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BLACK CHAPLAINS IN THE UNION ARMY Edwin S. Redkey UntilReconstruction, no Afro-American achieved higher official public status than the black army chaplain. During the Civil War, the federal government waited long to use black soldiers; it waited even longer to authorize black officers. Racial prejudice among white soldiers and officers made the War Department reluctant to commission black officers, who even though serving in all-black units, might some day give orders to whites and who, in any event, would have to be saluted by whites. Yet blacks and their white allies insisted that some were well qualified to serve despite their color. One way of solving the dilemma was to appoint blacks as chaplains. Although officers, they did not command soldiers; although black, they were less threatening to white superiority.' Their military experiences provide insights into the lives and thoughts of several black clergymen at a time when the fortunes of all AfroAmericans were changing rapidly. Most were from the northern states and now encountered masses oí southern slaves for the first time. Some served as "race men" on behalf of their troops. Some wrote extensively about army life. All shared with the black soldiers the burdens of racism and all shared with their white counterparts the poorly defined tasks of the army chaplain. By war's end, over one hundred eighty thousand blacks served in the Union army, but most never saw a black chaplain. In May 1863, the War Department established the "Bureau for Colored Troops," and soon all but one Connecticut and three Massachusetts regiments were absorbed into the category of "United States Colored Troops" (USCT). For these black regiments, the appointment of officers, including chaplains, was controlled by the federal government. Line officers were appointed for their military skill, not their abolitionist sympathies or their views on racial equality. Chaplains, in turn, were selected by thewhite officers of I am grateful to Randall Burkett, Jerome Long, and David Swift for critical readings of drafts of this paper. 1 For a concise review of the efforts of blacks to serve as army officers, see Ira Berlin, ed., The Bfock Military Experience (Freedom: A DocumentaryHistory of Emancipation, 1861-1867; series II) (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982), 303-12. See also John Blassingame, "Negro Chaplains in the Civil War," Negro History BuUetinZl (1963): 23-24. Civil War History, Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, ® 1987 by The Kent State University Press 332CIVIL WAR HISTORY each regiment, most of whom did not want to share the officers' mess with a black man. Of the 133 men who served as chaplains to black units, only 14 were black.2 Gov. John A. Andrew of Massachusetts was the man most responsible for getting the first black chaplains into the army. Most of the white soldiers who fought for the Union served in "volunteer regiments" raised by the individual states. When the Emancipation Proclamation, on 1 January 1863, stated the intent of the government to use black troops, it was natural for the states to recruit black regiments to help meet their quotas. Andrew, an eager abolitionist, in January 1863 sought and received permission from the War Department to raise the first black volunteer regiment in the North. He immediately requested authority to appoint a few black officers: "Give me leave to commission Colored Chaplains, assistant surgeons, and a few second Lieutenants. My discretion may be trusted. The mere power will be useful." Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton refused, leaving the matter to the discretion of President Abraham Lincoln, who was unwilling then to act. Andrew raised three black regiments, the54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, each with an all-white corps of officers. He continued to press his case for black officers, but not until the end of the war was he able to commission a few battle-tested blacks as lieutenants.3 Chaplains, however, were a different matter. As the black recruits gathered for training at Camp Meigs, near Boston, Governor Andrew decided that, even if the federal government would not yet permit black chaplains, Massachusetts, at least, could have black clergymen in the state-operated camp to minister to the needs of the men...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 331-350
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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