JUST LEARNING TO BE MEN
"These Men Will Be Good Soldiers"
From the first shots fired upon Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and President Abraham Lincoln's call for volunteers, many free blacks wanted to join the fight. However, the vast majority of white Americans did not agree. Black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and white antislavery leaders such as William Lloyd Garrison spoke out in favor of the arming of blacks, but it would not be until spring, 1863, two years after the conflict began, that blacks would officially don the Union blue and go to war. Tensions between those supporting black enlistment and those against it rose steadily throughout late 1861 and 1862, as the struggle grew ever more desperate. In late spring and summer, 1862, certain Union military commanders tested Lincoln's policy on black soldiers, finding themselves in situations demanding the use of blacks, either by necessity or simply by design. The struggle culminated with the official release of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, and the acknowledged intent of the Lincoln administration to arm black men.
Douglass publicly broached the subject of black troops in a May 1861 editorial in his own Douglass' Monthly. Douglass believed that involving blacks in the fight would bring the war to a more rapid close. Again on December 3, 1861, in a speech in Boston, Douglass returned to the idea. "We are fighting the Rebels with only one hand when we ought to be fighting them with both," he declared. "We are striking with our white hand, while our black one is chained behind us." The prominent abolitionist strongly believed that blacks could aid the Union in a military capacity, but white Americans, especially those in the Lincoln administration and War Department, did not concur. Douglass pointed out that blacks possessed a strong desire to participate in the conflict, because of their zeal to end slavery and free all blacks still held in bondage. He said, "I have been often asked since the war began why I am not at the South fighting for freedom. My answer is with the Government. It wants men, but it does not yet rank me or my race with men." The problem, according to Douglass, rested not with the willingness of blacks to fight, but with the unwillingness of whites to accept them into the ranks. 1
Just over a month later, on January 14, 1862, in Philadelphia, Douglass again called for the arming of blacks. Emphasizing again his analogy of the two hands, Douglass declared, "We are striking the guilty rebels with our soft, white hand, when we should be striking with the iron hand of the black man. . . ." Douglass accentuated what blacks could give to the Union in the war against the South. He further indicated that for the government not to recognize the abilities of black men in the conflict was a blow to the race itself. "I owe it to my race, in view of the cruel aspersions cast upon it," Douglass said, "to affirm that, in denying them the privilege to fight for their country they have been most deeply and grievously wronged." Not only did blacks deserve the chance to fight, Douglass believed, but they had also proved their abilities in earlier conflicts. During this speech and another almost a month later in Boston on February 5, 1862, Douglass gave examples of prior military experience of black men and commented on the downward change in attitudes toward their participation.
Mark here our nation's degeneracy. Colored men were good enough
to fight under Washington. They are not good enough to fight under
McClellan. They were good enough to fight under Andrew Jackson.
They are not good enough to fight under Gen. Halleck. They were
good enough to help win American independence but they are not
good enough to help preserve that independence against treason and
rebellion. They were good enough to defend New Orleans but they are
not good enough to defend our poor beleaguered Capital. 2
Months before Douglass' call for arming blacks, a series of letters appeared in a popular black newspaper, the Weekly Anglo-African. In response to an editorial suggesting that black men wait to enlist until the war actually became a war to end slavery, Alfred M. Green, a black leader from Philadelphia indicated why he disagreed. In October 1861, Green wrote to the Weekly Anglo-African:
No nation ever has or ever will be emancipated from slavery, and
result of such a prejudice as we are undergoing in this country, but by
the sword, wielded too by their own strong arms. It is a foolish idea for
us to still be nursing our own past grievances to our own detriment, when
we should as one man grasp the sword-grasp this most favorable
opportunity of becoming inured to that service that must burst the fetters
of the enslaved and enfranchised the nominally free of the North. 3
Green believed that the time had come for all blacks to unite around the goal of ending slavery, not to stand divided about how or when to do so. He wrote that some blacks wasted "thought and time" by supporting the idea of emigration to Africa, others wasted time fighting against emigration, and still others wasted time by waiting for God to tell them what to do. To Green, what to do seemed obvious: blacks must fight to free themselves. He wrote, "If ever colored men plead for rights or fight for liberty, now of all others is the time." If the government and white northerners did not yet agree, Green saw no reason why blacks could not proceed with military training in order to better prepare themselves for the "combat we have long halfheartedly invited by our much groanings and pleadings at a throne of grace." 4
The desire to pick up arms united blacks throughout the country. Though far from the battles in actual distance, black poet and activist James Madison Bell made appeals for the services of blacks to be accepted by President Abraham Lincoln. Bell published a poem titled, "What Shall We Do with the Contrabands?" in the San Francisco Pacific Appeal in May 1862. Referring to the former slaves who fled to Union lines in the occupied South, Bell spoke of the present dilemma. Originally, Union leaders returned the blacks to their owners, but as the war continued, many wanted to utilize the contrabands for the Union. The first stanza Bell's poem eloquently assessed the present controversy surrounding blacks and the war:
Shall we arm them? Yes, arm them! give to each man
A rifle, a musket, a cutlass or sword;
