Freedom fighters

Published 10:17 am Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Anthony Gibbs began his speech dressed rather casually. As time passed he morphed into Union soldier and Medal of Honor recipient Milton Holland of the 5th regiment United States Colored Troops (USCT).

“This event is about why (blacks) fought against the Confederacy in the Civil War,” he said. “The USCT fought hard just to get to fight and in the end got everything they were fighting for.”

Gibbs is a teaching artist, living history performer and Ohio Humanities Council speaker. He has told the story of the USCT for the past several years because for a long time he was unaware the troops even existed.

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“I started doing this because I had lived most of my life and never heard of these men,” he said. “I never read about them in any books in high school.”

Gibbs began his speech as if he had been teleported to the onset of the Civil War in 1861 and, acting as Holland, took the audience through the war and to the ratification of the 15th Amendment on Feb 3, 1870, which granted every man born in the United States the right to vote.

“The USCT’s involvement in the Civil War was all because of slavery,” Gibbs said. “They fought and risked their lives because they wanted to see slavery abolished.

“These men were extraordinary, had lots of tenacity and were responsible for giving their lives in an attempt to end slavery.”

Gibbs spoke about President Abraham Lincoln’s willingness to take on slavery when many of his predecessors failed to declare publicly their stance either for or against it. When the federal government began the process of making Kansas a state, Gibbs said, the issue of slavery was an important one.

“A decision had to be made about whether to make Kansas a slave state,” he said. “The executive branch of the federal government decided to leave that decision in the hands of the people of Kansas.”

Slavery advocates from Kentucky, Texas, Ohio, New York and other states quickly moved to Kansas in an attempt to make it a slave state, Gibbs said, and a regional conflict known as Bleeding Kansas erupted between slave owners and free-state advocates.

Gibbs discussed other events leading up to the Civil War such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Lincoln being elected president, however, was the beginning of what became the deadliest war in United States history.

“States in the South were not happy with Lincoln getting elected because he felt slavery was bad for the economy.” Gibbs said. “Slave-owning Southerners felt Lincoln didn’t represent their beliefs and the South tried to secede from the Union in an attempt to maintain the pro-slavery way of life.”

Once Lincoln declared war on the South — home to 4 million slaves — black men from the North flocked to join the Union Army but were told they could not enlist. Gibbs said Lincoln felt as though the eager black men were fighting to end slavery, but his goal was to reunite the states with or without slavery.

“These men not only wanted to fight to free slaves, but for full citizenship rights for themselves,” Gibbs said. “Blacks outside of slave states were still not treated fairly. Everything was segregated; blacks couldn’t vote and weren’t allowed to run for political office. They were fighting for freedom, equality and citizenship.”

Letters and petitions sent to elected officials from black men in the North fell on deaf ears. Two years later — after the Battle of Antietam claimed the lives of more than 20,000 soldiers — Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862.

“Lincoln wrote in the preliminary document that if the war didn’t end by Jan. 1, 1863, all slaves would be freed,” Gibbs said. “It was the most sweeping statement about slavery ever made by a president. Lincoln could not go back on his word but he also knew the South wouldn’t listen to him.”

On Jan. 1, 1863, with war ongoing, the Emancipation Proclamation was ratified and all slaves were freed,” Gibbs said. “But Lincoln knew the Union had to win the war before the Emancipation Proclamation could be effective.”

The same black men who were previously told they couldn’t fight were then allowed to partake in battle, Gibbs said. Many who enlisted were former slaves and some were men who had previously fled to Canada to escape slavery.

Lincoln assured the USCT they would receive proper training and suitable equipment, but even after training was complete, Gibbs said, Lincoln had reservations about allowing black men to fight because he had been the subject widespread, harsh criticism.

“Lincoln decided to send the black troops into the fields, but only to dig trenches and build forts,” Gibbs said. “All new regiments were relegated to manual labor and were told they would receive the same $13 a month pay the white soldiers got. When they got paid, however, they received only $10 and $3 was taken out because they had to pay for their equipment. They got $7 in the end.”

The white military officers who reluctantly trained the black soldiers began lobbying for their right to participate in battle and Lincoln eventually succumbed to pressure.

“It was such a monumental decision that during their first battle the black soldiers were surrounded by reporters,” Gibbs said. “The black troops refused to retreat even when faced with gunfire and cannon blasts from Confederate Navy ships. The reporters wrote about the troops’ refusal to cease fighting.”

The Battle of Fort Wagner led by the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment of the USCT on July 18, 1863, Gibbs said, was a defining moment in regard to black troops’ war involvement.

“Their job was to lead the charge and be the focal point of enemy fire until reinforcements arrived,” Gibbs said. “They knew by leading the charge they were probably going to die, but they were ready to do just that.”

The USCT led the charge and, as expected, suffered many casualties. The 127th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment then requested to join the 54th Massachusetts regiment, but was denied on the grounds the 54th was “full,” Gibbs said.

The 127th Ohio Volunteer Regiment, also known as the 5th USCT, got its chance to lead a charge during the Battle of New Market Heights in 1864. After all the white officers were wounded or killed by sharpshooters the 127th assumed control and continued onward. After the Battle of New Market Heights, Union Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler awarded the black soldiers a medal, recommended the troops for a Medal of Honor and officer commission, the latter of which was illegal at that time.

Almost 200,000 black soldiers fought for the Union during the Civil War and overall 600,000 soldiers of all races perished; most died as a result of disease and sickness.

This History aLive event took place in the Bowman Auditorium on the campus of Ohio University Southern in Ironton and was sponsored by the Ironton Area Kiwanis Club, Briggs Lawrence County Library, Ohio University Southern and the Lawrence County 150th Anniversary Commemoration of the Civil War committee.