6 Black Heroes of the Civil War

6 Black Heroes of the Civil War

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

As America’s Civil War raged, with the enslavement of millions of people hanging in the balance, African Americans didn’t just sit on the sidelines. Whether enslaved, escaped or born free, many sought to actively affect the outcome.

From fighting on bloody battlefields to espionage behind enemy lines; from daring escapes to political maneuvering; from saving wounded soldiers to teaching them how to read, these six African Americans fought courageously to abolish slavery and discrimination. In their own way, each changed the course of American history.

Harriet Tubman: Spy and Military Leader

Harriet Tubman, best known for her courage and acumen as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, led hundreds of enslaved men, women and children north to freedom through its carefully prescribed routes and network of safe houses. But once the Civil War started in 1861, Tubman used her skills as a spy and expedition leader for the Union Army.

In 1862, she traveled to a Union camp in South Carolina, to help formerly enslaved people who had taken refuge with Union troops, and to work as a cook and a nurse. But despite being unable to read herself, Tubman gathered intelligence for the Union army, organizing scouts to map territories and waterways and pinpoint the location of Confederate troops and ordnance.

In 1863, she became the first and only woman to lead a military expedition during the Civil War, to resounding success. Tubman led 150 soldiers on three federal gunboats up South Carolina’s Combahee River for a surprise attack on the plantations of prominent secessionists, using intelligence she gathered from enslaved people to bypass hidden confederate torpedoes. Along the route, they stopped at several spots to rescue more than 700 enslaved people. Between enabling such a massive escape and burning and pillaging plantations, Tubman’s expedition dealt a major military and psychological blow to the confederacy. About 100 of the Black men rescued that day joined the Union Army.

Tubman went on other expeditions and kept gathering intelligence. One Union general was reportedly reluctant to let Tubman leave South Carolina because "her services are too valuable to lose" as she was "able to get more intelligence than anybody else" from the newly free people.

READ MORE: After the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman Led a Brazen Civil War Raid

Alexander Augusta: Pioneering War Doctor

With discrimination blocking his dreams of becoming a doctor in the United States, Alexander Augusta moved to Canada to earn his medical degree before returning to serve as the Union Army’s highest-ranking Black officer during the Civil War.

Born to free African American parents, Augusta worked as a barber in Baltimore while pursuing a medical education. Denied entry into the University of Pennsylvania, he studied privately with a faculty member until he married and moved to Toronto, Canada to obtain a degree from University of Toronto in 1856. He then became head of the Toronto City Hospital.

A supporter of the American antislavery movement, he returned to Baltimore at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 and wrote to President Abraham Lincoln, offering his services as a surgeon. He received a major’s commission as head surgeon in the 7th U.S. Colored Infantry, the Army’s first African American physician out of eight in the Union Army—and its highest-ranking African American officer.

His rank did not shield him from racism. He was physically attacked in Baltimore for wearing his officer’s uniform. Complaints from white subordinates led Lincoln to transfer him to run the local Freedmen’s Hospital in 1863.

After the war, he practiced medicine and became the first Black medical professor and one of the original faculty members of the new Medical College at Howard University, where he stayed until 1877.

The American Medical Association denied him recognition as a physician, but he encouraged young Black medical students to persevere in their dreams as he did. When he died in 1890, he was the first Black officer to be buried in the Arlington National Cemetery.

Abraham Galloway: Soldier, Spy and State Senator

Three years after escaping slavery in the cargo hold of a ship heading north, Abraham Galloway returned South to free more enslaved people, including a brazen incursion to free his mother. Fearless, fiery and tireless in his quest to better the lives of African Americans, it turned out Galloway was just the kind of master spy the Union forces needed.

Galloway posed as a slave to gather intelligence from confederate troops, set up a spy network in parts of the South and encouraged thousands of enslaved men who had sought protection behind Union lines to take up arms to gain their freedom. He helped raise three regiments of United States Colored Troops.

He never learned to read, but used his powerful oratory and organizing skills to fight for Black people’s rights as citizens. Galloway was part of a delegation of five Southern Black leaders to the White House to demand that Lincoln support Black civil rights. He organized state and local chapters of the National Equal Rights League. And in September 1865, helped to lead a freed people’s convention.

In 1868, he became one of the first Black men elected to the North Carolina legislature, fighting violent voter suppression by the Ku Klux Klan in the process. Galloway, who faced numerous assassination threats, always had pistols at his waist and led an armed Black militia in Wilmington to counter the constant intimidation. He and two other Black men won election as state senators, while 18 Black men became representatives in the North Carolina General Assembly of 1868-1869. During his tenure, Galloway voted for the 14th and 15th amendments, granting citizenship and suffrage rights to Black men.

READ MORE: America's Only Successful Coup d'Etat Overthrew a Biracial Government in 1898

Frederick Douglass: Abolitionist Pushing for Black Recruitment

By the time the Civil War began in 1861, Frederick Douglass was one of the most famous Black men in the United States—a prominent voice for freedom, human rights and social reform. An exceptional orator and writer whose autobiographies detailing his slavery and escape became best sellers, Douglass was a national abolitionist leader who for some 20 years had the ear of the country’s leaders.

Early in the Civil War, Douglass clashed with President Abraham Lincoln for not allowing formerly enslaved people to enlist. Lincoln had been reluctant to arm Black men and allow them to serve in the Union military forces—in part due to racism and also for fear that outraged border states would join the secession, ensuring the Union’s loss. But as Union defeats mounted and manpower dwindled, Black men formed units of the their own in the South in 1862. An official call to arms to Black men came in early 1863.

Douglass, with other prominent abolitionists, helped recruit Black soldiers for the Union. He traveled thousands of miles to recruitment meetings, lauding the benefits of service and ending many of his speeches by leading the audience in “John Brown’s Body,” a popular Union Army song. He published frequently on the topic in his newspaper Douglass Monthly, with articles and broadsides like “Men of Color to Arms!” and “Why Should a Colored Man Enlist?”

Two of his Douglass’s sons, Charles and Lewis, were among the first to enlist in the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the second African American battalion that saw extensive service in the war, commanded by white officers. A third son, Frederick Jr., recruited for the regiment like his father.

For Douglass, wearing the uniform of a soldier carried great symbolism of a man’s worthiness for freedom and a full slate of civil rights. “An eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and his bullets in his pockets,” Douglass said, “there is no power on earth…which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.”

WATCH The 54th Massachusetts on HISTORY Vault.

Robert Smalls: Sailor Turned Senator

Robert Smalls' daring escape from slavery into the hands of the Union Navy put him on a path to become the public face—and prominent recruiter—of Black sailors for the Union. He himself would parlay that into a successful political career.

Raised in slavery in South Carolina, the son of an unknown white man, Smalls gained experience as a rigger and sailor after his owners moved from Beaufort to the larger port city of Charleston, where he married Hannah Jones, an enslaved hotel maid.

