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Chapter 03

A Divided Nation Fights for Freedom

The election of 1860 was a turning point for the nation. The outcome would determine how the country would move forward regarding slavery. One month after the election of President Lincoln, states began to secede from the Union citing several reasons. Their demands included states' rights to maintain slavery, but also focused on property rights as they cited lack of enforcement of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. By April 1861, the Confederacy fired upon Fort Sumter and war was declared upon the United States. President Lincoln did not begin his term with a goal to end slavery. His military goal was to keep the Union together.

African Americans were determined to win their fight for freedom by any means necessary. They self-liberated as they escaped from plantations across the south. On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect declaring that all persons enslaved in the rebelling states were free. It took the bloodiest war in the nation’s history to enforce the proclamation.

Like President Washington during the Revolutionary War, President Lincoln was not initially interested in African Americans serving in the military. However, based on the strategic need for increased military support and influenced by Fredrick Douglass, the president included the recruitment of Black soldiers as a provision of the Emancipation Proclamation. A war to keep the Union together became a fight for freedom and ultimately changed the nation.

Photograph of U.S. Colored Troops next to a cannon

Section IIIA Call to Arms: U.S. Colored Troops

In 1863 the military formed the United States Colored Troops. By the end of the war, 160 USCT regiments had served in the Union Army.

Our union friends says . . . we are fighting for the union . . . very well let the white fight for what the[y] want and we negroes fight for what we want . . . Liberty must take the day and nothing Shorter.

“A colored man”, 1863

Large three-sheet broadside promoting "Men of Color" to enlist in the Army; text printed in relief with carved wood type and cast letterpress/metal type. Text reads "MEN OF COLOR  To Arms! To Arms!"

Men of Color To Arms!

Photograph of U.S. Colored Troops next to a cannon

The Gun Crew of the 2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery, 1864

United States Colored Troops

Large three-sheet broadside promoting "Men of Color" to enlist in the Army; text printed in relief with carved wood type and cast letterpress/metal type. Text reads "MEN OF COLOR  To Arms! To Arms!"

Men of Color To Arms!

Photograph of U.S. Colored Troops next to a cannon

The Gun Crew of the 2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery, 1864

When the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in 1863, the military formed the United States Colored Troops (USCT). By the end of the war, nearly 160 USCT regiments and batteries had seen action. Even as African American soldiers fought and died, their citizenship status remained uncertain. Racist policies limited the African American officers’ corps and initially paid Black soldiers 30 percent less than their white counterparts. Soldiers protested discrimination, some risking death. These shared experiences, both on the battlefield and behind the lines, shaped a generation of African Americans.

Carte-de-visite bust-length portrait of Marquis Peterson. He is wearing a dark-colored jacket, vest, bowtie and a light-colored shirt. He is looking at the camera and has large sideburns. A button can be seen on his right lapel. The back of the card has black construction paper adhered to it. On the back at the bottom of the card is a white label with back lettering that reads “Marcus Peterson.”

Marquis Peterson

Marquis Peterson: Freedom Fighter

Carte-de-visite bust-length portrait of Marquis Peterson. He is wearing a dark-colored jacket, vest, bowtie and a light-colored shirt. He is looking at the camera and has large sideburns. A button can be seen on his right lapel. The back of the card has black construction paper adhered to it. On the back at the bottom of the card is a white label with back lettering that reads “Marcus Peterson.”

Marquis Peterson

The call for “Men of Color, To Arms!” resonated with enslaved and free men of color across the nation. Marquis Peterson, a free man from Ohio, answered the appeal. However, Ohio did not receive federal approval to recruit a Black regiment until June 1863. Peterson, committed to the cause for freedom, instead joined the Massachusetts 55th Regiment that May.

A Veteran’s Story: Massachusetts 55th Regiment

Marquis Peterson mustered out of the USCT in Charleston, S.C., in August 1865. His personal effects speak to daily life during the war. In addition to a uniform and weaponry, soldiers were issued a razor and pocket Bible, which Peterson kept safe in his personal box along with letters and photographs. Other objects commemorate his service, such as a rock he collected from Fort Sumter, where the war began and where he ended his service. Peterson remained active in veteran’s organizations, including the Grand Army of the Republic, and he attended at least one of their annual national encampments. These objects, both keepsakes and standard issue, were a reminder of the crucial role he played in the fight for freedom.

