“I Knew What I Was Fighting For” The Social Revolution of the Civil War: Emancipation Part 1

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am continuing my foray into African American History which for those that don’t know is really a key and often neglected part of American History. This is a several part series dealing with Emancipation, and the social revolution that it brought about in the United States Military. The process that began in 1862 has taken another century and a half to come to a much better state, and the men who pioneered the way deserve the credit for persevering in spite of prejudice, in spite of discrimination, and in spite of a country not appreciating them as they should have been. Their sacrifice not only pioneered the way for African Americans, but women, other minorities, and LGBTQ people. As a nation we are indebted to them.

Please enjoy,

Peace

Padre Steve+

Emancipation and the U.S. Military

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Men of the 4th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops

The war brought about another change to warfare in America. This was a societal and political change that has shaped American military history, culture and life ever since. The Emancipation Proclamation gave African Americans, both Freedmen and recently freed slaves the opportunity to serve in the Union Army. The change of policy instituted by Lincoln was revolutionary as well as controversial and it had strategic implications for the war effort. There were many doubters in the north whose attitudes towards African Americans were not much different than Southerners, especially among the Copperheads.

Prior to the Emancipation some Union commanders in occupied Confederate territory “had unofficially recruited black soldiers in Kansas and in occupied portions of South Carolina and Louisiana in 1862. But the administration had not sanctioned these activities.” [1] The issue for Lincoln in 1861 and 1862 was the necessity of keeping the Border-Slave Sates of Kentucky, Missouri and Maryland, which had not seceded from the Union. Lincoln repudiated the orders of General John Fremont, in Missouri, and his friend General David Hunter, who commanded the Department of the South regarding emancipation, not because he was in complete disagreement, but because he felt that the officers had overstepped their authority.

Lincoln understood that this might hurt him with the abolitionist wing of the Republican Party. While Lincoln was certainly sympathetic to their cause, he insisted that such decisions were not within the prevue of local commanders, but that any such proclamations had to come from him, as Commander-in-Chief. He told Treasure Secretary Salmon Chase, who supported the measures of Hunter and Fremont, “No commanding general shall do such a thing, upon my responsibility, without consulting me.” [2] Lincoln’s decision to reverse and repudiate the decisions of local commanders infuriated some in his cabinet and in the Congress. But Lincoln remained firm in that conviction due to the need to ensure the cooperation of the Border States the continued loyalty of which were absolutely vital to winning the war, without which no meaningful emancipation would be possible.

However, Lincoln did support the efforts of General Benjamin Butler. Butler commanded the Federal forces at Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads. Butler had been a former pro-slavery Democrat who learned that the Confederates were using slaves to construct fortifications and to support their army on the Peninsula. In May 1862 twenty-three slaves escaped to his lines and their owner, a Confederate Colonel, “demanded the return of his property under the Fugitive Slave Law! With as deadpan expression as possible (given his cocked eye), Butler informed him that since Virginia claimed to have left the Union, the Fugitive Slave Law no longer applied.” [3] Butler then declared that since the escaped slaves had worked for the Confederate Army that they were “contraband of war – enemy property subject to seizure.” [4] It was a solid argument, since Southerners themselves referred to African American slaves as property was subject to seizure. Lincoln and Secretary of War Cameron approved of Butler’s action and “eventually, the Congress passed a confiscation law ending the rights of masters over fugitive slaves used to support Confederate troops.” [5]

Salmon Chase and other strong abolitionists opposed Lincoln vehemently for this, but it would not be long until Lincoln made the decision for full emancipation. This was first accomplished by the Emancipation Proclamation, a military order that only applied to the states that had seceded. However, Lincoln would follow this by pushing for a constitutional amendment to end slavery.   The latter occurred when Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment was passed in January 1865. This amendment abolished slavery in the United States.

Lincoln had already decided upon emancipation in the spring of 1862, however, following the defeat of McClellan on the Peninsula he decided to postpone announcing it, Secretary of State Seward recommended against it until “until you can give it to the country supported by military success.” Otherwise the world might view it as an incitement for slave insurrections, “as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help…our last shriek, on the retreat.” [6] The wisdom of Seward’s advice was profound, and Lincoln put off the announcement until after the Battle of Antietam.

McClellan, true to form opposed any such policy. When Lincoln visited him after his withdraw from the Peninsula, the defeated but still arrogant General handed Lincoln a memorandum on what McClellan viewed as the “proper conduct of the war.” McClellan advised Lincoln that the war “should not be a war looking to the subjugation of any State in any event…but against armed forces and political organizations. Neither confiscation of property, political executions of persons, the territorial organization of States, or the forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment.” [7]

Lincoln was not seeking advice from his recalcitrant commander and put the letter in his pocket and simply told McClellan, “All right.” Interestingly enough just a few months earlier Lincoln would have agreed with McClellan’s views on the conduct of the war. However, with the passage of time and the realization that the Confederacy was fully committed to its independence as well as the continuance and even the expansion of slavery had come to the view that fighting a limited war with limited aims was foolish. He told another Unionist Democrat a few days after McClellan offered his advice that the war could not be fought:

“with elder-stalk squirts, charged with rose water….This government cannot much longer play a game in which it stakes all, and its enemies stake nothing. Those enemies must understand that they cannot experiment for ten years trying to destroy this government, and if they fail still come back into the Union unhurt.” [8]

From Slavery to Soldiering

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Gun Crew of 2nd Colored Light Artillery 

But as the war continued on, consuming vast numbers of lives the attitude of Lincoln and his administration began to change. After a year and a half of war, Lincoln and the closest members of his cabinet were beginning to understand that the “North could not win the war without mobilizing all of its resources and striking against Southern resources used to sustain the Confederate war effort.” [9] Slave labor was essential to the Confederate war effort, not only did slaves still work the plantations, they were impressed into service in war industries as well as in the Confederate Army.

Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Freemantle, a British observer who was with Lee’s army at Gettysburg noted, “in the rear of each regiment were from twenty to thirty negro slaves.” [10] The fact is that the slaves who accompanied the army remained slaves, they were not the mythical thousands of black soldiers who rallied to the Confederate cause, nor were they employees. “Tens of thousands of slaves accompanied their owners to army camps as servants or were impressed into service to construct fortifications and do other work for the Confederate army.” [11] This fact attested to by Colonel William Allan, one of Stonewall Jackson’s staff members who wrote “there were no employees in the Confederate army.” [12] slaves served in a number of capacities to free up white soldiers for combat duties, “from driving wagons to unloading trains and other conveyances. In hospitals they could perform work as nurses and laborers to ease the burdens of patients.” [13] An English-born artilleryman in Lee’s army wrote in 1863 that “in our whole army there must be at least thirty thousand colored servants….” [14] When Lee marched to Gettysburg he did so with somewhere between ten and thirty-thousand slaves in support roles and during the advance into Virginia Confederate troops rounded up and re-enslaved as many blacks as they could, including Freedmen.

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Secretary of War Edwin Stanton

Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton; who was a passionate believer in the justice of emancipation, was one of the first to grasp the importance of slave labor to the Confederate armies and how emancipation was of decided military necessity. Stanton, “Instantly grasped the military value of the proclamation. Having spent more time than any of his colleagues contemplating the logistical problems facing the army, he understood the tremendous advantage to be gained if the massive workforce of slaves could be transferred from the Confederacy to the Union.” [15]

Lincoln emphasized the “military necessity” of emancipation and “justified the step as a “fit and necessary war measure for suppressing the rebellion.” [16] The process of emancipation now became not only a moral crusade, but now became a key part of national strategy, not just in a military means, but politically, economically and diplomatically as Lincoln “also calculated that making slavery a target of the war would counteract the rising clamor in Britain for recognition of the Confederacy.”  [17]

Lincoln wrote to his future Vice President, Andrew Johnson, then the military governor of occupied Tennessee that “The colored population is the great available and yet unavailed of, force for restoration of the Union.” [18] The idea of simply mollifying the border states was dropped and policy changed that of “depriving the Confederacy of slave labor. Mobilizing that manpower for the Union – as soldiers as well as laborers – was a natural corollary.” [19] Reflecting President Lincoln’s and Stanton’s argument for the military necessity of emancipation, General Henry Halleck wrote to Ulysses Grant:

“the character of the war has very much changed within the past year. There is now no possibility of reconciliation with the rebels… We must conquer the rebels or be conquered by them….Every slave withdrawn from the enemy is the equivalent of a white man put hors de combat.” [20]

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Ulysses Grant concurred with Lincoln’s decision. Grant wrote to in a letter to Lincoln after the assault on Battery Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts, “by arming the negro we have added a powerful ally. They will make good soldiers and taking them from the enemy weakens him in the same proportion as it strengthens us.” [21] William Tecumseh Sherman was supportive but also noted some facts that some radical abolitionists did not understand. He noted in his correspondence that, “The first step in the liberation of the Negro from bondage will be to get him and his family to a place of safety… then to afford him the means of providing for his family,… then gradually use a proportion – greater and greater each year – as sailors and soldiers.” [22] Lincoln wrote after the Emancipation Proclamation that “the emancipation policy, and the use of colored troops, constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion.” [23] The change was a watershed in both American history as well as for the future of the U.S. Military services.

In conjunction with the Emancipation Proclamation Secretary of War Stanton “authorized General Rufus Saxton to “arm, uniform, equip, and receive into the service of the United States such number of volunteers of African descent as you may deem expedient, not exceeding 5,000, and [you] may detail officers to instruct them in military drill, discipline, and duty, and to command them.”  [24] The initial regiments of African Americans were formed by Union commanders in liberated areas of Louisiana and South Carolina, and most were composed of newly freed slaves. Others like the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry regiments were raised from free black men in the north. Stanton’s authorization was followed by the Enrollment Act passed by Congress in March of 1863 which established the draft also allowed blacks to serve. By March Stanton was working with state governors to establish more black regiments. The units became known as United States Colored Troops, or U.S.C.T. and were commanded by white officers and organized into the infantry, cavalry and, artillery regiments organized on the model of white regiments. The U.S.C.T. “grew to include seven regiments of cavalry, more than a dozen of artillery, and well over one hundred of infantry.” [25]

Some Union soldiers and officers initially opposed enlisting blacks at all, and some “charged that making soldiers of blacks would be a threat to white supremacy, and hundreds of Billy Yanks wrote home that they would no serve alongside blacks.” [26]  But most common soldiers accepted emancipation, especially those who had served in the South and seen the misery that many salves endured, one Illinois soldier, stationed who served in the Western Theater of war wrote, “the necessity of emancipation is forced upon us by the inevitable events of the war… and the only road out of this war is by blows aimed at the heart of the Rebellion…. If slavery should be left undisturbed the war would be protracted until the loss of life and national bankruptcy would make peace desirable on any terms.” [27]

Another soldier’s letters home show his conversion from being against emancipation to being fully for it. Corporal Chauncey B. Welton from Ohio wrote to his father after the Emancipation proclamation:

