The March 1865 Review of the Union’s Black Soldiers: “President Lincoln was deeply moved at the sight of these Negro troops”


Union Troops enter Richmond VA Leslie's Illustrated
“The Union Army Entering Richmond, VA., April 3,” from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 25, 1865.
As depicted in the illustration, African American soldiers led the way into Richmond when it was captured near the end of the Civil War. Just a week earlier, these soldiers had marched in review for President Abraham Lincoln.
This is a colorized versions of an image from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News by the postcard publisher Southern Bargain House of Richmond, VA.

Image Source: From MetroPostcard.com

For Confederates, it was time to do the unthinkable: enlist slaves in their war to create a slaveholders’ nation. For the Union, it was a time for black soldiers to strut their stuff in front of the president of the United States.

Such was the state of the American Civil War in March 1865. These two very different stories are discussed in the book HISTORY OF THE NEGRO TROOPS IN THE WAR OF THE REBELLION 1861-1865, by George Washington Williams. The historian Williams was a veteran of the Union army, having served in the United States Colored Troops, or USCT. His book shows how the contrasting policies of the Union and Confederacy toward black enlistment played out in the closing months of the war.

By March 1865, the Confederate States of America (CSA) was on the verge of military defeat, and desperate times dictated desperate measures. After several months of intense debate, the Confederate Congress approved a measure that allowed slaves to enlist in the Confederate army. The administration of Confederate president Jefferson Davis added rules which required that slaves be conferred the status of freemen by their owners prior to enlisting; although I have seen some debate as to whether the slaves were to be temporarily free during their enlistment, versus being permanently free both during and after their time as soldiers. In any case, it was a way to add new soldiers when the Confederate army was critically short of men.

As it turned out, the new policy was too little too late. In April of 1865, CSA General in chief Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, and the remaining Confederate forces followed his example over the next few months. But for a moment, African American soldiers were the great black hope of the white men in grey.

For the Union, meanwhile, their black hopes had been realized. In July of 1862, legislation passed by the Union Congress allowed African Americans to enlist in the military, and gave freedom to slaves who did so. Eventually, some 200,000 black men would join the Union army and navy and become a vital part of the Union war effort.

By March 1865, Union forces that included black soldiers were on the brink of capturing Richmond, Virgina, the capital of the Confederacy. Indeed, on April 3, 1865, members of the USCT would take the lead in capturing the fallen city. With the end of the war so close, president Abraham Lincoln came to the Richmond area from Washington, DC, to see the events unfold.

Lincoln’s itinerary included a military review of the black troops. (A review is basically a military parade in which soldiers march in formation.) As noted by George Washington Williams in HISTORY OF THE NEGRO TROOPS, some 25,000 black soldiers, “well drilled, well armed, and well officered, passed in review before the President, General (Ulysses) Grant, and the general officers of the Army of the James and the Army of the Potomac.” While noting the irony that Lincoln had initially “protested” against the use of black soldiers early in the war, Williams said that now, “Lincoln was deeply moved at the sight of these Negro troops.”

This was the last review of black troops that Lincoln would see; an assassin’s bullet cut his life short on April 15. But for that one bright moment, the president was presented with “one of the most magnificent military spectacles of the civil war.”

From the book HISTORY OF THE NEGRO TROOPS IN THE WAR OF THE REBELLION 1861-1865, page 292-293:

On the 28th of January the Lower House of the Confederate Congress had resolved to employ Negroes as soldiers, but on the 7th of February the Senate refused to concur in the action of the House. On the 18th of February General Lee urged his plan of the military employment of Negroes, and on the 20th the Confederate House passed a bill authorizing the employment of two hundred thousand Negroes in the armed service of the Government, but the Senate promptly rejected the measure. The Negro, who had been manifestly and confessedly the cause of the war, was now the hope of both Union and Confederate governments. Fair hands that had been stained with the blood of bondmen, but which were now impotent in disaster, were outstretched to Ethiopia. But “Ethiopia’s hands long stretching mightily had plead with God,” and the cause of the despised Negro had become the cause of humanity and civilization the world over.

But the movement finally received the force of law, as shown in the following, which is the last part of the last Special Order issued from the Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office at Richmond :

“Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office,

” Richmond, April 1, 1865.
“Special Orders No. 78.

“XXIX. Lieutenant John L. Co wardin, Adjutant Nineteenth Battalion Virginia Artillery, is hereby relieved from his present command and will proceed without delay to Halifax County, Virginia, for the purpose of recruiting Negro troops, under the Act of Congress approved March 13th, and General Orders No. 14, Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office, current series.”

On the 23d of March the first company of Negro State troops was mustered into the Confederate service, and by a strange coincidence President Lincoln left Washington city to review his Negro soldiers on the James River on the same day. (NOTE: A company is a group of 75-100 soldiers.)

The review was one of the most magnificent military spectacles of the civil war. The weather was fair and the atmosphere pleasant for the moving masses of troops. Twenty-five thousand Negro soldiers, in bright, new uniforms, well drilled, well armed, and well officered, passed in review before the President, General Grant, and the general officers of the Army of the James and the Army of the Potomac. The troops were reviewed between General William Birney’s headquarters and Fort Harrison, in full view of the enemy at Fort Gilmer.

The troops marched with company front, with banners flying and bands playing. Nearly every slave State had its representatives in the ranks of this veteran Negro army, while Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois, of the Northern States, had regiments in the line. President Lincoln was deeply moved at the sight of these Negro troops, against whose employment he had early and earnestly protested. Hundreds of white officers and thousands of white soldiers witnessed the review with keen interest, and were loud in their praise of the splendid soldierly bearing of their Negro comrades in arms.

The entire review was highly satisfactory, and made a deep impression upon the minds of the civil and military chiefs who witnessed it.

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2 thoughts on “The March 1865 Review of the Union’s Black Soldiers: “President Lincoln was deeply moved at the sight of these Negro troops”

  1. From the blogger of this site:

    The story that George Washington Williams tells about Lincoln’s review is so good, it almost seems too good to be true. Williams does not give the actual date of the review – could it have been on March 23rd, or right after that? – and when he says that the “twenty-five thousand Negro soldiers were in “bright, new uniforms” – what, bright, new uniforms at that time in the war? – I have to take pause.

    Williams’ comments are too interesting to exclude, and I don’t want to operate on the idea that this is, well, not exactly true. But I do want to add this caveat to the piece. Time permitting – and it seems I never have time – I might see if there are other sources which discuss the review.

    – Alan

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