A handwritten diary encased in a red leather cover with "Diary / 1865" embossed in gold lettering at top center surrounded by an ornate wreath. The diary is inscribed on the front endpaper in both pencil and ink. The diary begins with several printed pages including a page outlining eclipses that occurred in 1865, a calendar, a table of stamp duties and rates of postage.  The diary entries were done predominantly in pencil. The diary begins on January 1, 1865 with the last entry occurring on September 30, 1865. The diary ends with a memorandum section and an accounts paid section. Both of these sections were used by Lieutenant John Freeman Shorter. A back pocket in the back of the diary contains two loose sheets of paper. One of the pieces of paper is a promotion certification for a second lieutenant in the 55th Massachusetts volunteer regiment. The document is written in ink.  It is dated April 19, 1865. Additional notes are written in pencil on the other side of the document. The second piece of paper has a list of people’s names, dollar amounts and dates written on both sides in both ink and pencil.

Lt. John Freeman Shorter’s Diary

Photograph of interior of Lt. John Freeman Shorter Diary

Lt. John Freeman Shorter Diary

Lt. John Freeman Shorter’s Diary

A handwritten diary encased in a red leather cover with "Diary / 1865" embossed in gold lettering at top center surrounded by an ornate wreath. The diary is inscribed on the front endpaper in both pencil and ink. The diary begins with several printed pages including a page outlining eclipses that occurred in 1865, a calendar, a table of stamp duties and rates of postage.  The diary entries were done predominantly in pencil. The diary begins on January 1, 1865 with the last entry occurring on September 30, 1865. The diary ends with a memorandum section and an accounts paid section. Both of these sections were used by Lieutenant John Freeman Shorter. A back pocket in the back of the diary contains two loose sheets of paper. One of the pieces of paper is a promotion certification for a second lieutenant in the 55th Massachusetts volunteer regiment. The document is written in ink.  It is dated April 19, 1865. Additional notes are written in pencil on the other side of the document. The second piece of paper has a list of people’s names, dollar amounts and dates written on both sides in both ink and pencil.

Lt. John Freeman Shorter’s Diary

Photograph of interior of Lt. John Freeman Shorter Diary

Lt. John Freeman Shorter Diary

Lt. Shorter was one of the Army’s first African American line officers and led the fight for equal pay in the 55th Massachusetts. Shorter was a direct descendant of the Hemings family from Monticello. He left behind this personal diary that provides compelling insight into the life of a U.S. Colored Troop soldier.

Photograph of African Americans digging the Dutch Gap Canal

Dutch Gap Canal, Virginia

Fatigue Work

Photograph of African Americans digging the Dutch Gap Canal

Dutch Gap Canal, Virginia

African Americans in the military performed twice as much hard labor, or fatigue duty, as their white counterparts. Like many white Americans, army officers saw African Americans as being more suited to strenuous labor than white men. As trench warfare expanded, Black soldiers shouldered the burden of digging canals and building fortifications by hand, including creating the Dutch Gap Canal by the James River in Virginia. Soldiers protested but faced an unyielding military justice system. Concerned by these reports, Gen. Lorenzo Thomas investigated and began to limit some of the unfair demands placed on Black soldiers.

Dressed for Battle

The 1st South Carolina, one of the nation’s first African American infantry units, wore uniforms like this. African American freedom fighters proudly donned their uniforms and took to the battlefields to bring Black people and the nation out of the bondage of slavery.

If the world doubts our fighting give us A chance and we will show them what we can do.

Third Regiment Louisiana Volunteers Native Guard, 1863

On the Battlefield

Distinguished by their uncommon valor, African American soldiers challenged American racism. Their courage in battle, and their refusal to break ranks during fierce fighting, won them widespread national news coverage and honorary medals. African American soldiers saw battle even before the United States military accepted them into its ranks. Fighting for their states, Black regiments in Louisiana, Kansas, and South Carolina challenged the United States to change its policy and admit Black men. By the war’s end, all 160 USCT regiments had seen combat.

Each of these objects belonged to a Union soldier during the Civil War. William H. Clay, 28th USCT, owned the shield-shaped badge. Washington Perkins, 54th Massachusetts, wore the badge honoring Ft. Wagner. The U.S. belt buckle was found at Point of Pines plantation on Edisto Island in South Carolina, where the Union army set up a base camp site.

