There is a fascinating article by Adam Goodheart in the June 9 edition of Disunion in the New York Times. It describes the role of George Scott, a Virginia slave, in the Battle of Big Bethel, the first significant land battle of the Civil War, which occurred 150 years ago on June 10, 1861.
Scott was one of the slaves to seek sanctuary at Fortress Monroe in late May-early June 1861. He had considerable knowledge of the land around the fort, as he had spent time in the region at liberty as a fugitive slave. He scouted informally for Union forces after his arrival at Fortress Monroe and it was George Scott’s intelligence that led to Big Bethel. Even more remarkably writes Goodheart, Scott accompanied Union forces into battle armed. Goodheart writes:
Butler’s final instructions to his officers [before they left the fort for the engagement] was a remarkable order: “George Scott is to have a revolver.” It marks the first recorded instance in the Civil War when a Union commander put a gun into the hands of a black man. (A different account by a Union soldier suggests that ultimately Scott was given a rifle.)
Although Benjamin Butler, by arming Scott, certainly was not endorsing the formal enlistment of black soldiers in the Union army, nonetheless his act had great symbolic significance. By arming the slave, Butler acknowledged George Scott as a man worthy of the trust of being armed. He also, probably without intending so, took the Union a small yet significant step closer to arming the slaves. Adam Goodheart writes, Scott “had proven that the South’s newly liberated slaves were ready to serve, and even to risk their lives for, the Union cause.” It would take a year of war, military failure, and thousands of deaths to shift northern public opinion toward accepting their services. But an important step toward black Union soldiers had been taken–arming a slave and using him military both for intelligence and in battle.