The Black Military Experience
The service of nearly 180,000 black soldiers in the Union army sped the transformation of the Civil War into a war against slavery. This volume of Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation examines the meaning of military service for slave and free-black men, their families and communities, and the nation. It details the recruitment of black Union soldiers in the Northern free states, the border slave states, and the Union-occupied Confederacy, as well as the eleventh-hour attempt by the Confederacy to enlist black soldiers. The documents in The Black Military Experience, many of them written by black soldiers and their loved ones, open a window on the lives of the men both on duty and off. Revealing the triumphs and tragedies of wartime service, they show black soldiers braving the test of combat, enduring the drudgery of fatigue duty, interacting with white officers, protesting inequality within the Union army, facing the dangers of capture by the enemy, confronting the complexities of military justice, liberating and protecting their families, serving in the postwar army of occupation, and returning to civilian life.
896 pp. Table of contents (pdf)
The Black Military Experience received the J. Franklin Jameson Prize for Distinguished Editorial Achievement of the American Historical Association.
Copies of The Black Military Experience may be ordered from Cambridge University Press online, by telephone (800-872-7423), or by fax (914-937-4712). Readers may also be interested in Freedom's Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War, an abridgment that includes many of the documents originally published in The Black Military Experience.
Selected Documents from the Volume
Black Ohioan to the Secretary of War, November 27, 1861
Initially barred from serving as Union soldiers, black men in parts of the North nevertheless formed militia companies and began drilling on their own. A freeman in Ohio beseeched Secretary of War Simon Cameron for a chance to strike a blow against the rebels.
- Governor of Iowa to the General-in-Chief of the Army, August 5, 1862
Advocating employment of black men by the Union army on entirely pragmatic grounds, Governor Samuel J. Kirkwood argued that a black man could drive an army team or stop a bullet as well as a white man.
- General-in-Chief of the Army to the Commander of the Department of the Tennessee, March 31, 1863
General Henry W. Halleck privately advised General Ulysses S. Grant about the changing purposes of the war and the military benefits of emancipation.
- Black Former Officers in a Louisiana Black Regiment to the Commander of the Department of the Gulf, April 7, 1863
By late 1862, Union troops in southern Louisiana included “Native Guard” regiments, composed of free black men under officers who were also men of color. General Benjamin F. Butler had permitted the black officers to continue to serve, but his successor, General Nathaniel P. Banks, forced all but a handful to resign. A group of ousted officers urged Banks to reconsider his position.
- Commander of the Department of the South to the Confederate President, April 23, 1863
After Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered that captured black Union soldiers not be treated as prisoners of war, but instead be turned over to Confederate state authorities for punishment ranging from reenslavement to execution, Union General David Hunter warned Davis that mistreatment of black soldiers or their officers would be met with swift retaliation.
- Officer in a Louisiana Black Regiment to the Commander of a Black Brigade, May 29, 1863
Writing to the chief recruiter of black troops in southern Louisiana, a Union officer praised the bravery of black soldiers in the battle of Port Hudson, many of whom had until recently been slaves.
Commander of the District of Northeastern Louisiana to the Headquarters of the Department of the Tennessee, June 12, 1863
A Union general described to his superiors the bloody battle of Milliken's Bend, which was the first test of combat for a brigade of newly enlisted black soldiers.
Mississippi Slaveholder to the Confederate President, July 20, 1863
After the fall of Vicksburg gave the Union control over the entire Mississippi River, slaveowners transferred thousands of slaves to areas more securely in Confederate hands rather than lose them to the Yankees. Fearing that the large-scale removals would undermine slave discipline and burden the resources of receiving regions, a slaveholder in eastern Mississippi advised President Jefferson Davis that desperate times called for desperate measures – including the conscription of enslaved men for Confederate military service.
- Mother of a Northern Black Soldier to the President, July 31, 1863
Shortly after the battle of Fort Wagner, Hannah Johnson, the mother of a soldier in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, urged President Lincoln to guarantee the proper treatment of captured black soldiers. In measured but heartfelt words she defined the president's responsibilities to the soldiers and their families and demanded that he fulfill them.
