Ohio’s Impact on the War: The Emancipation in Memory & History Part III – The USCT

By arohmiller, posted on June 28th, 2013.
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[The Ohio Civil War 150 Committee has chosen themes for each month of 2013 that focus on different aspects of the Civil War. June’s theme is the United States Colored Troops.   We welcome comments! Please leave your thoughts below.]

Written by Anthony Gibbs

On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, setting another unprecedented current through the established law and culture of the fractured Union.  A uproar of a sort reverberated through the nation.  There were thousands that rejoiced, but there were other thousands who cried “foul” and cursed Abraham’s name.  The Proclamation was criticized in many areas, and it further angered and polarized the South and those with southern sympathies.  In newspapers across the North, editorials were written about how the president had further damaged his ideal of preserving the Union.

Along with his call for freedom for the enslaved men and women in the Confederate States, Lincoln strengthened his northern forces by officially allowing black soldiers to fight in the Union army, and the enslaved men to take up arms and fight for their newly received freedom.  The aura of this war of states’ rights and constitutional interpretation had now developed a theme of freedom.  This theme of freedom had been constantly and consistently fought for by abolitionists and the northern black community since the beginning of the war.  Preservation of the Union had always been Lincoln’s primary goal, but now, with a simple stroke of a pen, the conclusion of the war, if it ended with a Union victory, would very well bring freedom in its truest sense to millions.

A Union victory was certainly a fact that these new black soldiers were very much aware of when they enlisted.  Frederick Douglass spoke eloquently about black soldiers being a “sable arm” that would help Lincoln turn the tide of the war.  When regiments began to be raised in the North men came from all walks of life, from various social statuses,  from various states, and even some from Canada.  Black men traveled across multiple northern states to enlist in the first colored regiments raised in Massachusetts.  The time had come to make good on their newly gained opportunity to change the status of their race and break the bonds of captivity with a violent blow.

This immediate result of the Emancipation Proclamation released the ability of black men to fight for their own freedom with the support of the established government.  In the months after the Proclamation, progress was slow for blacks to prove their worth on the field of battle.  Lincoln hesitated even after issuing the Proclamation.  But, during the summer of ’63, their day would come and they would prove their worth loud and clear.

On May 27, 1863, the Louisiana Native Guards charged the Confederate forts at Port Hudson, Louisiana.  This would be the first test of black troops in battle.  Reporters stationed themselves around the battle to record how these men would perform.  The soldiers pressed forward under a barrage of enemy fire for three straight hours, stopping, regrouping, and charging again and again.  Men who were wounded would run back on to the battlefield, and the proud units refused to let their flag stay down.  General Nathaniel Banks reported “The history of this day proves conclusively that the Government will find in this class of troops effective supporters and defenders.”

On June 7, 1863, a group of  former field hands and farmers, who were not fully trained, were forced to defend against Confederate forces.  Some of these men received their guns just the day before they were attacked.  Almost immediately this battle went to hand-to-hand combat.  The bayonet was used extensively.  In the end, after many casualties, the formerly enslaved men were able to stand against the enemy for hours, until Federal gunships arrived to lay the final blow against the rebels.  News of this engagement spread around the country.  Charles Dana, who represented the War Department in Grant’s operation, wrote to Stanton that “sentiment [in]… regard to the employment of negro troops has been revolutionized by the bravery of the blacks in the recent battle of Milliken’s Bend.”

On July 18, 1863, the men of the 54th Massachusetts lead the charge of the incredibly protected Fort Wagner.  Knowing that their casualties would be high, these men sacrificed their lives for glory on the battlefield.  Frederick Douglass wrote, “In that terrible battle, under the wing of night, more cavils in respect of the quality of Negro manhood were set at rest than could have been during a century of ordinary life and observation.”  An editorial in the New York Tribune read that the unfaltering efforts of the Massachusetts 54th “made Fort Wagner such a name to the colored race as Bunker Hill has been for ninety years to white Yankees.”

“And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”  Perhaps this important clause of the Emancipation Proclamation made the most impact in the war.  It gave black men the opportunity to shatter the myths and prejudices that had held back their race for almost 200 years.  It strengthened the Union’s military forces and recognized the power of men treated as equals.  In essence, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t set a single man or woman free, but it empowered the men of the Union to be true freedom fighters, and break the chains of bondage off of those who had been enslaved.  The Emancipation Proclamation in memory and history should be observed and remembered as a great tool for freedom and a powerful measure that help shift a war and a country.


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