My Interview with a Civil War Re-Enactor - Part I
Chattel slavery had become an entrenched part of society in the United States of America, codified in law, with enslaved Africans first appearing on the continent over two hundred years before the establishment of the United States.
Laws first governing the enslavement of the descendants of Africa were enacted during the period U.S. citizens had previously been known as British colonial subjects, long before an enslaved man named Dred Scott attempted to use the United States' legal system to obtain his freedom.
After residing in two free states in the United States, first in Illinois, then Wisconsin, for nearly a total of three years, an enslaved man of African descent named Dred Scott, the assumed property of a White man named Peter Blow, attempted to sue for his freedom in the United States' judicial system. This process began in 1847.
Several appeals and court reversals later, Dred Scott's case landed in the United States Supreme Court in 1856.
One hundred fifty two years ago, on March 6, 1857, the Dred Scott Decision, handed down by the United States Supreme Court, with the majority opinion written by U. S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, qualified the status of the sons and daughters of Africa in the eyes of the United States' judicial system, stating in part that:
“.... beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
The majority opinion of the Court also stated:
The language of the Declaration of Independence is equally Conclusive: ...
.... We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among them is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
The general words above quoted would seem to embrace the whole human family, and if they were used in a similar instrument at this day would be so understood. But it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration; for if the language, as understood in that day, would embrace them, the conduct of the distinguished men who framed the Declaration of Independence would have been utterly and flagrantly inconsistent with the principles they asserted; and instead of the sympathy of mankind, to which they so confidently appeared, they would have deserved and received universal rebuke and reprobation.
The naturalization process for attaining United States' citizenship, the Naturalization Act of 1790, enacted one year after the adoption of the United States Constitution in 1789, 68 years before the Dred Scott decision was decided, had established:
.... that any alien, being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof, on application to any common law court of record, in any one of the States wherein he shall have resided for the term of one year at least, and making proof to the satisfaction of such court, that he is a person of good character, and taking the oath or affirmation prescribed by law, to support the Constitution of the United States....
, excluding all others for consideration as citizens of the United States.
During most of the 19th century, free persons of African descent were not believed to be citizens of the United States.
The Abolition Movement, a movement comprised of Black and White abolitionists, was disappointed by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision. Their movement had sought to expand the definition of a U.S. citizen to include anyone born within the United States, Black or White, hoping for a decision that would have ultimately struck down the institution of slavery.
Throughout the decade Dred Scott sued for his freedom, the sons of Peter Blow helped pay the court fees and costs associated with his case.
After the U.S. Supreme Court decision denied Dred Scott his freedom, the sons of Peter Blow purchased Dred Scott and his wife and set them free.
Nine months later, Dred Scott died.
Institutional slavery allowed the accumulation of wealth and profit in the United States of America, with it being estimated that shortly before the War Between the States, 70% of the wealth of the South could be attributed to the goods and services provided by the enslavement of African people.
The descendants of Africa, victims of this inhuman system, toiled for nearly four centuries, in a land whose founders declared that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were rights that had been bestowed by God upon all, except the enslaved African, sanctioned by the highest court in the land, presented a conundrum said not to be easily resolved by those holding the reins of power, as evidenced by the musings that can be found in the writings of those named as founding fathers of this nation.
Five years after the U.S. Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision, President Abraham Lincoln revealed, in his letter to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, dated August 22, 1862, his desire to preserve the Union, not his concern for the enslaved, when he wrote:
As to the policy I "seem to be pursuing" as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.
I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was." If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.
Abraham Lincoln was the author of the Emancipation Proclamation, consisting of two executive orders, first read in July of 1862.
The document, contrary to the most often repeated misinformation, did not free all of the close to 3 million enslaved men, women and children held in the United States, only those in the States that had seceded from the Union, with the Emancipation Proclamation stating, “ .... and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.”
The dilemma and uncertainty of the existence of the close to three million enslaved persons of African descent was in limbo, with those who were enslaved being desirous of freedom.