Then on to the charge! let them war in the van,
Where each may confront with his merciless lord,
And purge from their race, in the eyes of the brave,
The stigma and scorn now attending the slave. 5
Though Bell strongly supported arming blacks, he also wanted to see President Lincoln change his war aims war from preserving the Union also to ending slavery. Some blacks did not want to fight until Lincoln made the latter goal clear. The editorial published in the Weekly Anglo-African in September 1861, emphasized that blacks should refuse to put themselves in a position to be killed in a war not intended to destroy the institution of slavery. The writer, who used only the initials R. H. V. as identification, asserted, "Let your own heart answer this question, and no regiments of black troops will leave their bodies to rot upon the battlefield beneath a Southern sun-to conquer a peace based upon the perpetuity of human bondage. . . ." Certainly blacks wanted the destruction of slavery to be the war aim of the Union. Even before Lincoln made that policy apparent in the Emancipation Proclamation, however, many still wanted to join the fight. Weighing the consequences, some blacks believed it would best serve their race to take up arms against the Confederates. Certain blacks believed that success on the battlefield would bring about a semblance of equality for their future. 6
Blacks unquestionably had reason to suspect Lincoln's stance on ending slavery. From the first rounds of gunfire, the president made it clear that he intended to uphold the Union, not necessarily to end slavery. On August 22, 1862, Lincoln wrote the New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley in response to an editorial questioning Lincoln's position on slavery. He declared, " As to the policy I 'seem to be pursuing' as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt." By winning the war, Lincoln intended to keep the United States of America intact. As to slavery, he did not hold a firm conviction that it should be either preserved or eliminated. He would do whatever necessary in order to hold the Union together. Lincoln continued, "I would save the Union. . . . My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. . . . If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would to it. . . ." These statements did nothing to assure blacks that Lincoln wanted slavery to end. The timing of this letter to Greeley is significant. Just a month later, on September 22, Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which announced his intention to free slaves in rebellious states on January 1, 1863. Certainly Lincoln considered his emancipation decision for some time before issuing it in September, yet in late August, as he had said earlier, he wrote that his war aim might not involve slavery. Lincoln did come to a decision regarding slavery some time before, though he kept his plans to free the slaves known to a select group of advisors while he carefully prepared the official document. Part of his plan depended upon the timing and secrecy of the decision. Therefore Lincoln appeared disinterested in slavery in the months before announcing the Emancipation Proclamation. Also, Lincoln worried about the reaction of the border states of Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware to any decision regarding slavery. Slaveowners there would quickly side with the Confederacy if their slaves were threatened, Lincoln feared. Accordingly, the president neither hurried his decision of emancipation nor did he rush to announce it. 7
As Lincoln prepared the Emancipation Proclamation during the summer of 1862, Congress approved the Confiscation and Militia Acts, which cautiously provided a foundation for the prospective recruitment of blacks. Though most white Americans did not yet demonstrate any desire to see blacks in uniform, radical members of Congress fought resolutely to give them the chance. The move began in January, when radicals in Congress presented numerous petitions calling for the cessation of slavery and the utilization of blacks in the military. Radical politicians firmly believed in the concept of freeing slaves to fight against their former masters, and they recognized the potential benefits to the United States Army in the efforts to suppress the rebellion. Even many Northerners who had not supported the idea of freeing and arming blacks saw an opportunity. Blacks, they believed, possessed an inherent toleration of warm, humid climates, which made the race less susceptible to disease in the military campaigns in the coastal and swampy South. If black troops could replace white regiments in the unhealthy climates, fewer white young men would perish from disease. Such racist beliefs nonetheless played a role in changing the minds of many white Americans about the possibility of blacks in uniform. 8
Though the concept of using blacks in the military received much discussion in the first months of 1862, Congress made the transition slowly. As early as January 15, a bill concerning the confiscation of rebel property reached the Senate floor. The controversial bill produced a great deal of debate among members of the Senate. Radical senators hoped to give the president authority to seize the property of any and all Confederates, including their slaves. Once seized, former slaves could quickly become a force for the military, radicals hoped. Many senators did not agree; they pushed for a clause specifying from whom property could be captured. This angered Republican Senator Jacob Collamer of Vermont who argued against any restrictions. "When you undertake to confiscate enemy's property as such, you never make laws that the property of enemies who shall hereafter fight you shall be prize," said Collamer. "You simply declare enemy's property prize, and confiscate it." Collamer's beliefs alarmed Democratic Senator Willard Saulsbury of Delaware, a border state in which slavery still existed. Saulsbury perceived the idea of confiscation and other bills calling for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia as direct threats to the slaveholders in his home state. Believing confiscation to be the first step toward emancipation, Saulsbury sensed a changing tide in the ideology of the war itself and argued vehemently against making the war aim one to end slavery. Saulsbury demonstrated his indignation on May 8, 1862, when he said, "What care I, gentlemen, whether you pass this bill or not? I do not care a fig!" 9
