Black soldiers in America's Second Revolution

Submitted by AWL on 27 June, 2013 - 10:10

(Recruitment poster for the 54th Massachusetts regiment, making false promises to black recruits - see below)

In the US Civil War of 1861-5, hundreds of thousands of black soldiers helped to turn the tide in favour of the North and crush slavery. Their participation in a war which had originally excluded black men from fighting signalled and helped push forward the escalation of the conflict into a genuine social revolution.

At Ideas for Freedom 2013, I interspersed my speech with clips from the film Glory, which is about the first black regiment raised in the North, in 1862/3, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

In the published write up of the speech I've added a few things.


[Film clip: Anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglass making a recruiting speech for the Northern army to a black crowd in New York]

In the American Civil War of the 1860s, the Southern states very explicitly seceded from the US to protect the right of their ruling class to own slaves – and the war ended with four million slaves freed and a fight for racial equality. Yet later apologists for the Southern side came to argue that the war was not really about slavery. And when it began, that is sort of how it looked. In the first year of the war, both sides insisted they would preserve slavery, and the Northern army promised to suppress slave uprisings and returned thousands of runaway slaves to their owners.

But as the conflict unfolded, the logic of the struggle pushed the issue of slavery, and beyond that the rights of black Americans, to the fore. The war and its aftermath, the period known as Reconstruction, have justly been called the Second American Revolution. Although this revolution for freedom and equality was in large part defeated, it is an inspiring story, and rich in lessons.

One of the most revolutionary features of the Civil War, which both signalled and pushed forward its development into a revolution, was the role of black troops in the US army and in the fight against slavery. In this workshop we will look at the story of some of those troops in order to better understand the Second American Revolution, or to spur your interest in it if you’re new to the topic. This won’t be a rounded history of the Civil War and Reconstruction, but it will touch on some of the most significant aspects of these struggles.

We’re watching excerpts from the 1989 film Glory. Glory is a star-studded Hollywood film, and it plays a bit fast and loose with some facts. Nonetheless it stands in stark contrast to the nonsense we saw in the cinemas earlier this year with Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

The film is about one of the most important black regiments, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Before we get to the 54th, I’ll discuss some of the history and another important black regiment that came before it.

(A company of the 4th United States Colored Troops)

(Detail from Augustus Saint-Gaudens' monument honouring the 54th Massachusetts, in Boston)

How black Americans came to fight

Black Americans had fought in the American army during the First Revolution, in the 1770s and 80s, which was the war of independence against Britain. But since 1792, they had been barred by federal law from the state militias, and no black people were allowed in the US army, though black recruits were allowed in the navy. This discrimination was an essential part of the apartheid system under which even free black people in almost all of the US lived.

When the Southern, slave-holding states broke away to form the Confederacy and the Civil War began, in 1861, thousands of black Americans tried to volunteer for the North. The North was hungry for soldiers, and yet black volunteers were turned away! This is how the governor of the Northern state of Ohio put it: “Do you not know… that this is a white man's government; that white men are able to defend and protect it? … When we want you coloured men we will notify you.”

Anti-slavery activists, who were called “abolitionists”, and the Radical wing of the Republicans, the party led by Abraham Lincoln, denounced this. I should briefly say that at this time the Republican party was the more left-wing of the two bourgeois parties; the Democrats were the racist party who thought the war should not touch slavery. Radicals demanded the recruitment of black soldiers and the arming of slaves. But much of Northern public opinion, which was extremely racist, supported the ban.

Ironically, at the start of the war, hundreds of free black people fought in the Southern army, while none were allowed to fight in the Northern one.

As things dragged out, from 1861 into 1862, and it looked as if the South might win, Northern public opinion began to shift. This was because the war had gone on longer than many anticipated; because the South had won a series of victories; and because white volunteering was starting to slow up. It looked as if the British government might recognise the Confederacy and help it win independence - this was before mass meetings and protests by British workers put a stop to this threat. As pressure built, the radicals became less isolated on a number of issues – including attacks on slavery, and including the recruitment of black troops. Nonetheless, until the end of 1862 – eighteen months into the war – black recruitment was resisted by the conservative Lincoln government.

