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

By John David Smith | Go to book overview

9
LORENZO THOMAS AND THE
RECRUITMENT OF BLACKS IN
THE MISSISSIPPI VALLEY, 1863-1865

Michael T. Meier

On March 25,1863, Lorenzo Thomas, a U.S. Military Academy graduate, a long-time staff officer, and now adjutant general of the army, was ordered to the Mississippi Valley to recruit and organize regiments of blacks. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton's order gave Thomas wide latitude, a most peculiar situation given that, as some scholars argue, he “detested” the adjutant general. Certainly, Stanton did not trust him.1 Nevertheless, when Thomas arrived in the Mississippi Valley, he found that the commanders who handled the immense problems created by refugees coming behind their lines lacked direction and that their efforts differed from officer to officer. There was no system to recruit the able-bodied among the refugees for use as soldiers, nor were there plans to employ those not physically fit for military service. If Thomas had thoughts about dealing with such a chaotic situation, he had not expressed them. On the other hand, he had the power of the secretary of war to experiment with solutions. The adjutant general's views on the role of blacks in the army had not been tested, and his thoughts on slavery or emancipation seemed murky, if he had any at all. Indeed, until the army ordered him to act, he seems not to have given such weighty problems much thought.2 The tinderbox issue of using blacks in combat eluded Thomas, and racial equality was to him an unfamiliar concept. To effect quick solutions to the troubles he found in the Mississippi Valley, he used the method he understood best—he issued orders. By doing so, he brought uniformity to the size of the new black regiments, involved many commands in their recruitment, and eased the path of their acceptance into a skeptical U.S. Army.

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