Politics & Policy

Black Soldiers of the Union

Painting of the 54th Massachussets at Fort Wagner (Library of Congress)
Emancipation as a war strategy

At this time 150 years ago, the two major Union army formations — Major General George Meade’s Army of the Potomac and Major General William Tecumseh Sherman’s army group — were tightening their stranglehold on the Confederacy. The former was besieging Petersburg south of the city, trying to thin out Confederate lines and cut the last railroad line connecting Petersburg–Richmond to Georgia and the Carolinas. The latter, having forced the Confederates back on Atlanta, was engaging John Bell Hood in vicious battles at Peachtree Creek, Ezra Church, Dalton, and other places. Atlanta would fall in September, freeing up Sherman for his march to the sea. Petersburg would hold out until March 1865.

While these events were taking place, there were other developments that were less known both at the time and now: among them, the full-scale employment of black soldiers in the service of the Union. The former slave and great abolitionist Frederick Douglass had called for arming blacks at the very outset of the war. Writing in his Monthly of May 1861, Douglass argued that the way “to put an end to the savage and desolating war now waged by the slaveholders, is to strike down slavery itself, the primal cause of that war.”

He called for unleashing a “liberating army” on the slaveholders and denounced the hesitation of the government to employ “the sable arm.” Instead, Union forces were returning escaped slaves to their masters. “Would to God you would let us do something! We lack nothing but your consent,” Douglass wrote. He concluded: “Until the nation shall repent of this weakness and folly, until they shall make the cause of their country the cause of freedom, until they shall strike down slavery, the source and center of this gigantic rebellion, they don’t deserve the support of a single sable arm, nor will it succeed in crushing the cause of our present problems.”

Emancipation and Prudence

Lincoln would come to share Douglass’s view regarding the psychological impact of enlisting black troops in the Union cause. As he wrote to Andrew Johnson, the Unionist governor of Tennessee, in March 1863, “the bare sight of fifty thousand armed, and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi, would end the rebellion at once.” But in the beginning, Lincoln was constrained by prudential considerations: His hesitation regarding both emancipation and the arming of black soldiers was based on his need to maintain a working coalition between his Republican party and “War Democrats,” who were willing to fight to restore the Union but who did not want to interfere with slavery. For the most part, Republicans sought the end of slavery, although differences over the means to do it divided the party.

The Republican party grew out of the anger generated in both the Whig and the Democratic parties by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise prohibiting the expansion of slavery into the territories formed out of the old Louisiana Purchase area that lay north of Missouri. But as James Oakes shows in his splendid book, Freedom National, the Republicans inherited a coherent set of antislavery principles formulated long before the Nebraska controversy.

The antislavery consensus that underpinned the Republican party was based on a number of principles: (1) that the Founding generation suffused the Constitution with the principles of natural law and the law of nations, which held that man’s natural condition is freedom (and the Constitution is therefore inseparable from the Declaration of Independence); (2) that the presumption of freedom recognized by the Constitution could be overridden only by local or municipal law; in other words, freedom was “national,” holding sway wherever the Constitution was sovereign — e.g., in the federal territories and on the high seas, while slavery was “local,” limited to state jurisdiction; (3) that while the Constitution placed slavery in the states where it existed beyond the reach of the federal government, the Constitution did enable the federal government to limit the expansion of slavery; and (4) that the slavery compromises of the federal Constitution never included the idea that slaves were property — there could be no such thing as “property in man.”

Notwithstanding that the Constitution prohibited the federal government from interfering with slavery in the states where it existed, Republicans firmly believed that these principles provided the basis for an indirect federal assault on slavery once Lincoln and a Republican Congress took office. To begin with, Lincoln and the Republicans argued that, based on the precedents of the Northwest Ordinance and the Missouri Compromise, the federal government could prohibit the expansion of slavery into the territories.

Thus, if the slave states remained in the Union, the federal government could, Republicans believed, construct a “cordon of freedom” around them. With slavery’s growth curtailed, Lincoln believed, a policy of gradual compensated emancipation would bring about the end of the institution. Lincoln’s plan was to convince the legislatures of the slave states to abolish slavery in return for federal money to compensate slave owners.

The Republican logic of 1860 held that abolition would begin in the northernmost slave states — Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri — where slavery was weakest. As more free states joined the Union and as more slave states abandoned the institution, slavery would wither and die.

Even after the war broke out, Lincoln continued to pursue this option. But secession by the slave states opened the way for another means to attack slavery: immediate, uncompensated military emancipation in the disloyal states, justified under the war power of the Constitution. Thus, states that remained loyal during the Rebellion would be provided the opportunity to accept peaceful, gradual, compensated abolition of slavery. But secession meant a war of rebellion, and such a war meant immediate, uncompensated military emancipation. Although Republicans understood that the only constitutional justification for prosecuting the war was to restore the Union, they also recognized that the effect of the war would be the destruction of slavery, an outcome that they welcomed. Of course, they understood that military emancipation had its limits: Although it could free individual slaves, it could not end the institution of slavery outright.

