Advancement Through Service
Before exploring the ways in which military service offered these former slaves hope and autonomy, it should be acknowledged that this analysis does not ignore the injustices and discrimination that these men still faced during their time in the Union Army, but moreover it is meant to highlight that the transition they went through from slave to soldier was a phenomenal feat for the African American race despite the prejudices they still endured. Indeed, as historian Andrew M. Fleche points out, “Service in the USCT was not always easy. Black soldiers in the Union Army served in segregated units led by white officers. The African-American troops were sometimes harassed and initially paid less than white soldiers, an injustice which was only rectified after vigorous protest.” (Fleche 2014, 297) Without losing sight of the injustices that the African American soldiers faced during their time in the Civil War, the following analysis hopes to highlight the advancements made by African Americans through their service in the Union army.
Once former slaves like William Henry Singleton and Charles Jones officially became soldiers in the 1st North Carolina Volunteer Troops (the eventual 35th USCT), life for them took a drastic turn – the horrors of slavery were replaced with the hope and excitement of having the opportunity to receive money to put on a uniform and fight for the Union cause. In the words of Singleton: “I lived to see the institution of slavery into which I was born and of which I was for many years a victim pass away. I wore the uniform of those men in Blue, who through four years of suffering wiped away with their blood the stain of slavery and purged the Republic of its sin.” (Item 895) As Singleton relays, military service offered these men a certain aspect of pride and personal autonomy that they were experiencing for the first time. In January 1863, the month of the Emancipation Proclamation, a Massachusetts soldier wrote: “I think there could be here in Newbern one thousand who formerly were slaves, but who are now free, enlisted in the Union army, who would fight like Tigers to defend their rights as they now enjoy them.” (Browning 2011, 197)
The white perspective also recognized this advancement of personal autonomy and pride often associated with citizenship. In regard to the 35th USCT, the wife of Commander James C. Beecher had the following to say in her article recounting her time with the colored troops: “I may truly say that during my whole time in the South I saw no regiment more manly in appearance, none with straighter line or better drill, nor any more worthy of their uniform, than that which was then called ‘The First North Carolina Colored Volunteers.’” Though Mrs. Beecher did not explicitly say that these men were worthy of citizenship in the United States, her statement alludes to such when she said that there were no men “more worthy of their uniform” than these men. Often times, a uniform designates official recognition by the government as a citizen aiding a cause and in this case, Mrs. Beecher definitely believed they were worthy of such a uniform and perhaps also worthy of citizenship. Mrs. Beecher also mentioned a quote from her husband, Commander Beecher:
“I am amazed at the promptitude of these men to learn military drill. In spite of my hard work, I am becoming somewhat of an enthusiast. I wish doubtful people at home could see my three weeks’ regiment. There is an amount of muscle in it of which few in service can boast. In three more weeks we shall make a creditable show, and I think the government will not grumble at a regiment enlisted, organized, uniformed, armed and handsomely encamped in six weeks.” (Item 985)
As shown here, most of the men from the 35th USCT went from being whipped as slaves to being admired by their white commander and his white wife by their skill, appearance, and attitude.
Service in the Union army offered these former slaves much more than they experienced while under the institution of slavery. As historian Judkin Browning explains, “Many black men felt that enlisting in the U.S. armed forces allowed them the greatest opportunity to earn” an “equal chance with their fellow whites.” (Browning 2011, 96) Browning also points out that “freedpeople were remarkably successful at achieving their empowerment goals during wartime occupation” and one way that they did this was through enlistment in the Union Army. (Browning 2008, 70) Browning discussed how “historian Jim Cullen has persuasively argued that enlistment in Union regiments greatly enhanced black men’s fundamental self-perceptions” through the following quote: “As the material conditions of their lives changed – as they joined the armed forces, were freed from slavery, or both – so too did their ideological conceptions of themselves as men.” (Browning 2008, 83) As historian Richard Reid points out, “military service allowed some of these African Americans to develop and hone a range of skills in their roles as noncommissioned officer, and it enabled even more to take the first steps toward literacy. Moreover, the men of the infantry regiments served, in varying degrees, outside their home state, and this may have changed their worldview.” (Smith 2002, 395-396) This was true for the men of the 35th USCT because they would go on to serve in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, but what they would experience in Florida would change their worldview, but not exactly for the better.