When his attempts to buy his wife and family out of slavery failed, he plotted an escape. As the Civil War broke out, he became a deckhand on the Confederate supply ship the Planter and learned how to navigate between ports. Before dawn on May 13, 1862, as white officers and the crew slept, he slipped the Planter out of Charleston Harbor with eight men, five women and three children on board, chugging quietly from slavery toward freedom.

Ready to blow up the ship if caught, Smalls gave the right signals to pass five checkpoints (including Fort Sumter) and, once in open waters, raised a white bed sheet in surrender to the Union Navy blockade. He handed over the craft’s guns and ammunition, as well as documents detailing Confederate shipping routes, departure schedules and mine locations.

The daring escape helped encourage President Lincoln to authorize free Blacks to serve in the military. Congress awarded $1,500 to Smalls, who went on a speaking tour, recruiting Black men to serve. He also conducted 17 missions on the Planter and the ironclad USS Keokuk in and around Charleston.

Once commissioned as a brigadier general in the South Carolina militia, he ran a variety of businesses before launching into politics—as a member of both South Carolina’s House of Representatives and its state Senate. His term in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1874 to 1879 was marred when he was convicted of taking a $5,000 bribe while in the state Senate. Sentenced to three years in prison, he was pardoned before serving any time.

READ MORE: 5 Formerly Enslaved People Turned Statesmen

Susie King Taylor: Teacher and Battlefield Nurse

Born into slavery in Georgia in 1848, Susan Baker King Taylor went to live with her free grandmother in Savannah where her secret education by teachers and tutors defied laws prohibiting formal education for African Americans.

After escaping slavery with her uncle and others, she joined hundreds of formerly enslaved refugees at Union-occupied St. Simons Island off Georgia’s southern coast. At just 14 years old, she became the first Black teacher to openly educate African Americans in Georgia.

She married Edward King, a Black officer in the 33rd United States Colored Infantry Regiment. When she wasn’t working as a nurse or laundress for them, she taught soldiers to read and write and “learned to handle a musket very well…and could shoot straight and often hit the target,” she wrote in her memoirs.

While working as a nurse at a hospital for African American soldiers in Beaumont, South Carolina, she met and worked with Clara Barton, the pioneering nurse and humanitarian who would establish the American Red Cross. After the war, Taylor and her husband moved to Savannah and opened a school for African American children in 1866. When he died and the school failed, she took a job as a domestic servant with a wealthy family, with whom she moved to Boston.

In 1902, Taylor became the first and only African American woman to write a memoir about her experiences in the Civil War, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers. She wrote of the persistent racism decades after the conflict, but reflected on a glorious time of the fight for freedom.

Not all African Americans faced the horrors of combat on the front lines. Many played supporting roles as carpenters, cooks, nurses, laborers, surgeons, and steamboat pilots. A total of 179,000 African Americans fought during the war, making up 10% of the Union Army.

Eighty of them were commissioned officers. Although black women couldn’t officially serve, many acted as spies, cooks, nurses, and scouts. Harriet Tubman, who orchestrated the Underground Railroad, was one of the most famous.

In this Aug. 28, 1963 photo, Dorothy Height, right, president of the National Council of Negro Women, listens as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his "I Have a Dream" speech. (Photo: AP)

On that historic August day in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. told us his dream. We didn't get to hear what the women of the civil rights movement dreamed of, because none spoke at length during the official program of the March on Washington.

Daisy Bates, a leader in the movement to end segregation in Arkansas and guide for the nine students who integrated Little Rock's Central High in 1958, gave a brief pledge on Aug. 28, 1963, before the “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom," an addition to the program meant to assuage black women who felt their voices were being marginalized and their contributions overlooked.

The civil rights movement could not have happened without women. They were grassroots organizers, educators, strategists and writers. They built organizational infrastructure, developed legal arguments and mentored young activists. They fought ardently against the forces of racism, but they also battled another form of oppression: sexism.

"There were hundreds of unnamed women who participated in the movement," said Barbara Reynolds, a journalist and minister whose recordings of King's wife, Coretta Scott King, are the basis of the activist's posthumous memoir, My Life, My Love, My Legacy. "It was not just a few leaders — it was women . who really put their mark on history."

Many of these women were architects in their own right, yet they found themselves outside King's inner circle.

'Black Panther' celebrates, elevates black women

Coretta Scott King: Full partner in civil rights

Jackson: Nation's poverty would disappoint King

"Dr. King was a chauvinist," Reynolds said. Men like him "could not assert their manhood in the general society, because they would be killed if they stood up for anything," so they asserted their masculinity in other ways within their own community.

The women of the civil rights and black liberation movements understood their fight for human rights needed to address the dual forces of racism and sexism, and that it needed be inclusive. As Dayo F. Gore, Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard wrote in Want to Start a Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, many women worked to "create new structures and political movements free from racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia to nourish their visions of liberation."

"The women around (King) . had something more to say," said Ericka Huggins, a former leader in the Black Panther Party, which she said also struggled with sexism. "They had something more to say about how the institutional, structural sexism, and misogyny in some ways, was in place."

Colin Kaepernick and former Black Panther leader Ericka Huggins

&mdash Mac Jetson ☥☮ (@iSeekTruth007) June 21, 2017

The courage of black female activists in confronting multiple forms of oppression influenced other protest movements, including second-wave feminism, the fight for gay rights and the protests against the Vietnam War.

Coretta Scott King, a leader in her own right, used her talent as a singer to raise awareness and funds for her husband's movement and to advocate for human rights broadly. She was an earlier critic of the Vietnam War than her husband, and persuaded him to speak out against it.

Members of the Women's Strike for Peace, including Coretta Scott King, right, participate in a demonstration across from the United Nations in New York on Nov. 1, 1963. (Photo: Eddie Adams, AP)

King was the face of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, one of the most prominent African American civil rights organization's of his time. But it was the political savvy of lifelong activist Ella Baker, viewed by some as the most influential woman in the civil rights movement, that birthed the organization and set its agenda, writes Barbara Ransby in Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement. Baker also had pivotal roles in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Ella Baker, official of the Southern Conference Educational Fund, speaks at a news conference on Jan. 3, 1968. (Photo: Jack Harris, AP)

"Baker operated in a political world that was, in many ways, not fully ready for her," Ransby writes. "She inserted herself into leadership situations where others thought she simply did not belong. Her unique presence pioneered the way for fuller participation by other women in political organizations, and it reshaped the positions within the movement that they would occupy. At each stage she nudged the movement in a leftward, inclusive, and democratic direction, learning and modifying her own position as she went."

Not always mentioned is Pauli Murray, the gender non-conforming activist and legal scholar who coined the term "Jane Crow" for the sex discrimination black women faced. Murray worked with King, but was critical of the lack of female leadership in his movement. Her book States’ Laws on Race and Color has been referred to as the “bible” of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court ruling which declared separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional.

