Friday, February 25, 2011

How Many Black Union Soldiers Won the Medal of Honor?

Christian Fleetwood's Medal of Honor, Smithsonian Institute
 In the opening chapter of Elizabeth Leonard’s new book Men of Color to Arms!: Black Soldiers, Indian Wars, and the Quest for Equality, the author makes the following statement: “In the course of their military service, more than a dozen soldiers of the USCT earned the Congressional Medal of Honor” (p.8).

While this statement is technically true, the lack of specificity left me somewhat puzzled and concerned. So I checked to see the source for this statement and found that the citation came from James M. McPherson’s Ordeal By Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction (1992 edition) – the standard undergraduate textbook used by most colleges to teach the Civil War era. This puzzled me even more, because Leonard also cited McPherson’s The Negro’s Civil War, which clearly states that “seventeen black soldiers…were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor (p.241).

So why only casually refer to “more than a dozen”? I have no idea. But it started me thinking about the confusion that seems to reign on this subject. Most books say that 16 black soldiers won the Medal of Honor – some, like McPherson’s, say 17.

Well, you may be asking yourself, what’s the correct answer? Before we delve into that subject, we should begin with several understandings. First, we are only referring to the total number of foot soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor – sailors are not included. Second, we are referring to Black Union Soldiers, not just United States Colored Troops (for more on the topic of black soldiers in white regiments, see The Forgotten Black Soldiers in White Regiments During the Civil War by Juanita D. Moss). As you will see, there was a black soldier in a white regiment who recieved a Medal of Honor.

Keeping those two factors in mind, the number of black Union soldiers who won the Congressional Medal of Honor during the Civil War is 18.

I have listed all 18 below and have included their name, rank, unit, the battle in which they committed their act of heroism, and the date of issue for their medal. It is interesting to note that if you go by the date of issue, the first Medals of Honor issued to African American Union soldiers went to the heroes of New Market Heights.

1.) Pvt. William H. Barnes: 38th USCT, Battle of New Market Heights, April 6, 1865

2.) 1st Sgt. Powhatan Beaty: 5th USCT Battle of New Market Heights, April 6, 1865

3.) 1st Sgt. James Bronson: 5th USCT, Battle of New Market Heights, April 6, 1865

4.) Sgt. Maj. Christian Fleetwood: 4th USCT Battle of New Market Heights, April 6, 1865

5.) Pvt. James B. Gardiner: 36th USCT, Battle of New Market Heights, April 6, 1865

6.) Sgt. Alfred Hilton: 4th USCT, Battle of New Market Heights, April 6, 1865

7.) Sgt. Milton M. Holland: 5th USCT Battle of New Market Heights, April 6, 1865

8.) Cpl. Miles James: 36th USCT, Battle of New Market Heights, April 6, 1865

9.) 1st Sgt. Alexander Kelly: 6th USCT, Battle of New Market Heights, April 6, 1865

10.) 1st Sgt. Robert Pinn: 5th USCT, Battle of New Market Heights, April 6, 1865

11.) 1st Sgt. Edward Ratcliff: 38th USCT, Battle of New Market Heights, April 6, 1865

12.) Pvt. Charles Veal: 4th USCT, Battle of New Market Heights, April 6, 1865

13.) Cpl. Decatur Dorsey: 39th USCT, The Crater, November 8, 1865

14.) Sgt. Maj. Thomas R. Hawkins: 6th USCT, Battle of New Market Heights, February 8, 1870

15.) Sgt. James H. Harris, 38th USCT, Battle of New Market Heights, February 18, 1874

16.) Sgt. William H. Carney: 54th Massachusetts, Battery Wagner, May 23, 1900

17.) Pvt. Bruce Anderson: 142nd New York, Second Battle of Fort Fisher, December 28, 1914

18.) Cpl. Andrew Jackson Smith: 55th Massachusetts, Battle of Honey Hill, January 16, 2001

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

For Love of Liberty Now on DVD

It’s hard to believe that a year has passed since PBS first aired the excellent documentary For Love of Liberty: The Story of America’s Black Patriots. This 4-hour film is introduced by Colin Powell, hosted on-camera by Halle Berry and features a cast that includes Morgan Freeman, Bill Cosby, John Travolta, Robert Duvall, Danny Glover, Sam Elliot, Cliff Robertson, Mel Gibson, and many others. These actors lend their voices to letters, diaries, speeches and military records that document and acknowledge the sacrifices and accomplishments of African-American service men and women since the earliest days of the republic. The story spans the Revolution to Afghanistan and examines why, despite enormous injustice, these heroic men and women fought so valiantly for freedoms they themselves did not enjoy.