Emancipation began long before Lincoln issued either the preliminary or the final Emancipation Proclamation. Indeed, the Union attack on slavery began as early as May 1861, as escaped slaves sought refuge within Union lines in Virginia. At first, Union policy regarding fugitive slaves was disjointed. Without War Department guidance, the policy varied from command to command. While in the West, Major General Henry Halleck issued General Order No. 3, ordering his subordinate commanders to return fugitives, Major General Benjamin Butler in Virginia treated escaped slaves as “contrabands” of war. Soon, the War Department moved toward the “Butler Policy.”

Subsequently, the Lincoln administration, Congress, the War Department, and the slaves themselves began to work in tandem to attack slavery. Milestones included two confiscation acts passed by Congress in 1861 and 1862, a revised Militia Act, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union army. It culminated in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which finally drove a stake through the heart of the institution.

From a military standpoint, emancipation was a war measure designed to attack the Southern economy directly. As Halleck explained to Grant in 1863, “the character of the war has very much changed within the last year. There is now no possible hope of reconciliation. . . . We must conquer the rebels or be conquered by them. . . . Every slave withdrawn from the enemy is the equivalent of a white man put hors de combat.” In addition, to the extent that slaves freed by Federal troops came under control of Union forces, they could be substituted for soldiers who were required to labor, freeing them up to fight. Thus emancipation had the effect of transferring labor from South to North, increasing the fighting potential of Union armies while decreasing that of the Confederate armies. As Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s secretary of the Navy, recalled, the president called emancipation “a military necessity, absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union. We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued. The slaves were undeniably an element of strength to those who had their service, and we must decide whether that element should be with us or against us.” As Frederick Douglass had observed, slavery was the “stomach” of the Rebellion.

Emancipation and Black Soldiers

Militarily, the Emancipation Proclamation opened the way to the next logical step in this process of weakening the South while strengthening the North: enrolling blacks as soldiers in the Union army. The manpower boon to the Union was substantial. Some 180,000 black soldiers served in the Union army. They constituted 120 infantry regiments, twelve regiments of heavy artillery, ten batteries of light artillery, and seven cavalry regiments. At the end of the war, they constituted 12 percent of the Union’s military manpower.

Congress authorized the enlistment of black troops by means of two pieces of legislation. The first was  the Second Confiscation Act of July 17, 1862. Section 11 of the act reads: “And be it further enacted, That the President of the United States is authorized to employ as many persons of African descent as he may deem necessary and proper for the suppression of this rebellion, and for this purpose he may organize and use them in such manner as he may judge best for the public welfare.”

The second was the Militia Act of July 12, 1862, which modified a statute that had been in effect since 1792. Section 12 of the act reads: “And be it further enacted, That the President be, and he is hereby, authorized to receive into the service of the United States, for the purpose of constructing intrenchments [sic], or performing camp service or any other labor, or any military or naval service for which they may be found competent, persons of African descent, and such persons shall be enrolled and organized under such regulations, not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws, as the President may prescribe.”

But in fact, some Union generals were ahead of Congress, the Lincoln administration, and the War Department. Major General David Hunter, commanding the Department of the South, organized freed slaves of the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina into a regiment — the 1st South Carolina Colored Volunteers — that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton subsequently authorized. In Union-occupied New Orleans, Butler organized the Louisiana Native Guards.

But congressional action created an integrated federal policy regarding recruitment of blacks, both freedmen and emancipated slaves. In early 1863, the War Department established a Bureau of Colored Troops. Later the War Department redesignated all black units as U.S. Colored Troops (USCT), with the exception of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Regiments. And it launched a federal recruiting campaign under the adjutant general of the U.S. Army, Major General Lorenzo Thomas. His effort was aimed not only at raising black soldiers but also at recruiting white officers.

The black-recruitment enterprise had to overcome a great deal of resistance. Some worried about the impact of the effort on the loyal slave states. But much of the resistance came from War Democrats, who held that the only purpose of the war was to restore the Union, not to end slavery. The War Democrats operated under the formula “the Constitution as it is, the Union as it was.” The War Democrat view was dominant within the Union army, especially within the Army of the Potomac, which remained under the spell of War Democrat George McClellan long after he was relieved of his command in late 1862.

The effort to raise black soldiers also ran up against the prejudices of many whites. Among the arguments put forward by those who opposed the policy were that blacks would not enlist in the first place; that they were too cowardly to fight; that arming them would unleash their “savage nature”; that they lacked the intelligence to be good soldiers; that whites would not serve alongside them; that their presence would demoralize white Union soldiers; and that arming them would stiffen the backs of the rebels.

