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America’s Terrible Good Friday: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

Good Friday is somber day, and I think that there was none more somber than Good Friday 1865. Shortly after 10 P.M. at Ford’s theater a handsome and well known actor walked into the booth occupied by President Lincoln at Washington’s Ford’s Theater. The President was there with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln and another couple after a very full day of business to watch the play Our American Cousin a farcical look at the visit of an American visiting his English relatives when going to settle the family estate.

Lincoln was looking forward to the play. Though the war continued the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9th for all intents and purposes had placed the final nail in the Confederacy’s malevolent coffin, and it was if a burden have been removed from Lincoln’s shoulders. His task now what the reintegration of the rebellious states back into the Union, a task that he believed needed to be accomplished without malice while still seeking justice. He made this clear in his Second Inaugural Address just over a month before:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Just three days before Lincoln had given his last public speech at the White House. It was a practical speech dealing with the nuts and bolts reuniting the country including announcing his support for Negro Suffrage. He said:

“By these recent successes the re-inauguration of the national authority — reconstruction — which has had a large share of thought from the first, is pressed much more closely upon our attention. It is fraught with great difficulty. Unlike a case of a war between independent nations, there is no authorized organ for us to treat with. No one man has authority to give up the rebellion for any other man. We simply must begin with, and mould from, disorganized and discordant elements. Nor is it a small additional embarrassment that we, the loyal people, differ among ourselves as to the mode, manner, and means of reconstruction.”

In the speech Lincoln discussed the issues related to the new government of Louisiana and its dealings with African Americans, which did not go far enough for Lincoln, who was intent on extending the franchise to vote for all blacks, even if it took time to make it so. John Wilkes Booth was in attendance that day and as he listened he became ever angrier and he vowed to a fellow conspirator Lewis Powell, “That is the last speech he will make” and Booth was going to ensure this himself.

Lincoln had been troubled for some time by terrible insomnia and dreams, both bizarre and ghoulish. A few days before he had told Mary and others sharing dinner with them of a troubling dream which he described in detail, Mary and those at the table so accustomed to Lincoln’s customary wit and humor were stunned as Lincoln spoke. He closed the description with these words:

“Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and shocking, I kept on until I entered the East Room, which I entered. There I was met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and a throng of people, some gazing mournfully at the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully: ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers. ‘The President’ was the answer; ‘he was killed by an assassin!’ “Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd…” 

Mary and the others were so upset, particularly with the large number of death threats Lincoln had received throughout the war. However, Lincoln told them all not to worry as “it was only a dream.”

On that Good Friday Lincoln was determined not to mourn, instead of attending Good Friday services or contemplating the war, or reconstruction, he simply wanted to laugh and chose to attend the play, wanting General Grant and his wife to attend. However Grant needed to travel to New Jersey and declined the offer.

Despite this Lincoln was in a cheerful mood, looking forward to the future and discussing all the things that he wanted to see and do after his term in office. Mary was startled by his cheerfulness and Lincoln told her “I have never felt better in my life.” Lincoln and his party arrived late to the cheers of the cast and took their seats in the box about 8:30 to the strains of Hail to the Chief. As the play resumed Lincoln’s bodyguard slipped away to get a drink and about twelve minutes after ten Booth slipped into the box where Lincoln sat watching the play. As the crowd roared its delight at a particularly funny scene a shot rang out and Lincoln’s arm jerked up and he slumped over. Booth then jumped to the stage from the box, injuring his leg and shouting “Sic semper tyrannis” or thus always to tyrants. It was the beginning of a series of attempted assassinations designed to decapitate the Federal government, Secretary of State Seward was badly wounded by Lewis Payne, a third assassin backed out at the last minute and failed to attack Vice President Johnson.

Though physicians sought to save the President the wound was mortal, the bullet having ender the back of his head, and dug deep into his brain, lodging behind his left eye. At 7:22 A.M. Abraham Lincoln was dead. It was a disaster for the nation as the new President, Andrew Johnson was a political enemy of Lincoln and not in line with Lincoln’s understanding of reconstruction and reconciliation. A poor Southerner from Tennessee, Johnson hated the Southern plantation aristocracy and would act as a punisher, while radical reconstructionist members of the cabinet and Congress would act in such a way that reconstruction would never achieve all that Lincoln believed that it could.

While radical Confederates rejoiced in Lincoln’s death others were more circumspect. Jefferson Davis who was fleeing and hoping to continue the war realized that the South would not fare as well under Johnson as Lincoln. In fact Johnson’s lack of understanding of the nuances of northern politics as well as his loathing of blacks, his “beliefs, prejudices, personality traits were a recipe for disaster at a time when an unprecedented national crisis put a premium on the capacity to think in new and creative ways.”

The Army of the Potomac learned of Lincoln’s assassination on Easter Sunday. Joshua Chamberlain told a woman whose mansion was at the center of his division’s camp when she asked what disturbed him “It is bad news for the South.” When the woman asked if it was Lee or Davis Chamberlain told her that it was Lincoln and said “The South has lost its best friend, Madam.” 

Chamberlain ordered chaplain to conduct a field memorial for the fallen President. The division chaplain a Catholic Priest, Father Egan spoke and roused the men, and Egan ended his service “Better so, Better to die glorious, than live infamous. Better to be buried beneath a nation’s tears, than to walk the earth guilty of the nation’s blood.”

During the war Lincoln had endeared himself to his soldiers and they responded with great emotion. One burst into tears and sobbed “He was our best friend. God bless him,” another wrote home “What a hold Old Abe had on the hearts of the soldiers of the army could only be told by the way they showed their mourning for him.” Admiral David Dixon Porter wrote “The United States has lost the greatest man she ever produced.” 

The bullet fired by John Wilkes Booth was a disaster for the country. Sadly, there are some today, in particular the White Supremacist group The League of the South are choosing to celebrate the assassination of the man that they so hate, and honor the assassin as a hero. However, I have to agree with Admiral Porter, there has never been a President before or after who was anything like this man, and I dedicate myself to the quest for equality of all people and for a reconciliation. I will continue to work for that “new birth of freedom” that Lincoln so believed in.


Padre Steve+


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Northern Indifference, Southern Violence, and the Collapse of Reconstruction


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is another of my continued series of articles pulled from my various Civil War texts dealing with Emancipation and the early attempts to gain civil rights for African Americans. This section that I will cover for the next few days deals with the post-war period, a period marked by conflicting political and social desires for equality, justice, revenge, and the re-victimization of Blacks who had so recently been emancipated.

I hope that you find these helpful.


