Return to USCT Homepage

Raising the African Brigade:
Early Black Recruitment in Civil War
North Carolina

by Dr. Richard Reid

(By Special Permission of the NC Division of Archives & History)
[Reprinted from North Carolina Historical Review, 70 (1993), pp. 266-301]

Part I
(pp. 266-272)

Recruiting for the African Brigade is progressing lively and enthusiastically," wrote Corporal Z. T. Haines, of the Forty-fourth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Militia, in late May 1863. "Quite a recruiting fever has seized the freedmen of Newbern. ...Four thousand colored soldiers are counted upon in this department." 1 At almost the same time another soldier, William P. Derby of the Twenty-seventh Massachusetts Volunteers, recorded the excitement within the city's black population. "One can hardly forget the enthusiasm amongst the negroes of this place, placards being posted around the city, calling for four thousand men for 'Wild's colored Brigade.' Street processions of the most motley character were the order of the day." 2

What the two soldiers were describing, the plan to raise four infantry regiments from among North Carolina's African-American population, was one of the first authorized attempts by the Federal government to enlist ex-slaves in the defense of the Union. By the end of the war black recruitment would become widely accepted and North Carolina would provide just over 5,000 of the 179,000 black troops raised. 3 In the spring of 1863, however, the policy was new and controversial. Not surprisingly, it would be implemented in different regions with varying degrees of success. The differences in the ways in which African Americans were recruited and their responses to the Union policy depended greatly upon local conditions, the interplay of widely divergent personalities, and the recent and regional experiences of the black population. In North Carolina the initial attempt to recruit blacks would be strongly influenced by Massachusetts abolitionist zeal and paternalistic altruism, combined with a careful selection of those white officers who would lead the black units. The architects of the project were among the nation's most sympathetic supporters of black service and were drawn from the state with the strongest abolition credentials. Of course, the success of the brigade and any further enlistment would depend most of all upon the willingness of North Carolina blacks to risk all in an uncertain conflict where a blue uniform did not always signify a friend. Nevertheless, the white organizers hoped to establish a model with the brigade in North Carolina that could demonstrate elsewhere how best to serve both Union and black interests. As a result, the recruitment of the African Brigade, and its first months of service, can be used as an effective case study to delineate the upper limits of white altruism and the Federal government's willingness to treat ex-slaves in a fashion similar to white soldiers. The abbreviated career of the brigade also reflects the constantly altering conditions, goals, and priorities facing the organizers and soldiers in the black units. Such a study offers a corrective to current scholarly portrayals of black recruitment.

The most recent study of black troops has described the recruitment of blacks as "one of the most difficult and disagreeable duties of the white officers assigned to the black regiments." All sorts of obstacles were placed in the recruiters' way, and little in the way of assistance or incentives was offered to ease their job. Overall, "too many officers cared too little how they raised black recruits." 4 As a result, the first contact that many African Americans had with recruiters was one of intimidation and constraint. While that was not true in North Carolina, it had been true elsewhere. When General David Hunter began to raise black regiments in South Carolina in May 1862, his conscription of all able-bodied black men ages eighteen to forty-five and other heavy-handed actions terrified the ex-slaves and convinced them that such efforts preceded a return to bondage. 5 Although conditions improved under General Rufus Saxton, Jr., later drafts and impressments were almost as draconian as the first. The trial and execution of Sergeant William Walker for mutiny in early 1864 highlighted not only the Third South Carolina Colored Infantry's sense of betrayal over the unequal-pay issue and its onerous fatigue duties but also the number of incompetent regimental officers in it who faced dismissal or military charges. 6 In Louisiana, conflicting groups of "planters, Northern lessees, contrabands, and free blacks, all claiming to be loyal to the Union, as well as officials of both War and Treasury departments" prevented the formulation of any orderly and rational policy of black enlistment. 7 Moreover, they ensured that the interests of the black slaves would receive a very low priority. General Benjamin Butler's refusal in July 1862 to let Brigadier General John Phelps openly encourage slaves to join Union forces and to enroll them in black regiments was largely a result of Butler's initial reluctance to disrupt the social status quo. Butler's subsequent enlistment of New Orleans's free black militia was rooted in that group's perceived social status as well as the rapidity of changing attitudes and events. 8 Conditions in North Carolina, a few people hoped, offered a chance of black recruitment by carefully chosen men who would bypass those problems.

