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Colored Troops

The United States Colored Troops.

By Ira Hobart Evans, Private 10th Vermont,
1st Lieutenant 9th U.S.C.T., Captain 116th U.S.C.T,
Bvt. Major U.S. Volunteers

The natural antagonism existing between free and slave institutions culminated in the slave-holders' rebellion inaugurated in 1861, when the National Government passed from the control of the friends of slavery to the control of the friends of human freedom.

Comparatively few men on either side comprehended the magnitude and far-reaching consequences of the great struggle so recklessly commenced by the South and so reluctantly taken up by the North.

While the general sentiment of the North was opposed to slavery, still the people of the Northern States were not disposed to assail, by unlawful methods the institution of slavery in the Southern States, where it was protected by constitutional guarantees. So strong was this sentiment that for some months after the commencement of the war runaway slaves who had taken refuge in the camps of Union troops were frequently returned to their owners by the commanders of such troops. That shrewd Massachusetts lawyer, Gen. B. F. Butler, early solved for himself and his command the question of the proper disposition of these refugees, by declaring that inasmuch as negro slaves were regarded as human chattels by the laws of the States where they were held in bondage, and as such slaves were capable of being used in carrying on military operations, therefore the slaves of those in insurrection against the Government of the United States should be considered as contraband of war, and should be confiscated when captured. Many thousands of fugitive slaves were thereafter employed for military purposes as cooks, teamsters and laborers on fortifications.

However, there was no uniformity of action in such matters until after the passage of an Act of Congress on March 13, 1862, forbidding the employment of military force to return fugitives to slavery, and also of another Act of Congress on July 17, 1862, providing for the confiscation of the property of rebels, including slaves. In the latter Act there was a provision as follows:

"That the President of the United States is authorized to employ as many persons of African descent as he may deem necessary and proper for the suppression of this rebellion, and for this purpose he may organize and use them in such manner as he may judge best for the public welfare."

In the summer of 1862, in Louisiana, that splendid Vermont soldier, Gen. J. W. Phelps, first began the work of organizing and drilling negroes as soldiers. His requisition on General Butler for arms for these troops was disallowed by that officer, who ordered him to desist from organizing such troops. The battle of Shiloh in the spring of 1862, and the grave disasters to the Union cause resulting from the Peninsular campaign of McClellan and the defeat of Pope in the summer of 1862, operated as a powerful educational force upon the President, Congress, the army and the loyal people of the country. They became convinced that the pending struggle was "to the death," and would only terminate with the utter exhaustion of one of the parties to it.

President Lincoln therefore decided to strike a death blow at the existence of the institution that had produced the war and caused so much bloodshed and sorrow, and on September 22, 1862, he issued a proclamation declaring that on January 1, 1863, all persons held as slaves within the territory then in rebellion, should forever after be free, and the Government of the United States would maintain their freedom.

The final proclamation of freedom was accordingly issued on January 1, 1863. In this proclamation notice was given that from among those thus set free suitable persons would be received into the armed service of the United States. The real issues of the war were now sharply defined, and all could see clearly that disunion and slavery must triumph or perish together.

In the meantime the organization of colored troops was proceeding at different points in the South. In South Carolina, col. T. W. Higginson organized the first regiment of South Carolina Volunteers in the summer of 1862, which it is claimed was the first regiment of freedmen mustered into the service of the United States. Gen. B. F. Butler, in command at New Orleans, began to organize and arm colored troops, and on September 24, 1862, the first regiment of Louisiana Native Guards reported for duty to that gallant Vermont officer, Col. Stephen Thomas, and the first service of colored troops in the field during the rebellion was under his command. When General Butler was relieved of his command by General Banks on December 14, 1862, among the troops turned over by the former to the latter were three regiments and two batteries of colored troops.

That freeing the slaves and arming them for the maintenance of their own freedom and the preservation of the Union was a blow at the vitals of the rebellion, was evidenced by the transports of rage into which these steps threw the rebel leaders. The rebel general, John C. Breckenridge, writing under date of August 14, 1862, to the Union commander at Baton Rouge, La., said: "Information has reached these headquarters that negro slaves are being organized and armed to be employed against us;" and he added, "I am authorized by Major-General Van Dorn, commanding this department, to inform you that the above acts are regarded as in violation of the usages of civilized warfare, and that in future, upon any departure from these usages, he will raise the black flag and neither give nor ask quarter."

On August 21, 1862, the Confederate War Department issued a general order, "That Major-General Hunter and Brigadier-General Phelps be no longer held and treated as public enemies of the Confederate States, but as outlaws; and that in the event of the capture of either of them, or that of any other commissioned officer employed in drilling, organizing or instructing slaves, with a view to their armed service in this war, he shall not be regarded as a prisoner of war, but held in close confinement for execution as a felon at such time and place as the President shall order."

(to be continued)

Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts (Colored)

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Source: Revised Roster, pp 662-665, 711-721