Heroes We Can All Celebrate

Leading figures in the African-American history of our nation take the spotlight each February, during Black History Month. We learn more about people such as Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and others whose names are in the history books.

But what of the single most courageous group of African-Americans in our history? What of the 198,000, almost all men, whose names aren’t in the books?

They were the “colored” soldiers and sailors who helped save the Union during the Civil War, in the knowledge they were striking blows for their own freedom.

As with most Civil War statistics, those on blacks are sketchy approximations. We know about 40,000 of them — one in five — did not survive their service. About 10,000 died in combat.

Those odds alone, known full well by most of those who enlisted, would be enough to discourage most of us today from enlisting. But white troops at least knew that if they were captured by Confederate forces, they would be treated as prisoners of war.

It was different for the blacks in blue uniforms.

First, they understood many of the white Union troops with whom they served were viciously racist.

Confederate troops were worse. When the United States began enlisting black troops, the rebel government ordered that any captured would be treated as runaway slaves, and would be returned to bondage.

Quite a few Confederate units thought that was being too kind. When facing black units, they sometimes flew black flags, signifying they would give no quarter to Union troops who surrendered in battle.

Too often, they followed through. Among the most horrific examples was in April 1864, at Union Fort Pillow in Tennessee.

There, Confederate units commanded by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest overran the garrison of about 300 black soldiers and 300 whites. There followed a massacre, with about 350 of the boys in blue killed — many after they surrendered.

Yet blacks, many ex-slaves, continued to volunteer for the Union army. There were more massacres, including one at Petersburg, within weeks of the war’s end.

We Americans revere many heroes and heroines of all races. Is there an entire class whose courage and yes, patriotism surpasses the black troops of the Civil War? I don’t think so.

There ought to be more statues honoring them.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.