ON THE BATTLEFIELD
After the valiant yet unsuccessful assault on Fort Wagner, the pace
of black recruitment accelerated. From a handful of regiments in the
summer of 1863, the ranks of the USCT swelled to massive proportions. By
late summer of 1864, some 100,000 blacks had donned the Union blue, and
before the war ended their numbers surpassed 123,000.
Black soldiers built fortifications, guarded critical bridges and
railheads, sustained the logistical pipeline, and performed sundry other
duties. But the reality of their situation was that black soldiers could
not gain the respect of Northern whites and attain the full and equal
civil rights they so desired unless they achieved success on the
battlefield. By the same token, failure in battle could cause
irreversible damage to their status in post-war America.
Time after time, black soldiers acted with unusual valor because they
so feared accusations of cowardice. They fought boldly, sometimes
recklessly, to demonstrate conclusively their character and commitment
to Union victory. "They had been to the armory of God," a black sergeant
explained, and had received weapons of the heart, that made them daring
and dangerous foesmen to be really reckoned with. For black
soldiers, the Civil War was their crusade.
TWO SOLDIERS AT DUTCH GAP, VIRGINIA. (OHIO HISTORICAL SOCIETY)|
How well did they perform in combat? They fought as well and as badly
as white soldiers. When their officers trained and led them properly,
black units acted as gallantly in battle as any white regiment. When
their officers neglected or mistreated their troops, when they openly
expressed doubts about how well their men would act in combat, and when
they trained their men badly and led them poorly in battle, black
commands were as bad as white units with comparable leadership problems.
Perhaps Abraham Lincoln best assessed their combat effectiveness when he
wrote in 1864, "So far as tested, it is difficult to say they are not as
good soldiers as any."
Often high-ranking officers used them in assaults. Some felt this was
the optimal way to use their "innate savagery." Others justified their
employment in charges for a more conventional reason. They believed that
since excessive fatigue duty had cut so deeply into the drill time of
black units, they might have difficulties executing intricate tactical
maneuvers on the battlefield. Simple, direct assaults overcame that
problem. Only at Fort Wagner did a general officer recommend placing
black troops in the vanguard of the attack to rid himself of them. In
critical moments, when armies entered battle and officers scraped
together all available troops, generals were delighted to have black
THREE BLACK REGIMENTS FOUGHT AT THE BATTLE OF OLUSTEE, FLORIDA, IN 1864.
While black units fought during the fall and winter of 1863, it was
not until late spring or early summer of 1864 that the Federal armies
truly felt their impact. Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant
devised a strategy that placed as many soldiers in the field as
possible. With the huge increase in black enlistment during the previous
year, there were literally dozens of black regiments ready for
campaigning. In the siege of Petersburg thirty-three regiments, or
nearly one in every eight soldiers, was black. In the Military Division
of the Mississippi, Sherman preferred to keep his black soldiers more to
the rear, guarding railroads and pushing supplies forward. Nevertheless,
black troops under his overall command participated in numerous
Probably the most famous battle involving black troops was the
Petersburg mine assault, more commonly known as "the Crater." Some
Pennsylvania troops, miners before the war, suggested a plan to tunnel
beneath the Confederate breast-works and detonate some explosives. With
the fortifications destroyed, Union troops could carry the position and
break the Confederate line. They worked strenuously to dig a long mine
and loaded it with gunpowder. On July 30, 1864, after an aborted try to
light the charge, the mine exploded. The blast created a huge crater on
the site of the Confederate line.
THE BATTLE OF THE CRATER. (LC)|
The original plan called for a black division to lead the assault.
These troops had trained rigorously for the attack and looked forward to
the opportunity to carry the enemy works. But Major General George G.
Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, changed the plan. Fearing
political repercussions if the scheme failed and the black division
sustained heavy losses, he replaced the black troops with a white
Union mismanagement, Confederate obstinacy, and the difficulty of
overcoming the huge pit that the explosion had created soon bogged down
the white troops. The Federals needed more men to exploit the break, and
the first reserve was the black division. The black troops drove rapidly
into the gap, but the Confederate army recovered quickly from the shock.
