Local History Column: Chattanooga in struggle for freedom during Civil War

Local History Column: Chattanooga in struggle for freedom during Civil War

April 23rd, 2017 by Robert S. Davis in Opinion Columns

Read more Chattanooga History Columns

With the Emancipation Proclamation failing to end the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln ordered the wholesale recruitment of African-Americans for the federal army. Chattanooga's geographic location made it perfect for enlisting escaped slaves.

Union Maj. George Luther Stearns arrived at the headquarters of the Department of the Cumberland near Chattanooga on Sept. 6, 1863, to do just that. He had the highest connections to prominent abolitionists and politicians.

A successful businessman who had begun as a poor orphan, Stearns had a stellar career fighting for African-Americans and the end of slavery. He helped the anti-slavery movement in Kansas. As one of the "secret six" he armed John Brown's failed slave uprising at Harper's Ferry in 1859. And he helped found the Freedman's Bureau to benefit former slaves and poor whites.

Stearns recruited African-Americans for the famed 54th Massachusetts (and the 55th). In Maryland, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, he would recruit 13,000 men. He paid with private donations for his operations in opening camps, hospitals and schools for former slaves of both sexes.

Wagon trains of recruiters risked their lives moving across the countryside in search of enlistees. Public meetings recruited 500 men per week for the ranks of the 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 40th, 42nd, 44th, 101st, 106th and 110th infantry and the 1st and 7th Heavy Artillery regiments.

The new regiments had white officers, but they received pay based only on former rank not their new responsibilities. So many volunteers came forward to fill those positions, however, that a board had to carefully screen applicants.

Those soldiers proved themselves, especially during the Nashville Campaign. Members of the 14th United States Colored Troops (USCT) repelled Joseph Wheeler's Confederate cavalry charge at Dalton, Ga., on Aug. 15, 1864, as their white comrades waved hats and gave three cheers.

One private, Henry Prince of Company A, seemed to speak for his whole regiment when he declared, "I am ready to die for Liberty." A bullet went through his heart. Those freedmen fought bravely at Athens and Decatur, Ala., and at Fort Pillow, Tenn.

The new black soldiers had problems, however. Transportation slowed the equipping of the new units. Civilian laborers received better pay than soldiers. Bounty agents cheated black soldiers until Gen. William T. Sherman and Gen. Joseph Dana Webster stopped the practice.

Some "99 percent" of white officers reportedly wanted nothing to do with blacks in the Army. Sherman saw them as cheap labor unable to take military training. Gen. George H. Thomas noticed, however, that black units had a remarkably low rate of desertion. Stearns found civilian jobs for their families.

New Union regulations prevented further recruitment of African-Americans from former Tennessee slaves. All other recruits had to come from other states as the federal armies moved south.

At Athens, Ala., and Dalton, Ga., white officers, against the pleas of their black soldiers, surrendered their commands to overwhelming numbers of Confederate soldiers. The ragged rebels robbed the black soldiers of shoes, overcoats and hats. Prisoners were shot and killed on any pretense. Soldiers of the 7th Heavy Artillery were among the victims in the Fort Pillow Massacre.

Black prisoners often suffered terrible fates. Some escaped slaves were reclaimed by their masters. Other prisoners rebuilt railroads and fortifications or were sent to horrible prison camps such as Andersonville. Placed "under guard and lash," a Confederate newspaper reported, "if any of them should live long enough, they will be reduced to their normal condition [as slaves]."

After the war, African-American military service qualified for federal pensions. Unscrupulous attorneys signed up gullible clients by falsely claiming that pensions also would go to former slaves.

At Chattanooga, the USCT made a beginning in the struggle for racial justice. Some units were allowed black officers. Black and white posts of the veterans' Grand Army of the Republic held conventions together. Some posts had members of both races.

African-Americans, especially the women, decorated the graves of Union soldiers on Memorial Day in cemeteries in Chattanooga and throughout the South.

For more information on Chattanooga's role in recruiting African-American soldiers in the Civil War see E. Raymond Evans, "Contributions by United States Colored Troops (USCT) of Chattanooga & North Georgia during the American Civil War, Reconstruction and Formation of Chattanooga" (2003).

Robert S. Davis is senior professor of history at Wallace State Community College in Hance-ville, Ala., and an award-winning author. For more visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Chattanooga Times Free Press Comments Policy

The Chattanooga Times Free Press web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Times Free Press web sites and any content on the Times Free Press web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Times Free Press, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Times Free Press websites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
400 East 11th Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Phone: 423-757-6315
Email: webeditor@timesfreepress.com


Loading...