Of particular interest to the readers of this blog is the 35-minute documentary that accompanies the three-disc educator edition entitled For Love of Liberty: Stories of Black Patriots in the Civil War. This overview of the Civil War era begins in 1861, with the appeal of the free blacks of Boston to serve in the military and goes on to cover the entire war, concluding with the 22 African Americans who served in congress after the war. Told mainly in the words of the USCTs themselves, the film highlights everything from the story of the Louisiana Native Guard, Battery Wagner, Olustee, Fort Pillow, the Crater, New Market Heights (of course), and the fall of Richmond. If you plan on using this in the classroom, a facilitator’s guide is included as well.

If you’d like to check out the film before ordering, check with your local PBS station since they are current re-airing it in honor of Black History Month. For more information on ordering, click here.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

“Recklessness galore, gallantry mere more, disgrace in store, Seymour; Union General Commanding”

Thus was described the Battle of Olustee, fought on February 20, 1864, by a quick-witted officer in Co. K, 7th Connecticut Infantry. While the battle itself was not one of the finer military exploits produced by the Union war effort during the American Civil War, it did display the fighting prowess of the African American soldiers who fought there.

In early 1864, Federal forces launched their largest military operation in Florida that was a result of both political and military considerations. With the presidential election coming up in November the Republicans hoped to organize a loyal Florida government in time to send delegates to the Republican nominating convention. In addition to the political objectives Major General Quincy Gillmore, stated that the expedition was necessary to “procure an outlet for cotton, lumber, Timber, Turpentine, and the other products of the State… cut off one of the enemy's sources of commissary supplies.”

In February, 1864 Gillmore received approval for his plans to occupy Jacksonville with a large force and to extend Federal operations over much of northeast Florida. About 6,000 troops from Gillmore's Department of the South were selected for the operation and on February 7th these troops took Jacksonville. One week later Gillmore met with his subordinate, Truman Seymour who was not held in the highest of esteem by his men. One soldier later described the situation: “The Florida expedition was intrusted to the command of General Truman Seymour, considered by more than the rank and file, as an eccentric West Point crank who aped only Napoleon in prowling around camps at night to watch the men on duty, but he lacked the genius of his prototype in the performance of his own duty.”

Gillmore ordered that defensive works be constructed and appointed Seymour commander of the newly-created District of Florida. On February 19 he assembled his troops in preparation for a movement against the Confederates the next day.

The next day saw confused fighting and when some of Seymour’s white units broke, he sent in the untried men of the 8th United States Colored Troops. The 8th had trained at Camp William Penn in Pennsylvania but had “little practice in loading and firing” their weapons, according to the regimental surgeon. Lt. Oliver Norton of the 8th recalled that after standing up to the murderous fire, his men had to withdraw:

As the men fell back they gathered in groups like frightened sheep, and it was almost impossible to keep them from doing so. Into these groups the rebels poured the deadliest fire, almost every bullet hitting some one. Color bearer after color bearer was shot down and the colors seized by another. Behind us was a battery that was wretchedly managed. They had but little ammunition, but after firing that, they made no effort to get away with their pieces, but busied themselves in trying to keep us in front of them. Lieutenant Lewis seized the colors and planted them by a gun and tried to rally his men round them, but forgetting them for the moment, they were left there, and the battery was captured and our colors with it.
Around this time the two units that were bringing up the rear – the 54th Massachusetts and the 1st North Carolina Colored Volunteers (35th USCT) – arrived on the scene. The 54th raised its sarcastic battle cry “Three cheers for Massachusetts and seven dollars a month!” and went on line. One eyewitness said that they “fought like tigers” while the 1st NCCV “went up into the field, halting and firing fiercely, with its right well forward, so as to form an angle of…120 degrees with the line of the Fifty-Fourth.” With the two black units holding the field, Seymour decided to form a new line farther to the rear and withdraw his other units, which left the 54th and 1st NCCV terribly exposed to the Confederate fire. With their comrades pulling back, there was nothing left for them to do but to withdraw in good order.

