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“Now or Never”: African- American Troops in the Civil War

Written by Rachel Walman

This Saturday and Sunday, families who come to the Museum can meet living historians portraying the 6th Regiment of Infantry, United States Colored Troops (USCT). (“Colored” was considered a neutral term for African Americans in the 1800s, but it is considered derogatory today.) The men who served in this unit were among the roughly 179,000 black men who served the Union Army, comprising about 10 percent of it. Another 14,000 men served in the Union Navy. The 6th USCT was an impressive unit: Of the 16 black soldiers who were awarded the Medal of Honor for their service, two of them, Sergeant Major Thomas R. Hawkins and First Sergeant Alexander Kelly, came from the 6th USCT.

Though black units such as the Louisiana Corps d’Afrique had been active since 1862, black troops were not officially enlisted for combat until 1863, after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.  Black soldiers filled Union ranks at a time when the Army desperately needed men. They contributed greatly to the outcome of the war, though their skills and service were not always recognized on equal footing with white soldiers.

Fred[Erick] Douglass (1818-1895), carte-de-visite, no date. Collection of the New-York Historical Society Library.
Fred[Erick] Douglass (1818-1895), carte-de-visite, no date. Collection of the New-York Historical Society Library.
What did black soldiers experience in the Civil War? You’ll have the chance to ask living historians this weekend. For now, read the words of some African Americans who experienced this tumultuous era. Each voice teaches us a valuable lesson and brings us a bit closer to imagining this almost unimaginable time. Note that original spelling has been preserved.

The Leader: Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass saw the promise the Civil War held—a chance to end slavery and claim the rights of full citizens for black Americans. In an essay framed as an open letter, “Men of Color, To Arms!” Douglass wrote to his fellow African Americans:

“I urge you to fly to arms, and smite with death the power that would bury the Government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave….From east to west, from north to south the sky is written all over with ‘now or never.’ Liberty won by white men would lose half its lustre. Who would be free themselves must strike the blow. Better even to die free than to live slaves.”

Douglass believed not only that black men should contribute to the war, but that they would be rewarded for their service. Two of his sons, Charles and Lewis, enlisted with the 54th Massachusetts USCT.  His hopes were only partially borne out, as our next source shows.

This stereograph card, when viewed in a special device called a stereoscope, made the image look three-dimensional. This photograph of “colored pickets on duty near Dutch Gap” was taken sometime between 1863 and 1865, but was printed after the war.
This stereograph card, when viewed in a special device called a stereoscope, made the image look three-dimensional. This photograph of “colored pickets on duty near Dutch Gap” was taken sometime between 1863 and 1865, but was printed after the war.

The Activist: Corporal James Henry Gooding

James Henry Gooding was born into slavery in North Carolina but was later freed and brought to New York City, where he was educated at the Colored Orphan Asylum. After graduating, Gooding became a sailor on whaling ships. A few weeks after getting married in his home of New Bedford, Massachusetts, Gooding enlisted in the 54th Regiment USCT. He quickly noticed some injustices in the Army, particularly that black soldiers made less money than white soldiers. Always a good writer, he penned a letter to Lincoln asking for this injustice to be corrected:

“…Now your Excellency, we have done a Soldier’s duty. Why can’t we have a Soldier’s pay?…

We appeal to you, Sir, as the Executive of the Nation, to have us justly dealt with. The Regt. do pray that they be assured their service will be fairly appreciated by paying them as American Soldiers, not as menial hirelings… Our Patriotism, our enthusiasm will have a new impetus, to exert our energy more and more to aid our Country. Not that our hearts ever flagged in devotion, spite the evident apathy displayed in our behalf, but we feel as though our country spurned us, now we are sworn to serve her. Please give this a moment’s attention.”

After the battle of Olustee in northern Florida, Gooding experienced another injustice visited on black soldiers when he became a prisoner of war. At the time of his capture, the Confederacy had just suspended prisoner exchanges so they would not have to comply with Union orders to treat black and white POWs equally. Gooding was taken to Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Georgia, where he died on July 19, 1864, without knowing that a month earlier, the Army began paying all troops equally—even retroactively, as he requested.

Unidentified African American woman, 1860-1869, Collection of the New-York Historical Society Library.
Unidentified African American woman, 1860-1869, Collection of the New-York Historical Society Library.

The Left-Behind: Letty Barnes

Whether free or enslaved, the families of USCT soldiers also suffered through the war. Some women contributed to the war effort by becoming nurses, such as Ann Bradford Stokes, or even spies like Harriet Tubman. Many more women stayed behind to work to support their families, struggling to make ends meet. Letty Barnes describes her hardships in a letter to her husband Joshua of the 38th USCT:

“My dear husband,

I have just this evening received your letter sent me by Fredrick Finich you can imagin how anxious and worry I had become about you. And so it seems that all can get home once in awhile to see and attend to their familey but you I do really think it looks hard your poor old Mother is hear delving and working like a dog to try to keep soul and body together and here am I with to little children and myself to support and not one soul or one dollar to help us I do think if your officers could see us they would certanly let you come home and bring us a little money.”

We know from Army records that Officer Barnes was able to take leave and visit his family.

The Empowered: Spotswood Rice

John Rogers, The Slave Auction, 1859, Collection of the New-York Historical Society.
John Rogers, The Slave Auction, 1859, Collection of the New-York Historical Society.

One of the worst of slavery’s injustices was that families were often separated at the whim of their enslavers. Many black men who fought in the Civil War did so with the hope of someday reuniting with family after freeing them from bondage. Spotswood Rice wrote to both to his enslaved daughters Mary and Corra and to their cruel enslaver Kittey Diggs on this matter. His writing makes clear that he felt the tide of history was finally turning in his favor, allowing him to demand, not ask, to get his daughters back. To them he wrote:

“My Children

I take my pen in hand to rite you A few lines to let you know that I have not forgot you and that I want to see you as bad as ever…be assured that I will have you if it cost me my life…If Diggs dont give you up this Government will and I feel confident that I will get you   Your Miss Kaitty said that I tried to steal you   But I let her know that god never intended for man to steal his own flesh and blood.”

Rice’s reassuring tone to his daughters is matched by the strength of his warnings to Kittey Diggs. To her, he wrote:

“I received a leter from Cariline telling me that you say I tried to steal to plunder my child away from you…now I want you to understand that mary is my Child and she is a God given rite of my own…the longor you keep my Child from me the longor you will have to burn in hell and the qwicer youll get their…I want you to understand kittey diggs that where ever you and I meets we are enmays to each orthere   I offered once to pay you forty dollers for my own Child but I am glad now that you did not accept it… my Children is my own and I expect to get them and when I get ready to come after mary I will have bout a powrer and autherity to bring hear away and to exacute vengencens on them that holds my Child…I have no fears about geting mary out of your hands   this whole Government gives chear to me and you cannot help your self”

While not all families were reunited after the war, the Rices were. They lived together in St. Louis until the turn of the 20th century.

Freedom for all--6th United States Colored Troops. [Between 1863 and 1865] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/98500952/. (Accessed February 09, 2017.)
Freedom for all–6th United States Colored Troops. [Between 1863 and 1865] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/98500952/. (Accessed February 09, 2017.)
African-American soldiers experienced unmeasurable hardship and glory during the Civil War. During Black History Month—and at all times of year—we must remember their service to their country, their families, and the cause of freedom. We hope you’ll celebrate them with us and the 6th USCT this weekend!

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