Part Seven: The Involvement of Blacks in the Civil War
The "…slow, stubborn mutiny of the Negro slave was not merely a matter of 200,000 Black soldiers and perhaps 300,00 other Black laborers, servants, spies, and helpers. Back of this half million stood 31 million more. Without their labor the South would starve. With arms in their hands, Negroes would form a fighting force which could replace every single northern white soldier fighting listlessly and against his will with a Black man fighting for freedom."
Moreover, the southern poor whites supported the planters, for the most part, as long as they seemed to be winning; as the planters had warned them of labor competition with free ex-slaves (bearing in mind that some had acquired skills working on the plantations). But, more and more the poor whites began to view the war as a "slave-owners war"; thus, the amount of volunteers decreased; and the planters had to resort to the draft (selecting many poor whites and few planters/slave-owners). Consequently, the ensuing opposition, desertion and disunion contributed vastly to the fall of the South.
As we have seen, several factors constituted the South's downfall. However, some of the events experiences and involvement of the Blacks themselves should be explored for our references.
The North thought that the Blacks would not fight. Consequently, the Blacks' war efforts began as laborers and spies. The most famous of spy was Harriet Tubman.
Harriet Tubman served as a scout, spy, nurse, and of course, a soldier. As a nurse she also doubled as a liaison between the "contraband of war" and the military. She also organized and conducted a completely successful guerilla campaign on the Combahee River in South Carolina. Although her commanding officer Col. James Montgomery got most of the credit for it, she asked that the Black soldier's contribution be recognized.
Other Black involvement:
One group of slaves upon hearing that they might be forced to fight for the South, devised the following strategy. Knowing that they would be segregated; if they were placed in front, when the Union troops approached they would turn and fire on the south; if they were placed in back, they would trap the South in crossfire.
William F. Tillman, a Black steward on the Brig. S. J. Waring carrying a cargo valued at $100,000, led a revolt and regained control of the vessel which the Confederates had seized. With the help of a German and Canadian, he brought the ship to New York.
This action raised the question as to whether or not Blacks could master vessels, and was later affirmed.
Robert Smalls, a Black pilot of the steamship Planter, led the ship's Black crew, along with some of their family members, at three o'clock in the morning of May 14, 1862 at Ft. Sumpter, South Carolina, in commandeering the vessel. They signaled the guards for permission to pass, and proceeded slowly out of range of the fort's guns. Then they raised the white flag and sailed until they reached a Union blockade.
"Black men were repeatedly and deliberately used as shock troops."
Colonel T. W. Higginson on the Black troops he led into Florida in February 1863: "It would have been madness to attempt with the bravest white troops what (was) successfully accomplished with the Black ones."
April 1863—Ship Island, the key to New Orleans: Seven Black companies with Black officers, out numbered five to one, were attacked by Confederate troops. The Black troops retreated in order to allow the federal gunboat to shell the pursuers. But the white crew disliked the Negroes and they opened fire directly upon them while they were fighting the Confederates. Fortunately, the Black officer in charge, Maj. Dumas, was able to rescue the troops, repel the Confederate, bring the men out safely; commending the colored officers, thusly. "They were constantly in the thickest of the fight, and by their unflinching bravery, and admirable handling of the commands, contributed to the success of the attack, and reflected great honor upon the flag."
In June 1963, at Milliken's Bend, the Confederate troops launched a surprise attack on the fort. Gen. Grant left the fort to be guarded by three Black regiments, and a small white cavalry. The rebels drove the white cavalry to the breast works of the fort; at three o'clock they made a bayonet charge. The Black troops held until the gunboats came. During the fight the rebels had captured some Black troops and murdered them. This enraged the others so much that they rallied and charged more heroically and desperately than ever has been recorded in the War.
There are numerous battles in which the Blacks engaged; they fought with and for the likes of General Banks, Butler, Sherman (both T. W. and Wm. Tecumseh) and Sheridan. However, there is one engagement that deserves special recognition.
In order to seize Charleston, S.C., Fort Wagner, which guarded it, had to be taken. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (white), and the Black 54th regiment from Massachusetts under his command, was selected for the task. [This was the battle that inspired the movie "Glory."] The Blacks as well as Col. Shaw realizing that this was one of the first battles with a large amont of Black troops, knew there was a lot at stake here. Not only did most white persons think that the Blacks did not have enough courage to fight but resented them from being used as soldiers.
The troops advanced toward the fort under coverage of mortar shelling, right into a trap laid by two thousand Confederate troops. Following the 54th were five regiments from New England. The advancing troops were moving quickly and silently through the night; then the trap was sprung. Heavily losses were sustained. In the heat of the fight, Shaw gained the parapet of the fortress, stood there steadfastly with musket in hand urging the troops on as bullets riddled his body. The Confederates were re-enforced by thousands who had slipped in unseen; the Confederates rallied. The Blacks could have retreated and saved their lives, but may have lost face in lieu of the cry: "The Negroes are afraid to fight." There was no choice but to stay, to fight, and to die.
Though this battle was lost, it contributed greatly to the fighting reputation and spirit of the Blacks. From then on they were used on all fronts, all over the nation, and "Their contribution was the balance of power in the ultimately northern victory."
Principle Reference: Black Reconstruction in America 1860–1880 by W.E.B. DuBois
Conrad, Earl — Harriet Tubman
The New York Times Encyclopedia Almanac
All quotes are from Black Reconstruction and Harriet Tubman