Slaves take up arms

Government and army policy on escaping slaves shifted during the course of 1861 and 1862. As the Northern army stopped returning escaping slaves, thousands of black people started to work for the Northern war effort as labourers. The trickle of escapees gradually became a flood – this was both a result and a cause of changing Northern policies.

The first black soldiers were former slaves on the US-occupied sea islands of South Carolina, whom a Northern general, David Hunter, decided to organise somewhat beneath the government’s radar. Many of the ex-slaves were not very enthusiastic, and when attempts were made to forcibly draft them, it destroyed much of their confidence in the North. Meanwhile, the government, under pressure from the racist right, opposed the scheme and it eventually collapsed. Similar efforts also got nowhere.

At the end of 1862, however, as the Northern war effort got bogged down, Congress was increasingly dominated by the left-wing Radical Republicans. It passed legislation pushing the government to act against slavery. This included repeal of the 1792 ban on black men in state militias, and authorisation of the recruitment of black troops. Still, Lincoln, who was worried about Northern racists and so-called loyal slaveholders in the border states, refused. At this time there was talk among the Radical Republicans of removing Lincoln from office.

By the end of August 1862, pressure from the South, from rebelling slaves and from the Radicals was becoming too great to resist. The War Department authorised a new attempt to recruit black troops on the South Carolina sea islands. This time this was done on the basis of volunteers – and white anti-slavery activists who had settled on the islands encouraged ex-slaves to enlist. By November, enough volunteers had come forward to form the First South Carolina Volunteers.

This regiment was commanded by a white colonel – all the black regiments were, as I will explain later. But the man who led the First South Carolina was a genuine anti-slavery militant, Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

(Thomas Wentworth Higginson)

Higginson’s politics can be summed up by a short quotation: “The question of slavery is a stern and practical one. Give us the power and we can make a new constitution… How is that power to obtained? By politics? Never. By revolution, and that alone.” In 1854, Higginson had been part of the group of black and white activists who, with axes, revolvers and a battering ram, had attempted to rescue a runaway slave in Boston, Anthony Burns, from being returned to slavery. He had also been one of the key supporters of John Brown, the radical Christian guerrilla fighter executed in the in 1959 for trying to lead a slave uprising.

(John Brown)

Now Higginson found himself where John Brown always wanted to be – leading a black army fighting against slavery.

As we’ll see, black soldiers would often be badly treated, even compared to their white counterparts. In Higginson’s regiment, however, things were somewhat different. He prohibited degrading punishments and insults, banned the use of the N-word and severely punished anyone caught using it. He won the respect of his troops.

The First South Carolina and other black troops raised in the South mostly fought extremely well and bravely. This had a big impact both on the war itself and on further shifts in public opinion in the North. To get a sense of what they began to achieve in the South imagine their capture of the Florida town of Jacksonville in March 1863: black and white troops fighting side by side, black non-commissioned officers leading white soldiers, and former slaves in control of the town of their former masters. This was what an elated Karl Marx called the end of the US Civil War as a “constitutional war” and the beginning of it as a “revolutionary” one.

Black troops in the North: the 54th Massachusetts

The regiment whose story is told in Glory was the first black regiment raised in the North, and was not mostly made up of former slaves. It did include ex-slaves, but most of its members were free before the war and many had been born free. Glory could be misleading in that regard, as most of its central black characters are recent slaves.

The Northern state of Massachusetts was one of the centres of anti-slavery and other forms of radicalism. Its governor, John Andrew, was a friend of Lincoln but leant more towards the radical wing of the Republicans: he was close to abolitionists and to many black activists. In November 1862 he began recruiting black volunteers and drilling them. In January 1863, after the issuing of Lincoln’s so-called Emancipation Proclamation, he finally obtained permission to form a black regiment. The War Department insisted that the governor abandon his plan to recruit black officers too, though it promised that the black privates would be treated equally to white soldiers. As we will see, this promise was not kept, or kept only after a bitter struggle.

