Give Them Their Due: A Reassessment of African Americans and Union Military Service in Florida during the Civil War
Winsboro, Irvin D. S., The Journal of African American History
During the Civil War in Florida, African American troops played a significant role in the Union victory. In sheer numbers alone, the African American units comprised a major Union presence within the state. Not allowed to enlist in regional regiments until 1862, the newly mustered black troops had to quickly prove their ability as soldiers. In the numerous skirmishes, raids, and larger conflicts that extended to every corner of Florida, African Americans often fought with bravery and distinction, despite the risk of slavery or execution if captured. Nevertheless, their aggregate roles in Union land and sea campaigns, their impact in driving home the magnitude of the war, and their own "special cause" of destroying slavery through force of arms in the southernmost Confederate state have often been ignored or underrepresented by early chroniclers and revisionist historical studies.
Most wartime accounts of Confederate Florida seldom refer to the black units, except in tangential references to "Colored troops" appearing in the area. In 1865 Union General and Provisional Governor of Florida, William Marvin, set the premise for this inaccurate assessment by declaring that African Americans in his state had "fought in no battles; or if engaged at all in such, they were trifling affairs." (1) His comments served to obfuscate African Americans' contribution to the war for generations to come. William Watson Davis in The Civil War and Reconstruction in Florida, a seminal work on the conflict in Florida, observed that African Americans' "most valuable services to the Union were as guide, spy, and plunderers, [who] usually gave way under determined attack." Charlton Tebeau's standard work, A History of Florida, devotes but one sentence to African Americans' contributions to the Union effort. Tebeau limited his observations to the following: "General Rufus Saxton, the Union commander of the Department of the South, toward the end of the war used refugee Negroes as guides and received permission to enroll them as soldiers ... mostly at the end of the conflict." (2) Indeed, a common thread running through Civil War literature is that African American servicemen, with the sometimes exception of their duty at the noteworthy Battle of Olustee, served only briefly and peripherally in Florida and that they and their actions lacked both individuality and agency.
Consequently, the depth and breadth of the African Americans' military service in Florida during the Civil War has been missing in the literature for almost a century and a half. Indeed for much of this period, the rhetorical makeover of these events relegated African Americans to such minor and perhaps ignoble roles as "guide, spy, and plunderer." (3) However, military records in the National Archives and elsewhere document clearly that African American fighting men added a deep and meaningful dimension to the Union efforts in the southernmost theater of Civil War military operations. This needs scrutinizing by those interested in an accurate synthesis of the Civil War because African Americans made a major contribution to the Union strategy and impact in remote southern states such as Florida, both on land and at sea.
EAGER FOR THE FIGHT
The black troops that served in Florida arrived from units created during the first wave of African American enlistment in Union military service. Although African Americans had flooded the War Department with petitions to serve from the fall of Fort Sumter in 1861, the federal government and War Department refused to allow mass African American enlistment until 1863. Some commanders, among them Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, supported emancipation and recruited free African Americans in the South. In the spring of 1862, Department of the South commander, Major General David ("Black David") Hunter, had proclaimed that martial law liberated all slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida (an order Lincoln later revoked), and sanctioned raising the initial black regiment, the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, which completed early action in Florida. Lincoln remained dilatory on the issue until Congress, faced with declining enlistments and an unpopular military draft, passed a new Militia Act in the summer of 1862 which authorized the President to employ persons of African descent. (4) The War Department later responded by creating the Bureau for Colored Troops under General Order No. 143 on 22 May 1863, an act that changed both the Union Army and the war. (5)
The first regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) mustered into Union service on 30 June 1863 at Washington, DC. Some of the enlistees numbered free African Americans from the North, but most of them had once been enslaved and joined the military as "freedmen," "contraband," or "farmers." The zeal of these fresh troops often won the respect of skeptical commanders. As early as 31 October 1863, one of the Bureau's commanders wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that the "colored troops have already established for themselves a commendable reputation ... [for] their discipline, their endurance, and their valor." (6) About 165 regiments and more than 186,000 black troops (92,000 drawn from the South), 8,000 white officers, and 75-100 black officers (mostly surgeons and chaplains) served in the USCT until the dissolution of the Bureau in December 1867. Twenty-nine USCT regiments, or about 20 percent of the USCT's infantry, cavalry, heavy artillery, and engineer regiments, saw action in Florida. (7)