Brandeis University professor Dr. Pauli Murray poses for a portrait in Waltham, Mass. on Sept. 25, 1970. Murray, who worked with Martin Luther King Jr., coined the term "Jane Crow" for the sex discrimination black women faced. (Photo: AP)

The Oscar-nominated film Selma focused on King's legacy in the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights marches in 1965, but it was Diane Nash, barely a presence in the film, who was one of its major organizers. Nash, a co-founder of SNCC, also helped orchestrate the campaign to integrate lunch counters in Nashville in 1960.

Even when history does remember women, it tends to treat them as fables rather than human beings. Take Rosa Parks, who has been stripped of dimension, immortalized as an accidental hero.

"Everyone seems to think she was a frail little woman who was tired — that woman whose feet hurt," Reynolds said. But Parks was a lifelong activist for racial justice. What she was tired of, Reynolds said, was "being put on the back of the bus."

Dorothy Height, a major leader of her day who served as president of the National Council of Negro Women, stood on the platform with King during the March on Washington, but said many women were furious about their mistreatment during it.

"I've never seen a more immovable force," Height wrote in Sisters in the Struggle African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement. "We could not get women's participation taken seriously."

Rosa Parks: A Video

Martin Luther King, Jr.

It wasn't just that Martin Luther King became the leader of the civil rights movement that made him so extraordinary?it was the way in which he led the movement. King advocated civil disobedience, the non-violent resistance against unjust laws: "Non-violence is a powerful and just weapon which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it." Civil rights activists organized demonstrations, marches, boycotts, strikes, and voter-registration drives, and refused to obey laws that they knew were wrong and unjust.

These peaceful forms of protest were often met with vicious threats, arrests, beatings, and worse. King emphasized how important it was that the civil rights movement did not sink to the level of the racists and hate mongers they fought against: "Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred," he urged. "We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline." King's philosophy of "tough-mindedness and tenderheartedness" was not only highly effective, but it gave the civil rights movement an inspiring moral authority and grace.

5 Myth: Malcolm X Was A Violent Radical, While Martin Luther King, Jr. Was All About Pacifism

History sees Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. as two sides of the same coin. Malcolm X was the violence-preaching militant radical, and Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Gandhi-like pacifist, though both were pushing for the same outcome. These days, we always tend to put activists into one of those two molds, and only offer public approval for the latter.

Reality, however, is always more complicated. For all of his militant talk, Malcolm X did not advocate attacking the government. He urged that black people should be ready to defend themselves violently if need be, but never once by initiating violence. Sure, he used scary-sounding rhetoric, but it was never "Kill the whites to affect change" (which his mentor Elijah Muhammad told him would be suicide). Rather, it was, "We're not afraid to fight back," or in his own words, "Put your hands on us thinking that we're going to turn the other cheek -- we'll put you to death just like that." He was otherwise known to actively defuse situations where his supporters were getting too unruly, and even in his private life he was far more likely to be polite to the "white devils" he met.

Meanwhile, Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn't quite as averse to guns as his popular legacy would have us believe. While he certainly did organize all of those nonviolent protests you know him for, he fully bought into the idea of "just in case" firepower. Remember, King was a man of the South, fighting against acts of terrorism against his person and his people. Of course the dude had a piece or 16. In the early period of his leadership, his household could be accurately called an arsenal. It wasn't unheard of for a visitor to sit on a chair, only to be warned at the last second they were about to place their ass on a couple of guns. After his house was bombed in 1956, King even tried to get a concealed carry permit, though this went about as well as you'd expect. King also preached what he practiced, incidentally his writings acknowledge the right to armed self-defense.

Once again, please don't take this as some kind of simplistic "So King was the violent one, and X was the peace-seeker!" switcheroo. The point is that we tend to remember activists by their catchiest soundbites, boiling an entire body of work into something that can fit on a T-shirt. Malcolm X got mainstream headlines for being scary, while King's most famous speeches are about Christian calls for peace and justice. But humans aren't slogans, and real life demands that every activist has a practical side.

Related: Stop Explaining What MLK 'Would Have Done' To MLK’s Children

The First Heroes of African American Christian History

So wrote the first major black poet in American history and one of the nation's first major female poets, Phillis Wheatley.

She was born in Gambia, West Africa, stolen from her parents at age 7, enslaved, and brought to America. Boston tailor John Wheatley purchased her as a personal servant for his wife, Susannah. Phillis displayed a ready intelligence, learned English quickly, and soon began reading and writing poetry.

The Wheatleys were members of the famed Old South Meeting House in Boston, where Phillis attended church and was baptized at age 18. She achieved some renown with the publication, in England, of her Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral (1773). Though she had been examined by "18 of the most respectable characters in Boston" (to prove that she, a black women, really wrote the poems), no American publisher would publish her. Only with the help of evangelical philanthropist Selina, Countess of Huntington, did her poems come to the public's attention. As a result of her obvious gifts, her owners eventually gave her freedom.

Her poetry reflects the neoclassical style of the day but also reveals the circumstances of her life, especially her race and her faith. Perhaps her most famous poem was "On Being Brought from Africa to America," quoted above. Later she won the notice of General George Washington with a poem she dedicated to him.

She also memorialized the work of evangelist George Whitefield, a pioneer in preaching to blacks. Wheatley, in her poem .

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

American Civil War Heroes

Sounds pretty straight forward, right? This page must be about people from the Civil War who performed great, heroic, and noble deeds.

It is that, but I hope to eventually make it much more than just that. There will be stories about great individuals - generals and leaders - who come up in every civil war discussion. Names like Lee, Grant, Lincoln, Davis, Jackson, Meade, etc. These should come up due to their large impacts in this war.

However, I want this to be even more than that.

Most importantly, I won't be doing biographical pages about those well known names listed above. If I cover someone like Lincoln it will be a collection of interesting, under-the-radar stories about him rather than the story of his life. The aim is to provide you with a collection of stories about Civil War people you won't find on every site out there.

We have special pages dealing with the adventures of  Civil War spies ਊnd  Civil War women . For their exciting stories, please check out those pages.


The issue of raising African-American regiments in the Union's war efforts was at first met with trepidation by officials within the Union command structure, President Abraham Lincoln included. Concerns over the response of the border states (of which one, Maryland, surrounded the capital of Washington D.C.), the response of white soldiers and officers, as well as the effectiveness of a fighting force composed of black men were raised. [4] : 165–167 [5] Despite official reluctance from above, the number of white volunteers dropped throughout the war, and black soldiers were needed whether the population liked it or not. [6] However, African Americans had been volunteering since the first days of war on both sides, though many were turned down. [7]

On July 17, 1862, the U.S. Congress passed two Acts allowing for the enlistment of "colored" troops (African Americans) [8] but official enrollment occurred only after the effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863. However, state and local militia units had already begun enlisting Blacks, including the "Black Brigade of Cincinnati", raised in September 1862 to help provide manpower to thwart a feared Confederate raid on Cincinnati from Kentucky. In May 1863, Congress established the Bureau of Colored Troops in an effort to organize black efforts in the war. [9]

African Americans served as medical officers after 1863, beginning with Baltimore surgeon Alexander Augusta. Augusta was a senior surgeon, with white assistant surgeons under his command at Fort Stanton, MD. [10]

In actual numbers, African-American soldiers eventually comprised 10% of the entire Union Army (United States Army). Losses among African Americans were high: in the last year and a half and from all reported casualties, approximately 20% of all African Americans enrolled in the military lost their lives during the Civil War. [1] : 16 Notably, their mortality rate was significantly higher than that of white soldiers:

[We] find, according to the revised official data, that of the slightly over two millions troops in the United States Volunteers, over 316,000 died (from all causes), or 15.2%. Of the 67,000 Regular Army (white) troops, 8.6%, or not quite 6,000, died. Of the approximately 180,000 United States Colored Troops, however, over 36,000 died, or 20.5%. In other words, the mortality "rate" amongst the United States Colored Troops in the Civil War was thirty-five percent greater than that among other troops, notwithstanding the fact that the former were not enrolled until some eighteen months after the fighting began.

