When we think of the Civil War, many images come to mind. Men in blue and gray uniforms. Canons firing. Smoke filling battlefields. Perhaps those images are from a movie you've seen or from your own imagination as you read historical novels and history books. Names like Grant, Lee, and Sherman are as well known as the battles that took place at Gettysburg and Bull Run.
There was, however, another group of soldiers that, quite honestly, don't always come to mind when I think of the Civil War. They are the black soldiers that fought in many bloody battles. It is estimated that by the end of the war, nearly 200,000 black men served in the Union Army and Navy. Nearly 40,000 black men died over the course of the war, many from disease.
Black soldiers served in artillery and infantry and performed all noncombat support functions. They were carpenters, chaplains, cooks, guards, laborers, nurses, scouts, spies, steamboat pilots, surgeons, and teamsters. Nearly 80 black men were commissioned officers, and although black women could not formally join the Army, many served as nurses, spies, and scouts, the most famous being Harriet Tubman who scouted for the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers. Although there are reports of black men aiding the Confederacy, they were not officially allowed to take up arms in the Confederate Army.
Joining the army, however, wasn't an easy task for black men wanting to serve. At first, they were banned from bearing arms for the U.S. Army, due to a law dating back to 1792. It is said that President Lincoln wrestled with the decision, fearing more states would secede from the Union if he allowed black men to serve in the Army. By mid-1862, however, the escalating number of former slaves (contrabands), the declining number of white volunteers, and the increasingly pressing personnel needs of the Union Army pushed the Government into reconsidering the ban. After the Union Army turned back Lee's first invasion of the North at Antietam, MD, and the Emancipation Proclamation was subsequently announced, black recruitment was pursued in earnest.
As I dug into the research for my new release, The Widow of Rose Hill, I knew I wanted a black soldier to accompany Colonel Levi Maish to Texas. It was important to the story that a black man who had never been enslaved participate in the freeing of nearly 250,000 slaves who, despite the war coming to an end, did not know they were free. So I took a bit of artistic license and created the character of Corporal William Banks, aide to Colonel Maish. While there are no records that I found in my research about a black soldier serving in that capacity, I also didn't find enough evidence to declare it impossible. (The picture to the left is exactly how I envisioned Banks!)
During the Battle of Nashville in December 1864, black soldiers fought alongside white Union troops, where they were credited with helping to ensure victory by repelling the Confederate charge on Overton Hill. Black infantrymen also fought gallantly at Milliken's Bend, LA; Port Hudson, LA; and Petersburg, VA. One of the most famous black regiments was the 54th Massachusetts Infantry that participated in the heroic, but ill-fated, assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina. Leading the direct assault under heavy fire, the 54th suffered enormous casualties before being forced to withdraw. The courage and sacrifice of the 54th helped to dispel doubt within the Union Army about the fighting ability of black soldiers and earned this regiment undying battlefield glory. The 1989 film "Glory" tells the story of the 54th.
Although I'm a little late in celebrating Black History Month, I'd still like to take this time to remember the black men and women who served our country in more ways than we will probably ever know.
Michelle Shocklee is the award-winning author of The Planter's Daughter and The Widow of Rose Hill, the first two books in the historical romance series, The Women of Rose Hill. Her historical novella set in the New Mexico Territory is included in The Mail-Order Brides Collection. Michelle and her husband of 30+ years make their home in Tennessee. Connect with her at www.MichelleShocklee.com.
THE WIDOW OF ROSE HILL