Grant visited Natchez to recruit black soldiers for Union army

Published 12:08 am Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Sunday, Sept. 6, 1863, edition of The New York Times reported that General Ulysses S. Grant had visited the river town of Natchez on Aug. 14, 1863. His purpose in coming was to organize some African-American regiments.

Up to that point in time African-American men served as soldiers in all the American wars, expect the Mexican War. However, at the outbreak of the Civil War the Union and the Confederacy rejected black men who wished to enlist, but as the war wore on and the number of dead and wounded increased the Union soon changed its mind.

Union General Benjamin Butler raised a troop of black men in Louisiana as early as August 1862. Union General David Hunter formed a troop of black men in May 1862 in South Carolina, and a group of black men were formed into a regiment in Cincinnati, Ohio in September 1862. However, President Abraham Lincoln was not in favor of these efforts.

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This did not stop the states of Rhode Island, Kansas and Missouri from issuing a call for black men to volunteer in their states, and the first African-American regiment used in combat was the 79th US COLORED INFANTRY (First Kansas) at Island Mounds, Mo., on Oct. 28, 1862. After the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, black men were officially accepted into the Union army with Lincoln’s order for the formation of four African- American units.

At Natchez, Grant hoped to recruit as many able bodied ex-slaves as possible from the surrounding plantations. Those not chosen were advised to stay on the plantations and help bring in the crops. The local planters who were considered loyal were encouraged to induce black people to work for them and to pay them wages. Grant also recruited troops from the Natchez contraband camp.

According to the Times article, there were at that time 6,000 runaway ex-slaves at the Natchez contraband camp. The term contraband was applied to those formerly enslaved people who had escaped or come into the possession of the Union. By 1863, the number of people who were classified as contraband numbered in the tens of thousands. Most found their way into towns and cities, such as Natchez, that were under Union control, and the influx of so many people forced the Union authorities to establish areas known as contraband camps. An 1864 Union map of Natchez shows that the Natchez camp, on which the map identifies it as the contraband barracks, was located Under-the-Hill north of Silver Street.

Of the large number of those in the Natchez camp it was reported that only 300 were expected to be fit for military service. The hardships of slavery and exposure had taken its toll on the health of many of the former enslaved people.

The Times article also pointed out that at least 10,000 African-Americans were already contributing to the war effort as teamsters, cooks, Quartermaster hands, and officers’ servants — work that would otherwise have to be filled by whites.

Those that were recruited in Natchez at the time were to made part of the 30th Missouri which was reduced to only 200 men because of fighting and disease. The 30th was then to consist of two companies of white soldiers and eight companies of black soldiers that formed a regiment. A Union company consisted of 88 to 101 men, and a regiment consisted of 10 companies.

Once the racial barrier was lifted, many black men joined the Union army. According to Mark Mayo Boatner III’s The Civil War Dictionary, 300,000 black men joined the Union army accounting for 160 regiments of which 145 were infantry, seven were cavalry, 12 were heavy artillery, one field artillery, and one engineer regiment. All but one regiment was created after 1862.

These black men who joined the army did so with an extra risk that their fellow white Union soldiers did not have. If they were captured they were not considered prisoners of war, but runaway slaves, and as such they were either shot or returned back into slavery.

Despite this risk it can be seen that they still fought when they were given the chance, and that their contributions to the fighting in the Civil War should not be overlooked.

Clark Burkett works at Historic Jefferson College. He writes a monthly historical column for The Democrat.