Non-combatant labor duty Edit

Escaped slaves who sought refuge in Union Army camps were called contrabands. A number of officers in the field experimented, with varying degrees of success, in using contrabands for manual work in Union Army camps, and later in raising Black regiments of soldiers from them. These included Gen. David Hunter (1802–1886), U.S. Sen./Gen. James H. Lane (1814–1866), and Gen. Benjamin F. Butler (1818–1893), of Massachusetts. [4] : 165–167 In early 1861, General Butler was the first known Union commander to use black contrabands, in a non-combatant role, to do the physical labor duties, after he refused to return escaped slaves, at Fort Monroe, Virginia, who came to him for asylum from their masters, who sought to capture and reenslave them. In September 1862, free African-American men were conscripted and impressed into forced labor for constructing defensive fortifications, by the police force of the city of Cincinnati, Ohio however, they were soon released from their forced labor and a call for African-American volunteers was sent out. Some 700 of them volunteered, and they came to be known as the Black Brigade of Cincinnati. Because of the harsh working conditions and the extreme brutality of their Cincinnati police guards, the Union Army, under General Lew Wallace, stepped in to restore order and ensure that the black conscripts received the fair treatment due to soldiers, including the equal pay of privates.

Contrabands were later settled in a number of colonies, such as at the Grand Contraband Camp, Virginia, and in the Port Royal Experiment.

Blacks also participated in activities further behind the lines that helped keep an army functioning, such as at hospitals and the like. Jane E. Schultz wrote of the medical corps that "Approximately 10 percent of the Union's female relief workforce was of African descent: free blacks of diverse education and class background who earned wages or worked without pay in the larger cause of freedom, and runaway slaves who sought sanctuary in military camps and hospitals." [11]

Early battles in 1862 and 1863 Edit

In general, white soldiers and officers believed that Black men lacked the ability to fight and fight well. In October 1862, African-American soldiers of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, in one of the first engagements involving Black troops, silenced their critics by repulsing attacking Confederate guerrillas at the Skirmish at Island Mound, Missouri, in the Western Theatre. By August, 1863, 14 more Negro State Regiments were in the field and ready for service. Union General Benjamin Butler wrote "Better soldiers never shouldered a musket. I observed a very remarkable trait about them. They learned to handle arms and to march more easily than intelligent white men. My drillmaster could teach a regiment of Negroes that much of the art of war sooner than he could have taught the same number of students from Harvard or Yale." [12]

At the Battle of Port Hudson, Louisiana, May 27, 1863, the African-American soldiers bravely advanced over open ground in the face of deadly artillery fire. Although the attack failed, the Black soldiers proved their capability to withstand the heat of battle, with General Nathaniel P. Banks (1816–1894) recording in his official report: "Whatever doubt may have existed heretofore as to the efficiency of organizations of this character, the history of this day's proves. in this class of troops effective supporters and defenders." [13] Noted for his bravery was Union Captain Andre Cailloux, who fell early in the battle. [14] This was the first battle involving a formal Federal African-American unit. [15]

On June 7, 1863, a garrison consisting mostly of black troops assigned to guard a supply depot during the Vicksburg Campaign found themselves under attack by a larger Confederate force. Recently recruited, minimally trained, and poorly armed, the black soldiers still managed to successfully repulse the attack in the ensuing Battle of Milliken's Bend with the help of federal gunboats from the Tennessee river, despite suffering nearly three times as many casualties as the rebels. [16] At one point in the battle, Confederate General Henry McCulloch noted "The line was formed under a heavy fire from the enemy, and the troops charged the breastworks, carrying it instantly, killing and wounding many of the enemy by their deadly fire, as well as the bayonet. This charge was resisted by the negro portion of the enemy's force with considerable obstinacy, while the white or true Yankee portion ran like whipped curs almost as soon as the charge was ordered." [17]

Fort Wagner, Fort Pillow, and beyond Edit

The most widely known battle fought by African Americans was the assault on Fort Wagner, off the Charleston coast, South Carolina, by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry on July 18, 1863. The 54th volunteered to lead the assault on the strongly fortified Confederate positions of the earthen/sand embankments (very resistant to artillery fire) on the coastal beach. The soldiers of the 54th scaled the Fort's parapet, and were only driven back after brutal hand-to-hand combat. Despite the defeat, the unit was hailed for its valor, which spurred further African-American recruitment, giving the Union a numerical military advantage from a large segment of the population the Confederacy did not attempt to exploit until too late in the closing days of the War. Unfortunately for any African-American soldiers captured during these battles, imprisonment could be even worse than death. Black prisoners were not treated the same as white prisoners. They received no medical attention, harsh punishments, and would not be used in a prisoner exchange because the Confederate states only saw them as escaped slaves fighting against their masters. [19]

After the battle, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton praised the recent performances of black troops in a letter to Abraham Lincoln, stating "Many persons believed, or pretended to believe, and confidentially asserted, that freed slaves would not make good soldiers they would lack courage, and could not be subjected to military discipline. Facts have shown how groundless were these apprehensions. The slave has proved his manhood, and his capacity as an infantry soldier, at Milliken's Bend, at the assault opon Port Hudson, and the storming of Fort Wagner." [17]

African-American soldiers participated in every major campaign of the War's last year, 1864–1865, except for Sherman's Atlanta Campaign in Georgia, and the following "March to the Sea" to Savannah, by Christmas 1864. The year 1864 was especially eventful for African-American troops. On April 12, 1864, at the Battle of Fort Pillow, in Tennessee, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest led his 2,500 men against the Union-held fortification, occupied by 292 black and 285 white soldiers.

After driving in the Union pickets and giving the garrison an opportunity to surrender, Forrest's men swarmed into the Fort with little difficulty and drove the Federals down the river's bluff into a deadly crossfire. Casualties were high and only sixty-two of the U.S. Colored Troops survived the fight. Accounts from both Union and Confederate witnesses suggest a massacre. [20] Many believed that the massacre was ordered by Forrest. The battle cry for some black soldiers became "Remember Fort Pillow!"

