Commander of the Department of North Carolina to the Secretary of War, May 5, 1863
This is the text from a letter that was sent on May 5, 1863 from the Commander of the Department of North Carolina to the Secretary of the War, Edwin M. Stanton. In the spring of 1862, General Ambrose Burnside led an expedition through the North Carolina coast. After taking several major forts and cities, the Union army began occupation of eastern North Carolina. This occupation made the dream of freedom very much a reality for many North Carolina slaves that saw protection right over the Union lines. Furthermore, on January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation making all the slaves in North Carolina free. As of result of the Proclamation and the close vicinity of the Union army, many freed people sought freedom by coming into the Union lines. Many of these former slaves began assisting the Union Army through labor or actually taking up arms and fighting. In this letter, the Commander of the Department of North Carolina discussed his interaction with African American troops. He talked about the “times and circumstances under which I have armed and used Negroes in this Department.” He relayed that they fought effectively and expressed genuine interest in petitioning to form an actual regiment for the Union army. This letter was meant to inquire about the policy of the government regarding African Americans and whether or not they were planning on allowing them to serve in the Union army.
Craven County, North Carolina
New Bern No Ca May 5 1863
Sir A letter from Gov Andrew of date April 1st is referred to me by the War Department under date of April 27th, I have the honor to acknowledge receipt of the same and in reply beg leave to say.
If it be the policy of the Government, and the orders of the proper authorities, I will carry out, with my best efforts, the idea of raising colored troops in this Department, but would suggest, as my opininon based on experience that, not more than one Regiment, if even that, could be raised in this Department by voluntary enlistment, and forced enlistments would of course alienate the negroes, the very object the Governor of Massachusett wishes to avoid.
I will briefly state the times and circumstances under which I have armed and used Negroes in this Department. Besides the arming of spies and scouts, which was abandoned, we armed them at “Elizabeth City” during the time that post was threatened by Guerrillas, we obtained about 80 and they did their duty well enough, but we found they could not be trusted in any outward movement or raid probably owing to their lack of discipline.
During the late attack on Washington, the Negroes applied to me for Arms, and to strengthen my lines I armed about 120 all I had arms for, they did their duty well and seemed willing to fight, the test was not applied of course, they seemed to realize that the time was one of emergency and self preservation and that they must help, but the emergency having passed they did not and do not seem willing to enlist, they wish to work for the Government but to live with their families. Again, here at this Post, I received a petition signed by about 120 Negroes, for arms and organization in the U.S. Service, I replied that if names or promises could be received from enough to constitute the nucleus of a Regiment, I would consider the matter and be prepared to take action on it, since then officially I have heard nothing, but unofficially hear that not more than about 300 names were obtained.
I wish however to state that the wished of the Government, if ordered, will be carried out with not only obedience, (my duty as a soldier) but with zeal and in such a way as to endeavor to make it popular, rather than antagonistic to, the feelings of the white troops.
Referring to the Postscript of Gov Andrew’s letter I beg leave to say, my orders are, to act on the defensive and that therefore the 54th would not be able to participate in “active operations of a brilliant sort” and moreover that white troops can stand the climate of North Carolina very well, but that in South Carolina white troops are very liable to the malarious influences of the Climate, which of course negro troops can stand, if therefore, the 54th and other Negro Regiments could relieve white Regiments in that Department, the interests of the Service would in my opinion be doubly served I have the honor to remain Sir Very
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