First page of manuscript (image, 473K)
- Commander of a North Carolina Black Regiment to the Commander of a Black Brigade, September 13, 1863
Colonel James C. Beecher, commander of a regiment of former slaves from North Carolina, protested when his men were treated more like uniformed laborers than soldiers.
- Massachusetts Black Corporal to the President, September 28, 1863
On behalf of the men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, Corporal James Henry Gooding protested the injustice of the Union's paying its black soldiers – in this case, Northern free men – less than their white comrades.
- Marriage Certificate of a Black Soldier and His Wife, December 3, 1863 (image, 471K)
The marriage of two former slaves, Private Rufus Wright and Elisabeth Turner, was presided over by a black army chaplain, the Reverend Henry M. Turner.
- Missouri Slave Woman to Her Soldier Husband, December 30, 1863
Martha Glover of Missouri, who remained enslaved after her
husband enlisted in the Union army, described to him the burdens
she and their children had borne since his departure.
- Missouri Slave Woman to Her Soldier Husband, January 19, 1864
The wife of a slave who had enlisted in the Union army warned her husband against sending money in the care of her owner, in whose custody she remained, for fear he would intercept it.
- Officer in a Missouri Black Regiment to the Superintendent of the Organization of Missouri Black Troops, February 1, 1864
Lieutenant William P. Deming relayed to General William A. Pile his men's complaints that slaveowners were punishing their wives and children by assigning them heavy work normally done by the men.
- Chaplain of a Louisiana Black Regiment to the Commander of a Black Division, April 8, 1864
For many black soldiers, entry into the Union army opened their first opportunity to acquire formal schooling – an opportunity the soldiers seized readily.
- Black New Yorker to the Secretary of War, April 18, 1864
Theodore Hodgkins of New York warned that failure to retaliate for the massacre at Fort Pillow, Tennessee – in which Confederate troops killed scores of Union soldiers, most of them black, after they had surrendered – would alienate black Americans from the Union cause.
- Black Soldier in Virginia to His Wife, April 22 and May 25, 1864
In letters to his wife, Private Rufus Wright not only described a battle in which his regiment participated but also passed along more mundane news.
- Black Sergeant to the Secretary of War, April 27, 1864
William J. Brown, a freeborn sergeant in a regiment composed mostly of former slaves, conveyed to the secretary of war his comrades' resentment that they were paid not only less than white soldiers, but also less than black civilian military laborers.
- Black Acting Chaplain to the Secretary of State, May 18, 1864
Unwilling to appoint black men to military positions that entailed authority over white men, until early 1865 the U.S. War Department refused to commission black men as line officers, no matter what their qualifications. Applications for commissions as chaplains and surgeons – positions that did not involve battlefield command – were received with somewhat more favor.
- Adjutant General of the Army to the Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Military Affairs, May 30, 1864
Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, who was in charge of recruiting black soldiers in the Mississippi Valley, praised the men's military performance and, in so doing, added his voice to those advocating equal pay for black soldiers and their white counterparts.
- Soldiers of a Massachusetts Black Regiment to the President, July 16, 1864
Since July 1863, black soldiers in the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry had refused to accept unequal compensation with white soldiers – a stand that came at considerable cost, including the impoverishment of many of their families. A year after opening their protest, convinced that the government had still not acted to correct the injustice, members of the 55th Massachusetts petitioned President Lincoln for immediate discharge and settlement of accounts.
- Maryland Black Soldier to the Mother of a Dead Comrade, August 19, 1864
A black soldier from Maryland consoled the mother of a friend who had died in combat.
- New York Black Soldier to the President, [August] 1864
Writing anonymously, a Northern black soldier stationed in Louisiana described the toll that hard labor and short rations were taking on the men of his regiment.
- Missouri Black Soldier to His Enslaved Daughters, and to the Owner of One of His Daughters, September 3, 1864
Private Spotswood Rice promised his daughters – and warned the woman who owned one of them – that their liberation was at hand.
