One of the untold stories of the American Civil War is the incarceration of U.S. Colored Troops at Andersonville Prison in Georgia. U.S. Colored Troops were authorized by both the Second Confiscation Act of July 17, 1862 (Section 12) and the Militia Act of the same date (Sections 12, 13 and 15), which authorized the president to accept blacks into the service “for the purpose of construction of entrenchments or performing camp duty, or any labor, or any military or naval service.”
The first black regiments were formed in late 1862 and early 1863 and included the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Louisiana Native Guard, and the 1st Regiment of Kansas Infantry.
On Jan. 1, 1863, with President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, one paragraph specifically addressed the black troops, saying that “such persons of suitable condition will be received into the armed service of the United States, to garrison forts, positions, stations and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”
More than 180,000 U.S. black troops enlisted in the Union Army. According to War Department records, they fought in 449 engagements on land and sea, including 39 major battles.
It was unusual for black troops who were captured to be sent to prison. The Confederates were angry that blacks would fight against them. In several instances, the most highly publicized being the battle of Fort Pillow in Tennessee, black troops were killed after being captured in lieu of being sent to a Confederate prison.
There were102 black soldiers among the more than 45,000 Union soldiers who were held at the infamous Camp Sumter, better known as Andersonville Prison, in Georgia.Two white officers of black troops also were held. The latter ordinarily would have been sent to the nearby officers prison in Macon, Ga., but were sent to Andersonville instead because they commanded U.S. Colored Troops.
The two officers were Maj. Archibald Bogle of the 35th U.S. Colored Troops and Lt. Col. George French, 8th U.S. Colored Troops. Because Bogle was the highest-ranking officer of the black troops at Andersonville, he became the unofficial leader of the black prisoners.
Both officers had been captured at the battle of Olustee, Fla., on Feb. 20, 1864. Bogle, who was wounded in the bowel and hobbling on crutches, was refused medical treatment at the prison hospital, as were all the black soldiers.
In spite of his physical ailments, Bogle survived his stint at the prison, although he lost almost 100 pounds during his 13 months there. He was paroled on March 1, 1865. French was not as fortunate. Suffering from illness throughout his stay and also denied medical help, he died in the prison on July 3 or 4, 1864.
The U.S. Colored Troops at Andersonville Prison were expected to do the work. That included building and repairing the prison walls and digging the graves. By summer of 1864, more than 100 Union soldiers were dying every day. Grave-digging was an important task.
Because the blacks were needed, they were given rations and fresh water to keep them fit to do their duty. They got plenty of exercise and fresh air, as their work took them outside the prison.
They knew they would not be exchanged, and by 1864, the exchange program for all troops had been discontinued by order of Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
Of the 102 enlisted men of the U.S. Colored Troops who came in the North Gate, 31 died in the prison and exited through the dreaded South Gate. The other 71 survived. All but one of the dead U.S. Colored Troops have marked graves in the Andersonville cemetery.
In total, 12,912 prisoners, including the U.S. Colored Troops, died at Andersonville. Two hundred eighty-four black U.S. soldiers reportedly died in Confederate prisoner-of-war camps during the entire war.
• Bob O’Connor is a historian and author. His historical fiction “Catesby: Eyewitness to the Civil War” chronicles the U.S. Colored Troops at Andersonville Prison. He is also preparing a nonfiction booklet with information about each of the blacksoldiers who was incarcerated at Andersonville. It will include the name of each, plus unit, company, date of death, tombstone number and a photograph of each grave marker. His Web site is www.boboconnorbooks.com.
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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