Black Americans in the Civil War

Before the end of the Civil War approximately 179,000 Blacks enlisted in the armed services. They were known as the United States Colored Troops. (USCT)

An additional 19,000 served in the navy. Only 80 became commissioned officers. Nearly 40,000 made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in search of freedom. The USCT served in the artillery and the infantry and performed all of the non-combat functions of the war effort. The colored troops faced many perils. Free black soldiers could be captured and taken into slavery while fighting in the southern states.

Women were not allowed to join the military formally, but followed the troops and volunteered as nurses, cooks, scouts and spied. Many other Blacks assisted in many ways – working as carpenters, chaplains, cooks, guards, laborers, steamboat pilots, surgeons and teamsters.

One such young steamboat pilot was Robert Smalls, who as a youth loved the water. Born April 5, 1839, he was a house slave. His mother feared since he had a soft life, that he wouldn’t desire freedom. She persuaded her master to send him, at age 12, to Charleston to learn the hard work on the harbor docks. There he moved up to the position of foreman at age 18, managing men twice his age. He eventually became wheelman, steering ships from the pilot house around the Charleston Harbor. Robert was able to get a job steering a Confederate riverboat, The Planter, in the early part of the war, and soon began hauling war materials and placing mines around the harbor, always with the supervision of the Confederate officers.

With his knowledge of the waterways he memorized the passwords and signals for getting past sentry guards and forts, also memorizing the location of the floating mines he helped place. He even knew how to wear the hat and do the walk and gait of the white captains; so portraying a Confederate boat captain, Robert Smalls made his midnight escape.

After a close call passing Fort Sumter, he safely piloted the Planter to the Union Navy and proudly handed her over stating “My name is Robert Smalls and we have some guns for President Lincoln.” The news quickly spread and it stunned the country that an illiterate former slave could devise such a detailed scheme. He received $1500 and personal congratulations from President Lincoln for confiscating the Confederate ship.

Among his other achievements, Robert Smalls was one of the first four black men elected to the US House of Representatives in 1877 and served for five straight terms. He pushed legislation that made public school mandatory in South Carolina.

The first US warship named for a black man, the LSV-8 MG Robert Smalls, was commissioned in 2004. It is important that we remember that African Americans have fought in every war on this soil and helped write the history of this country. To paraphrase Langston Hughes, “We too sing America.”