Did Black Men Fight at Gettysburg?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: It depends on how you define the pivotal Civil War battle.

African Americans and the Gettysburg campaign
African Americans and the Gettysburg campaign

For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 38: Did black combatants fight in the Battle of Gettysburg, which turned the tide of the Civil War 151 years ago?

Fantasy and Reality

“For every Southern boy fourteen years old,” William Faulkner famously wrote in Intruder in the Dust (1948), it is early in the afternoon on July 3, 1863, just before the order is given to attack the center of the Union line across an open field three-quarters of a mile long, which leads up to Cemetery Ridge at what will become “the High Water-Mark” of the Confederacy — Pickett’s Charge. “This time. Maybe this time,” the fantasy goes.

To it I might add the less well-known but equally fervent dream of many black boys “fourteen years old,” I’m sure: that when those grey and tattered butternut coats, their bayonets glistening in the summer sun, reach the apex of wood and stone, they and their African-American comrades are there to repulse the attack with the righteous fury of centuries of their enslaved ancestors, a clear victory of freedom over slavery that will drown out, once and for all, the wild Rebel yell.

For three days last year there was plenty of time for reverie as throngs of visitors descended on Gettysburg, Pa., for the 150th anniversary of the symbolic battle of the American Civil War, but facts are facts, right? Pickett’s Charge was Robert E. Lee’s greatest miscalculation, the climax of his second and final Northern invasion, and there were no black troops there to make his defeat more complete. After all, the war would drag on for two more years. 

While close to 200,000 African Americans served in the Union Army and Navy during the war, those who’d taken up arms by July 1863 were engaged further west and south, where two weeks later the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment would make their own desperate assault on Fort Wagner, S.C.

(Note: It’s important to remember that “individual black soldiers had been fighting since the beginning of the war, especially in the west, but not as units” until the First Kansas Volunteer Infantry in October 1862, according to the historian Donald Yacovone, writing in an email to me. At the federal level, the use of black troops had been authorized in July 1862 with the passage of the Second Confiscation and Militia Act, but President Abraham Lincoln didn’t take advantage of this power until he added this provision to the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation; the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, of Sept. 22, did not include it. Yet even before then, in defiance of Congress and the War Department, Union General David Hunter had begun organizing what would become the First South Carolina Regiment in April 1862, describing it as “a fine regiment of persons whose late masters are ‘fugitive rebels’ “; while Hunter was dismissed and the regiment disbanded, it was quickly reconstituted under General Rufus Sexton and, after engaging in battle along the Georgia Coast and Sea Islands, mustered into federal service on Jan. 1, 1863.)