Sunday, April 24, 2011

African-American Troops in the Civil War

After watching "Glory" (and reading some of the comments) I just wanted to write some facts about African-American troops in the Civil war. It seems that after being neglected for over 120 years the pendulum has swung the other way, and many people are completely overestimating the impact and importance of African-American Soldiers in the Civil War. Some facts:

  • Of the estimated 2, 000,000 men who served in the Union Army about 186,000 were "Colored" (the 19th century term for Black Americans). Mostly former slaves, they were a nice addition to the Union's manpower pool, but not essential. Only 50 percent of Northerners ages 18-35 served in the Union army, so having blacks enlist allowed some whites to stay home, but thats it.
  • Of the 110,000 Union soldiers killed in battle about 3,000 were African-American. That's about 3 percent. Almost 99 percent of the 30,000 union soldiers who died in Confederate prisons were white.
  • Very few African-American units saw action prior to 1864. Those that did were like the famous "54th Massachusetts" used in "side-show" operations. So, no African American units at Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Shiloh, Antietam, Stones River, Bull Run, 2nd Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, or Seven Days.
  • Even after January 1864 African American units were used for Garrison duty, guarding lines of communications, "side show" operations, and guarding supply wagons. For example, Sherman's Army in the Atlanta campaign (May-September 1864) and the March-to-the-Sea and the Carolina's (November 1864-March 1865) had no African-American Combat units. The Army of the Potomac during the "Overland Campaign" (May to June 1864) had no black artillery or Calvary regiments. And only 2 of its 44 infantry brigades were African-Americans. Even the famed Battle of Franklin (November 1864) was an "all-white" affair.
  • African American troops did fight in some significant battles, the Battle of Crater in July 1864, the Battle of Nashville in December 1864, and the Siege of Petersburg from June 1864 to March 1865. Some 280 "Colored" soldiers were killed by Forest's Calvary at Fort Pillow, Tennessee. Some call it a massacre since only 70 were taken prisoner.
  • Black troops should have led the attack during the Battle of the crater in July 1864, but Grant and Meade were afraid they would be called 'racists' if the attack failed, so white troops led the attack. As Grant explained later:

General Burnside wanted to put his colored division in front, and I believe if he had done so it would have been a success. Still I agreed with General Meade as to his objections to that plan. General Meade said that if we put the colored troops in front (we had only one division) and it should prove a failure, it would then be said and very properly, that we were shoving these people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them. But that could not be said if we put white troops in front."

No comments: