THROUGH WHITE EYES: THE 154th NEW YORK VOLUNTEERS AND AFRICAN-AMERICANS IN THE CIVIL WAR

Article excerpt

Mark H. Dunkelman [*]

A train steamed away from the depot at Jamestown, New York, late on the afternoon of September 29, 1862. Aboard were approximately 950 white men and teenaged boys, newly mustered into the service of the United States as the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry. Behind them they left the comforts and consolations of their hearths and homes, their families and friends, the routines and rituals of civilian life. Ahead they faced a life transformed: submitting to military discipline, acclimatizing to southern weather, subsisting on rough food and poor water, sleeping under scanty shelter, lugging heavy loads on long marches through dust or mud or snow or sleet, scratching at lice and chiggers, rusting with routine and boredom, pining with homesickness, falling prey to disability and disease, and facing the terrible ordeal of combat.

For almost three years they struggled. More than half of them were killed, wounded, or captured in the battles at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and during the Chattanooga and Atlanta campaigns, the March to the Sea, and the campaign of the Carolinas. Typhoid fever, dysentery, and other diseases stole the lives of scores of them, and sent hundreds more home with discharges. Starvation and scurvy killed dozens of them in Confederate prison pens. In the end, though, they triumphed. About a quarter of them followed General William T. Sherman in his sweeping campaigns through the heart of the South to the end of the war, and marched past cheering throngs crowding the wide avenues of Washington in the glorious Grand Review of the Union armies. Augmented by convalescents and exchanged prisoners, approximately 350 of them were mustered out of the service in June 1865 at Bladensburg, Maryland, and returned by train to their western New York homes. [1]

Most of the men of the 154th New York were of Anglo-Saxon descent, the sons and grandsons of pioneers who had moved from New England and central New York to settle in the westernmost corner of the state. Small numbers of European immigrants -- Irishmen, Germans, Frenchmen -- were to be found in the ranks. The regiment left behind a largely white world when it departed from Jamestown for the front. Eight of the regiment's ten companies were recruited in Cattaraugus County, where the Allegheny River carved an oxbow through the knobby foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. The other two companies were raised in neighboring Chautauqua County, where the land sloped down to the shores of Lake Erie. The 1860 census recorded approximately 102,300 people in the two counties. The only sizable racial minority was some 1,100 Seneca Indians, confined on reservations. The handful of African-American residents was so small as to be negligible. It is unlikely that many members of the 154th New York had ever had a substantive encounter with a black person before their wartime service, if indeed they had ever met one. [2]

That changed when the regiment crossed the Mason-Dixon Line into the land of slavery. For the first time, the men encountered African--Americans in large numbers. The meeting of white soldier and black slave -- or former slave -- brought forth a variety of reactions from the white men, ranging from bitter dislike to deep sympathy. As the war dragged on and their contacts with blacks increased and grew more personal, some members of the 154th underwent a change in attitude. The soldiers grew to rely on blacks in a number of ways, and quickly learned to trust their friendship. Sherman's campaigns in Georgia and the Carolinas caused a great exodus of slaves to the Yankee deliverers, resulting in an unparalleled black presence with the regiment, and the closest contact between the races the soldiers would experience. As AfricanAmerican soldiers joined the Union armies, a number of enlisted men of the 154th pondered joining the mobilization as officers in black regiments.

The perceptions of blacks in the 154th New York and the interactions of members of the regiment with African-Americans is well documented. …