Despite his statement, Senator Saulsbury did care about confiscation and slavery itself, and he continued to argue against the bill. Saulsbury felt a strong obligation to defend slavery, which, however, many others blamed for the war. Republican Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts condemned the institution of slavery, and firmly adhered to the meaning of the confiscation bill. "Now sir," Wilson asserted, "it seems clear to me we have the power to free the slaves of rebels, and having the power to do it, I believe it be our duty to do it." The confiscation issue continued to occupy a great deal of time in Congress. When a few senators complained at the time spent, Republican Senator Ira Harris of New York responded: "It is a great subject; it is a new subject; it is a subject on which we should act cautiously and carefully; and this discussion has brought out a great variety of views and propositions and projects." Harris went on to call for a special committee to examine the issue. 10
Formed in early 1862, the special committee reported on Senate Bill Number 310 on Friday, May 16. Senate Bill Number 310, referred to as the Confiscation bill, also dealt with a number of related topics. Among those, the bill allowed for slaves of those owners who commit treason or participate in rebellion to be set free. In addition, the bill empowered the president to "seize and sequester" the property of any person involved in rebellion against the government of the United States. Finally, the bill authorized the president to "employ as many persons of African descent as he may deem necessary and proper for the suppression of this rebellion." 11
After the reading of the bill, senators expressed their objections to various sections. A debate quickly ensued over precisely what constituted treason. Senators sympathetic to slaveholders questioned what actions would place their property in jeopardy. Representing a border state with slaves, Unionist Senator Garrett Davis of Kentucky did not support the strict interpretation of treason. Davis denied that the government possessed the power to capture property of citizens, even those who supported the rebellion. Radical Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio believed aiding rebels in any way should be considered treason against the government, and the property of those so acting should be seized. After Davis charged that aiding and assisting rebels did not constitute treason, Wade asked, "Is it a punishable offense under our law?" Davis replied, "I am not prepared to say whether it is or not." 12
Not only troubled by definitions of treason, some senators also objected to the idea of confiscating slaves. Again, Senator Davis led the arguments. Davis declared, "The Congress of the United States have no power to liberate a slave in a state, or authorize it to be done." The possibility of the government authorizing the removal of slaves alarmed the senator, who felt the need to protect the rights of his slaveholding constituents in Kentucky. Not only did Davis object to actual confiscation, he disapproved of what the bill suggested be done with the slaves. Senator Daniel Clark of New Hampshire responded to Davis, "Then as I understand it, the objection is not that we take the negro from the master by way of punishment, but that we do not give him to somebody else, or put him into the public Treasury." Davis replied, "Yes sir, that is the objection; that you do not sell the negro, do not appropriate the negro as you would other property." Davis brought up an intriguing point. Should human property be disposed of as would any other property of value? Davis wanted to see confiscated slaves sold just as other valuables would be. This concept did not draw support from many senators, especially from those wishing to free all slaves. Conservative senators proposed an amendment striking out the provision referring to the liberation of slaves, but the amendment failed to pass. 13
Debate flourished in the Senate as the session drew to a close. Various amendments reached the floor, but failed to pass. Senators continued to question the legal basis for confiscation. Many believed such an act unconstitutional and thought the bill gave too much power to the president, as well as the Union Army. Republican Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois saw the act as a threat to citizens everywhere. "I understand that property may be seized anywhere, but the Army may seize it also . . . . The bill as I understand it, makes it the duty of the President to seize the property anywhere." Trumbell believed that once given the power, nothing could prevent the property of loyal, law-abiding citizens from being seized. Other senators shared Trumbull's fear and argued against giving the power of confiscation for any reason. 14
Finally, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, quiet for much of the confiscation debate, spoke. Sumner reminded his peers that the United States of America faced significant danger every day that the war continued. Sumner believed that the country should adopt whatever policy necessary to bring about a rapid end to the war. According to Sumner, "if soldiers are sent forth to battle, if fields are occupied as camps, and houses occupied as hospitals, without permission of the owners it is by virtue of the war powers of Congress." These powers also enabled Congress to confiscate the property of the enemy, Sumner believed. Sumner refused to accept the legality argument against confiscation. He believed that the Constitution gave rights to citizens, but not necessarily to former citizens in a state of rebellion. "When you refuse to take the property of an enemy in open war . . . you voluntarily weaken your armies and diminish your power," Sumner argued. "In misapplying the text of the Constitution you sacrifice the Constitution itself." In addition, Sumner affirmed the two points of the Confiscation Bill he believed most significant: "the blacks are to be employed, and the slaves are to be freed." This act, he believed, would give new life to the war effort, bringing not only hope but a new force to the army. "From this day forward the war will be waged with new hopes and new promises," Sumner said. "A new power will be enlisted incalculable in influence, strengthening our armies, weakening the enemy, awakening the sympathies of mankind, and securing the favor of a benevolent God." With this inspirational speech, the Senate again voted on the joint resolution. It passed on July 16, 1862. Lincoln now possessed the legal capacity to confiscate the slaves of rebels and to use freed bondsmen in the military as needed. Still contemplating what became the Emancipation Proclamation, the president did not utilize his new powers immediately. 15
