Gen W T Sherman: Stop recruiting for soldiers from my black laborers; “I must have (negro) labor and a large quantity of it.”

Union General William T. Sherman
Image Source: Old

On June 21, 1864, Union General William T. Sherman was in a foul mood. The cause of his exasperation this day was the loss of black labor due to the aggressive soldier recruitment efforts of Union General Lorenzo Thomas. Thomas had been tasked with enlisting former slaves into the Union army along the Mississippi River and Mississippi Valley, and he was doing too good a job as far as Sherman was concerned.

In the following communication, Sherman makes it clear: “I must have (negro) labor and a large quantity of it.” The fact that the army needed the support of African Americans was not up for debate. Sherman wanted them as laborers, whereas Thomas wanted them as soldiers.

Sherman complained that slaveowners were fleeing north Georgia, for example, and taking their slaves with them. That created a problem for Sherman because he seemed to expect that he could use those slaves as laborers to support his military operations. Although Sherman had his doubts about the viability of negroes as soldiers, he is explicit that he doesn’t mind blacks being enlisted, per se… as long as he could get all the black laborers he needed first.

So great is the value of these laborers that Sherman orders a halt Lorenzo Thomas’ recruiting efforts:

Hdqrs. Military Division Of The Mississippi,
In the Field, Big Shanty, June 21, 1864.

General Lorenzo Thomas,

It has repeatedly come to my knowledge, on the Mississippi, and recently Colonel Beckwith, my chief commissary, reported officially that his negro cattle drivers and gangs for unloading cars were stampeded and broken up by recruiting officers who actually used their authority to carry them off by a species of force. I had to stop it at once.

I am receiving no negroes now, because their owners have driven them to Southwest Georgia. I believe that negroes better serve the Army as teamsters, pioneers, and servants, and have no objection to the surplus, if any, being enlisted as soldiers, but I must have labor and a large quantity of it. I confess I would prefer 300 negroes armed with spades and axes than 1,000 as soldiers.

Still I repeat I have no objection to the enlistment of negroes if my working parties are not interfered with, and if they are interfered with I must put a summary stop to it. For God’s sake let the negro question develop itself slowly and naturally, and not by premature cultivation make it a weak element in our policy. I think I understand the negro as well as anybody, and profess as much conviction in the fact of his certain freedom as you or any one, but he, like all other of the genus homo, must pass through a probationary state before he is qualified for utter and complete freedom. As soldiers it is still an open question, which I am perfectly willing should be fairly and honestly tested. Negroes are as scarce in North Georgia as in Ohio. All are at and below Macon and Columbus, Ga.

W. T. SHERMAN, Major-General, Commanding.


What are we to make of Sherman’s remarks? I have a few thoughts:

o Sherman’s comments highlight an unappreciated fact: that African American labor was an essential part of the Union war effort. We know a lot about the black sailors and soldiers who numbered over 200,000, and were a part of the Union’s war machine. But there were tens of thousands, perhaps over a hundred thousand, African Americans who acted as servants, cooks, teamsters, pioneers, construction workers, medical aides, animal caretakers, etc, and were key parts of the civilian population that directly supported the Union efforts. I don’t think this gets enough recognition or attention.

It might be too strong to say the Union would have lost without the support of black civilians. But at the least, African American laborers enabled tens of thousands more soldiers to be dedicated to combat and other duties. By fulfilling various logistical and operational functions, these black men and women helped to, sometimes literally, pave the way for Union army in the South.

Sherman himself didn’t need to be convinced about the decisive value of black labor. Simply put, he says he “needs” them.

o Sherman’s comments speak to something I have seen in various readings: that in the Union army, there was sometimes a real, heated competition between those who wanted black laborers, and those who wanted black soldiers. For example, military historian William A. Dobak, writing in his book Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867, notes (p 266) that

The need for railroad track layers, for teamsters to haul goods beyond the rail line, and for full crews to maintain roads over which the teamsters’ wagons rolled was apparent to Union generals west of the Appalachians. Late in November 1863, as Grant prepared to drive the Confederates from the heights around Chattanooga, he took time to order Brig. Gen. Grenville M. Dodge to “impress negroes for all the work you want from them” to repair the railroad near Pulaski, Tennessee. Early the next month, Dodge reported that he had enough men to repair bridges and right of way, but that he faced stiff competition from recruiters. “The . . . officers of colored troops claim the right to open recruiting offices along my line; if this is done I lose my negroes. . . . So far I have refused to allow them to recruit. They have now received positive orders . . . to come here and recruit. I don’t want any trouble with them, and have assured them that when we were through with the negroes I would see that they go into the service. . . . Please advise me.”

Grant at once told Dodge to arrest any recruiters who interfered with his track crews. An advance into mountainous northern Georgia, where the Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee had retreated after its defeat at Chattanooga, would take Union troops beyond navigable rivers and force them to rely more than ever on wheeled transportation. Generals in the field thought that preparation for the coming year’s operations was more important than the War Department’s policy of putting black men in uniform

There may well have been hundreds or even thousands more black Union enlistees, if not for Union labor requirements. And this was often a good deal for the black laborer: he might get to stay closer to his family, and many times, the pay was better than army pay.

o Finally, Sherman seems to go out of his way in saying that he has “no objection” to enlisting black soldiers. Sherman is somewhat infamous for stating that he did not believe black men were as suited for combat duty as white men. But by June 1864, African American enlistment was a fait accompli. In this letter at least, he wasn’t trying to stop that black enlistment train, but rather, stating that he wouldn’t get on that train himself.

Does anyone have any thoughts to offer on Sherman’s comments?

Did you know? Sherman was genuinely appreciative of the role of these black civilians. When his forces marched in the Washington, DC Grand Review of May 1865, a number of freedmen laborers were there with Sherman and his men. History also records that no African American regiments participated in the Union victory parade.



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