- Superintendent of the Organization of Kentucky Black Troops to the Adjutant General of the Army, October 20, 1864
General James S. Brisbin described to his superiors how the “jeers and taunts” that white Union soldiers had directed toward newly enlisted black soldiers were silenced by the latter's bravery under fire.
- Mother of a Pennsylvania Black Soldier to the President, November 21, 1864
Apprehensive about her son's safety and her own welfare, the elderly mother of a black soldier petitioned President Lincoln for his release from further service, on the grounds that he was her sole support.
- Affidavit of a Kentucky Black Soldier, November 26, 1864
Threatened by their owner, the wife and children of Joseph Miller had accompanied him when he enlisted in the Union army. Miller described the ordeal that followed the expulsion of his family from the camp in which they took refuge.
- Louisiana Black Sergeant to the Commander of a Louisiana Black Brigade, December 27, 1864
Recounting his regiment's battlefield success, a black sergeant stationed in Florida felt confident that the general who had supervised recruitment in his home state would grant him a “Small favor.”
- Black Residents of Nashville, Tennessee, to the Union Convention of Tennessee, January 9, 1865
In a petition to a convention of white unionists that was considering reorganization of the state government and the abolition of slavery, black Tennesseans argued that black men were fit to exercise all the privileges of citizenship.
Kentucky Black Soldier to the Secretary of War, January 26, 1865, Enclosing Two Letters
Private Aaron Oats believed that his service to the Union entitled him to assistance in liberating his family. In a letter to the secretary of war, Oats enclosed two letters he had received, one from his wife and the other from her owner.
- Chaplain of a Louisiana Black Regiment to the Regimental Adjutant, February 1, 1865
In a report to the Bureau of Colored Troops, the white chaplain of a Louisiana black regiment described the changes he had witnessed among his men since their enlistment.
- Chaplain of an Arkansas Black Regiment to the Adjutant General of the Army, February 28, 1865
The chaplain of a black regiment in Arkansas noted the importance of marriage to the freedpeople, who regarded their wartime emancipation as a step toward “an honorable Citizenship.”
- Affidavit of a Kentucky Black Soldier's Widow, March 25, 1865
After her husband enlisted in the Union army in late 1864, Patsy Leach endured abuse at the hands of their enraged owner, a Confederate sympathizer in Kentucky. Fearing for her life, she fled with her youngest child, leaving four other children behind.
Affidavit of a Kentucky Black Soldier, March 29, 1865
When Congress adopted a joint resolution in March 1865 freeing the wife, children, and mother of every black soldier, slave men in Kentucky (where slavery remained legal) responded with a renewed surge of enlistments. Slaveowners threatened volunteers and their families with violence, and local police and slave patrols tried to obstruct slaves' flight to recruitment centers. A soldier recounted how he and his wife had been foiled in their first attempt to escape.
Louisiana Black Soldier to the Secretary of War, May 1865
Seventeen-year-old Warren Hamelton, a soldier who had been imprisoned for desertion, appealed his conviction on the grounds that the government had failed to fulfill its obligations to him and he was therefore unable to support his mother.
North Carolina Black Soldiers to the Freedmen's Bureau
Commissioner, May or June 1865
At the end of the war, black soldiers stationed near Petersburg, Virginia, wrote to the commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau to protest the suffering of their wives, children, and parents at a settlement on Roanoke Island, North Carolina.
Michigan Black Sergeant to the Commander of the Department of South Carolina, August 7, 1865
A black sergeant stationed in South Carolina after the war complained to the state's military commander when a post commander failed to render justice to a freedman who had applied to him for assistance.
- Statement by a Discharged Virginia Black Soldier, August 11, 1865
Attempting to reunite with his wife and children after his discharge from the Union army, John Berry was forcibly turned away by their former owner, who resented Berry's service against the Confederacy.