While Lincoln pondered whether he would free the slaves during the spring and summer of 1862, some Union local leaders and recruiters came to their own conclusions. In Kansas, Senator James H. Lane made no secret of his intent to include blacks in his recruitment of cavalry units. The state, a hotbed for antislavery men since the passage of the Kansas- Nebraska Act in 1854, attracted many escaped bondsmen from Missouri and other slave states. Senator Lane wanted to put these men to good use in the fight for their freedom. In early 1862, he sponsored a resolution that allowed all men in Kansas to be eligible for recruitment. The radical senator continued with his work throughout the spring of 1862, and he attracted similarly minded abolitionists to his camp. 16
By late summer, Lane prepared to begin enlistments. He wrote the War Department, informing the government of his actions and asked for a response. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton did not inform Lane until weeks later of the president's wish not to enlist blacks. Even upon receiving the reply from the government, Lane continued recruiting and training black soldiers. Faced with opposition from the government and from some white Kansans, Lane resolutely proceeded with his quest. The manner in which Lane enlisted blacks resulted in problems for the men. Until officially acknowledged by the War Department as the 79th United States Colored Infantry on January 13, 1863, the soldiers received no pay or recognition. Once paid, black soldiers still received less than whites. White soldiers earned thirteen dollars per month, while black soldiers only received ten. Unequal pay spurred some soldiers to desert. These first black soldiers suffered because of their unofficial beginnings, but Lane firmly believed in the necessity and moral rightness of his actions. Though his soldiers endured injustices because of their irregular beginnings, Lane had paved the way for others to receive official sanction to arm blacks. 17
Lane's actions in Kansas took place almost simultaneously with the attempts of a strong-willed antislavery general along the Atlantic coast. Major General David Hunter received command of the coastal region of South Carolina in March, 1862, and laid plans to emancipate slaves in the area under his own authority. Hunter intended to win the Confederate strongholds at Charleston and Savannah, and wanted to use black troops. He gradually set his plan in motion, including writing to Secretary Stanton on several occasions about his intentions. In his letters Hunter mentioned reinforcements and asked for arms and red pantaloons for the new troops. On May 9, 1862, Hunter proclaimed all slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida free. Lincoln, who only learned of Hunter's actions through newspaper accounts, quickly declared the proclamation invalid on May 19, 1862. Lincoln made it clear that only the president had the power to make such decisions. 18
Undaunted, Hunter moved forward with his plan. Hunter intended to arm the newly freed slaves, but few readily volunteered. When this method failed, Hunter ordered eligible black men brought into camp by force. Being held at gunpoint and informed that their services were needed in the United States Army intimidated men just released from bondage. According to historian Dudley Taylor Cornish, in The Sable Arm: Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865, "no effort whatsoever was made to soften the blow of wholesale impressment." Many blacks saw no difference in the treatment of their recruiters and that of their former masters, and they feared permanent separation of their families if forced to join Hunter's forces. Many blacks feared that recruitment covered a more sinister plan, one to sell them back into slavery in Cuba, as Confederates charged. The harsh recruitment alienated many blacks and made recruitment difficult in some areas later in the war. Not only did Hunter intimidate the very men he wanted to recruit, he angered the War Department by failing to report his intentions. Lincoln, with the passing of the Militia Act of July 17, 1862, had the authority to organize blacks militarily. However, he chose not to recognize Hunter's actions, in part because of Hunter's radical disrespect for authority. Mainly, however, Lincoln feared the reaction in the border slave states and in the North. Still, he wavered for much of the summer of 1862, as Hunter and Lane made known their intentions to use former slaves as much needed man power. Hunter, by freeing the slaves under his command, did what Lincoln planned to do for all states in rebellion at a later time. The time had not come, according to the president, and the War Department did not support Hunter's actions. Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton did, in fact, authorize Brigadier General Rufus Saxton to organize black men into a regiment in South Carolina under the leadership of Thomas Wentworth Higginson on August 25, 1862, just over two weeks after denying Hunter authority to continue raising his black regiment. Stanton and Lincoln simply did not believe Hunter was the right man to carry out such a project. 19
In Louisiana, Union General Benjamin F. Butler faced a dilemma. With Union troops occupying slave territory, slaves fled to their lines assuming freedom awaited. Early during the conflict, Butler and other Union commanders returned these "contrabands" to their Confederate owners. This policy began to change, however, when commanders recognized that former slaves could be used to benefit the Union Army. In a July 3, 1862, letter to Butler, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton directed that the contrabands should no longer be returned to their masters, but cared for properly and their labor utilized. The Second Confiscation Act and the Militia Act, passed on July 17, 1862, further declared that contrabands not be taken back into slavery. Former slaves could now be used in "any military or naval service for which they may be found competent," though that service consisted initially of labor. 20
