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When Confederate gunners opened fire on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, black men were barred from serving in the United States Army. Opposition to enlisting African Americans was almost as strong in the North as it was in the South. The citizen soldier was the military ideal of American democracy, and blacks were not citizens and could not, in the minds of many whites, be made into soldiers. As the Lincoln administration began to consider receiving black volunteers, voices were raised in every corner of the Union against this revolutionary move. Whether he wanted to or not, African immigrant Nicholas Said could not join the army.1
The arguments of the opponents of black military service were contradictory and racist. Some opponents described blacks as too servile to make good soldiers, while others said that they could not be controlled in battle. Many said that blacks were too cowardly to fight, but others said that they were so warlike and vicious that blacks would turn battlefields into extermination grounds. When Horatio Seymour ran successfully as the Democratic nominee for governor of New York, he warned that enlisting former slave would ensure “the butchery of women and children for scenes of lust and rapine, or arson and murder unparalleled in the history of the world.” Some said that blacks would never volunteer for the army and others warned that if blacks did volunteer then white soldiers would desert.2
The constant agitation of black and white abolitionists for “Colored Troops” was one factor in pushing Congress and President Lincoln towards a Negro soldiery. Perhaps as important was the impact of heavy Union losses in the great battles of 1862. At Shiloh, the Second Bull Run, and Antietam, the Northern death toll was so high that new white recruits nearly stopped coming forward. The great untapped reserve of manpower for the Union cause was the thousands of Northern freeborn blacks and the tens of thousands of escaped Southern slaves flooding into Union army camps wherever the great armies of the United States advanced.3
In July of 1862, Congress passed the Second Militia Act, which allowed black men to perform limited service in the army. Congress did not place black recruits on an equal field with whites. While the lowest-ranking white soldier was paid $13 per months (about $300 today) black men were to be paid only $10 and three dollars of that was deducted every month to pay for their uniforms! Blacks were to risk their lives for $7 a month, or about $170 in today’s money.4
On New Year’s Day, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. While that executive order is remembered today for freeing the slaves in the rebellious states of the Confederacy, it also authorized the recruitment of blacks into the army as soldiers. A week earlier, on Christmas Eve, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had promised that black men caught in Union uniforms would be enslaved and that the white officers leading them would be executed as “criminals deserving death” for inciting a slave revolt.5
The following year, the anti-Emancipation Democratic New York Journal of Commerce declared that, “The only motive for adopting the black soldier system was the fanatical idea of negro equality…and the determination of the radicals to do everything possible to raise the negro to the social and political level of the white.” While this social revolution was not “the only motive” for enlisting blacks, abolitionists thought that black enlistment would not only speed the successful conclusion of the war, but that it would also place the American people in the debt of African Americans for saving the Union, ensuring the expansion of rights for African Americans.6
Massachusetts Governor John Andrew wanted to use black enlistment as a means of defending the Emancipation Proclamation. The Proclamation took away private property, slaves, from their masters without due process. The Emancipation Proclamation was legally justified, according to Lincoln, as a measure to win the war. By immediately recruiting black soldiers, Andrew believed, according to one of his advisers, he would “silence all doubts as to the legality of the Act of Emancipation by taking it out of the civil acts & making it a purely military one.” In other words, once black soldiers were in the field, there could be no reversing of the Proclamation.7
Governor Andrew was also a firm anti-slavery man. On January 26, 1863, he received authorization from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to begin recruiting black men for segregated regiments to be officered by whites. Andrew protested, insisting that black
officers be named to staff the new units. He was not able to alter the racial prejudices embedded in the Federal policies allowing the establishment of the first black regiments and as such, all of the officers for the new regiments were to be white.8
Gov. Andrew began organizing two black infantry regiments, the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteers. He insisted that these units be led by battle-tested young officers from abolitionist families. The 54th was commanded by Robert Gould Shaw from Staten Island while Norwood Penrose (Pen) Hallowell commanded the 55th Massachusetts.9