Padre Steve+

The Collapse of Northern Support for Reconstruction

It is all too easy to simply blame recalcitrant Southerners for the collapse of Reconstruction. However, it is impossible not to explore this without addressing responsibility of many leaders and citizens in the North for the failure of Reconstruction and the return of “White Man’s Rule” to the South. Like today, people faced with economic difficulties sought out scapegoats. When the country entered an economic depression in 1873 it was all too easy for Northern whites, many of who were willing to concede “freedom” to turn on blacks. Racism was still heavily entrenched in the North and for many, economic considerations trumped justice as the North tried to move away from Reconstruction and on to new conquests, including joining European powers in attempts to gain overseas colonies and territories.

As Southern extremists turned the Federal effort at Reconstruction into a violent quagmire that seemed to have no end, many Northerners increasingly turned against the effort and against Blacks themselves. Like so many victorious peoples they did not have the political or moral capacity to remain committed to a cause for which so many had sacrificed and they began to abandon the effort after two short years of congressionally mandated Radical Reconstruction.

Likewise, the men who had so nobly began the effort to enfranchise African Americans failed to understand the social and political reality of the South. To the average Southerner of the era “political equality automatically led to social equality, which in turn automatically led to race-mixing. It was inevitable and unthinkable. To a people brought up to believe that Negroes were genetically inferior – after all, that was why they were slaves – the mere hint of “mongrelization” was appalling.” [1] This was something that most Northerners, even those committed to the political equality of African Americans could not comprehend, and the ignorance of this fact would be a major reason for the collapse of Northern political and social support for Reconstruction.


Congressman Thaddeus Stevens 

Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, one of the most effective leaders of the Radical Republicans died in 1868 in despair that the rights of blacks were being rolled back even as legislation was passed supporting them. A few weeks before his death Stevens told a friend “My life has been a failure…I see little hope for the republic.” [2] The old firebrand asked “to be buried in a segregated cemetery for African American paupers so that “I might illustrate in death the principles which I advocated through a long life, Equality of man before his creator.” [3] Others including Senator Ben Wade, were not returned to office while others including Edwin Stanton, Salmon Chase and Charles Summer all died during Grant’s administration.

While Grant attempted to smash the Ku Klux Klan by military means, both his administration and Congress were of little help. He faced increased opposition from economic conservative Republicans who had little interest in the rights of African Americans and who gave little support to those fighting for equal rights for blacks. The situation was further complicated by the “financial panic which hit the stock market in 1873 produced an economic downturn that soon worsened into a depression, which continued for the rest of the decade.” [4] The result was that Republicans lost their majorities in the House and in many states, even in the North.

It was clear that “1870 Radical Republicanism as a coherent political movement was rapidly disintegrating” [5] and during the early 1870s many of the antislavery activists had left the Republican party either to death or defection, many “no longer felt at home in a party that catered to big business and lacked the resolve to protect black rights.” [6]

In 1872, some former radical Republicans revolted against Grant and the corruption in the Republican Party. Calling themselves “Liberal Republicans” they supported the candidacy of Horace Greeley uniting with Democrats to call for an end to Reconstruction. For many this was not so much because they no longer supported the rights of African Americans, but because for them, like so many, “economic concerns now trumped race relations…. Henry Adams, who shared the views of his father, Charles Francis Adams, remarked that “the day is at hand when corporations far greater than [the] Erie [Railroad]…will ultimately succeed in directing the government itself.” [7] The numbers of Federal troops in the South continued to be reduced to the point where they could offer little or no support to state militia.

The combination of all of these factors, political, racial, economic, and judicial doomed Grant’s continued efforts at Reconstruction by executive means. Despite the hard fought battle to provide all the rights of citizenship and the vote to African Americans racism remained heavily entrenched in all regions of the country. In the North and the South the economic crisis of 1873 caused people to look for scapegoats, and blacks were easy targets. With economics easily trumping the cause of justice, “racism increasingly asserted its hold on northern thought and behavior.” [8] The Northern press and politicians, including former abolitionists increasingly took the side of Southerners, condemning Freedmen as lazy and slothful usurpers of white civilization.

Likewise the growing problem of labor unrest in the North brought about by the economic depression made “many white northerners more sympathetic to white southern complaints about Reconstruction. Racial and class prejudices reinforced one another, as increasing numbers of middle-class northerners identified what they considered the illegitimate demands of workers and farmers in their own society with the alleged misconduct of the former slaves in the South.” [9]

The depression hit Freedmen in the South with a vengeance and unable to pay their bills and mortgages many lost everything. This left them at the mercy of their former white masters who were able to force them into long term employment contacts which for practical purposes was a reversion to slavery, albeit under a different name. Those whites who were still working for Reconstruction in the South were increasingly marginalized, stigmatized and victimized by a systematized campaign of propaganda which labeled them Carpetbaggers and Scalawags who had gained power through the votes of blacks and who were profiting by looting Southern Whites. In the end Southern intransigence wore out the political will of Northerners to carry on, even that of strongest supporters of emancipation and equality.


Violence now became a means to further politics in the South and carried out in broad daylight and “intended to demoralize black voters and fatally undermine the Republican Party…. They paraded at regular intervals through African American sections of small towns in the rural black majority areas, intimidating the residents and inciting racial confrontations.” [10] These armed bands were highly successful, if they were successful in provoking a racial incident they would then fan out throughout the area to find blacks in order to beat up and kill, hundreds of blacks were killed by them.

During the elections of 1876 the White Liners, Red Shirts, White League and others would be seen in threatening positions near Republican rallies and on Election Day swarmed the polls to keep blacks and Republicans out, even seizing ballot boxes either destroying them or counting the votes for Democrats. The strategy employed by the Democrats and their paramilitary supporters was to use “Lawless and utterly undemocratic means…to secure the desired outcome, which was to win a lawful, democratic election.” [11]

The pressure was too much for most Republicans in the South, and many who did not leave the South “crossed over to the Democratic fold; only a few stood by the helpless mass of Negroes….” [12] Of those in the North who did nothing to confront the resurgence of neo-Confederate mythology and who had worked against equal rights for African Americans during the Reconstruction era, “many embraced racism in the form of imperialism, Social Darwinism and eugenics.” [13]

The elected governor of Mississippi, Republican General Adelbert Ames, who was one of the most able and honest of all the Northerners to hold elected office in the South wrote in 1875 about the power of the paramilitary groups, “The “white liners” have gained their point – they have, by killing and wounding, so intimidated the poor Negroes that they can in all human probability prevail over them at the election. I shall try at once to get troops from the general government. Of course it will be a difficult thing to do.” [14] Ames requested Federal troops “to restore peace and supervise the coming elections” [15] but did not get them due to the subterfuge of Attorney General Edwards Pierrepont.

