A Grand Army of Black Men
Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army 1861–1865
By Edwin S. Redkey
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print Publication Year: 1992
Online Publication Date:March 2010
Chapter DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511663574.003
Subjects: American literature
NICHOLAS BIDDLE, a black man from Pottsville, Pennsylvania, marched through Baltimore with the “Washington Artillerists, ” on April 18, 1861, on his way to help defend the Capitol in Washington, D.C. The people of Baltimore strongly sympathized with the Confederacy, which had attacked Fort Sumter that week. They were outraged that Northern soldiers – with a black man among them – should go through their streets. Shouts and jeers were soon accompanied by stones and bricks; Nicholas Biddle, a special target, was hit full in the face by a stone. Blood spilling on his uniform, he stumbled but was helped by one of his officers. When his unit reached Washington that night, it camped in the Capitol itself, and it was reported that President Abraham Lincoln came in person to thank the men for their help, and especially to console Biddle, one of the first soldiers to shed his blood for the Union.
There would be another year and a half of hard fighting before the Union would begin systematically to enlist African Americans into the army. But from the very start of the Civil War, many blacks wanted to help preserve the Union, hit at slavery, and prove that they deserved full citizenship. Like Nicholas Biddle, some of those men joined regiments that were otherwise all white. Many went as servants of white officers; others went as teamsters to drive the supply wagons; some actually enlisted as soldiers, either in spite of their race or by passing as white.