Following the directions of these acts and Stanton's instructions, Butler provided food and shelter to contrabands who came into his camps, and many labored for the Union. The presence of blacks working for the Union caused some military leaders to wonder if they could be used to aid the war effort in additional ways. One of Butler's officers, General J. W. Phelps, wished to see the contrabands used in a military capacity. Writing to Captain R. S. Davis, Assistant Adjutant General of Camp Parapet, Louisiana, on July 30, 1862, Phelps asked for supplies to outfit several regiments of blacks. He wrote, "I enclose herewith requisitions for arms, accoutrements, clothing, camp and garrison equipage, etc., for three Regiments of Africans which I propose to raise for the defense of this point." In his reasoning, Phelps explained that his men could not stand the "swampy and unhealthy" climate that resulted in two to three deaths per day. Phelps needed men and saw the recruitment of blacks as a logical solution to the shortage. 21
Furthermore, Phelps held strong antislavery convictions and firmly believed that black men would make good soldiers in the war against their former owners. The general maintained that former slaves were "willing and ready to be put to the test," and "willing to submit to anything rather than slavery." Phelps suggested that bright noncommissioned officers and privates be selected to lead the black regiments. "Prompt and energetic efforts in this direction," wrote Phelps, "would probably accomplish more toward a speedy termination of the War, and an early restoration of peace and amity, than any other course which could be adopted." 22
Despite General Phelps' conviction that blacks could be used effectively in a military manner, many others in the United States Army did not yet agree. Butler, upon learning of Phelps' request, replied on July 31, 1862, in a negative way. He wrote, "The Commanding General wishes you to employ the Contraband in and around your camps in cutting all the trees, etc., between your lines and the Lake, and in forming abatis according to the plan agreed upon. . . ." Butler made it clear that contrabands were to be used for labor, not to bear arms against the Rebels. Also, Butler believed arming blacks might inspire an uprising of slaves throughout the area, which could lead to violent disorders and damage the Union cause. 23
However, General Phelps did not give up easily. Just days later, Butler wrote to Stanton that Phelps, without orders, raised five companies of blacks. Butler ordered Phelps to stop recruiting blacks for military purposes in an August 2, 1862, letter. Butler wrote, "By the act of Congress, as I understand it, the President of the United States alone has the authority to employ Africans in arms as part of the Military forces of the United States. Every law up to this time, raising volunteer or Militia forces, has been opposed to their employment. The President has not as yet indicated his purpose to employ the Africans in arms." Because Phelps doggedly believed blacks should be put to use on the battlefield, he offered to resign when ordered by Butler to cease recruiting. In a July 31, 1862, letter to Acting Assistant Adjutant General Captain R.S. Davis Phelps wrote, "while I am willing to prepare African Regiments for the defense of the Government against its assailants, I am not willing to become the mere slave driver which you propose, having no qualifications that way." The inability to pursue his goal of arming blacks made Phelps's situation unbearable. In the same letter to Davis, Phelps tendered his resignation. Butler, upon receiving the resignation, refused to accept it and forwarded the matter to the president.24
Butler resolutely disagreed with Phelps's intention to raise a black regiment. In a August 2, 1862, letter to his wife, Butler wrote, "Phelps has gone crazy." Yet Butler soon wavered in his decision regarding black troops. On August 12, 1862, Butler wrote to Secretary of War Stanton describing his growing need for reinforcements. Butler explained: "we are threatened with an attack on the City of New Orleans. I am not specially disturbed at that. If it becomes at all imminent, I shall call on Africa to intervene, and I do not think I shall call in vain." The increasing shortage of troops intensified as the Confederates bolstered fortifications near New Orleans and rumors of an impending attack reached Butler's headquarters. Despite his recent objections to Phelps' recruitment of blacks, Butler now recognized that blacks could be used to benefit the army in ways other than labor. Though recruitment of blacks had not yet been authorized by Lincoln, Butler determined he could recruit free blacks in the area. 25
To Butler's advantage, an ideal group of recruits already existed. In April 1861, a group of free black men in Louisiana organized themselves into military units known as the "Native Guards." The Native Guards initially offered their services to the Confederacy, and even participated in a parade with other Louisiana troops in front of Confederate Governor Thomas O. Moore on November 23, 1861. According to Benjamin Quarles, in The Negro in the Civil War, blacks had many reasons to fight for the Confederacy, including loyalty to their locale, desire for good wages, and the hope that white hostility towards blacks would decline after their good service. In addition to these reasons, the Native Guards possessed a strong sense of allegiance to the city of New Orleans. Many of the original members of the unit controlled businesses or large estates, some owned slaves and belonged to a class of educated free blacks that had the respect of white residents of the city. Though whites appreciated this class of free blacks in the society of New Orleans, they did not take kindly to the sight of armed blacks, and the Native Guards never saw active service with the Confederacy. Undaunted, the Native Guards, joined by free blacks and recent bondsmen, less than a year later offered to fight for the Union. Butler, on August 22, 1862, issued General Orders No. 63, in which he addressed the Native Guards. He wrote:
Now, therefore, the Commanding General, believing that a large portion
of this militia force of the State of Louisiana are willing to take service in
the Volunteer forces of the United States. . . .
