Crabtree and James W. Patton, eds,, "Journal of a Secesh Lady ": The Diary of Catherine Ann Devereux Edmondston, 1860-1866 (Raleigh: Division of Archives and History, Department of Cultural Resources, 1979), 226,227.
31. Barrett, Civil War in North Carolina, 127.
32 B.F.B. to D.W. Bell, January 28,1863, George Holland Collection, Private Collections, State Archives, Division of Archives and History, Raleigh.
33. Henry A. Clapp to Willie Clapp, April 10, 1863, Clapp Letter Book.
34. In total Hill had about fourteen thousand men. Although his prime goal was to secure and ensure supplies from eastern North Carolina, he was also to "make a diversion" upon the Union-held towns. Barrett, Civil War in North Carolina, 150-151.
35. H.G. Spruill to Josiah Collins, March 16, 1863, Josiah Collins Papers, Private Collections, State Archives, cited in Durrill, War of Another Kind, 173.
36. Derby, Bearing Arms in the Twenty-seventh, 168.
37. Derby, Bearing Arms in the Twenty-seventh, 168-169.
38. "Corporal," Letters from the Forty-fourth, 95.
39. Official Records, ser. 3, 3:122. Wild's relationship with Andrew was such that in June, 1861, as the junior captain in the First Massachusetts Volunteers, he wrote to persuade the governor to take steps to replace the regiment's colonel with the lieutenant colonel. Wild concluded that, as the junior captain, he would not be seen to be acting out of any hope of promotion. E. A. Wild to Governor Andrew, June 7, 1861, Edward A. Wild Correspondence, Massachusetts MOLLUS Collection, United States Army Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, Pa.
40. Offcial Records, ser. 3, 3: 110. Barlow, still recuperating from wounds he suffered at the Battle of Antietam, instead accepted command of a brigade in the Second Division, Eleventh Corps, Army of the Potomac.
41. Bradford Kingman, "General Edward Augustus Wild," New England Hisorical and Genealogical Register 49 (October 1895): 405-408; Address of Martin P. Kennard ([Brookline, Mass.]: printed for the town, 1894), 7-8,13; "The Military Life of Edward A. Wild," Massachusetts MOLLUS Collection; Papers in Regards to Brookline in the Civil War, 1861-1865, Brookline Cadet Records, Gen. E. A. Wild Civil War Papers, Public Library, Brookline, Mass.; Assistant Adjutant General to the War Department, July 6, 1878, Letters Received by the Commission Branch, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, Record Group 94, National Archives, Washington, D.C.; Official Records, ser. 3, 3:363, 438.
42. E. A. Wild to Calvin Cutter, March 13, 1863, Wild Correspondence, Massachusetts MOLLUS Collection.
43. Gen. E. A. Wild to Sen. Henry Wilson, May 10, 1865, Wild Correspondence, Massachusetts MOLLUS Collection.
44. Duncan, Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune, 323.
45. In contrast, both Capt. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, when raising South Carolina's first black regiment, and Brig. Gen. Daniel Ullmann, organizing the Corps d'Afrique in Louisiana, wanted men of good character but were not concerned about previous military service. Adj. Gen. Lorenzo Thomas, on the other hand, sought officers for his black regiments entirely within the military structure and accepted at face value assurances of concern for African Americans. Glatthaar, Forged in Battle, 35-39.
46. In February 1863 Andrew had asked Stanton to withdraw his prohibition of commissioning black officers "so far as concerns line officers, assistant surgeons, and chaplains." Official Records, ser. 3, 3:36.
47. "Appointment of Col. Edward A. Wild," Personnel File, RG 94. Twenty-six officers were appointed on April 28, 1863, although the colonel and lieutenant colonel were not appointed until June 1, perhaps reflecting Wild's unsuccessful search for senior Massachusetts officers. "Roster, First North Carolina African Volunteers," Massachusetts MOLLUS Collection.
48. E. A. Wild to Maj. Thomas M. Vincent, September 4, 1863, Wild Correspondence, Massachusetts MOLLUS Collection.
49. E. A. Wild to Maj. Thomas M. Vincent, September 4, 1863, Wild Correspondence, Massachusetts MOLLUS Collection.
50. Thirteen officers came directly from Massachusetts units, while eighteen others were residents of that state. "North Carolina Volunteers, Wild's African Brigade," Letters Received, Colored Troops Division, RG 94.
51. Edward W. Kinsley to E.A. Wild, September 9,1863, Wild Correspondence, Massachusetts MOLLUS Collection.
52. W.H.R. Brown to E.A. Wild, August 9, 1863, Wild Correspondence, Massachusetts MOLLUS Collection.
53. Glatthaar, Forged in Battle, 240-241.
54. The official military records do not indicate that Reed was not white, but other records do. In late 1863 Surgeon Horace R. Wirtz claimed that Reed was a "mulatto," while years later George W. Williams wrote Reed was reportedly "bound to both races by the ties of consanguinity." H. R. Wirtz to _____________, September 29, 1863, Personal Papers of Medical Officers and Physicians, RG 94; George W. Williams, A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1888), 207-208. If Reed was not a mulatto, the rumors may have resulted from the fact that he was a constant supporter of black soldiers in the face of white prejudice.
North Carolina Division of Archives and History
Source: "Raising the African Brigade: Early Black Recruitment in Civil War North Carolina", by Dr. Richard Reid, Dept. of History, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada; in North Carolina Historical Review, 70 (1993), pp. 266-301.