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.
The Black Military Experience received the J. Franklin Jameson Prize for Distinguished Editorial Achievement of the American Historical Association.
The Black Military Experience is out of print, though copies can be obtained from used booksellers. 896 pp. ISBN 0-521-22984-7. Readers may 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.
Sample 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.
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, Louisiana, the first test of combat for a brigade of newly enlisted black soldiers.
- Mother of a Northern Black Soldier to the President, July 31, 1863
Shortly after the battle of Fort Wagner, South Carolina, a free-black woman whose son was serving in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry advised President Abraham Lincoln of his responsibility to prevent the Confederates from enslaving captured black soldiers.
[image of manuscript (75K)]
- 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 rather than Southern ex-slaves – less than their white comrades.
- Marriage Certificate of a Black Soldier and His Wife, December 3, 1863 [image (125K)]
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 subsequently borne.
- 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
In an unsigned letter, 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.
- 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.
- 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 surveyed 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 confirmed the importance of marriage to the freedpeople and described their conviction that wartime emancipation was less an end than a beginning.
- 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.
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.
- 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, a black sergeant from Kentucky emphasized the importance of education to his people.
- Mississippi Black Soldier to the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner, December 16, 1865
Outraged by oppressive laws enacted by the Mississippi state legislature and outbreaks of violence against freedpeople, Private Calvin Holly wrote the Freedmen's Bureau commissioner to describe conditions and propose a solution.
- 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.