The 2nd Regiment Infantry of USCT that served as a major combat unit in Florida was among the first to organize in 1863 and was in many ways typical of the experiences of the other black units positioned in Florida. (8) Most of the enlisted men of the 2nd USCT had been enslaved on plantations in Maryland and Virginia; most of the white officers of the 2nd had been brought in from more distant locations. Like all USCT, soldiers of the 2nd initially received less pay than their white counterparts because they were classified as "auxiliaries" and "laborers" rather than as combat soldiers. African American combatants found this practice particularly odious. Following the fierce fighting at Olustee, an African American private serving in Company B, 54th Massachusetts Infantry recorded the feelings of many African Americans on pay discrimination:
Now it seems strange to me that we do not receive the same pay and rations as the white soldiers. Do we not fill the same ranks? Do we not cover the same space of ground? Do we not take up the same length of ground in a grave-yard that others do? The ball does not miss the black man and strike the white, nor the white and strike the black. But, sir, at that time there is no distinction made; they strike one as much as another. The black men have to go through the same hurling of musketry, and the same belching of cannonading as white soldiers do. (9)
A "NEW REALITY" IN CONFEDERATE FLORIDA
The 2nd USCT units (about 900 men) that completed extensive action in the lower peninsula arrived at Key West as replacements for the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers on 22 February 1864. The black soldiers encountered immediate hostility from local whites. The unit chaplain reported to a commander: "The people here seem to hate these soldiers simply because they are black." (10) The black fighting men subsequently encamped and established regimental headquarters at nearby Fort Taylor, which then operated under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Gulf. At first, many of the USCT combatants were ordered to complete menial support tasks, but that type of secondary role quickly changed as the black soldiers and their white officers were ordered to the mainland by the spring of 1864. Once at their new duty stations, the black soldiers of the USCT engaged in both intermittent and active combat with the enemy, resulting in intensifying the internal conflict and, in the process, creating a new reality for Confederates in Florida until war's end. From February 1864 to March 1865, African American soldiers in Florida participated in at least thirty-two skirmishes, raids, scouting expeditions, and battles. By contrast, during the same time period white-only units and regiments fought in about fifteen skirmishes and raids in the state. (11) However, since the end of the Civil War to recent times, black Union forces in Florida have often been remembered primarily for their supportive roles at the end of the conflict. (12)
This is inaccurate because African American troops and their white commanders appeared in Florida as early as 3 November 1862. At that time, sixty-two members of Company A of the First South Carolina (African descent) Volunteers, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver T. Beard, conducted raids from shallow-draft Union vessels against saltworks situated along the northeast coast of Florida. During the affair Beard's contingent of black soldiers engaged the enemy in separate actions near Fort Clinch on the Bell, Jolly, and Saint Mary's Rivers, while destroying salt, corn, and wagons and liberating two fugitive slave groups. Although not a major engagement, this action initiated an era of extensive African American contributions that would help redefine the internal conflict in Florida until the war's end. (13)
In the early stages of the war many Union commanders doubted the resolve of black recruits to engage in fierce combat; thus, one purpose of the first raids into Florida was to test their mettle. Typical of such actions was the raid into East Florida conducted by a company led by famed abolitionist Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson. His First South Carolina Infantry, the first recorded former slave regiment of the Union Army (which included African Americans from Florida), proceeded up the St. Mary's River aboard the transport Darlington in January and February 1863. The black troops landed and dispatched Confederate pickets before destroying an enemy salt works and nearby supplies, after which they set out to free and recruit Florida bondsmen. The First South Carolina's amphibious operations up the St. Mary's River convinced Union commanders that African Americans would be a useful component of their plans to control Florida. In retrospect, the raid served as both precursor and signature action of many subsequent events that marked the African American determination to cripple the enemy at home, to liberate those still enslaved, and to recruit new servicemen from a Confederate …
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Publication information: Article title: Give Them Their Due: A Reassessment of African Americans and Union Military Service in Florida during the Civil War. Contributors: Winsboro, Irvin D. S. - Author. Journal title: The Journal of African American History. Volume: 92. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 2007. Page number: 327+. © 2008 Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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