Preserving American Freedom

The Evolution of American Liberties in Fifty Documents

Lieutenant N. H. Edgerton to Thomas H. Webster, Chairman of the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Troops, June 27, 1864

Lieutenant N. H. Edgerton to Thomas H. Webster, Chairman of the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Troops
Recipient(s): 
June 27, 1864
Thos. H. Webster Esqr Chairman of Supervisory Committee For Recruiting Colored Troops
Dear Sir:
June 27/64 EdgertonHaving once had the honor of receiving a favor through your kindness and instrumentality, ie, "Permission to appear before the Examining Board at Washington"1 I make bold to trouble you again for the same purpose. I do not know that you can obtain me that permission: but if you can, you will place me under lasting obligations to you: I understand that Gen'l Casey's Board reexamine for promotion after the applicant has served twelve months on the first Appointment. if such be
Source Information: 
Lieutenant N. H. Edgerton to Thomas H. Webster, Chairman of the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Troops
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Abraham Barker collection on the Free Military School for the Command of Colored Regiments (Collection 1968)
Box 1, folder 13
Lieutenant N. H. Edgerton to Thomas H. Webster, Chairman of the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Troops
Recipient(s): 
June 27, 1864
the case, I shall be eligible for reexamination after the 10th of next September. Or if there be an opportunity earlier than that I should be happy to embrace it.
As I am not writing a strictly formal letter I shall take the liberty to express the satisfaction that we all feel, that at last Congress has acknowledged the worth of our Troops as soldiers and are one step nearer owning their rights as men.2 Whether or not the action of June 15th3 had any thing to do with the voice of the house in passing the "Equalizing Act" I can not say.4 And as the the ultimate end is now obtained, it perhaps matters but little. Still I could have wished that our lawgivers had meted out justice for justice sake, and not as a matter of policy and expediency. But that it is passed at all is a matter of wonder to some of us and of congratulations to all. We feel that if our boys fought so well when laboring under a feeling of doubt, almost of despondency, as to the course Government would pursue with them, we need not fear for their valor when they are stimulated by a feeling of hope and public appreciation You have doubtless read and heard much of their conduct during the engagement of June 15th. But as a general thing the newspapers give but a general partial view. To appreciate fully what they did one must remember that it was not a charge made suddenly on first finding the enemy, and while all was enthusiasm. But that for five long hours they were subjected to a heavy cannonade of shot and shell. All the time cautiously approaching—walking, creeping, crawling in
Source Information: 
Lieutenant N. H. Edgerton to Thomas H. Webster, Chairman of the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Troops
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Abraham Barker collection on the Free Military School for the Command of Colored Regiments (Collection 1968)
Box 1, folder 13
Lieutenant N. H. Edgerton to Thomas H. Webster, Chairman of the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Troops
Recipient(s): 
June 27, 1864
the very dust. By regiment, by company and almost man by man. Five hours were spent in crossing an open and almost level field a quarter of a mile in width. But under all this fire they remained perfectly [bidable?] and when the order to charge came they were as ready to obey and as enthusiastic to rush on as any soldiers could be.
But lest I trespass too far on your patience I conclude, hoping to hear favorably from you soon
I have the honor to be Very respectfully Your Obt Servt
N. H. Edgerton 6th US.C.T5
Philadelphia Pa.
Please Address
Lt. N. H. Edgerton
6th U.S.C.T. 2nd Brig 3rd Div 18 a.c.
(Via Fort-Monroe)6
Source Information: 
Lieutenant N. H. Edgerton to Thomas H. Webster, Chairman of the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Troops
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Abraham Barker collection on the Free Military School for the Command of Colored Regiments (Collection 1968)
Box 1, folder 13
About This Document: 

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.

Sources:

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).