African-Americans were active participants in America’s Civil War. Known then as Colored Troops they were involved with both Union forces as well as Confederate forces. The Historic Wilmington Foundation and Bellamy Mansion teamed up recently and asked Chris Fonvielle to talk about this piece of American history. Chris is a history professor at UNCW and a long time devotee to everything historic around Wilmington. He opened with a talk on the 13th and followed up with a tour of Fork Roads battleground on the 18th and another talk on the 20th. Find a schedule of upcoming history talks Here.
Here’s a summary of Chris’s talk about the role of African-American troops in the Civil War:
The War which began as an effort to maintain the Union quickly bumped into the ugly reality of slavery, the issue behind States Rights. Policy at the start of the war called for all ‘property’ to be returned to its owners. Property included slaves. But one Union Commander took a different approach when three slaves escaped and turned up at Fortress Monroe in Virginia. The Fortress was still in Union hands and led by General Butler. Would he return the “property” which the slaves were under the law of the land? Or give them sanctuary? Butler decided that they were “contraband.” That split the legal hair and provided the slaves with an escape route but also allowed the North to maintain that the issue of the day wasn’t slavery. This legal window encouraged more escapes and eventually helped 500,000 slaves escape to Union forces, about 12% of the total slaves.
Fonvielle highlighted one notable escape from Wilmington. William Gould led a group of slaves on a daring escape down the Cape Fear River and out into the ocean where they connected with Union blockade ships. Gould made his escape in August 1862 when Wilmington was preoccupied by a Yellow Fever epidemic. It meant that the white men who would normally be leading slave patrols “to maintain the peace” were occupied being sick or moving their families to other areas. Fonvielle likens the slave patrols to the brown shirts in Nazi Germany. They could stop any black person at any time and enter any black persons home at any time. There were no civil liberties. But their distraction gave Gould his opening and made his escape possible. Gould was a plasterer and did much of the plaster at the Bellamy Mansion. Gould served in the US Navy for the remainder of the war. He went on to father six sons who all served in WWI. We know much of this bit of history as Gould’s great grandson William Gould IV showed up at the NH Library and shared a diary Gould kept.
Another daring escape that Fonvielle recounted occurred in Charleston. Robert Smalls, a slave, was left to tend his master’s boat. He took advantage of the opportunity and sailed the boat out into open sea and turned it over to the US Navy. Smalls later met with Abraham Lincoln and was recognized by the US Congress. The fiction that slavery was not part of the issue of the day was wearing thin.
These escapes led to Congress passing the first Confiscation Act. It said in part that any property used to support the southern states including slaves could be confiscated. There was no longer a demand that slaves be returned. That was August 6, 1861.
A second Confiscation Act was passed July 8, 1862. It expanded the powers to provide for seizure of any property of any southerner who was disloyal and did not surrender within 60 days.
Those steps all led up to the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln and his advisors debated this issue long and hard. Abolitionists had been urging Lincoln to free the slaves for a long time. The South was wooing Britain to join in the war on their side. Wouldn’t that be a great way to poke a stick in the eye of those rebellious colonists! Lincoln also had to consider how Union troops would react if the focus of the war shifted from saving the union to freeing the slaves. He had to consider how would blacks would react, on both sides of the war. He had to consider how southern whites would respond. And the big issue, how would the four slaves states of Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and Delaware react? Would they remain in the Union or leave it?
Fonvielle explains that Lincoln showed his customary thoughtfulness to thread this needle. He used a military justification for freeing the slaves explaining that it would take away a military strength of the South. While the CSA would not arm slaves as that would put them in a position of equality it did use them as teamsters, porters, construction, cooks and other roles. He also limited emancipation to the rebellious states leaving out the four loyal slave holding states.
African American equality took a great leap forward in the war in May 1863. The Bureau of US Colored Troops (USCT) was founded May 22, 1863. Blacks were officially involved in the fighting as combatants. But they weren’t quite equal. White troops were paid $13 per month and had their uniforms supplied by the nation. Black troops were only paid $10 per month and had to buy their uniforms. Few became officers.
Few volunteered at first. Being second class citizens even in the North did not encourage the rally around the flag that Lincoln may have hoped for. Eventually leaders such as Frederick Douglas made the argument that a victory would be a step towards a more equal life and a loss would be a step backwards. Eventually 178,895 black citizens joined the Army by war’s end and an unknown number joined the Navy.
A high point for the USCT came July 18, 1863 when the 54th Massachusetts regiment led the attack on Fort Wagner in Charleston. Fonvielle noted that the movie Glory was based on this action.
But low points also came as southern whites showed how incensed they were that blacks would participate in the war against them. Lincoln’s worst fears about southern reaction to emancipation and black participation in the war occurred in a few instances. CSA leaders had threatened to retaliate by massacring all blacks and their white leaders. That threat receded when Lincoln promised to respond in a like manner.
But the danger didn’t completely go away. A battle at Fort Pillow showed the dangers for the USCT. 37% of Union white troops were killed in that battle but 64% of black troops were killed, a remarkable difference. Confederate Forces were led by Nathanial Bedford Forest a slave trader before the war and founder of the KKK in Tennessee after the war. Battles at Salt Hill, Va. and Plymouth, NC also showed evidence of massacres of black troops. It was an ugly war.
USCT troops were active in the battle of Fort Fisher and the battle of Fork Roads the battles that determined Wilmington’s fate and led to Lee’s surrender 42 days later. Several units were involved in both the first assault in December and the second successful assault in January 1865.
After securing Fort Fisher, union forces advanced towards Wilmington. Colored Troops stood as the northern defense line at Sugar Loaf. Sugar Loaf is near the river and is the highest natural point south of Jockey’s Ridge. USCT troops were to prevent a CSA attack and probe for strengths and weaknesses. Fortunately, the CSA troops were led by General Braxton Bragg known to critics as the best general the union had in the southern army. The final battle was at Fork Roads near the current Cameron Art Museum on February 20, 1865. Lee surrendered 42 days later as without Wilmington he had no supply lines remaining. Fonvielle contends that Wilmington was the South’s most important city at that time as it was the last port controlled by the CSA. Joseph Johnston surrendered to General Sherman April 26, and the war was over.
USCT troops earned 17 Medals of Honor in the war.