At the start of 1863, Andrew invited the son of his friend Francis Gould Shaw, a wealthy Boston capitalist and anti-slavery activist, to become colonel of the regiment. Robert Gould Shaw, played by Matthew Broderick in the film, was already a captain in the army, but he was only 25.

(Robert Gould Shaw)

Shaw was selected partly for military talent but in large part for political reasons. Most of the other officers were abolitionists too. It is worth saying that Shaw was not, when he took command, a convinced revolutionary like Higginson. He was anti-slavery but not totally convinced the experiment of black soldiers would succeed. And in fact he turned down the offer to become the 54th’s colonel, before changing his mind shortly afterwards.

By 1863, it was proving harder to get black volunteers than it had been in 1861, when they were turned away. Partly this was because the booming war-time economy had created new economic opportunities for many black men in the North. Partly it was because of disturbing rumours that black soldiers would after all be paid less. And partly it was because of the insult which the ban on black officers offered to capable and educated black men. Although this ban would weaken during the course of the war, only a hundred black men nationally became commissioned officers by the time it was over.

The chance for a commission in a black regiment helped convert many white soldiers to the policing of black troops – but it also produced many racist officers with little regard for the men they led.

All black soldiers were organised in segregated regiments – something which some radicals criticised but which was not seriously challenged at the time. The US army would not be desegregated until 1948.

In 1863, the fears of black Americans and their white allies were fulfilled when the government announced that black privates would receive $10 a month, minus $3 for clothing – in effect half the pay of white privates, who got $13 a month plus a $3.50 clothing allowance. Glory shows a fictionalised version of the 54th Massachusett’s real response to this gross injustice. Let’s watch that now.

I should say that the clips I’m going to show are not in the same order as in the film.

[Film clip: The 54th rip up their pay slips and refuse to sign on for unequal pay]

There was a long battle, from the end of 1862 to March 1865, to overcome this discrimination, including a fight to make equal pay retroactive. The soldiers of the 54th took no pay for 18 months. When the Massachusetts legislature voted to make good the difference with white soldiers’ pay, they continued to refuse because they saw the disparity itself as an insult.

Black soldiers were often subjected to harsher discipline than white ones – there is a scene in Glory where a former slave is brutally flogged by the 54th’s drill sergeant for leaving camp to look for shoes without holes in. When the 54th was formed, it seemed for months that they would not be allowed to fight, but used only for manual labour. Glory deals with this issue too – and with the issue of racism among white soldiers.

[Film clip: The 54th are not allowed to fight, but used for manual labour. They also clash with white soldiers on their way back from the front]

Eventually, of course, black soldiers were allowed to fight – and some argue they were used by the US army as shock troops for the most dangerous engagements. They often carried inferior arms and equipment to white regiments.

In April 1864 the Radical Republican-dominated Congress declared all soldiers equal regardless of colour, arguing for “full recognition of the equality of coloured soldiers… and the destruction of the monstrous and unfounded prejudice against their race”. This resolution cited the heroic record of the 54th in battle, but also their refusal to accept anything less than what was due to them.

The Confederate response

And there was worse facing both black soldiers and their white officers. In early 1863, the Southern government declared that black soldiers taken prisoner would be summarily executed or sent into slavery, and that captured white officers commanding black troops would be killed for “inciting servile insurrection”.

In some cases, this drove black troops to fight harder. Higginson quoted his men: “There’s no flags of truce for us. When the Secesh fights the First South, he fights in earnest.” (Secech means Secession, ie the Confederacy.)

In one moving scene in Glory, Shaw informs the assembled 54th about this Confederate policy and gives every soldier the option to leave without penalty or dishonour. The next morning he finds that not one man has gone.

Eventually, in July 1863, the Lincoln administration struck back with an executive order stating that for every Northern prisoner killed in this way, a Southern captive would be executed, and for every soldier enslaved, a Southern one would be committed to hard labour. Part of the reason for this was the capture of many black soldiers from the 54th at Fort Wagner, which I will explain later.