“Father I want you to write and tell me what you think of Lincoln’s proclamation of setting all the negroes free. I can tell you we don’t think much of it hear in the army for we did not enlist to fight for the negro and I can tell you that we never shall or many of us any how[.] no never.” Following over two years of service in which he served with Sherman’s army he became a critic of the anti-abolitionist Copperheads in the North, especially former Clement Vallandigham, and finally wrote in February 1865, “dear parents let us trust in Him that never forsakes the faithful, and never cease to pray… that soon we may look upon an undivided Country and that Country free free free yes free from that blighting curs[e] Slavery the cause of four years of Bloody warfare.” [28]

Even so racial prejudice in the Union ranks never went away and sometimes was accompanied by violence. It remained a part and parcel of life in and outside of the army, even though many Union soldiers would come to praise the soldierly accomplishments and bravery of African American Soldiers. An officer who had refused a commission to serve with a U.S.C.T. regiment watched as black troops attacked the defenses of Richmond in September 1864:

“The darkies rushed across the open space fronting the work, under a fire which caused them loss, into the abattis… down into the ditch with ladders, up and over the parapet with flying flags, and down among, and on top of, the astonished enemy, who left in utmost haste…. Then and there I decided that ‘the black man could fight’ for his freedom, and that I had made a mistake in not commanding them.” [29] Likewise, “Once the Lincoln administration broke the color barrier of the army, blacks stepped forward in large numbers. Service in the army offered to blacks the opportunity to strike a decisive blow for freedom….” [30]

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The Defense of Milliken’s Bend 

Emancipation allowed for the formation of regiments of United States Colored Troops (USCT), which were mustered directly into Federal service. In sheer numbers the U.S.C.T. formations soon dwarfed the few state raised Black Regiments.  However, it was the inspiration provided by those first state raised regiments, the heroic accounts of those units reported in Northern newspapers, as well as the unprovoked violence directed against Blacks in the 1863 New York draft riots that helped to provoke “many northerners into a backlash against the consequences of violent racism.” [31]

Despite the hurdles and prejudices that blacks faced even in the North, many African Americans urged others to enlist, self-help mattered more than self-preservation. Henry Gooding, an black sergeant from Massachusetts wrote the editor of the New Bedford Mercury urging fellow blacks to enlist despite the dangers, “As one of the race, I beseech you not to trust a fancied security, laying in your minds, that our condition will be bettered because slavery must die…[If we] allow that slavery will die without the aid of our race to kill it – language cannot depict the indignity, the scorn, and perhaps the violence that will be heaped upon us.” [32]

The valor of the state regiments, as well as the USCT units that managed to get into action was remarkable, especially in regard to the amount of discrimination levied at them by some northerners, including white Northern soldiers, and the very real threat of death that they faced if captured by Confederates. In response to the Emancipation Proclamation and to the formation of African American regiments the Confederate Congress passed measures that would make Union officers who commanded African American troops as war criminals and return any black soldier captured by Confederate forces return to slavery, if those blacks captured in battle were not summarily tortured by their captors or executed as happened at Fort Wagner, Petersburg, and at Fort Pillow.

In late 1862 Major General Nathaniel Banks was in desperate need of soldiers and received permission to form a number of regiments of free blacks. Known as the First, Second and Third Regiments of the Louisiana Native Guards they were primarily composed of former slaves who had escaped to Union lines, as well as some mulattos who were the children of prominent white citizens of the city. During an inspection, the white Colonel of the Guards told another officer:

“Sir, the best blood of Louisiana is in that regiment! Do you see that tall, slim fellow, third file from the right of the second company? One of the ex-governors of the state is his father. That orderly sergeant in the next company is the son of a man who has been six years in the United States Senate. Just beyond him is the grandson of Judge ______ …; and through all the ranks you will find the same state of facts…. Their fathers are disloyal; [but] these black Ishmaels will more than compensate for their treason by fighting in the field.” [33]

In May of 1863 Banks dared to send the First and Third Regiments of “Louisiana Native Home Guard regiments on a series of attacks on Confederate positions at Port Hudson, Louisiana” [34] where they received their baptism of fire. They suffered heavy losses and “of the 1080 men in the ranks, 271 were hit, or one out of every four.” [35] A white Wisconsin soldier commented that the black soldiers “fought like devils,” while a soldier of the 156th New York wrote, “They charged and re-charged and they didn’t know what retreat meant. They lost in their two regiments some four hundred men as near as I can learn. This settles the question about niggers not fighting well. They on the contrary make splendid soldiers and are as good fighting men as we have.” [36] Banks too was caught up in the moment and said of these troops in his after action report: “They answered every expectation…In many respects their conduct was heroic…The severe test to which they were subjected, and the determined manner in which they encountered the enemy, leave upon my mind no doubt of their ultimate success.” [37]

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54th Massachusetts at Fort Wagner 

But the most famous African American volunteer regiment was the 54th Massachusetts, commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the “North’s showcase black regiment.” [38] Raised in Boston and officered by many men who were the sons of Boston’s blue blood abolitionist elite, the regiment was authorized in March 1863. Since there was still opposition to the formation of units made up of African Americans, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew authorized the formation of the 54th under the command of white officers, a practice that with few exceptions, became standard in the U.S. military until President Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948. Governor Andrew was determined to ensure that the officers of the 54th were men of “firm antislavery principles…superior to a vulgar contempt for color.” [39]

The 54th Massachusetts first saw action in early June 1863 and at Shaw’s urging were sent into battle against the Confederate positions at Fort Wagner on July 18th 1863. Leading the attack the 54th lost nearly half its men, “including Colonel Shaw with a bullet through his heart. Black soldiers gained Wagner’s parapet and held it for an hour before falling back.” [40] Though they tried to hold on they were pushed back after a stubborn fight to secure a breach in the fort’s defenses. “Sergeant William H Carney staggered back from the fort with wounds in his chest and right arm, but with the regiment’s Stars and Stripes securely in his grasp. “The old flag never touched the ground, boys,” Carney gasped as he collapsed at the first field hospital he could find.” [41] Shaw was buried with his men by the Confederates and when Union commanders asked for the return of his body were told “We have buried him with his niggers,” Shaw’s father quelled a northern effort to recover his son’s body with these words: We hold that a soldier’s most appropriate burial-place is on the field where he has fallen.” [42] As with so many frontal attacks on prepared positions throughout the war, valor alone could not overcome a well dug in enemy. “Negro troops proved that they could stop bullets and shell fragments as good as white men, but that was about all.” [43]