Grant told Pierrepont, a former Democrat who was critical of Grant’s insistence on the rights of African Americans that he must issue a proclamation for the use of Federal troops if Ames’s local forces could not keep order. He told Pierrepont “the proclamation must be issued; and if it is I shall instruct the commander of the forces to have no child’s play.” [16] Instead, Pierrepont altered Grant’s words and told Ames, “The whole public are tired out with these autumnal outbreaks in the South…and the great majority are now ready to condemn any interference on the part of the government….Preserve the peace by the forces in your own state….” [17] Ames, who had been a strong proponent of emancipation and black suffrage understood that he was being abandoned by Pierrepont and in order to prevent more bloodshed gave up the fight, negotiating a peace with the White League. Sadly, he like Grant realized that most of the country “had never been for Negro civil rights in the first place. Freedom, yes; but that didn’t mean all the privileges of citizenship.”  [18]  Ames’s deal with the Democrats and the White League resulted in blacks being forced from the polls and the Democrats returning to power in the state.  When Ames left the state, the discouraged veteran of so many battles including Gettysburg wrote, “A revolution has taken place – by force of arms – and a race disenfranchised – they are to be returned to a condition of serfdom – an era of second slavery.” [19]

The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre and Beyond

The violence against Southern blacks escalated in the wake of the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and with the increasing number of blacks being elected to office in some Southern states during the elections of 1872. In Louisiana a Federal court ruled in favor of Republican Reconstruction candidates following a Democrat campaign to interfere with the vote, which included attacks on polling sites and the theft of ballot boxes. As a result the Louisiana Democrats “established a shadow government and organized paramilitary unit known as the White League to intimidate and attack black and white Republicans.” [20]

blacks at colfax

Colfax Massacre

The White League in Louisiana was particularly brutal in its use of violence. he worst massacre committed by the White League occurred Easter Sunday 1873 when it massacred blacks in Colfax, Louisiana. Colfax was an isolated nondescript hamlet about three hundred fifty miles northwest of New Orleans. It sat on the grounds of a former plantation whose owner, William Calhoun, who worked with the former slaves who were now freedmen. The town itself “composed of only a few hundred white and black votes” [21] was located in the newly established Grant Parish. The “parish totaled about 4,500, of whom about 2,400 were Negroes living on the lowlands along the east bank of the Red.” [22] Between 1869 and 1873 the town and the parish were the scene of numerous violent incidents and following the 1872 elections, the whites of the parish were out for blood.

White leaders in Grant Parish “retaliated by unleashing a reign of terror in rural districts, forcing blacks to flee to Colfax for protection.” [23] The blacks of parish fled to the courthouse seeking protection from a violent white mob following the brutal murder of a black farmer and his family on the outskirts of town. The people of Colfax, protected by just a few armed black militiamen and citizens deputized by the sheriff took shelter in the courthouse knowing an attack by the White Supremacists was coming.  As the White League force assembled one of its leaders told his men what the day was about. He said, “Boys, this is a struggle for white supremacy….There are one hundred-sixty-five of us to go into Colfax this morning. God only knows who will come out. Those who do will probably be prosecuted for treason, and the punishment for treason is death.” [24] The attack by over 150 heavily armed men of the White League, most of whom were former Confederate soldiers, killed at least seventy-one and possibly as many as three-hundred blacks. Most of the victims were killed as they tried to surrender. The people, protected by just a few armed men were butchered or burned alive by the armed terrorist marauders. It was “the bloodiest peacetime massacre in nineteenth-century America.” [25]

The instigators of the attack claimed that they acted in self-defense. They claimed that “armed Negroes, stirred up by white Radical Republicans, seized the courthouse, throwing out the rightful officeholders: the white judge and sheriff” and they claimed that the blacks had openly proclaimed “their intention to kill all the white men, they boasted they would use white women to breed a new race.” [26] The claims were completely fabricated, after sending veteran former army officers who were serving in the Secret Service to investigate, the U.S. Attorney for Louisiana, J.R. Beckwith sent an urgent telegram to the Attorney General:

“The Democrats (White) of Grant Parish attempted to oust the incumbent parish officers by force and failed, the sheriff protecting the officers with a colored posse. Several days afterward recruits from other parishes, to the number of 300, came to the assistance of the assailants, when they demanded the surrender of the colored people. This was refused. An attack was made and the Negroes were driven into the courthouse. The courthouse was fired and the Negroes slaughtered as they left the burning building, after resistance ceased. Sixty-five Negroes terribly mutilated were found dead near the ruins of the courthouse. Thirty, known to have been taken prisoners, are said to have been shot after the surrender, and thrown into the river. Two of the assailants were wounded. The slaughter is greater than the riot of 1866 in this city. Will send report by mail.” [27]

Federal authorities arrested nine white men in the wake of the massacre and after two trials in which white majority juries were afraid to go against public opinion, three were “convicted of violating the Enforcement Act of 1871.” [28] None were convicted of murder despite the overwhelming evidence against them and even the lesser convictions enraged the White Supremacists in Louisiana who had employed the best lawyers possible and provided them and the defendants with unlimited financial backing. Assisted by the ruling of Supreme Court Associate Justice Joseph Bradley, who had a long history of neglecting Southern racism, white Democrats appealed the convictions to the Supreme Court.

The attack, and the court cases which followed, notably the judgment of the Supreme Court in United States v. Cruickshank which dealt with the appeal of the men responsible for the Colfax Massacre led to a “narrowing of Federal law enforcement authority” and were “milestones on the road to a “solid” Democratic South.” [29] The decision of the court in United States v. Cruikshank was particularly perverse in its interpretation of constitutional rights and protections. The court ruled in favor of the terrorists and declared that “the right of the black victims at Colfax to assemble hand not been guaranteed because they were neither petitioning Congress nor protesting a federal law. Assembling for any other cause was not protected.” [30] The Cruikshank decision amounted to a Supreme Court endorsement of violence against blacks, and made it “impossible for the federal government to prosecute crimes against blacks unless they were perpetrated by a state and unless it could prove a racial motive unequivocally.” [31] Northern politicians and newspapers, reeling under the effects of the stock market crash of 1873, which had denounced the massacre just a year before now ran from the story and from support of African Americans. A Republican office holder wrote, “The truth is, our people are tired out with this worn cry of ‘Southern outrages…. Hard times and heavy taxes make them wish the ‘nigger,’ the ‘everlasting nigger,’ were in hell or Africa.” [32] Racism and race hatred was not exclusively the parlance of the South.

In the wake of Justice Bradley’s reversal of the Colfax convictions whites in Grant Parish engaged in brutal reprisals against blacks, leading to many murders and lynching’s, crimes which law enforcement, even that favorable to the rights of African Americans were afraid to prosecute for fear of their own lives. Louisiana’s Republican Governor, William Pitt Kellogg wrote Attorney General Williams blaming the violence on Bradley’s ruling, which he wrote, “was regarded as establishing the principle that hereafter no white man could be punished for killing a negro, and as virtually wiping the Ku Klux laws of the statute books.” He added that with the Army leaving the state that his government and other Reconstruction governments would fall, “if Louisiana goes,” Kellogg wrote, “Mississippi will inevitably follow and, that end attained, all the results of the war so far as the colored people are concerned will be neutralized, all the reconstruction acts of Congress will be of no more value than so much waste paper and the colored people, though free in name, will be practically remitted back to servitude.” [33] Governor Kellogg could not have been more correct.

