George Washington Williams (1849-1891), African American historian from Pennsylvania, wrote "A history of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion." He enlisted in the Union Army at 14 years old, graduated from Newton Theological School and became a pastor in Boston. Williams became a lawyer, a columnist, founded a Boston newspaper, and became the first black legislator from the state of Boston. Read more about his accomplishments at BlackPast.org.
I have chosen to share the insights of George Washington Williams because of his efforts to portray the truths about African American history in general:
"In his historical works Williams strove for objectivity and the truthful recording of history, but he also essentially wrote from a revisionist perspective. He researched avidly and wrote with the goal of rerecording American history to honestly and responsibly include the roles and experiences of African Americans." See BlackPast.org
In "A history of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion," sheds great light upon false ideas being perpetuated today. I will address a few of them here, and we will revisit this work until we have addressed each misconception.
One of the most common misconceptions about black soldiers is that they were not as adept as white soldiers. Washington takes great pains in the section entitled "Negro Soldiers in Ancient Times" providing the ancient history of Egypt around 795 B. C. and their military successes. He said that Egyptians employed "Negroes" in their armies, and they would have not done so if they were not well suited. I have provided his book above so that you can read for yourself and feel as confident as I do about this fact.
The next great confusion that still exists today is the belief that slaves had no concept of freedom nor could buy into the ideals of freedom because they lacked the intelligence to do so. It is believed that they were just pawns in the political and economic processes of the time lacking the ability to ever be equal enough to make worthy contributions to society or to rise above the capacity of servitude.
Washington dispels this opinion in Chapter 2, "Negro Soldiers in Modern Times." The black race has not spent its entire existence in servitude. Studying ancient history can clear that misconception, however, that is not our focus at the moment. While he was forced into servitude to dominant races for three centuries up to, it is impossible to conclude that he did not catch wind of and become excited about the principles of liberty during the course of captivity in the colonies.
As these principles distilled upon the minds and hearts of the American colonists as they pursued freedom, one cannot help to see the effects upon the enslaved and freemen. They more than anyone would have understood and contemplated the GREAT CONTRADICTION of being enslaved while at the same time others struggled at all cost to be free.
Many names on the rolls of Revolutionary War Patriots are those of freedmen and slaves hired out by masters. They dwindled between liberty and tyranny themselves, and they never secured freedoms for their race in that day. They were instrumental in the American cause making them great patriots.
It would be incorrect to assume they forgot about the cause and did not instill the hope of freedom in their children. They were enlisted to help in the cause of America's freedom. In order to begin to understand the breadth of their sacrifice, delve into the account above beginning at page 10.
I am quite positive the remainder of the slave population at least caught wind of the colonist's plight. Even slaves were mustered-in to champion the cause of freedom. The cause ended in victory, at least for the citizens of America. The slaves would have to wait.
During that waiting, the seeds of liberty incubated. Pressures mounted between the North and the South to the point that Americans would once again bare arms...this time against each other. The enslaved would have recognized this contest between those who held slaves and those who did not as another opportunity to secure freedom. They would be die if need be for that freedom. To suggest that they were somehow unconscious as this nation entered into this great defining moment would be absurd.
On page 94, Williams shares portions of General David Hunter's (Hunter's Regiment) letter read to the House of Representatives describing the slaves who enlisted:
"The experiment of arming the blacks, so far as I have made it, has been a complete and even marvellous success. They are sober, docile, attentive, and enthusiastic; displaying great natural capacities for acquiring the duties of the soldier. They are eager, beyond all things, to take the field and be led into action; and it is the unanimous opinion of the officers who have had charge of them, that, in the peculiarities of this climate and country, they will prove invaluable auxiliaries—fully equal to the similar regiments so long and successfully used by the British authorities in the West India islands."In our next post we will examine the efforts of General Hunter and how he paved the way for the formation of the First Regiment Louisiana Native Guards on September 27, 1862 who had actually been a part of the Louisiana State Militia in April 1861.