ECW is pleased to welcome back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog
July 18 was the 158th Anniversary of the assault of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry on Battery Wagner near Charleston. The assault was the most famous single military action by Black troops during the Civil War, and public awareness has only grown since the debut of the Film Glory in 1989. Civil War social media was filled with mentions of the 54th in mid-July, and clips from the movie proliferated on Facebook and Twitter. The men of the 54th played an important role in demonstrating the courage and skill of the African American soldier, and the story of the regiment displays the heroic fight by the men in the ranks for recognition of their full equality with their white brothers in arms.
I want to use this anniversary month to look at the 180,000 Black Union soldiers who were not part of the 54th Massachusetts. This article will not focus on their wartime role, but on what they faced after the war was officially over.
The 27th United States Colored Infantry (27th USCT) was recruited in Ohio in 1863. After more than two years of service, the regiment mustered out on September 21, 1865. No Black regiment marched in the May 23rd and 24th, 1865 Grand Review of the Armies in Washington, D.C. at the end of the war, but many held their own public ceremonies when the units ended their service. When the men of the 27th USCT returned to Ohio, they initially went to Camp Chase where they were paid off. They then went to the Ohio state house for a final ceremony before going home. While many African Americans assembled on their behalf at the state house, only one Republican official was there. A preacher spoke who warned the men that many whites wanted to expel the black population from Ohio. He told them they might have to defend their communities as they had once defended their country. The Black veterans had helped win freedom, but they still had a struggle ahead for full citizenship and respect.
The veterans of the 27th resumed civilian life in a state seriously divided over race. In 1867, Ohio ratified the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. A year later, the legislature tried to rescind that ratification. When the legislature first took up the ratification of the 15th Amendment which would bar discrimination in voting based on race, it was initially rejected in 1869. The 15th Amendment was not ratified by Ohio until 1870. In the campaigns for the two racial equality amendments, Republicans used the sacrifice of the 27th USCT as a justification for ratification and the men themselves spoke out for voting rights. In 1870, when Circleville, Ohio, election officials blocked blacks from voting, four veterans of the 27th were among the African Americans who organized a petition to Senator John Sherman and Representative John Bingham demanding Federal assistance in protecting black suffrage.
The 22nd USCT was a Northern regiment organized at Camp William Penn near Philadelphia in January, 1864. More than 600 of the men were from New Jersey. It may have had one of the most recognizable flags of the Civil War. The flag depicts a Confederate officer, a “gentleman,” cornered by a member of the 22nd and throwing down his sword and reaching for the white flag of surrender, perhaps too late.
When Robert E. Lee’s army retreated from Richmond in April 1865, this regiment, part of the “Black XXV Corps” of German immigrant Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, was among the first to help liberate the city’s enslaved people from the Confederacy and help put out the fires set by Confederate incendiaries. Weitzel understood the irony of Black Union soldiers saving the capital of the Confederacy, writing:
Thus the rebel capitol, fired by men placed in it to defend it, was saved from total destruction by soldiers of the United States, who had taken possession. The bloody victories which opened the gates of Richmond to my command were won at Five Forks and on the left of the Army of the Potomac, but my men won equally as great a one in the city although it was bloodless.
Although no Black units participated in the Grand Review, Weitzel had the 22nd USCT honor the assassinated Abraham Lincoln by marching as part of the guard in his funeral procession. According to Weitzel, the unit was chosen because of its “excellent discipline and good soldierly qualities.” Even before the war ended, Weitzel said that by the sacrifice of the USCT, “freemen not only gained their own liberty, but shattered the prejudice of the world, and gave to the land of their birth peace, union and glory.“
During the war, Helena, Arkansas, had become a major refugee center for escaped slaves. A Quaker couple, dedicated abolitionists, established an orphanage for children who had been enslaved. It was a home to children who had often been separated from their parents through slave sales or death.When the Johnson Administration required that the land the orphanage occupied be returned to its white pre-war owners, the orphans were threatened with homelessness. Locally stationed black soldiers worked with the Quaker couple who ran the school to secure a new location. In March 1866, the Freedmen’s Journal reported that the Quakers were “encouraged by the spirit which the [Union] officers in charge have shown, as well as the colored people. They are trying to buy a lot and erect suitable buildings on it for a permanent asylum near by and seem likely to succeed in their undertaking.”