Even supporters of the effort to raise black troops were uncertain. As Captain William Simpkins of the 54th Massachusetts wrote before his death during the regiment’s assault on Battery Wagner on July 18, 1863, “this is nothing but an experiment after all; but it is an experiment that I think it is high time we should, try — an experiment which, the sooner we prove fortunate the sooner we can count upon an immense number of hardy troops that can stand the effect of a Southern climate without injury; an experiment the sooner we prove unsuccessful, the sooner we shall establish an important truth and rid ourselves of false hope.”

But two factors helped to overcome such prejudice. The first was the performance of black units, most notably that of the 54th Massachusetts in its assault on Battery Wagner. The second was that the policy provided a means of rapid advancement for ambitious white officers. White non-commissioned officers could be appointed junior commissioned officers in a black unit, and white junior officers could become senior officers in a black unit, as was the case with Robert Gould Shaw, the first regimental commander of the 54th Massachusetts.

In addition to facing the prejudice of white Union soldiers, black soldiers faced a special danger from the Confederates, who saw them (including free blacks) not as soldiers but rather as escaped slaves engaged in servile insurrection and their white officers as inciting servile insurrection. The Confederate Congress made this crystal clear in its joint resolutions of April and May 1862, prompting Lincoln to issue an Order of Retaliation.

Pressure from the Europeans whom the Confederacy needed to court forced the Confederate government to back down on that policy, but Confederate officers on the scene sometimes acted on their own, either refusing to take black prisoners or fighting under a black flag, a signal that “no quarter [is] given or expected.” The most infamous example came at Fort Pillow, after it was assaulted in April 1864 by Confederate cavalrymen under Nathan Bedford Forrest and its commander refused to surrender. Half of the fort’s garrison was made up of black soldiers, and while one-third of the white soldiers were killed, two-thirds of the black soldiers died, many after they had attempted to surrender. A similar event occurred during the same month at Poison Springs, Ark.

While such actions on the part of the Confederates were designed to instill fear on the part of blacks and discourage black-soldier recruitment, it had the opposite effect, instead stiffening the resolve of black troops and strengthening the bond between black soldiers and their white officers. It also led to a response in kind. As Charles Francis Adams wrote in 1864, “the darkies fought ferociously, and, as usual, the cruelty of Fort Pillow is reacting on the rebels. For now they dread the darkies more than the white troops; for they know that if they will fight the rebels cannot expect any quarter.”

While the material contribution of African Americans, both freedmen and former slaves, to Union victory was substantial, their participation in the war to achieve their own liberty was important for its own sake. Most important, it disproved the common view that blacks were naturally servile. The importance of former slaves fighting for their freedom is revealed by examining a story recounted by the Greek historian Herodotus. At the beginning of book 4 of The History, Herodotus tells of the return of the nomadic Scythians from their long war against the Medes, during which time the Scythian women had taken up with their slaves. The Scythian warriors now find a race of slaves arrayed against them.

Having been repulsed repeatedly by the slaves, one of the Scythians admonishes his fellows to set aside their weapons and take up horsewhips. “As long as they are used to seeing us with arms, they think that they are our equals and that their fathers are likewise our equals. Let them see us with whips instead of arms, and they will remember that they are our slaves; and, once they have realized that, they will not stand their ground against us.”

The tactic works. The slaves are bewildered by the whip-wielding Scythians, lose their fighting spirit, and flee in terror. The implication of Herodotus’s story is clear: There are natural masters and natural slaves. A slave has the soul of a slave and lacks the manliness to fight for his freedom, especially if a master never deigns to treat him as a man.

The Scythian view was reflected in a comment by Howell Cobb of Georgia: “The day you make soldiers of [Negroes] is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” Thus the performance of blacks under arms was important to make it clear that they were not the natural slaves that Southerners, and indeed many Northerners, believed them to be.

Without the participation of African Americans, the war to save the Union “as it was” could not have been transformed into a war to save the Union “as it should be” — i.e., without slavery. And without that participation it is unlikely that African Americans could ever have achieved full citizenship and equality in the United States. In 1892, Norwood Penrose Hallowell, the colonel of the 55th Massachusetts, captured the meaning of what the black soldier had accomplished during the war: “We called upon them in the day of our trial, when volunteering had ceased, when the draft was a partial failure, and the bounty system a senseless extravagance. They were ineligible for promotion, they were not to be treated as prisoners of war. Nothing was definite except that they could be shot and hanged as soldiers. Fortunate indeed it is for us, as well as for them, that they were equal to the crisis; that the grand historic moment which comes to a race only once in many centuries came to them, and they recognized it.”

— Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College. He also teaches in the Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG) program at Ashland University in Ohio. He wrote this article, among others, for his MAHG course on the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.

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