In the years that followed many of the men involved in the massacre and other murders before and after were hailed as heroes, some, including the leader of the attackers, Christopher Columbus Nash were again appointed to office in Colfax and Grant Parish and blacks were reminded every day of just what they had lost. On April 13th 1921 the men who committed the massacre were honored with a memorial in the Colfax cemetery honoring them as “Heroes… who fell in the Colfax Riot fighting for White Supremacy.” In 1951 the State of Louisiana Department of Commerce and Industry dedicated a marker outside the Courthouse which read: “On the site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three White men and 150 Negroes were slain, this event on April 13, 1873 marked the end of Carpetbag misrule in the South.” [34] That marker still stands, there is no marker commemorating the victims.

Other massacres followed across the South, aimed at both blacks and their white Republican allies. In Louisiana the White League had some 14,000 men under arms, in many cases drilling as military units led by former Confederate officers. A White League detachment southwest of Shreveport “forced six white Republicans to resign their office on pain of death – and then brutally murdered them after they had resigned.” [35] This became known as the Coushatta Massacre and it was a watershed because for the first time the White League targeted whites as well as African Americans. The violence, now protected by the courts ensured that neither would last long in the post-Reconstruction South and that the freedom of African Americans in those states would amount to a cruel illusion.

In 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant including comments about the Colfax massacre and the subsequent court decisions in his message to Congress. Grant was angry and wrote: “Fierce denunciations ring through the country about office-holding and election matters in Louisiana…while every one of the Colfax miscreants goes unwhipped of justice, and no way can be found in this boasted land of civilization and Christianity to punish the perpetrators of this bloody and monstrous crime.” [36] President Grant, the man who so wanted to help African Americans attain the full measure of freedom, was unable to do more as the Congress and Courts took sides with the Southern insurgents.

To be continued…


[1] Ibid. Lord The Past the Would Not Die p.11

[2] Ibid. Langguth, A.J. After Lincoln p.233

[3] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.504

[4] Ibid. Perman Illegitimacy and Insurgency in the Reconstructed South p.458

[5] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.170

[6] Ibid. Egnal Clash of Extremes p.337

[7] Ibid. Egnal Clash of Extremes p.337

[8] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.192

[9] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.191

[10] Ibid. Perman Illegitimacy and Insurgency in the Reconstructed South pp.459-460

[11] Ibid. Perman Illegitimacy and Insurgency in the Reconstructed South p.461

[12] Ibid. Lord The Past the Would Not Die p.15

[13] Loewen, James W. and Sebesta, Edward H. Editors The  Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about the “Lost Cause” University Press of Mississippi, Jackson 2010 Amazon Kindle edition location 5258 of 8647

[14] Ames, Adelbert Governor Adelbert Ames deplores Violence in Mississippi, September 1875 in The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition edited by Michael Perman and Amy Murrell Taylor Wadsworth Cengage Learning Boston MA 2011 p.434

[15] Ibid. Lord The Past the Would Not Die p.17

[16] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.243

[17] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 190

[18] Ibid. Lord The Past that Wouldn’t Die p.17

[19] Watson, Bruce Freedom Summer: The Savage Summer of 1964 that Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy Viking Press, the Penguin Group New York and London 2010 p.41

[20] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.151

[21] Ibid. Langguth After Lincoln p.312

[22] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.42

[23] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.493

[24] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.91

[25] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.493

[26] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.11

[27] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.22

[28] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.494

[29] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.251

[30] Ibid. Langguth After Lincoln p.314

[31] Ibid. Goldfield American Aflame p.494

[32] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.213

[33] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.217

[34] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died pp.261-262

[35] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 185

[36] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.228

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The Fight for Citizenship and Suffrage: The XIV and XV Amendments and Ulyesses Grant’s Fight Against the KKK


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is another of my continued series of articles pulled from my various Civil War texts dealing with Emancipation and the early attempts to gain civil rights for African Americans. This section that I will cover for the next few days deals with the post-war period, a period marked by conflicting political and social desires for equality, justice, revenge, and the re-victimization of Blacks who had so recently been emancipated.

I hope that you find these helpful.


Padre Steve+

The Passage of the Fourteenth Amendment

The situation for newly emancipated blacks in the South continued to deteriorate as the governors appointed by President Johnson supervised elections, which elected new governors, and all-white legislatures composed chiefly of former Confederate leaders. Freedom may have been achieved, but the question as to what it meant was still to be decided, “What is freedom?” James A. Garfield later asked. “Is it the bare privilege of not being chained?… If this is all, then freedom is a bitter mockery, a cruel delusion.” [1] The attitude of the newly elected legislatures and the new governors toward emancipated blacks was shown by Mississippi’s new governor, Benjamin G. Humphreys, a former Confederate general who was pardoned by Andrew Johnson in order to take office. In his message to the legislature Humphreys declared:

“Under the pressure of federal bayonets, urged on by the misdirected sympathies of the world, the people of Mississippi have abolished the institution of slavery. The Negro is free, whether we like it or not; we must realize that fact now and forever. To be free does not make him a citizen, or entitle him to social or political equality with the white man.”  [2]

Johnson’s continued defiance of Congress alienated him from the Republican majority who passed legislation over Johnson’s veto to give black men the right to vote and hold office, and to overturn the white only elections which had propelled so many ex-Confederates into political power. Over Johnson’s opposition Congress took power over Reconstruction and “Constitutional amendments were passed, the laws for racial equality were passed, and the black man began to vote and to hold office.” [3] Congress passed measures in 1867 that mandated that the new constitutions written in the South provide for “universal suffrage and for the temporary political disqualification of many ex-Confederates.” [4]  As such many of the men elected to office in 1865 were removed from power, including Governor Humphreys who was deposed in 1868.

These measures helped elect bi-racial legislatures in the South, which for the first time enacted a series of progressive reforms including the creation of public schools. “The creation of tax-supported public school systems in every state of the South stood as one of Reconstruction’s most enduring accomplishments.” [5] By 1875 approximately half of all children in the South, white and black were in school. While the public schools were usually segregated and higher education in tradition White colleges was restricted, the thirst for education became a hallmark of free African Americans across the county. In response to discrimination black colleges and universities opened the doors of higher education to many blacks.  Sadly, the White Democrat majorities that came to power in Southern states after Reconstruction rapidly defunded the public primary school systems that were created during Reconstruction.  Within a few years spending for on public education for white as well black children dropped to abysmal levels, especially for African American children, an imbalance made even worse by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson which codified the separate but equal systems.