Despite the setback, the regiment went on to further actions where it continued to distinguish itself. The Northern press, particularly abolitionist newspapers brought about a change in the way that many Americans in the North, civilians as well as soldiers, saw blacks. The Atlantic Monthly noted, “Through the cannon smoke of that dark night, the manhood of the colored race shines before many eyes that would not see.”  [44]

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55th Massachusetts being welcomed in Charleston SC 

In the African American 55th Massachusetts, which was recruited after the 54th, twenty-one year old Sergeant Isaiah Welch wrote a letter which was published in the Philadelphia Christian Recorder from Folly Island South Carolina:

“I will mention a little about the 55th Massachusetts Regiment. They seem to be in good health at the present and are desirous of making a bold dash upon the enemy. I pray God the time will soon come when we, as soldiers of God, and of our race and country, may face the enemy with boldness. For my part I feel willing to suffer all privations incidental to a Christian and a soldier…. In conclusion, let me say, if I fall in the battle anticipated, remember, I fall in defense of my race and country. Some of my friends thought it very wrong of me in setting aside the work of the Lord to take up arms against the enemy…. I am fully able to answer all questions pertaining to rebels. If taking lives will restore the country to what it once was, then God help me to slay them on every hand.” [45]

Like the 54th Massachusetts, the 55th would see much action. After one particularly sharp engagement in July 1864, in which numerous soldiers had demonstrated exceptional valor under fire the regiment’s commander, Colonel Alfred S. Hartwell “recommended that three of the black sergeants of the 55th be promoted to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant.” But Hartwell’s request was turned down, and a member of the regiment complained, “But the U.S. government has refused so far to must them because God did not make them White…. No other objection is, or can be offered.” [46]

Frederick Douglass, who had two sons serving in the 54th Massachusetts, understood the importance of African Americans taking up arms against those that had enslaved them in order to win their freedom:

“Once let a black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S… let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny he has won the right to citizenship in the United States.” [47]

Douglass urged African American men to enlist to secure their freedom, even while noting the inequities still prevalent in society and in the military, in which they did not receive the same pay as whites, nor could they become officers. Appealing to duty and reality Douglass noted in a speech in Philadelphia urging black men to volunteer. In it he carefully defined the real differences between the purposes of the Confederacy which was to “nothing more than to make the slavery of the African race universal and perpetual on this continent,” which was “based upon the idea that colored men are an inferior race, who may be enslaved and plundered forever.” [48]

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Sergeant William Carney 54th Massachusetts, Medal of Honor

But the premier leader of the African Americans of his day, who had himself suffered as a slave, did not stop with that. Douglass understood that winning the war was more important that to what had been the attitude of the Federal government before the war and before emancipation, “Now, what is the attitude of the Washington government towards the colored race? What reasons have we to desire its triumph in the present contest? Mind, I do not ask what was its attitude towards us before the war…. I do not ask you about the dead past. I bring you to the living present.” He noted the advances that had been made in just a few months and appealed to his listeners. “Do not flatter yourselves, my friends, that you are more important to the Government than the Government to you. You stand but as the plank to the ship. This rebellion can be put down without your help. Slavery can be abolished by white men: but liberty so won for the black man, while it may leave him an object of pity, can never make him an object of respect…. Young men of Philadelphia, you are without excuse. The hour has arrived, and your place is in the Union army. Remember that the musket – the United States musket with its bayonet of steel – is better than all the mere parchment guarantees of liberty. In your hands that musket means liberty…” [49]

Other African American units less famous than the illustrious 54th Massachusetts distinguished themselves in action against Confederate forces. Two regiments of newly recruited blacks were encamped at Milliken’s Bend Louisiana when a Confederate brigade attempting to relieve the Vicksburg garrison attacked them. The troops were untrained and ill-armed but held on against a determined enemy:

“Untrained and armed with old muskets, most of the black troops nevertheless fought desperately. With the aid of two gunboats they finally drove off the enemy. For raw troops, wrote Grant, the freedmen “behaved well.” Assistant Secretary of War Dana, still with Grant’s army, spoke with more enthusiasm. “The bravery of the blacks,” he declared, “completely revolutionized the sentiment in the army with regard to the employment of negro troops. I heard prominent officers who had formerly in private had sneered at the idea of negroes fighting express after that as heartily in favor of it.” [50]

The actions of the black units at Milliken’s bend attracted the attention and commendation of Ulysses Grant, who wrote in his cover letter to the after action report, “In this battle most of the troops engaged were Africans, who had little experience in the use of fire-arms. Their conduct is said, however, to have been most gallant, and I doubt not but with good officers that they will make good troops.” [51] They also garnered the attention of the press. Harper’s published an illustrated account of the battle with a “double-page woodcut of the action place a black color bearer in the foreground, flanked by comrades fighting hand-to-hand with Confederates. A brief article called it a “the sharp fight at Milliken’s bend where a small body of black troops with a few whites were attacked by a large force of rebels.” [52] In the South the result was chilling and shocked whites, one woman wrote “It is hard to believe that Southern soldiers – and Texans at that – have been whipped by a mongrel crew of white and black Yankees…. There must be some mistake.” While another woman in Louisiana confided in her diary, “It is terrible to think of such a battle as this, white men and freemen fighting with their slaves, and to be killed by such a hand, the very soul revolts from it, O, may this be the last.” [53]

