On Christmas Eve 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis declared that any “negro slave” caught while fighting for the Union would be returned to the state from which he escaped.
Despite the risk of being sold into slavery as captured prisoners of war, regardless of whether they had been free, roughly 200,000 Black men enlisted in the Union Army and Navy, fighting for a country that at the time did not even consider them citizens.
Now, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) are introducing a bill seeking to award all of them a Congressional Gold Medal posthumously in recognition of their contributions to preserving the Union and liberating — in many cases — their own family members from enslavement.
“All I can say is: What took us so long?” Norton said in an interview. “But since it’s taken us, what is it, 150 years after the Civil War, Black History Month is a good time for the House and the Senate to honor these soldiers and sailors, 200,000 of them, who served in the Civil War.”
Announcing the legislation Friday, Norton and Booker said Black soldiers’ contributions often have been overlooked in the broader history of the Civil War. Norton said she hoped that awarding the medals would “help correct that wrong and give the descendants of those soldiers the recognition they deserve.”
Norton said the legislation also seeks to recognize the countless Black women who helped the Union’s war effort as nurses, cooks or spies — women such as Harriet Tubman, who gathered intelligence for the Union Army and in one expedition used information gathered from enslaved people to lead federal gunboats up a South Carolina river, evading Confederate torpedoes on their way to attack secessionists’ plantations.
Although women could not enlist to fight, Black men began signing up en masse after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863. But Lincoln had not always supported the idea of Black men taking up arms.
“Lincoln wasn’t an abolitionist. Lincoln was an anti-slavery mainstream politician,” Egerton said. “Every Northern Democrat was opposed to his policies, and a whole lot of border states’ moderate Republicans were not enthusiastic about using Black troops.”
He added, “So Frederick Douglass took it upon himself to lobby Lincoln when it came to Black military service.”
Douglass played a leading role in advocating for Black enlistment and recruiting Black freedom fighters across the country, arguing that with “a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets … there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.”
In early 1863, two of Douglass’s sons, Charles and Lewis, enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the first Black regiments to see combat during the war after Black troops were initially envisioned only as auxiliary support for White combatants.
The regiment’s famous battle against Confederate troops at Battery Wagner in South Carolina in July 1863 shifted White Americans’ perception of Black troops after hundreds of them charged up the beach into heavy Confederate fire — “their Bunker Hill, their moment where America takes notice of their courage and bravery,” Egerton said.
“What made the Massachusetts regiments so important — and the vast majority of them were Northern men born free — is they wanted to fight because they wanted to show that Black men could do more than cook stew and dig latrines,” said Egerton, whose book focuses on the 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments. “They were kind of the pioneer regiments, and they knew it.”
By the end of the war, more than 140,000 of the roughly 200,000 Black Union soldiers and sailors had been born into slavery, Egerton said.
“A double purpose induced me and most others to enlist, to assist in abolishing slavery and to save the country from ruin,” wrote Sgt. Maj. Christian Fleetwood, who served in the 4th U.S. Colored Infantry and received the Medal of Honor after leading troops into battle near Richmond, carrying the American flag until the end of the battle after the color bearers had been shot down.
Although Lincoln continued to face criticism for allowing Black men to enlist, stories like Fleetwood’s piled up. In a letter defending the enlistment of Black men, Lincoln said that some of his field commanders believed “the colored troops constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the Rebellion” and that some battles would have been lost without them.
Lincoln asked, “Why should they do any thing for us, if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive — even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.”
Disturbed by the mistreatment of Black troops, Douglass continued lobbying Lincoln to address unequal pay for Black soldiers and the atrocities committed against them by Confederates with little consequence. Black troops captured by Confederate forces as prisoners of war were tortured or assassinated. Some captured free Black Union soldiers were sold into slavery. Some were summarily executed as they tried to surrender; Confederates massacred hundreds of them at Fort Pillow in Tennessee.
“No word was said when free men from Massachusetts were caught and sold into slavery in Texas,” Douglass wrote. “No word is said when brave black men, who according to testimony of both friend and foe, fought like heroes to plant The Star-Spangled Banner on the blazing parapets of Fort Wagner, and in doing so were captured, some mutilated and killed, and others sold into slavery.”
Egerton said the added risks and horrors of fighting for the Union as Black men made Norton and Booker’s push to award them the Congressional Gold Medal all the more important.
“These medals are a way to remind Americans that Black [troops] played a very significant role in winning the war, and saving the country,” Egerton said.