Saturday, June 19, 2010

Why Leading Scholars Make False Reports on USCT Service by Hari Jones

One of the attractions of our museum is that we direct young scholars to primary sources. Teachers have changed the way they teach the Civil War as a result of the information they have received from our museum. The Delany Group Reading List has been of great benefit to educators and scholars across the country. Though false information and images promoted by the movie Glory have proven market value, it is my opinion that the market will demand more accurate information in the near future. It is easy to demonstrate from primary sources that the work of leading academics have promoted information aligned with the movie in lieu of facts found in primary sources. The works of such scholars have proven market value. Some in the museum business believe that the truth must be compromised in order to attract visitors. But most are simply afraid to disagree with esteem scholars.

Many of the false statements concerning the service of United States Colored Troops (USCT) are results of poor scholarship by leading scholars. Even in a 2008 John Hope Franklin edited work published by Howard University Press (Legacy: Treasures in Black History), we find obviously false statements. For example, the fatalities of the 54th Massachusetts at Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863 are reported to have been 281, which is eleven more than the regiment lost to disease and combat in two and half years of service. The regiment’s actual fatalities at Fort Wagner were 54. Since most academics support this false report, it is difficult in the current atmosphere to tell the truth. Thus, the truth is currently being suppressed. In order to make the grade, many young scholars are being compelled to ignore the truth and to iterate falsehoods.

Among these often iterated falsehoods are that 1) there were no African American officers in the United States Colored Troops, 2) the 54th Massachusetts was the first African American regiment in the Civil War, 3) African Americans were denied equal pay (some qualify this by stating that they were denied equal pay for most of the war), 4) President Lincoln did not intend to assign African Americans to combat duty, and 5) Sergeant William Carney was the first African American to receive the Medal of Honor. All of these statements are false. Some require more complex explanations, but the truth can be discovered if one consults the primary sources.

1) There were over one hundred African American officers commissioned in the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War. Their records can be found at the National Archives, and their names are on the Wall of Honor at the African American Civil War Memorial. In the first regiment of African descent mustered into the Union Army in 1862, all of the commissioned officers except for the regimental staff officers were men of African descent.

2) Though the first regiment of African descent organized under the Union umbrella during the Civil War was the 1st South Carolina Infantry, it was not officially mustered into federal service because General David Hunter had acted illegally when he organized the regiment in the spring of 1862. Thus, the regiment was disbanded that spring after a Congressional Inquiry. After Congress granted President Lincoln the authority to arm men of African descent, General Rufus Saxton was ordered by the War Department to reorganize the regiment on August 25, 1862. It was mustered into the Union Army in January 1863. The 1st Louisiana Native Guards organized in New Orleans under General Benjamin Butler became the first African descent regiment mustered into the Union Army in September 1862. The 54th Massachusetts became the ninth regiment of African descent mustered into the Union Army in May 1863.

3) In section 6 of the Militia Act of 1862, which gave President Lincoln the authority to arm men of African descent, Congress mandated that African descent men enlisted under that act be paid only $10.00 regular pay with $3.00 to be taken away for their uniforms. Privates of European descent received $13.50 at that time. When the Bureau of United States Colored Troops was established on May 22, 1863, this section of the Militia Act was interpreted to apply to all men of African descent regardless of rank or whether he was free or enslaved before enlistment. For one year African American enlisted men were denied equal pay, African American commissioned officers received equal pay. On June 15, 1864, President Lincoln signed legislation into law that awarded men of African descent equal pay and arrears. The soldiers who were free men prior of April 1861 were entitled to all of their back pay. Those who were enslaved prior to April 1861 received back pay starting on January 1, 1864. As result of this act of Congress, men of African descent were denied equal pay for only one year, and most received all of their back pay. Therefore, they were not denied equal pay for most of the war, and most who served were not denied equal pay at all. According to the Congressional records, the fact is that their heroism on the battlefield earned them equal pay.

4) Scholars who state that Lincoln did not intend to arm men of African descent or assign them to combat duties often use paragraph six of the Emancipation Proclamation in which the President states that men of African descent will be assigned to “garrison forts” as their evidence. Edna Medford at Howard University has been known to advance this argument. It is important to note that to be assigned to garrison a fort in a combat zone is in fact combat duty. Since President Lincoln did not order his generals to remove African descent soldiers from combat zones, it is ridiculous to conclude that he did not intend to assign them to combat duty. When we combine this fact with the fact that all USCT regiments were combat arms regiments, the statement becomes even more ridiculous.

5) Sergeant William Carney received the Medal of Honor on May 23, 1900. He was the fifty-first African American to receive the Medal of Honor. The first African American to receive the nation’s highest military honor was a sailor by the name of Robert Blake, who received the Medal of Honor in April 1864. Because Carney’s noteworthy act of courage happened before Blake’s, scholars intent on suppressing the truth have argued that Carney was the first to receive the Medal of Honor even though Blake received his medal over thirty-six years before Carney. This justification of false information leads me to suspect that the poor scholarship of many historians is intentional.

In the next five years as primary sources become more accessible to young scholars and curious readers, the poor scholarship of leading scholars will be exposed. Whenever a Civil War scholar states that the movie Glory is accurate or “almost perfectly aligned with the historical evidence,” we can be certain that the scholar making the statement is either ignorant of the historical evidence or chooses to suppress the evidence in order to align his scholarship with what is most marketable. It is our intent to align our scholarship with the truth. We trust that the market will indeed value good scholarship in the near future.


  1. Greetings Hari, Thanks for your research and documentation. Through careful study and scholarship designed to reveal the truth, "All unknown things" will become known. Take care!

  2. Good day ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for your posting regarding misinformation about African American soldiers and the Civil War. You mentioned the pay inequality issue. It has come to my attention that there may have been a pension inequity pay issue as well. After consulting with a few folks, it has come to my attention that some white CW vets were receiving $20 a month in pension pay and african americans were receving $12 a month in pension pay. These were equal graded soldiers and their disability didn't seem to be a factor, at least on the part of the black soldiers. Have you all done any research into this? I would love to know.

    The Family Griot

  3. It is difficult to track the trajectory of these unnamed scholars which is of course part of the historian's passion to build arguments.

    Nevertheless, in regards to several of these issues there are historians who have addressed these matters with an even hand:

    Joseph T. Glatthaar in Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers (New York: Penguin Books USA, Inc, 1990).

    Loren Schweninger and John Hope Franklin. In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). This includes a photograph of a mixed race USCT surgeon and is an amazing narrative of a unique family in bondage and freedom.

    Ira Berlin et al addressed USCT officers in Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867, series II, vol. 1. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

    Institutions such as the Library of Congress and the National Archives acknowledge the participation of black officers and recruitment of regiments before the 54th Massachusetts.

    While there are many falsehoods and erasures of USCT participation in the war, there are people and institutions working to correct these mistakes.

  4. Hari,
    I thought I was wrong!, My research/study indicated, the number of KIA's at the battle at Fort Wagner were lower than the movie stated. I held firm to the evidence of my own research. Thanks Hari!!! "Confirmation of the truth at Last". A.D.Carter III.(Manassas,Virginia)

  5. @Anonymous

    I recently received copies of my great great grandfathers pension records. He went out on disability in 1898 and received an early pension of $6 a month. When he received his regular pension in 1906 he was paid $12 a month.

    @Hari Jones

    I have three ancestors who served in the 21st Regiment. While reviewing their Military records on two of the files there was documentation that they received the pay increase and the retroactive pay. On my great great grandfather Samson Read's record there is no documentation that he received the increase or the back pay, which was strange since he enlisted before the other two.