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Madison County blacks fought in the Civil War
by John J. Dunphy

A white politician and a renowned black abolitionist both supported the enlistment of black troops into the Union army during the Civil War. Illinois Governor Richard Yates in July of 1862 urged President Abraham Lincoln to "accept the services of all loyal men," which obviously included blacks. Frederick Douglass in March of 1863 delivered an address in Rochester, NY titled "Men of Color to Arms." He urged blacks to view the Civil War as a conflict that would destroy the institution of slavery. Some Illinois blacks journeyed to Massachusetts to enlist in the Massachusetts 54th Infantry, an early black regiment that included two of Douglass' sons. The 1989 film "Glory" introduced modern Americans to the Massachusetts 54th, which suffered horrendous casualties during an unsuccessful assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina in 1863. By the end of the Civil War, the Union army included almost 150 black regiments and artillery batteries.

The organization of the Illinois-based Twenty-Ninth U.S. Colored Infantry in April of 1864 gave Illinois blacks the opportunity to enlist in their own state. According to a Madison County history, about 100 men from our county enlisted in the Twenty-Ninth. Seven men named Arbuckle, all related, enlisted in Alton, as well as 19-year-old John W. Riden, who became a sergeant. Corporal Hiram D. Route, a Missouri slave who had escaped to Illinois, worked for a Dr. Hull of Alton for about a year before enlisting. These men and the other recruits knew what they could expect if taken alive by the Confederates. During the same month that the Twenty-Ninth was organized, Confederate troops massacred black Union soldiers who had surrendered at Fort Pillow, Tennessee. The Confederate press applauded the massacre. "Repeat Fort Pillow," the Richmond Examiner urged, "and we will bring the Yankees to their senses." The South felt especially threatened by the Union decision to use black troops. Another Dixie newspaper stated that it was "a deadly stab...at our institutions themselves, because they know that if we are to yield on this point, to treat black men as the equals of whites, and insurgent slaves as the equivalent of our brave soldiers, the very foundation of slavery would be fatally wounded."

After only a few weeks of training, the Twenty-Ninth joined the Army of the Potomac in late spring of 1864. These brave Illinoisans participated in the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864, which occurred during the Siege of Petersburg, VA. Union forces tunneled under Confederate lines and planted explosives. When detonated, they would create a massive breach in the Confederate defenses and allow Union soldiers a point of entry. Black troops, including the Twenty-Ninth, were originally chosen to lead this offensive. At the last moment, however, Union General George Meade decided to use white troops as the initial assault force. He lacked confidence in the fighting ability of black troops and feared embarrassing the Lincoln administration during an election year by appearing to endanger the lives of black Americans, according to Edward A. Miller, Jr.'s "The Black Civil War Soldiers of Illinois: The Story of the Twenty-Ninth U.S. Colored Troops."

The explosion created a huge crater that the black troops had been trained to go around. The white troops who led the assault, however, took cover in the crater and began firing at the enemy. The Confederates quickly encircled the crater and began pouring rifle and artillery rounds down on the Union soldiers in what became a turkey shoot. The Twenty-Ninth and the other black troops attempted to relieve their white comrades but could do nothing to reverse the disaster. Some Rebels initially fled from the black troops because, in the words of a Confederate captain, "we could not expect the sons of Southern gentlemen to fight n-----s." Other Rebels were outraged at seeing black Union troops. A Confederate officer conceded that his men "disregarded the rules of warfare which restrained them in battle with their own race, and brained and butchered the blacks until the slaughter was sickening." A Union colonel who emerged from the crater with a black soldier to surrender recalled the Rebels shouting, "Shoot the n----r, but don't kill the white man!" The colonel was taken prisoner, while the black was murdered in cold blood.

Early newspaper accounts of the Battle of the Crater blamed black troops for the fiasco. Later, however, the courage of the Twenty-Ninth and the other black soldiers was recognized. A Union veteran of the Battle of the Crater stated, "I never saw men fight better than the colored division, but they came too late to help us." Pvt. Lewis Martin, a Missouri-born slave who escaped to Alton where he enlisted, lost his right arm at the shoulder and left leg below the knee at the Battle of the Crater. Martin was photographed at Harewood General Hospital in Washington to illustrate his injuries. He was the only member of the Twenty-Ninth to be photographed while in service.


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