They also ratified the Thirteenth and the Fourteenth Amendments, but these governments, composed of Southern Unionists, Northern Republicans and newly freed blacks were “elicited scorn from the former Confederates and from the South’s political class in general.” [6] Seen as an alien presence by most Southerners the Republican governments in the South faced political as well as violent opposition from defiant Southerners.

The Fourteenth Amendment was of particular importance for it overturned the Dred Scott decision, which had denied citizenship to blacks. Johnson opposed the amendment and worked against its passage by campaigning for men who would oppose it in the 1866 elections. His efforts earned him the opposition of former supporters including the influential New York Herald declared that Johnson “forgets that we have passed through a fiery ordeal of a mighty revolution, and the pre-existing order of things is gone and can return no more.” [7]

Johnson signed the Amendment but never recanted his views on the inferiority of non-white races. In his final message to Congress he wrote that even “if a state constitution gave Negroes the right to vote, “it is well-known that a large portion of the electorate in all the States, if not a majority of them, do not believe in or accept the political equality of Indians, Mongolians, or Negroes with the race to which they belong.” [8]

When passed by Congress the amendment was a watershed that would set Constitutional precedent for future laws. These would include giving both women and Native Americans women the right to vote. It would also be used by the Supreme Court in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended the use of “separate but equal” and overturned many other Jim Crow laws. It helped lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1965, and most recently was the basis of the Supreme Court decision in Obergfell v. Hodges, which give homosexuals the right to marry. Section one of the amendment read:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” [9]

Even so, for most white Southerners “freedom for African Americans was not the same as freedom for whites, as while whites might grant the black man freedom, they had no intention of allowing him the same legal rights as white men.” [10] As soon as planters returned to their lands they “sought to impose on blacks their definition of freedom. In contrast to African Americans’ understanding of freedom as a open ended ideal based on equality and autonomy, white southerners clung to the antebellum view that freedom meant mastery and hierarchy; it was a privilege, not a universal right, a judicial status, not a promise of equality.”  [11] In their systematic efforts to deny true freedom for African Americans these Southerners ensured that blacks would remain a lesser order of citizen, enduring poverty, discrimination, segregation and disenfranchisement for the next century.


Ulysses S. Grant and the Fight against the Insurrection, Terrorism and Insurgency of the Ku Klux Klan, White Leagues, White Liners and Red Shirts

But these measures provoked even more violence from enraged Southerners who formed a variety of violent racist organizations which turned the violence from sporadic attacks to what amounted to a full-fledged insurgency against the new state governments and African Americans. Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan engaged in terroristic violence to heavily armed “social clubs” which operated under the aegis of the state Democratic Party leadership in most Southern states. Under the leadership of former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest whose troops had conducted the Fort Pillow massacre, the Klan’s membership throughout the South “was estimated at five hundred thousand.” [12] The majority of these men were former Confederate soldiers, although they were also joined by those who had not fought in the war, or later those who had been too young to fight in the war but even belatedly wanted to get in on the fight against the hated Yankee and his African American allies. As the shadowy organization grew it became bolder and more violent in its attacks on African Americans, Republican members of the Reconstruction governments, and even Southern Jews. The Klan spread to every State in the South and when Congress investigated in 1870 and 1871 they submitted a thirteen volume report on Klan activities, volumes that “revealed to the country an almost incredible campaign of criminal violence by whites determined to punish black leaders, disrupt the Republican Party, reestablish control over the black labor force, and restore white supremacy in every phase of southern life.” [13]


Allegedly organized for self-defense against state militia units composed of freed blacks they named themselves “White Leagues (Louisiana), White Liners or Rifle Clubs (Mississippi), or Red Shirts (South Carolina). They were, in fact, paramilitary organizations that functioned as armed auxiliaries of the Democratic Party in southern states in their drive to “redeem” the South from “black and tan Negro-Carpetbag rule.” [14] These men, mostly Confederate veterans “rode roughshod over the South, terrorizing newly freed slaves, their carpetbagger allies, and anyone who dared to imagine a biracial democracy as the war’s change.” [15] The unrequited violence and hatred by these men set the stage for the continued persecution, murder and violence against blacks and those who supported their efforts to achieve equality in the South for the next century. In truth the activities of the Klan and other violent White Supremacist groups offer “the most extensive example of homegrown terrorism in American history.” [16]

Throughout his term in office Johnson appealed to arguments used throughout later American history by “critics of civil rights legislation and affirmative action. He appealed to fiscal conservatism, raised the specter of an immense federal bureaucracy trampling on citizens’ rights, and insisted that self-help, not government handouts, was the path to individual advancement.” [17]

Ulysses S. Grant succeeded Johnson as President in 1869, and unlike his predecessor, he was a man who believed in freedom and equal rights, “For Grant, freedom and equal rights were matters of principle, not symbolism.” [18]Grant ordered his generals in the South to enforce the Reconstruction Act and when the Ku Klux Klan attempted to stop blacks from voting Grant got Congress to pass the “enforcement Act, which made racist terrorism a federal offense.” [19] He created the Justice Department to deal with crimes against Federal law and in 1871 pushed Congress to pass a law known as the Ku Klux Klan Act and sent in the army and federal agents from the Justice Department and the Secret Service to enforce the law.

Grant’s efforts using the military as well as agents of the Justice Department and the Secret Service against the Klan were hugely successful, thousands were arrested, hundreds of Klansmen were convicted and others were either driven underground or disbanded their groups. The 1872 election was the first and last in which blacks were nearly unencumbered as they voted until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act.

However, Grant’s actions triggered a political backlash that doomed Reconstruction. The seminal moment in this came 1873 when General Philip Sheridan working in Louisiana, asked Grant for “permission to arrest leaders of the White League and try them by courts-martial” [20] for their violent acts against blacks and their seizure of the New Orleans City Hall in a brazen coup attempt. The leak of Sheridan’s request sparked outrage and even northern papers condemned the president’s actions in the harshest of terms.

Apart from the effort to support voting rights for African Americans Grant’s efforts at Reconstruction were met mostly by failure. Part of this was due to weariness on the part of many Northerners to continue to invest any more effort into the effort. Slowly even proponents of Reconstruction began to retreat from it, some like Carl Schurz, were afraid that the use of the military against the Klan in the South could set precedent to use it elsewhere. Others, embraced an understanding of Social Darwinism which stood against all types of government interference what they called the “natural” workings of society, especially misguided efforts to uplift those at the bottom of the social order…and African Americans were consigned by nature to occupy the lowest rungs of the social ladder.” [21]

Southerners knew that they were winning the political battle and continued their pressure in Congress and in the media to demonize supporters of Reconstruction as well as African Americans. Southerners worked to rig the political and judicial process through the use of terror to demoralize and drive from power anyone, black or white, who supported Reconstruction. By 1870 every former Confederate state had been readmitted to the Union, in a sense fulfilling a part Lincoln’s war policy, but at the same time denying what the war was waged for a White led governments aided by the Supreme Court increasingly set about reestablishing the previous social and political order placing blacks in the position of living life under slavery by another name.