Appreciating their motives, relying upon their "well-known loyalty and
patriotism," and with "praise and respect" for these brave men, it is
ordered that all the members of the "Native Guards" aforesaid, and all
other free colored citizens recognized by the first and late Governor
and Authorities of the State of Louisiana as a portion of the Militia of
the State, who shall enlist in the Volunteer Service of the United States,
shall be duly organized by the appointment of proper officers, and
accepted, paid, equipped, armed, and rationed as are other Volunteer
Troops of the United States, subject to the approval of the President
of the United States. 26
Butler recognized that with additional training, the Native Guards could be a tremendous benefit to his forces. Not only did Butler welcome the Native Guards into his command, he kept in place the black officers of the unit. The officers tended to belong to the upper echelon of New Orleans free black society. That Butler chose to uphold black officers is significant. Once the Union adopted the policy of recruiting blacks in the late spring of 1863, many questioned whether blacks should serve as officers. Butler, who so recently disapproved of the concept of blacks in uniform, supported black officers. The General had support in the utilization of this group of free blacks. George S. Dennison, the acting surveyor of customs at New Orleans wrote to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase on August 26, 1862, and expressed support for arming blacks. Dennison reported, "A free Colored Regt., formerly in Rebel service, is being organized. Probably this Regiment will be increased to a Brigade." Believing that black men possessed strong character, Dennison thought the United States could certainly use their services. "They are intelligent, energetic, and industrious," Dennison declared. "These men will be good soldiers." 27
Chase also advocated the idea of arming blacks and expressed his opinion to Butler nearly a month before in a July 31, 1862, letter. Chase gently reprimanded Butler for allowing his officers to continue returning contrabands to their former masters and wrote, "it would hardly be too much to ask you to call, like Jackson, colored soldiers to the defense of the Union; but you must judge of this." Butler agreed, though not as quickly as Chase or Phelps wanted, and began preparations for the regiments. The soldiers, recruited in Louisiana, underwent training, and in November 1862, Butler expressed to Chase his pleasure at the progress of his new troops. He explained: "My experiment of arming the free negroes is succeeding admirably. Two regiments are already doing service in the field in guarding the Opelousas Railroad, and are doing it as well as any soldiers can. That they will fight I do not doubt." Perhaps Butler believed the black soldiers would have the opportunity to fight because his army faced a growing need for reinforcements. The general probably recognized that the new regiments, already available, could strengthen his forces more rapidly than he could bring in fresh soldiers from the North. By referring to black troops as "my experiment," Butler took a measure of credit for what he had opposed vehemently just a few months earlier. Throughout all of General Phelps's attempts to raise black units, Butler stood firm that blacks must be used in noncombat capacities. Once Butler changed his position and supported black units, he readily asserted his own important role in the matter. Butler's own contemporaries acknowledged his interest in receiving the glory for initiating the arming of blacks, but failed to mention the prodding he received from antislavery men. Writing to Salmon Chase in early September 1862, George Dennison indicated that Butler prevented Phelps's attempts to form black units in order to take credit himself for the experiment. According to Ira Berlin, et al., eds., in Slaves No More: Three Essays on Emancipation and the Civil War, Butler compelled Phelps to resign and within weeks began his own enlistment of blacks. 28
A significant difference in the beliefs of Butler and Phelps existed. Butler did eventually agree to enlist blacks, but not because of humanitarian beliefs or any great desire to change the Union war aim. Rather, Butler's army needed men. Despite his previous objections to arming blacks, Butler inevitably supported the military capabilities of black troops and recognized that these soldiers could quickly fill missing places in the lines. According to Berlin, the War Department "neither proposed large-scale black enlistment nor connected black enlistment to the emerging national emancipation policy." General Phelps and others, such as David Hunter, believed in black troops for a different reason. Phelps wanted to make the Union Army an army of liberation, with the ultimate goal of ending slavery and freeing all blacks. Giving blacks the opportunity to fight for their own freedom made perfect sense to Phelps and other strong antislavery men. 29
Though Butler initially opposed the arming of blacks, he strongly supported the policy after its adoption and defended it whenever necessary. In November 1862, Butler corresponded with Brigadier General Godfrey Weitzel, Commanding the District of the Teche, about black regiments. Butler instructed Weitzel to put two of the regiments to use guarding a road in the district. Weitzel did not want black soldiers under his command, which angered Butler. "That you should have declined the Command is the occasion of regret," Butler wrote, "arising most of all from the reasons given for so doing." Weitzel did not want the black units because he did not have confidence in their abilities and because he believed the presence of black troops would instigate a revolt from the surrounding slave population. Butler persuasively argued against Weitzel's line of reasoning, reminding him that black soldiers fought in the War of 1812 under Andrew Jackson and caused no trouble after the war. Pointing out that Weitzel failed to express any complaints about the abilities of black recruits in his reports, Butler questioned the legitimacy of his position. "You have failed to show, by the conduct of these free men so far, anything to sustain that opinion," Butler wrote. He emphatically stated at the close of the letter, "in the meantime, these colored regiments . . . must be commanded by the Officers of the Army of the United States, like any other Regiment." 30
