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The Negro As A Soldier


CHRISTIAN A. FLEETWOOD, Sergeant-Major, United States Volunteer
Infantry, 1863-1866. Received a Medal of Honor from Congress for
meritorious action in saving the colors at Chapin Farm, September 29,
1864, where he seized them after two color-bearers had been shot down,
and bore them throughout the fight. Also has a General B. F. Butler
Medal for bravery and courage before Richmond.

[Note 22: Delivered at the Negro Congress, at the Cotton States and
International Exposition, Atlanta Ga., November 11 to November 23,

For 1600 years prior to the war between Great Britain and the Colonies,
the pages of history bear no record of the Negro as a soldier. Tracing
his separate history in the Revolutionary War is a task of much
difficulty, for the reason that while individual instances of valor and
patriotism abound, there were so few separate bodies of Negro troops
that no separate record appears to have been made. The simple fact is
that the fathers as a rule enlisted men both for the Army and Navy, just
as now it is only continued by the Navy; that is to say, they were
assigned wherever needed, without regard to race or color. Varner's
Rhode Island Battalion appears to have been the only large aggregation
of Negroes in this war, though Connecticut, New York, and New Hampshire
each furnished one separate company in addition to individuals scattered
through their other organizations, so that ere the close of the war,
there were very few brigades, regiments, or companies in which the
Negro was not in evidence.

The free Negro appears to have gone in from the beginning without
attracting or calling out special comment. Later, as men grew scarcer
and necessity more pressing, slaves were taken in also, and then the
trouble began. Those who held slaves did not care to lose them in this
way. Others who had not did not think it just the thing in a war for
avowed freedom to place an actual slave in the ranks to fight. Some did
not want the Negro, bonded or free, to take part as a soldier in the
struggle. So that in May, 1775, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety
voted that thereafter only free men should be enlisted. In July, General
Gates issued an order prohibiting further enlistments of Negroes, but
saying nothing of those already in the service.

In October a council of war presided over by General Washington,
comprising three major-generals and six brigadier-generals, voted
unanimously against the enlistment of slaves, and by a decided majority
against further enlistments of Negroes. Ten days later in a conference
held at Cambridge, Mass., participated in by General Washington,
Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Lynch, and the deputy
governors of Connecticut and Rhode Island, a similar action was taken.

On the 7th November, 1775, Earl Dundore, commanding the force of His
Majesty the King, issued a proclamation offering freedom and equal pay
to all slaves who would join his armies as soldiers. It did not take the
colonists long to find out their mistake, although General Washington,
in accordance with the expressed will of his officers and of the
Committee of Safety, did on the 17th of November, 1775, issue a
proclamation forbidding the further enlistment of Negroes. Less than two
months later, that is to say on the 30th of December, 1775, he issued a
second proclamation again authorizing the enlistment of free Negroes. He
advised Congress of his action, and stated that he would recall it if so
directed. But he was not. The splendid service rendered by the Negro and
the great and pressing need of men were such, that although the
opposition continued from some sections, it was not thereafter strong
enough to obtain recognition. So the Negroes went and came, much as
other men.

In all the events of the war, from Bunker Hill to Yorktown, they bore an
honorable part. The history of the doings of the armies is their
history, as in everything they took part and did their share. Their
total enlistment was about 3,000 men,--a very fair percentage for the
population of that period. I might instance the killing of Major
Pitcairn, at Bunker Hill, by Peter Salem, and of Major Montgomery, at
Fort Griswold, by Jordan Freeman. The part they took in the capture of
Major-General Prescott at Newport; their gallant defense of Colonel
Greene, their beloved commander, when he was surprised and murdered at
Croton River, May 13, 1781, when it was only after the last of his
faithful guards had been shot and cut down that he was reached; or the
battle of Rhode Island, when a battalion of 400 Negroes withstood three
separate and distinct charges from 1,500 Hessians under Count Donop,
and beat them back with such tremendous loss that Count Donop at once
applied for an exchange, fearing that his men would kill him, if he went
into battle with them again, for having exposed them to such slaughter;
and many other instances that are of record. The letter following,
written December 5, 1775, explains itself:


"The subscribers beg leave to report to your Honorable House (which we
do in justice to the character of so brave a man) that under our own
observation we declare that a Negro man named Salem Poor, of Colonel
Frye's Regiment, Captain Ames' Company, in the late battle at
Charleston, behaved like an experienced officer as well as an excellent
soldier. To set forth particulars of his conduct would be tedious. We
would only beg to say, in the person of this Negro centers a brave and
gallant soldier. The reward due to so great and distinguished a
character we submit to Congress."

