This is the bulk of the speech I delivered yesterday to the prison staff in Victorville, CA for their black history program.
I am not a history teacher and this is not class. This is black history month and the theme is African-Americans and the civil war. I don’t know how to talk about the civil war without some feeling implicated. Without some feeling victimized and others feeling nothing at all. But implication, victimization or boredom is not my intention. I am a very caring, a very humane storyteller here to tell you in a respectfully brief form a story of African-Americans in the civil war.
The war began in 1861 and ended four years later. One of the catalysts of the civil war was the Dred Scott case. Where Dred Scott sued for his freedom. Lost, then lost, then lost again and won. There were many seemingly complications of this case. Seemingly. Just as there were seemingly complications to the civil war. Seemingly.
Some would ask why African-Americans would fight in the civil war. Why would men who were slaves, former slaves, free African-American men, fight in a war in a country that had not allowed him to read, had declared him 3/5ths a man? Frederick Douglass said “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned right to citizenship in the United States.”
African-Americans were allowed in the war in 1862 however neither white soldiers nor officers believed that African-Americans had the courage to fight and fight well. Their critics were silenced in October 1862 when African-American soldiers repulsed an attack of the Confederates at the battle of Island Mound in Missouri.
By August 1863 14 Negro Regiments were in the field and ready for service.
In July 1863 at Honey Springs, Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, the 1st Kansas Colored fought with courage again. Union troops under General James Blunt ran into a strong Confederate force under General Douglas Cooper. After a two-hour bloody engagement, Cooper's soldiers retreated. The 1st Kansas, which had held the center of the Union line, advanced to within fifty paces of the Confederate line and exchanged fire for some twenty minutes until the Confederates broke and ran. General Blunt wrote after the battle, "I never saw such fighting as was done by the Negro regiment....The question that negroes will fight is settled; besides they make better solders in every respect than any troops I have ever had under my command."
Even before that, in 1862 black soldiers proved themselves as reputable soldiers, but discrimination in pay and other areas remained widespread. According to the Militia Act of 1862, soldiers of African descent were to receive $10.00 a month, plus a clothing allowance of $3.50. Many regiments struggled for equal pay, some refusing any money until June 15, 1864, when Congress granted equal pay for all black soldiers.
Again this is not history class. This is black history month where we celebrate and honor men who had the courage to fight in this war. Some were slaves African-American men who fought for the Confederates. Some of those were slaves who were forced to fight, some were offered their freedom (should they come out alive).
Almost 200,000 African-American men fought for the Union Army and still others for the Union Navy. African American soldiers participated in every major campaign of 1864-1865 except Sherman's invasion of Georgia.
I would be here all day giving you the details of the civil war and the contributions of African-Americans. The point that I am trying to briefly make, briefly remind, is that we were there. Our blood was spilled. This is a month where we honor those men. The mothers, wives, children of those men who never came home. And those men who did.
When I was a little girl my uncle used to tell me that the truth is something you have to search for. Perhaps. And sometimes even in your searching you will never see it in black and white print. Sometimes, and my uncle did not say this, I say, that the truth is sometimes something you have to sit with and imagine. Because I may never read in print the actual conversation between an African-American man, a former slave who had experienced all of the brutality of slavery and his wife the eve of the day he was to go into battle. I won’t know what went through his head knowing that it was most likely that he would never return.
I won’t know what it was for a slave to be handed a weapon and forced to fight as a Confederate. In all of my searching, I will never know that. But I can imagine.
And so what I do with all that I imagine is to help my son imagine too. And not just the battles that were won and lost. Not body counts and weapons used. But imagine the courage, the integrity, the dedication. These were our American heroes. And not just ours, as African-American citizens today, but yours too.