This stance modified Confederate behaviour – in August 1863 a South Carolina court refused to sell captured soldiers from the 54th into slavery – but there were still instances of murder and enslavement of captured black soldiers. At Fort Pillow, Tennessee, in March 1864, Confederate forces led by future Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest massacred hundreds of black soldiers who had surrendered, shooting many in cold blood and burning some of them alive. In part these things continued because Lincoln did not consistently implement his own policy. The US government took no retaliatory action in response to Fort Pillow and Forrest was never charged with any crime.

In addition the Southern government refused to include black prisoners in the system of prisoner exchange between the two sides, leading to a break down of the system.

“Who would be free themselves must strike the blow”

But despite the danger and despite discrimination, official and unofficial, on their own side, anti-slavery and anti-racist activists both white and black urged black men to enlist and fight. “Every race has fought for Liberty and its own progress,” Governor Andrew told black people in Massachusetts. “If Southern slavery should fall by the crushing of the Rebellion, and coloured men should have no hand and play no conspicuous part in the task, the result would leave the coloured man a mere helot.” Frederick Douglass, a former slave who was by then the best known black activist in America, and who we saw at the start of this session, became a recruiting campaigner.

(Frederick Douglass)

Douglass published a speech entitled Men of Color, to Arms!, in which he argued: “Liberty won by white men would lack half its lustre. Who would be free themselves must strike the blow. The chance is now given to you to end in a day the bondage of centuries, and to rise in one bound from social degradation to the plane of common equality with all other varieties of men.”

By the way, that phrase, “who would be free, themselves must strike the blow”, is something we might discuss.

Douglass linked the recruitment of black soldiers to the fight to transform the war into an anti-slavery crusade. He advocated “‘carrying the war into Africa’. Let the slaves and free coloured people be called into service, and formed into a liberating army to march into the South and raise the banner of Emancipation among the slaves.”

Determined to make the regiment a success, Douglass and other black and white activists toured Massachusetts and half a dozen other Northern states, as well as Canada, recruiting for it. Douglass’ own sons were the first recruits from New York. Recruitment began slowly but speeded up: by the time the establishment of the 54th was complete, enough black volunteers had come forward to allow the creation of a second Massachusetts regiment, the 55th.

Now we’re going to watch a clip about the 54th’s first days in training camp.

[Film clip: volunteers for the 54th arrive and meet each other. They come from diverse backgrounds, leading to suspicion and clashes, but there is also solidarity; meanwhile an educated free black recruit, Thomas Searle, who grew up with Robert Gould Shaw, is not allowed to speak to the superior officers who in peacetime were his friends]

In May 1863, recruitment and training completed, the soldiers of the 54th marched through Boston in an official parade, past thousands of cheering white and black supporters. This was a city where two decades before, anti-slavery activists were not safe in the streets, and where less than a decade before, federal troops had been used to return escaped black people to slavery.

The 54th headed south.

[Film clip: the 54th head South, where many of them came from, but everything seems to have changed: they arrive as an army of liberation]

What regiments like the First South Carolina and the 54th Massachusetts began, spread like wildfire, encouraged by and encouraging the mass escape of slaves. By the end of the war, 180,000 black soldiers had served, a tenth of the total number of US soldiers that did, and 18,000 sailors, one fifth. Since black recruitment into the army was allowed only half way through the conflict, the number of black soldiers was even more significant than those figures would suggest - by the last year of the war there were something like 100,000 black soldiers at any one time, one fifth of the total. In the border, but deeply pro-slavery state of Kentucky, 57 percent of black men became soldiers. The role of black troops in the Northern victory and the crushing of slavery cannot be overstated.

The assault on Fort Wagner

In the summer of 1863, black troops fought major battles at Port Hudson and Milliken’s Bend in the Mississipi valley. Even more important in shifting Northern opinion, however, was the engagement which made the 54th Massachusetts go down in history. On 16 July the 54th led the assault on Fort Wagner, the huge and heavily armed fort guarding the harbor of Charleston, in the rebel heartland of South Carolina.