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Louisiana Native Guards at Port Hudson 

By the end of the war over 179,000 African American Soldiers, commanded by 7,000 white officers served in the Union armies. For a number of reasons most of these units were confined to rear area duties or working with logistics and transportation operations. The policies to regulate USCT regiments to supporting tasks in non-combat roles “frustrated many African American soldiers who wanted a chance to prove themselves in battle.” [54]  Many of the soldiers and their white officers argued to be let into the fight as they felt that “only by proving themselves in combat could blacks overcome stereotypes of inferiority and prove their “manhood.” [55] Even so in many places in the army the USCT and state regiments made up of blacks were scorned:

“A young officer who left his place in a white regiment to become colonel of a colored regiment was frankly told by a staff officer that “we don’t want any nigger soldiers in the Army of the Potomac,” and his general took him aside to say: “I’m sorry to have you leave my command, and am still more sorry that you are going to serve with Negroes. I think that it is a disgrace to the army to make soldiers of them.” The general added that he felt this way because he was sure that colored soldiers just would not fight.”  [56]

The general of course, was wrong, for “Nothing eradicated the prejudices of white soldiers as effectively as black soldiers performing well under fire. And nothing inspired black soldiers to fight as desperately as the fear that capture meant certain death.” [57]  In the engagements where USCT units were allowed to fight, they did so with varying success most of which was often attributable to the direction of their senior officers and the training that they had received. As with any other unit, well led and well trained regiments performed better than those whose leaders had failed their soldiers. When given the chance they almost always fought well, even when badly commanded. This was true as well when they were thrown into hopeless situations.

One such instance was when Ferrero’s Division, comprised of colored troops were thrown into the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg when “that battle lost beyond all recall.” [58] The troops advanced in good order singing as they went, while their commander, General Ferrero took cover in a dugout and started drinking; but the Confederate defenders had been reinforced and “Unsupported, subjected to a galling fire from batteries on the flanks, and from infantry fire in front and partly on the flank,” a witness write, “they broke up in disorder and fell back into the crater.” [59] Pressed into the carnage of the crater where white troops from the three divisions already savaged by the fighting had taken cover, the “black troops fought with desperation, uncertain of their fate if captured.” [60] In the battle Ferrero’s division lost 1,327 of the approximately 4,000 men who made the attack. [61]

Major General Benjamin Butler railed to his wife in a letter against those who questioned the courage of African American soldiers seeing the gallantry of black troops assaulting the defenses of Petersburg in September 1864: The man who says that the negro will not fight is a coward….His soul is blacker than then dead faces of these dead negroes, upturned to heaven in solemn protest against him and his prejudices.” [62]

In another engagement, the 1864 Battle of Saltville in western Virginia the troops of the 5th USCT Cavalry who had been insulted, taunted, and derided by their fellow white Union soldiers went into action against Confederate troops defending the salt works in that town. The regiment’s commander, Colonel Wade, order his troops to attack. Colonel James Brisbin detailed the attack:

“the Negroes rushed upon the works with a yell and after a desperate struggle carried the line killing and wounding a large number of the enemy and capturing some prisoners…. Out of the four hundred men engaged, one hundred and fourteen men and four officers fell killed or wounded. Of this fight I can only say that men could not have behaved more bravely. I have seen white troops in twenty-seven battles and I never saw any fight better…. On the return of the forces those who had scoffed at the Colored Troops on the march out were silent.” [63]

The response of the Confederate government to Emancipation and African Americans serving as soldiers was immediate and uncompromisingly harsh. “When in the autumn of 1862 General Beauregard referred the question of a captured black soldier to Davis’s latest Secretary of War, James A. Seddon, the later replied “…my decision is that the negro is to be executed as an example.” [64] Davis approved of the summary executions of black prisoners carried out in South Carolina in November 1862, and a month later “on Christmas Eve, Davis issued a general order requiring all former slaves and their officers captured in arms to be delivered up to state officials for trial.” [65] Davis warned that “the army would consider black soldiers as “slaves captured in arms,” and therefore subject to execution.” [66] While the Confederacy never formally carried out the edict, there were numerous occasions where Confederate commanders and soldiers massacred captured African American soldiers.

The Lincoln administration responded to the Confederate threats by sending a note to Davis that threatened reprisals against Confederate troops if black soldiers suffered harm. It “was largely the threat of Union reprisals that thereafter gave African-American soldiers a modicum of humane treatment.” [67] Even so, they and their white officers were often in much more danger than the officers and soldiers of all-white regiments if captured by Confederate forces.

When captured by Confederates, black soldiers and their white officers received no quarter from many Confederate opponents. General Edmund Kirby Smith who held overall command of Confederate forces west of the Mississippi instructed General Richard Taylor to simply execute black soldiers and their white officers: “I hope…that your subordinates who may have been in command of capturing parties may have recognized the propriety of giving no quarter to armed negroes and their officers. In this way we may be relieved from a disagreeable dilemma.” [68] This was not only a local policy, but echoed at the highest levels of the Confederate government. In 1862 the Confederate government issued an order that threatened white officers commanding blacks: “any commissioned officer employed in the drilling, organizing or instructing slaves with their view to armed service in this war…as outlaws” would be “held in close confinement for execution as a felon.” [69] After the assault of the 54th Massachusetts at Fort Wagner a Georgia soldier “reported with satisfaction that the prisoners were “literally shot down while on their knees begging for quarter and mercy.” [70]

