By the end of 1863, with the Confederate army lacking resources, funds, and manpower, it had become clear to Confederate General Patrick Cleburne that the south desperately needed to find ways to recruit new soldiers for the rebel cause. Calling it “a plan which we believe will save our country,” in January 1864, he called upon the leaders of the Army of the Tennessee and proposed the emancipation of slaves in order to enlist them in the Confederate war effort. In Episode 24 we explore the role of African Americans in the Confederate States Army. Image Credit: Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama
On February 24, 1864, Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler overcame prejudices and severe constraints to become the first African American woman in the United States to earn a medical degree. During and after the Civil War, she cared for freed African Americans who would otherwise have had no access to medical care. Image Credit: Sun Oil Company
On March 20, 1864 the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry fought in a battle at Roseville Creek, Arkansas. This infantry was the first black infantry to form and engage in combat in the north. Formed in August 1862 as the First Kansas Colored Infantry and re-designated on December 13, 1864 as the 79th U.S. Colored Troops, the recruits were freedom seekers from surrounding pro-slavery states like Arkansas and Missouri. Image Credit:Courtesy of Marla Quilts Inc. African American Quilt Museum and Textile Academy, Marla A. Jackson
On April 12, 1864, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest invaded the Union garrison at Fort Pillow, Tennessee with 1500 Confederate soldiers. Union Major Lionel F. Booth commanded the garrison with, an estimated, 600 troops. The Battle of Fort Pillow is often referred to as the Fort Pillow Massacre due to the overwhelming Union casualties, of which the Confederate army specifically targeted African American soldiers. Image Credit: General Research & Reference Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations
On May 4th, 1864 Lieutenant General-in-Chief of the Union Army Ulysses S. Grant ordered the Army of the Potomac to cross the Rapidan River and march through an area of dense woodland known as the Wilderness. Grant’s plan was for Union troops to move quickly through the Wilderness in order to slip behind Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and invade Richmond, Virginia. Grant and Lee’s troops engaged in what would become the Battle of the Wilderness. Although the United States Colored Troops were not fighting on the front lines, their duties to guard Union supplies, rail lines, and beachheads proved to be necessary and perilous. The Battle of the Wilderness ended on May 6, 1864 marking the first of several engagements African American Union soldiers had with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Image Credit: Library of Congress
On June 15, 1864, Congress finally approved an act to equalize pay amongst all Union soldiers. African American soldiers were now paid $13 per month plus a $3.50 uniform allowance equal to that of white soldiers. Nevertheless, Congress made a distinction between freed and formerly enslaved soldier in determining retroactive pay. This distinction divided African American regiments and lowered morale. Image Credit: National Park Service
Stuck in a stalemate during a particularly hot and humid Virginia summer, on the morning of July 30, 1864, General Ambrose Burnside decided to take drastic measures: Union troops would dig a tunnel, pack it with explosives, and blow up the Confederate line. The explosion immediately killed 278 Confederate soldiers. For African American soldiers, the Battle of the Crater proved particularly devastating. Caught in the deep hole of the crater, black troops became easy targets of Confederate soldiers thirty feet above them, even as many tried to surrender. African American survivors of the Battle of the Crater viewed their sacrifice and valor on the battlefield as an integral process of transformation in American society that they hoped would result in the rights of full citizenship. Image Credit: Library of Congress
In August of 1864, Thomas Morris Chester became the first African American war correspondent to work for a major daily newspaper in the United States. He became an eyewitness to fierce battles between the Union and Confederates and reported on the bravery of African American soldiers on the front lines. Image Credit: Courtesy of Cheyney University Archives
On the morning of September 29, 1864, Union troops, including several black regiments, crossed the James River and surprised the Confederate troops at Chaffin’s Farm. Some historians consider the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights as the defining moment in African American military history. To honor African American troops who fought during the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights Major General Benjamin F. Butler commissioned a special medal officially known as the “Army of the James Medal.
The stories of Cathay Williams, Mary Bowser, Susie King Taylor, and Sojourner Truth demonstrate that African American women contributed to and aided Civil War efforts in a variety of crucial ways. Often lost, ignored, or simply overlooked in the history of the Civil War, these women’s stories serve as an important reminder of black women’s active roles and experiences during wartime.