Black Troops in Civil War Georgia
More than 3,500 black Georgians served in the Union army and navy between 1862 and 1865. Enlistment occurred in two distinct phases, beginning on the federally occupied Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina in 1862-63, and resuming in northwestern Georgia and southern Tennessee in mid-1864, during the latter stages of the Atlanta campaign.
Recruitment on the Sea Islands
The arrival of Union warships prompted Confederate forces to evacuate Georgia's coastal islands during February and March 1862.
In 1862 Union authorities began to authorize black enlistment. The St. Simons detachment, together with a group of thirty to forty additional Georgia recruits, joined the army as Company A of the First South Carolina Volunteers.
Enlistment in the Interior
During the Atlanta campaign of May-September 1864, General Sherman opposed black enlistment with word and deed. An avowed white supremacist and a reluctant liberator at best, Sherman made no effort to conceal his contempt for blacks or to disguise the racist dogma behind his opposition to black soldiers. Such phrases as "niggers and vagabonds," "niggers and bought recruits," and "niggers and the refuse of the South" filled his personal letters. Anxious to employ blacks as laborers, Sherman was determined that the forces under his command would remain exclusively white. On June 3, 1864, he issued Special Field Order No. 16 forbidding recruiting officers to enlist blacks who were employed by the army in any capacity.
Despite Sherman's opposition, the enrollment of black soldiers began in occupied areas of northwestern Georgia under authority granted to Colonel Ruben D. Mussey, the Nashville, Tennessee-based commissioner for the Organization of U.S. Colored Troops in the Department of the Cumberland.
Although Johnson claimed that his black troops displayed the "greatest anxiety to fight," he surrendered to Hood and quickly secured paroles for himself and the 150 or so other white troops attached to the garrison. The regiment's 600 African American enlisted men suffered a harsher fate. Some were reenslaved, while others were sent to work on fortification projects in Alabama and Mississippi. Many ended the war as prisoners in Columbus and Griffin, Georgia, where they were released during May 1865 in what one of them described as a "sick, broken down, naked, and starved" condition. Fearful of reprisals from embittered Confederates, the black veterans concealed their connection with the Union cause.
Additional black enlistment took place along the Georgia coast in 1865 after the fall of Savannah and Sherman's departure into South Carolina. Many blacks from Georgia's coastal counties also saw service as pilots and seamen on Union vessels throughout the war.
Jacqueline Jones, Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War (New York: Knopf, 2008).
Clarence L. Mohr, "Before Sherman: Georgia Blacks and the Union War Effort, 1861-1864," Journal of Southern History 45 (August 1979): 331-52.
Clarence L. Mohr, On the Threshold of Freedom: Masters and Slaves in Civil War Georgia (1986; reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001).
Brooks D. Simpson and Jean V. Berlin, eds., Sherman's Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, 1860-1865 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).
Noah Andre Trudeau, Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1998).
Clarence L. Mohr, University of South Alabama
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