This is a splendid and well-attested tribute to a gallant and worthy
Negro. There were many such, but, beyond receiving and reading, no
action was taken thereon by Congress. There is no lack of incidents, and
the temptation to quote many of them is great, but the time allotted me
is too brief for extended mention, and I must bring this branch of my
subject to a close. It is in evidence that while so many Negroes were
offering their lives a willing sacrifice for the country, in some
sections the officers of the Continental forces received their bounty
and pay in Negroes, "grown" and "small," instead of "dollars" and
"cents." Fighting for liberty and taking pay in slaves!

When the war was over the free men returned to meet their same
difficulties; the slaves were caught when possible and re-enslaved by
their former masters. In Boston a few years later we find a party of
black patriots of the Revolution mobbed on Boston Common while
celebrating the anniversary of the abolition of the slave-trade.

The captain of a vessel trading along the coast tells of a Negro who had
fought in the war and been distinguished for bravery and soldierly
conduct. He was reclaimed and re-enslaved by his master after the war,
and served him faithfully until old age rendered him useless. The master
then brought the poor old slave to this captain and asked him to take
him along on his trip and try to sell him. The captain hated to sell a
man who had fought for his country, but finally agreed, took the poor
old man to Mobile, and sold him for $100 to a man who put him to
attending a chicken-coop. His former master continued to draw the old
slave's pension as a soldier in the Revolution, until he died.

The War of 1812 was mainly fought upon the water, and in the American
Navy at that time the Negro stood in the ratio of about one to six. We
find record of complaint by Commodore Perry at the beginning because of
the large number of Negroes sent him, but later the highest tribute to
their bravery and efficiency. Captain Shaler, of the armed brig General
Thompson, writing of an engagement between his vessel and a British
frigate, says:

"The name of one of my poor fellows who was killed ought to be
registered in the book of fame, and remembered as long as bravery is a
virtue. He was a black man, by name John Johnson. A twenty-four pound
shot struck him in the hip, and took away all the lower part of his
body. In this state the poor brave fellow lay on the deck, and several
times exclaimed to his shipmates: 'Fire away, my boys; nor haul a color
down!' Another black man, by the name of John Davis, who was struck in
much the same manner, repeatedly requested to be thrown overboard,
saying that he was only in the way of the others."

I know of nothing finer in history than these incidents of valor and

As before, the Negro was not universally welcomed to the ranks of the
American Army; but later, continued reverses and a lack of enthusiasm in
enlistments made it necessary to seek his aid, and from Mobile, Ala., on
September 21, 1814, General Jackson issued a stirring call to the free
colored people of Louisiana for aid.

In a remarkably short period, two battalions were raised, under Majors
LaCaste and Savary, which did splendid service in the battle of New
Orleans. New York enrolled two battalions, and sent them to Sacketts
Harbor. Pennsylvania enrolled 2400, and sent them to Gray's Ferry at the
capture of Washington, to prepare for the invading column. Another
battalion also was raised, armed, equipped, and ready to start to the
front, when peace was declared.

In one of the actions of this war, a charging column of the American
Army was repulsed and thrown into great disorder. A Negro private named
Jeffreys, seeing the disaster, sprang upon a horse, and by heroic effort
rallied the troops, led them back upon a second charge, and completely
routed the enemy. He was rewarded by General Jackson with the honorary
title of Major. Under the laws he could not commission him.

When the war was over, this gallant man returned to his home in
Nashville, Tenn., where he lived for years afterward, highly respected
by its citizens of all races.

At the age of seventy years, this black hero was obliged, in
self-defense, to strike a white ruffian, who had assaulted him. Under
the laws of the State he was arrested and given nine and thirty lashes
on his bare back. It broke his heart, and Major Jeffreys died.

It seems a little singular that in the tremendous struggle between the
States in 1861-1865, the South should have been the first to take steps
toward the enlistment of Negroes. Yet such is the fact. Two weeks after
the fall of Fort Sumter, the Charleston Mercury records the passing
through Augusta of several companies of the the 3rd and 4th Georgia
Regiment, and of sixteen well-drilled companies and one Negro company
from Nashville, Tenn.

The Memphis Avalanche and The Memphis Appeal of May 9, 10, and 11,
1861, gave notice of the appointment by the "Committee of Safety" of a
committee of three persons "to organize a volunteer company composed of
our patriotic freemen of color of the city of Memphis, for the service
of our common defense."

A telegram from New Orleans dated November 23, 1861, notes the review by
Governor Moore of over 28,000 troops, and that one regiment comprised
"1,400 colored men." The New Orleans Picayune, referring to a review
held February 9, 1862, says: "We must also pay a deserved compliment to
the companies of free colored men, all very well drilled and comfortably

It is a little odd, too, that in the evacuation of New Orleans a little
later, in April, 1862, all of the troops succeeded in getting away
except the Negroes. They "got left."

