The Dred Scott decision stated that no one born of African ancestry in the United States could ever be a citizen of that nation. Even so, the Emancipation Proclamation declared,
“I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”
The Emancipation Proclamation took effect in the beginning of 1863, almost 2 years before the war’s end. Regardless, there were more than 200,000 African-American soldiers serving in the Federal army before war’s end in 1865.
Battle at Port Hudson
The first major battle of an African-American regiment was on May 23, 1863, at Port Hudson, Louisiana. Union Major General Nathaniel P. Banks was carrying out the attack to complement General Grant’s assault on Vicksburg. It was a well-fortified Confederate position.
Two African-American regiments, the First and the Third Louisiana, showed fearlessness in their attacks of the defensive position. Taking into account the knowledge of the deadliness of artillery by that time, their bravery impressed the Major General. He says of them:
“The severe test to which they were subjected, and the determined manner in which they encountered the enemy, leaves upon my mind no doubt of their ultimate success.”
Port Hudson surrendered after the fall of Vicksburg.
Battle of Milliken’s Bend
This battle proved the most devastating for any single regiment of either side, in the whole Civil War. Three African regiments were present: the 9th Louisiana Infantry, the 1st Mississippi Infantry, and the 13th Louisiana Infantry. They fought alongside two white regiments. It was a Confederate attack on Milliken’s Bend, a recruitment hub for freed and runaway slaves.
None of the soldiers of African descent had had training for longer than a month. Some had only received training for a week. The Confederates overran the position and fought them back to the riverbanks, mostly in hand-to-hand combat. The soldiers of African descent fought strongly, and the 9th Louisiana Infantry lost forty-five percent of its unit: the highest percentage loss of a single regiment in the entire war.
“Cowards and Sneaks”
When enlistment of soldiers of African descent began, the overall opinion of the Northerners was not positive in the least. The New York Tribune reports:
“Loyal Whites have generally become willing that they should fight, but the great majority have no faith that they will really do so. Many hope they will prove cowards and sneaks — others greatly fear it.”
They knew very little about these soldiers who would be joining the war. However, consistently, the African troops showed courage and fearlessness, constantly, on the fields of the Civil War.
This research was found while researching for Was the Civil War Inevitable?, an article we highly recommend you reading!