The Growing Clamor for Black Military Recruitment

President Abraham Lincoln invoked the terms of the newly enacted Militia Act by calling for 300,000 state militiamen to serve nine months. This was on top of the 300,000 three-year volunteers that Lincoln had called for last month. States that could not meet their three-year volunteer quota would have to make up for it with more nine-month enlistments, and if any state would not or could not raise their militias, the War Department would take control of the process. This was never effectively carried out.

That same day, two congressmen and a group of “Western gentlemen” presented “two colored regiments from the State of Indiana” to Lincoln. Congressional Republicans, primarily the Radicals, had long supported freeing slaves and sending them into the military, both to deprive the Confederacy of labor and to increase Federal military strength. Also, the newly passed Confiscation Act authorized the president to arm slaves for combat duty.

However, most northerners opposed such a move. This was demonstrated on August 6, when a “Grand War Demonstration” was held outside the White House, where many voiced support for Lincoln’s policy of “subjecting to confiscation the property of rebels,” including slaves. But nobody went so far as to voice support for arming former slaves.

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit:

Lincoln upheld popular opinion by declining the offer for the black regiments to serve as armed units. He explained that “to arm the negroes would turn 50,000 bayonets against us that were for us,” meaning that the loyal slave states of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri could join the Confederacy. Lincoln said he was not ready to allow the men to serve in any capacity other than army laborers, for which they would be paid. Major General Ulysses S. Grant used this policy to turn fugitive slaves into laborers in his military department.

The disappointed men and their sponsors were unaware that Lincoln was in the process of modifying his position on this issue. In a recent cabinet meeting, Lincoln had officially opposed arming blacks for military service, but, according to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, “he was not unwilling that commanders should, at their discretion, arm, for purely defensive purposes, slaves coming into their lines.”

In fact, the 1st South Carolina (African descent) was already armed and trained in Major General David Hunter’s Department of the South. They were even dispatched by Brigadier General Rufus Saxton, military governor of the South Carolina Sea Islands, to St. Simons Island in Georgia to fight local Confederates. Saxton asked Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton for authority to organize another “5,000 able-bodied men from among the contrabands in this department… to be uniformed, armed, and officered by men detailed from the Army.” They would be paid $8 to $10 per month and given full rations.

Saxton explained that such a move was necessary because the slaves “suffer greatly from fear of attack by their rebel masters, in the event of which they expect no mercy at their hands.” Saxton also predicted that “the rebellion would be very greatly weakened by the escape of thousands of slaves with their families from active rebel masters if they had such additional security against recapture as these men, judiciously posted, would afford them.” He concluded, “Thus organized, disciplined, and constantly employed, the men would escape demoralization among themselves, and working with and for the soldiers whenever their health or efficiency demanded it, a happy reciprocal influence upon the soldiers and these earnest and ready helpers would almost necessarily be the result.”

Saxton’s letter was delivered to Washington by Robert Smalls, a boat pilot and escaped slave who had captured the C.S.S. Planter and delivered her to Federal blockaders. While Smalls was in transit, Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding Federal occupation forces in New Orleans, authorized the recruitment of free blacks as soldiers. Butler argued that such an order did not defy administration policy, which only prohibited the recruitment of slaves.

On August 25, Lincoln quietly allowed Stanton to issue a reply to Saxton that changed the nature of the war:

“In view of the small force under your command and the inability of the Government at the present time to increase it, in order to guard the plantations and settlements occupied by the United States from invasion and protect the inhabitants thereof from captivity and murder by the enemy, you are also authorized to arm, uniform, equip, and receive into the service of the United States such number of volunteers of African descent as you may deem expedient, not exceeding 5,000, and may detail officers to instruct them in military drill, discipline, and duty, and to command them. The persons so received into service and their officers to be entitled to and receive the same pay and rations as are allowed by law to volunteers in the service.”

This was the first official Federal authorization to recruit blacks into the military for combat service, and while it was issued only due to the unique needs within Saxton’s jurisdiction, the order would ultimately be expanded throughout all military departments. This deprived the Confederacy of labor, increased Federal military strength, appeased Radical Republicans, and most importantly, empowered former slaves to fight for their own freedom.


  • Guelzo, Allen C., Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.

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