It is not in our line to speculate upon what would have been the result
of the war had the South kept up this policy, enlisted the freemen, and
emancipated the enlisting slaves and their families. The immense
addition to their fighting force, the quick recognition of them by Great
Britain, to which slavery was the greatest bar, and the fact that the
heart of the Negro was with the South but for slavery, and the case
stands clear. But the primary successes of the South closed its eyes to
its only chance of salvation, while at the same time the eyes of the
North were opened.

In 1865, the South saw, and endeavored to remedy, its error. On March 9,
1865, the Confederate Congress passed a bill, recommended by General
Lee, authorizing the enlistment of 200,000 Negroes; but it was then too

The North came slowly and reluctantly to recognize the Negro as a factor
for good in the war. "This is a white man's war," met the Negroes at
every step of their first efforts to gain admission to the armies of the

To General David Hunter, more than to any other one man, is due the
credit for the successful entry upon the stage of the Negro as a soldier
in this war.

In the spring of 1862, he raised and equipped a regiment of Negroes in
South Carolina, and when the fact because known in Washington and
throughout the country, such a storm was raised about the ears of the
Administration that they gracefully stood aside and left the brave
general to fight his enemies in the front and rear as best he might. He
was quite capable to do both, as it proved.

* * * * *

The beginning of 1863 saw the opening of the doors to the Negro in every
direction. General Lorenzo Thomas went in person to the valley of the
Mississippi to supervise it there. Massachusetts was authorized to fill
its quota with Negroes. The States of Maryland, Missouri, Delaware, and
Tennessee were thrown open by order of the War Department, and all
slaves enlisting therefrom declared free. Ohio, Connecticut,
Pennsylvania, and New York joined the band and sent the stalwart black
boy in blue to the front singing, "Give us a flag, all free, without a
slave." For two years the fierce and determined opposition had kept them
out, but now the bars were down and they came pouring in. Some one said,
"he cared not who made the laws of a people if he could make their
songs." A better exemplification of this would be difficult to find
than is the song written by "Miles O'Reilly" (Colonel Halpine), of the
old 10th Army Corps. I cannot resist the temptation to quote it here.
With General Hunter's letter and this song to quote from, the episode
was closed:

"Some say it is a burning shame to make the Naygurs fight,
An' that the trade o' being kilt belongs but to the white;
But as for me, upon me sowl, so liberal are we here,
I'll let Sambo be murthered, in place of meself, on every day of the year.
On every day of the year, boys, and every hour in the day,
The right to be kilt I'll divide wid him, and divil a word I'll say.

In battles' wild commotion I shouldn't at all object
If Sambo's body should stop a ball that was coming for me direct,
An' the prod of a Southern bayonet; so liberal are we here,
I'll resign and let Sambo take it, on every day in the year,
On every day in the year, boys, an' wid none of your nasty pride,
All right in Southern baynet prod, wid Sambo I'll divide.

The men who object to Sambo should take his place and fight,
An' it is betther to have a Naygur's hue, than a liver that's weak an' white,
Though Sambo's black as the ace of spades, his finger a thryger can pull,
An' his eye runs straight on the barrel-sight from under its thatch of wool.
So hear me all, boys, darlin', don't think I'm tipping you chaff,--
The right to be kilt, I'll divide with him, an' give him the largest half."

It took three years of war to place the enlisted Negro upon the same
ground as the enlisted white man as to pay and emoluments; perhaps six
years of war might have given him shoulder-straps, but the war ended
without authorization of law for that step. At first they were received,
under an act of Congress that allowed each one, without regard to rank,
ten dollars per month, three dollars thereof to be retained for clothing
and equipments. I think it was in May, 1864, when the act was passed
equalizing the pay, but not opening the doors to promotion.

Under an act of the Confederate Congress, making it a crime punishable
with death for any white person to train Negroes or mulattoes to arms,
or aid them in any military enterprise, and devoting the Negro caught
under arms to the tender mercies of the "present or future laws of the
State" in which caught, a large number of promotions were made by the
way of a rope and a tree along the first year of the Negro's service. (I
can even recall one instance as late as April, 1865, though it had been
long before then generally discontinued.)

What the Negro did, how he did it, and where, it would take volumes to
properly record, I can however give but briefest mention to a few of the
many evidences of his fitness for the duties of the war, and his aid to
the cause of the Union.

