African-American soldiers in the Civil War

African-American soldiers in the Civil War

April 7th, 2013 Robert Scott Davis in Opinion Columns

Editor's note: This is the first of two parts.

Maj. Gen. Howell Cobb of Georgia argued that the Confederate States of America existed on the principle that slaves lacked the mental capacity to run their own lives. Thus, he wrote, if they made good solders, "then our whole theory [and only moral justification] of slavery is wrong."

In Chattanooga that transformation happened, as shown by photographs of Hubbard Pryor, among the most often reproduced of the Civil War. In the first print, he wears the rags of slavery but the second shot shows him in the uniform of a soldier of the Forty Fourth United States Colored Infantry.

His service records identify him as born in Polk County, Ga., age 22, a farmer, and standing 5-feet 7-inches tall, with black eyes, black hair and a dark brown complexion.

Eventually 209,000 African Americans served in the Union military. In late 1863, the newly formed Colored Bureau of the Army sent Maj. George Luther Stearns to the headquarters of the Department of the Cumberland, near Trenton in extreme northwest Georgia. Stearns had been one of the "secret six" who helped to finance John Brown's uprising at Harper's Ferry in 1859 and he helped to create the famous African-American 54th and the less well known 55th Massachusetts.

In Georgia and Chattanooga, he opened schools for former slaves of both sexes. His privately funded recruiting agents used public meetings, personal appeals, and employment of black assistants to recruit 500 men per week and filled the ranks of the 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th United States Colored Troops infantry regiments. A board carefully screened the many applicants or white officers of these regiments.

These former slaves soon proved themselves as soldiers. Members of the 14th Regiment repelled Wheeler's cavalry charge at Dalton on Aug. 15, 1864, and pursued the rebel cavalrymen as their white comrades waved hats and cheered. One Pvt.Henry Prince of Company A declared, "I am ready to die for liberty" shortly before a bullet went through his heart. The men of the 44th USCT had three men seriously wounded.

Gen. William T. Sherman and "99 percent" of his officers, however, reportedly only wanted the African-Americans in labor battalions in Chattanooga.

Stearns and his staff raised still more regiments, however. The 44th Regiment came into being in Chattanooga on April 7, 1864. Lt. Col. Thomas Jefferson Morgan provided each company with a school for teaching reading and writing. He discovered that African American recruits learned soldiering best by experience and predicted that they would do well against guerrillas. Col. Reuben Delavan Mussey wrote of them: "For raiders in the enemies country, these colored troops will prove superior, they are good riders, have quick eyes at night ... and know all the byways."

New regulations prevented further recruitment of African Americans, even from among the refugees, in Tennessee. All additional soldiers, had to come from other states as the federal armies moved south. The 44th Regiment moved to Rome, Ga., in the middle of July 1864. Wagons of mixed white and black recruiting parties fanned out across the countryside. They risked their lives. As early as July 20, 1864, an anonymous writer in Rome, Ga., boasted that the air already reeked with the odor of the "decaying corpses" of slaves killed trying to reach federal lines. The Unionists quickly raised some 800 men from the addition of fugitive slaves from former slaves from Tennessee but also from throughout northwest Georgia, northeast Alabama and Wiregrass central Alabama.

Col. Lewis Johnson received command of the 44th. Born on March 13, 1841, in Rostock, Prussia, he had served as a cadet in the Prussian navy for two years before coming to America in 1855. He enlisted as a private in April 1861, acquiring a commission of captain and wounds from two battles. From a family of writers, teachers, and printers, Johnson encouraged his men to learn to read and write.

The Rev. Lycurgus Railsback taught them hymns to the extent that the 44th became known as the "singing regiment." One soldier warned, however, that if Johnson did not stop kicking his men that they would kill him; that is dismissing some of them from the army or transferring them to the 42nd, invalids that worked in gardens near Chattanooga.