Rebel officers directed artillery fire to cover the front, and shot and
shell became so heavy that all the black troops could do was to hug the
ground. With infantry support, Confederates then sealed off the
breakthrough and fired on the attackers from the front and the
Disaster struck the Federals. Unable to advance and unable to
retreat, they were trapped in no-man's-land. Throughout much of the day
these Yankees hunkered down as best they could, exchanging fire
sporadically with their enemy. It was only a matter of time before the
Confederates gathered enough forces to launch a counterattack. When the
Rebels struck, they did so with intensity, and within a matter of
minutes they crushed Union resistance.
Rather than surrender, most Federals elected to risk their fate and
run the gauntlet back to Union lines. Many were mowed down in flight.
Others refused to give up. They fought with all their might until the
Confederate attackers simply overwhelmed them.
BLACK INFANTRYMEN HAUL IN CAPTURED GUNS AT PETERSBURG. (FW)|
THE 1ST INFANTRY REGIMENT, USCT, FOUGHT AT PETERSBURG, CHAPIN'S FARM,
FAIR OAKS, AND OTHER SITES, (LC)|
To prevent any more slaughter, a Federal general intervened and
ordered all troops in the crater to surrender. A pocket of Yankees did
not receive the word to cease fire, though, and they continued to shoot.
Some Confederates viewed the act as treachery and retaliated in kind by
bayoneting wounded black soldiers. When black soldiers saw their
comrades being massacred, they immediately grabbed their weapons and
launched yet another vigorous attack, this one with bullets, bayonets,
and rifle butts. Eventually, a Confederate officer restored order by
guaranteeing proper treatment for all prisoners. If these black soldiers
resisted, however, he promised every one of them would die. At the
urging of Federal officers, the last black soldiers dropped their
weapons and surrendered. The Battle of the Crater had ended.
As the black regiments rallied to tabulate their losses, the sight
was sickening. The 29th U.S. Colored Infantry entered the attack with
450 troops and exited with 128. Other regiments in the USCT sustained
casualties nearly that high. "I felt like sitting down & weeping on
account of our misfortune," an officer commiserated to a friend. In
total, the black regiments suffered over 40 percent of the fatalities
and 35 percent of the casualties, higher proportional losses than white
troops in the engagement.
At the battle of Chapin's Farm near Richmond, Virginia, in late
September 1864, Grant employed white and black troops in an attack on
the extreme left of Lee's line. The Union commanders called on black
units, on the far right of the attacking force, to charge over difficult
terrain against strong Confederate works. After working their way
through a maze of felled trees, black troops had to wade a swamp as they
approached the Confederate fortifications. Officers had instructed
troops to fix bayonets and not to fire. As their advance slowed to a
crawl in the swampy area, Confederates poured a withering fire on the
attackers. Black troops fell by the scores, and under such duress they
could not resist firing back. Men then stopped to reload, and
Confederates cut them down in huge numbers. Although his soldiers failed
to carry the Confederate defenses there, the commander of the Third
Brigade, Third Division, XVIII Corps, which consisted of the 4th and 6th
U.S. Colored Infantry, lauded the true valor of his men: "Ah! give me
the Thunder-heads & Black hearts after all. They fought splendidly
that morning, facing the red tempest of death with unflinching heroism."
One company lost over 87 percent of its men in the assault, and the 6th
U.S. Colored Infantry suffered 209 casualties out of 377 men who entered
SERGEANT MAJOR CHRISTIAN FLEETWOOD OF THE 4TH USCT RECEIVED THE MEDAL OF
HONOR FOR HIS VALOR IN THE BATTLE OF CHAPIN'S FARM. (USAMHI)|
The Second Brigade in that division, also consisting of black troops,
attacked near the Third Brigade. Like the men in the 4th and 6th U.S.
Colored Infantry, its soldiers had to traverse a swamp and had the same
problems with troops firing in the open. Nevertheless, the brigade
stormed the Confederates' defensive position along the New Market Road,
routed them, and held the line until reinforcements arrived. Their
losses that day were shocking. The Second Brigade entered the battle
with some 1,300 men and had 455 casualties.