Pen Hallowell came from a Philadelphia Quaker family. Quakers opposed slavery, but they were also pacifists and many of them did not vote. His brother Edward Needles (Ned) Hallowell wrote to him in 1858 that he felt that he had to break with his religion
on its anti-political stance. He reminded Pen that Quakers were required to pay taxes and that this act gave them responsibility for how those taxes were used. He told his brother that he was “bound to vote to protect” enslaved blacks.10
Both Pen and Ned Hallowell were abolitionists in their student years and the entire Hallowell family was active in opposing the Fugitive Slave Law. In 1859, the brothers showed their willingness to risk their lives when they helped hide a Virginia runaway slave named Daniel Dangerfield from a Philadelphia mob. The two young Quakers hid him in a tomb and armed themselves to protect the black man when they drove him out of town to safety. Pen accepted the risky duty of commanding black soldiers knowing that white officers in black regiments risked being executed if captured. His brother Ned joined the 54th Massachusetts to serve under Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.11
The 54th and 55th recruited black men from every state in the Union. Nicholas Said, the African immigrant, was working as a teacher in Michigan when he joined the 55th. According to the regiment’s Record of Service, Nicholas Said is listed as a 26 year old resident of Detroit, Michigan. His occupation is given as “teacher,” and his rank is listed as Corporal, with a note that says while he was made a Sergeant on July 16, 1863, he was “reduced at own request” and returned to being a corporal. He was a member of Company I which consisted of about 100 men. Said’s Military Service Record says that he was mustered into service on June 8, 1863 and it describes him as 5ft 7 inches with a dark complexion and black hair and eyes. He was mustered out of the army on August 29, 1865, four months after the war ended.12
Said attracted attention soon after he enlisted. Following the war, the commander of the 55th Massachusetts, Pen Hallowell, wrote of Said that “he was tattooed on his forehead after the manner of the ruling class of his tribe. His linguistic ability was very marked… He wrote and spoke fluently the English, French, German, and Italian languages, while there is no doubt he was master of Kanouri (his vernacular), Mandara, Arabic, Turkish and Russian – a total of nine languages.”13
In June, 1863, Said was interviewed by a reporter who wrote that Nicholas Said (whom he mistakenly called “Saib”) was a member of the 55th Massachusetts volunteers;
whose curious and even romantic history is one of much interest. He is an intelligent looking negro, perfectly black, modest and gentlemanly in his bearing…As we understood his story, as he told it in a brief interview, he is a native of Central Africa, born in the neighborhood of Timbuctoo. In some way he was inveigled into slavery to a party of Arabs, and found his way first to Egypt and from thence to Turkey. After a while he reached St. Petersburg, was converted to Christianity and baptized as a member of the Greek church, dropping the name of Mohammed and taking that of Nicholas. He is now a Protestant he says emphatically…[H]e came to this country and settled in Detroit. He enlisted “because all his folks seemed to be doing SO.”14
The article confirms Hallowell’s description of Said as a multilinguist; “Saib speaks five languages, and can read and write three or four of them. His French is quite Parisian and his Italian correct.” The reporter noted that “Were it not for his color…Saib would pass anywhere for a person of no small acquisitions. As it is no one can see or talk with him, without being most favorably impressed with his deportment and intelligence.” The reporter said he hoped that the accomplishments of men like Said would go far to end the “ignorant and vulgar prejudices against the colored race.”15
Soon after the interview, Said and the other men of the 55th Massachusetts set sail for the seat of war. The regiment’s Lieutenant Colonel Charles Fox wrote later that while the men were deprived of the Federal enlistment bounty because they were black and were “Uncertain whether, in case of capture, the government who had accepted them as soldiers could or would protect them as such; doubtful whether, if prisoners in the hands of the enemy, instant death or slavery-worse than death-might not be their portion; destined to wait for months for even that poor recognition of service, the pay of a private soldier, these men took their lives in their hands and went forth…to fight for the cause of the Union and the freedom of their race.”16
The 55th was originally to have sailed first through New York on its way south. The outbreak of the Draft Riots in New York before the regiment’s departure led the officers to drill the regiment in street firing, in case they were attacked by a mob. The War Department decided that marching a black unit through incendiary New York mobs was not advisable. The regiment was to travel directly to Newbern, North Carolina. Nicholas Said and the other men of the regiment marched through Boston to its naval transport “with loaded muskets and fixed bayonets” in case rioters in that city tried to attack it.17