Just weeks later on December 5, 1862, Butler issued General Orders No. 46, which addressed black troops. "The recruitment of colored troops has become the settled purpose of the government," Butler wrote. "It is therefore the duty of every officer and soldier to aid in carrying out that purpose, by every proper means, irrespective of personal predilections." Butler's extensive order detailed the recruitment, outfitting, and payment of black soldiers. He wanted every black man capable of fighting to enlist. Butler ordered that black soldiers should receive ten dollars per month, and provided for the care of their families. In addition, Butler directed, "Every enlisted colored man shall have the same uniform, clothing, arms, equipments, camp equipage, rations, medical and hospital treatment as are furnished to the United States soldiers of the service, unless upon request, some modification thereof shall be granted from these Head Quarters." In camp and field, Butler declared that black soldiers should be treated on the same level as whites. He wrote, "The colored man fills an equal space in ranks while he lives and an equal grave when he falls." 31
Wanting his new black regiment to be treated "like any other Regiment," Butler perhaps expected too much. Several times he complained of being unable to arm the willing blacks, because the regiments had not received official recognition from the government. In a letter to Stanton, he stated that, "while they [the Native Guards] are doing good service, still I find trouble because they are not formally recognized by the Department." The problem of insufficient supplies plagued all units of the United States Colored Troops from the moment of their inception until the end of the war. One of the first of many frustrated commanders of black troops, Butler realized that his men could accomplish little without proper recognition, arms, equipment, and supplies. Until Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, and made clear his intention to arm blacks, those black troops already in existence did not receive such recognition. 32
Indeed, the Emancipation Proclamation was by far the greatest step in the battle to allow blacks to fight. With the groundwork for the Emancipation Proclamation laid through the Second Confiscation Act and the work of military leaders such as Lane, Hunter, Phelps, and Butler, the government made the recruitment of blacks an official military objective. The proclamation reinforced Lincoln's policy of preserving the Union at all costs through the enlistment and utilization of black soldiers. Though some commanders organized blacks before Lincoln officially agreed with the idea, those who worked for the formation of black regiments did so with a new fervor in the months following the release of the Emancipation Proclamation; and they were joined by others. 33
Also on January 1, 1863, in Boston Frederick Douglass gave a speech titled "Emancipation and The Dawn of Light." Douglass spoke of the beginning of the destruction of slavery and of finally seeing hope that the evil, dark days of slavery were coming to an end. In addition, Douglass addressed the issue of black men joining the war effort. He expressed certainty that black men possessed the ability to bear arms. On January 2, William Lloyd Garrison's antislavery newspaper, The Liberator, hailed the Emancipation Proclamation as a significant achievement towards to goal of freeing all blacks. Garrison believed that more had to be done, but at last the president had acknowledged his intention to free slaves. 34
Just over a month later, in a February 6, 1863 speech given in New York City, Douglass addressed at length the topic of a "Negro Army." Full of hope and inspiration, Douglass believed that by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln set not just slaves, but all Americans free. "We are all liberated by this Proclamation," he asserted. Allowing black men to fight against their former oppressors gave Douglass further hope that his race would receive something similar to equality. "Color is no longer a crime or a badge of bondage," Douglass stated. "At last the out-spread wings of the American Eagle afford shelter and protection to men of all colors, all countries, and all climes, and the long oppressed black man may honorably fall or gloriously flourish under the star-spangled banner." In the same speech, Douglass called for the Emancipation Proclamation to be truly put into practice. "That the paper proclamation must now be made iron, lead and fire, by the prompt employment of the negro's arm in this contest," Douglass explained. "I hold that the Proclamation, good as it is, will be worthless-a miserable mockery-unless the nation shall so far conquer its prejudice as to welcome into the army full-grown black men to help fight the battles of the republic." Willing and able, Douglass and thousands of black men only needed the invitation to fight. At the close of his speech, Douglass said, "I want to assure you, and the Government, and everybody, that we are ready, and we only ask to be called into service." Events in North Carolina during the final two years of the war provided support for this commitment. 35
** Go to Chapter Two **
1 Dudley Taylor Cornish, The Sable Arm: Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (New York: Longman's Green and Company, 1956), 4. The 1987 edition, published in Lawrence, Kansas, by the University Press of Kansas, is cited in this work.; John W. Blassingame, ed., The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, Volume Three: 1855-1863 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985), 466-467.
