“Forced into Glory?” From the “Official Records” and other Sources (Part 20) by Bill Vallante

Look at any monument or any story for that matter regarding the United States Colored Troops (USCT) and you cannot help but come away with the impression that 200,000 black men went willingly into the Union army to fight for their freedom. Several years ago the History Channel ran a program on “The Battle of the Crater” which focused on USCT involvement in that battle. One of the “experts” tapped for the program was a black National Park Service guide who worked at the Petersburg Virginia battlefield. I suppose that objectivity on the event would have been a bit much to ask from either him or the History Channel. He went on and on about how “different” the men of the USCT were from their opponents – to use his words, they were “freedom fighters!”

About the time the series first ran, I had just concluded reading “The Slave Narratives.” That experience left me with a number of surprises, one of which was that it appeared that not everyone in the USCT was a willing participant. Some had joined because as runaways, they simply had no place to go, and the army at least provided food, money and the necessities of life. Others had been forcibly conscripted, some under threat of death. Still others showed no emotion or volunteered no additional information at all when questioned about their wartime experiences, i.e. simply “I was in the army…” A number of those interviewed with military experience not only failed to describe what their duties were, i.e., support personnel or soldier, but even failed to mention which army they were in. To put it bluntly, what I read in the Narratives didn’t quite match up with the picture the Park Service guide was painting.

It has become fashionable among many contemporary historians and their students these days, to question the motivations of the Confederate soldiers and civilians. Much is made, for example, of Southern unionists fighting for the North, of Southern desertions and a lack of will to fight, of a dispirited civilian population, and of slaves either running off to join the Union army, or working feverishly to sabotage the Southern war effort to help their Yankee rescuers. After listening to all these stories, one has to wonder how it was that the war lasted four years instead of two weeks, and how it was that 360,000 Yankees came to “lay stiff in Southern dust?!”

No one ever asks such questions about the USCT though. The discussion as to why this is could fill an entire book, so I’ll have to take a pass for now. However, the following references, garnered from sources other than “The Slave Narratives,” should provide some realistic insight into the matter. “Freedom Fighters?” Not all of them, definitely not all of them! My money says no more than half of them at best. At the very least, these sources should provide a not-often-talked-about and eye-opening look at Yankee recruiting tactics.

****James Seddon, Confederate Secretary of War, had something to say about Yankee methods for “recruiting” slaves for their armies……


[S# 128] Correspondence, Orders, Reports, And Returns Of The Confederate Authorities,
July 1, 1862-December 31, 1863

“….They have already formed numerous regiments of the slaves they have seduced or forced from their masters, and the statement has been boastfully made in their public prints that they have already some 30,000 negro troops in arms… It is now an ascertained fact that as they overrun any portion of our territory they draw off, often by compulsion, the most efficient male slaves and place them in their negro regiments; and when they have established anywhere a temporary occupation, they practice a regular system of compulsory recruiting from the slaves within their reach….”

Respectfully submitted.
Secretary of War

****Jefferson Davis also reiterates Seddon’s contention about taking slaves off by force, and adds a postscript about how Union “hero” Dalgrhen executed his black “guide” in his 1864 raid on Richmond.

Richmond, Va., April 28, 1864.

President Confederate States of America:

“… Various raids of the enemy have been made by cavalry, generally in indefensible portions of the Confederacy, and for the most part for purposes of mere rapine and destruction. They have been conducted with a precipitation most wasteful to their men and animals, and indicative of constant apprehension, but have been marked by a malignant spirit and practices of infamy and barbarity that would have disgraced brigands or savages. Their warfare has been almost exclusively on peaceful citizens, and their avowed object has been the destruction of private property; the taking off of the slaves, even by force; the waste of stores and the means of subsistence; the destruction of animals and implements of husbandry, and the privation of all means of future production and support to the whole people…….. Dahlgren marked his course to the river, unimpeded by any hostile force, only by ravage and incendiarism, but failed wholly to effect a crossing, and sought to cover the timidity that shrank from trying a doubtful ford by an act of savage vengeance on his negro guide…

****And if you have some doubt about the veracity of the reports from Seddon and Davis, Union General Rufus Saxton will certainly back up those reports by describing the same type of thing happening in his neck of the woods.

