JUST LEARNING TO BE MEN
Many black men wanted to join the Union Army from the earliest days of the Civil War. Throughout 1861 and 1862, Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists, both white and black, urged Lincoln to arm the willing blacks. While Lincoln contemplated emancipation in the summer of 1862, certain Union commanders and leaders reached decisions of their own.
Senator James H. Lane of Kansas made clear his intent to include black men in the cavalry units he proposed to recruit early in 1862. He introduced a resolution in January that declared all men in the state qualified for recruitment. Despite negative responses from Secretary of War Stanton, Lane continued with his recruitment in the early summer of 1862. The regiment received no official recognition until mustered in as the 79th United States Colored Infantry on January 13, 1863, six months after recruitment began. Without acknowledgement, the soldiers did not receive adequate pay or equipment. Nonetheless, Lane's regiment laid the way for other recruiters of black men. 1
Another antislavery man attempted to form a black unit in South Carolina at nearly the same time as Lane's recruitment efforts. Major General David Hunter, after receiving command of coastal South Carolina in the spring of 1862, declared all blacks living in areas under his authority free and began to recruit them. Hunter used harsh methods to bring black men into his unit, which intimidated the newly freed men. In addition, Hunter proceeded with his plans without authority from Lincoln and the War Department. By alienating the black men Hunter hoped to recruit and also angering the president, Hunter's plans to form a black regiment were destined for failure. However, weeks after denying Hunter the authority to officially form a black unit, Lincoln granted Brigadier General Rufus Saxton permission to do just that in the Department of the South, formally Hunter's command. 2
General Benjamin F. Butler eventually became a supporter of arming blacks. Stationed in Louisiana, Butler initially opposed blacks as soldiers, and became incensed when one of his officers, General J. W. Phelps, attempted to outfit a company of black men. Butler refused to support Phelps's actions, and Phelps threatened to resign over the issue. However, weeks after absolutely rejecting Phelps's actions, Butler began to waver. Recognizing a need for reinforcements, Butler decided that the "contrabands" could be put to use in ways other than laboring for the army. 3
After deciding to employ blacks as soldiers, Butler called upon the Louisiana Native Guards, the local unit of free blacks organized in April 1861. The Native Guards unsuccessfully offered their services to the Confederacy in the fall of 1861 and were refused. The men made themselves available to Butler in August, 1862. Butler accepted the Native Guards, including their black officers, which was significant. Little support existed for blacks in uniform, and even less for blacks as officers. Though incited by a need for manpower rather than antislavery beliefs, Butler did firmly support black soldiers and did not tolerate racism from his subordinate officers. Butler demanded fair treatment for blacks, declaring, "the colored man fills an equal space in ranks while he lives and an equal grave when he falls." 4
As Union military leaders made separate decisions to arm blacks, Lincoln came to a conclusion regarding emancipation. On September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued the preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that all slaves living in states of rebellion would become free on January 1, 1863. Once officially released, the proclamation further instructed that black men could be used in military capacities. With the legal groundwork laid by Lincoln, and precedents set by Lane, Hunter, and Butler, recruiting began in earnest in the first months of 1863. 5
Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew, after recruiting the 54th and 55th Massachusetts, believed a black unit could be raised in Union-occupied eastern North Carolina. He chose Brigadier General Edward A. Wild to lead what he hoped to be a brigade. Wild, a zealous abolitionist, searched for similarly minded officers for his units. He selected James C. Beecher to lead the first regiment, and Beecher and Wild chose antislavery men to fill the other officer positions in the unit. 6
In May 1863, Wild, Beecher, and their officers established camp outside New Bern, North Carolina, which had become a Union base in the occupied territory. Recruitment began in earnest. The first regiment, originally known as the 1st North Carolina Colored Volunteers and later designated the 35th, filled the ranks by late June. After not quite two months of drill and training, the 35th received orders to pull out of camp and embark for Charleston, South Carolina. 7
Like many USCT units, the 35th never obtained a distinct war goal from the War Department. The lack of a definite mission allowed black regiments to be used in various ways and presented problems with securing supplies and equipment. Black soldiers, including those of the 35th, sometimes did not receive adequate military training. The 35th had two months to recruit and train before being sent to Folly Island, South Carolina. Once the regiment landed, the men were put to use performing incessant fatigue duty, labors not at all unfamiliar to men just released from slavery. Fatigue duty, though necessary for a military campaign, frustrated and exhausted the men performing it continuously.
