The service of the Negroes in this struggle is so well known that only a brief statement is necessary. It is estimated that more than 180,000 Negro soldiers were enlisted in the Union Army and that thousands of slaves and some free Negroes were drafted as non-combatants on the Confederate side, with a promise of freedom to those slaves who survived. The Confederate Congress passed a law February 7, 1864, requiring that all male free Negroes and other persons of color then resident in the Confederate States, between the ages of 18 and 50, except those who were free under the treaty of Paris, 1803, and under the treaty of Spain, 1819, should be liable for duty in the army in connection with building of military defenses, work upon fortifications, in military hospitals, and in other work. Provision was made in the law for exemption by the Secretary of State for such as he thought needed it on grounds of "justice, equity, or necessity." The use of Negroes as soldiers, however, was debated by Confederate leaders. Finally, on March 13, 1865, the Confederate Congress passed an Act to use Negroes "to perform military service in whatever capacity he (the President) may direct." But the close of the conflict came before the plan could be carried out.1
During the first two years of the war, President Lincoln declined to use Negroes as soldiers. He held to this policy under strong pressure. General Butler was about the first to use Negro troops, drawn from the free Negroes of New Orleans who volunteered. There were many colored Creoles in New Orleans whose forbears had been free. Some were descendants of soldiers who had fought under General Andrew Jackson. Some of the officers of these militiamen accepted an invitation to visit the General. The result was that they readily agreed to form regiments of free Negroes. Two weeks later, August 22, 1862, when General Butler went down to the place where he had ordered the troops to gather, a unique sight struck his eyes: "2,000 men ready to enlist as recruits, not a man of them who had not a white 'biled shirt' on."2 In less than a month's time, a full regiment of free Negroes entered the army of the United States; another was accepted October 12, 1862, a third regiment of infantry, November 24, and a regiment of heavy artillery was mustered in November 29, 1862. They were called the First, Second, and Third Infantry Corps d'Afrique, respectively, and the First Regiment Heavy Artillery Corps d'Afrique.
The state of Kansas, however, organized the first regiment of Northern Negro troops. The first Kansas colored volunteers were mustered in January 4, 1863, at Fort Scott. The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was completed April 12 of that year. Frederick Douglass and a number of other prominent colored men assisted in the recruiting work.
1 Wesley, Charles H., "Employment of Negroes as Soldiers in the Confederate Army," Journal of Negro History, Vol. IV, No. 3, July, 1919.
2 Washington, Booker T., Story of the Negro, Vol. I, p. 322.
The raising of the first regiments was not without much misgiving on the part of many of the friends of the Negro, and not without opposition on the part of those who did not favor the use of Negroes as soldiers. The experiment was started, however, and theoretical objections had to await the test of experience. The first large experience came with the South Carolina Negro volunteers under the noted Colonel Higginson who was sent upon an expedition to occupy Jacksonville, Florida. Some of the hostile newspapers prophesied that the Negro troops would burn the city and outrage the inhabitants. They landed quietly, however, marched through the city streets in perfect order, committed no excesses of any kind. In writing of his Florida expedition Colonel Higginson said, "In every instance my troops came off with unblemished honor and undisputed triumph".
The Negro troops saw their first real fighting at the battle of Fort Hudson, May 27, 1863. These troops were the first and second Louisiana Native Guards, recruited under General Butler. After an all night's march and an hour's rest they were ordered to take a place on the right of the charging line. From early morning until three-thirty in the afternoon, amid hideous carnage, they charged six or seven times in trying to take a fortified bluff beyond a deep ravine. A correspondent of the New York Times, on the ground, said: "The deeds of heroism performed by these colored men were such as the proudest white men might emulate. Their colors were torn to pieces by shots and literally bespattered with blood and brain".
The teachable nature of the Negro, his endurance, his hopefulness, his enthusiasm, his songs when marching, his quick imitative powers in learning military drill and discipline, and his cheerfulness, which knew no discouragement, made him an asset. In less than six months after the first regiments were mustered in, he had taken part in five engagements and, as the New York Times said, "In some instances they acted with distinguished bravery, and in all they acted as well as could be expected of raw troops." The effect upon the country of such conduct of Negro troops in these engagements was so electrical that it settled the question of ability as a soldier and of their employment in the Union Army.
Another illustration will indicate the character of their services for liberty. The action of the 54th Massachusetts at Fort Wagner has been recounted in song and story. After two days' marching through marshes, swollen streams, rain and darkness, with one day's rest, the regiment was thrown into line. As darkness fell on the 18th of July, 1863, they were ordered to make double quick time in the charge upon the fort. They planted their flag upon the ramparts, held it there half an hour, and with their beloved Colonel Robert Gould Shaw cold in death upon the field, retired only when relieved by a second division. Corporal Carney, the Negro color bearer, though wounded severely in the thigh and shoulders, held his flag upon the parapet until his regiment was relieved. It was after this exploit that he made the famous remark, when returning to the hospital nearly exhausted from the loss of blood, "Boys, the old flag never touched the ground." With similar heroism and enthusiasm, from Petersburg and Nashville, down to the end of the struggle, Negro soldiers bore the burden in the heat of the battle and demonstrated by their sacrifices that they and theirs deserved a place as free citizens.
Among the first troops who went forward in the Spanish-American War in 1898, were the famous Ninth and Tenth Cavalry and the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantries, all Negro troops of the Regular Army. The Tenth Cavalry distinguished itself at the first battle in Cuba by coming to the rescue of Colonel Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. The Colonel publicly expressed his appreciation of their valor. In this famous battle of El Caney the Negro troops, as they went up the hill to the Spanish blockhouse, sang, "There'll be a Hot Time in the Old Town To-night." A Negro officer of the Twenty-fourth Infantry was the first man to enter the blockhouse. It was he who hauled down the Spanish flag.
Colonel Leonard Wood, when Chief of Staff in 1914, wrote: "I served with the Tenth Cavalry years ago as a junior officer, and have had it with me in various parts of the world, including the United States, Cuba, and the Philippines . . . the discipline and general performance of duty by these regiments have been very creditable." 1 Besides those of the regular army, there were a number of volunteer regiments from Indiana, Illinois, and other states. Following the Spanish-American War, two colored regiments with colored captains and lieutenants, went to the Philippines and did valiant service.