By Aaron Jacobs
War has been described as a violent clash between two hostile, independent, and irreconcilable wills, each trying to impose itself on the other. Victory is earned through superior tactics but is dependent upon the willpower and sacrifice of the men on the ground. For some during the Civil War, serving meant maintaining a way of life, for others it meant preserving the Union. But for a select few it meant the chance to secure the blessings of liberty. These soldiers jumped at the chance to dawn the Uniform of a United States colored troop and shed the worn clothes of the enslaved.
Black men were not trusted to bear arms in the South and were deemed too incompetent to fight in the North. But eventually, their strategic opportunity would become realized when Union General Butler began recruiting Black men after the City of New Orleans came under Union control. White officers would recruit Black men from all over Louisiana, including Baton Rouge. Namely, Capt. Edwin Wingate, commanding officer of Company H of the United States Colored Troops. Wingate Had over 40 privates, a batch of Non-Commissioned Officers, and two other white officers of lower rankings to help run the company. A hand full of these privates were recruited from Baton Rouge including Private First Class Sean Washington and Private First Class Mathew John. These brave men left their mark on the world in this theater of violent politics to fight for their liberty.
An enlisted man’s task was to execute the plans of the officers that led them. Almost 90% of the men of Company H were enlisted. The soldiers seen in the Corps de Afrique muster rolls are as follows: Forty-four PC’s, four Corporals, three sergeants, one 2nd Lieutenant, one 1st Lieutenant, and one Captain. It was rare to see a black enlisted man above the rank PFC, one ranking above that of private (the lowest).
Sergeants and higher ranks in the USCT were comprised of only the most exceptional troops. The muster rolls of Company H suggest that the willingness or ability to serve among black troops was short. Many soldiers did not reenlist like James Jared, a local soldier from Baton Rouge, whose records show that his service lasted only 3 years—a trend among soldiers who joined this company from Baton Rouge. In total, eleven soldiers from Baton Rouge joined this company, two of which would die of sickness while serving.
Duties & Assignments
Many black troops were assigned as laborers, meaning that many did not provide their services to the war effort through arms, but rather with a hammer in hand. However, this too was a dangerous job. Medical records indicate that two labors—James Jared (mentioned above) and Anthony Whittaker—were both sent to the designated hospital for colored troops “Corps de Afrique General Hospital”. The Head surgeon there, F.E. Piquette, reported that Jared would return to service, but that Whittaker had eventually succumbed to his injuries. However black soldiers would soon prove their capability in combat as the main effort in the battle of port Hudson 22 miles away from Baton Rouge.
The Black Experience
The black experience as a USCT was tough but an alternate history where the confederacy would win made the suffering worth it. On behalf of the black men of Ohio W A. Jones pleaded with the Union forces to employ black men as the Confederates began employing black units as well. He reminded the government that the sick lists were vulnerabilities that the North could cover by allowing Black soldiers to assume combat roles, and even went so far as to argue that Black soldiers could handle the climate of the south equally if not better than whites. Meanwhile, on the Confederate side, the Louisiana Native Guards were disbanded as the idea of Black men fighting sparked feelings of unrest among white people. The Black men that had joined the Confederate Guard were dentists, masons, architects, and doctors in supporting roles. But in 1862 General Benjamin Franklin Butler asked these Black men to join in arms under his leadership against the Confederacy, although only 10% would come from this group, they would go on to fight fiercely at the Battle of Port Hudson.
In 1820 Thomas Jefferson wrote his thoughts on the precarious institution that was chattel slavery in America. In this writing, he said “We have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him nor safely let them go. Justice is on one scale and self-preservation in the other.” This quote would serve as a foreshadowing for the impending doom of the confederacy. Slaves who were once oppressed would become free under the Constitution and fight against what had held them in chains. For Whipped Peter “Gordon”—the famous enslaved man from a Louisiana plantation—the chance for freedom was bigger than himself. As such, he attempted to start a revolution but was beaten so severely by the overseer of the plantation that owners fired the overseer who beat him. As a result of his whipping, Gordon would become the center of one of the most recognized photos of the civil war.
Gordon, while on the mend, covered a treacherous 80-mile trek to Baton Rouge Union Army Camp, tailed by bounty hunters hellbent on returning him to his plantation. When he arrived, photos were taken of his back and his story was born. Without reservation or hesitation, Gordon took up arms with the Union army. Gordon is often depicted as a Union guide, leading other colored troops at the battle of Port Hudson, as well as a prisoner of war.
If Django was a historical figure, he would have been Spotswood Rice. The fiery passion of a formerly enslaved man challenged the very dynamic undermined the humanity of black people. Separation of the family was common during Slavery and the ability to see one’s family was a luxury that was afforded to some, with the condition that they return within a specified time and maintained their responsibilities without any discrepancies. Born into slavery in Virginia on the Benjamin Lewis plantation, Spotswood Rice began building his legacy. Married in 1852, his wife Orry Ferguson had seven children who were owned by the Digs family. Spotswood was only allowed visitation with his family two nights a week but ultimately decided to run away in 1864 once the fugitive slave act was suspended. This meant he did not need to worry about capture.
He joined the 67th regiment of the USCC and was stationed at Benton Barracks Hospital St. Louis. Orry and five of Spotswood’s children were able to escape slavery, while his daughters Cora and Mary remained with the Digs. Spotswood became famous for writing two letters in which he demanded his daughters from the Digs family and asserted himself as a man in a society that did not view him as one. Fortunately, an 1880 census tells us that Spotswood kept his promise and reunited his family.
Soldiers had lives off the battlefield as well. The horrors of war did not mean they were devoid of emotions such as love and hate. This was evident in a marriage deposition concerning PFC Samuel Carver. Louisa Carver, the presumed widow of Samuel Carver, stated that she had married Samuel Carver before his death.
In a deposition found by the court examiner, Samuel Carver had denied his informal marriage to Lizzie and her claims that they lived together. He stated that he was not of slave relation and therefore could not have been married to her because those marriages were illegitimate
- 77th colored regiment Company H muster roll (Hill Memorial)
- Anonymous Record Book M-19 #1018
- Corps de Afrique descriptive list OS: U 4065
- “Black Troops of the Union Army, Philadelphia, early 1864”, Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, accessed July 5, 2021.
- Duncan, R., & Jr., J. G. (1996). The Louisiana NATIVE Guards: The black military experience during the civil war. The Journal of American History, 83(3), 1023. doi:10.2307/2945703
- Everett, D. E. (1958). Ben Butler and the Louisiana Native Guards, 1861-1862. The Journal of Southern History, 24(2), 202. doi:10.2307/2208874
- Glattharr, Joseph, Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. New York, NY: Free Press, 1989
- Keating, Deborah. “Rice, Spotswood” Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Friday, April 30, 2021 – 14:13 at
- The Scourged Back: How Runaway Slave and Soldier Private Gordon Changed History.” America’s Black Holocaust Museum, 1 Sept. 2019.