From Africans in America:
.... by 1862, Lincoln was considering emancipation as a necessary step toward winning the war. The South was using enslaved people to aid the war effort. Black men and women were forced to build fortifications, work as blacksmiths, nurses, boatmen, and laundresses, and to work in factories, hospitals, and armories. In the meantime, the North was refusing to accept the services of black volunteers and freed slaves, the very people who most wanted to defeat the slaveholders. In addition, several governments in Europe were considering recognizing the Confederacy and intervening against the Union. If Lincoln declared this a war to free the slaves, European public opinion would overwhelmingly back the North.
On July 22, 1862, Lincoln showed a draft of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. It proposed to emancipate the slaves in all rebel areas on January 1, 1863. Secretary of State William H. Seward agreed with the proposal, but cautioned Lincoln to wait until the Union had a major victory before formally issuing the proclamation. Lincoln's chance came after the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam in September of 1862. ....
Shortly after the pronouncement of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union Army began enlisting the descendants of Africa into the army as Colored soldiers.
One of most famous persons of African descent serving in the Union Army , was the courageous Harriet Tubman, who acted as an undercover spy, a nurse and a cook.
She stood five feet tall in her stocking feet and was called Moses, by people of African descent. She traveled time after time into the Southern states of the U.S. to bring an estimated 300 people to the Northern states toward freedom.
The contributions of many of those of African descent who served in the Union Army, enslaved and freed persons, live on, through the efforts of re-enactors like Sergeant Algernon Ward Jr., a member of the 6th Regiment United States Colored Troops, Reenactors Inc.
Thank you, Sergeant Ward, for preserving and sharing the history of Americans of African descent, enslaved and free, known during the time of the War Between the States, better known as the Civil War, as Colored troops, a complicated story involving the hopes and dreams of a race of people seeking freedom and inclusion in this nation, the United States of America.
Q: Sgt. Ward, how many men act as re-enactors in your regiment?
The muster roll of the 6th Regiment United States Colored Troops (USCT) contains the names of 27 souls composed of 14 rifles (adults) and 13 cadets.
Q: Please provide some information about the original 6th Regiment that served in the Armed Forces during the Civil War.
In addition to the information found at the 6th Regiment USCT website, the following record can be found at Wikipedia, with my own comments, shown in italics:
The 6th United States Colored Infantry Regiment was an African American unit of the Union Army during the American Civil War. A part of the United States Colored Troops, the regiment saw action in Virginia as part of the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign and in North Carolina where it participated in the attacks on Fort Fisher and Wilmington and the Carolinas Campaign, after a month and a half of organization, from July 28 to September 12, 1863, at Camp William Penn, Pennsylvania.
Frederick Douglas was the keynote speaker at the graduation of the 6th Regiment from training. After dedicating the regimental flag made by Lucius Bowser, he exhorted the troops with the phrase, “Those who would be free, must be willing to strike a blow!” The troops cheered in response, “Strike a blow for freedom!"
This became the regimental motto that they carried into battle along with their flags.
The 6th Regiment was sent to Monroe, Virginia, on October 14, 1863, and from there to Yorktown, Virginia where it remained until May 1864. While at Yorktown, the unit was involved in several expeditions as part of the XVIII Corps: Wild's Expedition to South Mills and Camden Court House, North Carolina, from December 5 to December 24, 1863, Wistar's Expedition against Richmond from February 2 to February 6, 1864, an expedition to New Kent Court House in aid of Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick's cavalry from March 1 to March 4 (including action at New Kent Court House on March 2 and at Williamsburg on March 4), an expedition into King and Queen County from March 9 to March 12 and an expedition into Mathews County from March 17 to March 21.
Starting on May 4, 1864, the 6th Regiment participated in Brigadier General Benjamin F. Butler's operations on the south side of the James River and against Petersburg and Richmond. The unit was involved in the capture of City Point, Virginia, on May 4 and while in the city served fatigue duty, built Fort Converse on the Appomattox River and defended an attack against Fort Converse on May 20.
