So said US Army Major General Benjamin Butler after observing the keen proficiency in marching and drilling demonstrated by a unit of newly enlisted soldiers of African descent. It was mid-1862 and Butler was organizing the 1st Louisiana Native Guards, one of the first regiment of African American soldiers that would serve in the Union Army.
Butler at the time was on the leading edge of change. When the Civil War began in April 1861, the Militia Act of 1792 prohibited men of African descent from serving in the US Army. As it became clearer to military and political leaders that this war would not be a short one, this exclusion was seriously reconsidered.
In the summer of 1862, Congress passed two laws, the Second Confiscation Act and the Militia Act of 1862, which would create the legal framework for receiving certain freed slaves and others of African descent into the Army. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, signed on January 1, 1863, further expanded and clarified their roles in military service. The War Department began actively preparing to receive African Americans into the Army. Recruitment was slow at first, then grew steadily as African American community leaders encouraged action.
Today, this service is commemorated at the African American Civil War Museum and Memorial in Washington, DC. This year the museum marks 20 years of chronicling the story of how African Americans, both slaves and freemen, took up arms and discharged their duties with dignity during the Civil War.
The museum and memorial are located along Washington, DC’s famous U Street corridor, the traditional center for African American culture in Northwest Washington. Today the corridor is revitalizing with new stores, restaurants, clubs and other development complimenting such historic landmarks as the famed Howard Theater. In 2011, the museum moved into the auditorium of the Grimke School, formerly a neighborhood school built in 1907 and named for a prominent African American family.
The entrance to the museum is tucked away down an alley lined with banners depicting the military duties African Americans performed. Once inside, a succession of display panels along with select artifacts trace the history of Africans and their descendants in early America, their military experiences during the American Revolution and War of 1812, and ultimately, their service in the Civil War.
As recruitment steadily grew, the War Department established the Bureau of Colored Troops in May of 1863 to provide the administrative support necessary to induct, equip and train the soldiers, who would serve in separate units from whites. Ultimately, about 178,000 men of African descent enlisted and 175 U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) regiments were formed, comprising 10% of the Union Army. USCT regiments also included mixed race individuals, Hispanics, and Native Americans. White officers generally filled the leadership ranks of these units, although some regiments did have African American officers at the company level. The Bureau of Colored Troops established guidelines and panels to identify and select USCT officers; those with advanced education and prior military experience were especially recruited.
USCT units often performed non-combat missions – referred to as “fatigue duty”- such as digging trenches, building bridges, and cutting new roads. Since many USCT soldiers were Southerners and possessed a specialized knowledge of local geography, USCT units were sometimes given scouting and reconnaissance missions. When they were assigned to combat, USCT regiments won praise for their gallantry. More prominent engagements for USCT regiments include Fort Wagner (as depicted in the movie Glory), the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia and the Battle of Nashville. At Vicksburg, General Ulysses S. Grant wrote of his USCT soldiers “All that have been tried have fought bravely.”
Unlike the Army, the Militia Act of 1792 did not apply to the Navy which had long enlisted sailors of African descent. During the Civil War, approximately 19,000 African American sailors served throughout the Union Navy, generally aboard the same ships as white sailors.
The individual gallantry demonstrated by soldiers and sailors of African descent was recognized by many unit commanders. The museum introduces 18 soldiers and two sailors who won the Medal of Honor during Civil War combat.
One is Navy Landsman John Lawson.
While serving aboard the USS Hartford at the Battle of Mobile Bay, Landsman Lawson was “Wounded in the leg and thrown violently against the side of the ship when an enemy shell killed or wounded the 6-man crew as the shell whipped on the berth deck, Lawson, upon regaining his composure, promptly returned to his station and, although urged to go below for treatment, steadfastly continued his duties…”.
At war’s end, some USCT regiments were disbanded, but many were assigned to occupation duty. As the Regular Army was reorganized, four regiments of African American soldiers were ultimately established and maintained. Members of those regiments, the 24th and 25th Infantry, and 9th and 10th Cavalry, would become renown as “the Buffalo Soldiers”.
While the museum’s current space in the former school’s auditorium is rather confining, a recently announced redevelopment of the Grimke School building will provide a larger 10,000-12,000 square foot area into which the museum will expand. The new space will allow for the display of additional artifacts, two new exhibits and a theater. This news is undoubtedly welcome for the museum’s staff, patrons and visitors.
Across the street from the museum placed in a wide stone plaza is a bronze statue entitled The Spirit of Freedom by sculptor Ed Hamilton. The statue depicts three Union soldiers and one sailor of African descent on one side and an African American soldier with his family on the other. The statue was completed in 1997. Curved metal panels, inscribed with the names of the 209,145 officers and soldiers who served in USCT units, encircle the sculpture to one side.
A visit to the African American Civil War Museum and Memorial provides a compelling introduction to how USCT soldiers went from slaves and civilians to a professional force, fighting for their freedom, their rights and for the Union. They not only changed the tide of the Union war effort, but also secured a lasting place for African Americans in the US military. Today, African Americans comprise approximately 18% of the ranks of the US Armed Forces. Their continued service is a legacy of the US Colored Troops and their naval counterparts.
The African American Civil War Museum is located at 1925 Vermont Avenue, NW in Washington, DC, near the intersection with U Street. The hours are Monday from 1000 to 1700, Tuesday – Friday 1000 to 1830, Saturday 1000 to 1600 and Sundays 1200 to 1600. Admission is free. There is limited street parking near the museum. Visit the African American Civil War Museum website for more information.
The museum and memorial are easily accessible from Metro. Use the 10th Street exit from the U Street/African American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo station on the Green and Yellow lines. The memorial plaza is at the top of the escalator.
Ben’s Chili Bowl
Just two blocks down U Street from the museum and memorial is Ben’s Chili Bowl, a local favorite since 1958. Ben’s has seen some challenging times as an eatery, to include the riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 and the construction of Metro in the 70s. Yet it has persevered and today proudly serves their signature dish, the half-smoke sandwich, to celebrities, politicians and locals alike. There are a variety of other menu items as well such as burgers and vegetarian chili. (Note: They do not accept credit cards, but there is an ATM on premises).
Ben’s Chili Bowl
1213 U Street, NW (between 12th and 13th Street)
Monday-Thursday: Breakfast: 0600-1045; Lunch/Dinner: 1045-0200
Friday: Breakfast: 0600-1045; Lunch/Dinner 1045-0400
Saturday: Breakfast: 0700-1045; Lunch/Dinner 1045-0400