Probably the worst Union disaster that day occurred when Brigadier
General William Birney directed black troops to charge Confederate Fort
Gilmer, an extremely well-defended position. Black soldiers plowed
through three ravines, filled with fallen timber, all the while under
heavy fire. Although many men were driven back, some managed to reach a
deep ditch outside the fort. Every time they shoved soldiers to the top,
Confederate blasts knocked them back. Rebel forces then began to lob
hand grenades and short-fuse shells down on them. The survivors had no
alternative but to surrender.
One month later, Grant used these black troops to divert Lee's
attention again, this time in an attack farther north. Like the assault
on September 29, this one failed, but the casualties were considerably
lower. At Chapin's Farm, although black units constituted a small
portion of the Federal force, they suffered 43 percent of the
THE 1ST TENNESSEE COLORED BATTERY. (LC)|
Far from the Petersburg trenches, inexperienced black regiment, the
5th U.S. Colored Cavalry, joined white troops in an attack on
Confederates at Saltville, Virginia, in early October 1864. Among the
Federals on the expedition were the 13th Kentucky Cavalry. Several
months earlier, these Kentuckians demonstrated such hatred of black
soldiers that they nearly murdered a recruiting officer in the USCT. As
they advanced toward Saltville, the Kentucky cavalrymen heckled the
black troops. But when they went into battle, the performance of the 5th
U.S. Colored Cavalry shocked their white comrades. These fledgling black
horsemen stormed Confederate works and drove back their adversaries. For
two hours they clung to their position. When no support arrived, their
officers withdrew them under the cover of dusk.
The sheer audacity of the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry in the face of
strong enemy resistance changed the opinions of the white troops in a
hurry. According to a captain in the 13th Kentucky Cavalry, he and his
men "never saw troops fight like they did. The rebels were firing on
them with grape and canister and were mowing them down by the Scores but
others kept straight on."
Despite their comparatively small numbers, men in the USCT played a
major role in the Battle of Nashville, where Major General George H.
Thomas's troops crushed the Confederate Army of Tennessee and ended
Lieutenant General John Bell Hood's Tennessee invasion. At Nashville,
the USCT sustained 630 casualties out of 3,500 men. As an officer in the
100th U.S. Colored Infantry walked over the battlefield, he gazed at the
terrible sight of hundreds of bodies, both black and white, all of them
clad in blue, who fell in combat. But strangely enough, the scene
uplifted him, too. "The blood of the white and black men," be noted.
"has flowed freely together for the great cause which is to give
freedom, unity, manhood and peace to all men, whatever birth or
THE GUN CREW OF THE 2ND U.S. COLORED LIGHT ARTILLERY. (CHICAGO
Probably the single greatest success of black troops was in the
Battle of Fort Blakely, Alabama, in April 1865. A division of black
troops held the extreme right of the Union position. Late in the
afternoon, its officers extended the skirmish line. Confederate troops
tried to resist the advance, but the Rebel pickets soon fell back
hastily to their main trenches. "As soon as our niggers caught sight of
the retreating figures of the rebs" explained an officer in the USCT,
"the very devil could not hold them their eyes glittered like serpents
and with yells & howls like hungry wolves they rushed for the rebel
works the movement was simultaneous regt. [regiment] after regt. and
line after line took up the cry and started until the whole field was
black with darkeys." The attack, unauthorized by the Union high command,
followed so closely on the heels of the Confederate skirmishers that the
defenders in the main fortifications could not fire on them without fear
of hitting their own men. As black soldiers poured into the works, the
Confederate line began to crumble. Moments later, an authorized Federal
assault all around the line completed the rout. Word of the scheduled
attack to the black division had miscarried, but they could not have
coordinated their charge any better.
BLACK MEDAL OF HONOR RECIPIENTS
In March of 1863 Congress established the Medal of Honor as the
United States's highest award for military valor. Eventually 23 black
servicemen16 soldiers and 7 sailorswould receive the
prestigious decoration for gallantry in action during the Civil War, a
striking testament to the service and sacrifice of African American
volunteers in our nation's bloodiest conflict.