The first fighting done by organized Negro troops appears to have been
done by Company A, 1st South Carolina Negro Regiment, at St. Helena
Island, November 3 to 10, 1862, while participating in an expedition
along the coast of Georgia and Florida under Lieutenant-Colonel O. T.
Beard, of the 48th New York Infantry, who says in his report:

"The colored men fought with astonishing coolness and bravery. I found
them all I could desire,--more than I had hoped. They behaved
gloriously, and deserve all praise."

The testimony thus inaugurated runs like a cord of gold through the web
and woof of the history of the Negro as a soldier from that date to
their final charge, the last made at Clover Hill, Va., April 9, 1865.

Necessarily the first actions in which the Negro bore a part commanded
most attention. Friends and enemies were looking eagerly to see how they
would acquit themselves, and so it comes to pass that the names of Fort
Wagner, Olustee, Millikens Bend, Port Hudson, and Fort Pillow are as
familiar as Bull Run, Antietam, Shiloh and Gettysburg, and while those
first experiences were mostly severe reverses, they were by that very
fact splendid exemplifiers of the truth that the Negroes could be relied
upon to fight under the most adverse circumstances, against any odds,
and could not be discouraged.

Let us glance for a moment at Port Hudson, La., in May, 1863, assaulted
by General Banks with a force of which the 1st and 2nd Regiments,
Louisiana Native Guards, formed a part. When starting upon their
desperate mission, Colonel Stafford of the 1st Regiment, in turning over
the regimental colors to the color-guard, made a brief and patriotic
address, closing with the words:

"Color-guard: Protect, defend, die for, but do not surrender, these
colors." The gallant flag-sergeant, Plancianos, taking them replied:
"Colonel: I will bring back these colors to you in honor, or report to
God the reason why."

Six times with desperate valor they charged over ground where success
was hopeless, a deep bayou between them and the works of the enemy at
the point of attack rendering it impossible to reach them, yet strange
to say, six times they were ordered forward and six times they went to
useless death, until swept back by the blazing breath of shot and shell
before which nothing living could stand. Here fell the gallant Captain
Cailloux, black as the ace of spades. Refusing to leave the field though
his arm had been shattered by a bullet, he returned to the charge until
killed by a shell.

A soldier limping painfully to the front was halted and asked where he
was going. He replied, "I am shot bad in de leg, and dey want me to go
to de hospital, but I guess I can give 'em a little more yet."

The colors came back, but crimsoned with the blood of the gallant
Plancianos, who reported to God from that bloody field.

Shall we glance from this to Millikens Bend, La., in January, 1863,
garrisoned by the 9th and 11th Louisiana and the 1st Mississippi, all
Negroes, and about 160 of the 23rd Iowa (white), about 1100 fighting men
in all? Attacked by a force of six Confederate regiments, crushed out of
their works by sheer weight of numbers, borne down toward the levee,
fighting every step of the way, hand to hand--clubbed musket, bayonets,
and swords,--from three A. M. to twelve noon, they fought desperately
until a Union gun-boat came to the rescue and shelled the desperate foe
back to the woods, with a total loss to the defenders of 437
men,--two-fifths of their strength.

Shall we turn with sadness to Fort Wagner, S. C., in July, 1863, when
the 54th Massachusetts won its deathless fame, and its grand young
commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, passed into the temple of
immortality? After a march of all day, under a burning sun, and all
night through a tempest of wind and rain, drenched, exhausted, hungry,
they wheeled into line, without a murmur for that awful charge, that
dance of death, the struggle against hopeless odds, and the shattered
remnants were hurled back as from the mouth of hell, leaving the dead
bodies of their young commander and his noble followers to be buried in
a common grave. Its total loss was about one-third of its strength.

Here it was that the gallant flag-sergeant, Carney, though grievously
wounded, bore back his flag to safety, and fell fainting and exhausted
with loss of blood, saying, "Boys, the old flag never touched the
ground!" Or another glance, at ill-starred Olustee, where the gallant
8th United States Colored Troops lost 87 killed of its effective
fighting force, the largest loss in any one colored regiment in any one
action of the war. And so on, by Fort Pillow, which let us pass in
merciful silence, and to Honey Hill, S. C., perhaps the last desperate
fight in the far south, in which the 32nd, 35th, and 102nd United States
Colored Troops and the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry won fresh
and fadeless laurels for splendid fighting against hopeless odds and
insurmountable difficulties, and then to Nashville, Tenn., with its
recorded loss of 84 killed in the effectives of the 13th United States
Colored Troops.

