The May 1, 1863 New York Tribune summed up many Northerners' feelings about African American soldiers when it declared, "Loyal Whites have generally become willing that they should fight, but the great majority have no faith that they will really do so. Many hope they will prove cowards and sneaks -- others greatly fear it." In their first major battle, at Port Hudson, Louisiana on May 27, 1863, African Americans proved their courage beyond a doubt.
Port Hudson served as the linchpin of Confederate control over the Lower Mississippi. Among the Union regiments attacking the well-fortified position were two African American units: the First Louisiana -- which was one of the few units commanded by African American officers -- and the Third Louisiana. Although they did not inflict a single casualty on the enemy, the units showed conspicuous bravery, charging repeatedly against blistering artillery and rifle fire. All told, the two regiments sustained nearly 200 casualties. Among those impressed that day was Union general Nathaniel P. Banks, who reported, "The severe test to which they were subjected, and the determined manner in which they encountered the enemy, leaves upon my mind no doubt of their ultimate success."
In one of the bloodiest battles of the war, African American troops from the 9th Louisiana Infantry, the 1st Mississippi Infantry, and the 13th Louisiana Infantry fought alongside white troops from the 10th Illinois Cavalry and the 23rd Iowa Infantry. The most seasoned of the black troops had been soldiers for only about a month. But they engaged attacking Confederates in fierce hand-to-hand combat, fighting with bayonets, fists, and rifle butts, or firing their weapons at extremely close range. Finally, with their backs to the Mississippi, they received the support of a Navy gunboat, and their line held.
Brigadier General Henry McCullough, who commanded the Confederate forces, later noted that his "charge was resisted by the negro portion of the enemy's force with considerable obstinacy, while the white or true Yankee position ran like whipped curs almost as soon as the charge was ordered." The African American troops paid dearly for their bravery. Heaviest hit was the 9th Louisiana Infantry. Almost 45 percent of the unit's men were killed or mortally wounded -- the highest percentage of a regiment killed in a single battle in the entire war.
African American soldiers and white officers from across the North comprised the celebrated Massachusetts 54th Regiment. Like most African American units, the 54th was led by a white man, a blue-blood named Robert Gould Shaw, who had years of military experience but little of it in battle. Two sons of abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass also joined the regiment, as did a grandson of Sojourner Truth.
Fort Wagner, an island stronghold that protected the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, presented a significant obstacle to Union forces. Defended by the sea, a marshy shoreline, Confederate artillery batteries on nearby islands, and a three-foot moat, it was close to impregnable. A first Union assault, on July 10th and 11th, had ended in failure. Shaw volunteered his men to lead the second attack on Wagner, and on the night of July 18, in complete darkness, they started across the sand in the face of rebel artillery. Shell blasts tore huge holes in the ranks, but the men closed them and marched on, eventually breaking into a charge. Deadly Confederate fire raked the attackers from three sides, but a number of troops breached the fort's outer walls before being driven back. Wounded numerous times, Shaw fell dead just outside.
Owing to his association with black soldiers, Confederates denied Shaw an officer's burial, declaring "We have buried him with his niggers." When Shaw's father was told that his son had been buried in a common grave with the African American soldiers he had led, he replied that there was no better place for his son to rest than on the field of battle.
In late 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis declared that African Americans fighting for the Union were guilty of insurrection, a crime punishable by death. The following spring, the Confederate Congress passed a law that allowed the death penalty for white officers of black units and provided for captured black soldiers to be returned to slavery. Both of these declarations violated international law, and the Confederates did not enforce them. But the sentiment the new laws aroused -- along with the ingrained hostility of many Confederate soldiers -- set the stage for wartime atrocities. The most notorious incident occurred at a small Federal outpost north of Memphis, Tennessee.
On April 12, 1864, some 1,500 Confederate cavalrymen under Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked Fort Pillow, which was garrisoned by about 500 troops. More than half of the soldiers were black. The superior Confederate force overwhelmed the fort's defenders; Union casualties were high. But after the Federals surrendered, Forrest's men shot and killed a number of unarmed soldiers and officers, both black and white. If the Confederates hoped such executions would have a chilling effect, the opposite was true. After the "Fort Pillow Massacre," many African American troops fought with extra vigor, to avoid capture and avenge their murdered comrades. "Remember Fort Pillow" became a popular battle cry.
In a bold attempt to break the siege of Petersburg, General Ulysses S. Grant decided to tunnel beneath the Confederate lines, blow a hole through the breastworks with gunpowder, and send troops charging through the gap. General Ambrose Burnside chose black troops from the Fourth Division of the Ninth Army Corps to lead the assault. But Major General George Meade overruled him, fearing that if a slaughter ensued, he would be blamed for using black troops as cannon fodder.
When ignited, the gunpowder blew a huge gap through the Confederate line, creating a huge crater in the earth, but almost nothing else went as planned. Union officers had failed to create a plan for getting troops over the physical barricades that existed beyond the breastworks. The Confederate defenders quickly reorganized and directed heavy fire into the crater, which had now become a deathtrap. Union commanders then sent in the African Americans of the Fourth Division. They fought valiantly, moving beyond the trapped soldiers and nearly breaking through the line before being forced to retreat.
The bravery of many African American soldiers was anchored in a deep faith in God and dedication to the cause of liberty. In a letter to a friend, one black sergeant wrote "If I fall in the battle anticipated, remember I fall in defense of my race and my country."
Positioned to block Confederate efforts to resupply Petersburg, Virginia with men and material, soldiers from the 4th and 6th U.S. Colored Infantry joined white soldiers in an attack on Confederate fortifications at Chaffin's Farm, also known as New Market Heights. Although one arm of the assault succeeded, the rest was repulsed. Casualties were extremely heavy. Out of an initial force of 1,300 men, African Americans suffered 455 casualties.
High casualty rates were common for African American units -- usually for two reasons. First, since blacks had not previously served in the U.S. Army, they were inexperienced fighters. Second, feeling social pressure to prove themselves as men, they often took risks on the battlefield that their white counterparts would not. Of the 180,000 African Americans who fought for the Union, 37,300 died. More than 20 African Americans were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's most prestigious military decoration. Fourteen of those men earned their medals at Chaffin's Farm.
On the march toward Saltville, white troops verbally harassed the African Americans who would soon be fighting beside them. Such day-to-day prejudice was a common experience for black soldiers -- at least until whites saw them perform under fire.
Among the troops who attacked Southern positions at Saltville on October 2 were soldiers of the 5th United States Colored Cavalry. Fighting with white soldiers from the 11th Michigan and 12th Ohio Cavalries, the colored cavalry charged, overran, and held the Confederate left. After holding their position for some time without receiving essential support, they were forced to withdraw.
At Saltville, Confederate soldiers executed unarmed black prisoners, even raiding a hospital on two separate occasions and murdering wounded blacks in their sickbeds. But behind Union lines, the African American soldiers would no longer be taunted by their white comrades. They had proven themselves the equal of any Union soldier.
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