This is the final scene of Glory. I should say what was happening at the same time but which the film doesn’t show you – and which luckily the men of the 54th didn’t know about at the time either. For four days after 13 July, there were racist riots in New York. Beginning as a working-class protest against draft avoidance by the rich and social injustice in general, this movement quickly degenerated into a blood-soaked racist pogrom, with the torture, murder, burning and lynching of hundreds of black people. The seven year old nephew of the 54th’s First Sergeant Robert John Simmons was murdered during these riots.

The contrast between brave black soldiers dying for the US and the racist violence in New York gave the Radical Republicans and supporters of black liberation a major boost. Before that, however, it virtually destroyed remaining objections to the use of black troops.

The New York riots were one side of Northern white America. In the operations around Fort Wagner, the 54th met another. Here, for the first time, they had extensive contact with white US soldiers and fought alongside them. The 54th had not slept or eaten properly for days, but their courage and tenacity won admiration and respect. This is how a white soldier from another regiment at Fort Wagner described the 54th’s assault on the fort: “But for the bravery of three companies of the Massachusetts Fifty Fourth… our whole regiment would have been captured. They fought like heroes.”

Of course many white soldiers were still racist, but many changed their minds about emancipation, black soldiers and even about broader questions of black rights during the war. Soldiers voted overwhelmingly for the Republican Party and often for anti-slavery and anti-racist measures in state referendums.

[Film clip: the 54th lead the assault on Fort Wagner]

In the assault on Fort Wagner, the US forces suffered 1,500 casualties. 247 men, 47 percent of the attackers from the 54th, were killed or wounded. So many officers were killed that Luis Emilio, the most junior captain, had to assume command. Colonel Shaw was killed as he led his troops up the fort’s ramparts.

The Confederates stripped Shaw’s body and, as they described it, “buried him with his niggers”. In their racist hatred, they unintentionally honoured him. When the Northern authorities tried to recover his body, Shaw’s father insisted it be left where it was, saying: “We hold that a soldier’s most appropriate burial place is on the field where he has fallen.”

Fort Wagner would not fall till later that year. When Charleston was eventually taken by the North, soldiers from the 54th and 55th Massachusetts were part of the victorious army entering the city. And not much later black regiments had become commonplace. In 1864 New York, where not long before black people had dangled from lampposts, gave its first black regiment a tumultuous send off, with many thousands cheering in the streets, like they had in Boston in 1863.

The significance of Fort Wagner

The historian James McPherson is an informative and gripping writer about the Civil War but generally an apologist for Lincoln and a moderate liberal, not a radical of any kind. Nonetheless, his summary of the significance of the attack on Fort Wagner and his assessment of Glory is very much to the point. This is what he said:

“If in this narrow sense the attack was a failure, in a more profound sense it was a success of historic proportions. The unflinching behaviour of the regiment in the face of an overwhelming hail of lead and iron answered the skeptic’s question ‘Will the Negro fight?’ It demonstrated the manhood and courage of the race to millions of white people in both North and South who had doubted whether black men would stand in combat against the self-styled master race.”

McPherson described the role of black soldiers in the struggle to smash slavery as part of a “radical evolution in the scope and purpose of the Civil War”. And he concluded:

“This was the most revolutionary feature of a war that wrought a revolutionary transformation of America by freeing four million slaves and uprooting the social structure of half the country. Arms in the hands of slaves had been the nightmare of Southern whites for generations. In 1863, the nightmare came true. It achieved a new dignity, self-respect and militancy for the former slaves who fought for the Union. It helped them achieve equal citizenship and equal rights – for a time – after the war.

“That is the real story of Glory.”

What happened after the war

So to conclude, let’s consider in more detail what McPherson was talking about. We’ll begin one last time with a clip from the film.

[Film clip: Shaw discusses with Trip, a private who is a runaway slave – and Trip asks what’s in the war “for us”, even if the North wins]

The four years of Civil War, 1861 to 1865, were only part of the two-decade long political and social upheaval which comprised the Second American Revolution. This revolution began in the 1850s with the beginnings of mass political unrest and violent conflict over slavery – and it did not end until the late 1870s, when white supremacy was forcibly restored. The most radical phase of the revolution, in which black Americans fought for equal political rights and against exploitation, grew out of the Civil War but only began after the fighting had finished.