2 Blassingame, ed., Douglass Papers, 484, 493; Cornish, The Sable Arm, 4-6; Edwin S. Redkey, A Grand Army of Black Men (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 5.
3 C. Peter Ripley, ed., The Black Abolitionist Papers, Volume V: The United States, 1859-1965 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 118.
4 Ibid., 121-124.
5 Ibid., 138.
6 Ibid., 118.
7 Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 388; Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the Civil War (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1953), 159-160; James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 557, 498; David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (London: Random House, 1995), 363-364; Cornish, The Sable Arm, 10-11.
8 Cornish, The Sable Arm, 30-31.
9 McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 495; Congressional Globe, 37 Congress, 2 Session, 1921, 1923, 1955.
10 Ibid., 1957.
11 Ibid., 2165.
12 Ibid., 2165-2166.
13 Ibid., 2168-2169.
14 Ibid., 3381-3383.
15 Ibid., 3381-3383.
16 Cornish, The Sable Arm, 70-72
17 Ibid., 72-74, 189; Quarles, The Negro in the Civil War, 66, 113-114; Ira Berlin, et al., eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867, Series 2: The Black Military Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 44-45; Noah Andre Trudeau, Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1998), 13-14.
18 Joseph T. Glatthaar, Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers (New York: The Free Press, 1990), 6-7, 10; Quarles, The Negro in the Civil War, 75-76; Edward A. Miller, Lincoln's Abolitionist General (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997), 97-99.
19 Miller, Lincoln's Abolitionist General, 102, 111; Cornish, The Sable Arm, 35, 37-38, 53-54; Trudeau, Like Men of War, 14-15; Berlin, et al., eds., Freedom, Series 2, 38-39; William A. Gladstone, Men of Color (Gettysburg: Thomas Publications, 1993), 15.
20 Private and Official Correspondence of General Benjamin F. Butler: During the Period of the Civil War, Volume II (Norwood, Massachusetts: The Plimpton Press, 1917), 41; Ira Berlin, et al., eds., Slaves No More: Three Essays on Emancipation and the Civil War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 193; Donald, Lincoln, 363.
21 Private and Official Correspondence of General Benjamin F Butler, 41.
22 Ibid., 125-126; Cornish, The Sable Arm, 60; Berlin, et al., eds., Freedom, Series 2, 42.
23 Private and Official Correspondence of General Benjamin F. Butler, 126-127.
24 Ibid.,142, 126-127, 143; Chester G. Hearn, When the Devil Came Down to Dixie: Ben Butler in New Orleans (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997), 207-208.
25 Private and Official Correspondence of General Benjamin F. Butler, 148.
26 Ibid., 192, 209, 211; Trudeau, Like Men of War, 26-27; Hearn, When the Devil Came Down to Dixie, 208-209; James G. Hollandsworth, Jr. The Louisiana Native Guards: The Black Military Experience During the Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995), 6, 14-15, 18; Quarles, The Negro in the Civil War, 37-40.
27 Private and Official Correspondence of General Benjamin F. Butler, 228-229; Hollandsworth, The Louisiana Native Guards, 26-28.
28 Ibid., 134, 328, 425; Hollandsworth, The Louisiana Native Guards, 26-28; Cornish, The Sable Arm 66.
29 Berlin, et al., eds., Slaves No More, 196-197.
30 Edwin S. Redkey, A Grand Army of Black Men, 6; Private and Official Correspondence of General Benjamin F. Butler, 439.
31 Private and Official Correspondence of General Benjamin F. Butler, 455-458; Hollandsworth, The Louisiana Native Guards, 38; Ira Berlin, et al., eds., Freedom, Series 2, 135-138.
32 Ibid., 328, 428, 474.
33 Quarles, The Negro in the Civil War, 162.
34 Blassingame, ed., Douglass Papers, 546-547; Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998), 547.
35 Blassingame, ed., Douglass Papers, 550-551, 564, 569; Berlin, et al, eds., Slaves No More, 196-197.
Copyright 1999 NCUSCT Project