Perhaps the best-known of these deeds of valor occurred on July 18,
1863, during the desperate night assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina.
Twenty-three-year-old Sergeant William H. Carney of the 54th
Massachusetts raised the unit's fallen banner and carried the flag
across the moat of the fort and up the corpse-strewn ramparts. Though
bleeding from several wounds, Carney maintained his grip on the
bullet-riddled Stars and Stripes to the end of the fight and proudly
declaimed to his surviving comrades, "The old flag never touched the
ground." Though Carney did not receive his Medal until 1900, his was the
first battlefield exploit by an African American to earn the award.
A COMPOSITE PHOTOGRAPH OF MEDAL OF HONOR RECIPIENTS. FROM TOP, LEFT TO
RIGHT: ROBERT A. PINN, MILTON N. HOLLAND. JOHN W. LAWSON; JOHN DENNY,
ISAIAH MAYS, FOWHATAN BEATY, BRENT WOODS; WILLIAM H. CARNEY, THOMAS R.
HAWKINS, DENNIS BELL, JAMES H. HARRIS; THOMAS SHAW, ALEXANDER KELLY,
JAMES GARDINER, CHRISTIAN A. FLEETWOOD (LC)|
The greatest number of medals presented to black soldiers for a
single action came at the battle of New Market Heights, or Chapin's
Farm, one of numerous engagements during the nine-month-long siege of
the Southern strongholds of Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia. On
September 29, 1864, three brigades of United States Colored Troops
launched a determined attack against formidable Confederate defenses.
Their ranks thinned by a savage fire, the disciplined regiments pressed
on through a maze of obstructionsfallen trees and sharpened stakes
called abatis. When white officers fell dead or wounded, five
black sergeants took charge of their respective companies, and led the
onslaught toward the enemy position.
Sergeant Alfred B. Hilton was carrying the National Colors of the 4th
USCT, when the man bearing the regimental flag was felled beside him.
Hilton raised the fallen banner and pressed ahead with both flags until
a bullet in the right leg brought him down. When Hilton shouted, "Boys,
save the colors!" Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood and Private Charles
Veal leaped forward, picked up the flags, and pushed on to the
earthworks. "I have never been able to understand how Veal and I lived
under such a hail of bullets," Fleetwood recalled, "unless it was
because we were both so little fellows." Veal was the only member of the
Colored Guard to emerge from the fight unscathed, though his flagstaff
was severed and the silk pierced with twenty-two bullets. The gallant
standard-bearers were among fourteen African American soldiers awarded
the Medal of Honor for heroic conduct at New Market Heights.
Despite prejudice, unequal pay, and innumerable hardships, these
brave black soldiers exemplified the idealism and sacrifice of men with
a cause. As Medal of Honor winner William Carney put it, "We continued
to fight for the freedom of the enslaved and for the restoration of our
As they had done with the white men in the 13th Kentucky Cavalry,
black units fought their way to respectability in the Union army. At
Decatur, Alabama, the 14th U.S. Colored Infantry received three hearty
cheers from some white troops for their excellent performance. On a
Union retreat in Arkansas, a Confederate force attacked some Federals at
Jenkins' Ferry. A white Yankee could not believe how well a black
regiment fought. "I am entirely whiped by the nigers," he confessed to
his sister. "They are as good if not the best soldiers we have. I
never would have beleaved it, but I have seen it with my own eyes and
there is no longer any doubt." In three tough fights on that campaign,
the black troops had fought well every time. Outside Petersburg in June
1864, three black regiments received an enthusiastic reception from
white cavalrymen and later soldiers in Winfield Scott Hancock's II Corps
of the Army of the Potomac. The white veterans treated the black
soldiers with newfound respect. "A few more fights like that," predicted
an officer in the USCT, "and our Col'd boys will have established their
manhood if not their Brotherhood to the satisfaction of even the most
BLACK SOLDIERS AT CAMP. (HARPER'S WEEKLY)|