Although black troops fought in the Civil War, they often do not receive the recognition they deserve, according to two volunteers representing one of the first black regiments who spoke Sunday afternoon.
“Black soldiers were in a bad predicament,” said Robert Ford, a volunteer from the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment Company B, which seeks to preserve the unit’s history. “Each war they had to prove themselves again.”
Ford and Kelly Washington described challenges that the roughly 180,000 black soldiers faced during the Civil War, including access to health care and discrimination to 15 people gathered at Monocacy National Battlefield. The event was part of the National Park Service’s series honoring the Battle of Monocacy’s 150th anniversary last Wednesday.
“We’re not here to say that African-American troops were the best in the world; we’re here to say they were involved in battles,” Washington said.
At the Battle of the Crater, Washington said Union generals assigned a black regiment to lead the attack on Confederate forces in Petersburg, Virginia, after exploding a mine. At the last minute, the generals replaced the black regiment with a white unit at the possibility that “the black troops couldn’t do it or bad press,” Washington said.
However, the mine explosion did not go according to plan, leaving the Confederates enough time to regroup and attack the following regiment: the black soldiers. Unprepared and vulnerable, the black soldiers used hand-to-hand combat to fight off the Confederate forces, “cracking skulls like coconuts” with their rifles, Washington said.
“Any blacks captured in battle were sent south and sold into slavery,” he said. “Any white soldiers leading them were arrested and executed.”
However, the black troops fought ruthlessly in the Battle of the Crater in July of 1864 because of what happened a few months earlier. In April 1864, Confederate soldiers massacred more than 300 black soldiers after they surrendered Fort Pillow in Tennessee. This sparked outrage nationwide, causing black soldiers to “fight like demons,” leading with the battle cry “Remember Fort Pillow,” Ford said.
“If Crater had worked the way it was supposed to work, who knows if the war would’ve been over in 1864,” Washington said.
Black troops during the Civil War faced discrimination and abuse on and off the battlefield, as many were treated in hospitals for “colored people” by a black medical staff.
“Some white soldiers wouldn’t let a black surgeon touch them,” Washington said. “If he was a black surgeon, he was sent to a black unit.”
Washington said he travels up and down the East Coast educating others about the black troops who fought during the Civil War because he believes people need to know.
“When I grew up, I didn’t know about it,” he said. “My kids don’t want (to get involved), but if someone asks them a question, they have that knowledge.”
Follow Paige Jones on Twitter: @paigeleejones.