Photograph of dead Civil War soldiers

Savage Station, 1862

Mortality

Photograph of dead Civil War soldiers

Savage Station, 1862

One in five soldiers died during the Civil War. Many died on the battlefield, but most perished due to disease. Field hospitals were also dirty and overcrowded, leaving soldiers exposed to infection and disease. The highest death rate was among African American soldiers. Reflecting the prejudices of the times, many military commanders expected more Black soldiers to die than whites. Black soldiers and their abolitionist allies in the military called for reform, but the army was slow to respond. Investigations revealed that Black soldiers were worked twice as hard as white soldiers and received limited medical care.

Tintype of Creed Miller, a soldier of the Kentucky 107th Regiment, Company E (and later Company C), United States Colored Troops. The tintype is encased in a copper scrolled frame with an oval window within a red velvet-lined, brown leather box. The tintype depicts Creed from the waist up in a dark overcoat, white collared shirt and bow-tie. His hair is styled and parted to the side. His miltary identification pin is fastened to the red velvet fabric on the interior of the case. The pin is a silver five pointed star with  [C. MILLER / Co. E / 107 / USCT] engraved at center. The front and back of the case is brown leather with detailed scroll work consisting of vines and flowers. The case has a metal hook and eye closure.

Creed Miller

Creed Miller

Tintype of Creed Miller, a soldier of the Kentucky 107th Regiment, Company E (and later Company C), United States Colored Troops. The tintype is encased in a copper scrolled frame with an oval window within a red velvet-lined, brown leather box. The tintype depicts Creed from the waist up in a dark overcoat, white collared shirt and bow-tie. His hair is styled and parted to the side. His miltary identification pin is fastened to the red velvet fabric on the interior of the case. The pin is a silver five pointed star with  [C. MILLER / Co. E / 107 / USCT] engraved at center. The front and back of the case is brown leather with detailed scroll work consisting of vines and flowers. The case has a metal hook and eye closure.

Creed Miller

In July 1864 Miller enlisted with the 107th USCT in Lebanon, Kentucky. Like many formerly enslaved people, enlistment marked the moment his name first entered the historical record. Miller commemorated the moment with a tintype photograph and an identification badge.

An Army of the James Medal, also known as The Butler Medal, consisting of an unpierced copper medal with no suspender or attached ribbon. The front of the medal contains an engraved wreath of what appears to be holly with a bow at the center and a single five-sided star flanking the lower left and right side of the wreath. Around the outside of the wreath are the words, "DISTINGUISHED FOR SERVICE." At the center of the wreath are the words, "CAMPAIGN BEFORE RICHMOND / 1864."The reverse side of the medal is engraved with a depiction of a group of African American soldiers storming a Confederate occupied military fort. Surrounding the engraving are Latin words within an unfurled banner "FERRO IIS LIBERTAS PERVENIET." Below the engraving are the words, "U.S. COLORED TROOPS."

Butler Medal, 1864

Butler Medal

An Army of the James Medal, also known as The Butler Medal, consisting of an unpierced copper medal with no suspender or attached ribbon. The front of the medal contains an engraved wreath of what appears to be holly with a bow at the center and a single five-sided star flanking the lower left and right side of the wreath. Around the outside of the wreath are the words, "DISTINGUISHED FOR SERVICE." At the center of the wreath are the words, "CAMPAIGN BEFORE RICHMOND / 1864."The reverse side of the medal is engraved with a depiction of a group of African American soldiers storming a Confederate occupied military fort. Surrounding the engraving are Latin words within an unfurled banner "FERRO IIS LIBERTAS PERVENIET." Below the engraving are the words, "U.S. COLORED TROOPS."

Butler Medal, 1864

Officially known as Army of the James Medal, Gen. Benjamin F. Butler commissioned this military decoration to recognize feats of bravery by African American soldiers. These are the only U.S. medals designed specifically for African American troops.

Photograph of Sgt. William Carney

Sgt. William Carney

Sgt. William Carney, 54th Massachusetts Infantry, ca. 1863

Photograph of Sgt. William Carney

Sgt. William Carney

On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts U.S. Colored Infantry began its assault on Ft. Wagner. Charging uphill into battle, the unit suffered terrible losses. When a color bearer fell, United States Colored Troop member Sgt. William Carney caught the Union flag and never let it touch the ground. He was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Ft. Wagner.