The unit participated in action at Bailor's Farm on June 15, 1864, before taking part in the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign until December 17. The 6th served in the trenches around Petersburg up to June 18 and then did fatigue duty at Dutch Gap Canal until August 27, 1864.
From there, the regiment moved to Deep Bottom and later participated in heavy action during the Battle of Chaffin's Farm at Fort Harrison on September 29 and September 30. Two enlisted men and one officer of the 6th Regiment were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions at Chaffin's Farm: Sgt. Thomas R. Hawkins, Sgt. Alexander Kelly and Lt. Nathan Edgerton.
After taking part in the Battle of Fair Oaks from October 27 to October 28, the unit returned to the trenches, this time near Richmond, where it remained until December 1864.
In December the unit was assigned to the newly-formed XXV Corps and took part in the failed attack on Fort Fisher, North Carolina, from December 7 to December 27, 1864 and the successful Second Battle of Fort Fisher from January 7 to January 15, 1865, including the bombardment of the fort starting on the 13th and the final assault and capture on the 15th. The 6th then saw action at Sugar Loaf Hill on January 19 and at Sugar Loaf Battery on February 11before taking part in the Battle of Wilmington at Fort Anderson from February 18 to February 20 and the capture of Wilmington as well as action at Northeast Ferry on February 22, 1865.
In March 1865, the 6th Regiment was re-assigned to the X Corps and took part in General William Tecumseh Sherman's Carolinas Campaign. The unit saw action during the advance on Kinston and Goldsboro, North Carolina, starting on March 6 and occupied Goldsboro after its capture on March 21. The regiment saw further action at Cox's Bridge on March 23 and March 24 and and participated in the advance on Raleigh, North Carolina, starting on April 9 and the occupation of Raleigh after the city's fall on April 14. With the end of the war at hand, the men of the 6th witnessed the surrender of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston and his army at Bennett Place, North Carolina, on April 26, 1865. The unit served out the rest of its term in the Department of North Carolina.
The best reference I have found for the service record of the 6th Regiment United States Colored Infantry is the book, Strike A Blow for Freedomby James Paradis.
The 6th was mustered out on September 20, 1865 after two years of existence. The regiment lost a total of 224 men during its service; eight officers and 79 enlisted men were killed or mortally wounded and five officers and 132 enlisted men died of disease.
From Mr.Paradis’ book:
The average Union soldier was 25 years old, while the average soldier in the 6th USCT was 23 years old. Due, perhaps, to better nutrition, the average Union soldier stood 5 feet 8 1/4 inches tall, while the average 6th USCT soldier stood only 5 feet 6 1/2 inches tall. The average Union infantry regiment contained a large proportion of students; there were no students in the 6th USCT.
Q: How many Colored regiments were formed during the Civil War?
There is some disagreement on this matter. Wikipedia, quoting James McPherson's, The Negro's Civil War, pages 237 and 288, states:
Approximately 175 regiments of over 178,000 free blacks and freed slaves served during the last two years of the war, and bolstered the Union war effort at a critical time. By war's end, the USCT were approximately a tenth of all Union troops.
The US Army webpage, devoted to the topic, states:
Approximately 186,000 black troops—including 94,000 former slaves from Southern states - ultimately served in the Union Army…
The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System website states in its introduction that:
The source of the data entered is the General Index Cards in the Compiled Military Service Records at the National Archives. In September of 1996, the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors project completed the first phase of the Names Index and placed 235,000 names of African American Union soldiers on the Internet. These were completed first in order to provide the names to the African American Civil War Memorial that was dedicated in Washington, DC.
From the African American Sailors Index:
…with funding from the Defense Department, the National Park Service has partnered with Howard University to identify African American sailors who served in the Union Navy during the Civil War… The research has resulted in a database of approximately 18,000 African American sailors from various historical Navy documents.
