Resilience in the Face of Adversity: The Fate of Black Soldiers during the Civil War

When I started doing research for my project, I knew that I wanted to delve into some aspect of African-American history. Having already done quite a bit of independent reading on slavery already, that part (being the tragic and conspicuous blemish on American history that it is) interested me immensely, and naturally, one of the things of that comes to mind is the Civil War. In particular, I thought that it would be interesting to research the transition from bondage to freedom, and an interesting dynamic that’s not often discussed, the role of black soldiers is during the Civil War Using resources at the NYG&B (including the Record), as well as the National Archives and those of 19th century newspapers, I managed to narrow my previously broad understanding of the subject, as well as zero in on some of the subjects involved.

Storming Fort Wagner. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Storming Fort Wagner. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

At the beginning of the Civil War, free black men were eager to volunteer to fight for the Union against the Confederates. Although African Americans had served in the army and navy during the American Revolution and in the War of 1812 (although few did serve in the Mexican War), they were not allowed to enlist because of a 1792 statute banning them from bearing arms in the army. Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, also feared that accepting black men into the military would cause border states like Maryland and Missouri to secede.

Free black men were finally granted the right to enlist in 1862, after the passage of the Second Confiscation and Militia Act, which freed slaves who that had masters in the Confederate Army, and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. By May 1863, the Bureau of Colored Troops was created in order to manage black recruits. Recruitment rates were not high until active efforts were made to enlist black volunteers—leaders like Frederick Douglass encouraged free black men to volunteer as a way to ensure eventual full citizenship.


The gallant charge of the fifty fourth Massachusetts (colored) regiment: on the rebel works at Fort Wagner, Morris Island, near Charleston, July 18th 1863, and death of Colonel Robt. G. Shaw. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The first military regiment that had black soldiers was the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, raised in the North during the Civil War. Before 1863, no effort had previously been made to recruit black troops as Union soldiers. The passing of the Emancipation Proclamation late in 1862 got the ball rolling for discussion of the use of free black men as soldiers and, at a time when state governors were responsible for the training of regiments for federal service, Massachusetts led the pack with the creation of the 54th Regiment.

The creation of the regiment was controversial, drawing public attention from the beginning. Questions were prominent as to black men’s ability to fight in a “white man’s war.” Because the Lincoln Administration was worried that the inclusion of black troops would lead to border state recession, when Gen. John C. Frémont in Missouri and Gen. David in South Carolina issued proclamations that emancipated slaves in their military regions and permitted them to enlist, their superiors revoked their commands. By mid-1862, however, the declining number of white volunteers, and the increasingly pressing personnel needs of the Union Army pushed the Government into reconsidering the ban. As a result, Congress passed the Second Confiscation and Militia Act, freeing slaves who had masters in the Confederate Army. Days later, slavery was abolished in the territories of the United States, and on July 22nd Lincoln presented the preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to  the Cabinet. After the Union Army turned back Lee’s first invasion of the North at Antietam and the Emancipation Proclamation was then announced, black recruitment was pursued earnestly. There were volunteers from South Carolina, Tennessee, and Massachusetts in the first authorized black regiments. Recruitment was slow until black leaders such as Frederick Douglass encouraged black men to become soldiers to ensure eventual full citizenship. (Two of Douglass’s own sons contributed to the war effort.) Volunteers responded, and in May of 1863 the Government established the Bureau of Colored Troops to manage the rising numbers of black soldiers.

Group shot, officers of the 54th Mass. Colored. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Group shot, officers of the 54th Mass. Colored. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Although John Andrew, Massachusetts governor at the time, believed that black men were completely suitable of leadership, others felt that commissioning blacks as officers was too controversial. The commissioned officers at the time were white and the enlisted men black. All black officers leading up to lieutenant were non-commissioned and got to their positions by moving up through the ranks. On May 28th, 1863, spectators lined the streets of Boston to view this experimental unit. The regiment departed Boston on the transport De Molay for the coast of South Carolina.

Black Union soldiers were not paid or even treated equally. They were paid $10 a month, and $3 was deducted from that total for the cost of clothing; white soldiers received $13 a month with nothing taken away for clothing. This is how it was until June 1864, when Congress granted backdated equal pay. Even in the North, racial discrimination was prominent and blacks were often not seen as equals by the white soldiers. Some of the white officers failed to adequately train the black soldiers under their watch, looking down upon them.

Black units that couldn’t evade capture by the Confederates were treated harsher than the white. In 1863, the Confederate Congress threatened to punish captured Union officers of black troops and to make slaves out of black Union soldiers. Abraham Lincoln issued the infamous General Order 233, threatening retaliation against Confederate POWs. At the Battle of Fort Pillow, Tennessee, on April 12, 1864, the jumbled Union garrison, made up of almost 600 soldiers, half being black, underwent almost 575 casualties when they were attacked by Nathan Bedford Forest’s Confederate cavalry. The fight was proclaimed a massacre by the Northern papers, and it was touted that black soldiers who tried to surrender were massacred. Other reports say the Union troops and their commanders refused to surrender. Exactly what happened at Fort Pillow is even controversial to this day, fueled by Forrest’s pre-war trade as a slave dealer and his post-war involvement with the KKK.

On March 13, 1865, legislation was passed that would free black slaves whom enlisted in the Confederate Army, as long as they had the consent of their masters. Only a handful of black soldiers, likely less than 50, enlisted due to this legislation and were still in training by the time the Civil War ended. Black troops played a major role at the Battle of the Crater during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia, and formed a significant part of the Union force during the Battle of Nashville.

Looking through old newspaper archives, such as 19th century articles from The New York Times, it became apparent to me some of the attitudes towards colored regiments—for example, volunteers were strongly urged to participate, though they wouldn’t receive ample pecuniary gain, and Governor Andrew in an 1863 message is recorded to strongly advocate the employment of colored soldiers in his Address, citing the 54th Regiment in particular for the proof of colored infantry in service.

One individual I decided to focus on was Peter Vogelsang, who was heavily involved in the progress of the 54th Regiment. He joined Company H (old diagrams showing that there were ten formations in all for the 54th) of the regiment as a Sergeant on April 17th, 1863. He was then promoted to Quartermaster Sergeant, and later commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant and then as a 1st Lieutenant. He quickly rose through the ranks, although he was wounded in action and received a pension (as can be seen in the Compiled Military Service and pension record, which are both at the National Archives). Shortly after returning to civilian life in 1865 after the close of the Civil War, he married his sister-in-law, Maria Margaret De Grasse. He worked at a Customs House in lower Manhattan as a clerk and messenger, according to Brooklyn directories. In the 1870 Brooklyn census, he is listed as “George P. Bogessong” with Maria. She died on June 24th, 1885, at 76 years old, and he survived her by two years, buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery.

Of course, not all were lucky enough to be subjected to fate such as Vogelsang’s; nearly 40,000 black soldiers died over the course of the Civil War, out of an approximated 180,000. But the life and service of black soldiers such as Vogelsang’s really marks a bright spot of resilience and determination (especially considering attitudes towards black soldiers back then) in a particularly dark and bleak time in American history, a notion, thankfully, supported by genealogical and historical evidence.

~ Jason


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