Black troops fighting for the Union in November 1864 in Dutch Gap, Virginia (Library of Congress)
The preliminary Emancipation Proclamation announced by President Lincoln in September 1862 allowed the Union army to recruit blacks. Within weeks, preparations began for the organization and training of the first official black regiment, the First South Carolina Volunteers. The New England minister and frequent Atlantic contributor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who had previously served as a captain in the 51st Massachusetts Infantry, was appointed colonel of the new regiment (black regiments were almost always commanded by white officers). He kept a diary of the experience, which was later excerpted in The Atlantic as “Leaves From an Officer’s Journal,” and subsequently released as a book, Army Life in a Black Regiment.—Sage Stossel
I wish to record, as truthfully as I may, the beginnings of a momentous experiment, which, by proving the aptitude of the freed slaves for military drill and discipline, their ardent loyalty, their courage under fire, and their self-control in success, contributed somewhat towards solving the problem of the war, and towards remoulding the destinies of two races on this continent.
During a civil war events succeed each other so rapidly that these earlier incidents are long since overshadowed. The colored soldiery are now numbered no longer by hundreds, but by tens of thousands. Yet there was a period when the whole enterprise seemed the most daring of innovations, and during those months the demeanor of this particular regiment, the First South Carolina, was watched with microscopic scrutiny by friends and foes. Its officers had reason to know this, since the slightest camp-incidents sometimes came back to them, magnified and distorted, in anxious letters of inquiry from remote parts of the Union. It was no pleasant thing to live in this glare of criticism; but it guarantied the honesty of any success, while fearfully multiplying the penalties, had there been a failure. A single mutiny, a single rout, a stampede of desertions,—and there perhaps might not have been, within this century, another systematic effort to arm the negro.