After the crushing of the South, during the period of Reconstruction, a massive struggle for the rights of the former slaves took place, alongside a struggle for equal rights in the North. Black soldiers and ex-soldiers were a large part of what made this possible. In the South, under the protection of occupying Northern forces and organised groups like the Union Leagues, which included many black Civil War veterans, black men – of course all women were disenfranchised at this time – exercised the right to vote and won political office. Many of these black politicians had been free before the war, but many were former slaves. There were thousands of black local officials, black Congressmen and Senators, even one black state Governor.

Civil War veterans played a prominent part in this political struggle, at every level. For instance, First Lieutenant Stephen Atkin Swails of the 54th moved to South Carolina and became a Republican State Senator.

(Stephen Swails)

The most dramatic example was Robert Smalls, who had escaped from slavery by daringly piloting a Confederate boat, full of guns and cannon, to the Northern fleet. This ship, the Planter, was used to transport the First South Carolina on their first mission. Smalls became captain of the ship, a South Carolina politician and in 1875 a member of Congress, until he and other black Congressmen were denied their seats in 1886 as part of the defeat of Reconstruction.

(Depiction of Robert Smalls in front of the Planter)

Reconstruction was in some ways the most democratic period that black Americans have ever known. To give one example students will find interesting – in 1873, more than eighty years before the university desegregation battles which helped spark the Civil Rights movement, the University of South Carolina enforced desegregation, abolished tuition fees and established access courses for those unable to meet admission requirements.

This struggle for democracy was also a class struggle.

The former slaves used Reconstruction to push demands for state schools, access to public facilities and above all redistribution of the land they worked. They won access to facilities and state schools, the first in the South, though these schools were mostly segregated, and the black ones almost always inferior. (In South Carolina, where there was a black majority, Robert Smalls fought for and won integrated schools; by the way, in 1869, Thomas Higginson was thrown out of a Northern schoolboard, in Rhode Island, for demanding an end to school segregation!) But the central struggle, defeat for which would eventually bring about the defeat of Reconstruction, was for the land.

The most extreme Northern Radicals supported redistribution of land to ex-slaves and poor whites, believing that democracy could not be secure if a class of whites continued to own the land while a class of blacks were their labourers. But by the 1870s, the US bourgeoisie, including many former Radicals, was moving to the right fast. Having seen off their slave-owning competitors, most capitalists were getting sick of their temporary allies, the ex-slaves. Faced with an increasingly restless and class-conscious working class in the North, which in 1877 would explode in mass strikes, it feared that the demand for expropriation of landed property would spark a challenge to other capitalist property as well. In addition, much Southern land was now owned by Northern capitalists and banks.

Racism among white workers and small farmers in both North and South had been partially shaken by the war and Reconstruction. A program of redistributing land to poor Americans, black and white, could have helped drive this process forward. Instead, concerned for order and profits, the ruling class withdrew political and military support from the Reconstruction movement and facilitated a white supremacist counter-revolution across the South. One by one in the 1870s the Reconstruction governments fell. Slavery was not restored, but most black Americans were denied political rights, legally segregated, murderously repressed and subjected to a vicious system of exploitation. Working people in America were thrown back dramatically – and the work of Reconstruction would have to be attempted again almost a century later in the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s and 60s.

The story of black soldiers in the American Civil War, and the revolution they began, is like the story of the Levellers and Diggers in the English Civil War. It is a story of how history could have been different, and will be different in the future. It is a story of how capitalism both makes and betrays the promise of freedom. To fully pay homage to these heroes will take a Third American Revolution to open the way to what they wanted: a society remade without exploitation or oppression.


Submitted by AWL on Thu, 27/06/2013 - 11:06

The person I didn't, but should have mentioned in my speech - I mentioned her briefly in answer to a question about the role of women - is Harriet Tubman. Tubman was an anti-slavery, black liberation and women's liberation revolutionary who served in the Union army in various capacities, including de facto command of black troops. She then faced a decades-long battle to get the army pension she was entitled to. She deserves an article in her own right.

Sacha Ismail

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