The 55th and its sister regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, were sent to the islands off the coast of South Carolina where they formed part of the Union amphibious force trying to capture Charleston, the city where the rebellion had begun with the firing on Fort Sumter. It fell to the 54th to lead the assault on the Confederate fortification across from Fort Sumter called Battery Wagner. On July 18, 1863, the 54th lost 281 men killed, wounded, captured, and missing in a failed effort to capture the fort.18
While the attack was a failure, this was the first time in the Civil War that a black regiment had been sent into a major battle. The 54th’s discipline and courage under intense fire made a lie of claims that blacks would not fight or that black soldiers were inferior to white. In defeat, the 54th’s sacrifice established African American men as soldiers.19
Over the next two months, Nicolas Said and his comrades of the 55th and the 54th were in the forefront of the campaign to reduce Battery Wagner to rubble. In September, the fort was finally occupied by the black regiments after the Confederates abandoned it. But Charleston itself would not fall until February 18, 1865 when the German immigrant General Alexander Schimmelfennig accepted its surrender on behalf of William Tecumseh Sherman’s relentless army. The 54th Massachusetts entered the city that day, followed by the 55th a few days later. Nicholas Said’s regiment was greeted by a throng of newly freed black men and women and the men of the 55th broke into the abolition song “John Brown’s Body.” Reporter James Redpath wrote of the scene; “Imagine, if you can, this stirring song chanted with the most rapturous, most exultant emphasis, by a regiment of negro troops, who have been lying in sight of Charleston for nearly two years — as they trod with tumultuous delight along the streets of this pro-Slavery city.” Men who had once been slaves were now liberators.20
When the war ended, Nicholas Said served with the army of occupation. After he was discharged he decided to live in the South, where he taught school to freed slaves. He appears to have concealed his service in the Union army from whites in the South. This may have been because black veterans were often targets for the Ku Klux Klan and other violent secret organizations.21
Said was a slave on three continents, the master of several languages, a teacher and a soldier who helped to liberate and make literate America’s slaves. But he was also a man who had to cover-up many parts of his past to preserve his life from post-war terrorism.22
Video: The Final Charge at Fort Wagner from the Movie “Glory”
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Dean Calbreath, who is writing a biography of Nicholas Said, for answering several of my questions concerning this fascinating man.
Resource: Interpretive Challenges is the blog of Emmanuel Dabney who works for the National Park Service at Petersburg National Battlefield. Many of his posts concern interpreting African American experiences during the Civil War for modern visitors to historic sites.
- Official Records of the Rebellion Series 1 Volume 28, Parts 1 and 2 Coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, and in Middle and East Florida, June 12-December 31, 1863, Fort Wagner, Fort Sumter; Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers by Joseph T. Glatthaar (1989); The Complete Civil War Journal and Selected Letters of Thomas Wentworth Higginson by Thomas Wentworth Higginson published by the University of Chicago Press; Army Life in a Black Regiment Kindle Edition by Thomas Wentworth Higginson published by Amazon Digital Services; A Brave Black Regiment: The History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry 1863-1865 by Captain Luis F. Emilio; One Gallant Rush: Robert Gould Shaw and His Brave Black Regiment by Peter Burchard published by St. Martin’s Press (1989); Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw by Robert Shaw (Author), Russell Duncan (Editor) published by the University of Georgia Press (1999); Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R. Egerton published by Basic Books (2016); The Negro As A Soldier in the War of the Rebellion by Norwood Penrose Hallowell published by Little, Brown (1897); Cornish, Dudley Taylor. The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861–1865 by Dudley Taylor Cornish published by W.W. Norton (1965); Freedom by the Sword: The US Colored Troops, 1862–1867 by William Doback published by the Center of Military History (2011); The Negro’s Civil War: How American Negroes Felt and Acted During the War for the Union by James McPherson published by Pantheon Books (1965); A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion by George Williams published by Harper & Brothers (1887); The Autobiography of Nicholas Said; a Native of Bornou, Eastern Soudan, Central Africa by Nicholas Said published by Shotwell & Co. (1873); Summary of the Autobiography of Nicholas Said by Patrick Horn; “Mohammed Ali Ben Said: Travels on Five Continents,” by Allan Austin published in Contributions in Black Studies: Vol. 12, Article 15 (1994). Available at: http://scholarworks.umass.edu/cibs/vol12/iss1/15; The Negro As A Soldier in the War of the Rebellion by Norwood Penrose Hallowell published by Little, Brown (1897).
- Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R. Egerton published by Basic Books (2016) pp. 4-6, 60.
- Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R. Egerton published by Basic Books (2016). In his March 2, 1863 speech “Men of Color, To Arms,” Frederick Douglass recounted the history of the agitation: When first the rebel cannon shattered the walls of Sumter and drove away its starving garrison, I predicted that the war then and there inaugurated would not be fought out entirely by white men. Every month’s experience during these dreary years has confirmed that opinion. A war undertaken and brazenly carried on for the per¬petual enslavement of colored men, calls logically and loudly for colored men to help suppress it. Only a moderate share of sagacity was needed to see that the arm of the slave was the best defense against the arm of the slaveholder. Hence with every reverse to the national arms, with every exulting shout of victory raised by the slaveholding rebels, I have implored the imperiled nation to unchain against her foes, her powerful black hand. Slowly and reluctantly that appeal is beginning to be heeded.
- The Militia Act of 1862; Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R. Egerton published by Basic Books (2016) pp. 50-52.
- Proclamation by the Confederate President December 24, 1862; Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R. Egerton published by Basic Books (2016) pp. 60-65. In his December 24 Proclamation, Jefferson Davis described the Emancipation Proclamation as an attempt to incite a violent uprising of slaves in the Confederacy. He wrote; “the President of the United States has by public and official declaration signified not only his approval of the effort to excite servile war within the Confederacy.”
- Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R. Egerton published by Basic Books (2016) pp. 3-4.
- Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union by Louis P. Masur published by Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (2012); Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America by Allen C. Guelzo published by Simon & Schuster (2006); Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory (Nathan I Huggins Lectures) by Harold Holzer published by Harvard University Press (February 2012); The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner published by Norton (2010) pp. 240-247; Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R. Egerton published by Basic Books (2016) p. 66.
- Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R. Egerton published by Basic Books (2016) p. 66.
- Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R. Egerton published by Basic Books (2016).
- Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R. Egerton published by Basic Books (2016) pp. 29-30.
- Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R. Egerton published by Basic Books (2016) pp. 30-31.
- Record of the Services of the 55th Colored Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry by Charles Fox published by 54th Regimental Association (1868) p. 140 https://archive.org/stream/recordofserviceo00foxc_0#page/n7/mode/1up
- The Negro As A Soldier in the War of the Rebellion by Norwood Penrose Hallowell published by Little, Brown (1897) p. 3
- Groton Transcript, June 23, 1863
- Groton Transcript, June 23, 1863
- Record of the Services of the 55th Colored Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry by Charles Fox published by 54th Regimental Association (1868) p. 6. https://archive.org/stream/recordofserviceo00foxc_0#page/n7/mode/1up
- Record of the Services of the 55th Colored Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry by Charles Fox published by 54th Regimental Association (1868) https://archive.org/stream/recordofserviceo00foxc_0#page/n7/mode/1up p. 7
- Civil War Trust http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/batterywagner/battery-wagner-history-articles/fortwagnerpohanka.html
- Following Shaw’s death, Ned Hallowell was placed in command of the 54th Massachusetts. The brothers Ned and Pen Hallowell thereby commanded Massachusetts’s two black infantry regiments. A Brave Black Regiment by Luis Emilio; Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R. Egerton published by Basic Books (2016)
- When Freedom Came to Charleston By BLAIN ROBERTS and ETHAN J. KYTLE FEBRUARY 19, 2015 published by The New York Times http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/19/when-freedom-came-to-charleston/
- Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R. Egerton published by Basic Books (2016)
- Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R. Egerton published by Basic Books (2016). In his Autobiography, Said gave the impression that he did not arrive in the United States until after the war ended.