The Pivot of the War: Emancipation and the Union Army
Interpretation Intern, CWI, Gettysburg College
(This is the second of a two part series on the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation and African American troops on the Union army. Part 1 can be found here.)
On January 1, 1863, 100 days after issuing the preliminary version, Abraham Lincoln signed and finalized the Emancipation Proclamation. This document declared that all slaves in the states in rebellion would be forever free. The Proclamation also called for the enlistment of regiments of black soldiers led by white officers. Whether Union soldiers liked it or not, the war had taken on a larger meaning. Reaction in the camps to the Proclamation varied widely. Most viewed emancipation as favorable to the Union war effort, but did not immediately embrace abolition of slavery on moral or ethical grounds. A New York Sunday Mercury newspaper circulating in army camps in early February 1863, one month before the Enrollment Act established the first national draft, displayed an article titled “The Negro Soldiers Bill”. The article stated that “the Negroes should be made to fight. The North has sacrificed hundreds of thousands of her brave and generous sons. No further drain can be made on the white population without withdrawing from society its chief pillars of support… It would be preposterous to draft white men to fight, while hosts of the sable sons of Africa are ready to be transformed into soldiers, and whose services the Government has a right to claim.”
In the officer ranks of the Army of the Potomac, the Union army with the closest proximity to the nation’s capital, opinions were divided between rear-echelon, anti-Lincoln, pro-George B. McClellan loyalists on one side, and those mostly junior officers who had seen the war up close and were more likely to see Lincoln’s true purpose on the other. Major General Fitz-John Porter, V Corps commander, was the political soul-mate of his superior McClellan. Porter wrote to a friendly New York World newspaper reporter after issuance of the Proclamation: “The proclamation was ridiculed in the Army -- caused disgust, discontent, and expressions of disloyalty to the views of the administration and amount, I have heard, to insubordination.” Soldiers did their best, Porter claimed, only to see their efforts “upset by the absurd proclamations of a political coward.” A New York Herald correspondent, traveling with McClellan’s army, wrote that if the sampling of the officers he talked to was at all typical, emancipation “will go far towards producing an expression on the part of the Army that will startle the Country and give us a Military Dictator.”1 Other soldiers had a different view. In the same army camp, Colonel Charles Fessenden Morse of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, a battle-hardened veteran of the Peninsula Campaign, the Shenandoah Valley and Antietam, wrote of the Proclamation:
I believe its effect will be good. It is going to set us straight with foreign nations. It gives us a decided policy, and though the President carefully calls it nothing but a war measure, yet it is the beginning of a great reform and the first blow struck at the real, original cause of the war. No foreign nation can now support the South without openly countenancing slavery.2
Colonel Rufus R. Dawes, commanding the 6th Wisconsin Infantry, a veteran of some of the most horrific fighting at Antietam and Gettysburg, saw clearly that Lincoln’s masterstroke had given meaning to the war. In December 1863, after Lincoln’s Annual Message to Congress, he wrote that Emancipation “must command the respect of the world, and inspire confidence in the ultimate success of a cause so firmly planted on the right. If the full success we hope shall crown our struggle and slavery with rebellion be swept from the land… All hail to old Abe!”3 The enlisted men, in small numbers at first but in larger numbers over time, seemed to understand the effect of the Proclamation on the war. Private John B. Kay of Woodhall, Michigan, serving in the 6th Michigan Cavalry wrote: “Life has to be taken to preserve the Union [and] slavery has to be abolished to save the Union.”4 A week after the Proclamation was issued, Oliver Norton, from the 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry, wrote to his sister back in Springfield: “I approve of the proclamation, but I don't think it is going to scare the South into submission. I think it will result in the total overthrow of slavery, but next winter will witness scenes so bloody that the horrors of the French Revolution will be peace in comparison to it. If the South will have it so, the blood be on her own head. Seward was right -- the ‘irrepressible conflict’ will continue till freedom or slavery rules the nation.”5
In late 1862, the first black regiments, including Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s 1st South Carolina, began organizing and training. On May 22, 1863, the War Department established the "Bureau of Colored Troops" to facilitate the recruitment of African-American soldiers to fight. Regiments and batteries of infantry, cavalry, engineers and artillery were recruited across the Union. The colored soldiers knew what they were in for if they were captured. The Rebel army frequently executed black prisoners, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered that captured white officers leading black troops be charged with “inciting servile insurrection”, a crime punishable by death.6 By mid-1863, white soldiers were not the only ones demonstrating heroism and valor on the battlefield. Black soldiers were earning their blue uniforms in Union armies east and west. General Nathaniel P. Banks, commanding forces in Louisiana, spoke highly of black troops