Colored Troops…The Debate

Some members of the Republican Party were not only in favor the abolition of slavery but believed that freed slaves should have complete equality with white citizens. They also opposed the Fugitive Slave Act and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This group became known as Radical Republicans.

Members included: Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, Joshua Giddings, Benjamin Wade, William D. Kelley, Owen Lovejoy, Henry Winter Davis, George W. Julian, John P. Hale, Benjamin Butler, Joseph Medill, Horace Greeley, Oliver Morton, John Logan, James F. Wilson, Timothy Howe, George H. Williams, Elihu Washburne, Schuyler Colfax, Zachariah Chandler, James Ashley, George Boutwell, John Covode, James Garfield, Hannibal Hamlin, James Harlan, John Andrew, Lyman Trumbull, Benjamin Loan, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, Charles Drake and Henry Wilson.

After the 1860 elections the Radical Republicans became a powerful force in Congress. Several were elected as chairman of important committees. This included Thaddeus Stevens (Ways and Means), Owen Lovejoy (Agriculture), James Ashley (Territories), Henry Winter Davis (Foreign Relations), George W. Julian (Public Lands), Elihu Washburne (Commerce) and Henry Wilson (Judiciary)..

Radical Republicans were critical of Abraham Lincoln, when he was slow to support the recruitment of black soldiers into the Union Army. Radical Republicans also clashed with the president over his treatment of Major General John C. Fremont. On 30th August, 1861, Fremont, the commander of the Union Army in St. Louis, proclaimed that all slaves owned by Confederates in Missouri were free. Lincoln was furious when he heard the news as he feared that this action would force slave-owners in border states to join the Confederate Army. Lincoln asked Fremont to modify his order and free only slaves owned by Missourians actively working for the South.

When John C. Fremont refused, he was sacked and replaced by the conservative General Henry Halleck. The Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, William Fessenden, described Lincoln’s actions as “a weak and unjustifiable concession in the Union men of the border states. Whereas Charles Sumner wrote to Lincoln complaining about his actions and remarked how sad it was “to have the power of a god and not use it godlike”.

The situation was repeated in May, 1862, when General David Hunter began enlisting black soldiers in the occupied district under his control. Soon afterwards Hunter issued a statement that all slaves owned by Confederates in his area (Georgia, Florida and South Carolina) were free. Lincoln was furious and despite the pleas of Salmon Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury, he instructed him to disband the 1st South Carolina (African Descent) regiment and to retract his proclamation.

In the early stages of the American Civil War Lincoln only had one senior member of his government, Salmon Chase (Secretary of the Treasury), who was sympathetic to the views of the Radical Republicans. Later in the war other radicals such as Edwin M. Stanton (Secretary of War), William Fessenden (Secretary of the Treasury and James Speed (Attorney General) were recruited into his Cabinet.

Radical Republicans were also critical of Lincoln’s Reconstruction Plan. In 1862 Benjamin Wade and Henry Winter Davis, sponsored a bill that provided for the administration of the affairs of southern states by provisional governors until the end of the war. They argued that civil government should only be re-established when half of the male white citizens took an oath of loyalty to the Union. The Wade-Davis Bill was passed on 2nd July, 1864, but Lincoln refused to sign it.

Ref: The Learning Curve – National Archives – U.K

Valley Spirit, February 11, 1863, p. 2, c. 3: “The Negro Soldier Bill.”
The editors extract several statements from the Congressional debate over Thaddeus Stevens’s “negro soldier bill.” Mr. Wadsworth of Kentucky argues that the aim of the bill was to entrench blacks in the cotton states who would then be able to exterminate or drive out the whites. Wright of Pennsylvania thought that if things were so bad that the Union needed blacks to help, than things were too far gone that the blacks would be of any use. He added that the solution to the military problems was to put McClellan at the head of the army. Diven of New York said he thought the President already had the authority to call up black troops

Ref. Valley Spirit Newspaper, Chambersburg, PA
Democratic in its politics, the Valley Spirit was published on Wednesdays. Normally, the paper consisted of eight pages, each six columns across. Like the Staunton Spectator, the Valley Spirit was sold only by subscription, for an annual rate of $1.75

Whither Are We Drifting?

Summary: The editors point to three pieces of national legislation–Senator Wilson’s bill giving the President absolute power over the state militias, a bill giving the power to the President to suspend habeas corpus at his discretion, and Thaddeus Steven’s bill to allow the enlistment of black soldiers–as evidence of a move toward despotism by radical leaders. There is some hope, the editors say, of reversing this course if Lincoln were to reject the “destructive and revolutionary doctrines of abolitionism” and recall General McClellan to the head of the army, but they conclude there is little chance of that. Instead, they hope that God and the people of the United States will find some way to prevent the subversion of the government by both Southern and Northern traitors.