The Battle of Chaffin's Farm, Virginia, became one of the most heroic engagements involving Black troops. On September 29, 1864, the African-American division of the Eighteenth Corps, after being pinned down by Confederate artillery fire for about 30 minutes, charged the earthworks and rushed up the slopes of the heights. During the hour-long engagement the Division suffered tremendous casualties. Of the twenty-five African Americans who were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor during the Civil War, fourteen received the honor as a result of their actions at Chaffin's Farm.

Discrimination in pay and assignments Edit

Although black soldiers proved themselves as reputable soldiers, discrimination in pay and other areas remained widespread. According to the Militia Act of 1862, soldiers of African descent were to receive $10.00 per month, with an optional deduction for clothing at $3.00. In contrast, white privates received $12.00 per month plus a clothing allowance of $3.50. [22] Many regiments struggled for equal pay, some refusing any money and pay until June 15, 1864, when the Federal Congress granted equal pay for all soldiers. [23] [24]

Besides discrimination in pay, colored units were often disproportionately assigned laborer work, rather than combat assignments. [4] : 198 General Daniel Ullman, commander of the Corps d'Afrique, remarked "I fear that many high officials outside of Washington have no other intention than that these men shall be used as diggers and drudges." [25]

African-American contributions to Union war intelligence Edit

Blacks, both slave and free, were also heavily involved in assisting the Union in matters of intelligence, and their contributions were labeled Black Dispatches. [26] One of these spies was Mary Bowser. Harriet Tubman was also a spy, a nurse, and a cook whose efforts were key to Union victories and survival. Tubman is most widely recognized for her contributions to freeing slaves via the Underground Railroad. However, her contributions to the Union Army were equally important. She used her knowledge of the country's terrain to gain important intelligence for the Union Army. She became the first woman to lead U.S. soldiers into combat when, under the order of Colonel James Montgomery, she took a contingent of soldiers in South Carolina behind enemy lines, destroying plantations and freeing 750 slaves in the process. [27]

Blacks routinely assisted Union armies advancing through Confederate territory as scouts, guides, and spies. Confederate General Robert Lee said "The chief source of information to the enemy is through our negroes." [28] In a letter to Confederate high command, Confederate general Patrick Cleburne complained "All along the lines slavery is comparatively valueless to us for labor, but of great and increasing worth to the enemy for information. It is an omnipresent spy system, pointing out our valuable men to the enemy, revealing our positions, purposes, and resources, and yet acting so safely and secretly that there is no means to guard against it. Even in the heart of our country, where our hold upon this secret espionage is firmest, it waits but the opening fire of the enemy's battle line to wake it, like a torpid serpent, into venomous activity." [29]

Union Navy (U.S. Navy) Edit

Like the army, the Union Navy's official position at the beginning of the war was ambivalence towards the use of either Northern free blacks or runaway slaves. The constant stream, however, of escaped slaves seeking refuge aboard Union ships, forced the Navy to formulate a policy towards them. [30] Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Wells in a terse order, pointed out the following

It is not the policy of this Government to invite or encourage this kind of desertion and yet, under the circumstances, no other course. could be adopted without violating every principle of humanity. To return them would be impolitic as well as cruel. you will do well to employ them.

In time, the Union Navy would see almost 16% of its ranks supplied by African Americans, performing in a wide range of enlisted roles. [32] In contrast to the Army, the Navy from the outset not only paid equal wages to white and black sailors, but offered considerably more for even entry-level enlisted positions. [33] Food rations and medical care were also improved over the Army, with the Navy benefiting from a regular stream of supplies from Union-held ports. [34]

Becoming a commissioned officer, however was still out of reach for nearly all black sailors. With rare exceptions, only the rank of petty officer would be offered to black sailors, and in practice, only to free blacks (who often were the only ones with naval careers sufficiently long to earn the rank). [35] Robert Smalls, an escaped slave, was given the rank of captain of the steamer "Planter" in December 1864. [36]

Confederate Army Edit

Blacks did not serve in the Confederate Army as combat troops. [2] [38] [39] Blacks were not merely not recruited service was actively forbidden by the Confederacy for the majority of its existence. [2] Enslaved blacks were sometimes used for camp labor, however. Other times, when a son or sons in a slaveholding family enlisted, he would take along a family slave to work as a personal servant. Such slaves would perform non-combat duties such as carrying and loading supplies, but they were not soldiers. Still, even these civilian usages were comparatively infrequent. In areas where the Union Army approached, a wave of slave escapes would inevitably follow Southern blacks would inevitably offer themselves as scouts who knew the territory to the Federals. Confederate armies were rationally nervous about having too many blacks marching with them, as their patchy loyalty to the Confederacy meant that the risk of one turning runaway and informing the Federals as to the rebel army's size and position was substantial. Opposition to arming blacks was even stauncher. Many in the South feared slave revolts already, and arming blacks would make the threat of mistreated slaves overthrowing their masters even greater. [2]

The closest the Confederacy came to seriously attempting to equip colored soldiers in the army proper came in the last few weeks of the war. The Confederate Congress narrowly passed a bill allowing slaves to join the army. The bill did not offer or guarantee an end to their servitude as an incentive to enlist. Even this weak bill, supported by Robert E. Lee, passed only narrowly, by a 9–8 vote in the Senate. President Jefferson Davis signed the law on March 13, 1865, but went beyond the terms in the bill by issuing an order on March 23 to offer freedom to slaves so recruited. The emancipation offered, however, was reliant upon a master's consent "no slave will be accepted as a recruit unless with his own consent and with the approbation of his master by a written instrument conferring, as far as he may, the rights of a freedman." [40] According to historian William C. Davis, President Davis felt that blacks would not fight unless they were guaranteed their freedom after the war. [41] Gaining this consent from slaveholders, however, was an "unlikely prospect". [2]

According to calculations of Virginia's state auditor, some 4,700 free black males and more than 25,000 male slaves between eighteen and forty five years of age were fit for service. [42] However, only a small number were raised in the intervening months, mostly as medics coming from two local hospitals -Windsor and Jackson- as well as a formal recruiting center created by General Ewell and staffed by Majors James Pegram and Thomas P. Turner. [43] : 125 They managed to recruit about 200. [44] Two companies of blacks were mustered, and they paraded down the streets of Richmond, albeit without weapons. At least one such review had to be cancelled due not merely to lack of weaponry, but also lack of uniforms or equipment. These units did not see combat Richmond fell without a battle to Union armies one week later in early April 1865. These two companies were the sole exception to the Confederacy's policy of spurning black soldiery, never saw combat, and came too late in the war to matter. [2] In his memoirs, Davis stated "There did not remain time enough to obtain any result from its provisions". [45]

According to a 2019 study by historian Kevin M. Levin, the origin of the myth of black Confederate soldiers primarily originates in the 1970s. [46] After 1977, some Confederate heritage groups began to claim that large numbers of black soldiers fought loyally for the Confederacy. [47] [48] These accounts are not given credence by historians, as they rely on sources such as postwar individual journals rather than military records. [2] [47] Historian Bruce Levine wrote:

The whole sorry episode [the mustering of colored troops in Richmond] provides a fitting coda for our examination of modern claims that thousands and thousands of black troops loyally fought in the Confederate armies. This strikingly unsuccessful last-ditch effort constituted the sole exception to the Confederacy's steadfast refusal to employ African American soldiers. As General Ewell's long term aide-de-camp, Major George Campbell Brown, later affirmed, the handful of black soldiers mustered in the southern capital in March of 1865 constituted 'the first and only black troops used on our side.' [49]

Non-military use Edit

The impressment of slaves and conscription of freedmen into direct military labor initially came on the impetus of state legislatures, and by 1864, six states had regulated impressment (Florida, Virginia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, in order of authorization). [50] [51] [52] Slave labor was used in a wide variety of support roles, from infrastructure and mining, to teamster and medical roles such as hospital attendants and nurses. [43] : 62–63 Bruce Levine wrote that "Nearly 40% of the Confederacy's population were unfree. the work required to sustain the same society during war naturally fell disproportionately on black shoulders as well. By drawing so many white men into the army, indeed, the war multiplied the importance of the black work force." [43] : 62

Naval historian Ivan Musicant wrote that blacks may have possibly served various petty positions in the Confederate Navy, such as coal heavers or officer's stewards, although records are lacking. [53]

After the war, the State of Tennessee granted Confederate Pensions to nearly 300 African Americans for their service to the Confederacy. [54] [55]

Proposals to arm slaves Edit

The idea of arming slaves for use as soldiers was speculated on from the onset of the war, but not seriously considered by Davis or others in his administration. As the Union saw victories in the fall of 1862 and the spring of 1863, however, the need for more manpower was acknowledged by the Confederacy in the form of conscription of white men, and the national impressment of free and slave blacks into laborer positions. State militias composed of freedmen were offered, but the War Department spurned the offer. [43] : 19

In January 1864, General Patrick Cleburne in the Army of Tennessee proposed using slaves as soldiers in the national army to buttress falling troop numbers. Cleburne recommended offering slaves their freedom if they fought and survived. He also recommended recognizing slave marriages and family, and forbidding their sale, hotly controversial proposals when slaveowners routinely separated families and refused to recognize familial bonds. Cleburne cited the blacks in the Union army as proof that they could fight. He also believed that such a policy would reduce mass defections of slaves to the Union: "The approach of the enemy would no longer find every household surrounded by spies . There would be no recruits awaiting the enemy with open arms, no complete history of every neighborhood with ready guides, no fear of insurrection in the rear. [2]

Cleburne's proposal received a hostile reception. Recognizing slave families would entirely undermine the economic foundation of slavery, as a man's wife and children would no longer be salable commodities, so his proposal veered too close to abolition for the pro-slavery Confederacy. [2] The other officers in the Army of Tennessee disapproved of the proposal. A. P. Stewart said that emancipating slaves for military use was "at war with my social, moral, and political principles", while James Patton Anderson called the proposal "revolting to Southern sentiment, Southern pride, and Southern honor." [57] [58] [2] It was sent to Confederate President Jefferson Davis anyway, who refused to consider Cleburne's proposal and ordered the report kept private as discussion of it could only produce "discouragement, distraction, and dissension." Military adviser to Davis General Braxton Bragg considered the proposal outright treasonous to the Confederacy. [2]

The growing setbacks for the Confederacy in late 1864 caused a number of prominent officials to reconsider their earlier stance, however. President Lincoln's re-election in November 1864 seemed to seal the best political chance for victory the South had. President Davis, Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin, and General Robert E. Lee now were willing to consider modified versions of Cleburne's original proposal. On November 7, 1864, in his annual address to Congress, Davis hinted at arming slaves. [59] Despite the suppression of Cleburne's idea, the question of enlisting slaves into the army had not faded away, but had become a fixture of debate among columns of southern newspapers and southern society in the winter of 1864. [43] : 4 [60] Representative of the two sides in the debate were the Richmond Enquirer and the Charleston Courier:

. whenever the subjugation of Virginia or the employment of her slaves as soldiers are alternative propositions, then certainly we are for making them soldiers, and giving freedom to those negroes that escape the casualties of battle.

Slavery, God's institution of labor, and the primary political element of our Confederation of Government, state sovereignty. must stand or fall together. To talk of maintaining independence while we abolish slavery is simply to talk folly.

Opposition to the proposal was still widespread, even in the last months of the war. Howell Cobb of Georgia wrote in January 1865 that

the proposition to make soldiers of our slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began. You cannot make soldiers of slaves, nor slaves of soldiers. 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 – but they won't make soldiers. [58] [2]

Robert M. T. Hunter wrote "What did we go to war for, if not to protect our property?" [2] Confederate General Robert Toombs complained "But if you put our negroes and white men into the army together, you must and will put them on an equality they must be under the same code, the same pay, allowances and clothing. There must be promotions for valor or there will be no morals among them. Therefore, it is a surrender of the entire slavery question." [63]

On January 11, 1865 General Robert E. Lee wrote the Confederate Congress urging them to arm and enlist black slaves in exchange for their freedom. [64] On March 13, the Confederate Congress passed legislation to raise and enlist companies of black soldiers. The legislation was then promulgated into military policy by Davis in General Order No. 14 on March 23, 1865. [40]

Louisiana militia Edit

Louisiana was somewhat unique among the Confederacy as the Southern state with the highest proportion of non-enslaved free blacks, a remnant of its time under French rule. Elsewhere in the South, such free blacks ran the risk of being accused of being a runaway slave, arrested, and enslaved. One of the state militias was the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, a militia unit composed of free men of color, mixed-blood creoles who would be considered black elsewhere in the South by the one-drop rule. The unit was short lived, never saw combat, and was forced to disband in April 1862 after the Louisiana State Legislature passed a law that reorganized the militia into only ". free white males capable of bearing arms." [65] [66] A Union army regiment 1st Louisiana Native Guard was later formed under the same name after General Butler took control of New Orleans.

Other militias with notable free black representation included the Baton Rouge Guards under Capt. Henry Favrot, the Pointe Coupee Light Infantry under Capt. Ferdinand Claiborne, and the Augustin Guards and Monet's Guards of Natchitoches under Dr. Jean Burdin. The only official duties ever given to the Natchitoches units were funeral honor guard details. [67] One account of an unidentified African American fighting for the Confederacy, from two Southern 1862 newspapers, [68] tells of "a huge negro" fighting under the command of Confederate Major General John C. Breckinridge against the 14th Maine Infantry Regiment in a battle near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on August 5, 1862. The man was described as being "armed and equipped with knapsack, musket, and uniform", and helping to lead the attack. [69] The man's status of being a freedman or a slave is unknown.

