U. S. Colored Troops – Part 1 of 2, A Vintage Vignette

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U. S. Colored Troops – Part 1 of 2
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
February 8, 2010

The Forum article by Leonard Pitts on February 8 in the Times resonated with my values and perceptions. It brought to mind the grief and suffering we so often unjustly impose upon one another due to our differences rather than appreciating our diversity. The article by Thomas Sowell on February 9 reinforced my observations that life circumstances have indeed been unfair to many groups at various times in our society's history, whether considering Blacks, American Indians, Irish, Jews, or other immigrant groups. From most historical published accounts, it seems that only a few have had empathy with the groups outside of their own experiences. Pitts' article told of Black men serving in spite of prejudicial mistreatment during America's various wars, but it failed to specifically address the Civil War by name. However, the attack against the Confederate's Ft. Wagner in South Carolina by the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (a Black regiment) was mentioned without naming the war in which it occurred.

There are numerous internet sites that tell of Black servicemen's accomplishments and numbers in every war of American involvement. Such details are little known by most folks I know. In the South, there are sometimes stories of the Blacks that fought for the Confederacy, but mentions of the Blacks in the Union forces are scarce. Internet research reveals that of the 620,000 Americans that died in the Civil War, over 38,000 were Blacks. Statistics were found on the internet that over 200,000 African-Americans served in the Union forces, and 24 Blacks were awarded the Congressional Medals of Honor for their actions in the Civil War. The movie “Glory”, starring Denzel Washington, depicted the Massachusetts unit's attack on Ft. Wagner in July of 1863, resulting in the first Medal of Honor awarded to a Black man during that war. Black troops were not even recruited by the Union until after the War Department formed the Bureau of Colored Troops on May 1, 1863, so that action came very soon after formation of the Black regiment in Massachusetts.

When I was a child, my history books failed to mention the role of Crispus Attucks in Colonial Boston on March 5, 1770. Crispus was the first person killed in the confrontation that became known as the Boston Massacre, when the occupying British troops opened fire on a crowd of patriots who were led by Crispus, an escaped slave of Black and Native American descent. This incident set the stage and fanned the fires that became the American Revolutionary War, thereby leading to freedom for America (and theoretically for all men in our country) from British rule. That freedom unfortunately didn't get legally extended to the American slaves of the time.

Pitts' reminders of Black people's roles in American wars recalled to my mind the tombstones that I have found in the Madison area to commemorate the lives of Black servicemen of the Civil War. During my years of exploration and research of the cemeteries on Redstone Arsenal, I encountered three Veteran's Administration tombstones there for troops of the U. S. Colored Infantry. Additionally, I found one more in an old slave cemetery located a couple of miles west of the arsenal in the former community of New Haven. The Wiggins Slave Cemetery in New Haven has the tombstone of Corporal William Ward, as described in an article by reporter Megan Walde in the Huntsville Times in the year 2002. Ward served in Company H of the 15th Regiment of the U. S. Colored Troops, according to his VA tombstone, which has no dates on it. However, his death date was provided on the pension application papers filed by his mother in 1890. She gave his death date as February 15, 1868. Ward's VA tombstone was ordered in 1900. The VA tombstones at the known graves on Redstone Arsenal of Black soldiers of the Civil War likewise have no dates. These VA tombstones are in separate cemeteries on arsenal land. They mark the graves of Austin Groves, Gabriel R. Blackburn, and Joseph Beasley. More about these men will be in my next article.

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