under his command at Port Hudson in May of 1863. “On the extreme right of our line I posted the First and Third regiments of negro troops… The position occupied by these troops was one of importance, and called for the utmost steadiness and bravery. It gives me great pleasure to report they answered every expectation. Their conduct was heroic. No troops could be more determined or more daring. Whatever doubt may have existed before as to the efficiency of organizations of this character, the history of this day proves conclusively that the Government will find in this class of troops effective supporters and defenders.”7 In General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee facing Vicksburg, Mississippi at Milliken’s Bend, Captain M. Miller, Commander of Company I, 9th Louisiana Colored Troops, wrote to his aunt about his unit’s experience in combat. “Two of my colored sergeants were killed, both brave, noble men; always prompt, vigilant, and ready for the fray. I never more wish to hear the expression, ‘The [blacks] wont fight.’ Come with me 100 yards from where I sit and I can show you the wounds that cover the bodies of 16 as brave, loyal, and patriotic soldiers as ever drew bead on a rebel.”8 By late 1864, black soldiers and their white officers were suffering and dying together. Major General Henry Thomas led a Union colored brigade into battle at the Crater in the siege lines outside Petersburg, Virginia in July, 1864. He was clearly proud of his men, white officers and black soldiers alike, and moved by their valor, mentioning them by name as he watched them fall:
My brigade moved gallantly on the right over the bombproofs and over the men of the First Division. As we mounted the pits, a deadly enfilade from eight guns on our right and a murderous crossfire of musketry met us. Among the officers, the first to fall was the gallant Fessenden of the 23rd Regiment. Ayers and Woodruff of the 31st dropped within a few yards of Fessenden. Ayers being killed, and Woodruff mortally wounded. Liscomb of the 23rd then fell to rise no more; and then Hackhiser of the 28th and Flint and Aiken of the 29th. Major Rockwood of the 19th then mounted the crest and fell back dead with a cheer on his lips. Nor were these all; for at that time hundreds of heroes ‘carved in ebony’ fell. These black men commanded the admiration and respect of every beholder.9
Casualties were horrific. The 29th U.S. Colored Infantry entered the attack with 450 troops and exited with 128.10 Old racial prejudices would die hard, however. The senior army command held a different view of the unit’s assault on the Crater: Thomas’s men and other black troops were blamed for the defeat.11
In the end, African American troops were critical to the Union war effort. By the end of the war, one-tenth of the men in the Union armies were black soldiers. Most had been slaves two years earlier. Lincoln himself acknowledged the contribution of former slaves fighting to earn the freedom that had been given them. “Any different policy in regard to the colored man,” Lincoln said, “deprives us of his help, and this is more than we can bear. We can not spare the hundred and forty or fifty thousand now serving us as soldiers, seamen, and laborers. This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force… Keep it and you can save the Union. Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.”12 There was something more important, however, than blacks serving as a combat force-multiplier. In Army Life in a Black Regiment, Colonel Thomas Higginson summarized the importance of black regiments during the war:
We who served with the black troops have this peculiar satisfaction, that, whatever dignity or sacredness the memories of the war may have to others, they have more to us. The peculiar privilege of associating with an outcast race, of training it to defend its rights and to perform its duties, this was our especial meed... We had touched the pivot of the war. Whether this vast and dusky mass should prove the weakness of the nation or its strength, must depend in great measure, we knew, upon our efforts. Till the blacks were armed, there was no guaranty of their freedom. It was their demeanor under arms that shamed the nation into recognizing them as men.13
Higginson, the other white officers who led black soldiers, and the white soldiers who fought beside them, had done much more. They had let them fight for the right to live as free men.
1. Stephen W. Sears, George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1988), 325.
2. Charles Fessenden Morse, letter in private collection, October 6, 1862, Maryland Heights, privately published, 1898.
3. Rufus R. Dawes, A Full Blown Yankee of the Iron Brigade: Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962), 230.
4. Bak, Distant Thunder, 47.
5. Oliver Wilcox Norton, to sister, September 29, 1862, Sharpsburg Ferry MD, Army Letters, Chicago IL, 1903.
6. James B. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 566.
7. Henry Carey Baird, Gen. Banks on the Bravery of Negro Troops (Philadelphia: 1863), OpenLibrary.org edition, accessed 1 December 2013. https://openlibrary.org/books/OL6549622M
8. Manning, A Vexed Question, 47.
9. Henry Goddard Thomas, “The Colored Troops at Petersburg” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume IV (Century Magazine), 564.
10. Joseph Glatthaar, The Civil War’s Black Soldiers (Eastern National Publishing, for the National Park Service, 2007), accessed 30 November 2013. http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/civil_war_series/2/sec1.htm
11. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume XL, Operations in Southeast Virginia & North Carolina, June 13 - July 31, 1864, Part 1, p. 166.
12. Glatthaar, Black Soldiers.
13. Higginson, Army Life, 206.