Even though blacks comprised about one-third of the personnel in the Revolutionary Navy, Congress in 1792 passed legislation restricting military service to whites. This meant that no African Americans officially served in the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War or the various military campaigns against Indians. The Civil War began on April 12, 1862 when the South Carolina militia fired on the federal government’s Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. President Lincoln and members of Congress assumed that the war would be very brief, since they thought the North would be able to muster personnel and munitions much more effectively than the South. Indeed, many assumed that the Confederacy would lose a few battles in the summer of 1862 and the war would end. Alas, those hopes were unrealistic as the Civil War not only continued into 1862, but generally went badly for the Union forces as Confederates defeated one northern general after another. Indeed, it seemed possible that Southern forces could capture Washington and invade the North. At the outset, leaders in the North assumed there would be no problems finding soldiers willing to serve for the brief duration of the war, but as fighting continued with an immense loss of life, recruiting soldiers became a challenge. President Lincoln instituted conscription, but needed money to fund the fighting, so he allowed prosperous men to pay a fee in lieu of military service.
The question of allowing blacks to fight for the North arose early in the Civil War. In Massachusetts, blacks volunteered to serve in the military since they assumed the war would end slavery. They were turned down. President Lincoln knew that blacks were willing to fight, but feared that if he permitted them to serve, the Border States—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri—might switch their allegiance from the North to the South. It is also the case that northern commanders did not highly evaluate the idea of mixing white and black troops. Finally, in the summer of 1862, Congress erased the 1792 law that prohibited blacks from serving in the federal military. They accepted blacks, but specified they were to serve in Jim Crow units commanded by white officers. Black men would receive $10 per month for their service, but $3 of that was deducted for room and board. Congress paid white Union troops $13 per month with no deduction. This racial discrepancy provoked controversy, but the policy remained in force throughout the Civil War.
In Michigan, the Detroit Tribune and Advertiser newspaper called for the creation of a colored regiment. Some volunteered and began to train before they had official approval to serve. Secretary of War Stanton, on July 24, 1863, authorized the raising of a colored regiment in Michigan. Officially, the First Regiment of Colored Infantry dates from August 12, 1863. Black men—or colored men as they were called in the 1860s—volunteered for service and came to this location north of downtown Detroit for their training. At that time, it was known as Camp Ward. By the time of the Civil War, the level of literacy was so elevated that extensive records were carefully kept about all who served and about their units’ assignments. I believe that 895 colored men obtained their training and, on March 28, 1864, boarded trains in Detroit to join the 9th Army in Annapolis, Maryland. They remained there until April 15, 1864 when they sailed to Hilton Head, South Carolina. By the spring of that year, the Union Navy had effectively blockaded the South in hopes of financially devastating the Confederacy by preventing the export of cotton and the import of munitions. The North controlled many or most of the barrier islands, but not the inland areas, so Michigan’s First Regiment served on the South Carolina coast.
In the Civil War and in subsequent conflicts until late in the Korean War, colored troops were generally assigned to support tasks such as guard duty or engineering tasks. Some white officers had doubts about the ability and willingness of blacks to fight, while others presumed that white troops would not fight effectively alongside black troops.
From April to July, 1864, the First Regiment served in costal South Carolina doing picket duty and construction work. On May 23, 1864, the military changed the official name of this unit to 102nd Regiment United States Colored Troops. In July, they were shipped to northeastern Florida where they performed similar duties, including destroying Confederate rail lines. On July 11, near Baldwin, Florida, the unit first faced fire from Southern troops. Apparently they fought competently, repulsed the Confederates and were judged by their white officers and superior officers as well-qualified for battle. They remained in northeastern Florida until September, 1864 when they were shipped back to coastal Carolina. In the fall of 1864 and in January, 1865, units from the Regiment were briefly assigned to the Union troops who were then moving through South and then North Carolina as General Sherman drove his forces toward a possible meeting with the Union Armies that had reached central Virginia. The Michigan Regiment engaged in more warfare at this time.
General Lee surrendered to General Grant at
Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 12, 1865, ending the Civil War.
At this time, the
was deployed in South Carolina which was, officially, under control of Union
armies but, unofficially, roving groups of Confederates were still a menace.
Peace returned to the Carolinas and, on April 25, 1865, this Regiment marched
back to Charleston, South Carolina. They remained there until September 30
when they were permitted to return to Michigan, arriving in Detroit on October
17, 1865. The Regiment was then disbanded. A total of 1,446 colored men served
during the 27 months of its existence. Six of them were killed in battle and
another 5 died of battlefield wounds. A much larger number—129—died
of the diseases that took the lives of very many soldiers during the Civil
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P 25101 Listed March 1, 1968
State of Michigan Historical Marker: Put in place April 12, 1968. This is
Located near the northwest corner of Duffield School
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley, July 23, 2007
Description Prepared October, 2007
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