O.R.–SERIES III–VOLUME IV [S# 125] BEAUFORT, S.C., December 30, 1864.
Hon. EDWIN M. STANTON, Secretary of War:

….The order spread universal confusion and terror. The negroes fled to the woods and swamps, visiting their cabins only by stealth and in darkness. They were hunted to their hiding places by armed parties of their own people, and, if found, compelled to enlist. This conscription order is still in force. Men have been seized and forced to enlist who had large families of young children dependent upon them for support and fine crops of cotton and corn nearly ready for harvest, without an opportunity of making provision for the one or securing the other…

I am sir, with great respect, your obedient servant,
R. SAXTON, Brigadier-General of Volunteers.

****Another dispatch from the “OR’s” from Union General Foster would appear to indicate that not only were slaves conscripted, but that slaves of “loyal citizens” were exempt from conscription. Apparently, it was ok to own slaves as long as you were loyal to “Father Abraham.”

HDQRS. DEPARTMENT OF THE OHIO, Knoxville, Tenn., January 6, 1864.

“All able-bodied colored men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five within our lines, except those employed in the several staff departments, officers’ servants, and those servants of loyal citizens who prefer remaining with their masters, will be sent forthwith to Knoxville, Loudon, or Kingston, Tenn., to be enrolled, under the direction of Brig. Gen. Davis Tillson, chief of artillery, with a view to the formation of a regiment of artillery, to be composed of troops of African descent. The commanding officers of divisions and posts are charged with the execution of this order.”

By command of Major-General Foster:

****Of course, we can always rely on Uncle Willie (Sherman), to chime in with his two cents

“War Crimes Against Southern Civilians,” by Walter Brian Cisco, P. 173

“I won’t trust niggers to fight yet,” wrote William T. Sherman in the spring of 1863, "but I don’t object to the Government taking them from the enemy and making such use of them as experience may suggest.”

****And from a Confederate Soldier writing in the Southern Historical Society Papers, we have this observation, obtained by him in conversations with captured black Union soldiers after the 54th’ Massachusetts’ assault on Battery Wagner…….

Southern Historical Society Papers. Volume XII.
Richmond, Va., March, 1884. No. 3., Letters from Fort Sumter in 1862 and 1863.
By Lieut. Iredell Jones, First Regiment S.C. Regulars. No. 2. Fort Sumter, July 20, 1863.

… The negroes were as fine looking set as I ever saw — large, strong, muscular fellows. They were splendidly uniformed; but they do not know what they are fighting for. They say they were forced into it. I learned from prisoners that they are held in contempt by the white soldiers, and not only so, but that the white officers who command them are despised also. They are made to do all the drudgery of the army…

****Bell Wiley, a Southern historian who wrote in the 1930s and 40s, but who was not a “Lost Cause” advocate by any stretch of the imagination, had something to say about the lack of enthusiasm among slaves for joining the Union army.

“Southern Negroes 1861 – 1865,” By Bell Irvin Wiley, Page 309

“In the military departments of the South, [the Carolina Coast] the Gulf, and the West Mississippi, the commanding generals ultimately resorted to an open conscription of all able-bodied Negro men within specified age limits. Under authority of these conscription orders, and in many instances without the authority of such orders, recruiting squads scoured the country forcing Negroes into the army. {General David Hunter] Hunter resorted to such practices to fill the ranks of his abortive regiment of South Carolina “Volunteers” in 1862. When General Saxton succeeded Hunter he gave “earnest and repeated assurances” that forced enlistments would not again be used. But when General Foster assumed command of the Department of the South in 1863, he ignored Saxton’s assurances and ordered an indiscriminate draft.

****A conundrum often presented itself to the newly “liberated” slave – join and leave your wife and kids to fend for themselves, or, have the Yanks stand you up against the wall and shoot you. Special thanks to Bernard Thuersam of the “Cape Fear Historical Institute” www.cfhi.net/, who apparently shares my love of research, and from whose research I have taken the next two recounts:

“Jacksonville’s Ordeal by Fire,” Martin & Schafer
Florida Publishing Company, 1984, P 145

“…On March 16, after fighting an exhausting series of skirmishes with Yankee troops, [Winston] Stephens wrote to warn his wife of the black troops in Jacksonville, and of the grave danger that Yankee raiders might come upriver to Welaka. “Get the slaves ready to run to the woods on a moment’s notice,” he wrote his wife, adding that “the Negroes in arms will promise them fair prospects, but they will suffer the same fate those did in town that we killed, and the Yankees say they will hang them if they don’t fight.”