The Passage of the Fifteenth Amendment

Slavery had been abolished, and African Americans had become citizens, but in most places they did not have the right to vote. Grant used his political capital to fight for the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote. It was one of the things that he remained most proud of in his life, he noted that the amendment was, “A measure which makes at once four million people voter who were heretofore declared by the highest tribunal in the land to be not citizens of the United States, nor eligible to become so…is indeed a measure of grander importance than any other act of the kind from the foundation of our free government to the present day.” [22]

To be continued…


[1] Ibid. Foner A Short History of Reconstruction p.30

[2] Ibid. Lord The Past that Would Not Die pp.11-12

[3] Ibid. Zinn The Other Civil War p.54

[4] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 178

[5] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.162

[6] Perman, Michael Illegitimacy and Insurgency in the Reconstructed South in The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition edited by Michael Perman and Amy Murrell Taylor Wadsworth Cengage Learning Boston MA 2011 p.451

[7] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.121

[8] Ibid. Langguth After Lincoln p.232

[9] _____________ The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution retrieved from https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxiv 29 June 2015

[10] Ibid. Carpenter Sword and Olive Branch p.93

[11] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.92

[12] Lane, Charles The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction Henry Holt and Company, New York 2008  p.230

[13] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.171

[14] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 178

[15] Ibid. Jordan Marching Home p.118

[16] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.171

[17] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.116

[18] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died:  p.2

[19] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.4

[20] Ibid. Langguth, A.J. After Lincoln p.314

[21] Ibid. Foner Forever Free pp.192-193

[22] Flood, Charles Bracelen, Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year DaCapo Press, Boston 2011 pp.78-79

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Padre Steve’s World at Eight Years: I’m Still Standing


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight a short pause to reflect. I was reminded by my WordPress, the company that hosts my site that I began this blog eight years ago today.

The blog came out of a question my first shrink asked me as I was beginning to melt down with PTSD and TBI after my tour in Iraq which ended in February 2008. His question, “Well chaplain, what are you going to do with your your experience?” forced me to think, and get outside of myself.



I certainly wasn’t in great shape, in fact I was falling apart. Chronic insomnia, nightmares, night terrors, depression, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, fear of everyday activities, all took their and my doctors trying different combinations of medicines, each with their own side effects, even while I was undergoing different psychiatric and neurological test. I was a total wreck and often impossible to be around. I was always on edge and prone to anger. I threw myself into work in the ICU sixty to one hundred hours a week depending on my call schedule. That didn’t help, and I got worse. It would take years to see measurable improvement, and even then, with periodic crashes, often connected to the deaths of friends, including those who suffered from what I suffered.

In contemplating my therapist’s question I knew that I wanted to share what I was going through, even while I was in the middle of it. But there was a risk, and he pointed it out, and I had seen it before; anyone who opens up and talks of their brokenness when they themselves are supposed to be one of the “healers” often ends up ostracized by their community. Their fellow professionals frequently withdraw from them, old friends distance themselves, and sometimes their family lives fall apart. This happens to physicians, nurses, hospital corpsmen, mental health providers, law enforcement officers, as well as highly trained Special Forces, EOD, and other military professionals. It also happens to Chaplains. Henri Nouwen wrote: “But human withdrawal is a very painful and lonely process, because it forces us to face directly our own condition in all its beauty as well as misery.” That happened to me, and I am better for it.  In the depths of my struggle I found a strange solace in the words of T.E. Lawrence who toward the end of his life wrote a friend: “You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.”

So that’s how things began. I wrote about what was going on with me. That included my spiritual struggles, as well as writing about baseball which is as much a part of my spirituality as anything. As I continued to write I began to address social and political issues, and then on to my real love, writing history, which I completed my second Master’s degree in a year after I started this blog.

The latter which has been both educational, as well as therapeutic. In my reading, research, and writing, I discovered fellow travelers from history whose stories helped me find myself again, men with feet of clay, doubts, depression, often masked by triumph. My examples included T.E. Lawrence, Gouveneur Warren, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Ulysses Grant, and William Tecumseh Sherman. I found a measure of comfort as well as solace in their lives, experience, and writings.

My historical writings been further motivated by being able to teach and lead the Gettysburg Staff Ride at the Staff College. That is unusual for a chaplain, but I am an unusual chaplain, as one of my fellow professors said, “You’re a historian masquerading as a chaplain, not that there is anything wrong with that.” 

So that’s how, some 2,862 posts, and three draft books, I got to this point. I still do suffer symptoms of PTSD but I have stabilized for the most part, much of it I attribute to a decent combination of meds, a renewed love and friendship with my wife, and my Papillon Izzy, who is a therapy dog in every sense of the word. Likewise there have been a few people who stood by me through thick and thin. I have expressed to them how much I appreciate them and because of them I really began to appreciate the words of William Tecumseh Sherman who noted: “Grant stood by me when I was crazy. I stood by him when he was drunk, now we stand together.” Since I have been both at times, I find that such camaraderie is more important than about anything else.

I appreciate all the people who subscribe to this blog, those who follow it through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and who take the time to comment, as well as to provide words of encouragement. For that I thank all of you.

Have a great night,


Padre Steve+


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


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,


Padre Steve+

Emancipation and the U.S. Military


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


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.


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]


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]


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]


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]


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]


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]


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]


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]


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]


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]


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]


[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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Slavery and National Expansion: the Compromise of 1850 or “The Privilege of Belonging to the Superior Race…” Part 2


Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today the second of a three installment bit of my work dealing with American Slavery in the ante-bellum period. These next articles deal with the subject of what happens when laws are made that further restrict the liberty of already despised, or enslaved people. In this case the subject is the Compromise of 1850 and its associated laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

This is an uncomfortable period of history for Americans with either a sense of conscience, or those who believe the racist myths surrounding the “Noble South” and “The Lost Cause.”  I hope that you find them interesting, especially in light of current events in the United States.


Padre Steve+

Economic Effects of the Compromise of 1850

The interregional slave trade guaranteed slave owners of a source of slaves even if they were cut off from the international trade and it was an immense part of not just the Southern economy but the American economy. Slave owners “hitched their future to slavery; a single cash crop and fresh land,” [1] and refused to take an interest in manufacturing or diversifying their agricultural production outside of King Cotton. Slave prices tripled between 1800 and 1860 making human property one of the most lucrative markets for investment. The price of a “prime male field hand in New Orleans began at around $500 in 1800 and rose as high as $1,800 by the time of the Civil War.” [2] The result was that slave owners and those who benefited from the interregional slave trade had a vested interest in not only seeing slavery preserved, but expanded.

