Return to USCT Homepage
Raising the African Brigade:
Early Black Recruitment in Civil War
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]
There were other, more important signs that the original progressive ideas behind the African Brigade were eroding or, with the departure of Wild, ceasing to be major concerns. The First NCCV received its first taste of military discrimination shortly after it arrived in South Carolina. Detachments of the regiment were ordered to lay out and police the camps of white New York soldiers on Folly Island. After heated protests from both Colonel Beecher and General Wild, such practices were officially prohibited, although evidence suggests that similar abuse continued well into November. 122 Moreover, in late October, while Beecher was absent, Lieutenant Colonel Reed was placed under arrest after he stopped the misuse of one of his soldiers. The soldier, Private Lafayette Spencer, had been detailed for duty in the quartermaster's department on Folly Island but was being required to serve as cook for some white soldiers. When Reed removed him from the quartermaster's department without authorization, the officer was arrested for going outside the proper line of command. Two days later, however, Reed was released from arrest and resumed his temporary command of the regiment. 123
More alarming than those events were the signs of internal discrimination or racial unease within the brigade. The appointment of De Grasse as assistant surgeon had created tensions among the white medical officers, the one group of officers whom Wild could not entirely handpick. De Grasse's authority proved particularly galling for Daniel Mann, the other assistant surgeon. After Wild returned to New Bern, leaving the First NCCV on Folly Island, Mann complained in writing to Surgeon Horace R. Wirtz that De Grasse had been disputing Mann's seniority, and he implied that De Grasse wanted to get control of the medical liquor supplies. Wirtz felt compelled to support the white doctor and claimed that "the Lieut. Col. of the Regt. (which is commanded by Col. Beecher) is a mulatto and while he has been temporarily in command of the Regt. he has used every endeavor in his power to elevate the negro doctor over the white one. 124 Wirtz also claimed that De Grasse "had committed misdemeanors in the way of appropriating Hospital Rations," which would compel Wirtz to prefer charges, although no such charges were ever made. 125 The following year Henry O. Marcy, the white surgeon of the regiment, orchestrated charges that led to De Grasse's being cashiered. 126 In a less dramatic event, when the black chaplain of the First NCCV resigned his commission because of disability, a white chaplain, Thomas A. Hall of Otis, Massachusetts, replaced him. The shift from a black chaplain for the soldiers to a white minister for the officers reflected "the expressed desire of the officers of [Beecher's] command." 127
African Anericans in the military suffered discrimination in several areas, including pay. On May 1, 1864, Brigadier General Edward W. Hinks, commanding the division that included the Thirty-seventh United States Colored Troops, issued General Order No. 15 informing the soldiers that " you are to be paid hereafter as all other soldiers in the nation are paid." Document from a private collection.
Not only were the few blacks holding commissions not replaced with other African Americans, but there were also signs that faith in black leadership at all levels was slipping. When the first two regiments were formed a certain number of white non- commissioned officers were selected, but they appeared to be attached exclusively to the field and staff. 128 Regulations posted in early June 1863 established how non- commissioned officers were to be chosen for the First NCCV. "Two sergeants and Eight Corporals should be selected from the most promising and be under the special instructions of the Company Officers." Three more sergeants would eventually be selected from the eight corporals, and those vacancies would be filled from the ranks. 129 The same was done for the Second NCCV, but by the time the Third NCCV was being established a new policy seems to have been adopted. The first sergeant in each company was now to be white. The commander of the Third NCCV, Lieutenant Colonel A.G. Chamberlain, recruited a detachment of twelve men in Boston before his first companies were mustered in. Most of them were reentisting veterans who, prior to the war, had been artisans, clerks, or students in Massachusetts. Their ages, with one exception, ranged from nineteen to twenty-seven. They became the first sergeants and the regimental noncommissioned staff when the regiment was formed. Their appointments expressed a belief that the new companies each needed at least one white noncommissioned officer to function properly. The men who signed on in Boston may have been motivated by abolitionist sentiment, or by the three-hundred-dollar bounty, and most believed that they could expect a commission in the future if they performed well. 130
Even the families of North Carolina's black soldiers were not untouched by changing events. On September 10, 1863, after Wild and his soldiers had been reassigned to Folly Island in South Carolina, the authority that the general had received to colonize Roanoke Island with the families of his soldiers was transferred to Horace James, a former chaplain of the Twenty-fifth Massachusetts Volunteers. Although James sympathized with North Carolina's freedmen and worked long hours on their behalf, he admitted that he was "not personally a believer in negro equality." 131 It is not clear that James supported the interests and equal treatment of the soldiers' families to the degree that Wild had, and certainly the transfer of the regiments out of North Carolina created real difficulties for the dependents. In late 1864, men of the old Second NCCV, then at Chaffins Bluff, Virginia, complained that they could not get word to or from their families at Roanoke. They requested that a member of the regiment be allowed to go to the island to check on their relatives. 132 By the end of the war, men of that regiment believed that James was closing his eyes to mistreatment of their families on Roanoke Island. Although they placed the greatest blame on assistant supervisor Holland Streeter, who, they charged, sold rations and abused the soldiers' dependents, they claimed that "Captn James the Suptn in Charge has been told of these facts and has taken no notice of them." Indeed, the soldiers of the Thirty-seventh USCT, another of the North Carolina regiments, believed "the cause of much suffering is that Captn James has not paid the Colored people for their work for nearly a year and at the same time cuts the ration's off to one half so that people have neither provisions nor money to buy it with." 133
