Negro Troops Prove Themselves in Battle
“On May 27, 1863, two regiments of New Orleans free Negroes and Louisiana ex-slaves participated in an assault on Port Hudson, a Confederate stronghold on the lower Mississippi. The attack failed, but the Negroes fought heroically, advancing over open ground in the face of deadly artillery fire. . . . A white officer of engineers who had witnessed the assault declared that ‘you have no idea how my prejudices with regard to negro troops have been dispelled by the battle the other day. The brigade of negroes behaved magnificently and fought splendidly; could not have done better. They are far superior in discipline to the white troops, and just as brave.’ And the moderate New York Times, commenting on the reports of the battle, said that ‘this official testimony settles the question that the negro race can fight. . . . It is no longer possible to doubt the bravery and steadiness of the colored race, when rightly led.'” (1)
Similar heroic efforts by black troops on both June 7 at Milliken’s Bend, a Union outpost on the Mississippi River above Vicksburg, and July 18 at Fort Wagner, a Confederate stronghold guarding Charleston Harbor, provided additional evidence of black troops’ bravery and effectiveness in battle. (It was the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts’ assault on Fort Wagner, led by its white Boston Brahmin colonel, Robert Shaw, that is portrayed in the movie Glory.)
On May 28, 1863, “the black Fifty-fourth Massachusetts led by Brahmin colonel Robert Gould Shaw marched through Boston on its way to South Carolina. Following the same route that had witnessed the return [to the South] of fugitive slaves a few years before, they passed cheering crowds that lined the street. On Essex Street on a balcony of [abolitionist] Wendell Phillips’ house, William Lloyd Garrison stood beside a bust of John Brown, waiting. As the troops passed, they paused, Shaw and his officers lifted their hats, and then moved on to embark for the South.” (2)
– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, executive director, Vermont Humanities Council
James M. McPherson, The Negro’s Civil War: How American Blacks Felt and Acted During the War for the Union , 187, 89.
Phillip Shaw Paludan, A People’s Contest: The Union and Civil War, 1861-1865, 211-212.