On July 30, 1864, men of the 29th United States Colored Infantry Regiment, raised and organized in Illinois, took part in savage fighting now famous as the Battle of the Crater near Petersburg, Virginia. The attack, botched by mid- and high level officers, failed terribly with great loss of life. The struggle of that day proved the courage, skill, and level of sacrifice of which black men were capable. The road that brought those men to the battlefront was long and winding.
First moves toward black troops from Illinois
The road leading to the action near Petersburg was a long one. From the war’s earliest days African Americans of both sexes sought refuge from slavery by fleeing to Illinois. The refugee situation combined with black aspirations for secure freedom forced the army, Congress, and the Lincoln administration to consider the future role of black men in the conflict. Males soon began to be employed as laborers under the direction of army officers. The men, however, were not considered members of the military.
As the war entered its second year attitudes held by many whites in the Northern states on issues of race had begun to change. Strong prejudice against blacks was tempered by anger against rebels, eventually leading a growing number of Unionists to accept the notion of putting black men into uniform.
In the spring of 1863 a number of African American men who were native-born or longtime residents of Illinois jumped at the opportunity to join black regiments being formed by Massachusetts, becoming the first blacks from the Prairie State to don military uniform. (For more on these troops see this website’s May 2013 monthly feature.)
The First Illinois Colored Regiment comes to be
Illinois governor Richard Yates expressed radical views regarding how to deal with traitors and in favor of a new status for blacks in America. On July 28, 1863, he wrote to Sec. of War Edwin M. Stanton about inquiries made as to whether a “colored ” regiment was to be raised in Illinois. Stanton responded that the War Department “is anxious to raise colored troops wherever it can be done.” If Yates felt able to raise black regiments authority would be given to do so. One month later Yates wrote Stanton that “I am satisfied that it is my duty to attempt to organize a colored regiment in this State.” On September 25, 1863, the War Department authorized the state of Illinois to raise “one regiment of infantry to be composed of colored men.”
It was a big step, but problems remained. U.S. law offered black army privates $10 per month, less than that of white men. African American men were also denied the federal monetary enlistment incentives known as bounties. Illinois Adjutant General Fuller, an advocate of black troops, expressed “fear that the regiment cannot be raised on the terms proposed,” as black men working as common laborers “can command at home readily form $12 to $15 per month.” Federal officials quickly responded that “it is not in the power of the Department to offer any further inducement.”
Discrimination in pay likely led to the slow response to recruiting efforts in Illinois’ centers of black population. Efforts were made to level the field, as when Cook County offered $100 in enlistment incentives and confidently informed potential recruits that Congress would in its next session provide for equal pay with white troops. Even recruiting in Missouri and Wisconsin brought indifferent results.
Discrimination closer to home also hampered recruitment efforts. The Woodstock Sentinel expressed the problem and called upon men to stand up to “A DUTY ” :
On they then moved to Virginia and the history books.
Interested in learning more?
Two recent histories of the Twenty-ninth U.S. Colored Infantry cover the military story in great detail: Edward A. Miller Jr., “The Black Civil War Soldiers of Illinois: The Story of the Twenty-ninth U.S. Colored Infantry” (1998) and Dorothy L. Drinkard, “Illinois Freedom Fighters: A Civil War Saga of the 29th Infantry, United States Colored Troops” (1998). For an overall view of the Battle of the Crater see Earl J. Hess, “Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg” (2011). Kevin M. Levin looks at the battle through the lens of race in “Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder” (2013).
The story of Lewis Martin, a member of the 29th who was grievously wounded at the Crater, can be found at: http://usctchronicle.blogspot.com/2011/01/they-were-men-who-suffered-and-died.html