My Interview with a Civil War Re-Enactor - Part II
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.
Q: During the time of the Civil War, the units would have been segregated. Were the quarters/housing for the Colored troops comparable to those of the White enlisted men?
Northern USCT regiments, composed of mainly free men, were often supported by antislavery societies and were generally well equipped. In contrast, regiments composed mostly of southern 'contrabands' were often poorly equipped. While no soldier would describe camp life as 'comfortable' , resourceful men always find a way to make it life 'tolerable'. Union Army camps were segregated by race.
Q: How were the Colored troops received by those of African descent in the Black community?
The establishment of the United States Colored Troops was a source of immense pride for the Black community. Black men had volunteered to serve in the Union Army from the outset of the war. When they were finally accepted in 1863, it was a source of jubilation throughout the Northern Black populace.
Q: Have many histories from Colored troops have survived to provide personal accounts of their service?
From the National Park Services archives: From 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.
Q: How many battles were fought with the aid of Colored troops?
The United States Colored troops fought in 439 battles throughout the Civil War, 34 of which were major battles that affected the outcome of the war. Twenty-five medals of Honor were awarded to Black servicemen. 18 medals went to soldiers and 7 medals went to sailors.
Q: Was there a draft process in place to acquire Colored troops?
From the book by James M. Paradis, Strike A Blow for Freedom: Not surprisingly, the largest single black occupation was that of laborer, which made up a small proportion of the average Union regiment. Most surprisingly, only 43 per cent of the 6th USCT were volunteers, while 31 per cent were draftees and 26 per cent were hired substitutes. There was a national draft where each state was given a quota of troops to raise. A draftee could pay a 'substitute'to fulfill his draft obligations. This functioned as an easy way for those with the means to avoid their military service. A slaveholder could send an enslaved male as a 'substitute'. From the 1830s through the 1850s, antislavery societies sprang up in cities across the North. In 1837, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was home to three organizations: the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, the Philadelphia Young Men's Anti-Slavery Society, and the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society. These societies held recruiting drives that hosted notable speakers like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who drew large crowds and were very effective in recruiting Black volunteers. Black churches also played a significant role in the recruitment drive for Black soldiers. Lucretia Mott, a member of the Pennsylvania Anti Slavery Society and a Quakeress, donated the land upon which Camp William Penn was built for the training of Colored troops. In the South, enslaved persons fleeing captivity were considered 'contraband of war' and aided the war effort as laborers, building forts and other required 'fatigue' duties. But there were several instances when sympathetic Union Officers sought to use them as troops but, this was discouraged by President Lincoln until he formed the Bureau of Colored Troops. Q: What were the casualties suffered by Colored troops? There exist differences for the exact number of casualties incurred among the Colored troops. The Wikipedia page, quoting The Negro Civil War, written by, James McPherson states: There were 2,751 USCT combat casualties during the war, and 68,178 losses from all causes. The US Army web-page devoted to the topic states: Approximately 186,000 black troops—including 94,000 former slaves from Southern states—ultimately served in the Union Army and a staggering 38,000 were killed in action.
Q: Were the Colored troops armed in the same manner as their fellow White soldiers?
The quality of the arms that the USCT carried varied from regiment to regiment. The 11 regiments trained at Camp William in Philadelphia were equipped with the latest military equipment, supplied by supportive abolitionist societies in the North. That was also true of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts, with a portrayal of the 55th Regiment immortalized in the movie, Glory. However, hastily trained regiments of the formerly enslaved in the South used whatever arms were available. Some were only armed with a pike, a long wooden shaft with a pointed, steel head, instead of muskets.
Q: Does the 6th Regiment United States Colored Troops Re-enactors Inc. stage and re-create battles with other re-enactors?
To date, the 6th Regiment USCT has not staged a battle reenactment on its own, however it participates frequently in Civil War battle reenactments with other USCT regiments such as the 3rd, 8th, 22nd and 54th Massachusetts Company B.
My deepest gratitude to you, Sergeant Ward, for your responses to my questions and for expanding the knowledge of many who have learned of the men and women of African descent that served this nation, some giving the ultimate sacrifice, their lives, as this nation struggled with itself to resolve the inherent contradiction these person's very existence highlighted, the enslavement of approximately 3 to 4 million persons, during the time of the Civil War, a legacy that began before the birth of the nation that came to be known as the United States of America.
Q: Sergeant Ward, is there additional information you would like to share that may not have been addressed during this interview?
Since I began reenacting, my life has been enriched with memorable experiences. I have had breakfast with a descendant of the well known and eloquent abolitionist, Frederick Douglass and stood on the very spot aside the James River where the 1st USCT had its camp and built Wilson’s wharf, with a descendant of the officer who commanded them.
I’ve posed with Tyler Harrison, the grandson of President John Tyler and President James Harrison.
Please click here for Part I of my interview with Sgt. Ward.
Also at NowPublic: "The Wind Beneath Their Wings"