Lieutenant N. H. Edgerton to Thomas H. Webster, Chairman of the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Troops, June 27, 1864
This letter from Lieutenant Nathan H. Edgerton to Thomas H. Webster exhibits the remarkable shift in attitude the Union army experienced in the aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation. At the beginning of the Civil War, not only was African American recruitment unthinkable, but the Union had no intention of making the war about ending slavery. President Abraham Lincoln adopted this policy in part to prevent the slaveholding border states of Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Delaware, and Missouri from seceding. But not everyone in the Union agreed. The outspoken abolitionist Frederick Douglas urged the Union army to allow African Americans to fight for their country and to help free their enslaved brethren. Under this mounting pressure, Lincoln reconsidered his policies and issued the Emancipation Proclamation, opening the door for African Americans to join the army.
With the encouragement of civil rights activists, thousands of African Americans enlisted. The Free Military School for the Command of Colored Troops was founded by Thomas H. Webster in 1863 to recruit, train, evaluate officers to lead newly formed black regiments. Only white officers could command regiments, but the school also provided training for African American recruits who wished to become non-commissioned officers.
Even though incredible progress had been made, African American soldiers were not treated equally. They were paid significantly less and provided lower quality equipment than their white counterparts. Many black regiments threatened to put down their arms and not accept any pay until they received the same benefits as white soldiers. On June 15, 1864, the Army Appropriation Bill was passed in Congress, providing equal pay to African Americans in the army.
Although they were still considered less capable by some white soldiers, black troops proved their military prowess many times over throughout the Civil War. In addition to the Battle of Petersburg referenced by Edgerton, who commanded a colored regiment, African American regiments played a significant role in the assault of Fort Wagner and the battles at Port Hudson, Nashville, and many other cities. The letter from Edgerton to Webster reveals a major turning point for African American freedom and a glimmer of hope that a group of disenfranchised Americans who gave their lives for their country would soon gain the rights of US citizens.
Abraham Barker Collection on the Free Military School for Applicants for the Command of Colored Regiments (Collection 1968), Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Finding aid
Frederick M. Binder, "Pennsylvania Negro Regiments in the Civil War," Journal of Negro History 37 (1952): 383-417.
Frederick M. Binder, "Philadelphia's Free Military School," Pennsylvania History 17 (1950): 281-291.
Dudley Taylor Cornish, The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (New York: Longmans, Green, 1956).
Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the Civil War (New York: De Capo Press, 1953).