|Harper's Weekly, June 20, 1863, page 386 (Editorial)|
The magnificent behavior of the Second
Louisiana colored regiment at Port Hudson recalls the fact that it is just two years
since a warning, uttered in the columns of this journal, that if this war lasted we should
arm the negroes, and use them to fight the rebels, was received with shrieks of indignation, not only at the South and in such semi-
neutral States as Maryland and Kentucky, but throughout the loyal North and even in the heart of New England. At that time the bulk of the people of the United States entertained a notion that it was unworthy of a civilized or a Christian nation to use in war soldiers whose skin was not white. How so singular a notion could have originated, and how men should have clung to it in the face of the example of foreign nations and our own experience in the wars of 1776 and 1812, can only be explained by referring to the extraordinary manner in which for forty years slavery had been warping the heart and mind of the American people. A generation of men had grown up in awe of slavery, and
in unchristian contempt of the blacks. And that generation declared that it would not have negro soldiers.
It is very cheering to believers in human progress, and to men who honestly admit that the world moves, to perceive that the short period of two years has sufficed to cure an evil of so long standing, and has educated even the hunkerest Democrat of 1861 into a willingness to arm the blacks. In the abstract, of course, it is a matter of small congratulation that we should at last be doing a thing in itself so obviously sensible and proper that we were clearly fools not to have done it at first. But those who remember how deep the antipathy was, even among anti-slavery men, to any thing which seemed to involve the remotest risk of negro insurrection; how even the most liberal minds among us shrank from any course of policy which seemed capable of entangling us, under any circumstances, in an admission of negro equality, will feel no common sense of joy at our emancipation from so narrow and mean a prejudice.
We have from time to time recorded the slow progress of negro enlistments, and the constant obstacles which have been encountered by the far-seeing men who have desired to raise an army of blacks. When General Hunter raised among fugitive slaves the First South Carolina black regiment at Hilton Head, the officers of his corps -- being still uneducated to the times -- refused to associate with the few brave men who took command of the negroes; and Secretary Stanton -- still barely stammering over the A B C of the work -- declined to pay them wages because their skins were too dark. Under the iron rule of Butler at New Orleans a black brigade was organized, and so long as that grim soldier held sway discontent at the measure was prudently silent. But when Banks succeeded a mutiny among the white troops warned the General that his Northern men were not yet sufficiently educated to the times to march side by side with negroes. He wisely solved the problem by sending the blacks into garrison, and keeping the whites in the field. One regiment, it seems, he marched against the enemy, and they, we may be sure, will not, after Port Hudson, be again exposed to sneers or insult. At the Southwest negroes began to pour into our lines when Columbus fell, and the rush has never ceased. Yet, until within a few weeks, no use has been made of them. They came in droves, begging us to employ them as soldiers or laborers -- as any thing. But our generals, slow to learn that they were excellent fighting material, and that the lesson of the hour was to arm them, treated them as a nuisance; sometimes fed them in idleness, sometimes sent them back to their masters, in a few cases used them as laborers, but never, until recently, put muskets into their hands. It was not till the month of March last, when Adjutant-General Thomas (who two years ago was so "sound" -- as the phrase was -- on the slavery question that he was even suspected of rebel sympathies) went West at the pressing invitation of General Blair and others, that the necessity was discerned of making soldiers of these fugitives. Since then ten full regiments of negroes have been formed, and are being drilled and equipped. It is now stated that ten more regiments will shortly be organized. Indeed there is no limit to the supply of troops which may be drawn from this source. The valley of the Mississippi and its tributaries could furnish, in the course of a year, an army of 100,000 men -- enough to hold the country after we have taken it.
At the North, the work of negro enlistments progresses slowly, partly in consequence of the sparse negro population, and partly owing to obstacles created by politicians. In this State no negro regiment has been formed; it is said to be hard work enough to obtain the sanction of the State authorities to the formation of new white regiments. But Massachusetts has already sent off one full regiment, commanded by Colonel Shaw, and another is in process of formation. And the negroes of the District of Columbia will shortly constitute a brigade, and will apply for active service.
Uneasiness is felt in some quarters lest the rebels should execute their brutal threats of hanging the officers of black regiments and selling the privates into slavery. But no apprehension need be entertained on this score. The act of the Rebel Congress on this subject is so ingeniously framed that while appearing to menace our black troops and their officers with dire penalties, it really remits the whole subject of their treatment to Jeff Davis; who, of course, will realize that indignities offered to them would at once be followed by retaliation upon rebel prisoners in our hands. The 8400 prisoners taken by General Grant at Vicksburg are a pretty fair security for our negro troops.
|Harper's Weekly, June 20, 1863, page 386 (Editorial)|
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