This resulted in two significant trends in the South, first was that slave owners grew significantly richer as the value of the slave population increased. Using even a conservative number of $750 dollars as the value of a single slave in 1860 the amount of value in this human property was significantly more than almost any other investment in the nation.  It was enormous. Steven Deyle notes that:

“It was roughly three times greater than the total amount of all capital invested in manufacturing in the North and in the South combined, three times the amount invested in railroads, and seven times the amount invested in banks. It was about equal to about seven times the value of all currency in circulation in the country three times the value of the entire livestock population, twelve times the value of the entire U.S. cotton crop, and forty-eight times the expenditures of the federal government that year. ….”by 1860, in fact in the slaveowning states alone, slave property had surpassed the assessed value of real estate.” [3]

The rise in slave values and the increasing wealth of slave owners had a depreciating effect on poor southern whites by ensuring that there was no middle class, which “blocked any hope of social advancement for the mass of poor whites, for it was all but impossible for a non-slaveholder to rise in the southern aristocracy.” [4] The impoverishment of southern whites created some worry for those astute enough to take an interest in such matters. “In 1850, about 40 percent of the South’s white farmers owned real estate at all. There was thus, worried the Southern Cultivator in 1856, “a large number at the South who have no legal right or interest in the soil [and] no homes of their own.” The editor of a South Carolina newspaper that year framed the matter in less sympathetic terms: “There is in this State,” he wrote, “as impoverished and ignorant as white population as can be found in any other in the Union.” [5]

Some Southerners recognized the growing issue that the south was falling behind the north in terms of real economic advancement and that slavery was the culprit. Hinton Helper, a non-slave owning North Carolinian who had made his fortune in the California Gold Rush of 1849 and returned home to become disillusioned with what he saw wrote a book that had a major impact in the North among Republican politicians, but which was either banned or restricted in much of the South. That book “The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It (1857) was “a book on the debilitating impact of slavery on the South in general and on southern whites in particular.” [6] Helper’s attack on the slavery system was as devastating as that of any abolitionist, and since he was a southerner the effects of his words helped further anti-slavery sentiment in the North and would be used by the Republican party in an abridged form as a campaign tool that they printed and distributed during the build up to the election n of 1860. Helper wrote that:

“Slavery lies at the root of all the shame, poverty, tyranny and imbecility of the South.” Echoing the free-soil argument Helper maintained that slavery degraded all labor to the level of bond labor. Planters looked down their noses at nonslaveholders and refused to tax themselves to provide a decent school system. “Slavery is hostile to general education…Its very life, is in the ignorance and stolidity of the masses.”  [7]

Many southern leaders saw Helper’s book as a danger and worried that should Helper and others like him speak freely long enough “that they will have an Abolition party in the South, of Southern men.” When that happened, “the contest for slavery will no longer be one between the North and the South. It will be in the South between the people of the South.” [8] That was something that the landed gentry of the slave owning oligarchy could never tolerate for if the non-slave holding whites rejected slavery, the institution would die. Thus, Helper, who was no fan of black people and held many violently racist attitudes, was denounced “as a traitor, a renegade, an apostate, a “dishonest, degraded and disgraced man.” [9]

Men like Helper were an anomaly in the South, other leaders were much more like Jefferson Davis who urged the creation of a “Southern “system,” internal improvements, building factories, even reforming education to eliminate all textbooks at odds with his notion of the blessings of slavery.” [10]

In the years the before the war, the North embraced the Industrial Revolution leading to advances which gave it a marked economic advantage over the South in which through  its “commitment to the use of slave labor inhibited economic diversification and industrialization and strengthened the tyranny of King Cotton.” [11] The population of the North also expanded at a clip that far outpaced the South as European immigrants swelled the population.

The divide was not helped by the various compromises worked out between northern and southern legislators. After the Missouri Compromise Thomas Jefferson wrote these words of warning:

“but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.” [12]

The trigger for the increase in tensions that eventually ignited the powder keg was the war with Mexico in which the United States annexed nearly half of Mexico. The new territories were viewed by those who advocated the expansion of slavery as fresh and fertile ground for its spread. Ulysses S Grant, who served in the war, noted the effects of the war with Mexico in his memoirs:

“In taking military possession of Texas after annexation, the army of occupation, under General [Zachary] Taylor, was directed to occupy the disputed territory.  The army did not stop at the Nueces and offer to negotiate for a settlement of the boundary question, but went beyond, apparently in order to force Mexico to initiate war….To us it was an empire and of incalculable value; but it might have been obtained by other means.  The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war.” [13]

To be continued…


[1] Ibid. Egnal  Clash of Extremes p.10

[2] Ibid. Deyle The Domestic Slave Trade p.53 Deyle’s numbers come from the 1860 census.

[3] Ibid. Egnal  Clash of Extremes p.54

[4] Ibid. Foner Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men p.48

[5] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.37

[6] Ibid. Goldfield  America Aflame  p.177

[7] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.199

[8] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.235

[9] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.397

[10] Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour Harper Collins Publishers New York 1991 p.258

[11] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.42

[12] Jefferson, Thomas Letter to John Holmes dated April 22nd 1824 retrieved from www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/159.html  24 March 2014

[13] Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant New York 1885 pp.243-245

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American Artillery in the Civil War: The Wilderness Campaign and Reorganization


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Another in my series of rather geek-like articles on Civil War artillery.

Have a great day.


Padre Steve+

The American Civil War was a transitional time for artillery technology, organization and tactics. The organization of the artillery service of the Army of the Potomac remained as it was up until the Overland or Wilderness Campaign, although “Corps brigades were increased to eight or nine batteries.” However, “having created a sound artillery organization and proven it at Gettysburg, the Union would have little immediate use for it” [1] as the changing conditions of war in the Wilderness changed how Grant and Meade organized the artillery.

The Artillery Reserve, a throwback to Napoleonic times, which had along with the rest of the Union artillery at Gettysburg performed so brilliantly in a defensive stand with wide open fields of interlocking fire would never again have such an opportunity to wreak destruction on advancing Confederate infantry in the open. Instead it was forced into the offensive in terrain that was seldom conducive to employing massed numbers of guns. During the campaign the Artillery Reserve consisted of “two field artillery brigades of twelve batteries each, one heavy brigade, which was largely employed as a guard and construction unit, and two brigades of horse artillery, which were on duty with Major Phil Sheridan’s cavalry corps.” [2] By the time of the Wilderness Campaign the size of the Army of the Potomac’s artillery numbered 274 cannon. [3] In terms of artillery types Hunt had 154 rifled guns and 120 Napoleons in the organic components of his army, of the rifled guns the majority were the 3” Ordnance rifles as Hunt had sent most of his Parrot batteries away due to their tendency to burst and their unpopularity with their gun crews. [4] The artillery was bolster with a battery of eight 24 pound brass Coehorn mortars. These were light weapons which weighed only 164 pounds and could be carried by two men. They “were fired at an angle of 45 degrees which permitted them to hurl a shell in a very high arch to a distance of 1,200 yards at full charge.” [5]

