The story of how the first black Union troops were officially approved of by the War Department and then finally raised and mustered in the field is very fascinating. We recently set the record straight on just what infantry was the first black Union men to serve (hint: it was NOT the 54th Massachusetts). Read more.
Another piece to the puzzle is understanding what took place in the Spring of 1862 regarding the interest on the part of some Union commanders in raising up blacks troops to serve.
In early 1862 several Union generals were interested in raising black troops to fight for the North. However, at the time, the official government policy forbid using black troops.
Major General David Hunter had petitioned the War Department in April 1862 to be able to raise 50,000 black troops to reinforce the Department of the South. Ironically, Hunter was one of the few abolitionists among senior level Union commanders in early 1862.
Not having formal permission yet, in May 1862, General Hunter dispatched white Union troops to basically round up contraband men ages 18-45 in the occupied Sea Islands area (see map). Thousands of black men were organized into units but the incident raised a tremendous outcry among the blacks who did not have an interest in serving. Hunter let those who did not want to serve go home. The rest remained in unofficial service for the Union, mostly stationed at Hilton Head.
Note: A letter the Civil War Gazette has recently acquired gives some interesting insight into the status of the black soldier prior to the war department’s official approval of raising black troops. Click here to read the full letter by Pvt W.H.H. Miles, Company E, 100th Pennsylvania; letter written May 12th, 1862.
As the summer of 1862 wore on the outcry from the grassroots reached the level of Congressional leadership. Hunter’s unofficial and non-sanctioned activities were exposed at the highest levels of the War Department and of Congress. Someone had to pay for not operating according to official War Department policy and so Hunter was targeted. He was forced to disband his Sea Island units on August 9th. Strangely, one Company did not receive the order to disband and so they remained in service at St. Simon’s Island on the Georgia Coast.
It would be just eleven days later (August 20) when Robert Smalls and Mansfield French (from Beaufort, South Carolina) would have an audience with Secretary Stanton and President Lincoln in which a formal plea would be made to allow for blacks to fight with the formal blessing of the War Department. The request was granted five days later (August 25th), and Sea Island contraband-blacks would be the foundation for the start of the first official Union blacks troops; otherwise known as the 1st South Carolina Infantry. See our previous post to read about the forming of the 1st South Carolina.
For more information and research
Books to read:
- The Negro’s Civil War, James M. McPherson.
- Firebrand of Liberty: The story of two black regiments that changed the course of the Civil War. Stephen Ash.