fortpillowmassacred

Fort Pillow Massacre 

On April 12th 1864 at Fort Pillow, troops under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest massacred the bulk of over 231 Union most of them black as they tried to surrender. While it is fairly clear that Forrest did not order the massacre and even may have attempted to stop it, it was clear that he had lost control of his troops, and “the best evidence indicates that the “massacre”…was a genuine massacre.” [71] Forrest’s soldiers fought with the fury of men possessed by hatred of an enemy that they considered ‘a lesser race’ and slaughtered the Union troops as they either tried to surrender or flee; but while Forrest did not order the massacre, he certainly was not displeased with the result. His subordinate, General James Chalmers told an officer from the gunboat Silver Cloud that he and Forrest had neither ordered the massacre and had tried to stop their soldiers but that “the men of General Forrest’s command had such a hatred toward the armed negro that they could not be restrained from killing the negroes,” and he added, “it was nothing better than we could expect so long as we persisted in arming the negro.” [72] It was a portent of what some of the same men would do to defenseless blacks and whites sympathetic to them as members of the Ku Klux Klan, the White Liners, White League, and Red Shirts, during and after Reconstruction in places like Colfax Louisiana.

Ulysses Grant was infuriated and threatened reprisals against any Confederates conducting such activities, he a later wrote:

“These troops fought bravely, but were overpowered I will leave Forrest in his dispatches to tell what he did with them.

“The river was dyed,” he says, “with the blood of the slaughtered for up to 200 years. The approximate loss was upward of five hundred killed; but few of the officers escaped. My loss was about twenty killed. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.” Subsequently Forrest made a report in which he left out the part that shocks humanity to read.”  [73]

The bulk of the killing was directed at the black soldiers of the 6th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery, which composed over a third of the garrison. “Of the 262 Negro members of the garrison, only 58 – just over 20 percent – were marched away as prisoners; while of the 295 whites, 168 – just under sixty percent were taken.”  [74] A white survivor of the 13th West Tennessee Cavalry, a Union unit at the fort wrote:

We all threw down our arms and gave tokens of surrender, asking for quarter…but no quarter was given….I saw 4 white men and at least 25 negroes shot while begging for mercy….These were all soldiers. There were also 2 negro women and 3 little children standing within 25 steps of me, when a rebel stepped up to them and said, “Yes, God damn you, you thought you were free, did you?” and shot them all. They all fell but one child, when he knocked it in the head with the breech of his gun.” [75]

A Confederate Sergeant who was at Fort Pillow wrote home a week after the massacre: “the poor deluded negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees and with uplifted hands scream for mercy, but were ordered to their feet and shot down.” [76] The captain of the Union gunboat Silver Cloud was allowed by the Confederate to bring his ship to the Fort to evacuate wounded, and to bury the dead was appalled at the sight,

“All the buildings around the fort and the tents and huts in the fort had been burned by the rebels, and among the embers of the charred remains of numbers of our soldiers who had suffered terrible death in the flames could be seen. All the wounded who had strength enough to speak agreed that after the fort was taken an indiscriminate slaughter of our troops was carried on by the enemy…. Around on every side horrible testimony to the truth of this statement could be seen, Bodies with gaping wounds,… some with skulls beaten through, others with hideous wounds as if their bowels had been ripped open with bowie-knives, plainly told that little quarter was shown…. Strewn from the fort to the river bank, in the ravines and the hollows, behind logs and under the brush where they had crept for protection from the assassins who pursued them, we found bodies bayoneted, beaten, and shot to death, showing how cold-blooded and persistent was the slaughter…. Of course, when a work is carried by assault there will always be more or less bloodshed, even when all resistance has ceased; but here there were unmistakable evidences of a massacre carried on long after any resistance could have been offered, with a cold-blooded barbarity and perseverance which nothing can palliate.” [77]The rabidly pro-slavery members of the Confederate press lent their propaganda to cheer the massacre of the captured blacks. John R. Eakin of the Washington (Arkansas) Washington Telegraph, who later became a justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court after Reconstruction, wrote,

“The Slave Soldiers. – Amongst there are stupendous wrongs against humanity, shocking to the moral sense of the world, like Herod’s massacre of the Innocents, or the eve of St. Bartholomew, the crime of Lincoln in seducing our slaves into the ranks of his army will occupy a prominent position….

How should we treat our slaves arrayed under the banners of the invader, and marching to desolate our homes and firesides….

Meanwhile, the problem has been met our soldiers in the heat of battle, where there has been no time for discussion. They have cut the Gordian knot with the sword. They did right….

It follows that we cannot treat negroes in arms as prisoners of war without a destruction of the social system for which we contend. We must be firm, uncompromising and unfaltering. We must claim the full control of all negroes who may fall into our hands, to punish with death, or any other penalty, or remand them to their owners. If the enemy retaliate, we must do likewise; and if the black flag follows, the blood be upon their heads.” [78]

However, when African American Troops were victorious, and even after they had seen their brothers murdered by Confederate troops, that they often treated their Confederate with great kindness. Colonel Brisbin wrote that following Battle of Saltville that “Such of the Colored Soldiers who fell into the hands of the Enemy during the battle were murdered. The Negroes did not retaliate but treated the Rebel wounded with great kindness, carrying them water in their canteens and doing all they could to alleviate the sufferings of those whom the fortunes of war had placed in their hands.” [79]

African American soldiers proved themselves during the war and their efforts paved the way for Lincoln and others to begin considering the full equality of blacks as citizens. If they could fight and die for the country, how could they be denied the right to votes, be elected to office, serve on juries or go to public schools? Under political pressure to end the war during the stalemate before Petersburg and Atlanta in the summer of 1864, Lincoln reacted angrily to Copperheads as well as wavering Republicans on the issue of emancipation:

