Men of African Descent Finally Allowed Enlistment in the Federal Army!

August 25, 1862 (Monday)

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton knew that it was because of slavery that the South was able to wage a large scale war. The slaves constituted a large portion of their military strength. Of course, black men, free or slave, were not allowed to join either army. There were no black Confederates, just as there were no black Federals. The laws of both governments made sure of it.

Nevertheless, the Rebels greatly benefited from slavery, as it enabled the white masters to fill the ranks of the Confederate army. While the slaves toiled in the field, took care of the children, etc., it freed up more white males to pick up a musket and fight.

President Lincoln understood this, too. The Confiscation Acts were written and enforced because of this truth. Secretary Stanton, however, wanted to take it a bit farther. He had proposed on August 4th that freed slaves be enlisted into the Federal army. Lincoln, who did not believe he could keep the border states in the Union if their slaves were suddenly given guns, was flatly against it.

In South Carolina, General David Hunter had already begun doing just that, but was stopped by Lincoln.

General Rufus Saxton

Then came General Rufus Saxton. He had been sent by Washington to oversee the newly freed slaves in Hunter’s Department of the South. After a tour of the area, he came to the only logical conclusion. He saw that the black population along the southern coasts was in extreme danger from the whites in the area. The Federal Army in the department wasn’t large enough to protect them, therefore, what other choice was there but to arm them?

Saxton put this in writing and asked Secretary of War Stanton to allow him to raise “5,000 able-bodied men from among the contrabands in this department…to be uniformed, armed, and officered by men detailed from the Army.”1 On this day, Edwin Stanton wrote the reply that would change the war.

While the letter to Stanton was en route, Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued a barbaric call, ordering the execution of any Union officer “employed in drilling, organizing, or instructing slaves with a view to their armed service in this war….”2 When Stanton received Saxton’s letter asking to do just that, he had probably seen Davis’ order. Perhaps it was that order that finally pushed him to go against Lincoln and call for the freed slaves to be armed.

Unidentified black Union soldiers
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.3

It would take time for the letter to reach Saxton and another couple of months for the troops to be raised, drilled and armed.


Pope Learns About Jackson’s March, But Can’t Understand It

Stonewall Jackson’s men stepped off in the early dawn bound on a fifty-mile trek around General John Pope’s right flank. Speed and secrecy were paramount and Jackson was adept at both. Given a free hand, Jackson was capable of seemingly impossible feats that he was never able to perform when attached to a larger body (during the Seven Days Battles, for example).

General William Taliaferro

The men and officers had no idea where they were going. But marching away from the action and moving north at such an hour could only mean one thing: Jackson’s “Foot Cavalry” were on a mission. Though they did not know it, their objective was General Pope’s supply base at Manassas Junction. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, believed that if Jackson hit the base, Pope would be compelled to retreat from his position along the Rappahannock. This would allow Lee’s entire army to unite and whip the Federals before they could be reinforced with General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, still filtering in from the Peninsula.

They crossed the river well west of Pope’s flank and turned north, marching through the small town of Orleans, towards Salem on the Manassas Gap Railroad. A regiment of Jeb Stuart’s cavalry screened this movement by picketing the roads that led to the Federal Army. No contact was made and so Jackson believed Pope to be none the wiser to his movements.4

That wasn’t quite true. Pope’s scouts had spied a column of what they estimated to be 20,000 Confederates moving out of Culpeper towards Amissville. In a dispatch to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, Pope figured that they were headed into the Shenandoah Valley – probably Luray or Front Royal.

Towards evening, the scouts brought Pope more accurate news. This Rebel column was not moving towards Luray or Front Royal, but to Salem. At this moment, General John Pope knew the exact location of General Lee’s entire Army of Northern Virginia. The right wing, commanded by General James Longstreet was across the Rappahannock River – they had been exchanging artillery rounds all day. The left, under Jackson, was heading towards Salem.

How Pope interpreted this knowledge and what he did with that interpretation is alarming. “I am induced to believe that this column is only covering the flank of the main body,” wrote Pope to Halleck that night. He assumed, but wasn’t completely sure, that the main body was moving towards Front Royal.

Union troops at Manassas Junction, August 1862

For the time being, it was dark. He would push forward a strong reconnaissance the next morning to see if Lee’s main body was inching northwest. 5

Stonewall Jackson’s men had marched about twenty-six miles to the railroad village of Salem, where they encamped for the night. The next morning, they would turn east to fall upon Manassas Junction.6

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 14, p374-376. []
  2. Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 4, p857. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 14, p377. My emphasis. []
  4. “Jackson’s Raid Around Pope” by General William Taliaferro, as appearing in Battles & Leaders of the Civil War Volume II, The Century Publishing, 1914. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p653. []
  6. “Jackson’s Raid Around Pope” by General William Taliaferro, as appearing in Battles & Leaders of the Civil War Volume II, The Century Publishing, 1914. []
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Men of African Descent Finally Allowed Enlistment in the Federal Army! by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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