Similarly, the ambiguity concerning the role of the 35th and other black units caused shortages in clothing, equipment, and arms. Colonel Beecher repeatedly made requisitions for supplies. On some occasions, he even traveled north to try and obtain directly what he needed. Beecher recognized the importance of having his soldiers properly equipped in case they were given the opportunity to face the enemy. In fact, Beecher was away procuring supplies when his unit participated in the Battle of Olustee on February 20, 1864. 8
Though the unit faced many shortages and insufficiencies, Beecher remained determined. He strongly believed his men would perform well on the battlefield, which they did at Olustee, and simply wanted them to be treated as other soldiers. The colonel resolutely defended the soldiers of the 35th and became incensed when a detachment of his unit was treated unfairly by a white regiment. 9
Unfair treatment certainly plagued many black units. Like other USCT regiments, the 35th experienced racism from white soldiers, shortages, and the lack of a distinct war aim. However, the individual men of the unit experienced the Civil War differently. Despite the overall similarities, each soldier would leave their years of service with distinct and separate memories.
The 35th was made up of black men with an average age of 23.8 years. The soldiers ranged from fifteen to sixty-seven years old at the time of enlistment. The men were primarily black, with a small number listed in the unit's descriptive books as "light." Most were slaves prior to enlistment, and the vast majority of former slaves performed field work rather than skilled labor. The 35th drew recruits from all over eastern North Carolina, with most of the soldiers coming from the northeastern counties. 10
The Civil War was the defining event for the men who fought. For some black men, the war shaped their lives for the better by giving them the opportunity to achieve a greater sense of self-worth and pride in their accomplishments. Many black men only knew plantation work, and joining the USCT provided some with the chance for advancement and skill development. However, for other black soldiers, the war years would not be remembered so fondly. Those who experienced terrible wounds, illness, or maltreatment blamed the war for ruining their lives. Whether for the better or worse, the war dramatically altered the lives of black men who enlisted. 11
Though most black units did not see a great deal of action in the field, the 35th faced the enemy in two battles and in several skirmishes. At Olustee, on February 20, 1864, the 35th briefly succeeded in pushing the Confederate line back and nearly captured the rebel guns before the Confederate line reformed. Though the battle went to the rebels, General Truman Seymour, the commander of Federal forces, expressed pleasure over the performance of the 35th and the 54th. 12
At their next major engagement, Honey Hill, South Carolina, the 35th again performed well in the face of defeat. Though wounded twice, Beecher refused to leave the field and led his men into the fire on both occasions. In this battle, the Union lost the element of surprise due to logistical problems, and they discovered an entrenched enemy. Despite the determination of Beecher, the advances failed. 13
Though both battles ended in defeat, the 35th performed remarkably well for a unit that had not received adequate training or equipment. In other skirmishes, the regiment proved they could handle the enemy. For many men, such success provided a pride in their accomplishments and abilities.
The 35th shared major experiences with other USCT regiments. The men who fought took from their war years a greater desire for true equality which would guide them in the years after the war. Because of the dedicated service of black men, a growing number of sympathetic whites supported their hope for equality and genuine freedom for members of their race. Both whites and blacks saw how black soldiers made efforts to improve themselves by learning new skills in the army, including reading and writing, and the good brought back to their communities after the shooting stopped. Men who served in the war became political activists in their communities, involved in Republican politics during Reconstruction and betterment projects such as education for young blacks. The abolitionists who worked for arming blacks in the early war years now strove for acquiring true equality for the former soldiers and their families. It would not be easy. While protected from racial violence as soldiers of the United States Army, out-of-uniform black men had little protection until Congressional Reconstruction was imposed upon the South in 1867. However, the soldiers of the USCT took away from their war years a new determination that would propel them and their descendants to keep pushing for the equality that they believed would come. 14
* * Go to Bibliography * *
1. Cornish, The Sable Arm, 72-74; Quarles, The Negro in the Civil War, 66, 113-114.
2. Glatthaar, Forged in Battle, 6-7, 10; Quarles, The Negro in the Civil War, 75-76; Miller, Lincoln's Abolitionist General, 97-99.
3. Private and Official Correspondence of General Benjamin F. Butler, 126-127, -142, 148: Hearn, When the Devil Came Down to Dixie, 207-208.
4. Private and Official Correspondence of General Benjamin F. Butler, 209, 211; Hollandsworth, The Louisiana Native Guards, 14-15, 26-28; Berlin, et al., eds., Slaves No More, 196-197; Berlin, et al., eds., Freedom, Series 2, 135-138.
5. Basler, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 388.
6. Andrew to Stanton, NIMS 3:1158; Longacre, "Brave Radical Wild," 8-10.
7. Descriptive Books, 35th Regiment USCT.
9. Berlin, et al., eds., Freedom, Series 2, 493.
10. Descriptive Books, 35th Regiment USCT.
11. Berlin, et al., eds., Slaves No More, 222-223.
12. OR I 35:290.
13. Trudeau, Like Men of War, 324; OR I 44/1:426.
14. Berlin, et al., eds., Slaves No More, 232-233; Glatthaar, Forged in Battle, 258-260.
Copyright 1999 NCUSCT Project
Go to Bibliography
Return to Chapter Four
Return to Regimental Histories Page
Return to NC USCT Home Page