Excerpt: “Events daily transpiring have confirmed us, not only in the belief that they intend to divide the country, but that their ultimate design is a total subversion of our republican form of government and the establishment of a military despotism.”

Full Text of Article:
In our last issue we made some observations on what we believed to be the designs of the radical leaders now controlling the party in power. Events daily transpiring have confirmed us, not only in the belief that they intend to divide the country, but that their ultimate design is a total subversion of our republican form of government and the establishment of a military despotism. The enlistment bill of Senator Wilson, conferring absolute power on the President over the militia of the several States; the bill granting to the President, at his discretion, the power of suspending the writ of habeas corpus and Thad. Stevens’ negro soldier bill, together with the many arbitrary acts of this administration and its utter disregard of the sacred obligations of the Constitution, all point unerringly toward the establishment of an absolute despotism on the ruins of our republican institutions.

In view of these facts it is the duty of all true patriots, of whatever name or party, to awake to a sense of the dangers that are threatening the destruction of our noble form of government. The danger is imminent and admits of no delay. It will require prompt, energetic, vigorous and determined action on the part of the true friends of the government to save us from impending anarchy and despotism. The fatal and destructive policy of the administration has brought the country to the very verge of run, whilst the bold, bad men who have urged it on in its course and whose mad counsels it has heeded, are dancing in fearful orgies over the ruins they have created.

The administration might, perhaps, yet save the country from total ruin if it would change its present suicidal policy, discard the destructive and revolutionary doctrines of abolitionism, and recall Gen. McClellan to the head of the Army. In this way it could restore confidence to a demoralized army, renew the hopes of a disheartened people and by a few vigorous blows struck at the “heart of the rebellion,” between now and the first of May next, (the time fixed by Greely for a recognition of the Southern Confederacy), the waning fortunes of the Republic might be retrieved and the unity of the nation and constitutional liberty preserved.

But of this we have no hope. Fanaticism has gone too far to recant. Ephraim is joined to his idols and the only hope now rests with God and the people. We cannot believe that either will permit the destruction of the noblest form of government ever devised by man’s wisdom. We have an abiding faith in the patriotism of the people. We believe they will prove equal to the task of preserving the Government from the combined assaults of Southern and Northern traitors who are attempting its overthrow, the former by armed rebellion and the latter by the subversion of the Constitution and laws.

How it is to be done we cannot well see at present, but that the people in some way or other will yet rescue the country from the gulf of ruin to which it has been brought by Northern fanaticism and Southern treason, we have no doubt. But it behooves them to be on the alert and carefully note the drift of events. Let every true patriot, who desires to see perpetuated the priceless legacy bequeathed to us by our fathers, and purchased with their blood, ponder well the inquiry at the head of this article, remembering always that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.[“]


Editor’s Note:
An in-depth review of this topic can be found in Chapter 1 of the NCUSCT Project, The title of this project is “Just Learning To Be Men” and the sub-title for Chapter 1 is “These Men Will Be Good Soldiers.”

The NC-US Colored Troops Project
The NC-USCT Project is a volunteer, non-profit project. The data on the soldiers of the five US Colored Troop regiments formed in North Carolina is being transcribed company by company by our volunteer researchers. It is being posted to the regimental roster as each company is completed. An index has been added for your convenience. We hope to have all the data online as soon as possible, but until then, please be patient. If you would like to volunteer and join with us in this worthwhile project, please let us know. John B. McGowan and Charles P. Barnes

“A Wave of Strength”

“At first the sophisticated free Negro was reluctant to join the army, and published arguments against enlistment. But as the was came to involve emancipation, and liberated slaves in South Carolina joined Union combat forces, Negro reaction in the North shifted more favorably to recruitment. As a result, a large contingent of Pennsylvania Negroes, believed to number more than 1,500 enlisted in the 54 th and 55th Massachusetts Regiments. Company “B” of the 54th came entirely from Philadelphia.

Ref. Alfred M. Green, Letters and Discussion on the Formation of Colored Regiments and the Duty of the Colored People in regard to the Great Slaveholders’ Rebellion in the United States of America (Philadelphia, 1862). Luis F. Emilio, History of the Fifth-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865 (Boston, 1891), 344-349.

For a long time the antislavery element of the League (The Union League of Philadelphia) has advocated the organization of Negro regiments, and it became a topic of private discussion and personal correspondence. McKim (James Miller) and Gibbons (John), recognizing the efficiency of Negro soldiers, found no difficulty in convincing hundreds of League members as well as outsiders of their views. On June 8, 1863, a meeting on the subject was held at the League House. Colonel Lafayette Bingham.

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