The campaigns of 1864 forced Union army commanders to change how they employed their artillery. This came first during the Wilderness campaign where the heavily wooded terrain, poor visibility, and an enemy dug in behind earthen walls and abattis limited the artillery’s effectiveness. The fighting between enemies that could barely see what they were shooting at resulted in close range firefights between infantry with few artillery pieces in direct support. When engaged, the artillery of both sides dealt death at close range in support of infantry, on the defensive the guns were dug in to protect them and their crews from the close range fire of enemy artillery and infantry. The heavy brush limited the ability of the artillery to move off the main roads as one artilleryman noted that they could do nothing “because no horses could have pulled a gun through the brush in which the infantry were fighting.” [6] One officer described the conditions of the Wilderness as “a wrestle as blind as midnight, a gloom that made manoeuvers impractical, a jungle where regiments stumbled on each other and the enemy by turns, firing sometimes into their own ranks, and guided only by the crackling of bushes or the cheers and cries that rose from the depths around.” [7]

With his guns finding little employment “Grant order that the Artillery Reserve be returned to Washington.” [8] To achieve the reduction in the number of guns without undoing his organization, Hunt recommended that the batteries be reduced from six guns to four. This was done but Hunt lost his Artillery Reserve as Meade had those reduced batteries reassigned to each of the infantry corps and the Reserve’s commander, Colonel Henry Burton, “appointed Inspector of Artillery.” [9] However, “most of the pieces ordered away were returned for the siege of Petersburg.” [10] Grant wrote:

“The Wilderness and Spotsylvania battles convinced me that we had more artillery than could ever be brought to action at any one time. It occupied much of the road marching, and taxed the trains in bringing up forage. Artillery is very useful when it can be brought into action, but it is a burdensome where it cannot be used. Before leaving Spotsylvania, therefore, I sent back to the defenses of Washington over one hundred pieces of artillery, with horses and caissons… and still left us with more artillery than could be advantageously used.” [11]


During the Wilderness Campaign the Confederate artillery suffered under similar conditions to Grant’s armies. Porter Alexander noted that when his artillery arrived that Lee, “directed me to send back all the artillery with our column to Parker’s Store, as there was no possibility of using it in the woods where we would be fighting, & it would be in the way.” [12] Where they were employed on the defensive the Confederate guns gave good account of themselves. Where they were not deployed attacking Union forces found their task easier, as when Winfield Scott Hancock’s massed attack at Spotsylvania succeeded, However, when the Confederates were able to deploy their artillery Union losses could be dreadful. This was the case at Cold Harbor where Grant ordered a frontal assault on well prepared Confederate defenders who had their artillery in positions where it had advancing Union forces in a crossfire.

The siege of Petersburg changed the way artillery was employed in the east yet again. “After Petersburg, field tactics were scarcely relevant, although concentrations of fire remained essential.” [13]

Many commentators after the war decried the effectiveness of the artillery by claiming that less than ten percent of casualties were caused by it. As J.B.A. Bailey notes, “This figure seems highly improbable, since the wound inflicted by a canister ball, which was the artillery’s most lethal projectile, would have been impossible to distinguish from that inflicted by a musket ball.” [14] However, even more important than the number of casualties inflicted on the enemy, but it was the shock power and deterrent effect that artillery had on the enemy, especially on the defensive. Colonel Jennings Wise, who chronicled the history of Lee’s artillery wrote:

“We often hear the sneering criticism that at such and such a battle but 1 or 2 per cent of the enemy’s loss was due to fire of the artillery. Any such test entirely erroneous. Not only do the guns exert a tremendous moral effect in support of their infantry, and adverse to the enemy, but they do far more. They often preclude heavy damage from the enemy by preventing him from essaying an assault against the positions the guns occupy. Then, again, by forcing them to seek cover, they eliminate their antagonisms to that extent… Let us hear no more of artillery efficiency as measured by the number of its victims.” [15]

Descriptions of the effect of the Union artillery on Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg bear this out. “The Confederate losses mounted at an alarming rate. The psychological impact of artillery casualties was great, for the big guns not only killed but mangled bodies, tore them apart, or disintegrated them.” [16] A survivor wrote his wife days later: “If the crash of worlds and all things combustible had been coming in collision with each other, it could not have surpassed it seemingly. To me it was like the “Magazine of Vengeance” blown up.” [17] A soldier of Kemper’s brigade recalled that “The atmosphere was rent and broken by the rust and crash of projectiles…The sun, but a few minutes before so brilliant, was now darkened. Through this smoky darkness came the missiles of death…the scene beggars description…Many a fellow thought his time had come…Great big, stout hearted men prayed, loudly too….” [18] Colonel Joseph Mayo of the 3rd Virginia regiment was heavily hit. One of its survivors wrote: “when the line rose up to charge…it appeared that as many were left dead and wounded as got up.” [19]


[1] Ibid, Bailey Field Artillery and Firepower p.203

[2] Ibid. Nesmith Stagnation and Change in Military Thought: The Evolution of American Field Artillery Doctrine, 1861-1905 – An Example p.35

[3] Ibid. McKenny The Organizational History of Field Artillery 1775-2003 p.68

[4] Ibid. Longacre The Man Behind the Guns: A Military Biography of General Henry J. Hunt, Chief of Artillery, Army of the Potomac pp.190-191

[5] Ibid. Nesmith Stagnation and Change in Military Thought: The Evolution of American Field Artillery Doctrine, 1861-1905 – An Example p.36

[6] Ibid. Longacre The Man Behind the Guns: A Military Biography of General Henry J. Hunt, Chief of Artillery, Army of the Potomac p.194

[7] Ibid. Fuller Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship  p.214

[8] Ibid. Nesmith Stagnation and Change in Military Thought: The Evolution of American Field Artillery Doctrine, 1861-1905 – An Example p.36

[9] Lyman, Theodore, Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman, edited by David W. Lowe, The Kent State University Press, Kent, Oho 2007 p.162

[10] Ibid. McKenny The Organizational History of Field Artillery 1775-2003 p.67

[11] Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant Volume 2 Charles L. Webster and Company, New York 1886 p.241

[12] Ibid. Alexander Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander p.359

[13] Ibid, Bailey Field Artillery and Firepower p.204

[14] Ibid, Bailey Field Artillery and Firepower pp.196-197

[15] Ibid. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War p.167

[16]Hess, Earl J. Picketts Charge: The Last Attack at Gettysburg University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London 2001 p.153

[17] Wert, Jeffery D. Gettysburg Day Three A Touchstone Book, New York 2001 p.181

[18] Dowdy, Clifford. Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation Skyhorse Publishing, New York 1986, originally published as Death of a Nation Knopf, New York 1958 p.294

[19] Ibid. Wert Gettysburg Day Three p.179

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