Prisoner exchanges between the Union and Confederacy were suspended when the Confederacy refused to return black soldiers captured in uniform. In October 1862, the Confederate Congress issued a resolution declaring that all Negroes, free and slave, should be delivered to their respective states "to be dealt with according to the present and future laws of such State or States". [70] In a letter to General Beauregard on this issue, Secretary Seddon pointed out that "Slaves in flagrant rebellion are subject to death by the laws of every slave-holding State" but that "to guard, however, against possible abuse. the order of execution should be reposed in the general commanding the special locality of the capture." [71]

However, Seddon, concerned about the "embarrassments attending this question", [72] urged that former slaves be sent back to their owners. As for freemen, they would be handed over to Confederates for confinement and put to hard labor. [73] Black troops were actually less likely to be taken prisoner than Whites, as in many cases, such as the Battle of Fort Pillow, Confederate troops murdered them on the battlefield if taken prisoner, Black troops and their White officers faced far worse treatment than other prisoners.

In the last few months of the war, the Confederate government agreed to the exchange of all prisoners, White and Black, and several thousand troops were exchanged until the surrender of the Confederacy ended all hostilities. [74]

Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson
December 29, 1808 &ndash July 31, 1875

Andrew Johnson was Lincoln's last Vice-President and succeeded to office as the 17th President following Lincoln's assassination. He was the first President to be impeached and avoided removal from office by a single vote.

Terrorized African-Americans Found Their Champion in Civil War Hero Robert Smalls

I n May 1862, an enslaved man named Robert Smalls won renown by stealing the Planter , the Confederate military transport on which he served as a pilot. On a night when the ship’s three white officers defied standing orders and left the vessel in the care of its crew, all slaves, Smalls guided it out of its slip in Charleston Harbor and picked up his wife, their two young children and other crewmen’s families at a rendezvous on the Cooper River. Flying the South Carolina state flag and the Stars and Bars, he steered past several armed Confederate checkpoints and out to the open sea, where he exchanged his two flags for a simple white one—a gesture of surrender to a Union ship on blockade duty. In all, he delivered 16 enslaved persons to freedom.

Related Content

After serving the Union cause as a pilot for the rest of the Civil War, he returned to South Carolina, opened a general store that catered to the needs of freedmen, bought his deceased master’s mansion in Beaufort and edited the Beaufort Southern Standard. He soon dived into politics as a loyal Republican. In 1868, he was a delegate to the South Carolina convention charged with writing a new state constitution, which guaranteed freedmen the right to vote and their children the promise of free public education.

The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America's Most Progressive Era

By 1870, just five years after Confederate surrender and thirteen years after the Dred Scott decision ruled blacks ineligible for citizenship, Congressional action had ended slavery and given the vote to black men.

Over the next three decades, Smalls served South Carolina in both houses of its legislature and in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1895, he was once again a delegate to the state constitutional convention—except this time, he was hoping to defend the freedmen’s right to vote against efforts by white South Carolina Democrats to quash it. Although Smalls had learned to read only in adulthood, he was a feared debater, and at age 56 the burly war hero remained an imposing figure. When he rose to speak at the State Capitol in Columbia, the chamber fell silent.

The “negro was here to stay,” Smalls thundered, “and it was to the interests of the white man to see that he got all of his rights.” He supported his argument with data: tables and figures designed to demonstrate the economic and political clout of his state’s 600,000 black citizens (a slight majority of a total population of 1.1 million). In South Carolina alone, he observed, “the negroes pay tax on $12,500,000 worth of property,” citing the most recent census. He argued for adopting a combined “property and educational qualification” for voting, but that was a bluff: Many white farmers had lost their property during the war, and he knew that wealthy white Democrats could never sell such a proposal to their poorer constituents.

Smalls then advanced a startling claim: “Since the reconstruction times, 53,000 negroes have been killed in the South.”

Smalls bought his ex-master’s mansion in Beaufort when it was put up for sale for back taxes in the 1860s. It remained in his family until 1953. (Lisa Elmaleh)

Fifty-three thousand dead is a staggering number—more than all the dead, wounded and missing at the Battle of Gettysburg. Even spread over the 30 years that had elapsed since Appomattox, that would be an average of 1,766 murders each year, or almost five each day, across the 11 former Confederate states.

When I first read Smalls’ speech while researching political violence in the years after the Civil War, I was stunned. Most estimates of postwar killings of African-Americans amount to about 4,000 public lynchings committed between 1877 and 1968. But what about those who were assassinated or disappeared before 1877, the year Reconstruction began to decline? How did Smalls arrive at that figure? Perhaps he simply invented it to capture the nation’s attention or to appeal to the sympathy of moderate Southern whites. But this figure, like others in his oration, was precise. He could have said “about fifty thousand” or even “more than fifty thousand,” but he didn’t. Was his number even plausible? Could it be verified? As far as I could tell, no historian had tried.

The answer matters because it captures a shifting understanding of what brought the nation’s first meaningful campaign for racial equality to a halt. Too often, the central question about the postwar period is why Reconstruction failed, which implies that the process itself was flawed in ways that contributed to its own demise. But Smalls’ death toll, if even close to accurate, adds substantial weight to the idea that Reconstruction was overthrown—by unremitting clandestine violence.

To evaluate his number, I combed through sources that would have been available to him. I quickly learned one thing: Those sources lack basic information, such as victims’ last names, making it unlikely that anyone will be able to establish a precise number of people targeted for assassination by Southern whites. Gradually, though, I came to another conclusion: Those sources clearly demonstrate that white Democrats, an electoral minority in every Southern state after the war, engaged in racial terrorism to restore the prewar social order. Despite the imprecision in the records, I found Smalls’ figure to be entirely plausible.

In 1874, Smalls won election to the U.S. House—where he used this desk—with 80 percent of the vote. In 1878, voter intimidation cut his share to 29 percent. (Lisa Elmaleh)

In recent years, a number of important books have chronicled the upheaval that followed the Military Reconstruction Act of 1867. That law, passed by a Congress that Republicans dominated, required the former Confederate states to adopt constitutions that recognized black citizenship, including the rights to vote and to sit on juries. In response, Confederate veterans founded the Ku Klux Klan, with the former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest as its national leader. Because Klansmen operated in their home counties, they knew which local black activists to target for intimidation or assassination. Typical was the case of Benjamin F. Randolph, a South Carolina state senator and a delegate to the state’s 1868 constitutional convention: While campaigning for Republican candidates that October, he was shot down by three white men at a train station in broad daylight. No one ever pursued or even identified the gunmen.

Congress responded to such attacks with the Ku Klux Klan Act, which President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law in April 1871. After Klansmen murdered two more black legislators in South Carolina, Grant exercised his powers under the act to declare martial law and suspend the writ of habeas corpus in nine counties in the state. As federal troops made arrests in scores of attacks, Grant’s attorney general, Amos Akerman, went to South Carolina to oversee the prosecutions, which were conducted in federal courts and before interracial juries. The Justice Department obtained 168 convictions, and Akerman’s informants estimated that as many as 2,000 vigilantes had fled the state rather than face arrest. “Peace has come to many places as never before,” Frederick Douglass exulted. “The scourging and slaughter of our people have so far ceased.”