Given the rapid change events and attitudes in 1863, the demise of the African Brigade was perhaps inevitable. Its existence depended, to a large extent, on the concerns and actions of a few men whose powers were limited and circumscribed. The fact that the brigade's regiments had to be raised sequentially meant that at some point Wild would have to split his attention between raising and training black soldiers and leading his first regiments into active theaters. The escalating demands, in 1863, for combat soldiers, and the pace of his recruitment, would ensure that the general could not complete his brigade. More importantly, however, the two major issues that Governor Andrew had hoped to address--whether Southern ex-slaves would serve voluntarily in a white Union army, and whether white Americans would accept those men, even grudgingly and with conditions, as an integral part of the Union forces--had been largely answered in the affirmative by the end of 1863. Black troops were being raised successfully throughout the South. As a result, the model for enlistment offered by Andrew and Wild, in which North Carolina served merely as a crucible to test the recruiting of ex-slaves, proved largely unnecessary by 1864. For all but a few individuals, the soldiers themselves were just pawns in a larger game. As they served their purpose and the game moved on, the pawns became intermingled with the other pieces. As a result, what began as a distinct state brigade was ultimately integrated into the larger pool of United States Colored Troops.
Yet, even though the three North Carolina regiments ceased to exist as a combined unit by the start of 1864 and were amalgamated into larger units of African-American troops, the nature of their recruitment and staffing left an imprint on the regiments that would influence their military records. The officers had been as carefully selected as conditions would allow, to bring to the regiments not only military experience but also a set of abolitionist values initially sympathetic to black North Carolinians. Thus it was that, twenty-five years after the war ended, one of the black veterans, John Hadley, still described the regiment in which he had served as the Thirty-seventh Massachusetts. 134
(Dr. Reid is an associate professor, Department of History, University of Guelph, Canada.)
122. Col. James Beecher to Gen. E.A. Wild, September 13, 1863, Letters Received, Thirty-fifth Regiment USCT, RG 94; General Order No. 105, November 25, 1863, Letters Received, Department of the South, RG 94, both printed in Berlin, Reidy, and Rowland, Black Military Experience, 493-494.
123. Colonel Beecher to Lieutenant Colonel Reed, October 29,1863; Captain Henry to Colonel Beecher, October 29, 1863; Special Order No. 48, October 31, 1863, all in Order and Letter Book, Thirty-fifth Regiment USCT, RG 94.
124. H.R. Wirtz to _________, September 29,1863, Personal Papers of Medical Officers and Physicians, RG 94.
125. H.R. Wirtz to _________, September 29,1863, Personal Papers of Medical Cfficers and Physicians, RG 94.
126. While evidence from the court-martial indicated that De Grasse probably had a dependence on alcohol, it was also clear that some of the charges were racially motivated. Asst. Surgeon John De Grasse, Proceedings of General Courts-Martial, RG 153.
127. Col. James Beecher to Col. C.W. Foster, March 14, 1864, Descriptive and Letter Book, Thirty-fifth Regiment USCT, RG 94.
128. These men included Hospital Steward Delos Barber, formerly of the Eighty-fifth New York Volunteers, Sgt. Maj. James Elmsly, formerly corporal in the 132d New York Volunteers, and Commissary Sgt. Charles A. Clark of Brooklyn, N.Y. Order Book, Thirty-fifth Regiment USCT, RG 94.
129. At the time these orders were issued, it may not have been known just how much time company officers would have to spend, often on detached duty, recruiting new troops. General Order No. 1, June 5, 1863, Order Book, Thirty-fifth Regiment USCT, RG 94.
130. Seven of these men received commissions and two, Samuel D. Edgar and Charles Drayton, were brevetted captain for "faithful and meritorious service during the war." A third man, James J. Sullivan, originally the first sergeant in Company C, was ultimately brevetted major. Descriptive Book, Thirty-seventh Regiment USCT, RG 94; "Detachment Received by the 3rd NCCV," Muster Rolls and Records, Thirty-seventh Regiment USCT, RG 94; Official Army Register of the Volunteer Forces of the U.S. Army for the Years 1861-1865 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1865), 209.
131. Reilly, "Reconstruction through Regeneration," 45.
132. "Request of the Men of the 36th USCT," William A. Green, Compiled Military Service Records, RG 94.
133. Berlin, Reidy, and Rowland, Black Military Experience, 729.
134. Hadley had served as a private in Company D, Thirty-seventh USCT. Another private from that same regiment, William Brewer, described his old unit to the enumerator compiling the 1890 census of Civil War veterans as the "37 Boston Col. inf." Sandra Lee Almasy, comp., North Carolina 1890 Civil War Vetrans Census (Joliet, Ill.: Kensington Glen Publishing, 1990), 95,99.