“But no human power can subdue this rebellion without using the Emancipation lever as I have done.” More than 100,000 black soldiers were fighting for the Union and their efforts were crucial to northern victory. They would not continue fighting if they thought the North intended to betray them….If they stake their lives for us they must be prompted by the strongest motive…the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept…There have been men who proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors. “I should be damned in time & in eternity for so doing. The world shall know that I will keep my faith to friends & enemies, come what will.”  [80]

The importance of African Americans cannot be minimized, without them the war could have dragged on much longer or even ended in stalemate, which would have been a Confederate victory. Lincoln wrote about the importance of the African American contribution to the war effort in 1864:

“Any different policy in regard to the colored man, deprives us of his help, and this is more than we can bear. We can not spare the hundred and forty or hundred and fifty thousand now serving us as soldiers, seamen, and laborers. This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force which may be measured and estimated as horse-power and Steam-power are measured and estimated. Keep it and you save the Union. Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.” [81]

Despite this, even in the North during and after the war, blacks, including former soldiers faced discrimination, sometimes that of the white men that they served alongside, but more often from those who did not support the war effort. Lincoln wisely took note of this fact, and wrote that after the war:

“there will there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, the clenched teeth, the steady eye, the well poised bayonet, they have helped  mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.” [82]

swails

Lt Stephen Swails, First African American Officer of 54th Massachusetts 

Those rights would be fought for another century and what began in 1863 with the brave service and sacrifice of these African American soldiers began a process of increased civil rights that is still going on today. It would not be until after the war that some blacks were commissioned as officers in the Army. When Governor John Andrew, the man who had raised the 54th Massachusetts attempted to “issue a state commission to Sergeant Stephen Swails of the 54th…the Bureau of Colored Troops obstinately refused to issue Swails a discharge from his sergeant’s rank, and Swails promotion was held up until after the end of the war. “How can we hope for success to our arms or God’s blessing,” raged the white colonel of the 54th, Edward Hallowell, “while we as a people are so blind to justice?” [83]

The families of the free blacks who volunteered also suffered, especially those who still had families enslaved in Confederate occupied areas or Union States which still allowed slavery. One women in Missouri wrote her husband begging him to come home “I have had nothing but trouble since you left….They abuse me because you went & say they will not take care of our children & do nothing but quarrel with me all the time and beat me scandalously the day before yesterday.”  [84]

However, the Emancipation Proclamation transformed the war, and even jaded White Union soldiers who had been against emancipation and who were deeply prejudiced against blacks began to change their outlook as the armies marched into the South and saw the horrors of slavery, Russell Weigley wrote that Union soldiers: “confronting the scarred bodies and crippled souls of African Americans as they marched into the South experienced a strong motivation to become anti-slavery men…Men do not need to play a role long, furthermore, until the role grows to seem natural and customary to them. That of liberators was sufficiently fulfilling to their pride that soldiers found themselves growing more accustomed to it all the more readily.” [85]

A sergeant of the 19th Michigan who had already lost a stepson in the war wrote to his wife from Georgia before being killed in action during the Atlanta campaign; “the more I learn of the cursed institution of Slavery, the more I feel willing to endure, for its final destruction…. After this war is over, this whole country will undergo a change for the better…. Abolishing slavery will dignify labor; that fact will revolutionize everything…. Let Christians use all their influence to have justice done to the black man.” [86]

But even more importantly for the cause of liberty, the sight of regiments of free African Americans, marching “through the slave states wearing the uniform of the U.S. Army and carrying rifles on their shoulders was perhaps the most revolutionary event of a war turned into revolution.” [87]

battle_of_nashville_kurz__allison

At peak one in eight Union troops were African American, and Black troops made an immense contribution to the Union victory. “Black troops fought on 41 major battlefields and in 449 minor engagements. Sixteen soldiers and seven sailors received Medals of Honor for valor. 37,000 blacks in army uniform gave their lives and untold sailors did, too.” [88] To fully appreciate the measure as to the importance and significance of the numbers of African American troops serving in the Union ranks has to compare that number with the number of active Confederate troops serving toward the end of the war. The approximately 180,000 African Americans serving in Union ranks at the end of the war outnumbered the “aggregate present” in Confederate ranks on January 1st 1865 by over 20,000 men. Of these troops “134,111 were recruited in states that had stars in the Confederate battle flag, and the latter figure in turn was several thousand greater than the total of 135,994 gray-clad soldiers “present for duty” that same day.” [89]

Of the African American soldiers who faced the Confederates in combat, “deep pride was their compensation. Two black patients in an army hospital began a conversation. One of them looked at the stump of an arm he had once had and remarked: “Oh I should like to have it, but I don’t begrudge it.” His ward mate, minus a leg, replied: “Well, ‘twas [lost] in a glorious cause, and if I’d lost my life I should have been satisfied. I knew what I was fighting for.” [90]

22nd-usct-flags

Flags of the 22nd U.S. Colored Troops 

After the war many of the African American soldiers became leaders in the African American community and no less than 130 of these former soldiers held elected office including in the U.S. Congress and various state legislatures. The liberating aspect of “the black military experience radiated from black soldiers and their families into the larger black community, so it spread into white society as well.” [91]  Many abolitionists who had served as officers, and officers who were assigned to the USCT or volunteered to serve with state raised African American regiments became leaders continued to be voices for expanding civil rights in the years following the war.