But the aging abolitionist was overly optimistic. In crushing the Klan, Akerman inadvertently decentralized white vigilantism. Thanks to the Klan Act, black citizens were protected by federal marshals at the polls and Army patrols in urban areas. But elsewhere, lone assassins and small gangs still preyed on the Republican leaders of the reconstructed state governments and the African-American citizens they tried to protect. Scholarly attention, understandably, has tended to focus on large-scale atrocities, such as the Colfax Massacre of 1873, in which a white mob torched a Louisiana courthouse and gunned down at least 62 African-Americans as they tried to flee the flames. But those atrocities, horrific though they were, accounted for several hundred deaths at most.

Beaufort, like many Southern communities, prizes its majestic live oaks as a symbol of strength. (Lisa Elmaleh)

Which brings us back to Robert Smalls’ assertion of 53,000 African-Americans murdered. Unhappily, little survives of his personal papers, so they don’t provide much help in determining how he arrived at that number. But other sources do.

One is Blanche K. Bruce. A former Virginia bondman, he attended Oberlin College and served in the Mississippi State Senate. In 1875, the same year Smalls began representing South Carolina in the House, Bruce arrived in Washington as a U.S. senator for Mississippi. At the time, he was the only black U.S. senator, and African-Americans across the country regarded him as their spokesman. People peppered him with news regarding racial violence. “Tell them in Congress how Howard Banks & his poor little Boy were brutally murdered here and how one of our preachers was shot down,” someone wrote from Vicksburg, Mississippi. Bruce’s correspondence, which fills nine boxes at Howard University’s library, is rife with such reports. Although Smalls was one of only seven black congressmen in 1875, his wartime service made him the most famous of the group. Undoubtedly, he too received bulletins on violence from around the country.

As a congressman, Smalls also had access to the extensive regional reports from officers assigned to the Freedmen’s Bureau, the federal agency that helped former slaves and impoverished Southern whites obtain food, land, education and labor contracts from 1865 to 1872. In hundreds of bound volumes, innumerable letters documented attacks on black and white teachers employed by the bureau, and during election seasons the reports from the field contained almost nothing but accounts of violence.

Harper’s Weekly reports on “The Steamer ‘Planter’ and Her Captor,” June 14, 1862 (Library of Congress Prints and photographs division)

In Grenada, Mississippi, for example, J.B. Blanding, a 25-year-old Army officer and bureau agent, was shot three times in the head while out for an evening stroll in 1866. The next morning, as Blanding lay dying, “a committee of citizens” paid a call on his captain to warn him “that the teachers must leave, and that if he himself did not leave he would be killed next.”

When an Atlanta-based activist named Walker journeyed into the countryside during the fall of 1868, “a party of white men” surrounded a house where he was spending the night and threatened to torch it unless he came with them. Vowing to “deliver himself and trust to the Lord,” Walker did so. He was found the next day “with two bullet holes in his breast.” Two days before the election, another Georgia-based bureau agent informed his superiors that he knew of “five freedmen who have been murdered for political opinion within the last two weeks.”

Just weeks before that in Alabama, “a gang of men disguised” broke into the home of freedman Moses Hughes. When they couldn’t find Hughes, who had crawled up the chimney, they shot his wife “through the Brain & left her dead.” The “plain truth,” the agent reported, “is the Rebellion is flourishing in these parts.”

A plaque below the bust of Smalls at Tabernacle Baptist Church is inscribed with the proposition he defended throughout his post-Civil War career. (Lisa Elmaleh)

The black press is a third possible source for Smalls’ tabulations (though not Smalls’ own paper I could locate no print run of the Beaufort Southern Standard). Almost from the moment the Crescent City fell to Union gunboats in April 1862, Louis Charles Roudanez began publishing the New Orleans Tribune. After the Confederate surrender three years later, black newspapers appeared in almost every Southern town. As Roudanez and other black editors documented white-on-black violence, Democrats retaliated. In Opelousas, Louisiana, they demolished the office of the pro-Republican Progress, lynched its French-born editor and, according to the black-owned San Francisco Elevator, shot as many as “one hundred negroes.” The Tribune also highlighted the calculus of terror, noting that ministers and other community leaders were high-value targets. Southern “Democrats wanted to get those recognized leaders out of the way,” one black editor said. “If they could not scare him out, then they would kill him.” The press, like the Freedmen’s Bureau reports, documented an epidemic of bloody oppression.

This wave of terror continued into the 1870s, and even visited Smalls’ doorstep. In 1876, some rice planters threatened to “tie him up and give him 150 lashes on his big fat ass” as he tried to settle a labor strike by black rice workers. He struck a deal anyway. On Election Day that year—“a carnival of bloodshed and violence,” Smalls said—he narrowly won re-election to the U.S. House. But then the state’s Democrats, now ascendant, challenged the result and accused him of taking a $5,000 bribe during his days in the State Senate. While the case proceeded—he was tried and convicted, but then pardoned in 1879—Smalls retained his seat in the House. But he lost it in the 1878 elections. By then the state’s white supremacist Democrats had retaken control of the government.

The grounds of the Robert Smalls House in Beaufort. (Lisa Elmaleh)

This time, there was no federal intervention. An economic depression in 1873 had turned the nation’s attention to financial matters. Northerners may have tired of reading about violence in the South. As federal troops were sent to fight the escalating wars on the Great Plains, their presence in the South declined from an 1867 peak of 12,000 to only 2,800 in the summer of 1876. By then Southerners were demanding that even those troops depart that demand became moot when Rutherford B. Hayes agreed to withdraw them as part of the deal that settled that November’s disputed presidential election.

The dilution of black power continued. In 1880, Smalls lost his House seat with only 40 percent of the vote—but after he presented evidence that African-American turnout had been suppressed through intimidation, the House voted to seat him instead of his opponent. After he won two more contentious, contested elections, he lost his seat to William Elliott, a Democrat and former Confederate officer. “Elections are all in the hands of the Democrats,” he told a reporter in 1886.

A view of the wetlands down the street from the Robert Smalls House. (Lisa Elmaleh)

As a reward for party service, President Benjamin Harrison appointed Smalls collector for the Port of Beaufort. Five years later, as one of South Carolina’s constitutional delegates, Smalls proclaimed his hope that “when our work is done that we have made as good a constitution as the one we are doing away with.”

He hoped in vain. The new constitution required that voters own at least $300 worth of property, pass a literacy test and be able to answer questions about any provision in the document. It disenfranchised most African-Americans and laid the basis for Jim Crow segregation in South Carolina. There and elsewhere, democracy was subverted, and the human toll, however inexact, was enormous.

Subscribe to Smithsonian magazine now for just $12

This article is a selection from the September issue of Smithsonian magazine

Watch the video: African American Civil War Memorial (October 2022).

Video, Sitemap-Video, Sitemap-Videos