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Fighting for Their Freedom

Daphne overlooks the Kentucky landscape
The tombstones looked like little white dominoes. Thousands of them dotted the gently rolling Kentucky landscape and each one bearing the name of another brave, white Federal soldier. What had these men died for? Preservation of the Union? Loyalty to Lincoln? Idealism? I could imagine dozens of motives. Then I entered the graveyard of the United States Colored Troops. For these men, one reason outshined them all.

Welcome to Camp Nelson Cemetery
They died for freedom. Freedom for themselves and freedom for their people. Just 140 years ago, this cemetery was site of the United State's third largest recruitment center for African American troops in the Civil War. More than 10,000 slaves became soldiers here at Camp Nelson. Daphne and I wondered about their lives as we strolled across the manicured grounds. How was their transition from the bonds of slavery to the rigid discipline of military life? Did the white soldiers treat them like comrades or inferiors? Was their sacrifice worth it?


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The answers weren't easy to come by. The role of African Americans in the Civil War -- like those of women, Native Americans and youth -- barely rates a paragraph in most history books. But the information I scraped together made me admire them all the more. Black soldiers were not only battling against the Confederates in this war; they also faced the enemies of racism, discrimination and prejudice.

For instance, did you know that African Americans had to struggle for their right to fight? It's true. They tried to enroll in the Union Army as soon as the first shots rang out at Fort Sumpter, but couldn't. Despite the fact that blacks had served in both the American Revolution and the War of 1812, they were banned from the Civil War because of a 1792 Federal law that said Negroes couldn't bear arms. Lincoln also feared that the enrollment of blacks would prompt even more states to secede from the Union. A group of free blacks in Boston actually filed an official request with the Government to be allowed to enlist, but to no avail.

Nearly 10,000 African American soldiers trained in these field
By the summer of 1862, however, it was clear the Federals needed all the help they could get. At least one Major General had already started "recruiting" freshly freed slaves at gunpoint. So the Army opened their doors and both freed and enslaved African Americans flooded in with hopes of becoming full-fledged citizens some day. As black leader Frederick Douglass put it: "...let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States."

Camp Nelson had 300 buildings, including hospitals, a prison and a bakery that baked 10,000 loaves a day
In all, nearly 179,000 African American men joined the Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy. Many had to run away from their masters -- or be purchased by the military -- in order to do so. Once they arrived at the training camps, they had mountain-sized obstacles to overcome. The first was their families. Since their wives and children had nowhere else to go, black recruits brought them along and built them wooden ramshackle huts, called shanties, on the outskirts of camp. The sanitary conditions there were almost always terrible, and there was rarely running water. In the summer of 1864, a white commander at Camp Nelson decided he was sick of staring at the shanties and ordered all the families to leave. New families quickly replaced the old, however, and the old ones returned. In November, he evicted them again and burned their shanties behind them. Homeless in the dead of winter, hundreds of the refugees died. Fortunately, this tragedy had a silver lining: once the press got hold of the story, there was such an uproar that Camp Nelson had to build 97 cottages for the refugees, plus a hospital, laundry, mess hall and school!

Stephanie pays respects to African American Civil War soldiers
But these sorts of victories were rare. For the most part, the Army had a philosophy of "separate and unequal." Though their blood would eventually be spilled on the very same soil, blacks and whites could not mingle in the training camps. They had separate eating and sleeping quarters and the black's quarters were often inferior. The payscale was also unequal. Blacks only received $10 a month -- and $3 were automatically deducted for clothing. White soldiers, on the other hand, got $13. That's right -- white soldiers earned nearly twice the amount of blacks. Only in June 1864 was that corrected.

In addition to blatant discrimination, African Americans also had to overcome stereotypes. A big one was the notion blacks were not as brave as whites. Officers often hesitated to send the "Colored Troops" to the battlefield. But when they did, they weren't disappointed. One General even wrote: "The question that negroes will fight is settled; besides they make better soldiers in every respect than any troops I have ever had under my command." Black soldiers fought valiantly at Milliken's Bend and Port Hudson, Louisiana; Petersburg, Virginia; and Nashville, Tennessee. Two of Camp Nelson's regiments helped chase General Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of North Virginia to Appomattox and were there when it surrendered on April 9, 1865.

Former Slaves Rest in Peace...

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All together, approximately 40,000 African Americans lost their lives in the Civil War. As Daphne and I left Camp Nelson's tranquil cemetery, I wondered if their sacrifice had been worth it. Although the 13th Amendment would be passed in December of 1865, permanently abolishing slavery in the United States, there were still many more obstacles to overcome -- Black Codes, riots, lynchings, segregation, unequal pay scales, racism, prejudice.

Third Sgt. Elijah P. Marrs fought in the U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery
I found my answer in a quote by 3rd Sgt. Elijah P. Marrs of the 12th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery: "I felt freedom in my bones when I saw the American eagle, with outspread wings, upon the American flag, with the motto E Pluribus Unum, the thought came to me 'Give me liberty or give me death."


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Teddy - General Grant and a dozen grisly ways to die
Rebecca - If it takes every chicken in the Confederacy
Neda - Harriet Tubman kicks some butt
Teddy - How easy is it to assassinate the President?