Q: Were the Colored troops paid the same pay as the White troops?
From The Fight for Equal Rights by Elsie Freeman, Wynell Burroughs Schmael and Jean West:
Black soldiers were initially paid $10 per month from which $3 was automatically deducted for clothing, resulting in a net pay of $7. In contrast, white soldiers received $13 per month from which no clothing allowance was drawn. In June 1864 Congress granted equal pay to the U.S. Colored Troops and made the action retroactive. Black soldiers received the same rations and supplies. In addition, they received comparable medical care.
Many Black regiments refused to accept unequal pay and served without pay for nearly a year. Frederick Douglass and other notable abolitionists lobbied President Lincoln to rectify the unequal pay issue.
In early June 1864, Private Sylvester Ray of the 2d U.S. Colored Cavalry was recommended for trial because he refused to accept pay inferior to that of white soldiers. First Lieutenant Edwin Hughes of the 2d U.S. Colored Cavalry, recorded Private Ray as stating, ". . . none of us will sign again for seven dollars a month. . . ."
Later that month, Congress granted equal pay to the U.S. Colored troops and made the action retroactive. The war department signed the order on August 1st 1864. This increase in pay is indicated on Private Ray's Detachment Muster Roll.
Q: Were Colored regiments organized for the Confederate States of America as well as the Union Army?
This is a matter of controversy among historians. The US Army webpage devoted to the topic states:
Less well known is that a handful of African-Americans were recruited into the Confederate Army in March 1865 but they were still being organized when the war ended and saw no action.
An article titled A Chronology of African American Military Serviceby the Redstone Arsenal Historical Information Service states:
January 2nd 1864 Officers in the Confederate Army of Tennessee proposed recruiting Blacks for military service in exchange for freedom. Confederate leaders rejected the suggestion at this time.
An estimation, difficult to verify and offered by Scott Williams in, On Black Confederates in the Civil War, states that:
It has been estimated that over 65,000 Southern Blacks were in the Confederate ranks. Over 13,000 of these, 'saw the elephant' also known as meeting the enemy in combat. These Black Confederates included both slave and free. The Confederate Congress did not approve Blacks to be officially enlisted as soldiers (except as musicians), until late in the war.
In 1864, President Jefferson Davis approved a plan that proposed the emancipation of slaves, in return for the official recognition of the Confederacy by Britain and France. France showed interest but Britain refused.
The only combat engagement of Black Confederates that I have been able to confirm, with reports from both sides has been found in, On Black Confederates in the Civil War:
On April 4, 1865 (Amelia County, VA), a Confederate supply train was exclusively manned and guarded by Black Infantry. When attacked by Federal Cavalry, they stood their ground and fought off the charge, but on the second charge they were overwhelmed. These soldiers are believed to be from 'Major Turner's' Confederate command.
There are also eyewitness accounts of a regiment of 'Black soldiers in Confederate uniforms drilling' in Charleston.
The Commanding General of the Confederate forces, Robert E. Lee, sought the use of black troops as his army began to suffer manpower shortages, but the story goes that Confederate President Jefferson Davis felt that, “ .... if we arm ‘em, we’ll have to free ‘em, then what’s the use of fighting this war?”.
Q: What would have been the duty assignments given to the Colored troops in the Union Army?
Many times, the types of assignments Colored troops were given depended upon the attitude of their Commanding Officer. The troops often complained that they were assigned 'fatigue duty' much more often than their White counterparts and were eager for combat.
The 6th Regiment had its most miserable 'fatigue duty'experience in 1864 while digging the infamous Dutch Gap canal to divert the course of the river, while under constant fire, as they dug through a malaria ridden swamp in the summer heat.
In addition to digging canals and building fortifications, other examples of 'fatigue duty' included serving as cooks, teamsters and ship loaders.
Please click here to read Part II of my interview with Sgt. Ward.
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