Home > Uncategorized > The Story of America’s Black Patriots -Part Two by Frank Martin and Jeff Stetson

The Story of America’s Black Patriots -Part Two by Frank Martin and Jeff Stetson

The role of African-Americans in the Civil War is a part of this nation’s history that is yet to be fully explored. While some attention has been paid to the men who inspired the movie “Glory”, the depth of involvement is far deeper than the exploits of one courageous troop.

What follows is an attempt to tell some of that story. 

Previously – When war breaks out black men offer to serve but the North won’t have them as soldiers. In Charleston South Carolina, a slave steals the confederate gunboat Planter. With Emancipation, African-American men are finally permitted to fight.

In New Orleans, Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler began mustering free men of color into the Union Army. Once assembled, the Louisiana Native Guard was pressed into service. Their captain, Andre Cailloux, called himself “the blackest man in town.” When General Butler sent for the soldiers, a regimental spokesman whose name has been lost to time told the officer, “General, we come of a fighting race.  The only cowardly blood we have in our veins is the white blood.”

The men were put to the test at Port Hudson, a highly-fortified Confederate camp overlooking the Mississippi River in Louisiana. The fight was one of the bloodiest battles in the entire Civil War. Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood would later describe the events. “Six times with desperate valor they charged over ground where success was hopeless. Six times they went to useless death, swept back by the blazing breath of shot and shell before which nothing living could stand. Here fell the gallant Captain Cailloux, black as the ace of spades; refusing to leave the field though his arm had been shattered by a bullet, he returned to the charge until killed by a shell.”

After 48 days, Confederate troops finally surrendered. Black soldiers had proven their worth on the field of honor. In a letter home, Sgt. Thomas B. Wester wrote, “The bones of black men are at the present time whitening in the battlefields, while their blood, simultaneously with the white man’s, oozes into the soil of his former homes. I hope that the day is not far distant when we shall see the colored man enjoying the same rights and privileges as those of the white man of this country.”

Six days earlier, Rebel forces had also been defeated at Gettysburg and the “high tide of the Confederacy” began to recede. In South Carolina, the Rebel fortification, Battery Wagner, was Charleston Harbor’s first line of defense. The Union Army considered its capture to be essential and the all-black Massachusetts 54th led the attack to bring it down. Writing to his wife, 1st. Sgt. Robert Simmons spoke of the coming battle. “My Dear wife, we are on the march to Ft. Wagner, to storm it. We have just completed our successful retreat from James Island; we fought a desperate battle there Thursday morning. God has protected me through this, my first fiery, leaded trial and I do give him the glory.”

Ft. Wagner was located on a barrier island. The earthen installation was defended by 1700 Confederate troops. When the attack came, some 600 men of the Massachusetts 54th marched across an open beach. The Union soldiers were cut down by a devastating torrent of gunfire.  Sergeant Major Lewis Douglass, son of Frederick Douglass, wrote of the slaughter in a letter to his fiancée. “It was terrible. A shell would explode and clear a space of twenty feet, our men would close up again, but it was no use.  How I got out of that fight alive I cannot tell, but I am here. Remember, if I die, I die in a good cause.”

272 members of the Massachusetts 54th were either killed or wounded in the attack. The unit’s commanding officer, 25-year old Colonel Robert Shaw, was one of those who lost his life. Corporal James Gooding saw him fall. “We were exposed to a murderous fire from the battery of the fort. Mortal men could not stand such a fire. When the men saw their gallant leader fall, they made a desperate effort to get him out, but they were shot down, or reeled in the ditch below”.

When the color bearer was wounded, Pvt. William Carney raced forward to rescue the American flag.  As the former slave fought his way back to the Union lines he was shot in the head, chest, right arm and both legs. Despite his wounds, the 23-year-old soldier staggered into camp clutching the bloody flag. His surviving comrades broke into cheers as William Carney proudly exclaimed, “Boys, I did my duty. The dear old flag never touched the ground.”

For his actions that day, William Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor. He later said, “I decided I could best serve my God by serving my country and my oppressed brothers.”

The 54th served with distinction throughout the war. Following a desperate battle at Olustee, Florida, their heroism was documented by an aide to Union General Truman Seymour, who wrote, “Had it not been for the glorious Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, the whole brigade would have been captured or annihilated.  They would not retreat when ordered, but charged on with the most fearful desperation. If this regiment has not won glory enough to have shoulder straps, where is there one that ever did?”

In the next installment of For Love of Liberty: The Story of America’s Black Patriots, wives and children wait anxiously as husbands and fathers fight for their liberation. Harriet Tubman does her part as well. Yet, black soldiers are paid less than their white counterparts.

See this story and much more at www.fortheloveofliberty.org.

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