Key in supporting the new facility were the African American soldiers of the 56th United States Colored Infantry (USCT) stationed in Helena. These soldiers began raising money for the children as soon as they realized that the orphanage was in danger. They were supported in this by their commander, Col. Charles Bentzoni, a German immigrant who had arrived in the United States just a few years before the outbreak of the Civil War. Unlike many native-born white officers who cared little for black soldiers, Bentzoni wanted to help his men, many former slaves, avoid leading “a life of trial and deprivation with no recognition as worthy and substantial members of society.” Bentzoni did what he could to work as a partner with his men and with Irish-born Freedmen’s Bureau representative Henry Sweeney. A September 1865 report noted that “Col Bentzoni commanding the military district has aided Capt Sweeney much in every respect.”
The German military man, the black soldiers, and the Quakers were all necessary for the realization of the dream of a residential school for the orphans. The men of the 56th were primarily former slaves from Arkansas themselves. They had few resources besides their meager soldiers’ pay. Still, they donated $2,093 to the school fund, the equivalent of $50,000 in today’s money. The soldiers used their own money to help purchase 30 acres of land nine miles outside of Helena. Col. Bentzoni, no doubt acting at his men’s request, assigned them the task of clearing the land, constructing sanitary facilities and building a school house and a residence for the children and their teachers. When the men ran out of money, Quakers in the North sent funds to buy more construction materials.
When, finally, the first buildings were completed, the African American soldiers celebrated. They “came out in military style, marched nine miles to our front yard, and hoisted the flag on the staff previously planted precisely in the center of the walk,” Quaker Alida Clark reported. Soldiers, staff, children, and local white visitors then paraded to the grove where the quartermaster had spread a table. There, the colonel announced the amount of money that had been raised by each black company. The immigrant colonel then handed the deed to the property to Clark on behalf of his men.
Freedmen’s Bureau representative Henry Sweeney had himself been an officer in the USCT. His close work with Black soldiers made him an advocate for Black advancement and education. He served alongside a free-born Black man who, nonetheless had been enslaved. Milton Howard was one of the small number of Black Iowans who served in the 60th USCT. He had lived in Iowa as a child, but he was kidnapped by slave catchers while still a boy and sold as a slave in Alabama. In the chaos of war, he escaped from his enslavers and made his way back to Iowa. He enlisted in Iowa’s only Black regiment, the 60th USCT. After the war, he worked for decades at the Rock Island Arsenal.
Sweeney used his position to help open education up to freed children, working on establishing schools in Arkansas and Texas. Sweeney visited the schools his Freedmen’s Bureau office was supporting and he was encouraged by what he saw. He wrote in one report that “The teachers in these schools are deserving of all praise, and the progress made by the scholars, surprising, it is extraordinary to see with what avidity the little ones pursue knowledge, and how rapidly they learn.”
One of the greatest days in many Southern communities in 1865 was the day the first Black company or regiment marched into town. This was the moment Black Southerners could see their dreams of the “bottom rail on top” realized for the first time in their lives. The Augusta Daily Constitutionalist, a pro-Confederate newspaper from Georgia, gave a brief account of the formerly enslaved people of Augusta turning out to greet a regiment that included many former slaves from South Carolina. According to the article, “The colored population turned out en masse to look at their brethren in arms, who marched with considerable precision, and gave ample evidence of the efficiency of drill and discipline.” Armed and disciplined Black men marching through a Southern city were living proof that change had come, even if only at the end of the barrel of a rifle. The veterans fought to keep the changes rolling throughout the Reconstruction Era.
For Further Reading:
You can find the sources for this article in the linked articles.
Mezurek, Kelly D. For Their Own Cause: The 27th United States Colored Troops (Civil War in the North) (Kindle Locations 1054-1057). Kent State University Press.