As we continue to commemorate the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, we are moving into that span of time when Emancipation moved from the realm of proposition to reality. This past Saturday marked 150 years since the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued and the amount of ink spilled on the genesis of black recruitment will no doubt increase over the next few months. As we head into this crucial period, I fear that familiar narratives that oversimplify the USCT experience will once again make their way into the public discourse.
One such narrative goes something like this: Once the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, African American men living in both the north and the south dropped what they were doing and flocked to recruiting stations to don Union blue and fight for freedom and equality.
While there is more than a germ of truth in this popular narrative, the reality shows that large numbers of African American men stayed away from military service or – even more astonishingly – were compelled to join the army by force. Whether or not a large portion of the African American military age population of a particular state sent large numbers of black troops to the front had much to with the progress of the union army. In areas where the Federals had not gained a toehold, enslaved men rarely took the tremendous risk of attempting to enlist (a good example of this is Texas, which provided fewer than 50 men total.)
Further complicating matters were instances in which the military overreached in its attempts to enlist African Americans into the ranks. Public relations disasters such as those which occurred in the Sea Islands of South Carolina in 1863, when local slaves were rounded up and forced into the army, soured the opinions of many and caused mistrust to poison the attitudes of many former slaves.
While the Sea Islands story has been recounted in such works as Rehearsal For Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment, I recently came across a similar incident that occurred much closer to home. While researching the location of Camp Casey, I came across another story that illustrates just how complex African American recruitment could be.
And the kicker for me was that it also involved none other than the 23rd USCT…
In my previous post about Camp Casey I speculated that it could have been located on the grounds of the Arlington estate, where Robert E. Lee resided for 30 years before the outbreak of Civil War. The conclusion was based on eyewitness accounts and circumstantial evidence. And now even more evidence can be gleaned from the following:
In April of 1864, D. B. Nichols, the Superintendent of Freedman’s Village (a large contraband camp located near the present-day site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier), wrote a letter to Col. Elias Greene, Chief Quartermaster of the Department of Washington. The letter begins by recounting an event that had occurred during the previous month. Nichols states that he met five men, “one wearing the dress of a sergeant of the Colored Regt forming at [Camp] Casey” who asked permission to enter Freedman’s Village “to see their friends.” Nichols allowed the men to enter and apparently gave them no more thought until he was met “by a crowd of women in great distress, saying that colored men had been inside and taken away five or six persons by force, entirely against their will.” The press gang then escaped Freedman’s Village through a gap between the guard posts and “had taken the men off to the camp.” The incident was immediately reported, but it appears to have caused little concern, except among Nichols and the residents of Freedman’s Village.
Nichols summed up this disturbing event by writing:
|Map of Freedman's Village, 1865|
“This affair had a most unfortunate influence upon the minds of the inhabitants of ‘Freedman’s Village,’ so that many of them were kept from night schools and meetings, for fear of being pressed into service against their will.”
In response, the leadership of Freedman’s Village issued an order telling the sentries “to admit no Colored soldier to the camp, unless upon a written order, except it was to attend church on the Sabbath; nor could any white person be admitted if it was thought that the object of the visit was to interfere with the order…of the camp.”
It appears as if this measure was effective for all of three weeks, when the roving bands of recruiters learned of the arrival of 407 men, women, and children who had just arrived from Haiti and were temporarily lodged at Freedman’s Village. Apparently this large group of potential recruits proved too tempting a target and after being denied entrance to the camp, the recruiting party made another attempt to forcibly round up men of military age and escort them quietly out of the camp. This time, however, the sentries were alerted to the problem and the Haitians were “forcibly taken possession of by [the] guard and brought inside the village.”
Needless to say, this did not sit well with the recruiters of the 23rd USCT. Capt. Robert G. Perry, a commander of the guard at Freedman’s Village, wrote that their resistance “incensed and provoked these Recruiting Officers beyond measure.” Perry went on to note that, “They have threatened to ‘Clean out the Village,’ a threat which fortunately for the parties concerned, was never attempted to be enforced. There would have been some Colored Soldiers less.”
So what was the method employed in these attempts to impress men into the 23rd USCT? According to Nichols, the soldiers would approach a freed person inside the camp and tell them, “if you go quietly you will receive fifteen dollars bounty, but if you refuse, you will get no money and we shall draft you.”
Other recruiters were less ambiguous:
“Some of the inmates of this village have been stopped by colored soldiers and threatened, if they would not enlist; and the only manner they saved themselves from being pressed, was because they possessed greater physical strength.”
The motivation, then, was simple enough – these soldiers would entice men to join on the premise of a lucrative bounty, which was usually more than they made in one month of work at Freedman’s Village. In reality, the promised bounty would most likely end up in the hands of agents or speculators. However, the members of the 23rd USCT who brought the “fresh fish” into Camp Casey would, in fact, receive a bounty for each recruit obtained.
It is also important to note that these events took place before July of 1864 when congress passed legislation making it legal for Northern states to recruit black Southerners and count them towards their state quotas – a practice accomplished by paying them sizeable bounties and which usually caused such excesses as those which occurred at Freedman’s Village. Perhaps the motivating factor, then, lies in the issue of unequal pay for USCTs, which had not been fully resolved by March of 1864. Perhaps the bounty hunters were simply trying to compensate for the smaller amount of money that they were paid each month.
As Nichols concluded his report, he stated that if the African American men of Freedman’s Village were to be recruited, “let it not be by a squad of Black Soldiers who have been promised so much bounty on the obtaining of a certain number of Recruits.”
As for the inhabitants of Freedman’s Village, nothing positive seems to have emerged from their ordeal. We may never know how many of the members of the 23rd USCT that were killed at the Battle of the Crater were former residents of Freedman’s Village, forced to enlist and fight against their wishes. Nichols described the overall reaction as follows:
“It has filled these people with such fear the communication is almost entirely broken off between this Village and ‘Camp Todd’ (another of our Camps bordered on the ‘Govt Farms’ under this command) this Camp being situated beyond the barracks where the Colored Regt is situated.”
Injustices such as those committed at Freedman’s Village should be inculcated into the larger narrative of black military service as the Sesquicentennial continues. The overall narrative of brave African American men rising up and striking a decisive blow for freedom will not be diminished and our understanding of their service will be deepened.
|Residents of Freedman's Village|