These were all brilliant actions, and they covered the actors with, and
reflected upon the race, a blaze of glory. But it was in the armies of
the James and of the Potomac that the true metal of the Negro as a
soldier rang out its clearest notes amid the tremendous diapasons that
rolled back and forth between the embattled hosts. Here was war indeed,
upon its grandest scale and in all its infinite variety: The tireless
march under burning sun, chilling frosts, and driven tempests; the
lonely vigil of the picket under starless skies, the rush and roar of
countless "hosts to battle driven" in the mad charge and the victorious
shout that pursued the fleeing foe; the grim determination that held its
line of defenses with set teeth, blood-shot eye, and strained muscle,
beating back charge after charge of the foe; the patient labor in trench
and mine, on hill and in valley, swamp and jungle, with disease adding
its horrors to the decimation of shot and shell.

Here the Negro stood in the full glare of the greatest search-light,
part and parcel of the grandest armies ever mustered upon this
continent, competing side by side with the best and bravest of the Union
Army against the flower of the Confederacy, the best and bravest of
Lee's army, and losing nothing in the contrast. Never again while time
lasts will the doubt arise as in 1861, "Will the Negro fight?" As a
problem, it has been solved; as a question, it has been answered; and as
a fact, it is as established as the eternal hills. It was the Negroes
who rang up the curtain upon the last act of the bloody tragedy at
Petersburg, Va., June 15, 1864, and they who rang it down at Clover
Hill, Va., April 9, 1865. They were one of the strong fingers upon the
mighty hand that grasped the giant's throat at Petersburg and never
flexed until the breath went out at Appomattox. In this period it would
take page on page to recount their deeds of valor and their glorious

See them on the 15th of June, 1864, carrying the out-post at Baylor's
field in early morning, and all that long, hot, summer day advancing, a
few yards at a time, then lying down to escape the fire from the works,
but still gradually creeping nearer and nearer, until, just as the sun
went down, they swept like a tornado over the works and started upon a
race for the city, close at the heels of the flying foe, until
mistakenly ordered back. Of this day's experience General Badeau writes:
"No worse strain on the nerves of troops is possible, for it is harder
to remain quiet under cannon fire, even though comparatively harmless,
than to advance against a storm of musketry." General W. F. "Baldy"
Smith, speaking of their conduct, says: "No nobler effort has been put
forth to-day, and no greater success achieved than that of the colored

* * * * *

Or, again, at the terrible mine explosion of July 30, 1864, on the
Petersburg line, and at the fearful slaughter of September 29, 1864, at
New Market Heights and Fort Harrison. On this last date in the Fourth
United States Colored Troops, out of a color-guard of twelve men, but
one came off the field on his own feet. The gallant flag-sergeant,
Hilton, the last to fall, cried out as he went down, "Boys, save the
colors"; and they were saved.

* * * * *

Some ten or more years later, in Congress, in the midst of a speech
advocating the giving of civil rights to the Negro, General Butler said,
referring to this incident:

"There, in a space not wider than the clerk's desk, and three hundred
yards long, lay the dead bodies of 543 of my colored comrades, slain in
the defense of their country, who had laid down their lives to uphold
its flag and its honor, as a willing sacrifice. And as I rode along,
guiding my horse this way and that, lest he should profane with his
hoofs what seemed to me the sacred dead, and as I looked at their
bronzed faces upturned in the shining sun, as if in mute appeal against
the wrongs of the country for which they had given their lives, and
whose flag had been to them a flag of stripes, in which no star of glory
had ever shone for them--feeling I had wronged them in the past, and
believing what was the future duty of my country to them,--I swore to
myself a solemn oath: 'May my right hand forget its cunning, and my
tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if ever I fail to defend the
rights of the men who have given their blood for me and my country this
day and for their race forever.' And, God helping me, I will keep that

* * * * *

History further repeats itself in the fact that in every war so far
known to this country, the first blood, and, in some cases, the last
also, has been shed by the faithful Negro, and this in spite of all the
years of bondage and oppression, and of wrongs unspeakable. Under the
sun there has nothing been known in the history of any people more
marvellous than these facts!

Oh, to the living few,
Comrades, be just, be true.
Hail them as heroes tried,
Fight with them side by side;
Never in field or tent,
Scorn the Black Regiment.

It is but a little thing to ask, they could ask no less: be just; but,
oh, the shame of it for those who need be asked!

There is no need for panegyric, for sounding phrases or rounded periods.
The simple story is eloquent with all that is necessary to make the
heart swell with pride. In the hour allotted me to fill, it is possible
only to indicate in skeleton the worth of the Negro as a soldier. If
this brief sketch should awaken even a few to interest in his
achievements, and one be found willing and fitted to write the history
that is their due, that writer shall achieve immortality.

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