John Albion Andrew, the abolitionist governor of Massachusetts, advocated recruiting blacks into the Union army and in 1863 proposed that African-American troops be raised in North Carolina. Engraving by Alexander H. Ritchie from Dictionary of American Portraits (New York: Dover Publications, 1967), 16.

The decision to raise a brigade of black troops in North Carolina was a by-product of several factors. The Federal occupation of coastal areas of the state, which occurred in 1862, was necessary before significant numbers of potential black recruits became available. Even then, however, until white attitudes concerning the appropriateness of black service changed and until African Americans had convinced the North of their willingness and ability to support the Union, few people championed black enlistment. One group that did so ardently and whose support for the African Brigade was crucial to its success was led by the governor of Massachusetts, John A. Andrew. Andrew, an abolitionist, had long been an advocate of black recruitment at all ranks including commissioned officers, initially among Northern free blacks. Encouraging him and supporting his goals were abolitionists such as Wendell Phillips, Francis W. Bird, George L. Stearns, and Edward W. Kinsley. As the war progressed, the governor expanded his arguments to include Southern slaves. 9 By the end of January 1863, he had succeeded in getting authorization to raise a black regiment in Massachusetts, the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteers, and Stearns began to develop a network of black recruiting officers throughout the North. 10 The response to the call for black volunteers was so good that a second black regiment, the Fifty-fifth, was soon added.

Andrew's achievement led him to propose to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, on April 1, 1863, that "some able, brave, tried, and believing man" be sent to North Carolina to raise black troops. 11 Andrew had cause to believe that conditions and the time were favorable. Not only did he have information that there were between twenty-five hundred and five thousand potential recruits within Union lines, but he was also aware, from published and unpublished accounts by soldiers in the thirteen Massachusetts regiments making up part of the occupying forces, of the enthusiasm and aid for the Union cause exhibited by the ex-slaves. 12 Colonel Frank Lee of the Forty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment had informed Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteers, and others that "a brigade of coloured men could be easily raised in North Carolina." 13 His opinion carried greater weight because one of his men, Private Henry A. Clapp, was compiling a census of the freed black population in Federal-occupied North Carolina for the Union commander. 14 The census was completed for New Bern by March and indicated that there were at least eighty-five hundred black refugees in the town and in three outlying camps. 15

Moreover, by the early months of 1863 the idea of using former slaves as soldiers was slowly becoming more acceptable throughout much of the North. Equally important, Andrew believed that one of his state's black regiments could serve a vital role in North Carolina. Attracting escaped slaves to join a whites-only Northern army, he argued, would be very difficult. On the other hand, "it would be comparatively easy to gain large numbers to join an army in part already composed of black troops. I suggest that if you sent some colored troops down there the result would shortly be a general attraction of the blacks to our Army unless the business of dealing with those people should be badly managed." 16 He reminded Stanton that his act of raising "a colored regiment in Massachusetts was begun upon talking with you about North Carolina and the difficulty of attracting negroes to join white troops." He proposed that Stanton send the Fifty-fifth to North Carolina to form "the nest egg of a brigade." 17 The governor had originally planned on sending the Fifty-fourth to New Bern, and as late as April 8 Robert Shaw was preparing his regiment to go to North Carolina. 18 Ultimately, however, Shaw's regiment was sent to South Carolina, where there was greater opportunity for it to demonstrate its military value. Shaw had told Andrew that there was more hope for action there under Hunter than in North Carolina under Major General John G. Foster. "The latter," wrote Shaw, "as likely as not, would make us do all the digging in the department." 19

Major General John Gray Foster commanded the Union forces in eastern North Carolina. He initially opposed black recruitment but reconsidered after the transfer of ten thousand of his troops to South Carolina created a need for additional men. Portrait from The National Cyclopedia of American Biography, 10:134.

