Irish Immigrant Henry Sweeney Wanted to Command Black Troops After Emancipation

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This illustration by African American artist David Bustill Bowser was on the flag of the 22nd USCT.

The 32 year-old Irish immigrant knew he had the makings of an officer. So did the many officers who knew him as an intelligent and efficient hospital steward and sent letters to the War Department recommending him for a higher position. But his efforts at promotion had been stymied for the first two years of the Civil War. It was only when Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation allowed for the raising of new Black regiments that his dreams seemed realistic.1

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Henry Sweeney applied for a commission as an officer commanding African American soldiers almost as soon as regiments of blacks troops began to be organized. Blacks had been barred from serving in the army at the start of the Civil War, so when recruitment of what were soon to be called the United States Colored Troops (USCT) began in 1863 many positions for officers were available. More than 170 black regiments of a thousand men each would be raised, each regiment with at least thirty officers. Nearly all of the officers of the United States Colored Troops were white men.2

Prejudice against black participation in the war sprang from the pervasive racism of the era. Blacks were thought to be cowardly and childlike even by many Northern opponents of slavery. Making blacks into soldiers was deemed both impractical and an insult to white soldiers as it implied an equality between the lower level of whites in the army and African Americans. Because most black men had been barred by law from receiving an education, it was unlikely that many would have been made officers even without rank discrimination, but even the best educated blacks had no opportunity to command in 1863. The most that they could hope for was promotion from private to corporal or sergeant.3

While the creation of the USCT opened a door for Henry Sweeney to promotion, it was not a wide one. According to Joseph Glatthaar, a leading historian of the United States Colored Troops, “the process of becoming an officer in the USCT was quite selective.” For the first time in United States history, those seeking officers’ commissions in volunteer units would have to be approved by formal examining boards. Early in the Civil War, many officers had simply been elected by their men, who often came from the same villages and cities as them and knew them before the war. Since black troops were going to be officered by strangers of another race and region, a different process had to be set up.4

The 5th USCT assembled in Delaware, Ohio soon after it was organized in 1863.

The army’s Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas was placed in charge of organizing review boards to certify the competence of applicants and recommend them for promotion to the officer corps of the USCT. In May 1863, General Thomas established the Bureau of Colored Troops to create a system for raising black troops, organizing their regiments, and selecting their officers. Men, like Sweeney, who wanted an officer’s commission, had to apply in writing to the Bureau, sending in support of their applications letters of recommendation from current army officers. Sweeney already had many letters recommending him on file long before the boards held their first examinations.5

Even Louis Douglass, the educated son of the most famous black man in America, could not serve as an army officer when his regiment, the 54th Massachusetts was organized.

The Bureau of Colored Troops made it clear to the examining boards that it only wanted intelligent men who would work to help black men overcome the disadvantages of their former conditions of slavery. Adjutant General Thomas wrote to Major General William Rosecrans that he only wanted “officers whose hearts were in the work and who…would treat the Negro kindly.” He did not want to promote men who were hostile to blacks or who were only pursuing the pay increase promotion would bring. A captain who helped organize black regiments in Tennessee said that “no person is wanted as an officer in a Colored Regiment who feels he is making a sacrifice” by commanding African American soldiers.6

Any white man seeking a position in the United States Colored Troops knew that the Confederate President Jeff Davis had said that white officers commanding blacks would be treated as criminals stirring up a slave insurrection. In other words, if they were taken prisoner they would be executed. When Sweeney applied to join the USCT, he knew that if he succeeded he might suffer an ignominious death if he fell into Confederate hands.7

For those who chose to take the risk, there were a number of reasons why a white man might want to serve in a black regiment. Many USCT officers were abolitionists when they enlisted in the army, or they became abolitionists when they encountered slavery during their service in the war. Other might not have become fully committed to black rights, but they saw the ending of slavery as the only way to win the war and they believed that turning black soldiers on their former owners was the most effective way to do that. These men were willing to take radical measures to secure victory.8

This 1864 photo shows members of the 25th USCT. All the soldiers are black and their officer is white.