Missouri Black Soldier to the Secretary of War, August 22, 1865
On behalf of comrades from Missouri and Tennessee, a black soldier wrote to the secretary of war concerning the men's concern about their families, their dissatisfaction with routine duties, and their disdain for a particularly obnoxious officer.
Statement by a Tennessee Black Sergeant, September 11, 1865
For former Confederates, nothing more vividly demonstrated the humiliation of their defeat than the presence of black soldiers. Two white policemen in Memphis vented their anger against a black sergeant who refused to be cowed by threats.
- Order by the Commander of a Kentucky Black Regiment, October 5, 1865
When former slaves in a Mississippi town sought to establish a school, they enlisted the aid of two noncommissioned officers in a black regiment stationed nearby.
- Kentucky Black Sergeant to the Tennessee Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, October 8, 1865
In a letter to an official of the Freedmen's Bureau, Sergeant John Sweeny of Kentucky emphasized the importance of education to his people.
First page of manuscript (image, 2.2 MB)
Officer in a Kentucky Black Regiment to the Headquarters of the Regiment, November 15, 1865
Armed with an order from General John M. Palmer, the military commander in Kentucky, a black sergeant attempted to move his wife from the home of her former owner, only to be jailed by civil authorities. His company commander recounted the episode to the commander of the regiment, whose endorsement and that of General Palmer indicated that such persecution of black soldiers was common.
- Tennessee Black Soldier to the Commander of the Military Division of the Tennessee, November 19, 1865, and Commander of a Tennessee Black Regiment to Division Headquarters, December 14, 1865
A black soldier stationed in Alabama protested that his regimental officers forbade the wives of the enlisted men to visit camp, prompting his regimental commander to defend the practice as a disciplinary measure and cast aspersions on the men's attachment to the women they regarded as their wives.
- Mississippi Black Soldier to the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner, December 16, 1865
Outraged by Mississippi's newly enacted black code and by outbreaks of violence against freedpeople, Private Calvin Holly wrote the Freedmen's Bureau commissioner to describe conditions and propose a solution.
- Black Residents of Washington, D.C., to the U.S. Congress, December 1865
Presenting themselves as respectable, tax-paying citizens who had answered the Union's call to arms far more readily than their white neighbors, some 2,500 black residents of the District of Columbia asked Congress to grant them the suffrage – without which they were “but nominally free.”
- Commander of a Missouri Black Regiment to the Officers and Men of the Regiment, January 4, 1866
Addressing the officers and men of the 62nd U.S. Colored Infantry as his association with them was ending, the regiment's commander lauded their role in the struggle against slavery and advised the men about conducting themselves as free citizens.
- South Carolina Black Soldier to the Commander of the Department of South Carolina, January 13, 1866
With Union victory won and emancipation secure, the spokesman for soldiers in a South Carolina black regiment asked their departmental commander to allow them to leave the service and return to families who were suffering in their absence.
- Freedmen's Bureau Agent at Brentsville, Virginia, to the Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent of the 10th District of Virginia, January 15, 1866
A Freedmen's Bureau agent described the hostility of white civilians toward discharged black soldiers, including the shooting and beating of one veteran for daring to express pride in his service.
- Chaplain of an Arkansas Black Regiment to the Adjutant General of the Army, February 28, 1866
Black soldiers stationed at Devall's Bluff, Arkansas, devoted part of their earnings to establishing schools not only for themselves, but also for freed children in the town.
- Adjutant of a Missouri and Arkansas Black Regiment to the Executive Committee of the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends, June 11, 1866
Stationed in eastern Arkansas, where many of them had been enslaved, soldiers of the 56th U.S. Colored Infantry expended both their money and their labor to construct an orphanage for black children.
Kentucky Black Soldiers to the President, July 3, 1866
More than a year after the war ended, soldiers serving along the Mexican border compared their service to the Union with the shoddy treatment they and their families had endured and challenged their commander-in-chief to make good the nation's promises to them.
- Affidavit of the Wife of a Discharged Georgia Black Soldier, September 25, 1866
The wife of a discharged soldier paid a high price for his association with the Union army.