Shaw's concerns underlined the fact that Andrew's enthusiasm was absolutely critical because Union officials in the state were far less sanguine about the prospect of raising black soldiers there. Edward Stanly, who had been appointed provisional governor in May 1862, was very hostile to any attempt to alter the status quo. He believed that the conflict was "a war of restoration and not of abolition and destruction." 20 The governor was convinced that many slaveholders were sincere unionists and that their property should be safeguarded. In January 1863, when former slaves who were employed as stewards in the navy or as servants for Union officers returned to Edenton to release their families, Stanly and the slave owners were outraged. He demanded that the blacks and the soldiers who accompanied them be punished for their "insolent" conduct. 21 Until his resignation in protest of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Stanly would oppose the use of black troops. Even Major General John G. Foster, who had replaced General Ambrose E. Burnside as Union commander in eastern North Carolina in July 1862, was more interested in raising white troops in the state than enlisting African Americans. Despite the number of contrabands around New Bern, he believed that "not more than one Regiment, if even that could be raised in this Department by voluntary enlistment, and forced enlistment would of course alienate the negroes, the very object the Governor of Massachusetts wishes to avoid." He not only distrusted their "lack of discipline" but also believed that they would not enlist while they could work as civilians for the government. 22

Foster's concern resulted partly from the shortage of Federal troops left in his department following General Burnside's departure for Virginia with two full divisions. 23 The shortage of troops did, however, open the door to limited black military service, which in turn began the slow transformation of white attitudes toward the black male. Some Northern soldiers serving in the South were struck by the enthusiasm and emotional outpouring of Southern slaves to the Union occupation. 24 The general Northern response, on the other hand, was at the very best ambivalent. While some men such as Corporal Haines might refer to "our friends, the contrabands," one officer in Plymouth responded to calls for "protection" from blacks by giving them "a dozen stripes" with a rope. 25 William F. Draper wrote from New Bern to his father, who he believed would be celebrating the emancipation of the slaves in the West Indies. Draper then voiced his own views on abolition. "I hope ere many years to be able to celebrate the emancipation of the slaves in the U.S. I wish they would be colonized though." 26 Another Massachusetts soldier, Thomas J. Jennings, scoffed at such abolitionist attitudes. "You who are at home," he wrote a friend, "are as ignorant of the position and qualification of the Negroes, as they are of education." 27 In July 1862, when a New York soldier freed a slave who had sought freedom in Plymouth only to be recaptured by his owner, five other Northern soldiers seized the slave and arrested the would-be liberator. 28

Footnotes (1-28)

1. "Corporal" [Zenas T. Haines], Letters from the Forty-fourth Regiment M.V.M.: A Record of the Experience of a Nine Months' Regiment in the Department of North Carolina in 1862-3 (Boston: Herald Job Office, 1863), 109.

2. William P. Derby, Bearing Arms in the Twenty-seventh Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War, 1861-1865 (Boston: Wright and Potter Printing Co., 1883), 192.

3. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, ser. 3, 5:138. The relatively small number from North Carolina, estimated as 8 percent of the 1860 population of black men ages eighteen to forty-five, reflected both the limited area in the east under Union control and the practice of Confederate planters of removing most of their slaves to the interior, where escape to Union lines was much more difficult.

4. Joseph T. Glatthaar, Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers (New York: Free Press, 1990), 61-66, 76.

5. Howard C. Westwood, "Generals David Hunter and Rufus Saxton and Black Soldiers," South Carolina Historical Magazine 86 (July 1985): 168-171; Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1964),146-148.

