Michelle Isenhoff

Blood Moon: African American Soldiers

This is the second post in a four-part series about writing and researching my upcoming young adult historical fiction novel, Blood Moon, book two in my Ella Wood trilogy. (Part 1: Women’s Education.)

I’m certainly getting an education in the events of the Civil War. In particular, the events that took place in and around Charleston Harbor, where Blood Moon is set. One of the more unique aspects I’ve learned about is the role of Colored troops. As you know, racism against African Americans was extreme at this time, even in the North, and putting a black man in uniform was something of an experiment. As it so happens, some of the very first Colored troops served outside Charleston Harbor.

In May 1862, the first Black regiment, the 1st Carolina, was raised as part of a program to enlist newly freed slaves. It was begun by General David Hunter, an active abolitionist, who hoped former slaves would enlist to fight against their former masters. Here is a section of text taken from a book I found hugely helpful, Gate of Hell, by Steven R. Wise:
“Still suspicious of the white man, few slaves volunteered. Undeterred, Hunter decided to give the slaves something to fight for. On May 9, he issued a proclamation declaring free all slaves within his command in the states of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Hunter then ordered his white soldiers to sweep the plantations for likely conscripts, which were carried to Hilton Head and formed into a 500-man regiment. Hunter had hoped that the government would recognize his deeds and his regiment, but President Lincoln was not ready for emancipation and the formation of black fighting units.”

Lincoln revoked the proclamation for fear of reactions in loyal border states. Hunter’s regiments were eventually disbanded, but his actions prompted Congress’s Second Confiscation Act and the Militia Act of 1862, which allowed Lincoln to raise black troops, free slaves whose masters were in rebellion, and use freed slaves in military service. In October, a remnant of Hunter’s conscripts formed Company A of the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry. They were taken into service on Jan. 1, 1863, the day the Emancipation Proclamation took effect.

1st South Carolina regiment on review, listening to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation Jan. 1, 1863.
1st South Carolina on review, listening to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation Jan. 1, 1863.

The 2nd South Carolina was also formed of recruited slaves. Early in its service, it was used to raid plantations; burn homes, outbuildings, and farm machinery, and carry off slaves–actions that demoralized the Confederate citizenry, particularly because they were being perpetrated by former slaves who were armed and in uniform.

gloryInitially, the Black regiments suffered a good deal of abuse from their white counterparts. They were used for menial tasks and heavy labor. But by April 1863 they were gaining a reputation as able-bodied soldiers and were readied for the summer campaign against Charleston. They were joined by their Northern counterparts, the 54th Massachusetts, who won immortality when they led the doomed assault on Fort Wagner outside Charleston Harbor. The charge was featured in the 1989 movie Glory.

The assault on Fort Wagner turned into a protracted siege in which the Colored troops served alongside White regiments. Indeed, on the narrow Sea Island, they lived in very close quarters. The long assignment and shared dangers of the Charleston Campaign, perhaps more than anywhere else in the war, broke down barriers between the races, and most White units who served with them came to recognize African Americans as comrades and accepted them as fellow soldiers.

At first, the Confederacy would not recognize captured Blacks as soldiers. Colored prisoners taken at Wagner were handed over to the state of South Carolina to face trial as escaped slaves captured in arms, even though the vast majority of the 54th Massachusetts had been born free in the North. State law required that they be returned to slavery or put to death for leading a slave insurrection. They were held separately from Whites and denied exchange. When the members of the 54th went to trial, Lincoln took a hard line against the South. He declared that Black soldiers were covered by General Order 100, which read “for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war a Rebel soldier shall be executed and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a Rebel shall be placed at hard labor…” As a result, the South reluctantly recognized Colored soldiers. (This trial will feature in book three of the Ella Wood trilogy, Ebb Tide.)

Men of the 54th Massachusetts

It is interesting to note that the Confederacy continued to refuse to exchange Black troops. As a result, Lincoln suspended all exchanges until they did. Prisoner exchange had been a common practice early in the war. After 1863, they effectively came to an end.

Because of the newness of African Americans in uniform and their extensive use in the Charleston Campaign, officers were asked to report their observations. They were overwhelmingly favorable. One wrote that he never had a Black soldier desert or shirk a duty. Another said Blacks tended to work harder and longer than Whites. Some noted a difference between regiments formed of freed slaves as compared with Northern Blacks, citing the superior education more aggressive spirit of the later. In fact, the 54th Massachusetts was praised again and again as being an exemplary unit in every way.

Racism in no way died out, but the successful integration of troops outside Charleston Harbor paved the way for the formation of more Colored regiments. It is estimated that nearly 200,000 black men served in the Union army and navy.

Next week, part 3: Early Photography.

Blood Moon: African American Soldiers

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