Black Troops in Combat

June 18, 2014
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“Once let the Black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S. and Eagle on his button and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket and there is no power on Earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the U.S.” – Fredrick Douglass

This month marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the all-out invasion of Normandy that led to the eventual defeat of Adolph Hitler in World War II, and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which ultimately led to the end of slavery in America. In both wars, the contribution of African Americans fighting on the front lines was immense.

To honor the Black presence in the Civil War, on Saturday, June 14, the DuSable Museum is presented a re-enactment of the historic Battle of Nashville. In that recreation,visitors witnessed  African-American Union soldiers run a bunch of White Confederate troops out of Washington Park en masse, as it actually happened in this particular battle in the Civil War.

The Battle of Nashville, fought December 15-16, 1864, shattered the Confederate Army of Tennessee and marked the end of major Confederate offensives in the Western-most states during the Civil War.

When Nashville was occupied by the Union Army in 1862, thousands of slaves fled to the city, where they were housed in refugee camps and used as largely unpaid laborers during the construction of a series of fortifications and the extension of a railroad line from Nashville to the Tennessee River that would serve as a vital supply line for the Union Army.

At the same time, many (mostly free) African-American men volunteered to form regiments of the newly established United States Colored Troops division of the army. The 13th Regiment of Colored Troops formed in Nashville to protect the laborers from several Confederate attacks to disrupt the supply line.

The men of the 13th were among several African American regiments and two brigades that fought in the Battle of Nashville in December 1864, which saw the destruction of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Most of the 387 Union fatalities in the battle were African Americans; 229 of them, including five color bearers, were men of the 13th Regiment, who died on the 16th of December.

The recreation of this battle is part of the “Second Annual Civil War Family Day” presented by DuSable Museum in conjunction with the Illinois Amistad Commission. The event will took place on Saturday, June 14, from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. at the Museum, located at 740 East 56th Place (57th Street and Cottage Grove) in Chicago.

This free family-themed event is a tribute to the 198,000 Black soldiers and sailors who fought bravely for the freedom of their families and for themselves as members of the Union Army and Navy during the United States Civil War. Approximately 40,000 of those enlisted men died courageously, proving their mettle in notable battles such as the assault on Fort Wagner, the Battle of Nashville, and others. Guided by a sense of honor and patriotism, the “Colored Troops” helped turn the tide of one of America’s bloodiest wars.

In addition to the battle re-enactment, which will involve hundreds of Black and White “soldiers” and feature the firing of a real Civil War-era cannon, the daylong family event will include historic character re-creations of Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Tubman.

There will be demonstrations of how Blacks in Chicago dressed in the 1860s and a special recognition of “Juneteenth,” named after the occurrence of Black slaves in several states not being told of their liberation for several days after the actual legal date on which slavery ended.

There will also be a tent where you can see the type of medicine Civil War soldiers received and the instruments used on them in surgery. Visitors can watch the movie Glory, about Black Civil War troops and featuring Denzel Washington in his Oscar-winning role, inside the air-conditioned museum. And you will have the opportunity to learn more about African-American contributions to the Civil War by visiting the DuSable exhibit, “Red, White, Blue and Black: A History of Blacks in the Armed Services.”

An Historian Recollects

Dr. Christopher Reed

Dr. Christopher Reed


Dr. Christopher Reed, U.S. History Professor Emeritus at Roosevelt University, is the official historian for the DuSable event. Reed attended Roosevelt as a student in the 1960s, joined its faculty in 1987 and retired in 2006. He has taught courses there on the Civil War and is currently directing a 2-/12 year federally funded study on the history of Black Chicago going back to 1893. He is author of the book, Black Chicago’s First Century (University of Missouri Press, 2005).

Dr. Reed spoke with N’DIGO recently about the DuSable exhibit and the dynamics of African-American troops in United States’ wars.



N’DIGO: Why pick the Battle of Nashville to re-enact?

Dr. Christopher Reed: DuSable is doing this particular battle because this is one where they can show Black soldiers chasing Confederates. Black troops, several hundred strong, were able to beat some Confederates and chase them out of their fortifications.

When my great grandfather fought in the Civil War – as did the grandfather of the man who owned Griffin Funeral Home – they fought Robert E. Lee out in Virginia, but they fought amongst thousands of Union troops. There might have been 50,000 soldiers in blue fighting 50,000 soldiers in gray.

But in this Battle of Nashville, you had a smaller number of troops involved and it was obvious that the Blacks were conspicuous as victors.

All Black, mostly Black?

They were all-Black units, but there were Black units and white units fighting together. The Union army was made up of primarily White troops until finally Abe Lincoln listened to the Congress and people like Frederick Douglass, who were pressuring him.

Real Black Civil War soldiers

Real Black Civil War soldiers

Douglass and Black people wanted to fight for our own freedom. The progressive Congressmen – abolitionists, Northerners – told Lincoln, yeah, let the Blacks fight for their own freedom and then they’ll be real men.

By 1864, the Union Army was about 14 percent Black troops – about one out of every seven soldiers, and that was a big deal. They were called the United States Colored Troops. They were all in separate units.

Just like when the D-Day Invasion took place at Normandy in June 1944, which we celebrated the 70th anniversary of last week, Blacks were still in separate units. No Blacks landed in the first wave of Normandy on D-Day, though they wanted to.

