Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Father Abraham & the USCT's

Since President’s Day was this past Monday, I thought I’d blog a bit on our 16th President and his relationship with the USCT’s.

Abraham Lincoln had the good sense to realize that African American soldiers were “a resource which, if vigorously applied now, will soon close the contest. It works doubly, weakening the enemy and strengthening us.” From the adoption of the Second Confiscation and Militia Acts in 1862 to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Lincoln’s thoughts on the usefulness of black soldiers had evolved. This evolution would continue through the end of the war when he would ruffle feathers by recommending the commissioning of black officers and pushing for full citizenship and voting rights for those who served.

But what of the personal relationship between Lincoln and his “black phalanx”? Well, it was a relationship that got off to a rocky start due to one of the aforementioned pieces of legislation – the Militia Act of 1862. Lincoln had never been a big fan of the Second Confiscation Act or Militia Acts because their infringements on personal liberty made him worry that the acts would be dismissed as unconstitutional. Yet he was technically bound to them and the stipulation in the Militia Act that black soldiers only receive $10 a month ($7 pay and $3 clothing allowance).

Thus, when some USCT units came under fire for the first time and realized that Confederates wouldn’t shoot at them any less just because they received less pay, Lincoln had yet another problem on his hands. One African American soldier dubbed the disparity in pay as “Lincoln despotism.” Some units mutinied, while others wrote indignantly to the president, “Are we soldiers or are we labourers? We have done a Soldier’s duty. Why can’t we have a soldier’s pay?”

The pay situation would eventually be settled by 1864. Still, when Lincoln had a chance to review some of the newly-raised USCT regiments on April 23 & 25, 1864 there may have been some lingering discomfort. The men of the IX Corps who paraded in front of Lincoln, however, had not been party to the pay dispute, and when they paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue they parted ways with military decorum and expressed their joy at seeing the president by singing and dancing in the streets. Lincoln doffed his hat to the passing troops and when General Ambrose Burnside asked if the Honest Abe might be more comfortable inside the tent, sheltered from the freshly falling rain, he stated: “If they can stand it, I guess I can.”

In late June of 1864, Lincoln would again get a chance to review some USCT units, this time during a visit to the Petersburg front. When Grant and Lincoln rode by black soldiers of the XVIII Corps, Army of the James, the troops once again burst into cheers. “De Lord save Fader Abraham!” and “De day ob jubilee am come, shuah!” were just a few of the shouts heard as Lincoln ambled by. He tried to voice his appreciation to the men, but according to one eyewitness, Lincoln’s voice was “so broken by emotion that he could scarcely articulate the words of thanks and congratulation which he tried to speak…The scene was affecting in the extreme, and no one witnessed it unmoved.”

The relationship between Lincoln and his black soldiers is often portrayed as paternalistic and immovable. Yet at times, even this unique bond was proven to be vulnerable to the strains of a country advancing in fits and starts toward a new birth of freedom.

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