Tuesday, Jan 17, 2012
Among the many reenactment units commemorating the ongoing sesquicentennial of the Civil War are several that are reminding park visitors of the approximately 180,000 African-Americans who fought in the United States Colored Troops, particularly the 54th Massachusetts and the 23rd USCT.
President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declared that enslaved people in Southern areas of rebellion were free on January 1, 1863. He also wrote that the United States would officially uniform, arm, and train Americans of African descent to be used against the Confederacy.
The Confederate Congress responded to the proclamation on May 1, 1863 by noting, in part, that all commissioned officers commanding colored troops would be treated as “inciting servile insurrection” and “shall, if captured, be put to death or be otherwise punished, at the discretion of the court.” The Southern Congress further stated that “All negroes and mulattoes…engaged in war or be taken in arms against the Confederate States…shall, when captured in the Confederate States, be delivered to the authorities of the State or States in which they shall be captured, to be dealt with according to the present or future laws of such State or States.”
Despite the racism present in the North and South, close to 180,000 African-Americans served in the Union armies by the end of the war. Their regiments and artillery organizations were led by white commissioned officers.
One of the early regiments formed was the 54th Massachusetts Infantry commanded first by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the son of abolitionists. The 54th Massachusetts was mostly comprised of free men of color, with several recruits coming from beyond the state boundaries, illustrating the enthusiasm of many black Americans to participate in the Civil War. Two of the recruits in the regiment were Lewis and Charles Douglass, whose father was well-known abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass.
On July 18, 1863, the regiment assaulted Confederate Fort Wagner at Morris Island, South Carolina. Shaw commanded 624 men as they began their assault at 7:45 p.m. Shaw was killed and later buried in a mass grave with his fallen troops. In the midst of the battle, Sergeant William Carney saw the flag bearer of the regiment fall. He picked up the flag and scaled the walls of the fort through a torrent of bullets and bursting artillery shells and hand grenades. Carney was wounded multiple times but got the banner off the battlefield. For his dedication to the flag, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. The 54th lost 281 men killed, wounded, and missing in this action. The regiment participated in the Battle of Olustee, Florida in February 1864. The survivors mustered out in August 1865.
In contrast to the 54th Massachusetts, the 23rd United States Colored Troops (or U.S.C.T.) was mostly composed of formerly enslaved men, such as Andrew Weaver, who escaped from Chatham (now a part of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park) and Peter Churchwell, of Orange County, Virginia. The regiment began to be organized on November 23, 1863 at Camp Casey, near Alexandria, Virginia. In April 1864, with Colonel Cleveland Campbell at the head of the regiment, the 23rd U.S.C.T. was assigned to the Ninth Corps led by Major General Ambrose E. Burnside. The regiment’s first engagement was with Confederate cavalry at the Alrich Farm in Spotsylvania County, Virginia on May 15, 1864.
By the summer of 1864, Federal and Confederate forces were entrenched outside Petersburg, Virginia. For several weeks a Northern regiment dug a mine and it was exploded on July 30, 1864. Burnside’s battle plan hinged on using black troops in the initial assault; however, Major General George Meade changed Burnside’s plans at the last minute. White soldiers were first sent into action in the Battle of the Crater. Later that morning, the U.S.C.T.s, including the 23rd, went into combat screaming “No quarter!”
These men, angered by their individual treatment and seeking civil rights for all African-Americans, sought to prove their manhood on the battlefield and protest the Southern government’s treatment of U.S.C.T. regiments. The combination of Federal blunders and the arrival of Confederate reinforcements ultimately stopped the Union breakthrough. Many Confederates noted their anger with the African-American soldiers as one Georgian said “Not a single negro ought to have been captured.” Even some white Union troops killed African-American soldiers in an effort to save their own lives.
Of the 3,798 soldiers who were killed, wounded, captured or missing, some 1,240 were from General Edward Ferrero’s division of African-American soldiers. The 23rd U.S.C.T. lost at least 19 men killed, 23 wounded and 16 missing or captured, including Private Peter Churchwell. While he was a prisoner in Danville, Virginia his owner claimed him as his property and sold him to a slave trader. Churchwell was sold again to a man in Wilmington, North Carolina who sold him to a man near Raleigh. In early 1865 he escaped from his last owner and fled to then Federal-occupied Wilmington where he worked for himself for several years.
The 23rd ended the war in the 25th Army Corps of the Army of the James. They were moved from Virginia to Texas in May and June of 1865 where they were posted at Brownsville, Texas and along the Rio Grande until they were mustered out on November 30, 1865.
Both of these regiments have been honored since the end of the war. In 1897, a monument produced by Augustus Saint-Gaudens was unveiled across from the Massachusetts State House to commemorate the 54th Massachusetts. In 1989, the movie Glory was released, which commemorated that regiment’s actions during the war.
Re-enactors currently portray various companies of the 54th Massachusetts. The recreated Company A, 54th Massachusetts has a website (www.mass54thcompany-a.com) and Company B, 54th Massachusetts also has a website (http://www.54thmass.org/). In 2010, a group of individuals in north central Virginia were worried that the memory of the 23rd might be lost. The recreated 23rd U.S.C.T. can be found on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/pages/23rd-Regiment-United-States-Colored-Troops/129442587128980).
The battlefields that these men fought on are in varying states of preservation. Fort Wagner has washed out to sea but Morris Island’s remains were preserved in 2008 by a coalition including the Civil War Trust (www.civilwar.org). The Olustee battlefield is a Florida State Historic Site. The Alrich farm in Spotsylvania County has development encroaching upon it. Petersburg National Battlefield preserves the Crater battlefield (www.nps.gov/pete).