African American Civil War Heroes Paved Way for Modern Army
March 4, 2009
"Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship."
Those were the words of Frederick Douglass, former slave and Abolitionist, speaking on the, then controversial, topic of African American enlistment into the U.S. military. Were Douglass alive to see today's U.S. military, he would certainly smile a joyous and patriotic smile.
The progress of African Americans in American society can be seen as a direct reflection of how we, as a people, have progressed. Here but not at home, African Americans in early America were denied the rights granted to all citizens as their birthrights. Among these rights was the right to take up arms for their country.
Upon the outbreak of the Civil War at Fort Sumter, many freed African American men answered the call of the nation. Unfortunately, a 1792 Federal law barred African American from enlisting in the Army. It wasn't until 1682 that Congress all slaves from their confederate masters. This was followed by President Abraham Lincoln formally issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, executive orders which freed remaining slaves from the confederate south.
African American Soldiers fought on both sides of the Civil War, but this can be considered a rare instance in that African American Soldiers on both sides won. These Soldiers had much to prove and they did so with valor and sacrifice beyond what many Soldiers could hope to never be forced to face.
"Don't worry when you are not recognized, but strive to be worthy of recognition," President Lincoln once said.
Often provided with smaller rations, poor medical care and substantially smaller wages, African American Soldiers of the American Civil War fought this second war, the first being the Revolutionary War, with a small, yet steady, progression toward equality.
"Many African American Soldiers were not given the chance to excel," said Sgt. 1st Class Miguel A. Ramirez, equal opportunity advisor, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 25th Infantry Division, who has met many African American military pioneers during his career as an EO representative. "A lot of the time they were set up for failure."
History has recognized the trials and triumphs of these brave Soldiers who set the standard for African American Soldiers for generations to come. Casting aside doubts on the rights of African American Soldiers to serve, these Soldiers took control of their own destiny, not only fighting for to preserve the union, but the freedom of the unjustly enslaved men and women of the nation.
"These men were just as capable and patriotic as any other man," said Ramirez. "They were judged solely on the color of their skin and not on the merit of their character. It's easy to look in our military history and find many, many African American Soldiers, like the Tuskegee Airmen or Dorie Miller, who were heroes."
Among the immense list of African American heroes were the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment during the U.S. Civil War.
During the Union's second assault on Fort Wagner in 1863, the 54th MVIR, one of the nation's first African American units, launched a brave, yet unsuccessful attacked on the heavily fortified confederate stronghold. Though the regiment failed to take the fort, the Soldiers of the 54th MSVIR proved their unshakable determination and dedication to duty to many of their critics. When the Civil War finally came to an end, 16 African American Soldiers had been awarded the Medal of Honor.
"Everyone should be given a chance," said Ramirez. "African American men and women of the United States military have set the example, not just for African American Soldiers, but all Soldiers."
From the first regiment of African American freedmen who fought alongside General George Washington during the American Revolutionary War, to heroes like Medal of Honor recipient Pvt. George Watson, of the Army's 29th Quartermaster Regiment, who gave his life saving the lives many drowning shipmates during the Japanese attack on Porloch Harbor, New Guinea, African American Soldiers in our armed forces continue to uphold the highest of military traditions.
"And then there will be some black men who can remember that with silent tongue and clenched teeth and steady eye and well-poised bayonet they have helped mankind on to this great consummation," President Abraham Lincoln said, honoring the contribution of African American Soldiers and Sailors during the Civil War.