Slavery & Emancipation

    Black Union Soldiers  "Hard To Come To An Opinion"

"About the negro troops, I find it hard to come to an opinion", a white Massachusetts officer wrote following the Battle of Fort Wagner, SC: "No one says they behaved remarkably well. I think they did fairly, no better than the white troops and probably not so well, for they came back two hundred muskets short of the number of men, while the other regiments had a surplus. Tom Stephenson who has the 54th Massachusetts, [colored] in his brigade, spoke well of them but probably he would be slow to say anything in their disfavor. With long and careful discipline I suppose a regiment of negroes might do as well as a poor white regiment, but negro troops disciplined no better than many of our white regiments are would be useless."

Racial prejudice demonstrated by the Union government and soldiers was common during the Civil War, and black soldiers were often given onerous duties with few opportunities to prove their worth in battle. Abolitionists were as likely to exaggerate the battlefield competence of black troops as antiblack soldiers were to dismiss it, making a fair evaluation of black soldiers difficult for historians. As with all soldiers, a crucial factor in performance was the leadership of the unit.

Inspection reports indicate that black troops did well in drill, took pride in their uniforms, and suffered less than white troops from such camp vices as drinking and swearing. All but 50,000 of the 186,000 black Union soldiers were escaped slaves from Southern states, and literate slaves were very rare. "All the noncommissioned officers were colored men", wrote an officer after inspecting a black unit, "a few of which could read and write a little, but not sufficient to make out company papers, which gave the commissioned officers a great amount of duty." One colonel reported, "I spend hours daily in doing what in a white regiment would be done by a secretary detailed from the ranks."

Fascinating Facts:  A religious worker in Virginia was astonished to find a black soldier who could speak Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, and another who was able to read Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.

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