Following war’s end, the demobilized African American troops became the target of racial discrimination and violence, but even so, “black veterans continued to play a central role in black communities, North and South. The skills and experience black men gained during the war not only propelled many of them into positions of leaders and sustained the prominence of others, but it also shaped the expectations and aspirations of all black people. The achievements and pride engendered by military service helped to make a new world of freedom.” [92]

Sadly, much of the nation has forgotten the efforts of the Free Black Soldiers and Sailors who fought for freedom, but even so their legacy remains in the “contribution of black soldiers to Union victory remained a point of pride in black communities. “They say,” an Alabama planter reported in 1867, “the Yankees never could have whipped the South without the aid of the Negroes.” Well into the twentieth century, black families throughout the United States would recall with pride that their fathers and grandfathers had fought for freedom.” [93]

Notes 

[1] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief

[2] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p.435

[3] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War p.58

[4] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War p.58

[5] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p.369

[6] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War p.109

[7] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.531

[8] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.503

[9] Ibid. McPherson Drawn With the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War p.101

[10] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.160

[11] Foner, Eric Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2005 p.45

[12] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.160

[13] Ibid. Glatthaar General Lee’s Army from Victory to Collapse p.313

[14] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.160

[15] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p.465

[16] Egnal, Marc Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War Hill and Wang a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York 2009 p.318

[17] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.48

[18] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War p.159

[19] Ibid. McPherson Drawn With the Sword p.159

[20] Ibid. McPherson Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution p.35

[21] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.381

[22] Ibid. Dobak Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 p.10

[23] Ibid. McPherson Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution p.35

[24] Ibid. Robertson Soldiers Blue and Gray p.31

[25] Ibid. Dobak Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 p.11

[26] Ibid. Robertson Soldiers Blue and Gray p.31

[27] Ibid. Gallagher, Gary W. The Union War Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London 2011 p.103

[28] Welton, Chauncey B. A Union Soldier’s Changing Views on Emancipation in The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection edited by William Gienapp, W.W. Norton Company, New York and London 2001 pp.242 and 245

[29] Ibid. Robertson Soldiers Blue and Gray p.34

[30] Glatthaar, Joseph T. Black Glory: The African American Role in Union Victory in Why the Confederacy Lost edited by Gabor S. Boritt Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1992

[31] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.686

[32] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.282

[33] Jones, Terry L. The Free Men of Color Go to War in The new York Times Disunion: 106 Articles from the New York Times Opinionator edited by Ted Widmer with Clay Risen and George Kalogerakis, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, New York 2013 p.403

[34] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.379

[35] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.398

[36] Ibid. Trudeau Like Men of War p.44

[37] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.379

[38] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.686

[39] Ibid. McPherson Drawn With the Sword p.101

[40] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.686

[41] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening pp. 380-381

[42] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom pp.686-687

[43] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.697

[44] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.686

[45] Welch, Isaiah H. Letter in the Christian Recorder 24 October 1863 in The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection edited by William E. Gienapp, W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2001 pp.225-226

[46] Trudeau, Noah Andre, Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865 Little, Brown and Company, Boston, New York and London, 1998 p.262

[47] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p. 381

[48] Douglass, Frederick Philadelphia Speech of July 6th 1863 recorded in the Liberator in The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection edited by William E. Gienapp, W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2001 pp.220-221

[49] Ibid. Douglass Philadelphia Speech of July 6th 1863 p.221

[50] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.634

[51] Ibid. Trudeau Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865 p.58

[52] Ibid. Gallagher The Union War p.97

[53] Ibid. Trudeau Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865 p.59

[54] Ibid. Gallagher The Union War p.92

[55] Ibid. McPherson Drawn With the Sword p.89 p.

[56] Catton, Bruce. A Stillness at Appomattox Doubleday and Company Garden City, New York 1953 p.227

[57] Berlin, Ira, Riedy, Joseph P. and Rowland, Leslie S. editors, Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York 1998 pp.133-134

[58] Ibid. Catton A Stillness at Appomattox p.249

[59] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Three Red River to Appomattox Random House, New York 1974 p.537

[60] Ibid.Wert The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac pp.384-385

[61] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.537

[62] Ibid. Robertson Soldiers Blue and Gray p.34

[63] Ibid. Berlin et al, Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War  p.135

[64] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War p.189

[65] Ibid. McPherson Battle Cry of Freedom p.566

[66] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p. 280

[67] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War p.188

[68] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p. 377

[69] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p. 377

[70] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.281

[71] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War p.189

[72] Ibid. Dobak Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 p.208

[73] Grant, Ulysses S. Preparing for the Campaigns of ’64 in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume IV, Retreat With Honor Edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel Castle, Secaucus NJ pp.107-108

[74] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.111

[75] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p. 378

[76] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.112

[77] Ibid. Dobak Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 p.208

[78] Eakin, John R. The Slave Soldiers, June 8, 1864  in Loewen, James W. and Sebesta, Edward H. editors, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about “The Lost Cause” University of Mississippi Press, Jackson 2010 pp.210 and 212

[79] Ibid. Berlin et al, Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War  p.47

[80] Ibid. McPherson Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution p.89

[81] Ibid. Glatthaar Black Glory: The African American Role in Union Victory p.138

[82] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 113

[83] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p. 376

[84] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.282

[85] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War p.192

[86] Ibid. McPherson For Cause and Comrades p.130

[87] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War p.191

[88] Gallagher, Gary, Engle, Stephen, Krick, Robert K. and Glatthaar editors The American Civil War: The Mighty Scourge of War Osprey Publishing, Oxford UK 2003 p.296

[89] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Three Red River to Appomattox p.756

[90] Ibid. Robertson Soldiers Blue and Gray p.36

[91] Ibid. Berlin et al, Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War  p.47

[92] Ibid. Berlin et al. Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War pp.49-50

[93] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.55

 

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Filed under civil rights, civil war, History, Military, Political Commentary

One response to ““I Knew What I Was Fighting For” The Social Revolution of the Civil War: Emancipation Part 1

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