We landed at Normandy, but in the second and third waves. And even then, they kept the Blacks out of the fighting – we would come in and provide supplies. It wasn’t until General Patton, desperate for tank crews, said well, let’s get those Black guys that have been training back in Texas at Fort Hood to come over and see what they can do that Blacks got into the fighting action.

The Black soldiers forced their way into Germany. They even liberated some concentration camps. People knew they were free when the tank hatches opened and a Black guy popped out – there was no doubt. This wasn’t a Russian or British or French or German solider; it was a Black man, so the prisoners knew they were free!

But White people in America did not want Blacks to fight, number one period – not in the Civil War or World War I or World War II. And if they were going to let us fight, they tried to keep us out of the front lines.

It was all because if you let a guy fight and die for a flag, he can lay claim to full rights.

But instead of Whites admitting that was the reason they didn’t want Blacks fighting, they made up excuses – if you let the Blacks fight in the Civil War, they’ll be cowards. They’ll run, throw their weapons down, give’em to the enemy. They said the same thing in the Spanish-American War in 1898. They said the same thing out on the frontier when the Buffalo Soldiers were out there.

My grandfather was in World War I in France and so was my great-uncle. They didn’t want them to fight on the front line either, so they had them unloading ships and burying the dead. It was the same thing in World War II, until Blacks fought their way into the Marine Corps.

There were no Black marines when World War II started in 1941; they fought their way in. I had a cousin who was a marine fighting in the Pacific. There were no Black pilots, even though Blacks could fly, until the Tuskegee Airmen forced their way in. Same in the tank corps. Same in the Navy, where all the Blacks were only serving food. But all the Blacks in all of the branches said, “We can do more than this,” and all those Black men forced themselves into fighting positions in World War II.

So when the war ended, Blacks had made their point, but it still wasn’t until 1948 when President Harry Truman said I’m going to open up the armed services to all soldiers in America that there was an integrated Army.

And that was partially because of Chicago Defender publisher Robert Sengstacke.

Yes, Sengstacke was very active in that, just like Frederick Douglass was in getting Black troops into the Civil War. But man, you wouldn’t have wanted to be a Black soldier in World War II. (The late) Dempsey Travis was one and he was shot by an MP – in America, in Pennsylvania. They killed Black soldiers down South who were training for the Army. If you didn’t get on the back of the bus, or Whites didn’t like the way you looked in uniform, they might just shoot you. This was during the war, in America.

Battle Re-enactment

Battle Re-enactment

When it came time for you to eat down in the South, Black soldiers would go into town and have to go to the back of the restaurant; they wouldn’t want to feed you through the front door. But if you looked through the window, who did you see eating at the tables? Some German prisoners of war – laughing and joking in America. They were prisoners, they were fighting Americans, but they were eating in the front of the restaurant and we had to go to the back while in uniform to get a sandwich.

Wow, that was holding on to the racial thing really strong. You’d think that in a battle like D-Day, where a lot of people were sure to be killed, that they’d put the Black people out there first to get killed.

But that would have allowed the Black soldiers to lay claim of being a true American and being a true American meant being part of the racially superior group. It wasn’t just in the military. Lester Maddox in the South in Georgia, said, “I’ll lose my business, I’ll let my restaurant close down before I have to serve Blacks.” So they were willing to lose money, they were willing to lose battles, just to hold on to White racist supremacy.

That’s pretty deep. It is. That’s why young Black people are so confused – because they can’t make sense of America. And all the older Black people are crazy or dead or in the hospital. I mean this stuff we’ve gone through is so deep.

There was a young brother who said, “I don’t like to go to DuSable Museum because they talk about slavery – I’m tired of that stuff.” Shoot, that “stuff” is still going on.

But back to the Battle of Nashville – what it means is that Black troops were victorious. The leaders of those troops were all White, of course – even in World War II and the Civil War, they agreed to let them fight, but they didn’t want Black commanders over Black troops, let alone White troops.

But I think in this battle, there were two battalions, each with 600 soldiers, so that’s about 1,200 men who beat the Confederates and chased them out. That wasn’t the first or only battle Black troops won, but because it was obviously mostly Black troops, it gives the guys staging this re-enactment with DuSable Museum a chance to have the Black troops chase the White men out of the park. That’s what people are going to see and that’s very symbolic and inspirational. Even the White guys involved have said it, that people get a new perspective.

How did you get involved with this?

I’m a real historian. I’ve been doing this for over 40 years and I’ve been a supporter of DuSable Museum since it started back in the 1960s on Michigan Avenue.

I wrote a book in 2005 called Black Chicago’s First Century and Chapter 2 deals just with Blacks in the Civil War – soldiers from Chicago and Illinois, and people living in the city during the war. Many of these Black people had escaped up to the North during the war.

The important thing is that nobody was sure that the North was going to win. Had the South won, we’d probably still be slaves right now. It would be a parallel universe – a world with 21st century technology, Twitter, the Internet and all that, but we’d still be slaves.

The Civil War is the pivot point, though, and that’s why this DuSable thing is so important. Number one, the Civil War was a chance that people had been waiting for for freedom. We had almost 200,000 Black men in uniform in the Union army and navy, and at the same time, other Black people refused to help the Southern Civil War effort – the Black slaves just sat down and the southerners didn’t know what to do.

So it wasn’t the case where history says Whites gave Blacks their freedom – our own men fought for our freedom. We helped liberate ourselves. We’re never been taught that in history class, but that’s what this DuSable re-enactment is trying to show.

David Smallwood

David Smallwood

Editor of N'DIGO Magapaper
David Smallwood

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