Others sought to join the USCT because it was the only way that they could become officers. This was particularly true for immigrants. Since most regiments elected their officers, an immigrant in a mostly native-born regiment was unlikely to win a popularity contest, even if he had as much military experience as Henry Sweeney. Appearing in front of a seemingly objective board of examiners might have seemed like more of an honest chance for an immigrant’s promotion.9

When the candidate for promotion reported to the examining board, he was grilled orally for anywhere from thirty minutes to four or five hours by four examiners. Historian Glatthaar writes that the candidate would answer questions on “tactics, army regulations, general military knowledge, arithmetic, history, and geography.”10

Questions like “How many Senators and Congressmen are there from each state?,” “Where is Cuba?,” and “Who were the commanders at the Battle of Waterloo?” were designed to determine if the applicant had a broad education. He would also be quizzed on military topics like the proper distance between battalions at half-distance. The questions also allowed the examiners to see how a prospective officer behaved under pressure. One disgruntled test taker wrote to a newspaper that “If an incorrect answer be given…then comes a scowl and look of contempt as much as to say, you contemptible ignoramus, what business have you before this enlightened board of ‘West Pointers’.” 11

The photo above of the 25th USCT is believed to be the basis for this USCT recruiting poster.

Roughly 40% of those examined failed. Only a quarter of the candidates examined were commissioned as officers in the USCT. Because of the selection process, those involved believed that selected officers were better on average than those in white regiments.12

While most of the newly commissioned officers were placed at the lowest level as 1st or 2nd lieutenants, on October 15, 1863 the immigrant was commissioned as Captain Henry Sweeney of the 60th United States Colored Infantry.13

Sources:

A Note on Sources-Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers by Joseph T. Glatthaar is the standard work on white officers in the USCT. Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Luis Emilio, both officers of the USCT, provide important insights into the perceptions of these officers in the books they wrote after the war. Two recently published books, For Their Own Cause: The 27th United States Colored Troops by Kelly Mezurek and Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R Egerton, contain histories of four black regiments that informed my thinking on the subject. Both are good scholarly introductions to the subject through regimental history.

  1. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers by Joseph T. Glatthaar published by The Free Press (1990); National Archives Consolidated File Henry Sweeny; For Their Own Cause: The 27th United States Colored Troops by Kelly Mezurek published by Kent State University Press (2016); Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America by Douglas R Egerton published by Basic Books (2016);  The Black Phalanx: A History of the Negro Soldiers of the United States in the Wars of 1775-1812, 1861-‘65 by Joseph T. Wilson; After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans by Donald R. Shaffer published by University Press of Kansas (2004); Army Life in a Black Regiment by Thomas Wentworth Higginson; Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865 by Noah Andre Trudeau (1998); The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865 by Dudley Taylor Cornish; A Brave Black Regiment by Luis Emilio; Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 by William A. Dobak (2011).
  2. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers  by Joseph T. Glatthaar published by The Free Press (1990)

3. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers by Joseph T. Glatthaar published by The Free Press (1990) p. 35; National Archives Consolidated File Henry Sweeny

4. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers  by Joseph T. Glatthaar published by The Free Press (1990) p. 38

5. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers by Joseph T. Glatthaar published by The Free Press (1990) p. 39; National Archives Consolidated File Henry Sweeny

6. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers by Joseph T. Glatthaar published by The Free Press (1990)

7.Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers by Joseph T. Glatthaar published by The Free Press (1990) pp. 39-40

8. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers by Joseph T. Glatthaar published by The Free Press (1990) pp. 39-43

9. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers by Joseph T. Glatthaar published by The Free Press (1990) p. 44

10. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers by Joseph T. Glatthaar published by The Free Press (1990) pp. 52-53

11. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers by Joseph T. Glatthaar published by The Free Press (1990) p. 59

12. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers by Joseph T. Glatthaar published by The Free Press (1990); National Archive Statement of the Military Service of the late Henry Sweeney February 28, 1901

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