6. Howard C. Westwood, "The Cause and Consequence of a Union Black Soldier's Mutiny and Execution," Civil War History 31 (September 1985): 225-232.

7. Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland, eds., The Black Military Experience, ser. 2 of Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982),121.

8. A critical factor in Butler's decision in the summer of 1862 was the small size of his command and his belief that the Confederates presented a very real threat to continued Union occupation of New Orleans. Recognition that Louisiana's free black militia, even with the addition of some newly freed slaves, represented a unique case is seen in the fact that the black militia officers were given line commissions, something that occurred nowhere else. Howard C. Westwood, "Benjamin Butler's Enlistment of Black Troops in New Orleans in 1862," Louisiana History 26 (Winter 1985): 5-22.

9. Official Records, ser. 3, 3:36,46-47; Berlin, Reidy, and Rowland, Black Military Experience, 6, 9, 75-76.

10. Berlin, Reidy, and Rowland, Black Military Experience, 9, 75.

11. Official Records, ser. 3, 3:109-110.

12. Official Records, ser. 3, 3:110.

13. Russell Duncan, ed., Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Athens: University of Georgia Press,1992),320.

14. Henry A. Clapp to "Dear Willie," February 27,1863; Henry A. Clapp to "Dear Father, "March l, 1863; Henry A. Clapp to "Dear Mother," March 14,1863, all in Henry A. Clapp Letter Book, Collections Branch, Tryon Palace Historic Sites and Gardens, New Bern.

15. In the town and outskirts there were 5,962 persons, while the three camps contained, "by the best estimate, about twenty-five hundred souls." Henry A. Clapp to Helen Clapp, March 20, 1863; Henry A. Clapp to Louise Clapp, March 26,1863, both in Clapp Letter Book.

16. Official Records, ser. 3, 3:110.

17. Andrew wished to reserve the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts to serve in an active theater where it could demonstrate in battle the qualities that would make white Americans appreciate the value of black soldiers. Official Records, ser. 3, 3:110.

18. Duncan, Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune, 320, 321, 322.

19. Duncan, Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune, 333.

20. Edward Stanly to Hon. Edwin Stanton, June 12, 1862, (Official Records, ser. 1, 9:400. Stanly allowed a slaveholder to enter Union lines to search for slaves freed by "a rude soldier" but advised the owner "to use mildness and persuasion." The provisional governor was pleased to see one slave "returned to the home of a kindly master."

21. Ira Berlin et al., eds., The Destruction of Slavery, ser. 1 of Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 87-88.

22. Berlin, Reidy, and Rowland, Black Military Experience, 132.

23. John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963), 131.

24. "Corporal," Letters from the Forty-fourth, 35, 45, 91; Derby, Bearing Arms in the Twenty-seventh, 192; Barrett, Civil War in North Carolina, 87, 106; Stephen V. Ash, Middle Tennessee Society Transformed, 1860-1870 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988),106-107; Joseph T. Glatthaar, The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman's Troops in the Savannah and Carolinas Campaigns (New York: New York University Press, 1985), 53, 59-65.

25. "Corporal," Letters from the Forty-fourth, 35; Wayne K. Durrill, War of Another Kind: A Southern Community in the Great Rebellion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 108.

26. William F. Draper to "Father," August 1, 1862, William Franklin Draper Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

27. Thomas J. Jennings to "Eternal Friend," February 25, 1863, Thomas J. Jennings Letters, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina Library, Chapel Hill.

28. Spruill Memorandum, July 19, 1862, Pettigrew Family Papers, Southern Historical Collection, cited in Durrill, War of Another Kind, 119.

Source: "Raising the African Brigade: Early Black Recruitment in Civil War North Carolina", by Dr. Richard Reid, Dept. of History, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada; in North Carolina Historical Review, 70 (1993), pp. 266-301.

Go To Raising the African Brigade - Part II