The following excerpts, from African American Perspectives, 1818-1907, describe several Civil War battles in which African-American troops fought and died for the Union Army. The excerpts are taken from a speech delivered by Colonel Norwood P. Hallowell to the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, January 5, 1892. What portrait of African-American soldiers does Hallowell create through his descriptions?
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In the disastrous affair of Olustee, Florida, February 20th, 1864, the redeeming feature appears to have been the conspicuous gallantry of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts. That regiment was hurried into action at the very crisis of affairs. It checked the onward sweep of a victorious enemy. and covered the retreat towards Jacksonville in a thoroughly creditable manner, as I am told, under the immediate direction of Colonel Edward N. Hallowell. In this battle the Eighth U.S. Colored Infantry lost three hundred and ten dead, wounded and missing,--the missing mostly dead or wounded left on the field,--one of the severest regimental losses during the war.
Honey Hill, S.C., November 30, 1864.
This assault, in its main features, was a repetition of Wagner. The only approach attempted to the rebel batteries and intrenchments was the narrow cutting through which the road crossed the swamp. Through this defile five companies of the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts were ordered to storm the enemy's works. The order is not free from the charge of down-right recklessness. Against the concentrated fire of artillery and musketry at one hundred yards' range the five companies charged in vain, were rallied twice and then withdrawn with a loss of twenty-nine killed and one hundred and fifteen wounded, or one half the officers and one third of the enlisted men engaged. A useless slaughter, not compensated for by some brilliant fighting both before and after the charge. . . .
At Port Hudson and at Milliken's Bend, Louisiana, the official reports commend the colored troops for steadiness in maintaining positions and for heroism in charging the batteries of the enemy.
In a paper read before the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, by General John C. Palfrey, the conduct of the black regiments at Port Hudson, June 27, 1863, is recorded in these forceful words: "Between the attacks of Weitzel and Augur an assault was ordered from our extreme right by the black regiments as a diversion. Their ground was very difficult and disadvantageous, and the garrison received them with special temper and exasperation. But they fought without panic, and suffered severely before falling back in good order. Their conduct and its indication of character and manliness made a profound impression on the army, and later through the country. The day should be one of the famous dates in the progress of their race."
At the first attempt on Petersburg, Virginia, in June, 1864, Hinks' Division of the 18th Corps, under fire for the first time, carried the line of works in its front, and captured in succession seven pieces of artillery with great spirit and dash. This decided success of the colored troops gave to General Smith an opportunity to seize Petersburg, advantage of which, however, was not taken, whether through a misinterpretation of General Grant's orders, or because the city was believed to be untenable, is a matter of considerable debate.
Chaffin's Farm and Fort Gilmer.
Paine's Division of the 18th Corps and Birney's Colored Division of the 10th Corps were conspicuously engaged at Chaffin's Farm, in the assault on Fort Gilmer and the intrenchments at New Market Heights. At Fort Gilmer they scaled the parapet by climbing upon each other's backs. A distinguished rebel general wrote at the time: "Fort Gilmer proved the other day that they would fight."
At the battle of the Crater, at Petersburg, July 30th, 1864, the colored troops were ordered in after the assault was a bloody failure. They failed to retrieve the disaster, but were in no way responsible for it. Their casualties in Ferrero's Division were 1327 killed, wounded and missing. The white soldiers in the Crater were permitted to surrender; many of the blacks were given no quarter.
In the victory at Nashville, December 16th, 1864, the heaviest loss in any regiment occurred in the 13th U.S. Colored Infantry,--55 killed and 106 wounded: total 221. General George H. Thomas, the hero of that battle, a Virginian and at one time a slaveholder, when riding over the field, saw the dead colored troops commingled with the bodies of the white soldiers, and said, "This proves the manhood of the negro."