From Antietam to Chancellorsville: September 1862 to May 1863

Battles For the West

Who were the first black soldiers in the Civil War?

The Massachusetts 54th regiment is always given the distinction, but there may have been individual African Americans accepted into federal units even prior to that. In the recruiting for the Mass 54th, it was agreed that the soldiers would be black, but that the officers would be white.

When the recruiting proceeded, it was found that the population of free men of color in Massachusetts was too small, so men from other states were allowed to enlist. Frederick Douglass, in Rochester, New York, was able to send many young men to Massachusetts. There they were trained and drilled by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Both men were true Boston Brahmins, belonging to the upper class of the city. Both initially had some doubts about the men they were called upon to lead, and both dismissed those doubts after just a few weeks. The black men made fine soldiers, they declared.

One naturally wonders if the recruitment of black soldiers for the Confederate side would have made any difference. But the logic was too strained. A nation built on the idea that there were two races—one superior and the other hopelessly inferior—could not arm black men to fight. No one would seriously raise the prospect until the war was nearly over.


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