Sunday, February 27, 2022

USCT: United States Colored Troops in the Civil War

After the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, regiments of Black troops were raised. The rank and file were northern freedmen and southerners who had first to escape from slavery, making their way to Union lines to enlist. They were not allowed to become officers. As far as I know, only one of the approximately 180,000 was commissioned, as a chaplain. To ensure that the Colored regiments had sufficient officers, white soldiers were given promotions to serve in the USCT. Some joined because they were abolitionists, some for the promotion and pay increase, and some for a combination of both. One unintended result was that most of the officers in the USCT were combat veterans and all had been in service for a while and knew how things should be done in a regiment.


The Black regiments started off with a burden. Many whites thought they would not be any good as soldiers. Any sign of hesitancy would be taken as proof of this. “If slaves will make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong” said Howell Cobb, a founding member of the Confederacy who had also served as a Confederate general.

Many of the white volunteer regiments in the Civil War were green when first raised, unacquainted with the realities of combat, from top to bottom. But they didn’t carry the reputation of their race into battle. The white 53rd Ohio failed in spectacular fashion at the battle of Shiloh in April 1862. Bullets whizzed through the trees. Colonel Appler, recently a well-to-do civilian and in his first fight, cried out “save yourselves” and rode to the rear. Most of the regiment heeded his words and took off. The three companies that didn’t hear him fell back when they found themselves facing the enemy alone. Appler later found a fallen tree to lay behind, moaning in fear. When one of his officers suggested taking the troops still around the colors back into the fight, Appler mounted his horse, cried "save yourselves" again and fled to the Tennessee River, as did many of his troops. He was later cashiered in disgrace. The 53rd Ohio was declared cowards and the “shame of Shiloh”, along with the 77th Ohio who also bolted early. Both regiments later improved their performance (a low bar) under more competent leadership. Other regiments on both sides would be found wanting, though the egregious failure of the 53rd heads the list. While the two regiments were disgraced, no one said this proved white men could not make good soldiers.


USCT regiments went into battle with that burden added to those that all green troops faced. They had strong motivation to fight the “slave power” (as many Unionists termed the Confederacy) and most of their officers had “seen the elephant” (Civil War slang for experiencing combat). Seasoned officers gave the green USCT regiments an advantage over the other green units. No Black regiment gave ground without first taking hard knocks. None questioned their valor after they went into combat, whether at Milliken Bend, Fort Wagner or Baton Rouge, all in 1863. They had additional burdens. If captured, they often faced summary execution, or, at best, return to slavery. If a Black regiment had behaved in any way like the 53rd Ohio, it would have been taken as "proof" of the inferiority of African Americans.


Many USCT regiments had the misfortune of serving under less than impressive higher command. Benjamin Butler, an adroit politician who respected his African-American troops, was deficient in the military skill department. Also deficient were Ambrose Burnside (Battle of the Crater 1864), Truman Seymour (Battle of Olustee 1864) and others. It must be said that many white troops also suffered under sub-prime generalship. But the 180,000 USCT troops fought valiantly. Any failings were at a higher level. They made an important contribution to the final Union victory.


Sergeant William Carney, 54th Massachusetts, and his Medal of Honor awarded 37 years after being badly wounded carrying the National colors  to and from the parapet during the assault on Fort Wagner.