The casualties reported by the three black units at Olustee tell the tale better than any eyewitness account ever could. The 54th lost 13 men killed, 65 wounded, and 8 missing. The 1st NCCV (which had officially been redesignated the 35th USCT, yet still clung to its old name) lost 22 killed, 131 wounded, and 77 missing. And, finally, the poor 8th USCT lost 49 killed, 188 wounded, and 73 missing. The Federals as whole would lose 26.5% of their men, making Olustee proportionally the third bloodiest battle of the entire war.

To make matter worse, Olustee was one of the many sanguinary fights in which the Confederates committed atrocities after the fighting had ended.

William Frederick Penniman of the 4th Georgia Cavalry leaves the following account:

In passing over the field, and the road ran centering through it, my attention was first attracted to the bodies of the yankees, invariably stripped, shoes first and clothing next. Their white bodies looked ghastly enough, but I particularly notice that firing seemed to be going on in every direction, until the reports sounded almost frequent enough to resemble the work of skirmishers. A young officer was standing in the road in front of me and I asked him, "What is the meaning of all this firing I hear going on". His reply to me was, "Shooting niggers Sir. "I have tried to make the boys desist but I can't control them". I made some answer in effect that it seemed horrible to kill the wounded devils, and he again answered, "That's so Sir, but one young fellow over yonder told me the niggers killed his brother after being wounded, at Fort Billow, and he was twenty three years old, that he had already killed nineteen and needed only four more to make the matter even, so I told him to go ahead and finis the job". I rode on but the firing continued. The next morning I had occasion to go over the battle field again quite early, before the burial squads began their work, when the results of the shooting of the previous night became quite apparent. Negroes, and plenty of them, whom I had seen lying all over the field wounded, and as far as I could see, many of them moving around from palace to place, now without a motion, all were dead. If a negro had a shot in the shin another was sure to be in the head.
The defeat at Olustee ended the Union’s effort to organize a loyal Florida government in time for the 1864 election. Jacksonville would remain in Union hands until the end of the war, although the cost for such a gain was incredibly steep. Still, the positive long-term gains achieved after Olustee can be attributed in large part to the African American soldiers who fought and bled there 147 years ago today.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

One Year & 121 Posts Later…

Well, today marks the one year birthday of The Sable Arm: A Blog Dedicated to the United States Colored Troops of the Civil War Era. I must say that when I first began this blog I didn’t think it would have much of an impact or have a wide readership at all – I viewed it more as an exercise to force myself to learn about USCTs and specifically the Battle of New Market Heights, and be able to have a dialogue with like-minded people who could help me understand these topics and expose me to source material I was previously unaware of.

One year later, I’m happy to say that – in my estimation, at least – this blog has exceeded those goals and has provided me with opportunities that I never would have dreamed of twelve months earlier. From a book deal with the History Press to write the sesquicentennial history of New Market Heights, the opportunity to meet the descendants of one of the men who won the Medal of Honor there, a chance to live blog the most recent signature conference of the Virginia Sesquicentennial Committee, and the honor of being picked one of the 30 best Civil War blogs out there, The Sable Arm has taken on a life of its own and I couldn’t be happier.

None of this could have happened without everyone who’s stopped by to read my musings (14,000 if the hit counter can be trusted), and a big “thank you” goes out to everyone who has chosen to follow this blog.

I know that my postings have been few and far between lately, but the upshot of that is that you will all get chance to read my New Market Heights book this August (and if you don’t wish to read it, please don’t let that constrain you from purchasing a copy). I plan to keep the same format that I’ve used this past year, but if you have any suggestions as to how this blog could be improved, feel free to shoot me an email or leave a comment. At the moment I’m working on another entry in my Profiles in Courage series, a piece to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of Olustee, and a brief biographical survey of the Birney family (the abolitionist James G. Birney and two of his sons who went on to become Civil War generals in command of USCTs), and a review of the Virginia Historical Society’s new exhibition An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia.

There’s also a chance that you’ll be seeing me wearing a blue uniform in the near future, but I’ll leave that for another time.

Here’s to the next twelve months!