Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era

By John David Smith | Go to book overview

6
FROM THE
CRATER TO NEW
MARKET HEIGHTS
A Tale of Two Divisions

William Glenn Robertson

By the opening of the 1864 spring campaign in Virginia, African American units had already proven themselves capable soldiers in the Mississippi Valley and on the South Atlantic coast. In Virginia, however, they had yet to see any duty beyond the most mundane camp, fatigue, and engineering details. Nevertheless, when the two primary Federal armies in Virginia began offensive operations in May 1864, their ranks included seventeen African American combat units. In the Army of the Potomac, a division of the Ninth Army Corps consisted entirely of infantry regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT). Similarly, in the Army of the James, African American infantry regiments made up a full infantry division in the Eighteenth Army Corps. In addition, the Army of the James included two African American cavalry regiments and one African American artillery battery among its combat formations. Too few to be dominant, yet too many to be ignored, these African American units would clearly play a role in the coming campaign. The nature and scope of that role remained unclear as the armies left their winter quarters and marched toward an uncertain future. The positive performance of African American troops at Milliken's Bend, Port Hudson, and Battery Wagner notwithstanding, the black soldiers in the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James knew that they were controversial adjuncts to white armies in the primary theater of operations and that their activities would be watched carefully and judged critically1

Although each Federal army began the spring campaign in Virginia with

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