Black Troops in Civil War History Facts
In the American Civil War, Black troops were enlisted to fight in the Union army after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Up to this point, Black and contrabands followed the Union army and were used as cooks, teamsters and other non combat jobs. The idea of Black troops were distressing to many whites in the army because Blacks were untested in battle. Therefore, questions arose about Blacks agbility to fight and whether they would fight against old slave masters. However, Blacks wanted to fight to prove themselves,. They also wanted to help win their freedom as well as gain equality. Abolitionists in the New England states pushed for Black combat troops.
White officers from New England states trained Black troops for combat. The first and most famous Black regiment was the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, commanded by Colonel Robert Shaw. White abolitionists recruited blacks to join the 54th. The troops fought in many engagements but most notably the assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston South Carolina. The assault on Fort Wagner resulted in large numbers of casualties and the death of the 54th regiment's commanding officer, Colonel Shaw. The Confederates buried Shaw with the Black troops, thinking it was an insult to Shaw. However, the family thought it good he was buried with the men he fought with. The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment is the focus of the movie, Glory.
It was not long before many white Yankee soldiers liked the idea that Blacks were used in combat. The white Yankee soldiers felt that Blacks could die as well as they could. Also, they felt if the war was about ending slavery, then Blacks should fight for their freedom. White Yankee soldiers who volunteered for a Black combat unit could easily get an officer commission. It proved to be a quick and easy way to advance in the Union army.
The act of arming Blacks and using them in combat, enraged the South. The South always feared an insurrection of slaves. This led to retaliations by Southern troops. At Fort Pillow, when Black Union troops surrendered, they were murdered by the Confederates. The South refused to exchange Black soldiers which stopped prisoner exchanges for awhile.
The South had always used Blacks as laborers for the army. Rebel soldiers refused to do negro work. However, near the end of the war, General Robert E. Lee and other Southern leaders, favored using Blacks in combat. The high death tolls of the war caused a shortage of able bodied fighting men. The problems with using Black troops to fight for the southern cause were many. Black were slaves. It would undermine the white supemacy of the Confederate army. It was doubtful that slaves would fight to remain slaves. There was no incentive for slaves to fight for the Southern cause. Many whites feared arming the slaves might instigate an insurrection. Then, maybe slaves would fight if promised their freedom. However, this would undermine the whole reason for the war as many believed slavery to be.