Punch (London), August 9, 1862
As we enter September, with the sesquicentennial of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation only a few weeks away, let us take a last look at August 1862. It was a momentous month in the history of emancipation in its own right because with the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation imminent, merely awaiting Union victory on the battlefield, the Lincoln administration quietly dropped its objection to black soldiers and began officially recruiting African Americans into the Union Army.
If any move by the Lincoln administration pushed forward emancipation in practical terms, it was allowing African Americans to serve as soldiers. This is because military service not only gave black men a claim to freedom, but also to full citizenship. For in the mid-nineteenth century, Americans thought of citizenship as entailing obligations as well as rights. And the most onerous duty of the citizen was military service. Hence, if black men served as soldiers they would stake a potent claim to both freedom and equal rights for themselves and their race.
Of course, actual recruitment had begun earlier as a result of David Hunter and James H. Lane’s efforts in South Carolina and Kansas, respectively, to begin enlistment of black soldiers on their own initiative. Hunter in May 1862 and Lane in early July 1862. Both men meant to prod the Lincoln administration to take the very step it finally made with little fanfare in late August. No doubt Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton was not about to authorize black soldiers for the Union Army until Lincoln after shared with his cabinet an early draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in late July 1862.
Sanctioned or at least tacitly approved recruitment began in Louisiana and South Carolina. What these places had in common was that they both were low priority areas for leaders in Washington, D.C. Which meant they did not receive much in the way of reinforcements or supplies. This fact does much to explain, besides his fervent abolitionism, why David Hunter tried to form a black regiment in South Carolina in the late spring of 1862. Hunter needed the troops and saw no other way to get them. The irascible James Lane certainly needed more troops in Kansas, but probably more wanted to test the limits of the new Militia Act that implicitly authorized black recruitment.
The first Union leader to form an official black Union regiment was none other than the crafty Benjamin Butler. He had resisted the efforts of his subordinate, John W. Phelps, to recruit black troops on his own authority from among the state’s slaves earlier in the Summer 1862. Butler feared angering Louisiana slaveholders that he hoped could be convinced to resume their loyalty to the Union. But by August, facing the looming threat of a Confederate assault aiming to retake New Orleans, and with little prospect of white reinforcements from outside Louisiana, Butler, as he put it, decided to “call on Africa.”
Without waiting for explicit authority from the War Department, Ben Butler quickly raised black troops. He did so on August 22, 1862, by reforming the Louisiana Native Guards, a state militia unit composed of free men of color that had formed in 1861 for Confederate service. Largely rebuffed in their attempts to serve the Confederacy, the unit had been dissolved shortly before New Orleans fell to Union forces. Desperate for troops, and with many of the same men in the old Louisiana Native Guard willing to fight for the Union, Ben Butler accepted them into service. As the free black population of New Orleans was substantial, it also allowed Butler to raise black troops, at least initially, without recruiting among the state’s slave population, although no doubt some slaves joined on the sly the new Union incarnation of the old Confederate state militia unit.
Ben Butler received an enthusiastic response to his call for black soldiers in New Orleans among the gens de couleur libre, the French-speaking free mulattoes. By the end of September, he had raised two regiments in addition to the original one. While he did so without explicit permission from the War Department, neither did Secretary Stanton rebuke Butler, as he had James H. Lane, only a month before. But Butler was unsuccessful in getting an explicit authorization for the unit from the War Department. He continued to press the matter until he was transferred out of New Orleans in November 1862.
No doubt an important reason that the pro-Union Native Guard regiments did not receive explicit sanction was that Ben Butler, by reconstituting the old Confederate militia unit into Union service, accepted that African Americans could serve as officers for these regiments, a highly controversial move, in an era where virtually all whites utterly rejected the notion of answering to a black superior. When Nathaniel Banks replaced Ben Butler in charge of Union forces in Louisiana, he slowly purge these black officers by making the circumstances of their service increasingly humiliating and distasteful. Nonetheless, some of them held long enough on to see combat at the siege of Port Hudson in late spring 1863, and Captain André Cailloux was killed there in May 1863, leading a charge on the Confederate fortifications, becoming an early black martyr to the Union cause. The Louisiana Native Guards regiments were reorganized in June 1863 as the Corps d’Afrique and in April 1864, with original black officers long since forced out, the remnants of the original Native Guard regiments officially joined the U.S. Colored Troops as the 73rd and 74th U.S. Colored Infantry.
Despite all the machinations over the Louisiana Native Guards, developments elsewhere in late August 1863 clearly show that the Lincoln Administration had shifted from opposition to black soldiers in the Union Army in July 1862 to approving them by the end of the following month. Days after Ben Butler reconstituted the Louisiana Native Guards, on August 25, 1862, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton sent a letter to General Rufus Saxton in South Carolina explicitly authorizing the recruitment of black soldiers there. The key passage read:
In view of the small force under your command and the inability of the Government at the present time to increase it, in order to guard the plantations and settlements occupied by the United States from invasion and protect the inhabitants hereof from captivity and murder by the enemy, you are also authorized to arm, uniform, equip, and receive into the service of the United States such number of volunteers of African descent as you may deem expedient, not exceeding 5,000, and may detail officers to instruct them in military drill, discipline, and duty, and to command them. The persons so received into service and their officers to instruct them in military drill, discipline, and duty, and to command them. The persons so received into service and their officers to be entitled to and receive the same pay and rations as are allowed by law to volunteers in the service.
In an important respect, the recruitment authority given Saxton was momentous because there was no doubt that he would be recruiting his soldiers from among the slave population of South Carolina, as their were few if any free blacks in the rural Sea Islands. While the black population around Port Royal had effectively become free since Confederate forces fled the area the previous November, in the eyes of the law they still were slaves. But once they put on the federal uniform, these men could never again be slaves. Their officers would be white, but unquestionably they would be fighting for freedom, for themselves and for their people. Hence, by calling on Africa, Abraham Lincoln had taken an irrevocable step in the direction of emancipation.