From Soldiers to Citizens
A Confederate victory and a Union defeat should not be the only thing discussed when looking at the Battle of Olustee because many records indicate that the inexperienced soldiers of the 35th USCT fought gallantly and skillfully in battle, which in itself is a feat for this regiment and African Americans as a whole during this time, as it gave credibility to their service and opened up discussions regarding their potential citizenship. Though the 35th USCT faced some criticism, for example Sergeant Stephens of the 54th Massachusetts said “that the Fifty-fourth ‘is the only colored regiment that is worth a d----n’” when referring to the performance of all the colored regiments in the Battle of Olustee, countless other sources paint a much different portrait of these African American soldiers. (Smith 2002, 146) A newspaper correspondent discussed the action of the colored troops in the Battle of Olustee:
"No regiment went into action more gallantly, or did better execution than the First North Carolina [colored] troops. Their white commanders generally taking pleasure in awarding them this honor. Men were dropping constantly all along the line, but the living fought all the more bravely. Those freedmen evidently preferred on the field of battle to falling into the hands of their barbarous foes. This regiment was not in action over two hours and a half and yet its loss in officers and enlisted men was nearly as heavy as that of any other regiment." (Broadwater 2006, 127)
In a letter to The Christian Recorder, one observer wrote that “when they [54th Masssachusetts] entered the field with the 1st North Carolina, which is a brave regiment, they (the 1st N.C.) fired well while they remained” and “the 1st North Carolina came unto line handsomely, and did splendid execution. They lost their Lieutenant Colonel, who was in command, and a great many other officers. They were under a much heavier fire, I think, than the 54th Massachusetts.” (Item 929) Both these accounts described a regiment in a heated battle, losing their leaders, but fighting back bravely. In The New York Herald, a Democratic newspaper, published an account of the Battle of Olustee saying that “the First North Carolina and the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, of the colored troops, did admirably. The First North Carolina held the positions it was placed in with the greatest tenacity, and inflicted heavy loss on the enemy. It was cool and steady, and never flinched for a moment.” (Item 990) An 1864 article that appeared in Harper’s Weekly, a Republican political magazine, recounted the performance of the 35th USCT and the 54th Massachusetts by saying that “both negro regiments – stood their ground with unflinching bravery and perfect coolness.” (Item 2705) As shown above, many letters, accounts, and articles, both from the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, on the Battle of Olustee, showed a gallant regiment that fought bravely. In the words of historian William H. Nulty, “the demonstration of professional military competency by units such as the First North Carolina…under fire would erode the myth of inferiority of the black soldier.” (Nulty 1990, 216)
Not only did the men of the 35th USCT transform themselves from slaves to soldiers, but they demonstrated through their fighting at the Battle of Olustee that they were worthy of being soldiers and, as the discussion would go on many years after the Civil War, worthy to be citizens of the United States. As historian William A. Dobak explains, “the military service that some two hundred thousand [black Americans] rendered during the Civil War gave them and their descendants an undeniable claim on citizenship.” (Dobak 2013, 501) In the words of Frederick Douglass, “once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.” (U.S. National Archives) Historian Keith P. Wilson’s work, Campfires of Freedom: The Camp Life of Black Soldiers during the Civil War, argues that as “new recruits entered military camps, they ‘began to think and act less like slaves and more like citizens,’ a process which often proved ‘liberating and empowering.” (Fleche 2014, 310) The brave service of men like the former slaves from North Carolina fighting in the Battle of Olustee helped inspire the idea that African Americans should be able to become equal citizens that appeared in the political cartoon here. (Item 2703) This political cartoon, published in 1865, shows an array of former Confederates begging at the feet of Columbia for pardon and readmission into the Union as citizens. It is beside another illustration with Columbia standing along with a wounded African American Union Civil War veteran with the caption “Shall I trust these men, and not this man?” This political cartoon alludes to a feeling that came as a response to the brave fighting of African American troops on behalf of the Union during the Civil War – a feeling that led to the idea that they were worthy of becoming citizens. This cartoon highlights the irony of restoring citizenship to a group of people that fought directly against the Union, but not giving citizenship for the first time to a group of men that fought so courageously for the Union.
Even in 1887, the bravery of the men at Olustee was cited in a newspaper article written “at a moment when the bitterness of race prejudice is shown in the recent school controversies in Kansas, Indiana, and Ohio.” This writer discussed how the African American troops “were called into the service, at Fort Wagner and Port Hudson and Fort Pillow and Olustee, at Petersburg and Fort Fisher, and on other noted fields, their heroism and endurance were fully tested, and they earned the same gratitude that is accorded to their white comrades in the national army.” (Item 2704) Evidence like the sources above demonstrates that a defeat for the Union army at the Battle of Olustee was in some instances a win for the African American race as their gallant and skilled service during the battle would serve as a foundation to the argument for their citizenship. Furthermore, in regard to African American participation more broadly speaking, “The effective performance of African-American soldiers during the Civil War helped them to confront racist attitudes, allowed them to push for equal rights in the postwar era, and made important contributions to Union victory.” (Fleche 2014, 298)