“After Slavery, The Negro in South Carolina During Reconstruction“
Joel Williamson, UNC Press, 1965, pp. 17- 20

“…On March 10, he (Union Abolitionist Colonel James Montgomery) landed in Jacksonville (Florida) along with Higginson’s command and led a foray seventy-five miles inland, returning laden with booty and a large number of potential soldiers—lately slaves. In May and June, raids up the Ashepoo and Combahee rivers in South Carolina and an attack on the village of Darien, Georgia supplied more recruits. Meanwhile, Hunter issued an order drafting all able-bodied Negro men remaining on the plantations. Others were seized in the night by squads of Negro soldiers. On one plantation on St. Helena, Betsey’s husband was thus taken, leaving her with ten children and a “heart most broke.”

Those who attempted to evade the draft were roughly treated. Josh, who had fled to the marshes, was tracked to his hiding place and when he again tried to elude his pursuers was shot down and captured. Negro civilians suffered under the draft and resented the manner of its enforcement… ”the draft is either taking or frightening off most of the men,” lamented one of the (Northern missionary) superintendents at the end of March, 1863. During (the) early history (of Negro impressments), the new regiments were plagued by desertions which were freely excused on the ground of ignorance…Private William Span, having been recaptured on his eighth or ninth defection, was brought before the colonel in his tent. Montgomery asked Span if he wished to offer an excuse. Span said no. “Then,” declared the colonel, “you will be shot at half-past nine this morning.”

****What today’s history books carefully conceal in the USCT story, is that refusal to submit to conscription in this organization, could mean the loss of one’s freedom, and indeed, the loss of one’s life. You won’t find these examples (and there are many more than the few listed here), in any National Park Service Presentation. Perhaps if the NAACP and like-minded organizations want to pursue “reparations,” for past wrongs they should start here.

“War Crimes Against Southern Civilians,” Walter Brian Cisco, Pages 173 -174

“When Federals came through the neighborhoods of Guntown and Saltillo Mississippi, they committed the usual theft and destruction of property. But they were particularly zealous to take all the slaves they could, presumably needing their labor. Rev. James Agnew wrote in his journal that “the Yankees shot two of Thomas Burris’ negroes down in the yard because they would not go with them.”

****Apparently, even “Father Abraham,” whose pursuit of victory in this war knew no boundaries or limits, was appalled by Union conscription methods:

“Southern Negroes 1861 – 1865,” By Bell Irvin Wiley, Page 310

“…Complaint is made to me that you are forcing Negroes into the military service, and even torturing them, riding them on rails and the like to extort their consent…The like must not be done…Answer me on this.” (Lincoln to a recruiting officer in Kentucky, February 1865)

****The Confederate army wasn’t the only army to use black men as servants and support personnel. Not all black men in Union armies were soldiers, but other than not having to worry about being shot at, their lot, insofar as treatment goes, wasn’t any better. I wonder if the Petersburg battlefield guide would call these men “freedom fighters?” Moreover, I wonder what these men would call the Petersburg battlefield park guide?

“A City Laid Waste,” William Gilmore Simms, Page 64

The negroes accompanying them were not numerous, and seemed almost to act as drudges and body servants. They groomed horses, waited, carried burden and in almost every instance under our eyes, appeared in a purely servile, and not a military, capacity. The men of the West treated them generally with scorn or indifference, sometimes harshly, and not unfrequently with blows. Most of those escaping from them since their departure – and they have been numerous, express themselves sufficiently satisfied with their brief taste of Yankee fraternity.

***Did the slaves really “rally ‘round the flag?” (the Union flag)… A few of them did of course, And a few of them rallied ‘round the “Stars and Bars” as well. My money says that most felt the way Maria Sutton Clemments did….

Clemments, Maria Sutton, Arkansas (The Slave Narratives)

I don’t know that there was ever a thought made bout freedom till they was fightin. Said that was what it was about. That was a white mans war cept they stuck a few niggers in front ob the Yankee lines. And some ob the man carried off some man or boy to wait on him. He so used to bein waited on. I ain’t takin sides wid neither one of dem I tell you.

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