Blacks braved bigotry to fight
About 40,000 African-Americans gave their lives during the Civil War, fighting for respect, acceptance and citizenship
Robert J. O'Connor, shown inside Dunker Church at Antietam National Battlefield, has written books on the Civil War and is researching the role of blacks in battle. (By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer / September 7, 2012)
Scan the record books and you'll find Union Shawnee and rebel Choctaws, Confederate rabbis and Arab immigrants.
There were units called the Slavonian Rifles and the Irish Brigade and one individual who defied classification — Sgt. Frank Mayne from Pennsylvania, who was discovered to be a woman by the name of Frances Day.
There also was a group of people who many believe were onlookers to the war — African-Americans. After all, why would those who were denied their civil rights want to fight on a battlefield alongside those who practiced discrimination?
But blacks braved both bigotry and cannon fire during the war between the states — fighting for respect, acceptance and citizenship.
"They knew America was not a perfect country, but they had strong hopes that the flaws would mend one day," Willie L. Hensley, former director of the Center for Minority Veterans in the Department of Veterans Affairs, said in a speech in 1998. "They would rather die fighting than die as slaves."
About 40,000 blacks gave their lives during the Civil War and 4,000 of that number are buried at Arlington National Cemetery under stones that bear the initials USCT — U.S. Colored Troops.
Yet, despite those statistics, the fact that blacks had a role on the battlefield often comes as a surprise, even to some African-Americans, said Robert J. O'Connor, who writes and speaks on topics concerning the Civil War.
O'Connor, who lives in Charles Town, W.Va., is considered one of the country's experts on the subject of black soldiers and has addressed numerous national African-American conferences.
"It was always thought that the records were not there. But that is not true," O'Connor said. "I work with a database in which the average file on a black soldier has probably 30 pages."
O'Connor said black soldiers did not participate in the war until the battle of Island Mount, Mo., on Oct. 27, 1862, not long after Antietam. Those troops were the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry.
"The U.S. Colored Troops were not officially formed until Order No. 143 organized the Bureau of Colored Troops on May 22, 1863," he noted. "However, several black units were organized prior to that, including, obviously, the Kansas infantry, the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantries, the 6th and 7th Louisiana Infantries, the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers and the 3rd Tennessee Infantry."
O'Connor said there is no record showing that black soldiers fought at the Battle of Antietam.
Local National Park Service historian Ted Alexander agrees.
"Officially, no African-Americans served on either side during the Battle of Antietam," he said. "It was not until the final Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863, that African-Americans were recruited into the all-black regiment known as the United States Colored Troops."
"However, as with every rule, there are exceptions," Alexander added. "Recent research by noted Iron Brigade scholar Lance Herdegen has uncovered the existence" of two mixed-race soldiers "who passed for white and were serving in the ranks of this famous unit."
Alexander said that in recent years, the role of African-Americans serving the Confederate Army has been exaggerated. However, there are instances where servants took up arms and fought alongside their masters, who were mostly officers.
Then there was Charles Lutz, Alexander noted, the son of a white father and a mixed race mother, who served in Company F 8th Louisiana Infantry and fought at Antietam. "Lutz, however, was the exception rather than the rule," he said.
Alexander said blacks did serve with both armies as teamsters, cooks, laborers and servants at the time of Antietam.