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There were so many African-American men involved in the war on the Union side after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that a so-called Bureau of Colored Troops was formed to recognize and organize African-Americans fighting in the war. Known as United States Colored Troops, these men, mainly former slaves, eventually made up 144 infantry regiments, 13 heavy artillery regiments, 7 cavalry regiments, and 1 light artillery regiment. The state of Louisiana mustered the most troops overall: 24,000 men.
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Among the fighting men abolitionist Fredrick Douglass recruited for the Union cause were his sons, Charles and Lewis. Both served in the Massachusetts 54th.
The 54th Massachusetts Regiment, made up of more than 500 African-American soldiers (mostly from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania) and led by Col. Robert Shaw of Boston, a white man, was immortalized in the 1989 film, Glory, starring Morgan Freeman.
On the battlefield, the regiment suffered severe casualties in a vain but brave attack on Fort Wagner in South Carolina. Killed outright were 34; wounded were 146; and recorded as captured or missing, 92. The July 18, 1863, assault featured a frontal charge up a beach without cover. The 54th managed to get over the fortifications before being thrown back. Col. Shaw was among those who died trying to prove to doubters that African-American men could and would fight with as much valor as white men.
However, the brave soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts were certainly not the only African-Americans who fought in the war. While many people erroneously believe that the Civil War was fought by white people to free the slaves, in fact approximately 180,000 African-Americans served in the Union Army and 18,000 more in the Navy. They were in the cavalry and the infantry, in engineering and seamanship.
When desperate Confederate generals appealed to Jefferson Davis to offer slaves their freedom if they would fight for the South, the President of the Confederacy initially, and adamantly, refused. By the time the war's direction forced him to reconsider, the South was well on the way to defeat.
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Gen. James Blunt, the Union commander, wrote of the First Kansas Colored Volunteers, “I never saw such fighting as was done by the Negro regiment …. The question [whether] Negroes will fight is settled ….”
Other Important Battles Involving African-American Troops
On October 27 and 28, 1862, the first battle involving African-Americans troops was fought at Island Mound, Missouri. Elements of the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Regiment, composed mainly of former slaves from the state, overcame Confederate soldiers. The after-action report of Maj. Richard Ward records his admiration for the 64 African-Americans in his command. During the battle with Confederate troops from the island, he noted that, “the enemy charged with a yell toward [Sgt.] Gardner's little band of twenty-five men …. Nothing dismayed, the little band turned upon their foes …. The enemy cried out to the men to surrender but they told them never. I have witnessed some hard fights, but I never saw a braver sight than that handful of brave men fighting 117 men who were all around and in amongst them. Not one surrendered or gave up a weapon.”
This same regiment, along with others, also participated in the Battle of Honey Springs on July 17, 1863, just days after the Battle of Gettysburg. They joined some 3,000 other Union troops against 6,000 Confederates, mainly from Texas. Groups of Native Americans fought on both sides. Although outnumbered, the North was ultimately victorious, as Confederate forces had trouble keeping their powder dry in the rainstorm that ensued. The Union Army virtually drove the Confederates out of the Indian Territory, now Kansas, suffering only 79 casualties against its opponent's 637. The paternalistic, arrogant assumption among whites that African-Americans could not or would not fight effectively was quickly disproved.